Mandela’s sketches of prison

This past weekend, a friend and I went to the lobby of a building, looking for its exhibit of Nelson Mandela’s sketches from his time in prison on Robben Island. The exhibit was elegant in its simplicity, nothing boasting or grandiose, all the better to draw out the same sense of elegance-in-simplicity that Mandela’s sketches evoke.

The exhibit drew connections between South Africa’s time of apartheid and the American south’s own Jim Crow era, and lining the entry were dates and comparable events in South Africa and in the southern United States, not that many years apart from one another.

Etched into cool, frosted glass, this view greeted us before we stepped into the exhibit room – really just a pass-through area from one building to another – as if inviting us to enter into the prison itself:


A cold, stark greeting for visitors

The rest of the window that looked back toward the lobby was filled with two doors that had been salvaged from old tobacco warehouses. These, too, hint at an oppressive prison of sorts.


Jim Crow era doors that marked separate entrances

I’ve seen pictures and movie depictions of such doors, but I don’t know that I’ve ever stood in front of actual doors marked with that era’s shame. It was a relief to turn away from them to encounter Mandela’s sketches, writings and own thoughts everywhere, even on the floor:



Mandela returned to Robben Island with a photographer to capture a small part of what he had experienced there, but Mandela didn’t want to use the photographs or his own sketches incite anger. Rather, he wanted to inspire and give courage and show that this place had been unable to break his spirit or his resolve or his hope or his character. He accompanied each sketch or series of sketches with carefully written words that help the visitor step into Mandela’s shoes.


Nelson describes his desire for these sketches.

In these sketches entitled: My Robben Island, I have attempted to colour the island sketches in ways that reflect the positive light in which I view it. This is what I would like to share with people around the world and, hopefully, also project the idea that even the most fantastic dreams can be achieved if we are prepared to endure life’s challenges. NMandela

The colors Mandela used in his sketches were cheerful and bright, and I was struck in this first series that he had drawn windows without the bars that are so clearly there in the photograph:


The hospital offered a different sort of freedom in prison: the exchange of information.


Bars on the windows

Mandela wrote of political prisoners feigning illness to go to the hospital, as it was the only place where they could get word of what was going on in the outside world. Imagine the hope that sustained them on these hospital visits, as they heard of a world changing outside their island prison. Perhaps that’s why Mandela left the bars out of the windows in his sketch. It was a room of some small freedom.


The stark prison yard

Mandela wrote about memories of marking a tennis court in this yard and of planting a small garden. These activities were not allowed at first, but eventually the prisoners were able to convince the guards to let them use the space for something other than sitting and marching.

He wrote of the wonderful outlet of the physical activity, and though the gardening brought life, it brought poignant and painful reminders, too:


The memory of a cherished tomato plant

A powerful memory that I have is of a beautiful tomato plant that I coaxed from tiny seed to tender seedling to a strong plant that gave plump bright red juicy tomatoes. Despite my efforts the plant began to wither and die and nothing I did would heal it. When it died I took it carefully from the soil, washed its roots and buried it in a corner of the garden. I felt sad. It once again reminded me of where I was, and the hopelessness I felt at being unable to nourish other relationships in my life. My wife, my children, my family and my friends. It made me realise the beauty, simplicity and sacred value of family, of loved ones and friends. I swore to myself that I would never take another human being, their friendship or their love for granted ever again.


An inescapable reminder

Mandela featured the prison tower prominently in several of his sketches, and he wrote of returning from grueling work outside of the prison walls that at least enabled the men to do something physical. The prisoners talked as they walked back to the prison, but Mandela noted that they became quiet as the tower grew closer.


My favorite sketch

The prisoners found ways to remain hopeful, in spite of their bleak circumstances and surroundings. Though the prisoners weren’t allowed inside the church, it served as a beacon to them.


Mandela’s cell, with his possessions colored, another element of the hope he found in the prison.

Mandela’s jail cell was small: he could walk it in three paces and said that when he lay down, his feet brushed one wall and he could feel the other wall against his head.


An 8×8 outline of a Robben Island jail cell. Mandela’s account suggests a slightly smaller space.

Imprisoned for 27 years, it’s no wonder Mandela felt his was a long walk to freedom.


a long walk …

The curators for the exhibit grouped Mandela’s sketches under four headers, and it was then that I understood the ellipsis in the exhibit’s name.


… to freedom

Mandela’s journey was a long walk … to justice … to equality … to opportunity … to freedom. And somewhere along the way, he was able to shed any bitterness that might have conquered lesser men.


