Monday, July 28, 2014

Benched Week 53: a familiar place

The bench was new. The surroundings were not.  For nineteen summers, we’ve brought one of our kids to this camp, hidden on a winding dirt road in the Poconos.  Each of them stayed for a typically memorable week. Some, when old enough, have worked for the whole summer.  We even got a wonderful daughter-in-law out of it.

Grace and I sat by the lake, listening to the birds, watching the sun light up the leaves above us. I asked her what she liked best about the place.

Everything,” she answered.  “Except the bugs.”  Then, when an agile Whitetail Skimmer landed briefly on a nearby rock, she corrected herself, adding, “Only the gross bugs.”

I know what she means by everything.  The camp has been a place of spiritual recharging for my kids.  It’s a fun place, but there’s depth beneath the games and songs -- not unlike the tadpoles just under the surface of the pond that challenge even the youngest of visitors to come in and catch them.

“So, as you look forward to the week,” I asked her, “is the anticipation more about what you remember or about something new that might happen?”

She thought for a bit. (Then asked me if this was for the blog. When I said yes, she thought some more.) Finally she said, “For what I remember… but something new always happens.”

After a bit, she left me to my own musing.  Soon a young counselor sat down on the other end of the bench and began to read. I watched the sun illuminate the pages of his book.

Like that, Grace’s words threw some light on the experience we have with art.  Any great painting (or book, or music, etc.) has more depth than we can take in on one sitting.  When we return to it, we have the same anticipation.  We come for the familiar.  We walk away with something new.

I’ll admit I’m not big on re-reading.  Or multiple viewings of movies.  Or hanging up paintings.  But there are two such paintings in my house that have, simply by being on prominent walls, invited me to absorb them.

The Nooning by Winslow Homer was a suitable theme for when we moved our boys to the more relaxed pace of a small town.

And Carrot Cake,which I painted early in my career, still amuses me after all these years.

We should all be so fortunate to have a place that soothes us with its familiarity while stretching us with something new.  Better yet to have such places hanging on our walls and sitting on our shelves, ready, whenever we are, to engage us.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Benched Week 52: unexpected

Just after sunrise, I made my way back to the trail I had found the night before along the Merrimac River in Andover, MA, just a short walk from my hotel.  I had begun to scope it out at dusk, but was unwilling to chance meeting what kind of urban troll might be waiting in the dark under the highway bridge.  Paranoia? Maybe.  I’ll call it cautionAfter all, I once drew scenes from Three Billy Goats Gruff.  I know how these things work.

In the morning light, everything seemed less ominous.  Light, reflected off the river, flickered on the trees, as if animating a silent conversation in the woods. 

A sculling duo sliced silently through the water.

I found my bench, though it was more like a table in size.  Perhaps it was built to fit that troll. 

Deciding to explore a bit more, I walked for a while, passing under the bridge (no troll) and beyond, lost in contemplation and concerns for the day of scribing ahead. On the way back, passing again under the roar of traffic on the highway above, I looked to my left and was astonished to find an unexpected sight.

Artwork!  How had I missed this coming through the first time?

After taking a few shots, I returned to my bench to mull on the nature of graffiti.

I felt a kind of kinship with the artists.  Not that my neighbors need to fear the sanctity of their siding, but I am impressed with the exploration of type and color and shape exhibited in this out-of-the-way gallery.  I play with the same toys in my corporate image-making.

But there is a major difference – besides the illegal part.  These artists are making a bold statement about themselves.  They’re making their mark.  What I do in my day job is capturing statements made by others.

Then, an unexpected thought came to me.  Through art, an artist says, “This is who I am.”  Through illustration: “This is what I can do.”  I see a fair amount of illustration passing for art on the web – demonstrations of drawing ability that, though often stunning in realism, most likely don’t say much about the artist.  Except that he or she can really draw.

A friend, Heather, who reads this blog, said that she enjoys the life lessons I include.  So here it is:  this is true for more than art.  I suppose the perfect zone in which to operate is that space where what we do embodies who we are.  Where each action, word or mark that we make speaks of those core truths that guide us. Where the way we live mirrors what we believe.

