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.


Where Gratitude Abides

Hurricane Ike innundates the Galveston Seawall Memorial to victims of the 1900 Storm

Two months after Hurricane Ike ravaged the Texas Coast, ferry service once again connected Galveston Island with the Bolivar Penninsula. The primary link between the island and coastal communities to the east, the ferry is both a luxury and a necessity. Each trip carries a combination of residents, fishermen, commuters, and sightseers intent on nothing more than the simple pleasures of crossing the water: feeding seagulls from the after deck, or watching dolphins off the bow.

Hurricane damage to the ferries and their landings was significant after the storm. Even the channels required dredging, filled as they were with sand and silt deposited by the surging water. The need to transport heavy equipment and emergency supplies to communities like Crystal Beach and Port Bolivar was primary. But in time, even before full service was restored, anyone could come along for the trip.

One day, a woman ahead of me in a grocery line mentioned to the checker that she’d made a special trip to Galveston to ride the ferry, I asked her why. “Because I could”, she said with a laugh. “It sure felt good.” Continue reading

Day Unto Day

 West of the Pass
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean —
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
                                                                               ~  Mary Oliver

Idle and blessed I am, having decamped to A Far Place.

Absent internet connections, football, Black Friday, and reliable phone service, there’s nothing left but to roam the countryside and search out curiosities, grateful for that silence which is no silence at all, but the murmuring and trilling of a hospitable land. Continue reading

Making Room for Christmas

Josephine Baldizzi came to this country as a young girl from Sicily. Her family lived on the Lower East Side of New York from 1928 to 1935, in a small tenement apartment at 97 Orchard Street.

In those depression years, there was no money for Christmas presents or decorations, so her father, Adolfo, traveled  the city, scavenging fallen pine branches from other peoples’ trees. Returning home, he put his carpentry skills to work, drilling holes into a long piece of wood and using the scavenged branches to create a Christmas tree for his family.

Josephine told the story with obvious pleasure. “He would make his own tree, shape it, tie it to the wall, and then get ornaments and dress it all up,” she said. There were glass ornaments, some lights and tinsel for the tree. For the children, there was a tray filled with traditional holiday treats – marzipan, dried fruits, walnuts, chestnuts, and oranges. It was, she said later, both memorable and magical. Continue reading

Art and Gratitude

Years before I first encountered a palm tree, decades before I found myself entranced by the watery ribbons of azure, lapis and turquoise entwined around and through the chain of Caribbean islands, I passed through shadows of tangled bougainvillea and tumbling poinciana into a world of tropical dreams. There, I discovered Winslow Homer and his art.

One of America’s premier watercolorists, Homer (1836-1910) moved from New York to Prout’s Neck, Maine in the summer of 1883. His work makes clear his love of the New England coast, yet he often vacationed in Florida, Bermuda and the Caribbean. His mastery of his medium and his unique vision of the islands produced exquisite renderings of sun-drenched homes, synchronized palms and great, vivid falls of blossoms that seem touched with scent even on the printed page. Continue reading

Bean Counting

As June edged into July, the summer increasingly seemed marked by “that sort” of day – disjointed, frustrating, compelling, anxiety-ridden, tiring and tiresome days.

There was plenty of heat in Houston and elsewhere being measured with thermometers. There was even more heat rising around the country that didn’t seem to fit into any known scale – heated words, over-heated emotions, simmering anger and pot-boiling rhetoric. While terrible thunderstorms – even an uncommonly strong derecho – raged across the Eastern Seaboard, there was enough political and social sturm und drang to make even the most avid Wagnerian happy.

More than once, while contemplating apocalyptic imagery from the Colorado wildfires and apocalyptic language from political commentators of every persuasion, I found myself thinking of a favorite poem written by Kay Ryan. Poet Laureate of the United States from 2008 to 2010, Ms. Ryan represented the U.S. at Poetry Parnassus, a festival held at Southbank Centre as part of London’s Cultural Olympiad. Continue reading

ellaella, remembered

From the beginning, she was a godsend. New to blogging and confused by the intricacies of setting up a site, I began browsing the WordPress forums, seeking answers to questions I barely could formulate.

Her avatar was the first to catch my eye. The apples – two red, a few green – shimmered on the page. I asked my questions, and she answered in a way I could understand. Like other experienced forum volunteers, she brooked no nonsense, but never ridiculed. I began to learn, and began looking for her avatar even when I had no questions.

In the beginning, I never considered why she might have chosen apples as her signature image, but in time the apples made perfect sense. Ellaella was a New Yorker at heart, a former resident and devotee of “The Big Apple”. Her favorite apple, the Honeycrisp, perfectly represented her personality – a sweet heart, accompanied by crisp, concise opinions and a tart tongue to share them. Continue reading