What strikes you most about Mandela’s sketches? What inspires you most about his long walk?

Humor and other diversions

Originally, I thought today’s blog post would be my response to Chad Stafko’s snarky Wall Street Journal article about runners, Okay, you’re a runner. Get over it, but then I read Mark Remy’s hilarious response here in his Remy’s World column at So I’ll just share the links with you and tell you a different story, though it also has to do with emotions like anger and humor and other things integral in the aforementioned articles. Enjoy! I’m curious to know which article you relate to more.


My day started off all wrong yesterday. I had gone to bed the night before anxious about an email related to some work I’ve been doing, and the emails started up again early in the morning. Confusing, long emails filled with the “my way is right” subtext.

By 8:30, my breathing was jagged, and my mood was, too. I knew I needed a diversion. I had the perfect thing in mind. Over breakfast, when I would normally be checking email or Facebook, I decided to cull my growing magazine pile and came across an article about an art installation at the local museum. An artist, Tom Shields, had put chairs in trees. You read that right. The magazine article included some great pictures, but this was something I had to see for myself.

I grabbed my camera and plenty of warm layers to combat the chilly wind and headed out the door. On the way to the museum, I bought a salted caramel hot chocolate. There are very few foul moods that a salted caramel hot chocolate can’t make better.

Here was my first look at the little patch of woods, a mini forest of sorts, where the chairs were. I knew they were there but wondered how close I would have to get before seeing them. The title of the installation is Forest for the Chairs, but at first, I was missing the chairs for the forest.


The camera could see what my eyes could not. Can you see the chairs yet?


A closer look

I felt like I had stepped in Wonderland, or an Escher drawing or maybe even Oz. Continue reading

If there’s confetti, it must be a party

I looked out of my office window on Monday and saw what looked like a party going on in my yard, with leaf confetti fast becoming a thick blanket of decoration:

Fallen leaves mix with the orange lantana remnants to create a medley of nature’s confetti.

The source of the confetti is all of our trees, lately having to decided to get with the autumn program, change color and drop leaves everywhere.

Just one source of the confetti in the yard

It’s like God is throwing a party and decorating the earth with brilliant colors to remind us of how beautiful life can be, even as winter looms.

Confetti for my artist’s date
Lately, I’ve felt a bit like the dried-up leaves on the ground, not the pretty reds and golds and bright oranges newly fallen and confetti-like, but instead like the crisped brown ones that crunch when you step on them and hitch a ride into the house on the dog’s feet.

I realized I’ve been ignoring my artist’s date, a term Julia Cameron defines in her book The Artist’s Way as a weekly solo date that she insists is essential for any creative person who wants to make creativity sustainable. So I decided to set out in search of more confetti for my artist’s date. And I knew exactly where to find it.

Continue reading

The skinny on the passion flower

Two of the most popular photographs in last week’s post were the frog and the purple passion flower. I was intrigued to learn from one of my readers that the passion flower got its name because its parts reflect the story of Christ’s crucifixion, (often referred to as Christ’s passion) including: the crown of thorns, the lashes Christ received, the three nails and the five sacred wounds, and 10 of Christ’s 12 disciples.

Another take on the passion flower

If you Google passion flower’s name meaning/origin, you can end up falling down a rabbit hole, which is pretty much what happened to me. I’ll link you to Wikipedia’s discussion, which has an interesting range of information about the flower, its name and its history. Continue reading

The enchanting garden

One of the days my husband and I were out in Oregon, he came back from his morning run very pleased. He had a surprise to show me on the campus, one that he knew would delight me. He wouldn’t tell me what it was, though, not wanting to spoil the surprise.

Let me back up a moment to remark on the beauty of the University of Oregon’s campus. Both my husband and I attended universities that were of a mostly utilitarian, bricks-are-best style, and while in Eugene, we found ourselves commenting again and again what a pretty campus it is.

While my alma mater has an arboretum near the main campus, UO’s website boasts that its campus “is an arboretum” (emphasis mine). To call it an arboretum isn’t a stretch, considering the rest of the campus description: “… with museums, libraries, laboratories, and lecture halls situated among over 3,500 trees of more than 500 species. Bring in the harvest at the urban garden, explore the nearby historic cemetery, or walk along the banks of the Willamette River” (Source). They’re not exaggerating about the nature that is an integral part of the university.

Back to the day my husband took me off our usual path through campus. Here’s where our journey took us: Continue reading