Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Creator: The First Lady of American Painting

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. In honor of Women’s History Month, this week’s Spotlight Creator is Georgia O’Keefe:

“The grandeur of this old woman and how long her life had spanned and the commitment she had to her art and to the wild places and living her life dedicated to the spirit and to her art – in many ways that’s how I relate to my own existence.” (Dan Fogelberg)

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Picasso

“I’m thinking that guy needs help,” Elvis said to Cutie Pie as he viewed Picasso’s “Reclining Nude”.

C P frowned when she heard that. “Help? He’s Picasso.”

“So. Big whoopee.”

“You just don’t get great art. Your idea of great art are those velvet paintings you buy at the side of the road.”

“Yeah,” Elvis came back. “What’s wrong with that?”

“This is great art.”

“It’s supposed to be a naked woman. I don’t get it. It looks like a bunch of vegetables to me.”

“Maybe Picasso was saying that women are vegetables. What kind of vegetable do you think I am?”

“Oh,” Elvis was sure of his answer to this one, “you’re an onion.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You taste good. And you make me cry alot.”

C P was surprised. “Cry a lot? I didn’t know you were so sensitive.”

“Out of frustration trying to figure you out.”

C P laughed. She laughed hard. Then, “You don’t try to figure a woman out.”

“Oh, yeah. How else am I going to get along with you?”

C P sighed. What was she going to do with him? She shook her head and walked away from the vegetables on the canvas and over to a Salvador Dali.

C P said. ‘Maybe you can figure this one out. It’s got male brain written all over it.”

Two Short Pieces

 

The Cat
The cat.
She runs.
She makes for the sky.
She catches the bird.
Then she flies.

The Artist

A long time ago in a faraway land called Japan, there was a boy. His name was Uta and he wished most of all to be an artist. His father said no. HIs mother said no. His grandmama said no. His grandpapa said no. His uncle Jeff said no. His aunt Missy said no. You will be a farmer as we are, they all told him. But farming was not for him.

He was no good at it. The plants he planted died. The milk from the cows he milked turned sour. The horse he used to plow broke a leg. The barn he threw the hay into caught fire and burned to the ground. Still his family said he would be a farmer.

One night his grandmama Nana dreamed. A god, one of the Sacred Seven, appeared and spoke to her. “Uta is to be an artist. Do not resist his desire for such a thing. If you do, the gods will weep.”

So the boy became an artist. And not just an artist, but a famous artist. Thus it is told.

The artist as a boy

In the beginning was the canvas, a tabula rasa of promise, patiently waiting for a brush to touch its emptiness and leave color behind. Facing the canvas, the artist chanted softly like the magician he was, conjuring his art. His brush unraveled its colors onto the linen, the man’s voice breathing hope into what had only been possibility, potential.

One moment there was nothing: the next, lines drawn on the canvas, some straight, some crooked, some curved into a circle the shape of a woman’s face, and then a blast of color to fill what was only a skeleton of a thing. Soon there was the splash of a Rembrandt sienna for the woman’s hair, her eyes a dancing Mediterranean azure, a sinopia for her smiling lips. The artist easily worked the oils, his hand and its brush passing back and forth, dabbing an extra texture here and there, molding the paint into the form he desired.

Adam Jarvais, five years old and tall for his age, watched the artist touch his brush to the palette, then stroke the canvas once, twice, three times. His grandfather, who was the artist, made a woman’s chin, then a slender neck and shoulders. Soon the woman’s head was covered with an indigo scarf. Like a cat focusing on its prey, the boy studied the older man. How he moved his arms, his hands; how he stood, his feet seeming to be nailed to the hardwood floor. His Grandfather Peter was a conductor waving his baton, his motions playing the oils like an orchestra.

The fifty-eight-year-old Peter Jarvais wiped the bristles of his brush clean of paint and settled it down beside his palette. Stepping back one step, two, a third, he admired his day’s work, then grinned, sighing an audible “ah” that said he was pleased with what he saw.

He came over to the boy, knelt down to have a face-to-face, and looked deep into his grandson’s eyes. With practice, those eyes would observe the world for what it was and what it could be. He wrapped his hand around the boy’s and stood up and said his usual afternoon, “Come, boy.”

Instead of the daily walk grandfather and grandson made to the lake nearby, instead of the skipping of the rocks across the clear waters of the lake, instead of the daily ritual of tossing the boy into the air and catching him, this particular afternoon Peter led Adam over to a stool. He had arranged it in front of a blank canvas standing lonely against its easel, waiting for the companionship of some colors, a canvas blank as that first morning sky before the gods made the sun fill the heavens with sunlight. Lifting the boy, he stood him on the stool, then went over and brought a table with its palette and brushes back to the five-year-old.

The artist whispered into his young apprentice’s ear, “It’s time to paint.” Setting a brush into Adam’s open palm, he said, “This is your friend.” He stepped behind the boy. He

knotted his young student’s hand into a fist and touched the canvas with the brush. There was no paint on its bristles. Grandfather Peter made Adam’s hand swish back and forth. “Feel the motion,” he said to his grandson, nothing but kindness in his voice. “Feel the air that passes over your hand. Feel the wind that runs with the sea.” T he boy felt the motion, he felt the air across the back of his hand.

