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.
“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.” 
The world, unfortunately through other spectacles, is gritty and grim. I read this morning about how the Bison herds in Yellowstone Park are managed. 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.”
 Wulf, Andrea. The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World. (Vintage Books: New York, 2016). p.38-39
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.
“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…”
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.” 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.”
 Ruskin, John. The Elements of Drawing. Aquitaine Media, 2010. p.92
 Ruskin, John. Unto This Last and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 1997. p.151
 Ruskin, John. Unto This Last and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 1997. p.151
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 StorytellerWalter 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
Since my March 2017 artist residency, I have returned many times to the vineyard at Chalk Hill to gaze and make some oil sketches and watercolors of Mt. Ste. Helena, the defining mountain of the Napa-Sonoma region. It captivates my imagination. In the last few months winter has become spring has become summer; the weekly changes subtle, the seasonal changes dramatic. Green has become gold. Gray has become blue. And with my art I have tried to render this transformation.
In Cezanne: A Study of his Development, the art historian Roger Fry described the artist’s attachment to the landscape of Aix, France: “Cezanne devoted himself so constantly to interpreting that part of the countryside….that is dominated by the great buttressed ridge of Mt. Ste. Victoire. It is a mountain that impresses one rather by the strangeness of it’s ‘personality’ than by it’s height or it’s precipitousness…..no mountain has ever been explored by an artist so persistently, so incessantly as this…..his interpretation is extremely personal…..it is characteristic of Cezanne’s method of interpreting form, thus to seize on a few clearly related, almost geometrical elements, and then on top of this clearly held framework, to give to every part of the contour the utmost subtlety of variation which his visual sensibility could discover…..”
My great friend and teacher, the artist Anthony Dubovsky, writes about the importance of place, time and memory to an artist’s work; the artist’s challenge to find the right balance between story and form and; through the artist’s work bring some understanding to the meaning of life. In his book Jerusalem: To Know By Living, Tony writes “and yet the rhythm of the life here – the dailiness of it, the meaning of the dailiness, where making one’s way up Rehov Ba’al ha-Tanya at dawn is already to be a part of it. To know it. And to know it is to know life, slowly, day by day…..to know by living, to know by living.” Slowly, day by day, I am coming to know my Mt. Ste Helena, as other artist’s in other times and places have come to know their mountains.
April has brought spring in all it’s glory: hot sunny days and cold rainy ones; colorful flowers and deep green grass; and the sights and sounds of baseball. And yet, my soul and heart remain moored in March, dwelling long on the beauty of the Russian River. In the weeks since my artist residency, Sonoma County continues to inspire my imagination and fuel my art. Chalk Hill Artists Residency is a place to discover the interconnection of all living things and understand one’s place in the universe. And to take the bold step of sharing this knowledge as art. Dostoevsky wrote “it is life, life that matters, life alone – the continuous and everlasting process of discovering it – and not the discovery itself.”
Alexander von Humboldt, 19th century scientist and explorer, recognized planet Earth as one great living organism. Climbing over seventeen thousand feet in the mountains of Peru, Humboldt concluded that the botanical specimens of the Andes are similar to the plants he had seen in the European Alps. Lewis Lapham in Lapham’s Quarterly, (Spring 2017) writes “the excitement is the act of discovery, not the numbering and storing of the dots, but rather the connecting of the dots…..to regard the universe as a metaphor.”
The voyage of discovery begins. Like a writer before the blank page, the artist before the blank canvas stands in awe, asking what do I know? As I fill the brush with color and connect the first dots of paint on the canvas, I wonder where this journey will take me and what discovery will I make about myself and the universe?
This morning brought another glorious day of painting here at my Chalk Hill Artist’s Residency. For the last three weeks, I have walked acres of vineyards cradled between the Russian River and Mount Saint Helena here in beautiful Sonoma County. During this time, I’ve forged deep connections with this beautiful landscape and the people, animals and birds that call this place home, and I’ve tried my best to put those feelings into my paintings.
The morning also brought a couple of “lost” dogs: Okie and Shadow. Out in my yard, I found these two out and about. They weren’t really lost, they were just not where they were supposed to be. But that said, I was happy they graced my porch and gave me their joy and friendship on such a beautiful day. Dogs and people soon all fell in to place, and they were on the next stage of their journey, and I was off to my studio to paint and paint some more!
