I Showed Her

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My wife told me that she wanted to rearrange the kitchen, to move the fridge to the north wall and put a small table in its place next to the kitchen sink.  I said, “No.  I do most of the cooking, and I’m used to having the fridge close to the work counter.”  The argument ended, but when I came back from a short trip to Gainesville the deed had been done.  Judy got our two kids to help her push the fridge to the north wall while I was away.

When I returned I walked in the door, hugged the kids, kissed Judy, and suspected nothing.  But when I went into the kitchen to grab a beer from the fridge by the sink,  I found it elsewhere.  I spun around and saw her smiling at me.  I protested, but she said nothing.  Instead she gave me a challenging look as if daring me to come up with a reason to move it back.  I said, “You know I’ve been planning to paint a mural right where you put that fridge.”

“Mural?  What mural?” she asked.

“A landscape…of a place you like…It’ll be a reminder.”

“The Smokies?” she asked.  “You’ll paint a mural of the Smokies!?”

“Sure.  You pick a picture from our last trip there.”

We pulled out a photo album, and she chose a scene with trees hanging over a path cutting through a wood: dappled light, intricate interlacing of branches and foliage, contrasting textures of boulders, tree bark, leaves, sky and dirt.  I looked at it and gulped.  I knew that a subject that complicated would take months.

“Are you sure you want that one?” I asked.  “What about this distant view of the mountains in fog?”

“No.  This is the best.  Can you do it?”

“Of course I can.” I answered feeling a bit nettled.  Did she think that I was an amateur?  “Now can I move the fridge back?”

“I’ll help you,” she said sweetly.

I began to paint the next weekend.  I marked off the boundaries with masking tape and laid out my composition with a few lines.  I blocked in big color shapes.  Two hours passed, and I realized that I had barely made a dent.  But anything for a just cause.  The fridge must stay in its rightful place.

The mural took three months to complete, and I was weary of the project by the time I laid down the last brushstrokes.  I knew that I could drag it out a lot longer if I felt like punishing myself with a lot of tedious detail, but decided that enough was enough.

I called Judy into the kitchen and said, “It’s done.”  She stared at it for a long time, and then she hugged me and said, “Thank you.”  I knew that it reminded her of a family trip to her favorite place on earth.  I tried hard not to feel  happy for her, but failed.

I put away my paints, and while I cleaned my brushes I tried to reclaim some vengeful satisfaction.  I had thwarted her plans to change the kitchen.  I hadn’t let her get away with a sneaky maneuver.  I had outwitted her even if it had taken a long time to pull it off.

I was the man…in charge.

I showed her.  Yeah, I really showed her.

 

Landscape Painting Force Field

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Bougainvillea Looking West

I’m still working on a landscape that I started this summer and wrote about in “Front Yard Monet”.   I know that it’s nearly done as some areas are resisting improvement, and additional maneuvers only make them slightly worse.  I tell my students that each painting is a collection of missteps and corrections, and that with every new canvas a painter learns a new way to accept defeat.  But defeat does not mean discouragement.  It means that new territories of experience and expression still await.  A perfect painting means that exploration has come to an end.

I also tell them that painting a landscape usually involves more problems than changing light, fickle weather and attacks by bugs: a plein air painter is often beset by bystanders who comment on the work in progress and share their viewpoints about their lives, religion, politics, and art.  They persist unless discouraged.  On Friday I resorted to a desperate measure to fend off three onlookers and was partially successful.

I was painting a patch of grass in the left foreground when I heard the sounds of a motor and a radio approaching.  A weather beaten man with one lone tooth in his upper jaw who wore a baseball cap, shorts and a tee shirt pushed a mower slowly toward me.  Reuben stopped to look at the painting, but didn’t turn off his radio or the motor as he told me about his attempts at painting and photography.  He had a thick accent, and what with the background noise I had trouble understanding everything he said, but managed to pick out a few of the major points.  The man said that he had several regular customers in the neighborhood and helped them with their gardens as well.  Reuben enjoyed working as him own boss in the outdoors as it gave him time to appreciate the beauty he saw everywhere around him.  A recent sunset moved him so much that he took a picture of the red and purple tinged clouds above a glowing horizon. And then Reuben knocked on the door of a nearby house, showed a befuddled stranger his picture, and pulled his victim out onto the lawn to make him look at the splendor of nature.

He had used up the memory in his phone and now carried a small digital camera to continue taking his photos.  With practice and persistence he had developed a sense of composition that allowed him to isolate the most choice elements in the landscape.  Now when he snapped a picture he framed hidden beauty in such a way that it revealed itself to his viewers.

Reuben also told me that he had financial difficulties and lived in a rented room a few blocks away, but that his life had grown so much richer now that he lived a simpler life.  I didn’t cut him off because he kept saying things about life and art that agreed with my own observations, because it would have been wrong to interrupt his joyous flow, and because the man had a huge need to unburden his thoughts to a willing  (and/or unwilling) audience.  After 20 minutes, however, I began to use a Buddhist practice of following my breaths to help me remain patient. He had begun to repeat himself, and I feared that the sun would set before Reuben finished his harangue.  Thankfully he walked on after he had taken three or four selfies with me and my landscape, and had apologized at least five time for taking up my time.

