Single Figure

by Maria Theresa Maggi on July 24, 2019

"Early Morning Surfer with Cabana Shadow on Sand," pastel memory sketch by Maria Theresa Maggi

“Early Morning Surfer with Cabana Shadow on Sand,” pastel memory sketch by Maria Theresa Maggi

I was deeply disappointed with this sketch the morning I drew it. I thought I had failed, but I was tired, and it was time to make my oatmeal, so I sighed and left it out on my work space at the slider windows, washed in northern light, and went about my morning.

During the next 24 hours I tweaked the surfer a couple of times, stopping to do so, as I walked by, uncertain it would every be anything to me but a simplistic failure.

In the next 48 hours or more, however, as I traversed past it on the way into the kitchen or back to the couch or my computer, a very strange and wonderful phenomenon began to occur. Although the drawing lay flat, each time I walked by, I had the sensation of the surfer’s figure having a three dimensional quality that shifted my view of it subtly was I walked past, much like what happened when I walked along the bluff at the cabana watching him head north at the edge of the ocean, his eyes on the patterns in the waves. The sun was behind us, at once casting shadow and spilling morning light that was dissipating mist. The surfers need to wear neoprene body suits here, and as I looked repeatedly and then went up close I saw that I had somehow managed to get the effect of just a little light hitting the back of that neoprene suit, the stance of the strong legs getting ready for a shove out into the current, and even a slight shadow on the white surfboard, suggesting the slim space between his body and the board.

I honestly don’t know how I accomplished this. My drawings with little figures in the immense beach landscape are some of my favorites to try to do, but they always feel like a fool’s errand to execute. It’s often damn near impossible to get clarity of shape and line over the soft chalk backgrounds that place these figures in their landscapes.

I don’t often draw people up close, to scale. That’s much more likely to happen with animals. When it comes to the human form, I’m most often interested depicting them to size amidst a vast landscape like the beach. At first I thought this was only that I had moved to the coast and looked at it this way every day, and that is part of it, but then I remembered what I consider to be my first “real” painting with a human form in it while in a summer art class the year I was 14. The art teacher I took private lessons from was pleased with what I had done in this class, and she went with my mother and I to the framers and taught me how to pick a mat that would make the painting “pop.” My mother loved this painting and kept it hung in my parents’ home throughout her life. My sister returned it to me after her death, and now it’s on my wall in a tiny hallway between the bedroom and the bathroom. It’s impossible to take a photo of it without reflection from the windows, but I actually love how if you look closely, what’s reflected on the painting is a piece of the huge alder tree outside the window. Life and art entwined.

“Boy in a Tree,” Summer 1970, by Maria Theresa Maggi

A little further back than that, my fascination with the dwarfed human figure amidst a vast landscape came in 7th grade while working on a collage. I tore a photo of a woman standing on a craggy high rocky place looking out over the shimmering ocean, which became the “center” of the collage. It had a resonance of the potential expansiveness of solitude that never left me.

Paradoxically, there is a quality of universality to these single small figures in a vast setting that feels deeply personal.  The black body suits the surfers wear accentuate their amphibious abilities to move from one familiar element into one they can’t live in permanently, and made this strange poem, written long ago to accommodate a strong dream, leap to consciousness.

single figure
on the edge
of a long ago playground

at night

in a dream
it was the chalked outline
of a body lit and
standing upright
on the edge
at a distance
holding my gaze
without a gaze of its own

it was the school
my mother subbed at
when she carried me
inside her

it was the black top
and then the field
the beginning of everything
before it started

and the white neon
outline had a consciousness
a prescience

as if it were a portal
bringing me to life
just before I would see

I was here

I didn’t feel like Scout
hidden in the giant ham

I didn’t feel like Boo Radley
keeping watch from the window

in that gaze without a gaze

I knew the way in
between the fences
the religions, the bells
the schedules, the lightning,
and the pelting raindrops

through deafening silence
before an explosion

toward the light out
on the edge

and the black vortex within it

gathering material

hardening into place


The way the impossible comes to life for me can indeed be dreamlike, and yet it’s an essential means of how I function in the world in a real and practical sense.

In the case of the sensibility of the single figure, if I follow the expansiveness of solitude, I find it curves into a gorgeous arc that can connect me in a personal way to someone I will never meet.

For example, in the small town of Kamikatzu on Shokuko Island in Japan, they recycle 80 percent of their waste. They’ve been doing this since 2003. They don’t have room for a landfill and the incineration of trash was turning the sky black with smoke. There are myriad categories for recycling paper and plastic–even dirty diapers. It took some getting used to, but now their town is a model and people are beginning to come from all over the world to learn at their recycling academy, which I learned from this article about it. But before I knew all that, standing at my kitchen counter, grousing about whether or not to take the time to cut my produce scraps up small enough for quick composting in the series of garden pots I rotate them through instead of throwing them into the trash, I think of one restaurant owner there I saw interviewed in a film who said at first it felt really hard and time-consuming, but then he got used to it, and now it just seems normal. So I think of him when I take the time to cut things up further, and that if he got used to it, I can too. And I think, too, of the worms now living in those pots, who wait for my apple cores and little pieces of banana peel and more, and then extra seconds it takes to cut things smaller are worth it. That’s one way a single individual I’ll never meet has encouraged this single individual along in a great work to make our planet more habitable. Whether or not there is ultimate “huge” success matters less than the connection and the peaceful feeling that sets in when I master any practice that makes me more mindful and compassionate of my actions.

Often my practice on the morning yoga and meditation mat includes the visualization that each day just one person finds the courage to stand up for the truth and for human rights in a setting where it would make a difference. Just one person decides to tell the truth where it is being covered up, or just one person is able to open their hearts to new ideas and different views. I celebrate that possibility, and respect its power. I believe that one person, even a single figure, as Walt Whitman once wrote, “contains multitudes.”

Maria (moonwatcher)




Leave a Comment

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Gena August 1, 2019 at 6:12 pm

Maria, I loved reading this post because it kept taking me in directions I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect the trip back to your teen years and the early draw to single/solitary figures. And I didn’t expect you to move so very beautifully into a meditation the power of an individual, but as I stayed with you the transition was so seamless and felt, actually, so necessary and right. And then there’s the meditation on how seemingly insurmountable practices can become habit—how true that is, of so many things.

I hope that at this very moment you feel your own power as an individual who so clearly endeavors to tread through life with compassion. I hope, too, that no matter how much empty space you feel around you at this time, you know that you are held and embraced by other stick figures out here.



2 Maria Theresa Maggi August 2, 2019 at 9:12 am

Gena, this is such a beautiful response to my post–I will treasure it always. I love that I was able to both surprise and delight, and keep you with me as I went. Thank you, thank you, thank you. xoxo


3 Veronica August 2, 2019 at 8:59 am

This is such a beautiful post, Maria, and I love your artwork. Your last paragraph, the hope of one person- really hit me. Sometimes I think there’s nothing a single person can do, but that’s not true. There is a ripple effect- I read somewhere something like, with time travel – everyone is so worried that one person going back in time and changing one thing could have profound effects on the future, but don’t believe that one person right now could make a small change and affect the future…


4 Maria Theresa Maggi August 2, 2019 at 9:14 am

Thank you, Dear Veronica, I’m so pleased you found this to be a beautiful post. I love your very astute observation that people do get so worked up about one person’s potential effect in time travel, but have such a hard time believing one person right NOW could make a difference, starting that ripple effect in motion. So very very true. xoxo


5 Aman September 23, 2019 at 8:57 pm

Very nice.. Keep it up , doing a great job


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