My left foot was cursed during our trip around the world. In Hawaii I twisted my foot. In Japan I dropped a small metal rod on it that cut a circle in the top. In Thailand I dropped more random heavy objects on my left foot. I twisted it again in Luang Prabang climbing to the top of a hill to pray at a temple. It was sore, unable to move well, and ankle braces were impossible to find in Thailand and Georgia. I could walk into a pharmacy and get almost any prescription, but an ankle brace? No sir, you must go to a hospital and talk to a doctor to acquire that $20 piece of plastic for your ankle.
By the time I got to Tbilisi I'd carried my 25lb kit of painting gear a probable total of 20 miles on that bad foot. I couldn't help myself. I desperately needed to keep going outside and painting. It was my white whale. My dragon. I had to chase the elusive experience of painting in the perfect spot at the perfect time. My left ankle was twisted, sore, cut, and I limped everywhere, but I kept carrying that bag of gear, 'cause I fucking loved it. I didn't care that the hotel in Tbilisi was atop a hill that would make any arrogant Frisco Hill Bragger sweat and give up. Tbilisi was the absolute greatest location I'd painted in and I wasn't going to miss it for anything.
It was December in Tbilisi, but I had gortex everything. Hats, gloves, shoes, pants, jacket? All gortex. I was definitely not cold. The painting box I brought was a beautiful 11x14" easel by Alla Prima Pochade--hand crafted in Montana--that weighed 7lbs but felt like 14 hanging off an ultra padded neoprene strap around my neck/shoulder along with a camera I would later drop in New York City. I fucking loved that camera. Oh well.
My bag is by a company called Mountain Smith and works as a lumbar pack with shoulder straps to distribute the weight. Attached to the bottom of this bag is the lightest strongest tripod I could find by Really Right Stuff--made of carbon fiber and aluminum--it held up like an iron tank made of magic plastic eggshells. Inside the bag is everything. I mean everything. Paints, solvents, brushes, band aids, clips, random pens, papers, backup batteries, cameras, and it's about to explode. I call it my Bag of Holding.
I take this 25lbs of gear, and I walk. You have to walk when you want to paint outside in a city because you'll miss the good stuff if you drive. Our hotel is on the top of the mountain in Tbilisi and the view is absolutely spectacular. I took so many photos of this one scene and spent an evening painting this painting of it at night, but this morning I'm walking down and heading about 3 miles out to a bridge I walked across the day before. I mean, limped across, because by this point in my adventure my left ankle was completely trashed. But I kept going. Down the winding roads to coffee at Erti Kava, down further past some kind of capital building, limping my way slowly to the city center.
The day before I was painting at the City Center using all of this same gear. There's a monument there and if you walk up the road a bit you have a nice view of the fall trees lining the street leading down to the monument. It's topped with a gold statue and the Sun hits it at a glance to make it explode in a golden green color scheme. I took all this gear and set it up as close to the road as safely possible, and painted, standing on my sore ankle/foot combination. Inadvertently, I setup near a large zeds-ankle-shaped hole in the sidewalk directly behind me where I would step as I stood back to look at my masterpiece. I must have twisted my ankle in that hole three times. When I'm painting I just don't care about what's around me, and I was loving the scene, but that was stupid.
That night I try to baby my ankle while we walked around and explored Tbilisi at night, walking across the river to the other side. But in the morning? Fuck that ankle. I gotta paint. I can just go back to Thailand and get ankle surgery next year. I walk, limp, take breaks, I feel old, 'cause I am old, 46, did I just turn 46? I did, and I'm walking around Tbilisi Georgia painting my ass off on a beautiful December morning. Up this little street, down, and winding around past more delicious coffee, fun restaurants, and people practicing music at 6am.
The Food! Can I just take a moment and say that Georgian food is the greatest. I loved this one stew called Kharcho so much I taught myself how to make it at home. Kharcho is a beef stew full of spices that simultaneously live in the India, Turkey, and French parts of your mouth. I don't know the real history of the spices involved, but Kharcho--and most of Georgian food--is like a blast of memories for me. There's the Indian spices that traveled through Georgia, the French influence from the wine culture the Georgians invented, and the Turkish spices from across the black sea, all combined with a distinctly Georgian concept of sweet and sour plum sauces and lots of salt, dill, and parsley. Everything I eat in Tbilisi is the most unique and delicious thing I've had in a long time.
On this morning--as I walk to Nikoloz Baratashvili Bridge--I pay $1 for a huge flat bread that's similar to an Indian naan--cooked in a similar Tandoor oven--and sold out of basement windows as you walk by. I munch on it, taking a wrong turn because my ankle pulls me to the left so I keep going the wrong direction along the river. I have to use my phone to figure out where to go, but also keep eating the bread, drinking the coffee, taking my gloves off, checking the phone, put the gloves on, walk, get lost, then finally reach the Bar of Love.
I don't drink (and never have) but I love this little wine bar. It's situated on a pedestrian underpass on the Baratashvili Bridge with a few tables, chairs, and small stand feature wine and snacks. The wine is a hot spiced wine they drink Georgia, the birth place of wine. Georgians make their own wine in little clay pots from grapes they have growing all over. The Bar of Love owner is bumping dance music, hanging out with her son, fully protected by the cold under a massive heat lamp, drinking her own wine, chatting up everyone who walks by, and probably having the best December morning I've ever seen someone have.
This is where I need to paint. Broken twisted ankle on a pedestrian walkway under a bridge next a bunch of people partying on spiced wine in the morning while I look out over the Kura River at the Bridge of Peace.
I drop my bag down on the walkway and start to take all of the gear apart. Packing gear for "plein air painting" (which is fancy French for "outside painting") is a form of artistic expression almost as great as the actual painting. No dear reader, you can't just put stuff in a bag. No, no, no. You have to plan this gear. Weight is everything, and plein air starts the hiker off at a disadvantage immediately due to the painting gear required. If you take only the easel box and tripod you have about 15lbs already. Then you have to add in brushes, paints, palette knives, paper towels, and bottles of solvents and mediums. If you plan it out you can significantly cut your weight down.
I'm also doing something unique even for plein air painters. I'm filming my painting sessions. I don't know when or why I started doing this, but I believe I wanted to figure out where I kept going wrong in my painting sessions so I brought a camera once. When I was done I realized I could make kind of a fun little show by using 2 cameras, then 3, then 4, then a light, then a better mic, then...eventually I went insane and ended up learning how to do multi-camera full videos edited with Davinci Resolve and theme music.
It's nuts and I love it. I could just go out and paint but fuck that, this is a sport for me. A challenge. How can I make this more fun and interesting? Film it. Film it and watch it then get better.
My gear on this trip ended up being way too much. I'd never done a long term painting trip before so I went crazy and ended up bringing two big suitcases full of painting and camera gear. Since then I've gotten smarter and slimmed those two suitcases down to 1 tiny hand held case. Technology is amazing. I now can actually stream my painting sessions, live, outside using a tiny little Android device called a YoloLive YoloBox. One year ago, in Tbilisi, my bag was full of cameras, microphones, clamps, and I would never dream of being able to stream my painting live. Simply recording it was hard enough.
On that bridge in Tbilisi's December I needed to assemble my Bag of Holding Painting Gear into a fully standing ready to work painting studio. I take the tripod off the bottom of the bag and stand it up first. It's carbon fiber and has withstood years of abuse without fail. I take the 15lb bag and hang it over the top of the tripod so that it's facing me. It took me four years to realize I could just hang the bag on the tripod and then not have to bend over to take stuff out of the bag. Genius! Obvious...Genius! I then put the Alla Prima Yellowstone on top of the tripod. This is key! Again, it took me several years to figure out that if I put the easel on last then...I can put the bag on first. I'm an idiot.
Once the equipment is set up I look out over the Kura River toward the Bridge of Peace. It's quiet except for the music from Bar of Love. My gloves are back on and I'm squeezing out the paints I'll use. Yellows, reds, blues, arranged in a loose rainbow on the wood of my palette, squeezed out slowly while I study the scene, intently thinking about how I'm going to pitch this blue glass bridge. I pour out solvent that smells like the Tsar Bomba of lavenders (lavender oil works as a solvent), grab my brushes, and stop to think more.
The Bridge of Peace crosses the Kura River straight ahead, with the sun shining a glare spot onto the river. As the river leaves my vision there are boats and trees along the banks, and a cement wall lines the river the whole way. The Kura meets where the bright sky blue bridge sits then disappears in a short turn behind it. To the left and right of the bridge is a series of trees and buildings, then sloping behind the bridge is the hills I've been climbing all week. Georgian houses wander up the hills interspersed with golden green trees that are still awake in the dead December cold. This continues up, with a wall from a medieval castle topping the mountain leading up to the right until it hits a tower, cutting a sharp line through the gray hazy fog of the sky.
As I study the scene the music from the Bar of Love evaporates. I'm entirely focused on the scene, memorizing everything I can about the shapes, the contrasts, colors and calculating in my mind how can I solve it. How does this scene make me feel about this trip? I feel a bitterness about the end of my travels. I felt the trip was successful in so many ways and that makes me happy to be out there. I love the snap of cold in the air and I'll miss Tbilisi more than anything. It was easily my favorite city ever. Maybe it's because I felt like I figured out what Dolly was saying about doing who I am on purpose, but that sadness for what I'll lose when I leave Tbilisi mixes with my excitement to finally get home.
With these feelings in my mind, and my brushes in my hand, I view the scene and think I need to use my knife to capture this swirling feeling of contrasts. The knife is energy. It's accidents and randomness from the lack of control. A knife leaves sharp paint, like slivers of pigmented glass sprinkled all over the canvas. I need to make the sky fight with the sharp edge of the castle wall, but keep it in the background, and slowly explode in autumnal colors surrounding a calm blue bridge crossing the Kura. I'll paint it first with a brush, to figure out what goes where, then attack it with a knife, letting the paint fall off the blade and mix to form an energy that matches the mood. A calm quiet cold morning, a bar playing music, the sadness of leaving a place I love, but a hopeful future before everything changed in 2020.
P.S. I wrote this entirely from memory without looking at any paintings or photos.