Tuesday, March 13, 2018

School of Nature

The under cut
“The Hanging Stump’ is so named for the broken remains of a tree stump shown on the right side of the painting still clinging to the river bank form which it once grew - 'hanging', apparently, over the water. The tree was still young when the current began to undercut the bank it sprang from, exposing some of its roots. This weakened the tree, and in time some of its upper parts died, until most of its crown was broken off in some windy incident, and more of the bank was undercut by the current, especially in times of high water.  The remains are shown mostly bark-less, dark with moist decay and moss, a lesser portion of its roots still clinging to the bank.

The Hanging Stump
oil on panel 16 x 12
Copyright Peter Bougie 2017
Shown is an enclosed, almost claustrophobic space with some signs of the natural violence with which it is regularly visited, in the forms of wind and high or fast water, as already mentioned. The tannish golden glow in the water near the bank at the top probably indicates sunlight on a submerged log. Flotsam in the form of grasses washed along by high water clings to a pole-like piece of wood resting at an angle between water and shore, which is also flotsam. During high water peaks, the water might be higher than my head over the place where I stand to paint. I’ve seen it covering the road going past here, which is only a couple of dozen yards away and eight or ten feet higher in elevation than where I stand. The dense cover and thick overhead canopy of foliage belie its near proximity. The ground here never bakes under hours of sunlight. It is almost always moist and mostly bare. Grass doesn’t grow here. Often there is moss. Patches of light move across it, changing shape and location. Mosquitoes and deer flies thrive here. Sometimes little clouds of tiny flying insects rise and swarm. Fishermen might understand what that’s about if it affects the feeding habits of the trout. On a warm day the atmosphere is very oppressive under this canopy. Sweat drips from you and becomes part of the general dampness. On the plus side, sweaty-ness tends to subdue certain behavioral and philosophical superficialities.

I take something like a kind of perverse delight not only in painting this scene, but also in being in a place like this. Fly fisherman pass through this spot. I wouldn’t think it very promising to maneuver a pole and line among all this brush, but evidence of their passage is on the banks. Kayakers and canoers traverse these waters. None of the above come in here and stand in the same spot for 90 or 120 minutes, staring at the flickering light and the moving water until their senses go dyslexic and short circuit their mental processes. Or the bugs get to them first. What’s my problem?

Just a rhetorical question. As for the bugs, I begin to understand how people devised torture techniques related to their use. The agony is not based on any single incident of pain or discomfort, but on its repetition. I, of course, can move, or leave, or apply more bug spray, as long as I can tolerate the idea of toxins on my skin. But if I don’t have it I won’t stay here long. The affect of the flickering light and the movement of the water is as troublesome to me, if not as urgent. That is, I can endure it for a while. A point comes when my senses feel so scrambled that I must stop and leave. Before that happens, I study the water for patterns of movement. The shapes of light, shadow and color reflected in water look impossibly complex at first; and the beginner chases them. In fact, one of the first things you observe in studying water is that it does the same kinds of things repeatedly. There are patterns of movement and of the sorts of shapes that occur and occur again. They make a kind of visual melody. Squint your eye partially shut to observe the
underlying value harmonies and their shapes, which are usually relatively neutral in color compared to the higher keys and notes of the moving shapes. These are the reflections of the canopy and undergrowth, tree trunks, and openings of sky. Then observe the patterns of movement (occurring “over the top of” the underlying harmonies), their shapes and color values. The movement takes bits of the reflected elements and fractures them, skipping them, apparently, across the surface of the water. When you have learned how to do this you will know how to make the water in your painting look wet.

Water reflects what is above or nearby and alters the reflections with movements induced by wind or gravity or both. Water is the abstract school of nature.

Friday, March 2, 2018

We Never Did Farm Together

Our family in 1957

            I didn’t want to go back. I had made the four-hour drive home just the day before. Okay, four hours on the freeway isn’t The Odyssey, but it is the equivalent of half a work day behind the wheel. I didn’t want to return as soon as this; but the call came and so I had to go.
            It was March 3rd, 2003. I had returned home the previous day after spending several days with my parents near Madison, Wisconsin. Since the middle of February, my father had gone from local ICU’s and Oncology wards in hospitals on the isthmus to a hospice in Fitchburg, south of Madison. He had lung cancer and it had spread to his brain. According to the doctors, it was attacking his brain stem and thus could compromise vital functions at almost any time. Various treatments had made him lucid for a few days, but that was now waning. Nobody said he would die today, or tonight, or even tomorrow; but they clearly expected him to die soon.
            The weather wasn’t good. As I drove east I saw the forecast being confirmed before my eyes, as bits of sleet hit the windshield with that deceptively gentle pattering sound. At this point I had come only about thirty miles and I had about 200 more to go; I might have hours of this. A sort of panic set in. I hadn’t felt that kind of panic about driving in a long time. I was not accustomed to it. I had a lot of experience driving long distances in bad weather, and after all I was on the Interstate, not some remote stretch of county road. But as I was approaching the Menomonie exit, I found myself signaling to get off and turn around. I slapped the signal off impatiently. “What is wrong with you? Knock it off, get a grip!” Would I be content to get a phone call telling me my father had died when it was possible to be there when he did, but I had turned around because I was afraid of the weather? I proceeded past the exit. With that, the panicked moment passed. I didn’t think about it again or feel any undue anxiety, although the weather got worse. Being lion-hearted is great if you can pull it off, but you don’t need to be to persevere; just be determined. That’s the time to kick yourself, not afterwards.
            I don’t remember much about the subsequent trip. Road conditions cost me about an hour more than the usual trip time. I remember straining forward in my seat, especially as it became dark; was the road icy up ahead, or just wet? Vehicles in the ditch here and there, their undercarriages exposed to the sky, or their leading parts pointing back the way they came. The flashing of emergency lights, people who drive like they think something bad is about to happen, and people who drive like they think nothing bad can happen to them. I did not know how Dad’s condition was progressing. Cell phones were not yet ubiquitous and I didn’t have one.

Their wedding party, 1956
            When I arrived at the hospice, I made my way through the common areas and the halls, which after less than a week of visiting seemed already to be of long acquaintance. Lush plants under lights that were never extinguished, patterned carpets underfoot, food service carts parked by half open doors. I don’t recall if the rest of the family were all there when I arrived or if some arrived after I did; I think I was the last one to get there. Dad was partially propped up on some pillows in his bed. His skin was flushed and very red, and he labored to breathe. Mom said he had not been conscious since the morning. It was now around eight p.m. I wondered what he was experiencing in his mind. I wondered how he was experiencing his life at that moment, what might now look clear, or what might now be seen as worthless.
            I sat down. Soon there was a lot of talking among us. I joined in it for a while. We were remembering Dad, and in so doing telling stories on each other, and there was laughing. I don’t remember any particular thing that was said; I do remember that Mom sat in the midst of it. I drifted out of the conversation after a while. I was hearing it without listening carefully, and not engaged with it. I drifted into a drowsy reverie, with the voices of the others like a backdrop in the middle distance.
            I suddenly felt like something went right through me, and at the same instant I realized we had all forgotten about Dad. I turned to look at him and the flush in his skin was gone. He was unnaturally pale, and he no longer heaved with the effort of breathing. I said, “I think Dad is gone”, and someone called the nurse. She came to his bedside, leaned close over him and then raised herself up as she confirmed that he was, clasping her hands in front of her at her waist. Then the mourning began, and we were all there for it. It was 8:40 p.m. on Monday March 3rd, 2003.

Five years minus one day before this day, Dad had completed a letter to his fondly remembered Uncle Leo. There were several pages in his forward slanting long hand script. Leo was a teenager still living at home in the mid 1940’s when as a young boy Dad spent parts of his summers on his grandfather’s farm south of Oshkosh. Dad ended the letter remarking:
At Great Lakes, about 1953

“Well Leo, I didn’t plan for this letter to be so long or take so much time. Once I started the memories from my happy days on the farm as a boy came flooding back. Thanks for the good times and memories Leo.
     The 80 acre family farm is gone, and we never did farm together as we had talked about doing. We have one thing no one can take away, we have the memories. Thanks again, Leo.”
     Yes, he actually wrote that no one could take away the memories. He was sentimental. Gregarious in his prime, he had a melancholy streak and was prone to reflect about what might have been, and loved to recall the boyhood days under the watch of his elders on that farm. To Leo he wrote, with real regret for something that could have never happened “…we never did farm together as we talked about doing.” Work in the corporate world attracted his ambitions and disappointed his expectations. Alcoholism and addiction disabled him by the time he was in his mid-fifties.  He used no alcohol or sedatives after that, but he was no longer able to work.  

Dad in about 1980
 On the day he died, Mom said he was talking about going home. We children wondered amongst ourselves what he might have meant; there was dementia associated with his condition, and at times he was not lucid, so it’s possible he thought he was leaving the hospice. Mom believed he knew he was going to die that day. Before he lost consciousness, he was clinging to a picture he had of some oak trees at the edge of a prairie meadow. There was a grassy rise in the picture and beyond that, a bluish colored ridge with some more trees.
     A few months after he died, he was in a dream I had. He has seldom appeared in my dreams, but in this one we were in a clearing on a wooded hilltop like the one in the picture he had held. He was mute in the dream, not acknowledging me in word or gesture, but he climbed onto my shoulders to make his way up toward the sky. There was a great cloud up there, shaped like a ship if you could see it from underneath, and as he reached for it he vanished from my shoulders. How could it be that my father stood on my shoulders to ascend? Maybe some day I will know. I pray for him every day. Maybe it’s as simple as that.
     Jesus, remember Jerome, when you come into your kingdom.

Four Oaks, oil on panel, private collection
Copyright Peter Bougie 1989