Seeing With A Grateful Eye

Flower Garden and Bungalow, Bermuda ~ Winslow Homer (1899)

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.”

“Two Jimson Weeds” ~ Georgia O’Keeffe

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.”

Café Terrace at Night ~ Vincent Van Gogh

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.”

Comments always are welcome.


The Great Arkansas Post Office Tour

Tobacco Sorters  (1942-1944) ~ Thomas Hart Benton

In Arkansas and Missouri, the name is ubiquitous. Even the most casual visitor tends to notice, and occasionally asks, “Who is this ‘Benton’ character whose name keeps cropping up?” In fact, it isn’t “this Benton” but “these Bentons” for whom the states’ schools, counties, and towns are named.

The first Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858) served five terms as senator from Missouri. A strong advocate for westward expansion, he petitioned Congress to fund a survey of the road to Santa Fe. The petition granted, Commissioners George Sibley, Benjamin Reeves, and Thomas Mather of Illinois took charge of the survey, measuring and negotiating their way across Kansas and New Mexico from 1825-1827. Continue reading

Remembering That Purple Poem

hurivirgaSome years ago,  I published “The Sentinel,” an essay about Florida environmentalist Charles Torrey Simpson and a pair of shells I found washed onto a Texas beach.

The shells, a deep, rich purple, are known in scientific circles as Janthina janthina. Elegant, tiny sea snails, they form great rafts, then float around the world. When Simpson found such a raft in the Florida Keys, he chronicled his experience, and through his notebook entry I was able to identify my own bits of purple.

Soon after I posted about Simpson, one of my readers offered a request.  Her love of all things purple had been stirred by the piece, and she wanted a “purple poem.”  At the time, I didn’t think of myself as a poet, and demurred. As it turned out, she did think of me as a poet, and was convinced  I could produce some verse for her. Continue reading

The Glass Fleuragerie

Iced Buttercup ~ Terry Glase

Far up the mountain, at a place he calls Buttercup Ridge, Montana photographer Terry Glase searches each spring for the eponymous flower: Sagebrush Buttercup or, as the botanists would say, Ranunculus glaberrimus. Describing a visit to the ridge in 2015, Terry writes:

After about a half mile of hiking toward a trail I intended to visit today, I tired of all of the snow and ice and turned back. There were other places to go, one of which was Buttercup Ridge, where the very first wildflowers bloom every year about this time.
It’s a small area, about 50 feet by 100 feet, atop a very steep, narrow, rocky, cliffy ridge. Why buttercups bloom there nearly two months before they bloom anywhere else is a complete mystery to me.
They do though, after all, bloom in western Montana. Somewhere in their DNA they know that, and they also know that, before spring comes, they may see temperatures of -20ºF and two feet of snow, but they bloom anyway.

Apart from its early appearance, the simple flower displays other, quite delightful, characteristics. In post after post, Terry points to different faces of a flower he describes as being in turn whimsical, impetuous, shy, and private. And yet, when I discovered his photo of the little ice-covered buttercup, it reminded me of another, quite different flower.
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Theo Jansen: Walking on the Mild Side

Theo Janssen, walking his rhinoceros

Perhaps walk isn’t quite the right word. March, perhaps. Or trek. Perhaps even creep would do, despite the word’s slightly passive connotation.

Whichever word you choose, watching Dutch artist Theo Jansen’s kinetic sculptures trundle across a beach is akin to witnessing some strange, primordial creature emerge from the mire and muck of a forgotten world and make tracks for higher ground.

His creations, called Strandbeests, or beach animals, are constructed from PVC pipe. Through a progression of refinements, including the addition of lemonade bottles, he’s helped them evolve into mobile, wind-powered creatures that seem filled with life. When first encountered, they astonish, compel, and amuse: scuttling over the landscape like giant, improbable crabs.
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Stems Fit For Van Gogh’s Vase

Still Life: Vase with 15 sunflowers ~ Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Everyone likes to spruce up their home before special friends come to visit, and it seems Vincent van Gogh was no exception.

Anticipating the arrival in Arles of his friend, Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh clearly was hoping to impress. In an August, 1888 letter to Emile Bernard, Van Gogh wrote:

I’m thinking of decorating my studio with half a dozen paintings of Sunflowers. A decoration in which harsh or broken yellows will burst against various blue backgrounds, from the palest Veronese to royal blue,  framed with thin laths painted in orange lead. Sorts of effects of stained-glass windows of a Gothic church.

Contemplating the space which he and Gauguin would share, Van Gogh grew even more enthusiastic. Another August letter, to his brother Theo, conveys his excitement:
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The Lady and La Salle

La Salle (1643-1687) ~ Raoul Josset

Larger than life, envied in success and plagued by failure, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle may have landed on Texas shores by mistake, but he certainly left his mark. 

Born in France a century after Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked west of Galveston Island, and two centuries before the first shiploads of German immigrants made their way inland from Indianola, La Salle followed his brother to New France (now Canada) in order to enter the fur trade.

Once in New France, he discovered a preference for travel over trapping. Launching a first expedition to the Ohio River in 1669, he spent several years combining business with the pleasures of exploration. In 1682, he traveled the length of the Mississippi River, laying claim to the entirety of the immense drainage basin for France, and naming the territory Louisiana, after King Louis XIV. Continue reading