Saturday, December 8, 2018

My Love of Landscape – Part 2

Part 2 of My Love of Landscape: Youth in Georgia

Among the Canna Lilies

Just before I entered my teen years, our family moved to Georgia.  As I mentioned, both my parents were from the South, and they hungered to return.  Once there, I was a stranger in a strange land and bereft of friends.  Although we were just a short drive from cosmopolitan Atlanta, we lived over the fence and in a place where attitudes had not changed much since the Civil War and which lagged both culturally and scholastically behind the place I had just left.   (Axe-handle-toting Lester Maddox was still the governor of Georgia; but the governorship of Jimmy Carter was thankfully right around the corner.)   As a Yankee who talked funny and who was better educated than most of my schoolmates, it was hard to make friends, and I was often bullied.  I mention this not because of a lingering grudge, but because the move changed my life.

Without friends, much of my time outside of school was spent alone.  I did explore, of course.  We were in a new subdivision with new homes, but with very few houses built.  So few houses, in fact, that at the beginning I was able to build and fly large box kites from an adjoining property without fear of my often-ill-timed landings hitting anything other than a bush or tree.  But as bulldozers scraped the land and houses popped up before wildflowers had a chance to take root, I found myself pushed indoors, and ever toward books.

Tolkien, of course, still captured my fancy, as did any fantasy or science fiction novel that wove a wondrous fabric of other worlds.  In high school, I discovered Henry David Thoreau.  Walden and his other writings spoke to my love of the landscape; I had discovered a kindred spirit.  (Before going to college, I wrote the head librarian at the university to ask if they had a set of Thoreau's journals.  They did, and I read them in their entirety as a freshman.)  But for me, it wasn't so much the practical matters Thoreau wrote about, such as how many nails he got for a penny to build his tiny cabin on Walden Pond, but his words on the spiritual aspects of nature.  It wasn't long before I ran into Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Nature," which laid it all out for me, Transcendentalism and the idea of an Oversoul.  But that went perhaps a little too far—I did feel there was a spirit in the landscape, something that I experienced, something with which I communed, yet I wasn't ready to accept all Emerson wrote.  At this age, of course, an intelligent teen is always seeking.  I did seek long and hard, reading a great many books that shot off on one tangent or another—Buddhism and Zen were two powerful attractants—plus a variety of nature books, including Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, and even Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus.

I still cannot pinpoint the moment I embraced painting the landscape as a supplement to my walks.  I'd sketched and drawn throughout my school years—there was a girl in my class who was always asking me to draw her a "puppy dog"—but not yet painted.  Somewhere along the line, I discovered a big book of paintings my mother had.  It was titled something like 100 Famous Masterpieces, and although it had poor reproductions, the Monets and the Van Goghs won me over.  My farming grandparents had a large, gaudily-framed print of a dramatic seascape painted by Robert W. Wood over a couch, and this also spoke to me.  One positive note about our move to Georgia:  Being not far from Atlanta, my mother took me several times to the High Museum of Art.  I remember being very impressed by a huge exhibit of Monet's giant waterlily paintings, and that may have been the moment I decided to paint.

Done in Middle School? High School? My mother's birthplace.
9x12 oil (Private Collection - and you know whose.)

A yearning welled up in my heart.  I can't explain it any more than I simply wanted to paint.  I wanted to paint the landscapes I'd wandered through, as well as the ones I'd seen in coffee table books and museums.  And it was specifically the landscape, not the still life, not the figure.   Thanks to my love of experiencing the landscape, both vicariously through books and paintings as well as through my own immersion in it, plus an inborn creative impulse, there was no other possible path.  I was to become a painter—unless I was to become a writer, about which more I will say later.

Again, Middle School?  High School?  E. Grizzard, General Store.
9x12 Oil (Private Collection - and again, you know whose.)

So I somehow got a set of oil paints and began to paint.  I also got some books, mostly from the Walter Foster series of self-instruction books, such as How to Paint Clouds and Seascapes.  I bought many of these with my weekly allowance, and as simple as these books were, they got me started.  Mostly, though, I was painting blind.  I don't know if my palette was organized or if I had any idea of what colors I should use.  I painted a copy of Monet's "Le Promenade" but with much more garish color; a stately schooner for my father; and a variety of rustic farm buildings and general stores, copied from my father's photographs (he was an avid amateur) and some of my own.  I wanted to learn how to paint badly enough that I applied to the Famous Artists School without my parents' knowledge and approval, but the salesman who came to visit said I was too young.  He did think my paintings had potential, though, and that encouraged me.

Then I went to college—but not as a painting major.  What would you say to biochemistry?  (To be continued.)

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