snow in the san gabriels

 

SanGabriels

Snow in the San Gabriel Mountains. Robin L. Chandler, 2019. Pastel sketch.

A week ago the dangers of fire season loomed in California; but this week an atmospheric river flows across the Pacific bringing rain and snow across the land from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The change has been radical and sudden, and we are grateful for the rainy weather. During the Thanksgiving weekend, snow blanketed the San Gabriel Mountains. At sunset, we walked in the Huntington Library Gardens and gazed at the twilight storm clouds glowing orange with purple shadows, seeming to feast upon the mountains. Gorgeous. Sublime. We gave thanks for this moment of beauty.

Moments before in the gallery, our eyes had feasted upon the exhibit John Ruskin and His “Frenemies:” Prints and Drawings from the Huntington’s Collection,” featuring works on paper by John Ruskin and his friends and colleagues including J.M.W. Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites and his enemies such as John Constable and James McNeil Whistler. “As much as he praised artists whose style, technique, or subject matter aligned with his own approach, he could be strongly critical of others.” Inspired by these works, I began sketching in an attempt to capture the evolving sublime scene of the mountains and sky above me. Ruskin believed that the principal role of the artist is “truth to nature” and he wrote about the challenges of working plein air:

“The clouds will not wait while we copy their heaps or clefts; the shadows will escape us as we try to shape them…in all that we do now, therefore, direct imitation becomes more or less impossible…whatever skill you may reach, there will always be need of judgment to choose, and of speed to seize certain things that are principal…”[1]

In this time of climate change we find graceful transitions vanish and blunt onsets prevail. Last week it was dry, and the threat of fire loomed. This week it is wet, and we are battered by wind, flood, ice, and snow. Our civilization believes it can conquer and control nature and in our acts of hubris, we have pushed nature to extremes. Writing about two great painters, Giorgione and J.M.W. Turner, Ruskin compared the civilizations in which they lived. The architecture of the Venetian Republic impacted Giorgione greatly; he “saw only strength and immortality, could not but paint both; conceived the form of man as deathless, calm with power, and fiery with life.”[2] And Turner, living in Victorian England saw the exact reverse of this “in the present work of men, meanness, aimlessess, unsightliness: thin-walled, lath-divided, narrow-garreted houses of clay; booths of a darksome Vanity Fair, busily base…as to the strength of men to Giorgione, to Turner their weakness and vileness were alone visible…[Turner] must be a painter of the strength of nature; there was no beauty elsewhere…he must also paint the labour and sorrow and passing away of men; this was the great human truth visible to him.”[3]

[1] Ruskin, John. The Elements of Drawing. Aquitaine Media, 2010. p.92

[2] Ruskin, John. Unto This Last and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 1997. p.151

[3] Ruskin, John. Unto This Last and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 1997. p.151

waiting for a train

waiting4atrain

Watercolor sketch from memory. Robin L. Chander, 2019.

My uptown train pulled into the 77th Street Station oh so briefly. This speeding apparatus is hurtling me towards an exhibit by the Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a member of Die Brucke, known for paintings of city streets in high-key colors and rough exaggerated lines. So my mind’s eye is primed for heightened awareness. I glance up from my book as the light changes from dark tunnel to bright station and see a Tex-Mex band across the tracks. A human jukebox of sorts, I recall an old Jimmie Rodgers’ tune and start to sing quietly “though my pocketbook is empty and my heart is full of pain. I’m a thousand miles away from home, just waiting for a train.” Fragments overlaying fragments of sound and light and color and text, making new connections and associations, looking, listening and learning; a collage of the mind.

New York City, The City That Never Sleeps, always delights and surprises. Around every corner waits a story to be told which is why I love it. Who are those musicians…a professional band? Where will the green-line train take them? Flatbush? Why this day and why mid-morning…a job…a festival? Are they playing for a gig celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month? I have a million questions to ask these troubadours to learn from their life experience. They bring me a story, a story I want to get off the subway and ask them about, hear their words and hear their song, but the train hurtling through space, travels onward. Content must I be with another special glimpse of New York on a subway platform. In his essay The Storyteller Walter Benjamin wrote “…experience has fallen in value…when someone goes on a trip, he has something to tell …every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories…the value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time…it resembles the seeds of grain which have lain for centuries in the chambers of the pyramids shut up air-tight and have retained their germinative power to this day.”

let’s go back to the drawing board…and save the future

drawingboard

Back to the Drawing Board. Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

Last Friday September 18, 2019, young people on every continent took to the streets, a student global strike protesting climate change, marching with signs reading “Save Nature, Save Earth, Save Future” and “Plastic Waste is an Economic Flaw” and chanting “You had a future and so should we…[and] we vote next.”[1]

Only the day before Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed the House of Representatives Joint Committee to submit the landmark IPCC report[2] (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). “I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists,” Thunberg told the US lawmakers. “I want you to unite behind the science and I want you to take real action.” [3]

Afterwards, Thunberg addressed supporters in the grand committee room stating

“the USA is the biggest carbon polluter in history,” she told the audience. “It is also the world’s number one producer of oil. It is also the only nation to signal its intention to leave the Paris climate agreement because it was ‘a bad deal’.”

