April is the cruellest month

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Social distancing. Robin L. Chandler, April 2020.

In a recent UC Berkeley Arts & Ideas panel discussion called Literature and Art in Times of Crisis, the brilliant art historian Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby discussed how the great paintings establish a connection when “dissonance, discrepancy and distance separate us” by bridging “isolation, economic inequalities, and racial hierarchies.” Grigsby opened my mind by describing how the act of painting – optical rendering – evokes our empathies by creating intimacy and a sense of touch, when facing the abyss of space and time.

For the last several weeks, I have been sketching (and painting) my life during the Coronavirus. Sheltering in place since March 17th, I have sketched my interior and exterior life… my home and garden, my housebound companions, and socially distanced street life, captured when walking my neighborhood and waiting in-line at the grocery store. Sketching keeps me grounded in the here and now and keeps the deathly shadows at bay. It prevents my mind from wandering and mourning the past, an act that quickly becomes fear of a lost future. By sketching I remain connected to the present world, building intimacy when masks all but cloak our humanity. In this momentary limbo, we all grieve for our time we have lost, but must never give up hope of finding our time again.

Thank you T. S. Elliot for the loan of your first line from The Waste Land.

when lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d

Dad

My Dad. Robin L. Chandler, 2020.

On Sunday my Dad, Kenneth Hinds Chandler, passed away, and today I honor my “centurion:” a life that spanned our American Century. In addition to being a loving husband, father, brother, uncle, grandfather, great-grandfather, and friend to the many that loved him, he was a farmer, soldier, administrator, fisherman, hiker, artist and avid reader of history.

When I was six we began tramping together, sharing the spaces and places of American History from New England to Virginia: Plymouth to Williamsburg; Boston Harbor to Yorktown; and Gettysburg to Bull Run. Walking in his footsteps history came alive and helped guide me to my career as an archivist.

So, ‘tis not strange, in this time of sorrow to reach for Walt Whitman and his elegy to President Abraham Lincoln in the Spring of 1865:

 When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,

And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the

night,

I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

 Ever returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,

Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.

 Late Saturday afternoon, walking my neighborhood, and thinking about my Dad, I chanced upon a beautiful lilac bush blooming in the fullness of this Spring. And oh I shall mourn with ever-returning Spring. Farewell Dad. Thank you for bringing me into this world…for taking the risk of having a child…for taking the time to teach me about integrity…for devoting your life to giving me a home where I could grow and learn and dream of the person I would become and the worlds I would explore. You put me on the road of life and set an example for me as I met life’s challenges. Farewell Dad. I love you, until we meet again.

The Thing-As-It-Appears

 

Bison

The Thing. Robin L. Chandler, 2020.

“Artists render things.” In my case, landscapes, cityscapes, human figures, combinations of artifacts, and even toys are rendered on canvas as they appear to me. Selecting a subject to paint calls upon both external and internal factors. Shapes, volumes, colors, and textures engage my senses – establishing my experience of the “thing” – while simultaneously my subjective connections, associations, and memories open a hailing frequency. For children (and grownups) toys (and art) are gateways to worlds we imagine where we are inspired to create a balance between what we observe and what we experience. And so play, and in this case, a painting, begins.

There were twelve toy animals on the table; the one that spoke loudest to me was the Bison. Though only inches in height and width, the expertly modeled Schleich toy called to me. I was captivated by the massive strong body, the tones of sepia, burnt umber, and yellow ochre, and the sense of the thick shaggy fur. Instantly my mind surfaced thoughts of John Muir’s wilderness and my associations with ecologically minded indigenous peoples, capitalist resource exploitation, and land stewardship combined with my memories of hiking and camping. I could easily imagine the cloud of breath released from the Bison’s nostrils on a cold winter Yellowstone morning. The “thing” reached out, grabbed me, and as all good toys do, brought a joyous smile to my face.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed “humans were like citizens of two worlds, occupying both the world of the Ding an sich (the thing-in-itself) which was the external world, and the internal world of one’s perception (how things appeared to individuals).” According to Kant “when we experience an object, it becomes a thing-as-it appears-to-us. Our senses as much as our reason are like tinted spectacles through which we perceive the world.” [1]

The world, unfortunately through other spectacles, is gritty and grim. I read this morning about how the Bison herds in Yellowstone Park are managed.[2] Because this is the sole remaining place in the United States where the public can experience bison living free-range, sustainable herd percentages are identified (4800), and numbers beyond the benchmarks are destroyed by capture and slaughter or by hunting. Range management is rational, and yet I weep at the loss of numbers realized through our ongoing conquest of the planet. “According to the naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, North America at the time of Columbus was home to sixty million bison, thirty to forty million pronghorns, ten million elk, ten million mule deer, and as many as two million mountain sheep…incredible to imagine today, bison roamed from New York to Georgia.”[3]

[1] Wulf, Andrea. The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World. (Vintage Books: New York, 2016). p.38-39

[2] https://www.newsweek.com/bison-migration-slaughter-yellowstone-1489558

[3] Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. (Vintage Books: New York, 2006). pp. 282, 357.

our pear tree slumbers

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Winter orchard. Robin L. Chandler, 2020.

