For me the Rothko room at Tate Britain is a place of pilgrimage. Like anything that touches us spiritually, it is hard to explain why. When I walk in I feel a sense of peace. If there’s not many people in I like to sit on a bench and try to absorb several of the paintings at once. Then I’ll get as close as possible to one so that the canvas fills my vision and I think “This is how close he was when he painted it”
Last year I was there, sitting in front of one of the Rothko’s and I decided to try to capture the feeling by sketching on my iPad. I opened up my painting app and just started filling the space with colour, adding layers and hues of red and pink. As usual I was oblivious to what was going on around me but I gradually became aware of someone sitting next to me. I glanced up to see an elderly couple, the lady sitting next to me with her husband in a wheelchair next to her. She asked what I was doing and I explained my love for these paintings and how I was just trying to grasp something of their essence. It turned out her husband was an artist and we all had a good chat about painting. Then he dropped a bombshell. The arthritis that had consigned him to a wheelchair had crippled his hands as well. He showed me his unnaturally twisted, immobile fingers and said.
“I can’t hold a paintbrush anymore”
I barely had time to register the tremendous sense of empathic loss I felt before his wife said.
“Maybe you could use one of those”
I looked down, saved the drawing and started a new one.
“Try it” I said.
They protested for a moment but I simply placed my iPad on the artist’s lap. For a moment he did nothing. Then he made a tentative movement with his right hand. The knuckle of his little finger drew a line on the screen. He did it again, and then again and all of a sudden he was drawing.
In medieval times people would go on pilgrimage to places where a miracle had occurred. That moment felt like a miracle to me.