Speaking softly, she modulated her voice slightly to make clear she was quoting, disapprovingly, [President]Trump with the words “a bad deal”.

Thunberg invoked Martin Luther King’s struggle for civil rights and John F Kennedy’s goals that included landing a man on the moon – “not because they are easy, but because they are hard”, – to plead with Washington to lead in the fight, even if it seems impossible. “Giving up can never be an option,” she said.

Talking about her new book On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal [4] Naomi Klein quoted Greta Thunberg “We cannot solve an emergency without treating it like an emergency.” We have to “act as if the house is on fire, because it is.” “That does not mean we simply need a New Deal painted green, or a Marshall Plan with solar panels. We need changes of a different quality and character. A new vision of what humanity can be is emerging. It is coming from the streets, from the schools, from workplaces, and even from inside houses of government. When the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve.”[5]

If the sound of a Shofar can be heard during WWII at Auschwitz, then surely each of us can act to preserve our world and what we cherish, and become a mensch…worthy of the humanity in the phrase ‘human being”.[6]

Update: On Monday 9/23/19, Greta Thunberg addressed the delegates at the United Nations “you have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words…the eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line.”

Afterwards Greta Thunberg stared down President Trump as he entered the United Nations (UN) building to attend a meeting on religious freedom after he had boycotted the UN climate summit.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/20/climate/global-climate-strike.html

[2] https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/sep/18/greta-thunberg-testimony-congress-climate-change-action

[4] https://www.thenation.com/article/naomi-klein-green-new-deal-book-interview/

[5] https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/09/17/the-green-new-deal-a-fight-for-our-lives/

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/21/arts/auschwitz-shofar.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share

 

Ruach

Mt. Olson (sketch & photograph). Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

We backpacked into Lundy Canyon through the Hoover Wilderness making our way ‘cross a beautiful land whose natural history emerged with every step: granite uplifted and scoured by glaciers leaving tarns and lakes; sleeping cinder cones, and magma flows now still. Bald eagles soar, coyotes howl, and trout leap high all searching for nourishment. Seeking only what they need to live; nothing more, and nothing less. Carrying this heavy pack, on a pilgrimage of sorts, I seek that which will nourish me too. Ruach: Breath. Omoiyari: Compassion. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit.” [1]

Mt. Connesa (sketch and photograph). Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

Along with my tent, sleeping bag, stove, water filter, and food (all to nourish my body), I’ve also packed the book by Yuri Herrera Signs Preceding the End of the World. Soon we will stop for lunch and rest and we will take turns reading this important book beside a lake in this beautiful place at the end of the world we know and the powerful words will resonate and humble us – we, those privileged (and blessed) to have what we need to live:

“first there was nothing…nothing but a frayed strip of cement over the white earth. Then she made out two mountains colliding in the back of beyond: like they’d come from who knows where and were headed to anyone’s guess but had come together at that intense point in the nothingness and insisted on crashing noisily against each other, though the oblivious might think they simply stood there in silence…then off in the distance she glimpsed a tree and beneath the tree a pregnant woman. She saw her belly before her legs or her face or her hair and saw she was resting there in the shade of the tree. And she thought, if that was any sort of omen it was a good tone: a country where a woman with child walking through the desert just lies right down to let her baby grow, unconcerned about anything else. But as they approached she discerned the features of this person who was no woman, nor was that belly full with child: it was some poor wretch swollen with putrefaction.”

Omoiyari.[2]

Footnotes:

[1] Zechariah 4:6

[2] Kishi Bashi

Of Towers and Silos

IMG_2588

Tour Barberousse. Robin L. Chandler, 2019

After the Flood, all of Noah’s descendants spoke the same language. And since it was easy for everyone to share their thoughts and ideas because they used the same words, they decided to build a city with a tower that reached to the heavens so they could make a name for themselves and not be scattered throughout the earth. And the Lord came from heaven and inspected the city and the tower and found humans overreaching and thinking far too much of themselves and too little of God. So the Lord acted, confusing human speech so they could no longer understand one another and scattered them all over the earth, leaving behind the Tower of Babel half-built.

