Archive for October, 2013

Rolling a Rock up the Hill?

October 24, 2013
Fly Fishing at Beavers Bend

Fly Fishing at Beavers Bend

I am rolling a rock uphill, Zola!  And either I keep on rolling it forever or I let it roll back on me and crush me.  But the thing that keeps me going is the hope, the belief that one day I will pick up the boulder with my hands and hurl it to the stars.

Paul Cezanne

I regret the lengthy hiatus between my recent posts.  There have been too many details recently chewing out large chunks of my weekdays and weekends.  It has been difficult even to find time for quality sleep.  High school and university classes, studio time and weekend art festivals are all demanding attention.  I am never caught up.

Recently I have been re-watching The Impressionists, a BBC presentation that always fills me with inspiration. We are using the film in my Advanced Placement Art History class as a springboard for studying and writing about nineteenth-century French painting.   In a moving moment, the troubled Paul Cezanne pours out his heart to friend and novelist Emile Zola that he feels he is Sisyphus condemned to rolling a rock up the hill, only to have it return to earth, crushing him beneath its oppression.  I am moved by that sentiment, though I don’t regard my life as hopelessly chained to a task, long on toil and short on reward.  Rather, I acknowledge myself as one who pursues (perhaps?) too many interests.  I love scholarship, teaching, studying art, making art, and the business of marketing my art.  But I’m aware that people my age are expected to be settled, having found their place in the world.  I don’t feel that I have yet found that–I’m still chasing ideas, still filled with enthusiasm and aware that time is running out for me.  Granted I earned my graduate degrees nearly thirty years ago, and discovered my talent for painting even before that.  And I have been standing in front of classrooms for a quarter of a century.  Nevertheless, life is new daily, ideas are always emerging, and I find myself still searching, chasing, wondering.  And the search, particularly now, can wear me down physically.  I’m just grateful at this moment that I am not worn down emotionally.  I still like what I do–I just wish I possessed more energy to do it, and wish that time wasn’t so short.

As I watch the film and read of the historical accounts, I find myself wishing that I could have my own Cafe Gerbois as the French Impressionists did.  What I would give for my own think tank, a forum with kindred spirits, gathered for the daily or weekly task of sorting things out.  That is the one element missing from my life right now–decompression time, quiet time.  Descartes had his stove, Hume had his cottage and Thoreau had his Walden.  I have lacked the time recently to enter that sacred space, that sanctuary, and be still.  At this moment, I would give anything for my quiet alone time, or for time in a cafe with others engaged in the Search.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

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Remembrances of a Gifted Uncle

October 18, 2013
Recent Watercolor Going Public in an Upcoming Festival

Recent Watercolor Going Public in an Upcoming Festival

 

This past weekend, I boarded AMTRAK in Fort Worth and made the sixteen-hour journey to St. Louis to pay tribute to my Uncle Paul who had recently passed away.  He was 91.  His ashes would be interred at the Indian Creek Cemetery in rural Jackson, Missouri.  There was to be a memorial on October 12 at a local funeral home.  My heart was full of memories as I sat in the coach and rolled late into the night.

Uncle Paul was one of thirteen siblings born to tenant farmer parents in southeast Missouri.  Educated in a one-room schoolhouse until he was old enough to work the fields, Paul did the things farm boys did in those days until he entered World War II.  Finishing his service, he chose not to return to his humble southeast Missouri roots, but to move to the West Coast in search of a better life.

Paul landed a position with Greyhound Bus, and stayed with the company twenty-five years, promoting to supervisory status, and choosing to work night shifts so he could have sufficient quiet and space to pursue his real interests—writing and story-telling.

Extending the Mark Twain/Will Rogers tradition, Paul developed a love of humor and stories covering country life.  He carefully researched the history of rural Jackson, Missouri, listened in on the memories of others who grew up there, and carefully committed these stories to print.

Growing up, all I knew was that Uncle Paul was special.  On the rare occasions that he made the excursion from California to Southeast Missouri, all the Tripps would gather to greet him, to sit in the living rooms until late at night, listening to him spinning his humorous tales as he smoked his cigars.  Personally, I felt that I was re-living the days when people gathered to listen to and laugh at the humor of Mark Twain.

