Working on a Second Tower 55 Watercolor

12 x 16 watercolor in progress

With some luck, I should be finishing this watercolor before the day is through. I wanted to have it in time to share as part of my “Hank” series in Palestine when the Dogwood Festival opens. Below is the story I’ve been working on to give it a narrative.

Squealing brakes accompanied by the thundering slam of freight car couplings in the Union Pacific railyard in Fort Worth, Texas hindered Hank from sleeping soundly in the small hotel on the south side of downtown. Wiping sleep from his travel-weary eyes, he sat on the edge of his bed and looked out the second-story window of his room. February. A layer of fresh snow blanketed the parking lot, and as he gazed across the cool blue shadows from his bed, Hank once again felt that old familiar Odysseus-fueled sentiment to wander. Pulling his tattered copy of Kerouac’s On the Road from the backpack, Hank looked up the passage where Sal awoke in the Chicago railroad flophouse, wondering for the moment who he was. Smiling as he stuffed the book back into his bag, Hank reaffirmed that he knew perfectly well who he was—Hank, the wandering mendicant, exploring the world and learning its secrets.

Dawn was just breaking, and in the dim light outside, Hank was confident he could prowl undetected through the busy railyard in search of a slow-moving freight to hop near the interlocker of Tower 55. Just south of the three-story Tower, a long freight of boxcars was crawling slowly southward. Mesmerized by the slow parade, he recalled one of his favorite passages from Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl”.

who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,
who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night,

A closer scrutiny revealed no open boxcar doors as the train slowly gathered momentum. As Hank continued to watch, he came to the realization that rail travel was not for him. Though he enjoyed the romantic stories from On the Road, hopping a freight seemed too dangerous. Leaving the railyards, he spied the lighted sign of a Rexall Drugs and decided to go inside to look for a road atlas of Texas. Finding a Rand McNally, he paid the cashier and walked out.

Further down the street was a diner, more accurately a greasy spoon. Seeking warmth inside, Hank soon found himself sipping hot coffee from a heavy stained and cracked diner mug. Unfolding his map, he spread it across the table and squinted at it while enjoying the aromas wafting from the kitchen—fried eggs, hashbrowns, sausages, bacon, the steam of coffee. Hank wanted to head south across the state, having already visited the west. But none of the towns along the sprawling highway routes captured his fancy. Turning his attention to railroad routes, he traced southward from Fort Worth’s Tower 55. Palestine appeared to feature a large railyard. It was settled. Hank would set his sights on Palestine. Leaving the diner, Hank ventured in a southeasterly direction, seeking out Highway 287. Surely a motorist would soon pick up a hitchhiker who had just exited a hotel, showered, groomed, and dressed cleanly.

Hours later, Hank emerged from a 4-door Plymouth filled with a happy family with three chatty children. The Palestine railyards lay just south of Spring Street, and Hank looked up and down the tracks, glad he had decided against hopping a freight. To the north, he saw a five-story vintage hotel and decided to walk in that direction. The Redlands Hotel, established in 1915, was a stately structure, anchoring the west end of the city adjacent to the majestic Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Entering the hotel from the west portal, Hank was impressed to see a restored lobby reminiscent of the glory days of railroad commerce. To his left was a lovely restaurant with linen tablecloths glowing in the dimly lit interior. On his right was a small art gallery and AM radio station with a live broadcast.

Pushing on ahead through the lobby, Hank found the office at the far end and decided to inquire about a vacancy. Jeanene, the red-haired proprietor of the hotel, greeted him warmly and told him the hotel featured twenty suites, each in their original apartment layout featuring kitchen, bedroom, living area and bathroom. Smiling, Hank decided to rent for a week. Room 207 was clean and well-lighted, the kitchenette featuring a small round table next to windows looking down upon the handsome Carnegie Library across the street north of the hotel. Breathing deeply, Hank wondered what it could be like to live here for a spell.

Descending the stairs into the main lobby, Hank spotted the radio disc jockey seated in a wingback chair outside the restaurant, sipping coffee and smoking a cigarette. He had just completed his morning show. Carl Harris had been working at KXOK radio since the early 60’s playing top 40 tunes and inserting the occasional news and weather updates.

“So, you look like a well-traveled man. What brings you to Palestine?

“Just a whim. I was in Fort Worth yesterday looking to hop a freight but decided not to risk it.  Assuming Palestine to be a railroad town, I decided to hitchhike down here to see what you have.”

“Can’t say much for the town. It’s alright, I guess. But if it weren’t for the job, I’m not sure I’d stay.”

“How long have you been in radio?”

“Twelve years. By now I’d hoped to be in a bigger city, like Houston or Dallas. Always wanted to travel instead of staying in my hometown. But it’s a good gig. I love music, play guitar, write songs. The job supports my habit. Frankly, I don’t know how much time we still have here. Our rival station KMOX in the next county represents the new wave. I come from the old school of radio rockers, not this new breed of radio talkers. But I guess that is another story. So. What do you do, besides travel?”