While there are great lessons to take from this story about guarding against hubris and arrogance in our individual actions, ironically, it serves as an origin story for the silos in which we now live. Increasingly isolated, we seem unable to communicate with each other; we are fearful, on the defensive, not seeing a human, only seeing the other. And when we do communicate, it is often blunt, harsh, angry and sometimes anonymous protected by walls of technology. Communication has become “H” speech. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers insists that love is stronger than the “H” word even after the October 2018 tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue. In the Southern Poverty Law Center Summer 2019 magazine article Stop ‘H’ Speech, and Let Goodness Prevail, Rabbi Myers writes “we all want the same things for ourselves and our families…upon closer examination, we are far more alike than different…when we work together, we demonstrate capacity for greatness that would make any generation immensely proud…we need to find ways to continue to focus on the flowers – the good people – and the wondrous, selfless acts that they perform routinely and automatically to improve our society…it must start by choosing our words carefully…I choose to eliminate the “H” word. What do you choose to do?”

letters to Theo from Vincent

Vineyard in Southern France

old vineyard, Southern France. Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

August 1888 

“And in the same way a child in the cradle, if you watch it at leisure, has the infinite in its eyes. In short, I know nothing about it, but it is just this feeling of not knowing that makes the real life we are actually living now like a one-way journey in a train. You go fast, but cannot distinguish any object very close up, and above all you do not see the engine.”

September 1888

“And in a picture I want to say something comforting as music is comforting. I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to confer by the actual radiance and vibration of our colourings.”

“If we study Japanese Art, we see a man who is undoubtedly wise, philo-sophic and intelligent, who spends his time how? In studying the distance between the earth and the moon? No. In studying the policy of Bismarck? No. He studies a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw every plant and then the seasons, the wide aspects of the countryside, then animals, then the human figure.”

September 1889

“My dear brother, you know that I came to the South [of France] and threw myself into my work for a thousand reasons. Wishing to see a different light, thinking that to look at nature under a brighter sky might give us a better idea of the Japanese way of feeling and drawing. Wishing also to see this stronger sun, because one feels that without knowing it one could not understand the pictures of Delacroix…”

“What a queer thing touch is, the stroke of the brush.”

“…if you work diligently from nature without saying to yourself beforehand – I want to do this or that – if you work as if you were making a pair of shoes, without artistic preoccupations, you will not always do well, but the days you least anticipate it you will find a subject which holds its own with the work of those who have gone before us. You learn to know a country which is fundamentally quite different from its appearance at first sight.”

“…confronted by the difficulties of weather and of changing effects, [ideas] are reduced to being impracticable, and I end by resigning myself and saying that it is the experience and the meager work of every day which alone ripens in the long run and allows one to do things that are more complete and true. Thus slow long work is the only way, and all ambition and resolve to make a good thing of it, false. For you must spoil quite as many canvases when you return to the onslaught every morning as you succeed with.”

Excerpts from The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, edited by Mark Roskill.

legendarium

Middle-earth deluged by Sauron

Middle-earth. Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

Sitting in an Oakland coffee shop, on a gray morning, savoring a cup of coffee…one of life’s precious moments. I am reading, and I am loving this time, when my imagination can soar, inspired by a good book, before I must return to work.

A few weeks ago, I saw Tolkiena film seeking to capture key moments in J.R. R. Tolkien’s life that inspired his epic novels The Lord of the Rings. In his May 2019 New Yorker article, Anthony Lane described Director Dome Karukoski as “determined to map Middle-earth onto the life of its creator. Thus, the club of school comrades foretells the brotherhood of Frodo and his fellow-hobbits; flamethrowers, in the trenches, turn to dragons in Tolkien’s fevered eyes; mustard gas slithers and drifts like the Ringwraiths.” Being a fan of Tolkien’s books, Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, and now intrigued to learn more about Tolkien the author (after seeing the literary bio-picture),  I found Joseph Laconte’s A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War.  Sometimes you can judge a book by its’ cover because I quickly moved from browse to buy inspired by the book’s synopsis: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis enjoyed one of the most consequential friendships of the twentieth century – a friendship that emerged from the suffering and sorrow of the war. Both men fought on the front lines during the First World War…influencing the life of each writer and subsequently shaped the nature and character of their respective towering achievements, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.” Laconte’s book has given me a greater understanding of how a writer can draw upon their deepest experiences to produce works of art inspiring audiences to reflect upon humanity’s greatest strengths and most egregious tragedies.

 Although the Great War ended over a century ago, some of us continue to live on in its’ shadow. Most Americans paid scant attention to Europe’s 100thyear commemoration of the end of the Great War’s on November 11, 2019, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The names of battles (Ypres, Somme and Verdun) mean little to many. But millions of humans perished in the Great War and the Belgian and French countryside was so drastically decimated and scarred that the landscape quickly became a known as “no man’s land.” Western Leaders in the years leading up to WWI ascribed to the Myth of Progress believing in the benefits of technology and that ever greater days lay ahead. “Railway engines, steam engines, blast furnaces, textile plants, coal and iron mines were turning nature into the handmaiden of humanity…technology was improving life for ordinary people.” Tolkien’s “love of the English countryside, his attachment to nature, rebelled against the chaotic industrialization of his day…the over reliance on technology, ‘the Machine,’ as a step towards dominating others.” Tolkien believed “the act of bulldozing the real world involves coercing other wills.” World War I was chaotic industrialization for Tolkien, and he wrote novels cherishing nature and the human spirit’s ability to rise above the tragedy of misguided industrialization.