‘If I had wings’ … artists chart new worlds (August 4 newsletter)

An angel is kissing a woman. It’s an arresting way to begin. As you walk into the rooms of fantasy paintings at the Norman Rockwell Museum, a person in a loose red robe is stretching out wide wings, shimmering pale pink and green like the inner side of a mussel shell.

In Dean Cornwell’s painting, dark green leaves weave into short dark hair ringed with light. Brows and shoulders suggest a man. And he, if it is he, is holding a woman who leans back against his chest and presses his hand to her heart. How many angels have you seen holding someone close?

In the stories I’ve known, angels never seem to have blood, or heartbeats. Or bodies. And I’m thinking — how would it feel if a being, a spirit, someone connected to their god, could have wings with muscle and feathers, and warm skin, and touch. How would that change the stories I know? Just asking the question, the world feels larger, and I can take a breath.

That’s what fantasy is for me, when it moves me. It’s a way of thinking generously about what the world can be. It’s a freedom from fear, even for a moment. And so here I’m looking at Thomas Blackshear’s paintings. He imagines the archangel Gabriel holding a shofar, a ram’s horn, and this angel has dark eyes, warm dark skin, long dark hair like the Assyrian winged guardians in Nimrud, wearing a wide golden bracelet and a halo like the sun.

In Karla Ortiz’ work, a woman stands in the center of the frame, looking squarely at me. She opens her hands to hold light in a cresting wave. Winged beings follow on the horizon, and people are walking below her into shadow. In this room I’m not drawn to absolutes, good or evil. What feels more complex feels more real and has infinitely more possibilities.

Fantasy worlds may not always be peaceful — we walk into them with all of the complicated pain we carry in this one. But I’m drawn to images that reckon with pain and show strength around it. They take this world and turn it, and they surprise me. When we imagine a world that isn’t this one, people can do anything we can imagine.

In Dean Cornwell’s world … they can fly. Though I think their wings would have to be larger. In gravity like our planet, to fly like a bird, a man would need at least 40 square feet of wing. (At least, one way of working out the relationship between a bird’s weight and wing size offers at least a square meter of wing for each 20 kg — according to the Science Learning Hub, Pokapū Akoranga Pūtaiao in New Zealand, it’s called wing loading.)

What would that mean, each wing some 10 feet wide and 4 feet tall, or longer and more gradual? Wings are complex, tapered shapes, and I don’t know my alar geometry well enough yet, but even thinking that sentence makes the world feel like magic. I love fantasy worlds that lead me to look closely at this one.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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