“Can’t say for sure. A couple of years ago, I decided I didn’t want to stay in my hometown any longer. So I’ve been on the road, meeting people, seeing different places. Still trying to figure out what to do with my life.”

“You need a job? This art gallery is brand new and they can’t seem to find anyone willing to work for minimum wage. The main artist is from out of town and isn’t here enough to keep it going as it should.”

“I could be interested. Who do I see about the job?”

“Jeanene, in the office. She’ll set you up, I’m sure.”

Now the sun was going down, and the studio was filling with shadows, imparting a feeling of overpowering melancholy to the end of the day. When the light filtered away like this after a bout of fruitless labour it felt as if the sun had disappeared for ever and taken with it all the life and gaiety and harmony of colours.

Emile Zola, The Masterpiece

Hank closed the book with a bottomless sigh and turned out the lights. The day had been long and uneventful, like most recent days, and reading the novel from Zola left him feeling as lost and empty as Cezanne must have been when he struggled to find his way in the painting enterprise. Emptying his glass with the last swallow of sangria, Hank laid back on his bed, closed his eyes and waited for sleep.

Morning. With eyes remaining closed, Hank listened. Mockingbirds conversed outside his open window of the Redlands Hotel. Somewhere nearby a radio was playing. He recognized the voice of Carl on KXOK, his energized voice of the morning show using every trick to capture attention from listeners driving to work. Hank opened his eyes slowly and focused. The alarm clock showed 7:15. Stickiness from the sangria of last night lay foul on his tongue. Stale cigar smoke lingered. The only element offering good will this morning was the clear light of a winter sunrise filtering through the light curtains, exposing myriads of floating dust particles drifting above the foot of his narrow bed.

Hank had slept with his clothes on, again. Rising and shuffling into the small kitchenette, he opened the squeaking cabinet above the sink, pulled down the Eight O’Clock Bean Coffee bag, measured coffee into the basket and poured water into the percolator. Soon the kitchen was filled with his favorite morning aroma. Looking out the window as the coffee percolated, his eyes rested again on the magnificent structure of the Carnegie Library. He needed to pay the place a visit. All he had read for the past six months was the same old books he had brought along in his backpack.

Stepping onto the second-story balcony of the hotel with his mug of coffee, Hank settled into one of the chairs and gazed across Spring Street into the railyard. He had been working downstairs in the art gallery for a little over two weeks now and was beginning to feel settled into this town. He was also beginning to wonder if he could make art worthy of the gallery he sat in each day. If he was to submit his art, it would have to be very soon. February was drawing near its close, and the city’s annual Dogwood Festival would begin in just a few weeks. Artists from around the county would be setting up tents in the street and displaying their work for sale. Hank hoped by then that he would be able to exhibit out of the gallery. Drawing his coat more tightly around his neck, he savored the warmth of the coffee and allowed his mind to drift back to his ninth-grade artistic beginnings.

High School had been a new and daunting world for Hank. He found himself in a different building, four miles from his Turvey’s Corner home. His first class on that first day was Art I. Having won first-place art honors at his junior high awards assembly the year before, he thought he was going to step into a classroom, bearing an aura of respect and admiration. What he found instead was a room filled with juniors and seniors. At the end of his table sat varsity tackle Joe Bennett with his 240 pounds, full red beard, and letter jacket. Senior girls already looking like suburban women with eye shadow and lip gloss chatted nervously in his orbit. Hippies with T-shirts and shoulder-length hair, American flags sewed to the backs of their denim jackets, sulked in their chairs, dark and glum, their clothes reeking of stale cigarette smoke. Hank felt diminutive. Mr. Scucchi entered the room, looking dapper in his tweed sport jacket with patched elbows, his shirt open at the collar. Addressing the class, he spoke in a vocabulary Hank recognized as charged with art speak, little of which he understood. Hank felt himself shrinking with every word.

On the third week of school something happened. Apparently, Mr. Scucchi had been looking at Hank’s daily work. Now, looking over Hank’s shoulder this Wednesday morning while he sketched the still life arrangement in the center of the classroom, the teacher asked, “Didn’t you win the art award at North Jefferson last year?” Hank looked up from his work and only nodded, too intimidated to speak up, and embarrassed, sensing the entire class suddenly looking up and focusing on him with interested curiosity. The teacher, saying nothing, moved on to the next student. “And what exactly are you trying to do with this?”

The following day Hank continued, bent over his work, unaware that Mr. Scucchi had walked up silently behind him again. Reaching over him, the teacher laid a coffee-table sized book on top of Hank’s drawing. In giant letters, the title read ANDREW WYETH. “I think you should look at this.”

