Sunday, May 29, 2011

Some Pictures, Tribute to My Mother, Part Three

In various snapshots, I can see myself and my brother at such tender ages that we don't translate into the people we are today.  It's as if we're a rudimentary language that has gone hopelessly awry, replete with illogical endings and a third sex.  I see these faces and look in vain for the people I know.  They inhabited the world, they bore our names, but they are not us.

On the other hand, of course they are!  While my brother's tingling skepticism has yet to raise his brows, his good-fellow smile is there for the asking.  His hair is blond - a color it would not retain.  His mouth slackens with kindliness, just as his eyes halfway melt as they confront the lense.  He is a nice little fellow and it shows.  Yet his life took a turn that changed his nature - or, rather, brought it into focus early on.

Whether it was from a zeal for cleanliness or a kind of malignant curiosity, my brother punctured his eardrum with a stick - which is what Q-tips were in our day.  After a number of operations, he could stand up all right.  And the horrific nose-bleeds that came out of nowhere were curtailed.  But it left him a somewhat damaged person for whom the vagaries of life were a real thing.  Childhood's innocence was thus cut short by a jab and, in its place, a certain wariness set in.  Bryan watched me, in part because he was incredulous.  My lack of a third dimension must have truly fascinated him.  I was what I did.  I had no subtext.  I was a competitive animal.  He became thoughtful overnight - though I think the capacity was there already.  Mine was not.  (Mine?  I'm not sure I'm "thoughtful" to this day.  Not as my brother is.)

I'm a barefoot, brown-chested showoff.  I am smiling big for the camera.  I have on a smart little suit, with a spot of bow-tie.  (I loved dashing around in it!)  I'm having a fit because I can't get up and do something.  And, while I appear to be nice, I am cruelly indifferent to my brother's handicap and begin, not to understand him, but to shut him down.  He could never play baseball well enough, so I wouldn't let him.  He ran more slowly, so I left him in the dust.  I was absent where he excelled.  He was an enigma, but a disposable one.

I've since changed my tune, but, when I look at our photographs, I can't help think of this brotherly pecking-order.

Amidst our smiles and lunges are the clunky pieces of furniture everybody in our income bracket had at the time.  Our couch sits in a back-room today, with its most recent covering.  It looks calm and dignified, the perfect seat for an insurance man or spiritual counselor.  It started out as something a guy wearing grey flannel might not only sit in, but wither into.  The Fifties and early Sixties did not need to be in color.  The black and white photographs with which our lives are chronicled suit it very well.  My father's ties were guiltily restrained, as if riper color-notes might be reported to the FBI.  My mother's "favorite" coat was a corduroy thing that so was defiantly dull, it wasn't even, at times, visible.  The cut was all right, but, when it was hanging up, I couldn't see it.  I know because, when she would ask me to go get it for her, I could rarely find it. 

"Where is it, mom?" 

"In the closet." 

"But I looked!" 

"Look again!"

I remember when we junked our television, a big-tubed thing with an enormous speaker.  I used to study the silver-veined fabric as I listened to it.  Having no frame of reference for a speaker-cover, I thought it wonderfully complex.  It was, in fact, in the same drab vein as everything else.  It was of a drabness.  There was nothing special about it at all.

It is a black-and-white television posing for black-and-white photographs.  Perfect.

What does stand out is the pictures on our walls, which hang in various configurations - stacked, highlighted as individuals, or crowded out by ephemeral things - in small dens and livingrooms.  They look like paintings and, in a sense, they were.  Or, rather, they had been.  My parents didn't know artistic people, so they lost out on the chance of owning an "original."  (No gallery-going for them either.  Not on their budget.  And certainly not in Memphis, where I don't think there were any galleries outside of the college.)  Most people in those days didn't own paintings of any kind.  It was vaguely subversive, like having Das Kapital on a podium.  Or some literary novels you'd read after college.

I wish I could have been with my mother when she went to a department store in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, or St. Louis and picked, from among other likely masterpieces, our Bruegel.  Dark and wintry, it shows hunters in a snowy field.  Beyond it is the mittel-European village that is hungry every day and cries, in guttural accents, for its dinner.  The landscape is far-fetched, but perfectly real.  It is swathed in a murky envelope, with a huge tarn in the distance.  Behind it are The Mountains that hold everybody in and keep the bad people out.  Their snow-capped densities say everything about a forbidding planet.

It was presented with an eye for totality - which is to say, frame and picture blended very well.  Part of it even picked up the picture's predominant color-note, a sort of mottled green.  Somebody at the frame warehouse had chosen a worm-eaten wood and had cut this wood, I would think, for this particular image.  Or perhaps all the Brueghels, assuming there was more than one.

I hate myself for having lost this picture to a girlfriend who probably went and lost it.  I really do; I hate myself.

But it served a purpose for which I - who had no inner life at the time - was not consciously bearing witness.  It awakened me and my brother to the reality of image-making.  That there could paintings like this somewhere suggested to my unformed intelligence (I can't say what it said to my brother, except I'm sure it spoke more clearly) that people made such things and other people, different people, liked them well enough to pass them down through the centuries.

"Where is this?" I once asked my mother, who was trying to read a book.

"What, honey?"

