Monday, December 11, 2017

Russell County Memories




In 1950 my grandfather passed away and for the first time in her long life, my grandmother found herself alone and needed our help in getting over the awful emptiness. So, my dad, looking for an excuse to escape summer’s heat, fired up the old Chevy and drove my mom, sister and I up to Virginia to stay with Grandmother Alice for what we thought would be a couple of months. My sister and I were sure we had been dropped down in a magical land of mist shrouded mountains, hollers and for five months of the year, snow. For us Florida flatlanders it proved to be a vacation wonderland.

‘A couple of months’ turned into a year, way too long for two young kids to lay about. Some adults decided we ought to continue our formal education and the schooling would take place at Finney School, the local seat of learning, just down the road from Grandmother’s place. Our vacation was officially over.

The faded old school was fascinating to us in its stark simplicity. Grades 1-6 were in one room and 7-12 in another one. The cavernous class rooms were heated by small fuel-oil stoves but the warmth never seemed to make it back to where I sat. With no running water or plumbing, trips to the water pump or outhouse were, especially in winter, acts of shivering courage.

With time on her hands and tired of staring at chickens, my mom signed up to be a substitute teacher in some of Russell County’s underserved areas. No teaching experience needed, just show up and manage to stay until 2 o’clock. Then one day someone didn’t show up and they asked Mom to sub at one of the most remote schools in the County, Possum Hollow School. She kept me out of school that day to go with her and I believe it was to teach me another kind of lesson.

Up a winding gravel road and wedged into a cleft sliced out of the mountain, Possum Hollow School made Finney School seem like a palace. Small, dark and cold, the school had seen much better days and I marveled that it somehow managed to stay upright. Mom and I sat alone for the longest time and she wondered out loud if students would show up at all.

But slowly children began to wander in one after the other until finally all eight desks were occupied and drawn close to the wood-burning stove. I saw no school bus or heard any cars delivering students and it dawned on me that these kids had walked all the way.

I don’t remember any of the schooling that took place but the lunchtime has stayed with me all these years later. I eagerly opened my brown paper bagged lunch and surveyed what my mother had prepared- a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple and a carton of milk. Just before laying into the sandwich, I glanced around to see what other students were eating.

Gathered around me were three of the saddest looking children I had ever seen. Two boys and a girl, perhaps brothers and sister, they were dressed in torn and faded clothes and in obvious need of basic hygiene. They stood staring at me, saying nothing and occasionally wiping their runny noses on tattered sleeves.

What in the world was wrong with those kids? Then I realized they were not staring at me but at my lunch. They did not have their own lunch boxes or brown paper bags and it hit me that the reason was because those three children had no lunches. Not one apple or piece of cornbread, nothing. At my young age, I had no clue why, but knew for certain I could not eat lunch while they ate nothing. I motioned for the three to come over and then divided the sandwich and apple into equal parts and gave it to them. With big smiles they wolfed down the offered food and finishing, turned and returned to their desks. I drank a carton of milk for lunch that day.

My visit to Possum Hollow School was the first time I ever witnessed poverty or even knew about poor folks. I never once thought about my grandmother or people in the valley being poor. I believed it was simply the way they lived. The gut-wrenching poverty of families like those in the hollers taught me a lesson I never forgot. Whenever possible, help a neighbor out.






  

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Target of Life

Before computer and electronic games took over, boys of a certain age wanted only three things; a bicycle, a baseball glove or a BB gun. I was that kid and when I turned nine my father gave me the gift for which I had long pestered him- a Daisy pump-action 50 shot BB gun. His simple hand- written card read, “Aim high at the target of life.”

For the first week I practiced on tin cans and bottles until one day I was drawn across the road to the abandoned orange grove. Maybe there would be some leftover oranges I could shoot.

About thirty yards from the nearest tree I noticed a rustling in the tall weeds and soon a covey of quail emerged. I doubted I could even shoot that far and without thinking raised the gun, sighted on the first quail and fired.

To my horror I hit it. The injured bird leapt into the air but fell heavily back to earth.  In a fit of pain, it ran in circles dragging its broken wing. Frightened and unsure what to do, I ran home and told my father.

I expected to be punished and perhaps have the gun taken away. Instead my father stopped work and sat down beside me on the couch. He told me the quail would never be the same again. Unable to fly, it would be easy prey for a hawk or a cat. “You need to go back and put that bird out of its misery.”

I ran from the house filled with anger and dismay. How could he say such a thing. Pacing back and forth in the yard, it finally dawned on me, I had no other choice. My anger now replaced by a gnawing dread, I picked up the gun and walked back to the orange grove.

I prayed the quail was only dazed and had flown away. Or maybe it was already dead. Either event would have let me off the hook. But no such luck. Nearing the orange tree, I saw that it was still there, sitting quietly in the green shadows.

