Another quiet today so far, soft and gray. I live on one of the prettiest lots in town, by the river and fair quiet, this muggy gray is welcome. I can get out and enjoy. It does not feel extreme. This end of town is down a gully, none too attractive to development so we avoided the scarification the rest of the town welcomed and deplored in perhaps just about equal measures, the temporary modernization, the heritage moment in time capsules.I tend to cling to my memories of my birth town, see the main street as layers of ghost buildings, come and gone. This end of town hasn’t changed much, is more overgrown and greener perhaps than it ever was, there aren’t many new houses along our road; it dwindles from tarmac to gravel just past our drive, wanders on alongside the river, through that valley, ends in a graveyard and a solemnly regimented pinery, goes nowhere, joins no highway. Lovers and hydro workers smoke dope down there.
A dead end, I think to myself sometimes when I’m not content with my lot, but I do have a nice little table set up away under the trees a private distance from the house, I have all my tools. The paint kit is portable, photogenic, the technology smaller and faster this year. I Can look up from my table here and watch the course of a crow family over a season, nested up in a group -of -seven pine overhead, in which also, for a little while each night nestles the moon, comfortably in the black pine needles. I get a little lonely then but more for the future than for the past. I notice that.
My niece and her kids live just up the road, so we’re in and out of one another’s houses. There’s been dental work this week, and a bad day at summer camp for one of the boys. He Got a little slappy, kissed a girl, one thing or the other, call in the shrinks. Nip it all in the bud and get closure too. just slip it under the mental health magnifying glass. My mother lives in the main house here, she’s either bedridden and could care less or she’s defiantly hyperactive and full of wandering anxiety about anything in equal measure. Any luck she’ll sleep through this latest little drama. It all works out.
I had tea with an aunt who had been dropped off here on afternoon in our last heat wave, she was a little gappy from her morphine. She wanted to take a lounge chair in the sun by the apple tree as she and her sisters used to do, to tan and chatter, she almost ninety now, chillingly thin, and myself as ever a fond object of her curiosity for we have both run wild and survived many of the well behaved, a gratifying number. I tell her a bit of an escapade and she rolls her eyes at what the saints would think and grins into private memory of dirt road dance halls. The same old man still calls the square dances sometimes. We have dj’s now… I’m going through one of those periods when I I’m embarrassed by live music any more, and prefer the canned. These old people now, i talk to their sons and daughters around town here and they say its all the same they listen to CNN and the weather channel all day and the religious channels for comfort or the familiar hymns and choruses of our churches before drum kits and electric guitars.
They like the sermons, the cadences of lecture and correction and solace. They don’t call it the vision channel for nothing I guess, but it sure isn’t mine. Call you at dinnertime and tell you to eat in the basement there’s a tornado warning and you look on the tv and the closest tornado is in fricken Saskatoon three hefty provinces away. Obama’s the Antichrist and that’s why we get the tornadoes as warnings. every second house is hosting a methamphetamine addiction intervention as we speak and that’s just the good neighborhoods. You look out any of their windows at quiet little towns with forests brooding on their outskirts not a half mile away and the main street rolled up at eleven, maybe a few young lads in trucks parked outside the new all night night gas station. This is the first year of my life I’ve been able to get a pack of cigarettes after midnight in this town by the way. And with the bp oil slick rolling out over the wreckage of Katrina there on the bedside table among the pills and Kleenex and books about Armageddon, how could you expect to find the remote anyway?
My painterly pursuits are extraneous to this rural world, this edge of town life, really, and that’s fine with me mostly. a few old friends and only one new buddy crossing the back yard to see me, this lawn and cicada, noticing this idle lawn mower. I’m not complaining, I think it is likely good for me, for my artistic vanity to use my painterly vocabulary only in my own head . you can have a pretty rarefied introspective life here and still know pretty much what’ll pass with the folks at the internet cafes where you go to check your mail, see if you’re still normal enough to talk to the cook or another customer about the weather, the economy., You know how that is earl, the importance of daily exchanges over the cracker barrel, the cappuccino counter, the relief of passing. The minor triumph when you make somebody vulnerable, when they laugh.
