Washington Square

Washington Square by night. Copyright Robin L. Chandler.
Washington Square by night. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler.

After a memorable dinner at Lupa on Thompson Street, we walked quickly through the brisk night eager for the warmth of a bus leaving the village.  Fittingly, we find ourselves precisely on President’s Day at this place facing the monument shimmering in the darkness.  The Washington Square Arch was built to celebrate the 100th anniversary of our first President’s inauguration. And here we are, at the square on George Washington’s Birthday looking uptown from the base of Fifth Avenue, where patriotic colors of red, white and blue playfully adorn the Empire State Building in celebration of this day. Its cold and late, but I reach for my watercolors and brushes.  The night skyline is framed so perfectly by the arch, I just can’t let this moment go by without trying to paint it.  I’m not the first to succumb to this impulse and frankly I’m in great company. Watercolourist and blogger Poul Webb wrote inspiringly about some of these painters who captured the noble arch round-the-clock in all seasons.

Designed by architect Sanford White, in the early 20th century, the Washington Square Arch was situated in a wealthy enclave bordering working-class neighborhoods.  The monument captivated members of New York’s Ashcan School, painting in the early 1900’s, including William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan.  Robert Henri, the group’s teacher encouraged his students to paint the dynamic of the street: its beauty and its brutal reality. One of the Ashcan group, George Bellows, is the subject of an exhibition, recently at the Met and soon to travel to London, providing the first comprehensive survey of Bellow’s work in almost fifty years.  Bellow’s created some of the most moving depictions of the urban landscape when America was an emerging industrial giant.  He captured the harshness of this rapidly changing society but also a timeless beauty that continues to captivate me in paintings such as The Lone Tenement and Blue Morning.  Charles Baudelaire described this ability to extract the “eternal from the transitory” as searching for modernity.

Auld Lang Syne

Farmer’s Market, Splashpad Park, Oakland. Copyright 2011 Robin L. Chandler

“How do you do that?” said Terrell.  About six years old, my admirer sat beside me on the concrete wall.  “I like to paint too…Santa brought me some paints, brushes and paper.”  While his grandmother watched, I loaned my new friend some paper and a brush and, we painted together in the brilliant sunshine of this last day of 2011.  The Saturday Farmer’s Market is a worthy subject: a unique cityscape with the mixing and mingling of so many kinds of people engaged in reaping the fruits of farmer’s labor.  As I walk through the market and see the bounty of the harvest, I recall the stories from a wonderful book  Cultivating a Movement. Edited by Irene Reti and Sarah Rabkin, the book draws from oral histories documenting the lives of individuals engaged in organic farming and sustainable agriculture on California’s Central Coast. The interviews dig deep into the social, cultural and environmental history of California on a range of topics concerning organic / sustainable agriculture including the influence of the hippie movement of the 1960s and 1970s; the influence of Alan Chadwick on farming; the organizing of Mexican-American farm workers resulting in the formation of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union; the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring; the creation of the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF); and the influence of the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. Recommended reading!

Our urban life blossoms in this space called Splashpad Park; an island of trees, shrub and grass floating between a major freeway and busy city streets.  Cars rush by; children and their parents line-up to see movies at the Grand Lake Theater; activists pass-out buttons and leaflets for Occupy Oakland while others gather signatures for a referendum against the death penalty; musicians play folk songs and Grateful Dead tunes; and shoppers visit the bakery, dry cleaners and other specialty shops as well as the Farmer’s Market.   Oakland’s community awakens on Saturday mornings, re-energized after the busy workweek, engaging in the timeless ritual of gathering those items necessary for sustenance.    Not sure if his little self will grasp all I wish him to know, but I pass on to Terrell the wise words of my drawing teacher Rob Anderson “draw what you know, what you see, what you feel, continue on until it is what you are.”  Grandmother gently urges Terrell that its time to leave; she rattles off the items they still need to buy: navel oranges, beets, radichio and arugula.

Turning back to my painting, I modestly attempt to capture on paper something reminiscent of the grand American Experiment performed by the Ashcan Painters – including Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens and Everett Shinn – a vivid description of America’s bustling cities and her people. My favorite painter of this Group – George Bellows – created some of the most moving depictions of the urban landscape: “The Lone Tenement”  and “Blue Morning.”  So, on this December 31, 2011 I raise my brush in celebration of painters old long ago, always brought to mind.