"This picture.  Where is it?"

"Why, it's here.  Is my eldest son blind now?"

"I know it's here.  What is mean is. . ."

"Yes?"  My mother's lips crinkled in amusement.  She enjoyed prompting an embryonic thought process.

"Where is it, mom?  The place in the picture?"

"Okay.  You know where Europe is."

"Yes," I said, with the certainty of the befuddled.

"Europe is where we all came from."

"I know that," I told her.  A beginner's arrogance.  I'd never considered such a thing.

"The people on my side of the family are Irish.  Your father's are French, but they act like Germans." 

Though she knew my father wasn't around, she peeked around the corner in the event that he hadn't gone to work that day and was spying.  As she knew, her observation wouldn't have gone over very well.

With that pronouncement, she went back to her reading.  I wasn't satisfied.

"But. . .where?"

"In a painting, son. . .what you see isn't always what it seems to be.  The artist has created something out of his imagination."

"So. . .it's not anywhere."

"It's somewhere, but that somewhere might just be in the artist's mind."

Came a minor ephiphany.

"Oh," I said. 

If I'd been able to elaborate, I would have told my mother that I understood the difference between something real and something imagined because I'd explored that very thing more punily, but still.  But I just said "Oh!" again.  I think I disappointed my mother fairly often.

The second picture was chosen, I think, for its creature-comfortableness with the other.  It had a shut-in sort of palette that, it seemed to me at the time, didn't have a lot to do with whether the sun was shining or not.  Everything looked like it was inside - even the landscape.  But this really was inside: an intimate inside, an inside with creamy texture and luminous shadow.  It was - though I would never know the artist's name - a Vermeer and it showed a young woman of somewhat humble lineage churning butter.  She's standing up and toiling over a well-used churn and, while it is work of a sort, it had a restful, almost noble, quality.  It was important work and it could not be rushed.  It is a private moment the viewer is privileged to see.  And while the room is dark, it's dark in a very appealing sort of way, as if space is around you.  If the lady had gone on a break, the room would have been interesting to look at.  There was something in the paint or the light or the age of the thing that made churning butter infinitely fascinating.  I wanted to go and be in that room and I would have substituted at the churn to do it.  It wasn't like any other room.  God, to be in it even for a minute!  Lucky lady!  She was there for all time.

I did the same damned thing with this picture, though the girlfriend probably has it still.  I should screw up my courage and ask her about it.

Over the years, I think I was in every house on Kaye Road and many others on adjacent blocks.  In none of them did I ever see a painting - or a facsimile of a painting - as good as these.  In those days, as in this, people were interested in wall decoration as a way to balance a room or complement the curtains.  Very little time or energy was spent on the perfect image for a given room.  Just slap something up there and be done with it.  Nor did anybody ever comment on the pictures my mother had, with the quiet determination of somebody who would not succumb to mediocrity,  assembled and hung on our walls.  They were there for whoever might care to acknowledge them. 

Yet I looked at them all the time.  And was considered smart for a time because I knew who Brueghel was. 

"Who's your favorite painter, Brett?" 

"Peter Brueghel," I said, adding his real first name. 

Nobody else had a favorite painter.  I was absolutely unique in that and was allowed - for a time - to be ineffably superior.  My brother was never asked such a question - or, if he was, he didn't tell us about it.  It was his modesty - a thing so esoteric that I couldn't get my mind around it.  Be modest?  What for?  Because you have a lot to be modest about.  Oh, right.   

I/we also looked at two little pictures that were hanging in my mother's house when she died: tiny facsimiles of very good realist paintings of other workers in a different - probably the mid-19th century - time.  Their precision is Germanic - exemplified by the hair of a potato peeler, who is surrounded by family possessions.  I suspect she is a servant girl who's toiling for the haute bourgeoisie.  There is no implicit criticism here, just, as in the Vermeer, a daily activity frozen for all time.  Its palette is subdued, but I would not say, in this case, that a black and white version would be just as good.  Its wooden table is worn in a way the shelf beyond the potato girl is not.  Two different colors and spaces.  The light is ambient.  No sharp contrasts, just a kind of wholistic purity of tone.  Its anonymity says something, not only about my mother's social views, but of her artistic judgment.  She didn't give a damn who did the picture.  It was good and she liked it.  And at a time when she not only pinched pennies, but hid them against the next rainy day, she paid four dollars for each - though only one is so marked.

Couldn't my father have bought them?  No.  No pure and simple. 

Both images are in their original glass and frames - which were also chosen with care and sensitivity.  They're very small, but when I see them today, I'm transported to those intimate spaces where people did their work and took what satisfaction they could from it.

The other image is of a lawyer.  He's got a quill pen in his mouth - which suggests he has used, or is about to use, it.  His desk is covered with stacks of paper, wonderfully realized by the artist, though without ostentation.  He wears a jacket whose overall color is reminiscent of the one my mother had - the one I could never find when it was pressed in among other garments.  It's a picture of ease, comfort, and concentration, with darkly rich color and accoutrements of leather, brass, and varnished wood. 

I wish I'd talked to my mother more about these pictures.  Why had she chosen them?  Were the images personal - or did she simply like them better than the other ones that were available at the store?  What was she trying to evoke?  And what dreams did they nurture, if any?

