“Painting Came to My Rescue in a Most Trying Time”

It seems insane to fly across the ocean and spend thousands of dollars for the opportunity to make a few pieces of bad art when I could stay home and make reams of pictures no one wants to see. But there I was in Prague in the Czech Republic for a six-day “art vacation” with a company called Artbreak. Unlike the average tourist, who travels simply to consume culture, I would balance my intake by producing culture of my own.

When the urge strikes to go somewhere exotic to do something artistic, there are companies all over the globe, from Guatemala to Greenland, Indonesia to Ireland, that will set you up to draw, paint, pot, sculpt, or weave. Provence and Tuscany are popular destinations, but, perversely, I concluded that their beauty would make me want to wander, not try to capture the scene on canvas. Since I descend from gloomy people who came from gloomy places, I was drawn to Prague, a city where Franz Kafka wrote the story of a man who awoke one morning to find he’d become a bug.

The Artbreak vacation had an appealing structure: making art in the studio each morning, sightseeing in the afternoon, and attending great performances in the evening. This vacation would be possible only if I left my husband and daughter at home. They share a belief that the air in museums does not contain enough oxygen to sustain human life and that our habeas corpus laws prevent involuntary detention at the ballet or opera.

I was an artistic child who thought of the family home as a gallery for my ceramics, paintings, sculptures, and woodcuts. Then I became an adult and let it all go. Occasionally, I would take a class to try to revive my skills, but the classes grew further apart, and what I produced was increasingly disappointing. I hoped that an art vacation would relight that dormant spark.

I was also inspired by a slender volume by Winston Churchill, Painting as a Pastime. He writes that during a difficult period, he began dabbling with his children’s paint box and that “the Muse of Painting came to my rescue.” For the rest of his life (even through World War II), he found a restorative “psychic equilibrium” through sketching and painting. This was fortifying advice from the greatest figure of the 20th century, and I was strangely comforted when the book’s illustrations revealed that for all his enthusiasm, he remained a mediocre artist.

I wondered whether the atmosphere of Prague would influence my work. My reading about the city didn’t so much prepare me as steel me. The very long history of Prague (it was first established in the ninth century) could be summed up as one of domination, defenestration, depression, despair, death, and dumplings. (If you’ve never tasted a Czech dumpling, believe me, it belongs on this list.) The Czech Republic is a small, landlocked country (about the size of Virginia) that its neighbors seem to think has been affixed with a sign that says, “Invade Me.” For hundreds of years, waves of Austro-Hungarians, Germans, and Russians have occupied it. The Czech response is generally not to rise up but to keep their heads down and wait it out until the next invader arrives.

In Simon Mawer’s new novel, The Glass Room, set in Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II, one character asks, “Why are Czechs always so mournful?” Another answers, “They have a great deal to be mournful about.” In the invaluable Prague: A Cultural and Literary History, scholar Richard Burtonquotes Albert Camus, who, after a week in Prague, came away saying he was, “emptier and in deeper despair after this disappointing encounter with myself.” (It should be noted that if Camus had found himself on a Carnival cruise, it’s likely all the fun would have propelled him overboard.)

When I arrived in the fall, the city was, and remained, overcast and gray. But despite the history, despite the weather, maybe even because of this pall—chiaroscuro is a powerful artistic effect—like centuries’ worth of visitors, I was stunned and uplifted by the fairy tale splendor of the city. Prague has a lovely setting on the Vltava River, but its real beauty is entirely man-made.

The city’s glory is the human impulse to fashion out of raw material something both powerful and delightful. From the constantly varied patterns on the cobblestones beneath your feet, to the pediments that top the buildings, foot by foot, it was the most varied, most breathtaking assemblage of architecture and design I’d ever seen. Denis Dutton, a New Zealand professor of the philosophy of art, believes that the earliest humans got pleasure from making aesthetically beautiful tools and that this “art instinct” is an essential component of human evolution.

I met my two fellow Artbreakers. Rachel, a New Yorker in her 30s, is an advertising producer, and Francesco, an Australian in his 40s, is an engineer who specializes in consumer packaging—and I will never look at another box of feminine-care products without thinking of him. Like me, Rachel signed up out of curiosity about Prague and to jump-start her latent creativity. Francesco is a professional-level artist who was on the second leg of a multicontinent art vacation. He had just spent two weeks painting in Morocco, and after Prague, he would be off to Italy, then New York. Our hosts, American expatriate sociologist Douglas Pressman and Czech management consultant (a new profession in a post-Communist world) Richard Furych, took us out for Italian food at a Serbian-run restaurant, Mirellie, then off to our first cultural event. Later in the week, we were going to the opera, ballet, and symphony, but they like to mix in some funky, locals-only Czech performances. That night, two musicians, Lubos Bena, a Slovak guitarist, and Matej Ptaszek, a Czech harmonica player and singer whose usual venue is the street, performed “The Music of the Mississippi River.”

Richard Burton observed that Czechs have a passion for automatons and proto-Frankenstein figures. (More on golem later in the week.) The Czech language is one of the most impenetrable for non-native speakers, but they gave the world the word robot from robota, or forced laborer, which was introduced in Rossum’s Universal Robots, a play that premiered in Prague in 1921. I couldn’t help thinking of this while listening to Bena and Ptaszek, because their performance was an uncanny channeling of Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, and other Delta greats. The rest of my group found them bizarre, but I loved the creative passion of two white men from Central Europe imagining themselves to be black musicians in the American South 60 years ago. After all, I was there to see whether I could gin up some creative passion of my own.