Opening the enormous volume gingerly as though it were a museum archive piece, Hank’s eyes widened at what he saw. Page after page revealed drybrush watercolors in sepia tones of ramshackle farmhouses, barns, and outbuildings, all of them looking like his grandparents’ farm in southeast Missouri. Hank’s artistic vision, already keen at this tender age, still lacked the vocabulary to give it definition. He already had vision but lacked articulation. School had never interested him. He had read very little and listened to his teachers even less. His parents had grown up as children of tenant farmers with little schooling in one-room schoolhouses. Thus, they read little and spoke less.  Hank could not voice what it was exactly that he saw that could be called “beautiful.” What was beautiful about decrepit buildings? Where was the artistic aura in poverty? Why was Andrew Wyeth famous for painting such drab subjects? And why could Hank not stop gazing at and admiring these paintings? The artwork rang with authenticity, triggering the deep-seated emotions Hank always felt when visiting his grandparents’ farm.

As high school unfolded in the following years, Hank continued to take art, the only subject where he could thrive, relying on his talent, his eye, but taking almost no interest in theory. During his sophomore year, he visited his grandparents’ farm repeatedly, making copious drawings in his sketchbook of his grandpa’s shack. His second and third-year art teacher, Mr. Hoeh, took an interest in the drawings and encouraged him to study the shack drawings more closely. Mr. Hoeh believed they could yield quality watercolors.

Hank’s second great awakening occurred during his senior year while competing at an art show in a St. Louis shopping center. The competition categories were for student and professional. Hank by this time had grown accustomed to winning awards in student categories, and this show would be no different. What was different was the sight of a high school senior, two spaces down from Hank, competing in the professional category. And winning.

This high school senior, known only as Brad, worked in the J. C. Penney department store in the shopping center. He was not even with his display when the Best of Show ribbon was awarded him; he had to go work inside the store. With his absence, Hank lingered a long time and looked at his work—Andrew Wyeth-inspired dry brush paintings of those same subjects—farmhouses and barns and busted-down fencing. Nearly devoid of color—sepias, umbers, ochres, and warm grays. Plenty of spattering and wet-on-wet bleeding. The peripheries of each composition were left undefined, fading into the white halo of paper. To Hank’s eyes, each watercolor was exquisite, the touch of a master. But Hank still wondered, how on earth could one describe such decrepit subject matter as “beautiful”?

As he continued to drift slowly through the professional displays, Hank found an elderly gentleman in bowtie and beret seated on a stool, bent over a watercolor in progress. His body of work was also remarkable, taking second place. All watercolors. Classic landscapes charged with vibrant color. The old man Hank found to be quite approachable, so he laid aside his shyness, and asked the big questions.

“I never saw watercolor in tubes before, only in paint pans. I thought only oils and acrylics came in tubes. What brand is that?”

“Winsor & Newton, the best in the world, as far as I’m concerned.”

“And what kind of tablet is that? It looks like a sketchbook, but the paper is sealed all the way around.”

“Again, the best paper in the world—D’Arches. This is called a watercolor block. They’re costly, but worth every penny. They keep the paper from buckling while wet.”

“But your paper is wet now. And buckled.”

“While wet, yes. But as it dries, it shrinks, and when totally dry it will be flat as a board again. There is no worse presentation than a warpy watercolor, buckled within a mat and frame.”

Back at his own display, Hank spent the rest of the day thinking over what the old man had told him, and of the remarkable watercolor work of young Brad. When the festival ended and Hank had nearly packed all his gear, he looked up to see the old watercolorist standing before him with extended hand. Eagerly, Hank shook the old friend’s hand, thanking him for patiently answering all his questions. Smiling, the man said, “Just call me Herb. I hope to see you again soon, at another festival. Until then . . .” In his other hand was a leather wallet folded over three times with a thong tied around it. He was handing it to Hank. “Open it,” he said. Frank untied the thong and unfolded the wallet. A used set of watercolor pans was tucked inside. “Winsor & Newton,” Herb smiled. “Best in the world. Practice every day. You’ll get there.” Smiling, he turned and walked away.

Breakfast finished, Hank descended the hotel stairs to the ground floor and entered The Gallery at Redlands. Looking out the window at the Union Pacific railyards across Spring Street, he recalled the early morning in Fort Worth as he stood in the fog watching the trains emerge from the gloom, roaring and expelling exhaust that mingled with the fog. It brought to mind his sojourn in Utah a month ago when he stood gazing at the herd of bison on the ranch. The bison also moved in and out of a mist from the mountains, a mist that mingled with the dust they kicked up from the dirt, and the exhalation of hot breath into the cold atmosphere. Bison and mist.  Diesels and mist. New images were beginning to form in his mind.

Walking to his desk, Hank sat and quickly sketched on his watercolor pad a gathering of bison as he recalled the way they looked on that particular day.

Leaning back from his work, Hank liked what he saw. Now it was time to turn his attention back to what he saw early one morning in Fort Worth as he contemplated journeying to Palestine.

_________________________________________

More later. Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

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