These questions will remain forever unanswered.  But I will take possession of the two pictures that remain myself.  Unless my brother wants them.  This time I will not shut him down.  I will, in fact, be glad that he wants them.  It was clearly the same with my mother, who purchased them all because she wanted to look at something that would take her - and us - somewhere else.  She wanted a contemplative space within which she could dream and soar.  She didn't want to just plug up a space.  She wanted to animate it with unforgettable things.  Even on a budget that could barely speak its name.  When Oscar Wilde said "He knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing", he wanted to scour the greedy while reminding the rest of us that life is essentially spiritual and, in order to feed it, you've got to be careful.  And you've got to put joy above so many other things.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Tribute To My Mother, Part Two: (A Few Houses)

The Pink Palace - named for the pencil-veined Tennessee granite which gave it its coloration - was once the biggest house in Memphis.  It had been constructed during a time of irrational exuberance, by a man for whom the irrational came quite naturally - though he had a good head for business and created, albeit briefly, a grocery store empire that has lasted to this day.  Well, he was hit pretty hard by the Depression - which hit a lot of people that way - and had to give the place up.  Since then, it had become the city museum, a pilgrimage-point for the curious bystander who might slake his thirst for novelty on carefully planned exhibits that were both educational and entertaining.  Not that all the exhibits were that way.  Some were right out of peoples' attics, whose contents were as evenhandedly displayed as the museum-worthy stuff. 

When I was a kid, the Palace was a grab-bag of science and intuition; it had legitimate, museum-style sections, where you could study rocks and minerals.  Or bird's nests, which were displayed, alongide of the once-living loot that was inside of them, in glass cases.  It could also give you an amateur's take on what should end up on a wall or display-unit.  One of my favorite experiences consisted of reaching through a hole in a log and feeling around in the vacancy therein.  If I felt around for a minute - or got lucky and hit something right off the bat - I could begin a tactile quest that yielded bafflement or a tentative identification.  "That's a turtle!" I'd say, then flip up the hole-cover and look inside.  Then I'd go onto the next engima and try to penetrate that.  Not a learning tool for the ages, but it got me going.

There was visual stimulation galore.  You could wander along a grand staircase and watch steel-doubleted Spaniards skirmish with Chickasaw Indians.  Inside of glass cases, bird specimens awaited your insight and commentary.  And, hanging along various corridors were the grisly trophies of patrician-style exploration - by which I mean the heads of mostly African animals, which were killed on safaris.  I think every small museum had some of them because museum donors were often the kind of folk who went over to the "Dark Continent" and killed things they wanted to pose with, preserve for themselves, and ultimately display.  What the museums thought of these donations, in their heart of hearts, in not, alas, on record.

I didn't care for them then and don't now.  I wouldn't have known what the word "vainglorious" meant, but that's what I thought about them.

Not so all the guns, knives, swords, battle-armor and such.  I loved those things quite madly and wished I could have some of my own.  My mother - who often took me there - was understandly dismayed at the blood-lust of the small child she had nurtured to believe in the sanctity of life.  Yet she also knew that boys will be boys.  And boys like to kill things.  Or at least see that they'd been killed by others.  Better, she must've thought, that it be secondhand.  She would eventually allow me to own a curious WWI rifle, which was too big for me to do anything with but set out somewhere and admire.  I'm sure she hoped the message - of deadly implements being too unwieldly to use - would carry into my adulthood.  In that regard, her message has taken.  I have never shouldered arms for my country - or for anything else - and don't intend to.  If somebody wishes to kill me that way, I will engage all of the alternative survival skills at my disposal, but will not tilt, steel to steel, with anyone.  

In any case, the Pink Palace was the only house of its type that was open to Memphis' peonage.  And my mother was smart enough to know that, if she took me to such a place, I'd imbibe a sense of the Finer Things which might carry through to my adult years, during which I might be able to surround myself with such things.  Or at least know where to find them.

That hasn't happened, but it's hardly her fault.  What I did do was adapt her policy for house-finding - which took on myriad forms as I got older.

Before I talk about that, I'd like to mention another place - which will stand in for many - she may have identified as being potentially useful to me as I staked out my own territory later on.  Or perhaps she just wanted to get us out of the house.

Her choices were not conventional.  And they have led me in unconvetional directions.

Most American cities did not discover themselves until urban reneweal had cut a catastrophic swath across their Old Townes or Historic Districts-in-waiting or to-be-beautiful Inner Cities.  My mother had insight enough to understand the historic gravity of such places and took me - and, later on, my brother and me - to them.  Again, one of them will have to stand in for many. 

The oldest historic house in Memphis was built by an Irishman who was, I think, engaged in the practice of law.  It was way, way downtown - which obliged my mother to get us on a bus at the corner of Kaye and Mt. Moriah - the neighborhood's busiest thoroughfare and a major boundary between lesser wage earners - who lived in dinky houses - and somewhat greater ones - who lived in houses that were merely small.  It is from these trips that I can remember Memphis' high points, which came to us in the form of crossroads and intersections.  Or not-very famous restaurants that stood out because there was nothing else of any interest around them.  Memphis didn't look like a traditional city until you were downtown, when it assumed the skyscraper proportions people from the outside expected.  Before you were there, it was as spread out as a country village that had succumbed, as Clarence Saunders had, to an irrational exuberance only more territory would satisfy.  