“Now let’s gather some color onto your brush.” The older man guided the brush to the palette and touched the tip to the paint, gathering just enough for the brush to begin to have color. “Just a bit more.” He pressed Adam’s hand a little firmer. He lifted it and led brush to the canvas.

“So what if you want to make a horse? All you need do is touch your brush to the canvas before you, and a horse will appear. As if by magic. Your magic.”

The boy hesitated as apprentices are accustomed to do. For they live with fear. Until the fear dissolves with the practice of the doing the thing they do. “What if Grandfather Peter is wrong?’ he asked himself. “ What if I have no magic in me?”

As if his grandfather could read his mind, the older man encouraged his young pupil, “It’s okay, boy. There’s nary a thing to be afraid of. You have magic in you. I know it. All you have to do is trust it like you trust your Grandfather Peter.”

But what if…?

The boy’s hand trembled. He concentrated and tried hard and could not stop his hand from trembling. It shook as the bristles touched the linen stretched before him. An electric charge shot up his left leg through his chest and shoulders and down his arm and onto the canvas. His hand stopped its shaking as a long black stroke became the hind leg of a mustang, and it was running wild and free across the arroyos and through the canyons of New Mexico. Adam was making something out of nothing just like he had seen his grandfather do.

“Follow the brush,” the older man encouraged him again and again. “Follow the brush. It will lead you to the place you are to go.”

So Adam followed the way of the brush. And the what-if never came. Session after session he hummed, “A little dab’ll do you,” and dabbed his canvas with paint. Or sometimes it was “Onward, Christian Soldiers” as he drew lines nice and straight or crooked to create the outline of a very large mountain above a small village in the backwoods of France or some such place.

For eleven years, he kept at the work. Even the accident could not stop him. When he was eight years old, he sneaked into his father’s studio. He was alone. The late afternoon sunlight fell through the full wall window and glanced off the steel blade of the samurai sword on the other side of the room. The weapon drew Adam toward it like a moth to light. He padded across the wooden floor. His hands reached the sword and lifted it out of its setting. What a thing of beauty and power it was.

It was heavy, heavier than he had thought. It slipped from his hands. The blade caught on his sleeve as it fell and bounced off the floor. It nicked his left hand and took his pinkie  and suddenly he was unconscious.

A few days later he was back at the canvas, one finger short on his painting hand, but unwilling to give up on his work. And he became good. Very good. Even his grandfather was surprised at how good an artist he was becoming. Somewhere along the way, he switched from oils to acrylics. Then one day it struck him that something was missing, something very important. Oh, the splashes he threw on the canvas were okay, the dabs were good, and the lines were good enough. But good enough was not good enough he decided. He wanted more.

One lovely afternoon in August, at least Adam remembered it as August; after a rather long session of things just about right and just about perfect, Adam realized what he had not known before. What it was that was missing. What he had been leaving off the canvas. It was the emotion, the feeling. In frustration, in despair at not-knowing the how of connecting his feelings to the canvas and pouring them into his work, he threw his brushes and his palette across the room. They landed at his grandfather’s feet.

 

Hands

So much of a writer’s job is paying attention. Robyn Graham’s Photography Blog recently reminded me of this. She posted a photograph called “Grandma’s Hands” of her 90-year-old grandmother’s hands. Those hands were absolutely beautiful hands. Hands that had worn life with grace.

The photograph called to my mind the dignity that we often miss in our fellow human beings. And the details of another’s life. Details that are important. Florida writer Robert Newton Peck, in his book “Fiction Is Folks: How to Create Unforgettable Characters”, says that you can tell a lot about a character from his hands.

It’s in the details that our characters come alive. You can tell whether a character is a worker bee or someone who does no physical work at all. A guitarist will have callouses on his fingers. What does the reader learn about a pianist with short stubby fingers or long graceful ones? Are the hands of a character manicured or are the fingernails chewed off crookedly? Chewed from worry? Is there dirt underneath the fingernails?

When I was reading Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike, he mentioned that John Updike never wore a wedding ring during his first marriage to Mary. During his second marriage to Martha, he wore a wedding ring. This told me so much, not about the writer, but about the man.

One of the things I love about the photographs of Ansel Adams and the paintings of Andrew Wyeth is how much dignity they bring to their subjects.

My Uncle Howard was a butcher. He was larger than life. He could fill a room just by walking into it. One time I asked him, “What happened to your pinkie?”

He threw his head back and laughed that big laugh of his. “I lost it years ago when I was slicing sausage. You can’t imagine the blood that poured out of that hand, enough to start a swimming pool. Anyway I got that hand all patched up. Decided I would honor that pinkie with a name. So I called it bologna.” At that, he winked at me.

“Where’s that pinkie now?” I asked.

“It’s in heaven, waiting for me. Guess I had better be good or I am going to have to spend eternity with one less pinkie, huh?”

Just want to thank Robyn Graham for her beautiful photograph and reminding me of the details that I need to pay attention to.