Judy and I travelled to Miami during my Thanksgiving break to visit the Everglades, say “hey” to my daughter and son-in-law, pet the dogs.
Bryant made a brine-soaked turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, homemade cranberry sauce, and roasted green beans. I ate two servings. A small factor interrupted the meal intermittently, but we shared a companionable time. We talked about life in Miami, Annie and Bryant’s workload, their progress in finishing their degrees, job searches.
Judy and I drove an hour through Homestead and Florida City the next day to the Everglades National Park. Saw two gators, egrets, herons, anhinga, gars and blue gills. Lots of happy, nature-loving Japanese tourists crowded the boardwalks. A warm wind blew across sawgrass, pond apples and cypress domes.
We got together in the evening at our place with Annie and Bryant and the small factor (our air b-n-b didn’t allow dogs). We ate left overs, talked about music, American history, politics, movies.
Today we stopped for brunch before heading home. Bryant served us turkey noodle soup. We got to pet the dogs one more time. Took a lot of pictures before we left.
The small factor photo-bombed shamelessly.
We picked her up, walked and played with her for extended periods of time. We didn’t intend to let her bend us to her will but couldn’t help ourselves.
She already had her mother and father in her power before we arrived.
Talked to a student today who doubted her ability to draw accurately. I told her that seeing in depth and capturing visual information on paper get easier with practice. Told her that my teaching was a process of editing, of pointing out misperceptions and missed details. She’d be able to edit on her own after gaining greater experience.
Walked away feeling like I’d left something unsaid. Worked on a demo drawing. Consulted with other students in the class. Came back to the demo and noticed that I hadn’t raised the shoulders high enough on a portrait I’d been developing. I made a partial correction. A thought popped up.
Went back to the doubting student and showed her the portrait drawing. I said, “See, I made a mistake and just noticed it.” She nodded. Went on: “Sometimes drawing well is a matter of constructive doubt.” She gave me a questioning look. I said, “You sometimes have to doubt what you think is correct. Your mind makes assumptions, and you make drawings of assumptions instead of what’s actually there.” She nodded. I pointed to my portrait drawing. “I drew what I thought was there, double-checked and found a mistake. That didn’t bother me much. It’s part of the process…It helps to be skeptical about results and to make corrections. Don’t doubt your abilities. Doubt your assumptions instead.”
“A Christmas Carol” proposes that greed, selfishness and cold calculation become overwhelming sinful burdens. Jacob Marley’s ghost shakes the locks and chains encumbering him as he moans to Ebenezer Scrooge, “We forge the chains we wear in life.”
Repeating patterns of thoughts, actions and consequences form. As we live on, movement accelerates along set paths. We take on additional karmic mass, build momentum. Changing the speed and direction of our lives becomes increasingly difficult as we age.
A friend of ours worked in social services and in hospice. She sometimes counseled the terminally ill and their families. She once told my wife that people usually die the way they lived. If they sowed peace and love amongst family and friends, their passing became a soft farewell. If they dealt in anger, manipulation, and ruthlessness, strife accompanied them to their graves.
Stalin, the ultimate paranoid, died slowly in agony after suffering a stroke. Treatment was delayed because his guards, though concerned about his failure to emerge from his rooms one morning, feared entering his apartments without express permission. Once they tentatively ventured into Stalin’s inner sanctum, they had difficulty summoning help. Doctors, Stalin’s personal physicians who knew his condition and could have given him appropriate treatment, had recently been imprisoned by the ailing dictator.
Stalin forged the chains that bore him down to his grave…
Is there a more positive way to look at this? When trapped by dark imagery, turn to a nature metaphors.
I could think about my life as a plant grown from a seed buried in soil not of its choosing. (I didn’t get to pick the circumstances of birth and childhood.) As long as I live, I endure the good and bad sent by my environment. Thoughts and actions produce flowers and fruits. My life produces seeds spreading the influence of who I am and was.
Cold rain fogged the windshield as we pulled into a rest stop on I95. I said to Judy, “Well, at least there won’t be any bugs.” (Every time we journeyed through the Peach State, insects swarmed and attacked when we left an enclosed shelter.) The rain eased. Sleet-resistant midges surrounded us when we stepped out of the car. One tried to fly up my nose. I shrugged: Georgia had struck again.
We stopped for the night in North Carolina. We reached the outskirts of Washington, D.C. in late afternoon just as traffic on the beltway began to clot into snarled knots. Judy and I decided to take a route west over the mountains. We’d approach eastern Pennsylvania via northwestern Maryland.
We climbed up slope after slope as the sun set. We neared the top of a long incline cutting its way through dark woods. Judy gasped, “There are icicles on the tree branches!” I saw a winter fairy land forming all around us: crystalline beauty; dangerous roads.
Judy white-knuckled our descent into Hagerstown, Maryland. We decided to find a motel before the roads turned into ice rinks. We noticed vacancies at a motel situated along a strip of restaurants.
After unpacking, we held our son’s and daughter’s hands to lead them across an icy parking lot between the motel and the nearest restaurant. Annie and Alan kept slipping, falling, landing on their bottoms. Judy picked up Alan. I picked up Annie. We carried them into the restaurant.
Snow fell that night. Slush slowed traffic on Pennsylvanian roads the next morning. I discovered that our rental car had been stocked with water instead of windshield wiper fluid. Every time I tried to clean after a passing truck sprayed icy muck, additional layers of ice obscured my vision. Cars and trucks speeding ahead and next to us began to look like ghostly shapes and blurs. I pulled off onto a country road to scrape the windshield clean, parked in a deserted lot. The wheels spun when I tried to rock the car out of a drift. I had visions of hiking through three feet of snow with a six and four-year-old over my shoulders while Judy dragged suitcases. We finally got traction, fish-tailed out of the lot, and headed east.
