In New York in the 60’s when competition was rough and fevered youth pressed in against the established grownups who dominated the Madison Avenue galleries, the Hampton houses, MOMA, scholarships, and got the Guggenheims (or at least to sleep with lusty Peggy), any bon mot crediting legitimacy in ART was sought and borne with pride. It was a strange time when rules were changing and vanishing and the world appeared to have lost all ability to identify what meant something to their hearts as being a valued litmus test in the field of paintings, drawings, and doings of passion. It was 1967. I was three years back from St Martin’s School of Art in London, a stint in Paris, Berlin, Poland, jaunt across Europe to the Soviet Union, Ukraine, and again in the USA, in Vermont. And still in motion, back to NY which I’d lived in and left in 1964. Oh what troubling stumbling turmoil was every waking step, what nightmare filled daylight, what falling, standing, skidding to find my way. Was I a painter. How would I know. I would accommodate the trappings to encourage and pretend, to see if I was faking, if anyone noticed, if I cared, and to see where that led. Through sheer good luck, and simultaneous with renting a third floor loft in Chinatown next to the Manhattan Bridge and a movie house featuring Chinese Action Adventure films and Manadarin Opera, I achieved the miraculous. Printed on heavy paper, sanctioned officially with a number recorded in officially sanctioned record books, to be stationed: IN/ON/AROUND THE FRONT DOOR PREMISES, were the three magic words that put me in very nearly a class by myself: ARTIST IN RESIDENCE. Well, who cared except the city which chose not to be sued by the estate of the crisply charred artist living in a loft building when mostly you couldn’t and didn’t and barely anyone wanted to and no one suspected you there. Primarily, this was a notice to the NY Fire Department that some idiot painter was inside after 5 pm and before 8 am, possibly asleep, and find him/her please if you see flame and smell smoke. Very few loft dwellers were in the city. Somewhere in lower Manhattan shortly after he died, the widow of Thelonious Monk sold the fixtures for the loft they’d lived in, which included some lighting installed, and Monk’s piano. I went to look following the ad in the Village Voice. Whatever the pitance, and raw display, it was more than I had but I saw it and wept for him and his gentle widow years later when I learned what made it happen. Like my loft in Chinatown it was stark. It had the wonderful-ugly of old New York City buildings of brick and wood with huge windows, the foul sweat of cramped labor, city soot too ground in to ever lighten, seamstress laughter, lads hard at light manufacturing. Sweet memory worth more than the multi-million dollar galaxies of pampered drug addict stars of any business that sterilize what had been more precious than they’d ever know. And now, in honor somehow of all the dozen peculiar places I have found to live is yet another for this artist in residence. This bungalow is tiny, the ceiling is low, the windows few. But the expansive meadow, the vast garden growing right up to the building’s wall are fragrant, colorful, enchanting, and cause me to swoon every bit as much as the 12 foot by 8 foot loft windows of Chinatown, the seven story building that shook when the trains raced across the Manhattan Bridge next to me close enough to almost reach out and touch, and the lyrical alien kung fu rising from the theatre below. Sounds and smells of a city. The palpable soil of uncovered land. I suspect that all geography and architecture are worth celebrating.
Where We Start and Where We End Up
There are so many lessons to be had in the course of a day it astounds me. We may gain an education by thinking outloud, viewing something new, going for a walk, or even (as described by Reverend McGee) while asleep:
Hearing a thud in the night, and further alarmed by her child’s crying, the mother ran to her daughter’s bedroom where she found her little girl on the floor, in tears.
“My child! How did it happen that you fell out of your bed?”
“Well,” said the child, “I think I stayed too close to the place where I got in.”
Which is the sort of experience that may be tucked in a pocket and referred back to over an entire lifetime. We are more in danger of falling if we insist on staying put. It’s just antithetical to human nature.
Watercolor illustration by Barbara Sparhawk, Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, Bed in Summer.
A Sky is A Sky A Sky is A Sky
(Or Except When It’s a Crop Circle)
To shocking striping
Salinas fields and
Oz the Wizard
Racetracks for toads
Peace for the sane
The orderly Planet Glorious.
Happy Thanksgiving to All
Looking up from Sparhawk’s Garden
27 November 2014
A Good Life
The elements of a good life. Very personal. To reflect, to assess our life, a life lived well has got to be an individual view to merit the time worth the look. What we think of what we’ve done is all that really matters.