At my approach, the quail roused itself, ran a short distance and stopped. It could not fly, that much was clear, but it was also very much alive. If I were to get a good shot, I would have to chase the bird down. And so I did, running through the orange grove after the quail, pumping the BB gun and firing away. In any other situation, it would have been a comical sight. But there in that moment, I felt like a bumbling shameful boy.

After a half-dozen or so wild shots, I saw that some had hit home. The quail slowed considerably and once more began running in circles. This time I was able to come quite close to the injured bird. I pumped and fired again and again, now hitting it with every shot.

But the quail would not die and could only flop about on the ground. I felt utterly alone and helpless. In such an agitated state, I remembered the big game hunter’s advice, “Always aim for the head." But with the bird’s flopping around, I knew that would be impossible.

I had to find a way to hold the quail still. The poor creature, now oblivious to me, came quite close. In a rush, I knew what had to be done. Quickly I placed my foot on its quivering body, took aim and fired. And with tears streaming down my face, I fired again and again until the quail no longer moved.

Then I turned, walked out of the grove and back to the house where my father waited. Without a word, I crossed the living room to the hall closet and placed the BB gun there. I never picked it up again.









Monday, September 5, 2016

Can You Talk?



Then there’s this. You get a phone call from a friend you haven’t talked to in a while. He wants to know how you are doing but before you can even answer begins a long winded monologue about his sciatica, his lousy job, his terrible next door neighbor and something about the government.

Eventually he stops to breathe and you have a chance to talk about your cats or your art work or your hernia, but before you can finish he interrupts, “I know exactly what you’re talking about. The very same thing happened to me,” and he’s off and running again.

You realize the only way to get a word in edgewise is to talk over the friend. But he just starts talking louder and you talk louder and pretty soon the two of you are having a shouting match.

Well, that’s not working so you try the opposite approach and say nothing, just throwing in an occasional “yes” or “I know” to let him know you’re still alive. After a while even that gets tiring and you go stone cold silent.

Finally the friend recognizes that you are not agreeing with him about the high cost of his hip replacement and the jerk who cut him off on the way to Publix. Taking a concerned tone for the first time in the conversation, he asks:

“You’re not saying much today. Are you feeling ok?”


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Small Talk



What did you say? I can’t understand you. You’re mumbling again.
Oh, you want breakfast. Why didn’t you say so, instead of pacing back and forth like that.
OK, you don’t have to get all pouty about it. I wish someone would wait on me like I wait on you. I’m really getting tired of it.
Yeah, I know you can’t cook. Every day you remind me of it. And another thing, could you please stop making those noises when you eat. It’s irritating.
Yes, I know about your condition. Just eat already, while I finish the laundry.
OK, once again I can’t hear you. I’m in the laundry room. What? Yes, I fluff dried your precious pillow. You know, the next time you decide to get sick, just maybe be near the toilet like everyone else. This stain is just not coming out.
No, I’m certainly not making light of your condition. I’m just saying….
Now wait a minute, what’s my mother got to do with this? Well, how could she know you’re allergic to tuna?
Why are you looking at me like that? 
Oh, so now it’s the silent treatment. Look, I’ve just about had it with you. I’m getting out of here for a while.
All right, I thought that would get your attention. Where am I going? Where do I always go Tuesday afternoon? The grocery store of course.
Oh, don’t start on that again. I did not forget you last week or the week before. OK, smart aleck, here’s the grocery list. What’s the very first item? That’s right, Kibbles! I rest my case!"

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Furry Bodhisattva


I keep having this recurring dream where I’m in a fascinating conversation with Andre, that great wisdom teacher from the movie My Dinner With Andre. In this episode we’re talking about cats and not those funny snuggly pets we see on Facebook. Andre takes a sip of champagne and leans forward.

“No, I’m talking about cats as these wise spiritual beings who have been sent back to this material dimension.”

“But why and by whom?” I interrupt.

“Well, this is what I think. There are these highly evolved Elders, who are special beings existing in the ethereal dimension and whose sole purpose is to teach us abiding and unconditional love. Their helpers on this mission are cats who are sent back here as messengers
.
Andre glances around and leans in closer. “But here’s the thing. I don’t think they’re as much messengers as they are mirrors.”

“Mirrors? I don’t get it."

“Don’t you see? Cats teach us by becoming mirrors for what we need to deal with in our lives. They throw-up on the kitchen floor and become a mirror for our anger. They can’t decide whether to come in or go out and become a mirror for our impatience.

Doris and I once had a beautiful rescue tabby we named Chloe. Well, Chloe had this habit of running off every time we let her outside. Hours would pass and we became very anxious. We drove all over the neighborhood, asking everyone if they had seen her. But when we returned home still anxious and now exhausted, there was Chloe waiting for us on the back steps.

It took a long time but we finally realized that Chloe’s roaming habit was a mirror for our anxiety about losing control. After that we let Chloe do what she wanted to and we learned a lesson in trust.”

