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.


Remembering Ismael

Becoming a varnish worker isn’t difficult. With a vehicle to serve as a combined company headquarters, warehouse, and service fleet, about $200 to invest in sandpaper, varnish, and brushes, and a wardrobe of stylish, second-hand tees, you could start today.

Things will go even more smoothly if you already possess some important personal qualities: infinite patience, a tolerance for frustration, and a sense of humor. The humor’s especially important. It helps to keep things in perspective when fresh varnish is ruined by fog, pollen, wind, rain,  insects, or The Yard Crew From Hell: that charming band of brothers given to revving up their leaf blowers just as you’re putting away your brush.  Continue reading

As For the Front of the Fridge…

The Poem on the Fridge
Paul Hostovsky

The refrigerator is the highest honor
a poem can aspire to. The ultimate
publication. As close to food as words
can come. And this refrigerator poem
is honored to be here beneath its own
refrigerator magnet, which feels like a medal
pinned to its lapel. Stop here a moment
and listen to the poem humming to itself,
like a refrigerator itself, the song in its head
full of crisp, perishable notes that wither in air,
the words to the song lined up here like
a dispensary full of indispensable details:
a jar of corrugated green pickles, an array
of headless shrimp, fiery maraschino cherries,
a fruit salad, veggie platter, assortments of
cheeses and chilled French wines, a pink
bottle of amoxicillin: the poem is infectious.
It’s having a party. The music, the revelry,
is seeping through this white door.

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on poet Paul Hostovsky, please click HERE. 
For Allan Burns’s “Refrigerator Haiku,”  more illustrations by his wife Theresa, whose cover art is shown above, and information about the Haiku Foundation,  please click HERE.

Einstein’s Slippers

I couldn’t help laughing when I saw the photo. Helmeted and harnessed for the occasion, a friend’s sister had thrown English caution to the winds and was celebrating a local festival by zip-lining past the village church.

What caught my attention and made me laugh wasn’t so much the pair of lines stretching down from the steeple, or the absurdity of what seemed to be less-than-hefty pulleys. It was the woman’s footwear — ankle boots, with high heels.

Questioned about her sister’s decision to combine high heels and zip lines, my friend explained that her sister is shorter than many women, and wears heels everywhere. “In fact,” she said, “she may even have heels on her bedroom slippers.”
Continue reading

The Tale of Godot & Godette

Readers know the truth. Closing the cover on a well-told tale is one of the most satisfying experiences in the world. 

Breathing a sigh, caught between worlds, still oblivious to the clamor of unmade beds and untended gardens vying for their attention, readers linger at the threshhold of half-remembered lives, hesitant to turn from the vibrant, constructed world they entered with such anticipation, happy to have discovered all the pleasures of diversion, insight and beauty it once allowed.

Still, as I set aside the story of Godot, my self-effacing little cactus with the extravagant blossoms, I was content. The history of his rescue, the drama of his against-all-odds determination to bloom and the glory of his flowering had been recounted, and it was time to move on.

From all appearances, Godot was equally satisfied. As his blossoms faded and fell, he didn’t fuss or complain but re-dedicated himself to growing quietly in his corner. Life went on, as life does, and all was at peace on the porch. Continue reading

Kaleidoscope Minds

Snow-envy is easy when you’re not the one shoveling a path through five-foot drifts or having to thaw door locks on a car.

Even so, when the photos arrive, sent along by friends determined to gloat or complain about their shimmering worlds, I’m surprised by how quickly I become transfixed. Glinting in the sunlight, piled high along fenceposts and streets, whorled into intricate, complex patterns against window and shed, the still-pristine drifts of freshly-fallen snow dazzle my eyes and my imagination. Always, they make me envious.

My envy is partly nostalgia, the remembered pleasure of snow angels and sledding. But snow also stirs to life a favorite fantasy – the possibility that life might be willing to grant us, if only occasionally, a perfectly clean slate. By reducing the physical world to the twin realities of sunlight and shadow, snow creates an illusion of  purity and simplicity, tempting us to imagine a human world equally free of complication and regrets. Watching snow cover the remains of desiccated autumn with a blanket of perfection, it’s easy to imagine life’s disappointment, pain, conflict and loss blanketed with similar layers of beauty and peace. Continue reading

Goldilocks Meets T.S. Eliot

Goldilocks' Three Bowls

I try to pay attention. Truly, I do. Still, I’m constantly searching for my car keys. It slips my mind that I should stop at the grocery for milk, or swing by the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions. Occasionally, I neglect to feed the cat until she nudges at my foot, murmuring her complaint. Computer passwords dissolve into the ether, along with the names of former school chums, padlock combinations and the phone number of my favorite aunt. 

People who understand such things tell me this everyday-forgetting is unremarkable.  A little more age here, a few more-interesting things to ponder there, and the mind wanders off, unconcerned with milk, kitties or keys.

Over time, I’d even forgotten my promise to some blogging friends that I would tell them the story of the beginnings of The Task at Hand – specifically, how it received its title and tagline. Being a Janus-faced month, a time for pondering the past as well as looking toward the future, January seems as good a time as any to recount the story of those first, halting steps onto the path called “writing”. Continue reading