I painted a bit more after he left, but decided to go inside for a drink of water.  I remembered that I had a cigar on my dresser, a Christmas present from my daughter’s fiance’.  I took it outside with me and lit up.  Reuben returned pushing his mower just as I arrived at my easel.  He grinned and said, “I bet you’re smoking that to keep me moving on.”  I smiled and said nothing but thought, “Damn right!”

A man in a pick up truck pulled up a bit later and asked me what I was painting.  I pointed down the street to my view, and he looked at the painting on my easel.  He seemed surprised, gave me a compliment or two, told me he lived just down the block and promised to return later.  I puffed on my cigar and hoped that he would not.  He drove away, but swung back around the corner a half hour later and pulled up in his driveway two houses up the cross street.  He did not come back for a chat.  “Good cigar,” I thought.

A young woman stopped her car beside me just as I began to place a few touches on the clouds above a tree.  She asked me if I were a professional, and I said, “Yes, and I teach painting and drawing at Crealde School of Art and Valencia.”  She said, “I take classes at Valencia.  What’s your name?”  I told her and said that our department was a good place to  study.  She seemed bright and pleasant, but light was fading and it was time for me to pack up and start supper. I puffed on my cigar.  A cloud of smoke drifted in her direction, and she fled before she was engulfed.

Later that night I sent a message to my daughter on Facebook.  I told her that her boyfriend’s gift, a Quorum Shade from Nicaragua, was much appreciated.  And then I looked up cigar stores online to see if a local shop sold them.  I’m thinking about starting a series of landscapes in my neighborhood and may have to stock up.

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My Viewpoint

When Nature Tries More Persistently to Get Me

My friend Brenda and I drove up to the outskirts of Deland, Florida to go painting at Lake Woodruff.  The site offered many interesting subjects:  piney flat woods, marshes and cypress swamps.  We split up after we got our gear out of the car:  Brenda went out into the open marshes to paint trees, birds and grass;  I decided to paint in a  cypress swamp.

While I set up my French folding easel I was bitten on the back of my hand.  I looked at it and saw a dot of blood.  I wiped away the red and saw that a little chunk of flesh was missing.  Three golden yellow bugs that looked like armored house flies buzzed in circles around me.  One of them must have been the culprit.

I swatted at them and thought that I had driven them away.  I began to paint for a few minutes in peace, but then they returned.  I managed to keep the deer flies from biting my face, though they attempted to slip under the brim of my hat and attack my nose, but I couldn’t stop them from biting my hands, calves and ankles.  And it began to bother me that they seemed to be coordinating their assaults.  Two would buzz around my neck and shoulders while the third struck lower down.  And they seemed to have a hide out close by.  When I went berserk and swatted in all directions they disappeared, only to return immediately once I settled down again and became a static target.  I eventually discovered when I hitched up my belt that they were hiding on the underside of my paunch when they needed a safe place to rest.  I weighed 240 lbs. at the time, and my gut created a very nice overhang on which they could perch.

I managed to drive them off by running up the path while swatting at them.  Anyone watching would have thought that I was a lunatic.  I lost them some distance from where I was working but knew that they would find me again, and I hurried back to my easel to paint as long as possible without additional torment.  I made some limited progress–capturing flickering light on interlocking tree branches can be maddening–and was starting to relax when something grayish green and oozy hit the side of my hand and splattered onto a corner of my palette.  Shadows from birds flying overhead streaked across the ground.  I looked up and saw vultures.

I carried baby wipes in my backpack and used them to clean off my hand and palette.  When I took my lunch break a half hour later I made sure that I didn’t use the vulture-pooped hand to hold my sandwich.  A few minutes after I ate the last bite and stood at my easel once again I heard a faint boom in the distance.  I looked up at the sky and saw a few puffy, white cumulus clouds off to the west.  I went back to work and got into a nice groove where my color choices and brushstrokes began to fall into place without any struggle on my part.  Then I heard a louder BOOM.  I looked to the west and saw that the happy white clouds had been providing cover for a bank of dark, ugly thunderheads that trailed close behind.  I knew that I had ten to twenty minutes to get the hell out of there.  I wasn’t afraid of getting wet, but knew well that water should never come into contact with a wet (or dry) oil painting.  I had suffered a lot as I worked on this one and didn’t want to lose it.

I packed up my gear as fast as I could and walked, ran and trotted down a five foot wide path between swampy woods on either side.  When I came to a turn I nearly stepped on a black racer that was crossing in front of me.  It was five or six feet long and slithered at a speed that claimed ownership of its name, and it startled me to say the least.  Ten yards further up the path I met with a moderate sized gator that didn’t bother to react when I skidded to a halt and squealed at him.  He too was in a hurry to cross from one side of the swamp to the other.