By the time I grew into my teens, the Uncle Paul events had graduated from the parlors to weenie roasts along the banks of Indian Creek.  My Uncle Bus and Aunt Bea had a humble house on the banks of the creek, and Paul chose to roost with them every time he came home.  The problem was that Bea and Bus were early risers and preferred to get to bed early.  They became resentful of these all-night parties.  Every year they began to level their protest, but Paul had a tin ear.

I will never forget the time Bea put her foot down and swore there would not be a weenie-roast this time.  “We’re turnin’ in early tonight—no weenie-roast.”  By mid-afternoon, cars began pulling into the driveway.  “Why’s everyone comin’ here?” asked Bea.  “The weenie-roast,” I replied.  “Oh no!  There ain’t no weenie-roast tonight!  I said so.  Where’s Paul?”  “At the store buying hot dogs and buns.”  “No, no!  We’re not havin’ a weenie-roast!”  Children were dragging up driftwood and tree limbs from creekside for the bonfire.  “Stop draggin’ that stuff up here!” shouted Bea.  “There ain’t no weenie-roast tonight!”  Coolers of beer were being hauled out of car trunks.  Folding lawn chairs appeared, arranged in ranks around the pile of timber.  “Get that shit outta here!” shouted Bea.  “There ain’t gonna be no weenie-roast tonight!  Do it somewhere else!  We’re goin’ to bed!”

Paul squirted lighter fluid on the timbers, produced a match, and the blaze went up.  Bea yawned.  Bus mumbled that it was getting dark and time for bed.  People dragged up chairs.  Children cut tree limbs to support weenies for the roast.  The guitars came out.  Music filled the air.  The weenie roast was on.  And soon Paul would be holding court.

Around 2:00 in the morning, all grew quiet.  Paul was out of stories.  People were dozing in their lawn chairs, having pulled blankets and sleeping bags over them.  The guitars had stopped.  Scattered, intermittent conversations were still ongoing.  At one point, Paul turned to me.  I was seventeen and in awe of him.  “You have a good vocabulary,” he observed.  I was startled.  “You should write.  There aren’t enough people writing these days.  People want stories.  You can provide them.  You have a good vocabulary.  You should write.”

Drawing out his wallet, Paul removed a folded piece of paper.  That strange lighter-fluid smell emanated from the paper as he unfolded the “Xerox copy” (remember how those smelled in the mid-1970s?) of a check in the amount of $75 he had been paid by a West-Coast magazine for one of his stories.  “There’s money in this,” Paul mumbled, “but you’re too good to write this kind of stuff.”  Looking up from the check, I could not hold back my astonishment: “Seventy-five dollars for a funny story?”  “No. A scrounge story.  I wrote this one night in the office while on shift at Greyhound.”

I knew Paul was full of stories.  I knew he had the gift to deliver humor before a live audience.  What I didn’t know was that Paul wrote stories for porno magazines and collected good sums of money over the years.  “You don’t need that,” he advised me, “You have much more going for you.  You should write, and write about things that matter.”

That night beside the fire turned out to be a teachable moment for me.  Forty-three years later, I thought about that intimate conversation late at night as I rode back to Texas on AMTRAK.  Relatives that took Paul with a grain of salt remarked that he was only about himself, his stories, his need for an audience, his practice of holding court.  But I remember the night that Paul turned his attention on me for a few minutes and delivered a life-transforming Word, an Oracle.  Paul, I never forgot that moment.  Thank you for your compliment, for your encouragement.  I love to write.  I have found ways to weave this passion into my teaching profession, am proud to have been published a few times, still enjoy keeping an old-fashioned journal and now love to weave words and put them on a blog.  And I am  grateful to have readers.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

White Owls

October 14, 2013
Evening Watercolor Sketch of White Owls

Evening Watercolor Sketch of White Owls

“Dad, why do we always go to the Mississippi River to fish all night?”  We were seated in the backyard of my parents’ home, enjoying a cool summer evening.  My son was about twelve years old, had not lived with me since his mother and I separated when he was young, but an essential part of our visitation was an annual summer camp-out on the Mississippi River dike near Neely’s Landing in southeast Missouri.  Three generations—my father, myself and my son—made the journey and stayed out all night on the dike, fishing for catfish, alligator gar, sturgeon, buffalo, carp—anything that would bite on minnows or nightcrawlers.  I wasn’t sure how to answer the question, but took this approach: “Well, I guess I still consider fishing with Dad a key part of my rite of passage.”