The bus-ride from Kaye and Mt. Moriah to downtown was probably tedious for my mother, who was stranded in the city's eastern corridor by the dictates of post-WWII marriage whereby the triumphant veteran toiled manfully while his helpmeet dithered around the house with the kids.  I think she relished these motor-trips as much as we did.  And invested a lot of time and research in them.

Our destination was a clapboard-sided structure situated on one of downtown's East/West-pointing streets, which, in that day, housed law offices, city agencies, and older residents who had seen their wispy formalities go up in a whoosh they would never fathom and could ignore from marble-clad interiors.

The bus put us on Second Street, from which we walked down a ways.  I don't remember whether my mother had to make an appointment to see the place, but any visit was marked by a ritualistic gravity that was very impressive.  When we arrived, my mother signed the guest register and waited for a guide to show herself.  She'd read that tours were given and had an idea of when and how long.  Thus far, however, no one had come to greet us.  In lieu of History, we concentrated on phenomena we could see and hear.  The house's floors creaked underneath us, wavy window-glass let in the light as sparingly as it could, and the voice of our guide (finally!) echoed from polished wood surfaces and brass fittings.  I'd never heard a voice that was room-filtered.  Our house couldn't do that - though we had some very nice hardwood floors.

"And where are you all from?" asked the guide.

"East Memphis," said my mother.

"I see," she said, managing to combine disappointment in our predicament and pity for us because we'd never find a way out.  She was a society lady who'd decided to slum it here.  She was stuck in an old house for a few hours, but she could leave after she was done.

Putting her best foot forward, she said: "Welcome, everybody, and let me show you some of the house's salient characteristics."

There followed a tour that was distinguished by its attention to the details of family and reputation.

"It was here that Andrew Jackson stood and spoke of monetary freedom," she said at one point.

At another: "The china here came from Eastern trade.  Before it was fashionable.  It is a complete set the family used when visitors came from out of town."

"Feel free to look around," said the guide when we were done.  "I'm always delighted to show the house to people who come from Memphis itself.  Most of our visitors are from. . .other places."

She managed to say that as if seeing the place, as a Memphian, constituted a lapse in taste.

Whatever the tour's shortcomings, it gave my mother an opportunity to soak up history - which was, for the most part, derived from her own forebears, who had settled North Carolina and Kentucky, where she was born and spent the formative years of her life. 

I wish I could remember whether she was exercised by our guide's condescension.  It's a safe bet that she was.  She was instinctively enraged by assumptions that were informed by the prejudices of race or class.  This old lady had assumed that we were poor, and in need of dignified recreation.  Both were true, but my mother wasn't used to people holding that against her.  I wish I could remember her exact response to the lady guide.  It must've been most assuredly withering.

Yet the visit had taken.  In subsequent years, I sought out pictures, not of people, nor of great panoramic views or natural phenomena, but of buidlings.  The most frequently drawn image of my childhood was The Alamo - which had been immortalized, not only in song and story, but in a recent movie - which we all saw on a big screen downtown.  The Alamo's Spanish-influenced design and terra-cotta palette appealed to me instantly.  I drew it so much, it got so that I could mass-produce it.  If somebody wanted one, I could draw it from memory.  Easy as anything.  Just make a box, round it off in the middle, open it up at the front, and there it was.  Sometimes I would put in figures, mostly in the throes of dying.  The Alamo had witnessed a bloodbath on its way to ushering in Texas statehood.  That was part of its appeal.  If a building could be enhanced by occurrences in which a lot of people died, preferably by sword, bullet, or fire, I liked it a whole lot better.  

Knocking out Alamos constituted my first encounter with the brisk professionalism that has not exactly distinguished my career, but it's gotten me out of things I haven't wanted to do.  At its best, professionalism dictates that a person can do something for money, under pressure, or when he or she doesn't feel like it.  It is why professionalism in the arts is a mixed proposition.  Most people do their best work when they want to.  And it is, presumably, from one's best work that one is universally recognized or arbitrarily forgotten. 

There were other houses in the real world. 

When I was in junior high school, a manic friend of mine and I found a place that was recently abandoned and had not been well-plugged.  It was accessible through front, back, side, and possibly, other places we felt no need to explore.  Like practical citizens, we chose the easiest point of entry and went right in. 
It was as if the family had sat down to dinner, decided to abscond as the plates were being cleared away, and left, as quietly as possible, through a side door.  Every stick of furniture was there to reflect sumptuous tastes on an ample budget.  There were even living things - in this case, poor palms that were stuck in enormous vases and sentenced to a certain demise.  In adjacent rooms were all the accountrements of an affluent lifestyle: a big library, the overstuffed furniture that is conducive to drowsy reflection, other odds and ends that minister to deep thought and perpetual comfort.  There was a rec room with a pool table.  Along its baize-covered surface, we rolled the balls somebody had recently shot into side and middle pockets - which were pouchy and leather-spun.  There were boxes everywhere: of books, magazines, and memorabilia.  Letters spilled out of one: intimate letters that were meant for one person and one person only.  One had a lipstick print; another said: "Absolutely Private!!!"  The place was in pretty good shape, but it would soon need attention.  From a visible roof leak, a brownish trail led down to the floor.  Birds had not nested along the crown moulding, but would eventually.  Some window-panes had been broken; when that happens, you'd best have a recovery plan and put it into action. 