The buddy’s from the city and he says he doesn’t know about art. People say I’m a pretty good painter but what does he know, I could be just a loon eccentric. He’ll stride once in a while out of nowhere down the lawn to my table here. pull up a lawn chair and rest his feet in my lap and we’ll quiz one another in a none too prying manner about our day to day lives. He talks about his friends and about building community here, and I talk of the layers of archeological ghosts I see, about the community already here, Maybe we take to the dirt roads sometimes, he takes me for a drive. Credence Clearwater usually on the tape deck in the truck. Hilly countryside, winding gravel roads overhung by green veils, long vistas when you come up out of the gullies and clasp hands for a second in recognition of luck, good luck, that’s all it is. I call him the lad in my head, wondering what he’ll have up his sleeve, planned.
You’re from a little northern sprawl earl, you remember that aimless elation in taking to the back roads, to explore, kick up a little carefully self medicated dust. I’m redundant with stories for this newcomer at the wheel, who knows the roads better than I do already. I get lost, everything all built up or grown up one or the other. I see the ghosts though, usually now with pleasure. No surprises here in memory any more. I try not to speak too much of the places that are long gone but I find the Irish accent of the place on my tongue sometimes and tell him stories. He says he likes it when I repeat myself but he hasn’t known me for very long.Hear a story often enough he’ll reach, perhaps, some unromanticized approximation to the truth. He’s learned to deconstruct the narrative.
I found the letter I got asking me to do these paintings of childhood just now and I’ll include it here. This new visual database keeps everything linked and to hand. Right nice letter it is too. Wanting images painted of a distant rural life. The place is just a gravel pit now.
I would imagine that the last time we communicated, even the concept of internet and email had not entered the minds of the most forward thinking prophet. However, technology has a way of sneaking into the folds of our ever wrinkling bodies, insisting that we embrace everything trendy. I would much sooner sit at my desk with a fountain pen in hand and wax poetic or write some kind of morose prose that would put even a philosopher to sleep. Here I am sitting at home listening to “As it happens” on CBC, as I have done now for 30 years, and trying to come up with some coherent thoughts to explain where the past has gone.Most of the pictures of my youth are in my mind. For some reason the few photos which were taken do not capture the simplicity or the truthfulness of what I remember. I will throw out a few images. Let me know how you feel about them.
– Uncle Lawrence , your dad standing naked from the waist up in a creek surrounded by a dense cloud of black flies with a fishing rod in hand and a look of peace on</div his face.
– Grandma Sutherland pouring water in the cook stove.
– Grandpa Sutherland reclining on the sofa in the kitchen with a spittoon by his side
– descending down the dark stair case to the cellar under the house.
– Grandma carving bacon off of a pork carcass hanging in the back shed.
– The long walk to the outhouse in the morning cold
– mounds of old quilts on the upstairs beds
– an old pump organ
– fishing in the creek behind the barn
– looking at the pigs in the barn
– Grandpa’s old cane (Which I have proudly displayed in my kitchen)
– the arrival of Uncle Pete, Aunt Dorothy and all of the kids
– learning how to ride a bicycle down the hill from the house to the culvert
– skating on the pond in the old quarry below the house.
– a turkey shoot in the quarry
– Aunt Ilene sticking her teeth out at us
– horrible sounds and smells from the pigs being slaughtered near the barn
– Grandma’s white bread and soup
– fly paper hanging from the kitchen ceiling
– getting eggs from under the hens in the hen house
– Grandpa’s military photo in the living room- listening for the correct ring pattern on the party line in the kitchen
– Grandpa teasing the girls and grandma telling him off
These are just a few of the things I remember. I see the images in earthy browns, greens and reds. I have always loved things which appear more surreal. I tend to feel that photo-like images belong in a photo and not on a painting. I have been greatly influenced by the group of seven style and in fact have recently purchased a triptych done by Doris McCarthy. She is a very elderly artist (99 years old I think) and she was greatly influenced by the group of seven. I am looking for an original oil painting in the 60″ x 24″ range in a panoramic layout. I am more interested in the artistic value than the content, however I feel that something which would provide a legacy for our family would be a joy for generations.