“What’s a ‘rite of passage’?”

“That’s the transitional moment when the boy becomes the man.”

“I don’t get it.”

I looked behind me at the half-open kitchen door, checking to make sure we were not being monitored by my parents.  I had to reach far back into my childhood memories to pull out the thread that I wanted to explain carefully to my inquisitive son.

My own father never talked much.  A decorated combat veteran from the Korean War, he chose not to talk about what happened that night in 1952 on Hill 191.  We knew only that it was unspeakable, and for that he was decorated with the Bronze Star.  Getting married, raising a family and working as an auto mechanic left him weary in the evenings, and he was content to be left alone with his evening paper and the television while we did things that small children do.  By the time I was twelve, he began taking me fishing, and his profound love for that activity resonated profoundly with me.  I don’t know how much of it was the outdoors, or how much of it was the reality of being invited to spend quality time with my dad—I just know that fishing Indian Creek in southeast Missouri where my father grew up was an important part of my own growing up.

On one particular excursion, Dad had chosen not to fish, but to smoke his White Owl cigars and meander up and down the creek banks while I fished the holes for bass and bluegill.  I was using a Lazy Ike, and on one particular cast, put it too far over the hole, where it landed in a tangle of weeks and tree roots on the opposite bank.

“Dad, I’m hung up.”

“Wade out there and get it loose.”

“I can’t go out there.” (I was worried that there might be snakes in the water.)

“You know why?  Because you’ve been petted all your life.”

Those words stung me.  Enraged me.  My father never spoke much.  But on this day he did.  So that was what my silent Father thought of me!  A sissy.  A momma’s boy.  Petted all my life.  I threw down my rod, waded the creek up to my armpits, untangled the lure and returned to fishing.  And stewed.  “You know why?  Because you’ve been petted all your life.”

The next day I still wasn’t over that stinging rebuke, though nothing further had been said between us.  I approached my dad as he sat in the living room, while all the other in-laws chatted about nothing worth remembering.  But he was sitting there silently.  My father never spoke much.

“Dad, I want to go fishing this afternoon.”

“I don’t feel like it.”

“But I want to go, alone.”

“You’re old enough.”

“There are snakes.  I should take the .22.”

“You know how to use it.”

“I might stay until dark.”

“Be careful.”

I gathered up the fishing tackle, the Mossberg .22 bolt-action rifle, and borrowed cash from my mom.  Then I set out on the three-mile trek to Indian Creek, stopping first at Marlin’s store, an old-fashioned country store at a bend in the county road.

Walking into the store, I leaned my rifle against a wooden bench and approached the counter.  I was going to need food and provisions for this day-long rite of passage.

“Five pieces of bubble gum, a Royal Crown soda, two Pay Days, and a Slim Jim.”

“Will that be all?”

Looking up to the top of the shelves behind the clerk, I pointed to the stacked boxes of cartridges.

“And a box of .22 long rifle shells.”

The clerk reached up and took down a box of cartridges, setting them down next to the candy and soda.

“Anything else?”

Looking beneath the glass at the tobacco section, I added:

“And a couple of White Owls.”

The clerk set the two cigars down before my delighted gaze and asked if there would be anything else.

That afternoon, I ate my provisions, smoked my cigars, fired my rifle at phantom snakes in the weeds, and fished.  And felt large, that the twelve-year-old had become a man.

As I finished relaying this rite of passage story to my son, I turned and noticed a movement beyond the kitchen door behind us.  Someone had been listening.  My dad wouldn’t do that, but Mom probably would. And if she heard, there is a good possibility she would pass it on to Dad.  But he would not be the type to say anything about it.  Dad never talked much.

Four o’clock came early the next morning.  Bleary-eyed and silent, the three of us loaded the Chevy pickup and piled into the cab.  It was still dark, and we had a two-and-a-half-hour drive before us.  Stopping at a convenience store to gas up, my dad and son got out.  I knew my son would want to go inside for soft drinks, candy, etc., and Dad would be filling the tank and then going in for coffee.  I chose to stay in the cab and doze.  A few moments later, I was startled awake by the thump of a package tossed through the open truck window, landing in my lap.  A package of White Owls.

Dad never talked much.