Judy’s parents and brother welcomed us when we arrived 12 hours late. We gladly shrugged off our coats, stepped out of boots. The house smelled like cookies. Dry heat steamed the windows. A hot lunch waited for us on the dining room table.
An artist walked through my warehouse studio during an open house fifteen years ago. I had landscapes hung in a small room, narrative figure paintings in the larger, better lit room. Steve pointed to the landscapes and said, “This is where you sell out.” He turned to the figure paintings and said, “This is where you’re telling the truth.” I replied, “I haven’t been able to sell more than a half dozen of the landscapes. Please tell me how I can become a sell-out.”
I’ve often divided my practice into different subject matter and styles. I painted landscapes to spend time with my fellow painter and friend, Brenda, and to find peace. The figurative paintings took a lot of physical and emotional energy out of me. Painting at a remote location, taking notes from nature, calmed and recharged me.
I haven’t headed out with my French folding easel and a blank canvas in a couple years. Painted the last completed landscape from a cool spot under my front yard magnolia in 2017. But I received an e-mail recently. A colleague recommended my landscapes to a city art director. A slot had opened in the schedule at the main house of Leu Gardens in Orlando. I agreed to deliver 30 framed paintings on November 21st.
I pulled paintings off a studio rack, gathered them from closets and corners in the house, and made selections. When I looked at the chosen group, I noticed that color harmony and softer light had become more dominant throughout the twenty year span of work. The early landscapes had more edges and tension. The latter pieces gave off a sense of peace.
Then I remembered another reason why I painted outdoors all those years. Sometimes, when annoyances, distractions and concerns about outcomes fell away, I felt like I had begun to become immersed in nature. I felt part of a bigger flow, a current in a broad stream.
Several months ago, I paused to study a crepe myrtle’s pinkish purple blossoms. The gray-tinted sky following a rain gave a limpid glow to the street, houses nearby, the mail box at the end of my driveway. I had a stack of flyers in my hand and nothing on my mind as I turned toward clusters of blossoms, round buds and wet leaves. Fuchsia flamed against vibrant jade. I lingered though I had supper to cook and a class to prepare. It’s wrong to turn down a sudden gift of wonder.
I rolled on a mattress and tried to fall asleep. My forty-year-old heart fluttered in my chest. Panic settled in deep as I tried to reason away fear. I thought, “These spells come and go. Nothing dire ever happens.” I wasn’t convinced. A loving but noncorporeal presence entered the room and settled inside my body. I didn’t know who or what had come to visit, but the panic thinned and seeped away. Comfort and peace flowed through me as my heart calmed into a steady beat. I felt the gratitude of a small child for a loving parent.
Twenty-nine years ago I sat with a baby on a blanket. My son crawled to the edge, grabbed a tuft of grass and stared intently at the blades. He crammed a handful into his mouth and got a taste before I plucked green mash off his tongue. He wanted to experience the tangible reality of whatever came before him. An early memory from my childhood popped up: thin clouds in a powder-blue sky vaulted high; purple roses in my father’s garden gave off a dark perfume; the wash fluttered blindingly white on the backyard line; my mother looked like an angel. Everything was new.
Judy told her father a story as we sat at her parents’ dining table. We had become engaged in February, 1984. In April we drove ten hours across Ohio and Pennsylvania so that Dick and Audrey could meet me before the wedding. I said nothing as the conversation darted back and forth between father and daughter. Instead I listened intently to the music of Judy’s speech. It struck me that I would be hearing those notes for the rest of my life.
I stared into the bathroom mirror. Ten-year-old eyes darkened sadly as the mouth sagged in a Charlie Brown frown. “Rats.” Grievances trudged across my mind to offer proof that no one had it worse. Then a sense of detachment interrupted the internal melodrama. The pathetic boy in the mirror looked like a stranger. A more mature voice popped into my head. (It might have been a future me.) The voice said, “Oh come on. It isn’t all that bad, now is it?”
Today I went to the gallery at Valencia College’s east campus to view a faculty show. (I’m in it but couldn’t make it to the opening.) The exhibition looked formal, elegant, dignified. The presentation said, “This is a serious endeavor. Respect the work.”
One of my paintings looked good enough to me, but doubts resurfaced about the other as I studied it. The lighting was brighter than in my studio, so the colors and tones looked different in the gallery. The paint seemed too thin under the hard glare. I wanted to take it down to start reworking it right there. A different setting and a juxtaposition with other artists’ work allow me to see that piece differently, to be more objective.
I’ve visited artists’ studios and seen work in production hung on paint-spattered walls. The floors are cluttered with dirty rags, empty paint tubes, dead brushes. A fug of turpentine, linseed oil, raw canvas, burnt coffee and cigarette smoke pollutes the air. Finished work might be hung on other walls but usually in jumbled, hastily tossed up arrangements. Cartoons and reproductions of other artists’ work are pinned nearby. (They compete for attention while revealing sources.) Finished (discarded?) paintings might also be stored in roughly carpentered racks, stacked in a corner against a wall, hidden under drop cloths.
Seeing work at the site of its creation provides a completely different context. The thoughts and emotions captured on one canvas argue with, cozy up to and repel work leaning against a nearby wall. Rough sketches, paint smears on an easel and an encrusted palette add more to the story. The existential buzz of one painting gets amplified in its family setting. It’s like reading a novel’s back story chapter that explains a protagonist’s character.
If you want to know your future with a fiancée, go meet her mother. If you really want to understand a painting, go visit a studio.