"Look at all this stuff!" somebody said.

"Yeah, we need to get busy!" said somebody else.

This particular friend of mine was, more than I, torn between two opposite tendencies: an appreciation of aesthetics and pure, infantile greed.  The latter controlled his actions, though the former tempered them a little.

"We need to get something to put this stuff in," he said.

"But what?"

"I'm thinking."

We eventually carried the things we wanted out by hand.  I wanted that box of letters.  He got a chess-set, I think, and a box of things he wouldn't show me.  I suspect there was money in it.  He always got to the money first.

Then we came up with the bright idea of a red wagon, an inconspicuous thing nobody would notice as we dragged it down a conspicuously suburban street that wasn't quite twenty years old.

One of my major personality flaws, then as now, is an inability to keep a secret, so, after fidgeting with information that was doing nothing but banging around my head, I decided to tell my mother what I'd gotten and where I'd gotten it.

I showed her the box of letters.

"What are they?" she asked.

"They're. . .things I've found."

"Where did you find them?"


"Does that somewhere have any location?"

"I guess it does."

She wangled the whole story out of me with no trouble.

"What do you intend to do with your treasures?"

"Keep them, I guess."

"Do you think that's right?"

"Uh. . .I don't know."

"Well, where did you get them?"

"In that house."

"Whose house?"

"I don't know their names."

"But it was somebody else's house."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I think you know what to do, don't you?"

I ended up calling the family that had presumably walked away from the place after a tasty dinner and moved somewhere across town.  The name was a prominent one and had many branches.  I got lucky and called the "right" person the first time.


I told him my name and sketched out the reason I was calling.

"I see," said the person on the other end of the line.  There was nothing threatening in the way he said it.  It was his way of allowing me to gather my thoughts if I cared to say anything else.

"I'm sorry," I said, "that I took your stuff.  I've taken most of it back."

My mother motioned for me to take everything.

"And I'll bring the other stuff back tomorrow.  It's late.  It's. . .I shouldn't go over there at night."

"No, you shouldn't," he said.  "It's probably rather scary."

"Yessir, it is.  I mean, I don't know that from experience.  I'm just guessing."

"I do," he said, "and it most certainly is scary over there.  I think it's one of the reasons we all left."

I could tell he'd made a richly humorous comment for which I was expected to provide the appropriate response, so I chortled at him through the mouthpiece.  That satisfied or dismayed him - I couldn't tell which.     

After commending me for being honest, he said I could have anything I wanted.  I couldn't quite understand his cavalier attitude toward things that explained and illuminated his own origins and had, furthermore, outlasted his occupation of a place he might care to remember someday.  My mother was also wondering about that.  In spite of her studied detachment, she was as concerned about the disposition of these properties as I was.  And why not?  The acorn wasn't falling very far from the tree.

"We have what we want, but I appreciate you asking," said this extremely civilized person who sounded local, but had been other places.

"So I can have whatever I want?"

"Yes, you may.  But I want to thank you for your courtesy."

For stealing?  What kind of person was this?

"We think about the old place now and then and sometimes wish we could have kept it.  But it was ours to walk away from and, as such, we can't very well keep people out."

In the end, I felt too guilty to keep much of anything.  The wagon that had come away, went back.  In the course of several trips, I'd gotten an oil painting.  That went back.  I'd taken a dissecting kit that was housed in a leather-covered box.  That too was returned to its original resting place.  The letters and magazines I kept, but with a degree of discomfort. 

My friend took nothing back and kept getting more.  By then, he had competition.  Back-loading trucks had pulled as close to the front door as the uneven terrain permitted.  They were loaded with furniture and driven away.  The last time I saw the place, it was sadly - if understandably - denuded. 

At some point it was torn down.  By that time, I had moved on.

That discovery led to many others downtown, to which I made pilgrimages on the same bus that had taken my mother and little brother there.  This time, I was exploring such wholesale urban renewal that, if I'd thought of engaging a back-loading truck myself, I could have filled it each time I visited.  The only limitation consisted in the wreckers' timetable, which could make a house disappear in a couple of days.  The average house - if that's the word - was a stout Victorian that would not come apart without main force.  I remember walking around Beale Street, which parallels Vance - which had the most ostentatious residences - and finding a house that was so sturdily constructed, and in such pristine condition, that I could take one of its pocket doors and push it with my middle finger back into the wall.  It made a gliding sound and went right in.  Within a matter of days, those pocket doors were in a stack of salvageable items somebody in a super-large vehicle would have to come and get.  The spot the house occupied was a swath of black dirt.  When I went up to it, it smelled faintly of wood-splinters.  Bulldozer-chewed bricks indicated that something other than a shack had been there. 

