This photo was taken from the town of Mufulira, Zambia, where I was privileged to meet some of the most loving and gracious people on earth. I left a piece of my heart there and yet came back more full than when I’d left.
I found this scan while sifting through [and trying to organize] hundreds of pictures I’ve filed away over the years. It is a watercolor of a girl I met in an Indian village outside Kolkata when I visited in November 2005. This is the painting I donated to the art auction two years ago to raise money for the last Zambia team. Appropriate that I should rediscover it now. I’m so looking forward to meeting the faces of Africa! Six days.
Two Junes ago, I took a walk and came upon Wilbur Niewald painting the West Bottoms from Riverfront Park. It was a moment I didn’t fully appreciate at the time, as fellow city park characters suggest a mutual commonality. Day-to-day happenings tend to wear an innate normalcy, the everyday jacket. I think of Mr. Niewald on early morning walks such as today, when the lighting is just dreamy enough to wonder about things.
I’ve been considering what I’ve come to term “the dignity of notice.” I see it in friends and family, and it never ceases to inspire. My brother Brandon, in spite of diagnosed autism [which is often characterized by emotional disconnect], can sense the slightest sadness and is the first to offer a hug. My friend Corie, a photographer, sees through chaos and clutter and makes details and moments something beautiful. My friend Dighton, age 13, is a perpetual complimenter. While I might notice someone’s smile, or dress, or hat, or hair, she actually says it out loud, and it never fails to brighten someone’s day. I believe this dignity of notice may be more powerful than I’ve supposed, even if we feel we have nothing to give.
This idea was reinforced for me earlier in the week at a gas station. I walked in to buy a box of sour patch kids and passed a young Muslim couple trying to start their car. When I came back out, they were still there, and I felt like God wanted me to ask if they needed jumper cables. In a moment of uncharacteristic practicality, I checked my trunk to see if I actually had jumper cables. I did not, so I got in my car and started to leave. Ask if they need jumper cables. I carried on a brief argumentative dialogue with God before asking the young man and then explaining that I didn’t have any. He struggled to understand, partly because his English was poor, but more obviously because I had just offered. As we went back and forth, a man next to us overheard and pulled cables from his truck bed. The young man thanked me. I thanked the man in the truck. I wished them all a lovely afternoon and went on my way. It turned out to be the bright spot of my day.
I realize, of course, that I was a peripheral figure in the gas station impasse. Had I not been there, cables would have come—maybe from the man in the truck, or maybe shortly thereafter from someone else. But, I’d like to think that reaching out meant something, if only to say that they were important enough to wait for. Action makes notice powerful—a tandem force.
In art, the action we couple with notice offers a unique interpretation. The action manifests in a thousand decisions along the way—choice of hue, value, texture, broad or fine strokes. It’s no longer simply the way it is, but the way we see it.
Wilbur Niewald paints from observation. In the 1970s, his process evolved from painting abstract work conceived from his own mind to painting from direct observation. This progression, Niewald says, “was one of the most liberating experiences of my life.” His style could be called an agreement between realism and abstraction. Conversely, in my own experience, I’ve [slowly] taken creative liberty to loosen my bent toward photorealism.
As I overlooked the sun-washed city where I’d seen Mr. Niewald, it occurred to me that we are not familiar with the objective landscape. We are acquainted with shadows. Sun, clouds, rain, and snow change. Buildings rise and fall. Streets are paved. Bricks erode. New graffiti covers old boxcars, and trains roll to the next town. The cityscape changes—like the familial, social, and political. We respond with varying colors. There’s a vulnerability in imposing personal value in the struggle for objective rights and rules. You become responsible.
The “Golden Rule” teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s dignity of notice put into action. Love is constant, but the response looks different from day to day. It may be a hug, a card, a kind word, or a quest for jumper cables.
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” —Proverbs 25:11
Love is patient.
Love is kind.
Love does not envy.
Love does not boast.
Love is not proud.
Love does not dishonor others.
Love is not self-seeking.
Love is not easily angered.
Love keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
—1 Corinthians 13
One of my favorite creatives to follow on Instagram is jesselenz. From unruly little brother of my childhood best friend, to lead singer in a screamo band rolling across the states in a spray-painted van, to a graphic designer whose portfolio includes cover designs for Fortune, Entertainment Weekly, Wired, and Newsweek, to name a few, this 25-year-old is a story worth following. Here are a few favorites. For more snippets of creative brilliance, check out his website, jesselenz.com.
“I promise we will fly places.”
I walked into the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art on Friday and discovered Laura McPhee. After a tax-saturated week, I was pre-conditioned to be wooed by nearly any flavor of art and solitude, but almost a week later, I’m still daydreaming of stepping through her 6×8-foot photographs and floating through the brush and brambles of Sawtooth Valley, Idaho, where her series, entitled River of No Return, is set. No doubt the sheer size of each image was an intentional means of swallowing the audience in woods, sky, lake, warm and cold, mist and smoke. Even her portraits commanded full attention with their stoic, direct gaze.