Anxieties of Abstraction

October 13, 2013
My First Non-Representational Painting, Acrylic on Canvas, 1970

My First Non-Representational Painting, Acrylic on Canvas, 1970

Abstraction’s original meaning is “to select from,” in the Latin; though I will not say, as is so easy for defenders of abstract art, that consequently all art is abstract because all art is selected; this is simply to win a dialectical point–in the Socratic sense of dialectical.  Au contraire.  What is selected is selected on the basis of the most concrete, personal feeling.

Robert Motherwell, Lecture, 1959

Ability to copy lines, shapes, tones, amounts to little.  Ability to correlate lines, shapes, tones, is the rare and necessary quality of hte artist.  All good art is composition.

Robert Henri, The Art Spirit

In the next day or two, I will be positing at least two drafts that I have been composing for several days now.  There has been plenty on my mind that I have wanted to publish.  Pictured above is the first non-objective painting I ever attempted.  I was in the eleventh grade, and highly resentful toward my Art III teacher who was requiring a non-representational work of art from each of his advanced students.  I was resistant, and it led to hurt feelings on both sides.  I submitted this piece, and subsequently won first place in the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation Exhibition.  I had no idea then if I actually had a superior work of art, and still do not know today.   But I have kept the work for the memory and the appreciation that I was pushed into unfamiliar waters.

Teaching Advanced Placement Art History, I keep looking for ways to make my students conversant with abstract art so that they can discuss and write essays evaluating that kind of art.  Last week, I was delighted at the response I received from one of my students when I asked them to define abstraction, without consulting a dictionary or computer.  This is what she wrote:

Abstraction is simplifying an object to its most essential and necessary forms.

Thanks for reading.  I’ll be posting soon.

Art Festivals, Graded Papers, and a Search for the Balance of Idea and Image

October 4, 2013
8 x 10" watercolor created during a festival

8 x 10″ watercolor created during a festival

As soon as we have the thing before

            our eyes, and in our hearts an ear

            for the word, thinking prospers.

Martin Heidegger, “The Thinker as Poet”

The artist is the origin of the work.   The work is the origin of the artist.  Neither is without the other.  Nevertheless, neither is the sole support of the other.  In themselves and in their interrelations artist and work are each of them by virtue of a third thing which is prior to both, namely that which also gives artist and work of art their names—art.

Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art”

Again, a lengthy hiatus has inserted itself between my blog posts.  I participated in a three-day art festival last weekend where there was no wi-fii available for posting on the blog, and the twelve-hour days left me wasted each night–too wasted to write and post to the blog.  I lost plenty of sleep, though the festival was a success.  And then . . . I was greeted by a week where the public school was ending its six-week grading session and the university was entering its first cycle of unit exams.  So, I was covered up by educational “wing-nut” details all week.  Now, with the weekend drawing near, my grading is (nearly) caught up and I have some leisure creative time.

I am drinking deeply from the Heidegger springs today.  I will be facing three consecutive weekends of art festivals and will find it difficult to paint (the art “business” certainly disrupts the art “making”) and perhaps even difficult to think, read and journal.  But I’ll work my hardest to preserve the balance, because these are the areas where I truly live.  The best part of my creative life flourishes when I am able to move back and forth between literature and art, between ideas and images, between writing and painting.  Both of these realms feed off of each other, and when both are nurtured, my personal life is at its best.  A real eudaimonia pulsates, and I am truly at my happiest.  This past week, it has been difficult recovering this.

At the time of this posting, I am about halfway through The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams.  I also find myself wishing I could have been part of that physician’s circle.  He was always finding his inspiration from daily encounters, and from the world of art: “What were we seeking?  No one knew consistently enough to formulate a ‘movement.’  We were restless and constrained, closely allied with the painters.  Impressionism, dadaism, surrealism applied to both painting and the poem.”  Today I find myself moved by my visual encounters of daily life and by the printed word.  I have wished for years that I could be part of a “circle” of creative spirits that fed off of ideas as well as images, literature as well as other paintings.  So far, it hasn’t happened.

One reason I draw so much inspiration from the work of Corey Aber (http://coreyaber.wordpress.com/) is because I see in him that perfect contemporary blend of literature and art.  He is both an accomplished writer and painter, never satisfied with where he is, but always learning new things, always exploring new vistas, and exuding a felicity of life fed by these impulses.  I wish he lived in my neighborhood, but I’m grateful through the blog to be connected to his quest.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I  blog to remind myself that I am not alone.