Posted by: floridanature | July 21, 2008

Retracing Art Through Memory

What can any of us really know about art ? And why in the world am I trying to write about it here, when I ought to be outside playing under the sunshine and trees?

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately, and how it pushes buttons for so many folks. There’s art intended to evoke a strong reaction—sometimes even a brutal one. There’s art aimed at informing the senses . There’s art that’s a vehicle for the expression or communication of emotions and ideas, period—no judgement attached.

I’ve always liked the archaic definition of art as “to assemble.” That would mean to pull together from the disparate parts. To make whole. Which Aristotle also defined as love: To make whole.

But I ramble. I thought that, as a writer, I would show, not tell. And so I have taken a few photos of stuff hanging on my walls. Individually, they each have merits; but taken wholly, they reveal more than their singular details. Not suprisingly, a lot of these “things” have to do with some way with nature.

Although I’ve taken thousands of photos during my life, only a few of them are on the wall. This one is not because of the aesthetic, but because of it straightforward sympathy: It shows a good buddy, Dan Shaw, holding a handful of clams that one day long ago, we dug from the sandy shoals of Sebastian inlet. We had intended to use some of those for bait while surf fishing. If we didn’t catch fish, we at least had the clams to take home and steam. These clams and that moment are far gone, but by looking at the photo, I can remember that day and all the great times Dan and I had fishing and hanging out. We had a lot of laughs, and when we get together—geography has separated us—we still have fun. Dan’s a courageous guy, a person who would stand up for you in a fight. Do you know how rare that is nowadays?

This is a Mola as rendered by a Cuna (also Kuna) Indian woman in the San Blas Islands on the Caribbean coast of Panama. I was there once to write a story about water and diving and culture, and ended up riding in a cayuco with a kicker to a little coconut palm island where a small Cuna family lived. The matriarch sold me a couple of molas, cheap, since there was no middle man or transport invovled, just me and the mola, which also happened to be of fish. Then I snorkeled around their island—no one had tanks or a compressor–but it was okay, since the fringing reef was shallow. I saw a school of Caribbean reef squid, and they looked at me with human like eyes, before flying off through the water in elegant swoops. If only they had a backbone, I thought, they might be running things instead of us humans. Then again, maybe they are anyway.

This is probably as close to traditional art as I’m going to get. It’s a wonderful oil by Allison Watson, a talented and brilliant artist who lives in Jacksonville. Once she and artist Jim Draper came down with their kayaks, and I took them out to see the Blackwater Creek. It was in flood then, and we could paddle out of the river and through the swamp. Later, she and Jim went to their respective studios, and with photos taken of that day, created works of art from it all, a process I find transcendent. Do you know the energy of the soul that comes from being in the company of aritsts like that when they are contemplating their work from deep inside?

This piece did not come from that day, although it could have. It was a gift from Allison for spending my time guiding she and Jim. That’s the thing about real artists: They are whole enough, somewhere in their hearts, to communicate a truth beyond the ordinary. When sunlight hits this painting, the forest on the canvas mimics the one in real life, and the trees and water turn with the colors of the passing of the day.

This is a framed hand-drawn map of the old pirate city of Port Royal off the coast of Kingston, Jamaica. I went there once for the Discovery Channel because Port Royal had once been the shining, opulent jewel of the New World, and it was mostly because of the plunder of 17th century pirates. Then one day, an earthquake dumped the entire town into the sea. Archaeologists and even treasure salvers had been there since, and while the sunken city was off limits, we got special permission to dive because of the Discovery connection. I stumbled into a striking young archaeologist working in dialpadated building in Port Royal, and she drew the map in preparation for a dive she offered to lead there.

Visitors have asked if this is a “treasure map”, and sometimes I tell them “yes”, because the richness of my experiences were wealthy beyond imagination. After the dives, we went to a little pub and drank Ting, a wonderful Jamaican softdrink that I can’t seem to ever find here. I learned a lot about the pirates, and came to appreciate how society has used outcasts like that to its advantages, over the centuries.Underwater, I floated over brick streets that pirates had walked, moved over the thresholds of doorways that had opened to homes and bars. I felt as if I was in a dream much of the time. Compared to all the toadyness and spineless twaddle in our modern world, there are far worst things a person can be than a pirate.

There are four snowy egrets in this artwork, and they are all doing different things against a backdrop of water and marsh, and to the aft, a hardwood swamp. The birds have exquisite details to their feathers, and most of all, they imply movement, energy, and flight. I watched as an artist who was a quadrapelegic painted this by holding a brush in his mouth. Carol Grimes, a very earnest and caring woman who helped facilitate an annual environmental award on behalf of her late husband, commissioned the painting for me as part of the award. It was a generous and heartfelt gesture, both for me as well as the artist. When he was finished with the painting, he looked at me and said: If I can do this, you can do anything. Don’t forget it. I promised him I wouldn’t, and in my darkest moments, I remember that promise, remember the way the egrets so gracefully flew out of the imagination of a man who couldn’t.

This is an oil my mom painted when she was a young woman. I looked at it on our wall back home when I was growing up all the time, but I could never figure it out. It shows a large earthen wall, steep, jutting up from the water, and a lone faceless woman, added almost as an afterthought. It has a brooding quality about it, although my mom was never one who brooded long. I think about that painting today, think about growing up where I did, with the encouragement and love I once had. I asked my mom once what the painting represented, and she just sort of blew it off, said she had copied it from a magazine photo. Yet, all my life, I think that it was so much more, a time-stop moment of her own young life when she was still a student in an art school down in Lakeland, back when her father was wealthy and the days and nights were gay and alive, and all was right with the world.

I want to tell my mom that I understand now, that the coming together of all the pieces makes it righteous for me, for those I care for. Memory, as poet Marge Piercy has told us, is the simplest form of prayer. And so that is the story of some of the stuff on my walls that I call art.


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