All this from a visit to an undistinguished property my mother thought we neo-Memphians should somehow get to know.  We are advised to be careful about what we wish for.  Well, there's no wishing for the life our parents lead us into.  They just do it and we have to make of it what we will.  I'm, for my part, glad that we made that trip.  Through it, a sense of the past seeped into me - a past that leaves visible footprints only for a time.  Such experiences prompt some of us to look for them in the midst of vacuums we can neither anticipate nor control.  But they are not vacuums to us; we know what was there and it has some sway over our imaginations.

When a parent dies, the vacuum can begin to swell.  It's up to us to re-populate it with sounds and voices we can hear clearly enough to pass them along.  That time, for me, has come.  I'm here now, I remember less than I wish I did, but what I remember needs my fullest cooperation and conscientious stewardship.  Which is, alas, always greatest under pressure.  In years to come, such memories will fade as they grow old themselves.  We all have much to tell, but the urgency to tell it is hardly ever as great as it ought to be.  I'm doing the best I can for now, but I will inevitably move on, as life-addicted people will do, to something else.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tribute To My Mother, Part One

My mother died a few days ago and I want to say a little something about her influence on my early life - which has had lasting repercussions.  For better or worse, I have chosen visual art, not as an identity badge, but as something to strive for.  Few people deserve to be called artists; the most most people ought to want is to sculpt, paint, gouge, scrape, cut and get through it.  That should be more than enough.  If it isn't, it's well worth asking why.

My mother nurtured an interest that seemed so inbred that I never questioned it.  I always drew - badly, but still.  The human urge to record is ineradicable.  Something moves you and you have to come to terms with it.  Writers want to put it on the page.  Musicians get to it through the ear.  People who paint, etc., show what they cannot tell - or don't choose to tell because telling doesn't cut it.  I'm sure there was a moment when my mother took me aside and presented me with a box of crayons.  But I cannot remember it.  Somehow the crayons just appreared and, while I made Superman leap tall buildings with them, I eventually found, in the reality of my senses, the kind of subject-matter that got me going.  Cartoons were the gateway drug; past them, more complicated realities beckoned.

My father was, in part, responsible for my first attempts at mirroring nature.  We fished at locations that were as unlike our sidewalk-and-curbstone universe that we could have been on the moon.  These were wild places men could not see civilizing, but liked to mess around in.  They were where we'd all started: inside of them, tribal rites could be observed, courage tested, and survival skills given the free rein they could not in an office.  There, on the water, I saw my first cypress trees whose knobby intrusions knocked at the boat now and then.  I was traumatized by the life that possibly lurked beneath them.  "We won't sink, will we?" I kept asking.  My dad said: "Shut up and get busy."

His competitive nature led the way.  "Are WE gonna catch some fish!" he would say.  I wouldn't care.  It was enough, for me, to be in a place I'd never been.  When we got back home, I could go off somewhere and think about it.

We arrived in pitch darkness, talked for a few minutes with the guy who kept the boats, and got into our gear.  Even if you came unclothed, you were required to wear a life preserver - which hampered movement as any gravid thing will.  Then we slid the boat down a kind of runway and eased it out into the water.  "Hop in," my father said, "but don't rock it."  As he held onto the boat, I hopped in and rocked it thoroughly.  "Don't move," he said, as I twitched and shuddered.  "If you're calm, the boat'll be calm with you," he added, with a sagacious air.  He was absolutely right.  When I got still, the boat got still with me.  It's a beautiful lesson in the abstract, but impossible to put into practice.  Who out of his element can be calm?  My father did not address that question and never would.  He just repeated the lesson. 

Once encsonced, we baited our hooks with creatures I would not kill for love or money today, and waited.  I was happily terrified by the notion that opportunistic Things could be watching us.  Snakes might slither into our boat.  Big swampy creatures could swoop in and scarf one of us down while the other moaned and pleaded.  In movies of that day, apocalyptic mutants could get big, but they generally shrank.  Vincent Price became a fly.  As they got small, other unlucky actors were asked to do battle with oversized house-cats.  While in that boat, I identified with these actors.  Fishing seemed rather beside the point, but I did it anyway.  My father, a quantifiable Thing, was watching. 

It stayed dark for a long time; until the sun came up, the water's depth could not be plumbed.  Darkness always exaggerates responses that, when illuminated, become less urgent.  But that's the nature of darkness.  You don't know what's going on, you're overexcited because you can't know, and you jump ten feet in the air when you hear a candy wrapper.  Everything is imbued with Drama and nothing will change until you can see to the other side of the boat. 

My father wasn't the fisherman he wanted to be.  I, who aspired merely to live through the ordeal, did almost as well as he would - which infuriated him.  My superabundant catches were "beginner's luck."  My juvenile yanks had no style.  My boat-shaking adventures were shameful to the eyes of a real fisherman.  His measley hauls showed the grit of experience - which no beginner could understand.

The pictures I did were not spectacular.  (None survive.)  But I remember trying to get at real things.  I was, in a few words, onto something.

How did this happen to a kid living on a patch of raw earth in the Memphis suburbs?  I wonder about that from time to time and have to attribute my birth as a painter to the books my mother dragged in, the encouragement she provided, as well as the artistic sensibility she brought to everyday living.  Not that she was deficient in pure aesthetics.  Though her right hand had been disabled, she learned to make do with her left.  When I became enamored of a girl with storybook ringlets, she drew this girl for me.  With drawing in hand, I could admire her anywhere I wanted to.  I'm sorry I don't have this drawing.  I think I folded and creased it to death. 

