Portrait of a Pilgrim

The Plan

We are on our way back to North America after having spent about five weeks in Spain, most of that walking the last 120 kilometres or so of the Camino de Santiago. What was the point of all that, you might ask? Why did we feel the need to drag ourselves, and in the end, a wheelchair, across a chunk of northern Spain? It would be great if I could say something glib like, “Because it was there” or “Because we like to go on vacations with a bit of a twist” but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Santiago de Compostela, Spain

For one thing, we can’t really afford to just jet off and wander around the Spanish countryside for weeks on end. Usually, we either need to find a way to keep working on the road (Internet access makes this possible, though it can also create huge logistical challenges when connectivity is not quite as good as we need it to be). Even better is when we can find a way to tie a project to a travel destination. Sometimes it’s as simple as writing a destination travel article about a place we want to go (or, happen to be going anyway). Sometimes it’s using a destination or activity that takes place in a distant place (climbing, for example) in a book. Taking copious notes, reference photos, or conducting interviews to gather information is a way to write some of the travel costs off as long as the material is used somewhere down the road.

Digital nomad at work in a small cafe in the middle of nowhere.

In the case of this trip along the Camino Frances, though, the intention all along was to write a book about the trip and to find a way to integrate art (Dad’a art in particular). Not only is Dad’s work integrated into the written project, he is also beavering away on a series of works exploring the idea of creating a portrait of a pilgrim to be presented in an exhibition of work.

At the end of a long day of walking, Dad works on a drawing of the Castillo de Pambre

One of the the good things about being a writer or an artist is that all of life becomes a potential source of inspiration. That’s also one of the tough aspects of this type of job. There isn’t really a way to shut life off, close the office door and go home. Everything is raw material and holds the potential of the next great bit of writing or amazing painting. For someone in the arts, each day could be the one where our desire to create something worthwhile is realized. Just the act of living life becomes a pilgrimage of sorts, full of challenges and roadblocks to overcome on the way to coming up with something decent.

When we set off on the road to Santiago we knew we wanted to create something (visual art on Dad’s part, written work from me and Dani), but beyond that we weren’t exactly sure what our story would be. After all, we had plans, but plans never exactly correspond with reality.

The good news is that post trip we have plenty of raw material for a book and Dad is well on his way to creating some very cool pieces unlike anything he has ever done before. The walking together, the conversations in the evenings, the time spent looking at art, watching Dad create art, listening to conversations among other pilgrims, reading about the act of pilgrimage, visiting museums – all that input, that raw material provided a massive amount of information, stimulation, and inspiration. The creative wheels aren’t just turning, they are spinning fast.

We knew that part of the challenge after a trip is coming back and being thrown into real life distractions, so we decided to spend a couple of weeks together after we finished walking to Santiago in order to focus on the project. The process has been as challenging as anything we faced on the journey.

Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Some of our conversations have been predictable – like comparing notes about various high (and low) points of the trip, but we’ve also talked about mortality, what inspires us, surprises like how much we all liked the Segrada Familia, Gaudi’s ode to nature and God in Barcelona, and what makes a great portrait. We’ve asked ourselves a lot of questions about the nature of pilgrimage and what a real pilgrim looks like. We sought out images of pilgrims in art and now, as we begin to write (and Dad continues to work with pen and ink and wax crayon and tempera paint sticks and watercolours) what is emerging is a story about our pilgrimage, but also a meditation on what it means to be a pilgrim – in words and images.

We collected dozens of pilgrim-related images on our trip… this one from the Pilgrim Museum in Santiago.

Dad is also exploring juxtapositions of self portraits with ancient depictions of pilgrims. He’s playing with stylistic twists and bold colour, taking fresh inspiration from time spent in the presence of Gaudi’s work, Picasso’s ever-evolving approaches to art and portraiture, and the many, many pilgrims we have seen in carvings, sculptures, murals, painted, drawn, and etched into stone.

We have been privy to Dad’s creative process in ways that have never been possible before now – living in close quarters for so long there is no way to avoid seeing how he comes up with ideas, starts sketching, restarts, scribbles, and polishes. At the same time, Dani and I have been clicking away on our keyboards.

The artist goes shopping – finding art supplies was easy in Barcelona.

I’ve been working on recreating our journey, integrating notes about art and history found along the way. I’m also trying to figure out the best way to share the conversations Dad and I have had over the past six weeks or so that we’ve been travelling together. Dani is digging deeper into the many moments that make up a pilgrim’s journey, writing a series of reflections and information essays that take the reader behind the scenes on subjects as varied as bedbugs and courier systems. The more we write and draw and talk and question, the more we discover to explore, describe, question and discuss.

Leaving Sarria…

“Is that where we are going?” Dad asks, pointing up.

“Unfortunately,” I answer.

“Oh my God. I haven’t trained for this.”

At one point we all worried that we wouldn’t have anything to say about our trip, that our three creative wells would simultaneously run dry. In fact, the opposite is happening. We all have found so much to explore I’m thinking our bigger task will not be thinking of what to include but what we will need to eventually trim out.

No fears about not having enough reference material!

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