Recently, my good friend Pam introduced me to a very talented musician Sarah Jarosz who is also a gifted songwriter. I can’t get this beautiful song Sarah wrote out of my head: Lost Dog. Maybe it sticks with me because all of us, bury old bones and find new ones, and all of us lose ourselves, and with determination, talent, good friends, and a wee bit of luck, find ourselves, again.
The days are dark and grey; the skies stormy and the ocean restless. Will we reach the shore? Or will we be battered by the tides? A weak hand at the tiller, doubt and anxiety grip our ship. We take our stand, voicing our opinion. Unsure. Will our words be heard, or will they fall on deaf ears, lost in the chaos?
Heroic action is needed to fight the fear mongers, but my special powers come from the brush in my hand. Will art signify in such a time?
In Defiant Spirits: the Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven, Ross King proposed that an artist, and in this case, Tom Thomson, the great Canadian landscape painter and outdoorsman, could be “the hero in a time of need, [who] goes forth from his homeland and into an underworld of dangerous wonders. Here he contends against mighty forces and undergoes a series of trials before returning home, armed with special powers that give vitality to his community.” As an artist, Tom Thomson was engaged in the vision quest, “the single most pervasive literary plot in western literature…from Homer and the Bible, to Grail legends and the Native American hanblecheya.”
At this time in the history of our country, I believe each of us must undertake the vision quest; it is the eleventh hour and our land, and the creatures inhabiting the land, are under attack. To defend what we cherish, the hero within is desperately needed.
“When the aboriginal man goes walkabout, traveling along his ancestral songline, he chants the verses originally sung by his dreaming ancestor, singing the land into view as he walks through it. And in this manner, he renews not only his own life, but the very life of the land itself.” Each place has it’s story, a story of the land and the creatures native to that place and time, and those stories must be described and shared to be remembered, to remain alive. The Greek word Aesthesis, origin of aesthetics, means the “work of the senses: touching, hearing, seeing, smelling and tasting.” Stories are created from aesthetic experiences, but theses stories must be preserved to be remembered.
In his 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature lecture, the great poet Czelaw Milosz wrote that the poet must possess two qualities: to see and describe. The poet is the one “who flies above the Earth and looks at it from above, but at the same time see’s it in every detail.” Milosz makes the point “to see means not only to have before one’s eyes. It may mean also to preserve in memory. To see and to describe may also mean to reconstruct in imagination. A distance achieved, thanks to the mystery of time, must not change events, landscapes, human figures into a tangle of shadows growing paler and paler. On the contrary, it can show them in full light, so that every event, every date becomes expressive and persists as an eternal reminder of human depravity and human greatness. Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were, and by wresting the past from fictions and legends.”
We must see and describe, to make stories, to make memories and fight the nihilism lurking in the current chaos. And yes, using my special powers, brush in my hand, I will see and describe, I will spark the memory of particular stories, associated with particular places and times and particular creatures, and it will signify.
 David Abram. “Gary Snyder and the Renewal of Oral Culture.” A Sense of the Whole: Reading Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End. Counterpoint: Berkeley, 2015. p. 94
The break between storms brought me to the beach. Oh the rain! Such a much needed gift. But I am glad for this day to enjoy the hazy winter sunshine. Meeting my friend, we set up our easels and started sketching in oil, the sun at our backs and the wind in our faces, capturing the coming storm moving eastward over the Pacific. It was a beautiful day – cool and grey – and I lost myself in its splendor while trying to capture it on canvas. On my way home, I stopped in Pescadero purchasing some hot chocolate and fresh baked artichoke bread to warm my body and soul and celebrate this precious life after growing cold and warn by hours of plein air painting.
The wonderful novel I am reading is called War and Turpentine; Stefan Hertman’s homage to his grandfather, awarded the 2014 AKO Literature prize, is the story of a man “tossed back and forth between the soldier he had to be and the artist he wished to become.” War and turpentine. Painting the seascape, this passage from the book came to mind:
“There is a great deal on this planet to arouse an enduring sense of wonder, especially when seen in the light of one’s impending departure. The way molecules move in the water, for instance, yielding the subtlest play of shifting light as evening falls over the sea in a southern bay – say, on the rocky beach of the Italian coastal town of Rapallo, when the wind has dropped and the pink of the evening clouds performs endless variations with the deepening blue or the sky mirrored in the sea – and how living beings with eyes and consciousness, two incomprehensibly complex adaptations to this whole wondrous biosphere, can take it all for granted and go on breathing, flawlessly designed for just this sort of system.”