Years before I encountered my first palm tree — decades before I dove into the watery azure, lapis, and turquoise ribbons connecting tiny and often unnamed Caribbean islands — I lingered in shadows of tangled bougainvillea and tumbling poinciana: a world of tropical dreams limned by Winslow Homer’s art.
One of America’s premier watercolorists, Homer moved from New York to Prout’s Neck, Maine in the summer of 1883. While his love of the New England coastline is obvious from his paintings, he often vacationed in Florida, Bermuda and the Caribbean. His unique vision of the islands, combined with mastery of his medium, resulted in exquisite renderings of sun-drenched homes, synchronized palms, and great, vivid falls of blossoms that seem to scent even the printed page.
During my first trip to the Caribbean, I had expected to think, “Winslow Homer’s paintings look like these islands.” But, as I wriggled my toes into the sugar-soft sand and tasted the salt-heavy air, I came to a rather different conclusion. Gazing around at the shimmering island, I thought, “This looks like Winslow Homer.”
It was as though the reality of the island’s sun-touched palms and beaches had intertwined so completely with Homer’s portrayal of them that separating their reality from his representation was impossible. The artist seemed to have absorbed, intensified, and re-presented the sea, sand, and sky in such a way that his paintings were distillations of the islands: in some ways purer than reality itself.
That same distillation of reality is a hallmark of another iconic American artist, Georgia O’Keeffe. Her bold, idiosyncratic forms are awash with color, often so intensely saturated the paintings seem illuminated from within. Like the work of Winslow Homer, O’Keeffe’s canvases sometimes suggest that reality exists only as a poor reflection of her art.
In his book Georgia O’Keeffe: Arts and Letters, Jack Cowart considers the relationship of an original O’Keeffe to reproductions.
O’Keeffe admitted to carrying shapes around in her mind for a very long time, until she could find the proper colors for them… No reproduction will ever do justice to the intensity, the solidity, or the high pitch of these colors.
O’Keefe, on the other hand, seemed less interested in color and more interested in the relationship of her vision to reality.
I said to myself, I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me — shapes and ideas so near to me — so natural to my way of being and thinking — that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down. I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught.
That process of stripping down and starting anew was both remarkably simple and impossibly difficult. In 1933, she advised Russell Vernon Hunter:
Try to paint your world as though you are the first man looking at it — the wind and the heat — and the cold — the dust — and the vast starlit night.
O’Keeffe clearly took her own advice More often than not, she seems to have been the first person truly to see Taos, Abiquiu, or the Chama River. In like manner, no one has conveyed the essence of morning glory, jimsonweed, or rose in precisely her way.
Like Homer’s watercolors, her images often appear more real than reality itself. Gazing at them, it’s possible to imagine the world arriving on her doorstep one morning and saying, “Come here. Let me show you my heart, so that you can convey it to the world.”
Her way of expressing her vision has influenced our own perception of the world so deeply that, when we meet an extraordinarily vibrant flower on the road or in the garden, we often say, “Georgia O’Keeffe might have painted that.” And quite often, we are exactly right.
Neither Homer nor O’Keeffe created the world represented by their art. Yet their willingness to see the world as it is, to enter into a deeply intimate relationship with it, and then to allow that relationship to re-shape their vision provides a model for any artist’s approach to creativity.
In an essay titled Art and Perception , Richard Rothstein recalls his own early explorations of the relationship between perception and artistic production.
As a young man off on his first world adventures, I was stunned by the revelation that many of the great artists I admired did not invent their mysterious landscapes, the colors and visual signatures of China, Japan, Tuscany and Provence. Rather, they were brilliantly capturing the unique moods, colors, light and shapes that nature had already chosen to create.
I remember gazing over the hills of Tuscany for the first time and thinking, “Oh! So that’s where Leonardo got that.” And I remember the day I realized that Van Gogh was “photographing” (through his unusual lens) the unique palette and landscapes of Provence.
An artist himself, Rothstein reflects on the confrontation with reality in terms of gratitude. “I can only speak for myself,” he says, “but I often walk away from something I’ve just photographed in Manhattan with a sense of gratitude – toward my subject.” Quite rightly, he asks, “How much of an artist’s talent is in his ability to create and how much lies in his ability to record not just the obvious visuals, but also the mood and the energy of the subject? “
Rothstein seems to suggest that if one side of the artistic coin is the artist, the other side is the subject itself. Reality drags the artist — the painter, the writer, the photographer, the poet — over to the face of the cliff, the face of the building, the face of the nameless and forgotten ones among us, and says, “This is my gift to you. I am giving you the vision. Now , the responsibility to carry it forward is yours.”
In the end, what unites artists of every sort is neither canvas nor manuscript, neither sonnet nor score, but this deeply personal, intensely visceral response to the gift of vision. However imperfect or fleeting his or her vision may be, once having seen the world in all of its depth, breadth, and particular beauty the artist rejoices in that vision, and gratefully shares it with others.
Winslow Homer knew the experience well, “The sun will not rise or set without my notice and thanks,” he says. Vincent Van Gogh shared Homer’s impulse toward gratitude. “I have walked this earth for 30 years,” he said, “and out of gratitude want to leave some souvenir.” Surprising as it might seem, even Nietzsche himself once said, “The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.”
Of course, if appreciation of the world and expressions of gratitude are marks of the artistic soul, the artists among us will be found in surprising places. Not so many years ago I witnessed a six-year-old running into her house, bubbling and breathless. Waving about a fistful of leaves, she said, “Look, Mommy! Look what the tree gave me! I’m so happy. I’m going to make something no one’s ever seen.”
Winslow Homer, Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe, makers of the never-before-seen, suggest we follow the lead of that child. “Open your eyes,” they say, “and look at what the world has given you. Be grateful for the vision. Then, go make something of it.”
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