As you learn to follow ideas along, to process those ideas into music or paintings, you start to realize that the issue whether you are talented enough or good enough is no longer relevant. Following your ideas and creating art is just what you do.
Ian Roberts, Creative Authenticity
With pure joy and anticipation, I awakened without an alarm at 6:50. Last night I had already been notified that there would be no school today, due to icy road conditions. I greeted the dawn with a heart brimming with joy and could not make the coffee or get into my favorite reading chair fast enough. While cozied up to Annie Dillard’s Living By Fiction, I looked up in thought, and realized I was gazing at a cluster of leaves dangling in morning sunlight just outside my living room window. I couldn’t stop admiring the organic pattern of the cluster against the bright wintry sky, and suddenly recalled stories I had read yesterday of how Leonardo da Vinci and Henri Matisse focussed on a single leaf or cluster of leaves, and then did studious drawings and painting of the design. My watercolor supplies were nearby, so on impulse I pulled out the basic tools, and, sitting in my reading chair, sought to render quickly and repeatedly what I was staring at outside my morning window.
In a few moments, the sun faded, the leaves lost their illuminative quality, and the moment was gone. I also realized, as the sun was devouring the freshly fallen snow, that by mid-afternoon, only water would be standing in my backyard. This reminded me of what we discussed in yesterday’s A. P. Art History classes while studying the Dutch Baroque still life paintings and the vanitas theme. The seventeenth-century Dutch, with their newfound wealth, were accumulating property faster than ever before in their history. Yet their sober-minded Calvinist culture reminded them that material goods pass away like the morning cloud, as does life.
The vanitas them in Dutch still life painting is named after a famous passage from Ecclesiastes 1:2 — “Vanitas vanitatum dixit Ecclesiastes.” (Latin Vulgate), translated: “‘Vanity of Vanities!’ says the Preacher.” This biblical book meditates on the passing away of all things connected to this physical world.
This Pieter Claesz painting is replete with objects depicting the passing of time, loss and death. The newly-rich Dutch Calvinists were painfully conscious of this. However, when carefully assembling a collection of possessions and then rendering them into art, they found a way to relay the story of the one who possessed all this, long after s/he exited the earth’s stage.
I took this opportunity to explain to the students the ground of my own passion for rendering watercolor still lifes. Projecting the image below, I urged them to try and memorize every object in the assembly before moving on to the next slide.
After a moment, I then projected this story I composed:
He’s No Longer Here
When the neighbors hammered the padlock off the deceased man’s fishing shed, they peered inside the darkened room with sadness at the world of memories their dear friend had left behind. Guarding the assembly from its high perch, the kerosene lantern called to memory nights spent on the Mississippi River dikes, waiting for catfish that would find their way to the Griswold skillet. The Canada Dry crate was the old fisherman’s stool for the nightlong vigils.
Bass fishing featured the Garcia Mitchell open-faced reel and the vintage wooden plugs for the area lakes and ponds. In his retirement years, fly fishing took over, and the old man delighted in the long road trips in his Dodge pickup to the Colorado Rockies where he would not be heard from for weeks at a time.. The battered suitcase was his lifelong road companion, as was the dark leather knapsack that he bought from an old leathershop on the dusty streets of Athens during his European excursions.
The old man had not been heard from for more than a week, and the inquiring neighbors were saddened to enter his home and find him in his final resting place—his favorite recliner in the small front room of his ramshackle house. His cup was still half-filled with the Dining Car Coffee he relished throughout his years working on the Frisco railroad. Now, only his possessions remained to tell his life’s story.
The notion of memento mori, to me, does not have to be limited to death; the sentiment of loss can also be tied to a loved one who has moved on. Another still life of mine attempts to relay that story:
And here is my story:
The young man was up late again, bedding down in the store room of the old filling station. He had closed the place at dark, but was too engrossed in his college studies to pack up the books and head for his garage apartment in the next county. So, with the owner’s permission, he would spend another night in this shack, amidst the smells of gasoline, oil, pit grease and the grime that had built up over two generations. The Texaco station was anchored on historic Route 66 in an obscure town east of Amarillo, Texas. Interstate commerce had all but obliterated the sleepy town, and as soon as this fellow graduated from the community college, he would depart as well. The local townspeople and patrons had no knowledge or regard for the things that stirred the soul of this young man. His volumes of Thoreau, Frost, Whitman and Twain had opened to him worlds beyond this community. And his few camping possessions stored in this room (Griswold frying pan, stove top percolator, kerosene lantern, Maxwell House tin) were the tether that kept him bound to the wild. He would be packing up his gear in a week and leaving without notice. It was time to emerge from this cocoon and embrace the world that was calling out to him.
This day, though not yet half-over, has seemed to be filled with gods. The quiet time and space for reading, reflecting, writing and making art has been a soothing balm for my own weary soul. This Gift has been easy to embrace.
Thank you for reading.
I paint in order to remember.
I journal when I feel alone.
I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.