Easier to look around at other people. The panoply of lives displayed before us gone very public because of skill or notoriety for us to ooh, ah, nod, and approve the choices made. Or head shaking NO!! find abhorrent that lad or lassie’s tilt, tinged with insanity or bravado or something we know wrong. What’s the standard, what’s the measure, or is there such a thing. The basic stuff of theatre, of parable, of song. But of ourselves, back to ourselves privately……..
For me, in my life, cataclysma is not long absent. More like the turbulent stream got diverted on a brief tranquil stretch; then round the bend and upheaval encore. Now a recent jarring has set me to evaluating how I have chosen to live. And to look at the benefits and downfalls of my directions, not for a final steely conclusion but to open a train of thought I may revisit and sharpen.
I am, most of all, left to wonder what measuring stick one takes in hand to hold up against such a galactic review.
I had an older brother whose pathway was chosen young, by him and by competitive family pressures. On the other hand, absolutely nothing was expected of me. Not even a good job, good marriage, prosperity, education, or competence. I was a kind of throwaway. It produces a life-long sad longing that nags somewhere along the back between the shoulder blades, up a bit from middle, now lower, yes there that’s it. It also produces, I discovered at long last, a kind of freedom in that whatever choices I made were not likely to bother, irritate, or delight anyone of any immediate importance or with the power to stop me in my tracks. So off I went willy nilly and topsy turvy. And I’ve been at that a long long time.
I have several very early memories, my infancy recalled with clarity even now. One was, I know, prior to attaining one year of life, and I was being driven through the Bronx Botanical Gardens in a little stroller of plaid cloth. I was very close to the ground and upright. The peat and humus of the greenhouse was intoxicating. The warm air of the glass building in contrast with the crisp cold outside. The colors, the weight of the air. The sound of my stroller wheels on the gravel paths. I believe somewhere in me I was struck with knowing that this was all that was necessary for life to be perfect whatever perfect was.
Another crystallized memory when I am perhaps three years old….I am alone and sitting (legs straight out) in a flowered frock and white socks and Mary Janes, on the floor of my upstairs totally unremarkable plain bedroom on the dark wooden floor and there is a window in front of me and light is coming in and I look up. I have in my hands and around me little square wooden blocks with the letters of the alphabet carved on one side and on the other notched parallel lines by which the blocks may be joined for building purposes.
I look ahead, and sort of out of the blue I have the thought that absolutely anything is possible.
Both these early experiences entered me in a kind of weighty truth. It was not with epiphany, shock, hallucination, laughter, tears. I was alone or had no impulse to share the thought with anyone. It was not instruction. It simply was; irrefutable and profound and I knew it.
In the long and current process of growing up I have lost and regained those important minutes a thousand times. And now they come back to me again in this search to understand how to quantify a great span as good or bad. This will have further to go with me, and I hope you think about it too. But at the moment the conclusion I have is this.
If, at the end of a given number of years, we ruffle the record’s pages and inhale the aroma given off and let go into a purely sensory assessment, and judge by this:
Have the years since birth been more than you ever expected for yourself. Has your life been more wonderful and terrible, more horrifying and gratifying, more challenging and thrilling than you ever dared to dream those many years before you even knew how to find your shoes or blow your nose much less see the road with your name writ on it. Has it been more.
Well then. Bravo to that. Mine has by leaps and bounds. I hope yours, too. And if not? Get busy. There’s always time, right to the final breath. I’m sure of that.
A surety which I chalk up to wisdom gained by for sure having done something brilliant once or twice on the long and winding road.
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes
Ode to the Sketchbook
Neither diary nor journal, though could be. The bindings as widely varied as snowflakes and often as intriguingly beautiful. Cardboard, leather, plastic, cloth. Industrial, scholarly, swank, artsy, craftsy, cute. The marketplace for sketchbooks has expanded enormously and the styles can barely keep up with demand.
But not so long ago, the sketchbook was singularly the serious art class companion, or the private studio portfolio kept close at hand where intimate challenges were explored: the length of a forearm, the profile of a forehead, the dip of the clavicle, the distance between chin and nipple, the turn of a leg, the form of a foot, an angry hand, an open hand, a thunderhead cloud, a stormy sea, a rained-on blossom….kept and revisited through a day, through a life. And 20 or 40 or (if you’re lucky) 80 pages of a time so specific that to pick up and look again is to slam the owner into a time, an immediate turn back to a piece of land, a city block, an infatuation or deepest love, the history of a beloved cat or dog, faces, dishes, chairs, gardens, thoughts…..all of it the very most personal. Because it is one’s own landscape.