I was taken by the first piece—Igloo Built from Downloaded Plans, Park Creek, Custer County, Idaho (March 2005)—which delighted my penchant for both nature and contrast. I love her sharp variation in lights and darks. I love the use of color temperature to accentuate mood, the creamy lemon against ultramarine. I love the invitation of grand scale. Most of all, I love the connections formed with old music, art, or poetry that is called to mind after having been filed away for a while.
Yesterday, over lunch, I re-read “The Hermit’s Story,” one of my favorite short stories, by Rick Bass. One reviewer said Bass “explores the mysterious and near-mythical connections between man and nature.” It’s true. “The Hermit’s Story” is about two people who get lost in a snow storm and spend a day and night under a frozen, drained lake.
The story flirts with the idea of myth in its imagery [though the hollowed lake is, in fact, a natural phenomenon]. Consider this delicious syntactic morsel: “…the tips of their torches’ flames seared the ice above them, leaving a drip behind and transforming the milky, almost opaque cobalt and orange ice behind them, wherever they passed, into wandering ribbons of clear ice, translucent to the sky—a script of flame…” Beautiful.
Still, the story remains grounded with raw and unapologetic descriptions of natural decay: “Blue creeping up fissures and cracks from depths of several hundred feet; blue working its way up through the gleaming ribs of Ann’s buried dogs; blue trailing like smoke from the dogs’ empty eye sockets and nostrils—blue rising as if from deep-dug chimneys until it reaches the surface and spreads laterally and becomes entombed, or trapped—but still alive, and drifting—within those moonstruck fields of ice.”
These contrasts, as with the visual form, heighten experience to an almost tangible extreme. It’s not just the survival plug of man versus nature, which is an obvious tension. It’s the more subtle details: dried cattails next to pools of marsh water; the tiny torches of fire beneath a ceiling of ice; the characters themselves, man and woman, old and young; the beasts and the birds.
River of No Return features birds in several photos with a young girl from the valley— Maddie in sneakers swaddling a chicken, Maddie in jeans holding a bourbon red turkey, Maddie in soft blue chiffon with a northern red-shafted flicker. In the fourth image of Maddie, there is no bird. She’s wearing her grandmother’s wedding dress, one hand gently folded on top of the other.
Because I’m personally inclined to marinate in the romance of pastoral metaphor, I indulge in the symbolism of innocence, lightness of being, freedom, soaring to impossible heights, and then, of course, that final flight of glory. I love it. That Maddie essentially presents this life cycle in four successive pieces is especially intriguing—first cradling the full body, then clutching the feet, thirdly handling wings ever-so-lightly with her fingertips, and then the final release—all the while staring at her audience bold-faced.
McPhee has, in a sense, created a visual poem. The four stages call to mind the four seasons and traditional cyclic theme in pastoral poetry. John Kinsella, in one lecture on landscape theory from Contrary Rhetoric, said, “landscape poetry is concerned with how people go about managing, abusing, controlling, and freeing the land. It is a language of control and liberation at once.”
In Bass’s story, a flock of snipes is trapped beneath the ice ceiling. In their case, environment is outside of their control, and freedom becomes a matter of perseverance, of grace:
“Perhaps they had tried to migrate in the past but had found either their winter habitat destroyed or the path so fragmented and fraught with danger that it made more sense—to these few birds—to ignore the tugging of the stars and seasons and instead to try to carve out new lives, new ways of being, even in such a stark and severe landscape: or rather, in a stark and severe period—knowing that lushness and bounty were still retained with that landscape, that it was only a phase, that better days would come… Spring would come like its own green fire, if only the injured ones could hold on.”
Through the reflective glass of McPhee’s life-sized images, we literally see ourselves reflected in her terrain. She demands introspection. What we control and what we release, who we control and release, and even what and who we are controlled or released by becomes a negotiation. Perhaps awareness brings change, and perhaps not.
Zooming out to our broad theme, we have the river. The Nez Perce tribe called Idaho’s Salmon River the “river of no return” because its current was easy to travel down but nearly impossible to get back up. From here, our river splits into a thousand winding metaphors. Sometimes we choose our own tributary, as it were. At others it sweeps us under or off our feet. In any case, the current carries on.
My beloved spoke and said to me,
Arise, my darling,
My beautiful one, come with me.
See! The winter is past;
The rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth;
The season of singing has come,
The cooing of doves
Is heard in our land.
The fig tree forms its early fruit;
The blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
My beautiful one, come with me.
Song of Songs 2:10–13
Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.