Every inch of her smooth marble body is carved with tension. The fabric pulls against the buttons on her sleeve. Her fist, clenched in thought, is captured in the moment just before it presses to her mouth, before it will push against her lips to silence any exclamation that might give her plot away, or scare her away from her brutality. Her other hand looks to be knotted into a fist so that she might rest her arm against it, but upon close inspection, you can see that it grips a dagger. The sharp blade jutting away from her hip and pointing backwards, but with one swipe she could unfurl her arm and end a life. She is dangerous. She is a trapped animal, debating what she must do to free herself. She is frozen, literally a statue, but filled with such heat and fire that you feel you must hold your distance, lest she suddenly see you there watching her and lash out like a viper.
I had found myself at the Met on a Friday night. Not an uncommon event for me. Usually, I will go with a friend, or hoping to see some new exhibit, but this time I was alone and wandered the museum with no particular aim, just letting my eye and subconsciousness pull me through the museum. And those forces had led me here, to the sculpture garden, where I found myself entranced with the sculpture i have just described. I usually draw living humans, but something about her was so animated and alive that it compelled me to draw her .. and draw her and draw her again until I felt I had captured some part of whatever it was that drew me to her.
I was surprised when I walked around to the front of the plaque to see that this was Medea. Medea, the Greek mythological character who would help Jason to capture the Golden Fleece, marry him and then be abandoned by him - a fact that would drive Medea to murder her own children and Jason's new wife. Her sculptor, had captured her in a moment of deliberation, contemplating the murder of her children as an act of revenge.
I felt almost tricked that I had become so enamored of this powerful woman. I had imagined this sculpture to be of some proud heroine, hidden dagger ready to cut down the wicked or the unjust. Why was I so drawn to this complicated character whose vengeance included murdering her own children?
I have thought about her -- and this question all week. And I think I’m beginning to understand the answer. It was her intensity that drew me to her. She is fearsome and powerful. She has the strength of conviction right or wrong, she is determined to charge ahead. We find her trapped in stone, yes, but more than that, she is a prisoner to her conflict, stuck in the moment right before she decides to take action.
Do you remember the concept of potential energy? You might have learned about it in a high school physics class, but I think this theory is relevant to why this complicated heroine is so compelling. Potential energy is the amount of energy an object might have should it be set into motion. A boulder at the top of a hill, for example, has a potential energy determined by its weight, the slope of the hill and the pull of gravity. Should nothing bother it, it will stay still, but the slightest nudge and it will realize its potential energy. That is where we find Medea, waiting for that final internal push to animate her.
And this feeling, of fighting against a force and also hoping to be caught up in it is what compelled me to her. I have thought a lot about our interaction last week, wondered why she captivated me, why I had to sketch her again and again. And I think it's because I relate to her. Not to her vengeful impulses, but to the potential energy she guards because she is about to set out on a plan, which the slightest weakness could derail.
Some days it feels easier to be crushed by the weight of your burdens. To surrender to the odds, rather than try to beat them. And some days the struggle to continue feels like being stuck, like pulling on a huge wheel, which you hope and imagine will eventually begin to spin on its own, but first you must haul against it with all your might. It will be locked against you, inertia and gravity your greatest foes, but you must understand it first, begrudging movement as a victory, a sign that it has begun to yield to your power - as a sign that it will eventually spin for you.
We find Medea with her hand on the wheel, and we know implicitly-- even without knowing her story-- that she will make it spin.
She spoke to me because I wish for that ferocity, for that willingness to be consumed by a thing which may destroy you or may save you. To be an artist - to be a human with a dream- is to have your hands on the wheel, praying for it to budge.
Should you need some inspiration, you can find her there, waiting for you a few steps down from the sculpture garden. Trapped in time forever, plotting destruction and perhaps inspiring other, less nefarious acts of bravery in those who pass her by.
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