I got clear of the woods and huffed and puffed along the side of a marsh.  When I got back to the van I saw that Brenda was not there yet.  I threw my stuff in back, retraced my path and stepped out onto the marsh again.  The thunderclouds were bunched in a thick, angry cluster that was a dark purple color rapidly turning to inky black, and veils of rain trailed down behind them in the distance.  Lightning streaked down to the ground about a mile away in a huge, sustained bolt that was pinkish purple in color.  A very loud thunderclap followed almost immediately.  I saw Brenda out in the marsh struggling to haul her gear down a dirt road.  I ran out to her and grabbed some of the equipment, and we fled the rapidly approaching edge of the storm.  We were exhausted, but the knowledge that we could be electrocuted at any moment encouraged us to make haste.

We made it back to the van just before the storm hit.  We were covered with sweat and breathing hard, and when the rain came down it felt good to let it cool us off before we retreated into the van.  Lightning and thunder flashed and crashed around us, and the branches of the live oaks next to the parking lot whipped back and forth in the rising wind.

The storm passed by in a few minutes.  It was  just a little pop-up that had chosen our location for its theatrics.  But neither one of us wanted to go back out and paint when the sky cleared and the sun began to shine again.  Brenda and I agreed that there are days when Nature sends a message that our presence is not wanted, and that it’s wise to listen and obey.

Cypress Swamp, Lake Woodruff II                                 Cypress Swamp, Lake Woodruff

When Nature is Out to Get You: Gators

One day I was painting by myself at Black Point Nature Preserve on Merritt Island.  If I squinted hard as I looked southeast I could see the vehicle assembly building far off in the distance at Cape Canaveral.  It was a brisk day in February and the saltwater marsh was alive with migratory birds and Canadians.  Squadrons of low flying thrushes buzzed a few feet above my head, and their wings made a thrumming sound like the engines of WWII fighter planes:  vrooomph.  Canadians drove slowly by in large, white Winnebagos on the winding road that snaked its way between the ponds.  Many of them would pull over and get out to watch me paint my landscape.  They would inevitably ask, “Have you seen any alligators?”

The nearest bathroom to my work site was a mile or two away.  I usually went behind some bushes to relieve my bladder when my morning cup of coffee cleared my kidney.  On days when the preserve was busy I went down a raised path that divided two black mud ponds until I rounded a bend where small trees and bushes hid me from hikers, bird watchers and gator seekers.  On previous trips I had spotted the bones of wild pigs on the ground along the path, but thought nothing of it until this particular morning when I nearly tripped over a gator.

He lay across the path five feet ahead of me.  He was eight foot long from head to tail and moved incredibly fast as he rushed and dived into the canal on the right.  I had rickety knees, but when I saw the gray blur of his body in motion I managed, without actually being aware of making a conscious decision, to leap backward five feet.  After I caught my breath and calmed my pounding heart I crept closer to the edge of the canal.  I could see his knobby head half submerged in the water a few feet away and that his ping pong ball sized eyes were keeping a careful watch on me.  I opened my zipper and peed into a bush while keeping a careful watch on him.

That might have been an act of bravado on my part, or perhaps my fright gave my bladder an overwhelming need to be emptied.  At any rate, when I finished and closed my zipper I backed up the path till I rounded the bend, and then trotted fifty yards to put some distance between me and the gator.  I wasn’t sure that he would remain in the canal and that he was able to distinguish me from a very large wild pig.

I went back to my painting and lied to Canadians when they asked me about where all the gators were.  I didn’t want to have to run back there and wrestle a very nice, polite man from Ontario from the jaws of death.

I was nearly over my fright and had settled into my painting once again when I heard a crackling sound behind me.  Bushes, rushes and small trees grew along the edges of the ponds around me, and when I looked carefully I saw a two foot gator climbing into the low branches of a mangrove shrub ten feet to my rear.  It was too small to be much of a threat, so I ignored it.  Then I heard crackling sounds to my left.  A three-footer tried to find a comfortable spot to sun in the branches of another mangrove.  And another appeared straight in front of me.  They were all small, but I started to get the feeling that Tippi Hedren got in “The Birds” when she saw bunches of crows staring at her from their perches on a jungle gym in a deserted school yard.  Nature, or Gatordom, seemed to be marshaling and concentrating its forces on my position.

I began to paint faster and faster in a style that was more emotional and expressive than usual as prehistoric reptiles continued to gather around me, and I began to ponder the brevity and fragility of my existence.  I ended my work when the sun dipped toward the west, the shadows lengthened, and my nerves were completely shot.

I was happy when I crossed over the bridge from Merritt Island to the mainland in Titusville, and took comfort from a visit to a kwicky-mart on the edge of town.  The gaudy displays of beer, chips, soda, tobacco and tabloid magazines made “Nature red in tooth and claw” seem far, far away.

I decided to paint a cityscape the next time I went out.

 

Black Point Marshes Black Point Mangroves