“But what happened to Chloe?”

“Eventually she ran off and didn’t come back. We asked around and posted photos but somehow knew that she would not be returning. Doris said she thought Chloe’s job here was done and she had reported back to the Elders."




Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Critic


For many years I participated in the Florida outdoor art show circuit. During those years I set up my tent in venues ranging from parking lots and piers to cow pastures and river banks. One of the prettiest shows took place in Tarpon Springs in a park by one of the many bayous that weave through the beautiful city.

And every year I was fortunate to land the same spot right next to the water and under a lovely water oak tree. One of its spreading branches dipped low over the sidewalk, even forcing tall visitors to duck their heads. After a while the tree became the main attraction and more than one person called to their friends that the stately oak should win Best of Show.

Two long time collectors often came to the show in a boat and if I was lucky, they returned home with a piece of my art leaning in the stern. The quirky nature of the Tarpon show always made it fun to do.

But after several years my sales dried up and I began wondering whether I should even participate anymore. For every positive reason there were one or two negative ones; too hard to get to, no parking, no artist dinner, no sales.

During one particularly dismal show I had decided that unless some miracle happened I would not do it again. Sunday afternoon rolled around with only a couple measly sales to show for it and no miracle on the horizon. Against all rules, I decided to start breaking down my art display early. The worst they could do would be to blackball me from the show. Thank you very much.

Around 4:30 I took several small pieces off the wall and leaned them against the display. Maybe I could get a jump on the other artists and say sayonara to Tarpon Springs. Just then, an old acquaintance stopped by to say hello and listen to my moaning about the show.

While we were standing there chatting, he looked past me to my display and broke into a broad grin. I turned just in time to see a dog of indefinite lineage lift its scrawny leg on one of the drawings.

Thus relieved, the cur sauntered off, leaving me, for once, at a loss for words. My acquaintance, when he was able to stop laughing, pointed at the disappearing dog.

“Looks like everybody's a critic!”

                                                                    


  

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Call For Art


Above is an image I recently created and one that I’ve titled Disdain. Its completion brought some satisfaction but left me with a nagging question. Is it art? Right now I’m not sure it even fits that category. But first allow a brief backstory.

Years ago I pulled a photo from a nature magazine of a smug African Baboon taking the sun. A compelling image, I tucked it away like many other photos for future reference. Some years later I scanned the photo and saved it in a large ‘miscellaneous photos’ folder. There it languished until the other night when I came upon an unusual image posted on Facebook. An artist had edited a photo of a woman in Photoshop by applying a special effect filter. The result resembled an abstract painting and the post comments congratulated the artist on a unique and beautiful work of art.

But was it art or even intended to be art? While pondering that, I remembered the odd baboon photo and decided to try my hand in Photoshop. I am by no means a Photoshop Master, but within a short time had created the above image.

At this early stage, could I dare call it art? Perhaps I could if following Marcel Duchamp’s dictum, “Art is whatever I say is art.” Going further, I might copy the image to a CD, take it to a fine art printer and have a 5’ image printed on canvas. Placed on a museum-wrap stretcher, the work would get a few strokes of oil pigment and voila, it would be done. The mixed-media painting is finally hung in an art gallery with a hefty price tag. On opening night a wealthy wine merchant from Argentina purchases Disdain for $14,500. Here at last, with conviction, could I dare call it art? Or, at that point, perhaps I should not say a word.



Friday, April 8, 2016

The Question


Recently I gave a talk about my art in connection with an exhibition at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa. Afterwards visitors asked general questions about my process, about materials and inspiration. Near the end of the evening, an art student approached me with what turned out to be the most important question. Important because it gave me pause and continues to perplex.

How, she asked, would I respond to certain people who might charge that I am appropriating important and even sacred cultural symbols and beliefs. The question caught me off guard and I’m afraid my answer might not have been satisfactory.

I told her that artists down the ages have sampled ideas and images from other cultures. Their appropriations were deemed valid because under the artists’ creative influences the images became part of unique new art works. Picasso, van Gogh, and Gauguin, in particular, were adept at re-interpreting ‘foreign’ artistic styles.

The student’s question may have been in reference to a piece in the exhibition titled “Singing The World.” The title is based on an Australian native people’s story of how the world and everything in it were created. The painting features an image of a kangaroo and a style that harkens back to Aboriginal art.

My intent is not to disrespect Aboriginal culture but to celebrate it and to do so in a way that is unique and true to my particular vision. And I believe the piece fits in seamlessly with the other works in the exhibition.

I’m thankful the young woman asked me that question because it continues to bring up other questions. How would native Australians respond to “Singing The World”? Perhaps they would have no objections to it and could even come to celebrate the painting. Could it be that in modern society's rush to be politically correct, we simply reject that which we don't understand? I wonder.