Sunday, December 9, 2018

My Love of Landscape – Part 1

Part 1 of My Love of Landscape: Youth in New Jersey, Mississippi

One of my first efforts...
...and if my father'd had a color camera,
it might have looked like this.

I've been a landscape painter now for a long time.  Although I occasionally paint the still life, daub at a self-portrait, or attempt the figure, my preference is and always has been for the landscape.  I love the landscape's visual variety and unexpectedness, the vastness of which seems bounded only by the limitation of my own wanderings.

An introspective moment in the landscape.

Lately, I've been thinking back on my life.  As part of this retrospection, I would like to map this love over the decades, starting with my youth, when I first discovered the natural world's richness.  It seems that the real beginning was in rural New Jersey, when my family and I occupied an antebellum tenant farmhouse somewhere beneath the ridge of Sourland Mountain, not far from the Raritan River.  I don't remember a great deal about the farm, but I do remember expanses of untilled land, overgrown with weeds, scattered with sugar maples and oaks, and with plenty of room for a young boy to roam.  Our driveway—or better, the single-lane road to our house, since it was probably too long to qualify as a driveway—seemed to go miles before hitting the main highway, and it crossed a railroad track.  Once a year, a steam engine would chug across the track, an annual celebration of some sort that we used to drive out to see.  I never walked as far as the track, but I found the fields surrounding our house most interesting, especially in autumn, when little was left but tall grass stalks and the going was easier, and in winter, when the blue shadows of snow made the reds of these grasses even more beautiful.

The farmhouse in New Jersey.

We lived at the farm only a couple of years.  After that, we moved a few miles away to a new house in a new subdivision with a small yard.  Fortunately for me, who had begun to enjoy exploring in my free time, away from school and chores, there were very few houses yet.  It was mostly a landscape of overgrown fields and small parcels, broken open by bulldozers and filled with the kind of weeds that like disturbed land.  A bicycle expanded my horizon, and I discovered beyond my normal walks creeks dipping lazily between hills and woods that seemed to harbor secrets.  I had a wealth of time on my hands to wander.  Did my parents ever wonder what I was up to?

About this same time, I discovered maps and J.R.R. Tolkien.  Maps gave me a bird's-eye view of where I had been and where I might go.  Possessing this near-godlike view of the landscape excited me; although I enjoyed heading out and not knowing where the path would lead, I now also enjoyed having the capability to plot a possibly-exciting new destination.  And Tolkien!  His books added another dimension to my world, a dimension where there were countless more places to go and adventures to seek, even if they were all in someone else's head.  His elves, especially the wood-elves, seemed like kin in their love of trees, and I began to spend time with trees: Woodland trees that enjoyed the company of others as well as solitary trees that rooted along ditch and the edge of fields.  Tolkien, who also loved maps, drew the ones for his books.  Inspired, I began to make my own fantasy maps and to write my own stories.  I discovered a variety of methods to "antique" my maps, most of which involved playing with matches.

Each summer, we made the long drive from New Jersey to first Mississippi and then Arkansas, to visit grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins.  (My family roots dig far down into the Deep South on both sides.)  This journey necessarily involved the landscape and its ornaments.  I remember the lights of the bridge over the Delaware as we crossed at night; the crooked roads of the Smokey Mountains and the rocket ship sign outside a  motor court in North Carolina, always a waystop on the trip; the "Vulcan" statue towering over the city of Birmingham, Alabama, and a billboard advertising barbecue that read "Yas, Suh! It's Cooked in De Pit!"; and in our night travels, a dark landscape punctuated by the occasional drive-in theater.  Sometimes I could see heads talking on-screen, with the hum of our tires the only soundtrack.  (At the time, we owned two Valiants, one of which had a push-button transmission.)

My grandparents on their farm in Mississippi.

I always looked forward to arriving in Mississippi, where my grandparents were truck farmers, supplying collards, black-eyed peas, corn, turnips, tomatoes and more to local grocers, as well as milk in 10-gallon cans to the local dairy co-op.  The farm occupied 200 acres, and besides fields, it had several patches of woods, a winding stream and lots of wandering possibilities.  After helping my grandparents in the fields in the mornings, hoeing beans or bunching collards, I spent my afternoons exploring and learning the trees:  pecan, apple and persimmon near the house, and then further out, tulip trees, sweetgum, sassafrass and many acres of pine.  I loved nothing better than to be out in the landscape, roaming.

But my first landscape painting didn't happen until we moved to Georgia.  (To be continued.)

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