My mother came of a family that respected the arts as fulsomely as poor people can.  My grandmother practiced Spencerian handwriting of the highest order; grandad enjoyed gaudy rhyme-schemes and homespun sentiments.  To say he was a real poet would be stretching things.  Let's say he could rhyme "thrill" and "rill" unashamedly and leave it at that.  My grandmother was a beautiful woman who might, in this day, realize how beautiful and cash in on it.  Given her own beauty, my mother's vanity was small.  She knew how to pose for a photograph - though she didn't need to.  Every photo of her looks gorgeous.  I would even suggest that she looked better on the wing.  Of course, that could be said of a lot of people.  When one's features are animated, they have the happy life force of all beautiful things.  

In any case, my early drawings were probably lousy, but I don't give a damn.  I wanted to do them and, to want something as badly as I did put me in a delightfully precarious spot - from which I did not care to remove myself.

My mother's artistic talent was, as I said, compromised by an operation which had withered her right hand.  After having written words and pictures into her bones, she was obliged to learn them all over again.  Yet in a fairly short while, she learned to "see" with her left.  Now that I remember it, I had my mother draw that girl lots of times.  She was my first crush - which my mother willingly, but with, I hope, certain misgivings, fed.

At the time, it wasn't "cool" to be an artist.  In order to achieve the respectability their moms and dads wished fervently for them to have, most boys and girls went into practical things.  If art was mentioned, it was in the context of something else.  A portrait of somebody important.  Or the amount of money that was spent on one of those danged Picassos.  The only person I remember admitting to an artistic act lived to regret it.  Her compulsion was considered antisocial.  And, after having had the ephiphany which makes good boys and girls do better, she cut it out.  Boys rarely did "art."  It was too sissy.      

In spite of the artistic climate of a city that should have known better, my mother took me, fairly often, to the Brooks Museum, worlds away from us on its island of privilege - though anybody could go there.  It was a bold experiment wealthy Memphians wanted, as they wished to reflect a growing city's power and prosperity, to try.  When the dust settled, they had built a citadel among the hills and dales of Overton Park.  It was rather grand.  I remember entering a kind of temple, where the gods had decreed that, if one chose to say something, he or she should say it quietly.  Amidst the almost perfect silence there, one could view paintings from the early Renaissance all the way to the present - or such present as the museum cared to acknowledge.  It was my first brush with (Versailles be damned!) real grandeur. 

When you're a kid, you soak things up.  Coming to a museum allowed a kind of soaking-up jamboree.  It's strange that so many people never see museums at all.  In Washington, where I live today, our federal government, though cock-eyed in so many ways, has ensured, along the National Mall, that everyone who comes there can roam halls and corridors that dwarf the Brooks Museum.  Let us hope that our lawmakers can remain sensible in this regard.  No telling how many of our fellow citizens are buoyed up by the great treasure-troves of civilization.  And for no money at all.  It's almost subversive, isn't it?      

With my mother, in Overton Park, on a weekend, museum-going seemed the most natural thing - unmarred by the teasings of a peer group that did not seek (or care about) artistic excellence.

Though a conservative institution, the Brooks Museum was far-seeing enough to display the works of Walter Anderson - which were done on ordinary typewriting paper!  My mother recognized his genius - and proclaimed it, in spite of the museum's quietness fixation.  "Look," she said.  "That's a crab.  See how it moves in the water?  He's captured that."  And so he had.  From then on, Walter Anderson was my poet laureate; he brought nature to the hushed corridors of an art palace.  And the palace was a lot better for it. 

Anderson was a bohemian.  And was said to have gone crazy.

"He was a troubled man," my mother said, "but that's not important.  Just look at what he did!"  She wanted to put a positive spin on the dichotomy of the artistic life.  A lot of other moms might have been secretly titillated - and then run like hell.

On those fragile substrates, Anderson had managed to create an entire bestiary: of flyers, swimmers, crawlers, and divers.  He slathered color with the happy restraint of a man who knew what he was doing, but didn't care.  His brush never stopped to ponder a difficult plane or out-of-whack harmony.  His pictures weren't merely spontaneous; like Michaelangelo's statues, they seemed to be inside of the paper already.  They were inevitable creations, somehow decided upon before any of us were born.  Not to say that he was an idiot savant.  He was a profound observer and technician par excellence.  He found the ball-joints from which small, but agile bodies swung around; he discerned the peculiar connections between these bodies and bodies that were not like them at all.  He knew what happened when color and form were synonymous.  Out of this combination - or, rather conflagration - new worlds came into being: new worlds that started with a common insight: we are all as one.  Anderson did a radical thing; he immersed himself in nature - which was not a respectable occupation, but seemed so infinitely joyous that I asked my mother whether I might do it too.  (Respectability was such an esoteric concept that it never occurred to me to worry about it.)  I don't remember what she said, but her answer clearly satisifed me.  Who could care about anything but this?  Here, at the Brooks Museum, Walter Anderson - who died insane - prevailed over all the businessmen in the world.  My mother thought he hung the moon and said so all her life.