January nights remain long and chilly, but the sun grows warmer with each day. Some months from now, our tiny Oakland orchard of apricot, fig, plum and pear will provide a wonderful harvest. With luck, we will have a bountiful year blessed with cakes and pies and many jars of jam and preserved fruit. But should we have a premature spring, early blossoms may be lost to windy Pacific storms, severely limiting our harvest. Never one to give up hope, I gaze at the trees and pray they adapt to humankind’s “gift”: climate change. Sitting in their presence, I am reading, captivated by Richard Powers‘ novel The Overstory. In the book, one of the characters, Forestry scientist Patricia Westerford, writes about and speaks of the Giving Trees:

“…she remembers the Buddha’s words: A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it…love for trees pours out of her – the grace of them, their supple experimentation, the constant variety and surprise. These slow, deliberate creatures with their elaborate vocabularies, each distinctive, shaping each other, breeding birds, sinking carbon, purifying water, filtering poisons from the ground, stabilizing the micro climate. Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention. Forest. A threatened creature…People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures – bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful – call the shots, make the air, and eat the sunlight. Without them, nothing.“

solstice at sea

The view from Limantour

The view from Limantour Beach, Point Reyes. Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

From Limantour Beach at Point Reyes you can see the edge of San Francisco and all the sea between. Some hundred years ago steam schooners, barkentines, and four- masted ships would have plied the waters beyond the Golden Gate.  I think of Ishmael leaving Nantucket in search of the great white whale….

“At last the anchor was up, the sails were set, and off we glided. It was a sharp, cold Christmas; and as the short northern day merged into night, we found ourselves almost broad upon the wintry ocean, whose freezing spray cased us in ice, as in polished armor. The long rows of teeth on the bulwarks glistened in the moonlight; and like the white ivory tusks of some huge elephant, vast curving icicles depended from the bows….as the old craft deep dived into the green seas and sent the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled and the cordage rang, [Lank Bildad, as pilot] his steady notes were heard

 “Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood,

Stand dressed in living green.

So to the Jews old Canaan stood,

While Jordon rolled between.”[1]

Some thirty-five years ago, while I worked as a Photo Archivist at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, I solo bicycled part of the Pacific Coast. On that ride, I made a point of visiting the legendary Captain Frederick Klebingat (see his fine biography on the Online Archive of California finding aid for his photography collection[2]). It was a great honor to meet the ninety-five year-young gentleman, who voiced great concern for my safety cycling the Pacific Coast. Expressing my deep admiration for the man who at sixteen (in 1905) rounded Cape Horn as a deckhand on a full-rigged ship, I reassured him that his risks had been much greater than mine. Imagine the strength, skill and courage it would take to furl the sails a’top the masts in the wind and rain ‘round the Horn all the while diving deeply into Ishmael’s great green seas! Talk about taking risks! Captain Klebingat was a person forged by nature’s forces; a rarity in a time when now most are shaped by a reality more virtual. During his lifetime, Captain Klebingat sailed barks, schooners, Liberty Ships and tankers, and served as a key figure in the restoration and preservation of historic sailing ships, particularly Honolulu’s Falls of Clyde. Captain Klebingat’s research papers about restoring the Falls of Clyde can be found at the University of Glasgow[3] (the vessel was built in Glasgow’s shipyards). During our visit, Captain Klebingat autographed and gifted me his book Christmas at Sea[4]inscribing To Robin, May All Your Christmases be Merry. Frederick Klebingat. I keep the book remembering my visit with the great sailor. About six months later in March 1985, Captain Klebingat passed away; but our visit that fall day in 1984, remains a treasured memory. In fond remembrance, for Captain Klebingat at Christmas, I share an excerpt from his book.

On a Christmas Eve a few years after the 1906 Earthquake, young deckhand Fred Klebingat, his friend Tommy, and first mate Hagen are on watch aboard the barkentine the S.N. Castle, anchored in San Francisco Bay. The sailors are grateful to have a job and thankful for the turkey roasting in the ship’s galley for their Christmas dinner.  On deck they watched as

“the great beam [of lighthouse on Alcatraz Island]…searched out the hills of Richmond as it turned; momentarily it glanced by the brightly lighted windows of the houses in Berkeley…and blinked at the ferry boats…the searchlight also winked at those Bohemians who lived on Telegraph Hill, and for a second it peered into the windows of Nob Hill. It flashed by and lit up the spars of the ships anchored off Meiggs Wharf. On it turned, to beacon those mariners bound through the Golden Gate…[and Hagen said] “to me that light seems to be a beacon of liberty, to guide you to freedom – to all of us who first came here through the Golden Gate…there may not be all the freedom we may want, but it is much more than what we left behind.”

[1]Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York, New York: The New American Library, 1961. p.113

[2]https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/c8dv1mcm/admin/#bioghist-1.3.7

[3]https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/a8574677-b733-39a7-a018-c41c656aca62

[4]https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/18890471?q&versionId=22175323

snow in the san gabriels

 

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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.”