We can hardly hope to do that perfectly.  But it’s worth the pursuit.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Benched Week 51: where the bench takes me

The idea was a good one. Since we were in Glenwood Springs, CO, for two nights, I’d arise early to sit on a bench at a bus stop and let the route decide at what bench I’d end up.  I knew only a little about the town.  It’d be a benched adventure.

At first, it seemed promising.  I arrived at the bus stop and found a young man asleep on one of the benches.  A little while after I sat down nearby, he awoke and I started a conversation with him.  Ian is in his twenties with a stud in his lower lip and a thoughtful, slightly pained expression – not surprising after a night on a bench.  We talked about his somewhat itinerant life.  He was on his way to see his mom that day in another part of Colorado.

Riding the bus, I decided to get off at the edge of the small downtown and walk for a while; to see what bench it had to offer.  Along the way, I discovered many quirks, like a theater touting a vaudeville review. And this store that has an interesting idea of who’s cool.

And this store dedicated to the fine sport of Frisbee golf.

And this shot of a welcome surprise that I’ve named,“Exactly,” for visual reasons.

As for benches, this rustic one in front of a Chinese restaurant seemed about right.  But as I sat and watched tourists stroll the sidewalks, I found little to engage me, with the lone exception of the curiosity of streetlights on in broad daylight. The benched adventure had turned out a bit flat.

On the bus back, I overheard two a conversation between two brothers in which the younger dropped the f-bomb, happily reported by the older brother to his mother.  “No, I didn’t!” protested the younger.  “I said ‘vaudeville’!”  The mom proceeded to lecture, at length, the older brother for his language (despite his protests), expanding to its implications on his future career.  On the pretext of photographing the mountains, I took a few of the family.

Which then caused the little boy in the seat ahead of me to turn and ask, “Are you going to take pictures of us, too?”  In response, I hastily drew him a sketch of a smiling rabbit and handed it to him as they got up to leave.  I wish I had been quick enough to snap a shot of him, out in front of his mother, walking the sidewalk while studying the drawing with a puzzled expression.  But I missed it.

And this is the light my benched adventure switched on for me in broad daylight: the bookends of interactions with people in transit were far more vital, more engaging than the location itself.  I need to pay more attention to the people along the way.  A book I read recently called them “consequential strangers.”  Maybe that’s a key to unlocking what art I could or should be doing: capturing consequential strangers.

It’s an idea to frame up in the days and months ahead.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Benched Week 50: lingering for the light

When I stepped off the shuttle bus into the cool, pre-dawn darkness, there was just a thin glowing line above the far rim of the Grand Canyon.  For a lovely fifteen minutes, I had the remote lookout to myself, until a young couple walked up, pushing their two-year old in a stroller.  They, for some reason, felt the need to stand right next to me and talk incessantly in Hindi, spoiling the reverent hush of the scene.

By the time the sun rose to eye the keyhole of space under the cloud cover, a small crowd had gathered. The dawn seemed to disappoint most of them.  Within a half hour, everyone had headed back on the bus, including the Chatters, but not after the couple shot albums of photos of each other, including one of them changing their son on a park podium.

But I lingered.  If I judged the clouds right, there’d be dramatic light coming soon.  I walked to a nearby vista point, found a bench and waited.

As the first streaks broke through the canopy, I gingerly edged myself out onto a promontory.  My internal acrophobia alarms were sounding, but the view was worth the mild terror.  As the clouds continued to part, I clicked away.

Soon, a man I recognized from the first lookout approached my spot.  In his mid-forties, with a friendly face, he smiled when I said, “The others left too soon.”  We shot side-by-side, not only on the point but later, when we noticed mule deer in the scrubby brush near the bus stop.

His name was Jans.  He and his wife were German, here on vacation. We had become friends for the moment, drawn together by a love of  photography and a willingness to be patient for the right shot to come along.

It’s not a bad lesson to take away from the day, applicableto so much in life.  Practice remaining just a little longer – for the light to shift, for a friend to have the las tword, for an idea to germinate.  That lesson was in play the night before, when we came across an unexpected worship service along the rim trail, led every night by a team of college students.  We hesitated, saying we’d sit for a bit.  That bit became the whole.  I’m glad we stayed.  No cathedral could match the grandeur of that setting for our singing.  Familiar truths had new power.  It truly moved me.

The enemy of insight is hurry.  It’s good to learn to linger.

There just may be a memory in the waiting.