I would be willing to send you some money to get the project rolling. I do not want to stifle your creative spirit unless you feel that you would be more comfortable with my input. Please let me know what you think.I enjoyed your letter so much. It took me by surprise, as so many things in life tend to do, however it was so refreshing and intimate. I hope we are able to share some good e-conversation in the days and years ahead.
I am not alone in my nostalgia.
And that’s how to phrase a commission, I must say. But tardy I am indeed, so it is a relief to get these things started. Just a sketch of my wild aunt at maybe seventeen dressed in heavy fabric you don’t see any more, but the first of many, I’m in the lilac and ice chute of rural memory. Nice gray days like this I set rather contentedly to summon them up, the ghosts of late; there isn’t much grief in any of it. Working and reworking your face in that new york painting has given me a confidence in representation, and that perhaps unimportant but definite satisfaction, resembling. I’m pretty much reconciled to our coming and going in wisdom and ignorance, and I just sit down in the back yard at this little red table and draw or I practice my unredeemed hillbilly guitar, putter away at the laptop until the battery dies and its time to move on to another mild chore. I work on whatever painting is dry enough to take more paint, or when I see the problem that suggested I leave the picture alone for a bit.
Things are quite social here in the country, no need for ghosts, nice to know there’s a mirrored ball spinning out there somewhere, a back room down the highway, a long table of hippy food beautiful and bountiful on some summer lawn. Some afternoons out of the blue The lad’ll holler mister and then my entire name and my father’s name in calling my middle name and my head’ll snap up in fond surprise, into the present and plans. Nobody’s hollered my father’s name on this lot in a long time. Or mine with that sense of occasion.
I’m still painting away at the portraits of the lad too when I have the right colours mixed. I’ve been working in oils over the acrylic under paintings I began a long time ago when I began to think of you each as models. About the same time. There’s no pressure to complete these portraits but my own affections and tendencies, they would not sell nor would I sell them to strangers. They’re studied in giddiness at my own flattered good fortune at requirements met in our back and forth. They feel pure, separate from the rest of my work.
This wired and wireless exchange between you and I, my volubility, the attention seeking device that is painting. Or attention sharing device, that sounds nicer. Your calming, affectionate brevity. The lad’s honest and just vanity and little smile when I achieve resemblance. I do more posturing than do my models certainly. As I paint from photographic self portraits you sent me long before we met in meat time. Now I know the density of your beard, the rumple of the shadow of your leg on concrete behind you. The reality influencing the painting from the photo, this is odd stuff, effete, unsociable.
They do proceed, these paintings, though I scarcely care sometimes if I finish them. I get to linger over them like they are the admirable bodies I see briefly. They provide a languid or at least erotic domesticity which I must still require or desire, remnants of monogamy, a nude around the house, provide a me a measure of selfish control perhaps, that schedules and to do lists and work and other pleasures do not allow. Painting is slow and stillness is uncomfortable, false. So one paints from thoughtfulness and practical loneliness sometimes and from photographs. one paints from a distance. The act puts one at a remove, but is my deepest engagement.
I like the way the domestic artist /model situation, the tyranny of my choice in this portrait business is altered, you sending your photographed poses and persona and me painting from those. me choosing from images you publish those which I feel resemble… what? You? What avatar? And the lad taking pictures of me now for a time when I include myself, my happy self, in a portrait of us in a studio. It isn’t as lonely a monologue as painting can be. The model having say.
You dog-leashing me in photo shop for fun. Your avatar perusing pictures of meat time at home in virtual reality.
The impatience in your trim little body, your watchfulness flicking over the passers by, over the carnival booths of good causes. I was gonna clown for your laughter under that pinprick appraisal.