I wish I could point to an "Ah-ha!" moment, during which I was infused with the Artistic Process.  But I don't think there was any.  Nothing I tried in those days amounted to much - though why should it have?  I didn't know anything.  Hare-brained enthusiasm was all I had.  And while I'm sure my mother didn't care for everything I did - who can distinguish the occasional gold-brick in an avalanche? - she praised my efforts even-handedly and eased them down an open road.  The books kept coming: the Impressionists, Van Gogh, Velasquez, and scores of others.  I looked through them, pondered their various excellences, and kept drawing.  My mother seemed to like having another draftsman around - though her skills, hobbled as they were by the accident, were far more nuanced.  

I sometimes wondered what happened to her artistic ambitions, moored in an arid Memphis, bereft of the connections that might make them soar.  She had passion.  She understood Mystery.  Had she set out to do it, she could have could walked in the sandy footsteps of Walter Anderson.  I saw that in those nut-brown curls.  Why not now?

Now always bled into later.  And later was considered too late. 

She'd help me do class projects I couldn't get a handle on myself.  Children can be so cruel that it takes an adult, not only to mediate their cruelty, but to use it to their benefit.  I was supposed to create a sort of diorama in which the early English and ancient Indians appeared together in some kind of quasi-harmony - which was the myth we were given to believe about them.  I had no idea how to three-dimensionalize motion, but was unwilling to admit as much.  I was also unwilling - given my limitations - to do the project.  When I got up in the morning, I saw those whites and Indians at lethal loggerheads (the anti-myth that was truer to form) and, after succumbing to a momentary admiration, I began to berate my mother for having done my homework for me.

"I can't take this into class.  I didn't do it."  I stamped my feet like a horse.  Sound and fury.  Signifying a damaged ego and nothing else.

"It was your idea."

"I don't care.  I won't show it!"

It won third place in a competition that might as well have pitted Claymation greats against me.  I was at sea and knew it.  She had mastered the medium overnight.  I eventually cozied up to her. 

"I'm sorry," I said.  Thanks for helping." 

She hugged me and said people need a little help now and then.

Friday, May 6, 2011

David Rohrer at Cafe Rustica

Few artists are more confident than David Rohrer.  His slashing attack is invigorating amidst reposeful surroundings, but has the staying-power to be appreciated in a cafe or restaurant.

Diners at Cafe Rustica can avail themselves of such staying-power by just sitting at a booth.  Propped on a sill above them is a small painting; some lucky patrons get two.  For people who are familiar with Rohrer's work, these pochades - which Rohrer seems to have done in a frenzied half-hour - are of a piece.  They mirror, complement, and, hopefully, foreshadow, larger paintings of similar subjects.  This is not to say that they have to have sequels.  They're perfectly all right by themselves and needn't lead to other things.  I'd rather they did because I'm curious about how they might change as they leaped from one format to another.  Transformation on the picture-plane is a fascinating business, in part because it cannot always be explained.

Rohrer lives on a South Side of spacious lawns, commmunity-minded people, and (mostly) dogs that will sit quietly while you go in for your latte.  His South Side is agreeably sunny and good for an afternoon or evening stroll.  Its fences are mended, its gutters cleaned, and its mortgage payments are mailed on the first of every month.  It is the place of good abode that isn't as common as one might think.  It takes a certain amount of vigilance to make it work.  It is an old-fashioned-looking place that's held together with caulk, carpenter's nails, and values even our Republican friends might consider worthwhile.  This is not say there aren't snags, but people see them and try to iron them out. 

Rohrer's houses - which recent owners seem to have re-habbed overnight - have a big spirit even in miniature.  (I don't think any of these paintings are more than two feet square.)  They're slathered with his characteristic impasto, they're warmly colored, and they sing.  His people browse an open market, not as individuals, but en masse.  They're a community and are comfortable that way.  Spatial intimacies occur in the relationships between fence and yard, street and sidewalk, but they are, for the most part, abstract.  David Rohrer's world is defined, contained, and intensified, by observation - which is the touchstone of his inspiration.

Yet: there is a disturbing aura to Rohrer's late-at-night imagery, as if the setting sun has re-vitalized him and set him on a new path.  One of his most striking images is of a VCU parking garage at sunset.  Its big forms lean into the corals and lemon yellows that are dying out in the western sky.  Rushing back to the South Side, he gives us a duel of street-lamps above an intersection at five a.m.  Here, Rohrer's treatment is as wildly unrestrained as it ever gets and it's absolutely mesmerizing.

If a guy can hold your attention at a glance, think of what he can do on a canvas you can walk away from as it fills a room.  Can a great experience be extended by "making something bigger"?  Or should we be skeptical of enormous canvases that can often betray the promise a smaller work might suggest?  Perhaps we should.  Rohrer has shown us that no painter need shrink his vision down unless there isn't any vision to begin with.  These small paintings do what all paintings should do: introduce us to an essential personality that can range freely across space and time. 

Incidentally, these paintings are absurdly inexpensive.  And they're of things you may have thought you knew - and might know very well as you know them.  But you don't know them the way Rohrer does - and that is his gift to you, me, and everybody.

Cafe Rustica is at 414 East Main Street in Downtown Richmond, Virginia. 

The show will be up through June 20th.

More work can be found at: