Wednesday, December 5, 2018

My Love of Landscape - Part 3

The famous arch of the University of
Georgia at Athens.  When I was there, a
man sat on the step, selling peanuts.

(Missed some parts of this memoir? You can read all of the memoir posts here.)

Although I loved both art and writing, I chose to enter college as a biochemistry major. This may surprise my readers, but many of us, I am sure, chose a path in our teens that is not our path today. The path seemed a logical one at the time, as both my parents worked in the science field, and I did very well in high school in science and math. I was an Honors student in both subjects every year, won two awards from Georgia Tech as Distinguished Math Student and Distinguished Science Student, and also won a scholarship to study college math at Emory University one summer in a program for advanced high school students. So, science seemed a natural route.

But I quickly discovered college chemistry was much different--and harder--from the chemistry I had studied in high school. At the University of Georgia, my chosen school, the department placed a heavy emphasis on quantitative analysis. Granted, I was in the University’s Honors Program, and the coursework was more difficult, but I learned that I really didn’t care about measuring to the third decimal point with any accuracy. That kind of focus bored me. I suppose I was fortunate in learning early on that I didn’t have the temperament for the sustained rigor required by science.

I’m sure I disappointed my parents by giving up on a career that probably would have guaranteed my financial security. But after choosing to change my major, I felt truly free.  And I’d made the decision on my own.

But which major was it to be? Writing or art? I loved them both.

When did I do this watercolor? High school?
College? I have no idea.

If I’d been aware of the concept of a double major, I likely would have chosen both. In those years, though, it was cheaper to buy a typewriter than to buy art supplies. Even though I went to Georgia on a scholarship, money was still tight. I switched to English Lit.

Unlike my hometown, the University of Georgia and the city of Athens constituted a vibrant, cosmopolitan community. Compared to my previous environment, this was a landscape of bright, shiny objects. I spent all my free time roaming, exploring every nook on campus, plus every street and path that led beyond and into the city and surrounding countryside. I also began to make interesting friends among the people who populated this landscape. Many of them were art majors.

Lamar Dodd

One of Dodd's Monhegan paintings

This was the era of Lamar Dodd. The art department was headed by Dodd, a Georgia native who had studied with the Ashcan School artists in New York and who had achieved membership in the National Academy of Design. Although he was more of a representational painter who underwent fits of modernism, students were encouraged toward novelty. It was a time when Art underwent a sudden explosion of speciation. “Art” split off into Concept Art, Performance Art, Land Art, and even Art About Art. Its evolution in Athens rushed along full-tilt--how could I not have been fascinated with it all?

Beyond my core courses, I crowded my days with electives--among them, an anthropology course on Native Americans of the South, where I learned about making a tea from yaupon holly; a religion course in Buddhism, which I dropped because I couldn’t understand the accent of the Indian teacher; and a music appreciation course, where I learned about John Cage and Subotnick. Strangely, I took not a single art course. Perhaps this is because my art major friends complained how they weren’t being taught anything useful in art school.

The B-52s on that legendary night
(Photo credit: The B-52s)

When not roaming the campus,I filled my nights and weekends with friends, immersed in the gritty music of Patti Smith (Horses  and Radio Ethiopia) and other punk/new wave groups. We also had art talks, often about projects my friends were doing. We also hung out at the house of one of the college professors, a filmmaker, an almost-manic creative type, who entertained us with one novel idea after another. Some of my friends also lived in that house. And I can honestly say that I experienced the now-legendary Valentine’s Day party where the B-52s played their first concert at a private home in Athens.

These were all landmarks in the social landscape, and today I can revisit that landscape in a mental map. While visualizing the routes I took through it, I try to understand how I got from one point to another--and how I might have ended up somewhere else, had I taken different turns with different friends.

Map of Oconee Hill Cemetery

The natural landscape engaged me, as well. One of my favorite spots, where I read my assignments on 17th century poets, was the Oconee Hill Cemetery. Though appropriate for those poets of memento mori, it was also a spot for the Romantics; I read Wordsworth, Keats and Shelly while lounging on the lawn. Another spot was literally right on the Oconee River itself. I discovered an old, broken dam that thrust out into the river, and I could walk across it as if on a balance beam until I had reached the very middle of the flow, and I would then sit, surrounded by bright, sparkling water and the thunder of the flood. Then there were the Botanical Gardens, also along the river. One night, a friend and I “borrowed” shower curtains from the dorm bathrooms to use as ground sheets for a (probably illegal) camping trip there. I remember waking up in the pitch-black night to find the woods around us lit up with luminescent fungi, and then arising in the morning to find a scorpion in my blanket. And to return to the theme of painting, yes, I also took my paint box there and painted with friends. I suppose we were trying to emulate Monet and Renoir painting together at La Grenouillere.

The Oconee River as it runs
through the Botanical Gardens

I don’t remember much of the work I did, other than it was colorful and filled with liquid strokes. This artwork from my college years vanished long ago, and I’m sorry I have no examples to share. (Other than the watercolor of indeterminate date above.)

One day, as I was wandering downtown Athens, I came across an art supply store. The owner, an artist, was stretching canvas, large ones, maybe on four-foot stretcher bars. Somehow, she got the idea that I was a novice, and she offered to show me the technique. I was surprised and grateful for this artist’s generosity, and I try to remember this when students come to me today.

 I'm proud that I received my B.A. in English Lit in three years, after going summers as well as attending during the regular school year.

But then my best friend committed suicide.  (To be continued.)

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