That heady cinematic feeling you get sometimes on the street with somebody synchronized to your own perception and satisfied in similar measure, by the pace you take together, the coordinates of movement, the sweeping quality of the visuals as the crowd just turns to scenery, to bit players, touches of human interst like in a painted cityscape. The beggar and his dog the lad and I loped past on our way to the dance hall, they were sleeping close, at length against an alley wall, both of them stretched out at length in the heat like vacationers in love. The milling crowd in the heat behind us, all legs and herd mentality. The excessive light of day. The g stringed dancers on the steps of bars and overhead on balconies, the crowd’s consensual ideals of sexual beauty. You can flick through and see them still and photographically enhanced in magazines. The clamor we surveyed one another inside, your glance taking in my legs and boots mebbe, something, and me recognizing one of your photographic stances as you presented profile.
Leaning back in a that lawn chair after lighting a cigarette for my ninety year old aunt I felt a black fly bite mark on my sun burnt back rub against a cheap creaking rung. I recalled you and me, our talk about leaving marks of of claim on one another, tattoos, embellishments, scars, about restlessness and the obsession with the unexplored as the clock ticks in the comfort zone. Now another warm night at an invisible little table by a river in the dark, the cricket chorus, dim porch lights and the pulsing of screens, country dark, the street lights have been shorted out a week now. Country dark. I like it but the old folks worry about thieves and crack heads. We called Jerry and he said he’d be down this week sometime but he didn’t seem in much of a hurry.
This magazine I’m sending photos to has the rural as its next theme. I’m just barely making the deadline and I been back here in town a few years now but half the main street looks like any burger strip outside any city and I’m not sure what qualifies as rural anymore. I listen to Patty Griffin singing stolen car sometimes at night and listen to the neighbors fight on their cell phones about, tonight anyway, interracial dating. The general line being if it ain’t white it ain’t right. My father was a trapper and an Indian and a land surveyor and my mother worked at the sears order office here in town. I said I was an Indian at a city dinner party a while ago and was politely taught by well placed white napkin example to use the words native north american, I felt only restless. I don’t paint in the ancient acrylic style of the graphic woodlands coyote mystic certainly… lately I think of Pisarro more than of any painter, just the butteriness of some of his things, Not gauzy like Renoir, though watching the lad wade into the water I thought of Renoir’s women. Haunches of another era.
I went through photos I’ve taken since moving here, thinking about here I’m more concerned with the space between things compositionally, and just day to day. The cost of gas between one little hamlet and another. I found as I narrowed the pictures down I started looking at them in pairs, connected to or complementing each other, dialoguing as the art books say… you can rig it up and hear each other with tin cans says a song on my ipod. Some combination of formal considerations and personal reference, sentiment, some juxtaposition. I don’t know if two pictures are better than one, say more, but I sent them off that way, will include a few here for your perusal.
I was thinking about the family of crows in the tree above me here, nested in that big group- of -seven pine, in spring. How the mother muttered constantly in her flight, in weary grievance it seemed, and how the dad would fly over me sometimes when I walked down from the house to the river, how he’d cock his head in flight to see me. How one morning he was missing a few feathers, gappy in flight. How my nephew and I saw him a good mile down past the graveyard when we went for a walk and remarked on his missing feathers. I found a few in the grass here, and clipped one for my new fedora. I went downtown one day and saw the whole crow brood lined up on the roof line of the bookstore above me… the old guy flew over me and cocked his head as ever. For some reason this felt like a bad omen and I was cranky for a few days. Just out of place downtown among the flipflop shuffle of tourists and the hotplate heat coming off the parked cars.
One time the lad and me went swimming off a rock where all the hippies go to skinny dip, to get back to nature and I recalled to him how my father used to leave me on that rock alone when I was little, trusting me to be careful, and he’d go farther into the bush to check his traps. I was always cautioned not to dig up any turtle eggs.
I’ll get in touch with you. Talk to you soon.