To carry a sketchbook under arm or stuffed in a pocket was the equipment, the sole province, the badge of an artist. And to carry such treasure and not be an artist would have been as much engaged in fraud as publicly parading pink satin ribbon tied ballet slippers over the shoulder of a 2-left-footer never dancer. Sacrilege.
So much to learn about the sketchbook.
There weren’t tutorials, you discovered marvelously obscure art supply stores or school shops and checked out the stock. For one thing, an early find, the paper varied in weight and roughness or smooth surface. There were sketchbooks with pure white papers, or gray, or browns, kraft or even black; useful depending on your medium of ink, pencil, chalks.
Some sketchbooks had a ribbon tie, or three ribbons! Some had spiral bindings, in color! Some cloth bound like books. Some five inches square, some 10 by 15 or 18 by 20. Long, tall, wide, fat, thin.
Now, confronted with a small, bound, blank paged, ready-for-action treasure, with its simple cotton gross-grained ribbon to be used to tie shut your private work and thoughts, is thrilling.
It is a tribute to bright ideas, to learning, to invention, to anything is possible in the human experience. It is also, after all, the central reservoir of Leonardo Da Vinci’s fertile mind, and more recently the place that the father of Indiana Jones drew his maps and figured his findings.
I have a more liberal view these days than when I was a student so jealously guarding what identified me to the world. I would allow, these days, a sketchbook in every hand! In the hope that wonderful thoughts, the bon mot, the botanist’s heart would find fulfilment on the magical pages awaiting their ideas. I would allow the song writer, the poet, the rocket ship designer a welcome into what was once mine and my fellows alone.
And to all, I suggest, in my more generous and kind older age, go forth and get you a sketchbook. And a pen. Or a pencil. And keep it with you until the one day and moment you see or think something you absolutely cannot afford to forget. And remember with a light heart and total delight that there is a sketchbook in your pocket ready to record it.
To develop it. To hold the fine treasure of your thoughts.
**(End Note about “Angels Dancing on Treetops”: This is a perfect example of the benefit of sketchbooks. I was having a rough go, living with friends, and all of us on edge from it. I drove to Garland Park in Carmel Valley, warm sunny day and I wanted to be alone. I sat in the front seat of my big ancient suburban, relishing the privacy and looking at the view. The trees in front of me were moving in the wind. I looked closer. They were moving vertically, not horizontally swept by breeze but rather in a kind of bounce from the top! What on earth, I thought. Then I realized, obviously angels dancing on the treetops, pushing the branches up and down! I did the sketch, shown above, I didn’t ever want to forget it. Four years later after moving to Big Sur I painted it from the sketch, and from the stirred memorty. Thanks, Oopsjohn.)
FELINE SMOKE-TABBY EXTRAORDINAIRE
Gone from our lives this week
August 2000 ~ September 2014
This is Tommy very new to my life, the early years, cozied into an orange and gold silk robe. He always seemed the Golden Cat to me. Symetrical beautiful plush he was, especially his throaty thick ruff that rolled out over his tucked under paws. Tommy had a poster with his face and statistics up on the Post Office Wall in Carmel Valley. (about 5 yrs old, 21 lb. biggie, very healthy, golden eyed and beautiful. It took me some wavering but I said yes. Then I had to prove my worth.
Tommy and I moved from Carmel Valley’s Lower Circle near the River, moved to Big Sur and Sycamore Canyon
& Pfeiffer Beach. He met his first Vietnamese Pig, Labrador, Pug, Whippet, Rocknroll musicians, Rottweiller, Bull Frogs, seagulls, Great King Heron, Trout, and ocean. On Clear Ridge he chased everything that moved including I’m pretty sure one day a FOX. And he had his own garden. In Big Sur had a massive house and gallery and woods to explore, then we opened a gallery in Mid-Valley, and he had a meadow too. Tommy never much showed any signs of illness, nor complained but about a week ago stopped eating. Bob, and Bob, and Valerie and Mike, and so many of Tommy’s friends stopped in to help out making easy swing shifts. But we lost the battle two days ago. What a cat. I’ll miss him forever.Thomas Jefferson Really Loved His Garden.