Painting A Way

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The piece associated with this introduction was not written as a story or article. It is a how-to letter to a friend. But I find it very interesting and share-worthy. I asked Gail if I could put it in TennesseeSoul and she relented.

The aim of TennesseeSoul, or one of the main aims, is to share the ordinary about a small community of people who try their best to survive by keeping productive and endeavoring to discover new things about their world on a daily basis. It is not intended to be showy or prissy professional in the top-drawer sense favored by snobs and academics.

When I read this letter, I wanted to paint. Gail makes it seem very doable. She makes painting a way of life.

I completely revolt against anyone telling anyone else they should not pursue a process that may make them happy, especially when that activity is harmless and more than likely will enrich the practitioner and, perhaps, an audience, no matter how small.

I want my epitaph to read: “TennesseeSoul: He tried.” Some wiseacres quip that life is eighty percent showing up. It’s not quite as easy as that; if it is, get a life. I believe life is at least half trying for even a mediocre existence in sustainable harmony with our world. And mediocre life is pretty good life indeed when you look around at many of the alternatives.

Gail’s simple letter about painting is about far more than painting. The act of painting leads a way to discovery and sustained harmony.

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Still Life

Our widowed friend paints life still:

each object vibrates color;

vessels brim with promise past,

with memories vaguely shaken.

Repeating acts for themselves,

sublime grasp of the moment,

each stroke observes one forward step,

one backward glance forsaken.

Still life is breath, no less,

when human hands and eyes behold

what minds and hearts embrace,

what sharing lives awaken.

Sinkholes: Pond Swallow in the Swamps

Ponds, objects d’art and all that…

by Airbeebo

As we decide what to move, give away or heave, the object d’art that started yours truly down a long dead-end road surfaced.

It is a piece of grey granite, the top half polished, faceted surfaces of no discernible pattern; the lower half mimics the upper but its finish is the last pass of a surfacing hammer. The granite sits atop a distressed wooden stand approximately half the size of the stone. It is a piece of no particular merit or interest, but it won either second or third place at a Mid-South Fair art contest.

That metastasized into serious delusions of talent, resulting in, among other things, a move to New England.

We have used this object d’art as a somewhat overly large doorstop. Since most of the doors at our new house are pocket doors, its future efficacy is dubious.

Mrs. D. (who has heard its history but am sure does not recall it) opined we should give it to the Salvation Army or the church thrift store. Methinks it would gather dust at either place until some poor soul herniated himself taking it to the dumpster.

A strategy from the past welled up in my tiny little brain. Thirty years ago, when going through my last divorce, my second ex-wife had left a number of her undergraduate efforts in pottery and sculpture behind as she moved on to greener fields. Not wishing to have anything stand in the way of the legal dissolution of our failed marriage, left every one of them exactly where they were the day she left. A day or so after the final decree, loaded them all into the wheelbarrow and dumped them in the small, deep pond behind my high-roofed house in the country.

Tomorrow Mrs. D. is driving to the city to have lunch with former co-workers. Will take the opportunity to dump the above described object d’art into our pond.

Perhaps hundreds of years from now a typically daft academic type will find it and attribute whatever significance the current orthodoxy demands to it – or not.

* * *

Well…yesterday, while Mrs. D. was in town, yours truly took the referenced award-winning doorstop and consigned it to the depths of our pond out by the canal.

Last night as I was coming in from the garage, Mrs. D. was in the foyer and pointing down to the spot once occupied by the award-winning doorstop and inquired of its location.

Advised her of its current location.

“Well. You need to go get it.”

“I thought you wanted it gone, so….”

“I’ve rethought it and now think we should keep it.”

Sixty-six years on this planet, ’50s/’60s parochial-school background, scout training, two failed marriages, quasi-military training, dead-end jobs…have finally learned to keep my mouth shut in some situations.

Looked at her with as normal an expression as possible and merely shrugged my shoulders.

She said nothing more, turned and proceeded down the hall.

It is possible that in the next few days or weeks, may be required to mount a rescue operation – or not. Regardless, will not mention it…ever…and trust this was just a passing fancy.

Icons of Affection

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Art is a loaded concept. To ordinary Americans, always sniffing about something, it smells of pretense, fastidiousness (or slovenliness), delusion, and wasted time. If and when we think of ART, we associate it with Europe, museums, odd living arrangements, and media stories about outrageous sales prices at auction houses. Or we think of it as decoration to fill empty spaces.

What has no price is worthless in most quarters. Art as a commodity is the order of the day. Art as an ordinary activity is…well, befuddling.

Forays into the forbidding world of art, though personally rewarding and mind-expanding at times, generally go nowhere – except to a box hidden under the bed or to the attic or, if elevated above dismal, on the wall of an out-of-the-way room. Still the mind carries on, trying to connect, trying to understand – and perhaps gradually evolving to see more and more in more places. With time, one relaxes prejudices and self-deprecations and learns to coexist in parallel planes. After years of misses, one sometimes begins to understand the nearness of the creative process to skilled labor and simple, clear-headed insights.

Images persist while everything but gene exchange and self-extinction lapses. Adaptation builds and fades. What remains, if anything, are images and the changing values placed on them. The world itself, and its history, becomes a string of disparate, discontinuous movie frames.

Actually, it is much funnier than that, but only rarely. It is humorous when we think about art and its creators caught up in existential questioning amid all the fuss. It is painfully funny when we imagine someone else, too much like ourselves in this respect, repeatedly stumping a toe on an award-winning sculpture used as a doorstop, then ditching the whole enterprise in philosophical and exasperated revolt.

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Entirely Myself

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There is ever unfinished business.

Uncertainty is a nagging demon, inflaming doubt, tempting inaction. Calm determination and experience give us the tools to weigh importance. They give us steady balance and courage to step from shadows, beyond the captivating flatness of certainty, to practice and play in our given fields – the ones we inherit, the ones we earn. They give us the sense to discern when to venture out, when to stay home.

Never so foolish as when ever safe, never so damned as when never tied.

There are ever matters to finish – until there are no matters at all.

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Odd Man Out

When you travel, particularly if you take photographs and take note of the people and places you visit, it is easy to see your relationship with foreign places and people as being one where you are on the outside looking in. That is not necessarily the whole truth about the nature and consequences of the transaction.

Although I spent many weeks traveling in Central America in 1973 – and with a companion who also carried a valuable camera – there is not a single photograph of me among those remaining from the journey. (There might have been a couple taken, but my companion lost his complete film record from atop a Volkswagen Beetle during a move within a year of returning to Memphis.)

I certainly took no self-portraits, nor did I ask a local inhabitant or a fellow traveler to take a photograph of me standing before an important cultural site. (I wish I had asked.) Therefore, initially, I viewed myself as being on the outside looking in on a culture, observing differences that were supposed to be foreign to me, but never viewing myself as part of the picture.

In time, however, in a slowly revelatory way reminiscent of the movie Blowup, when I enlarged and studied the people frozen in my photographs, I began to see that my subjects were observing me, too. In fact, in a deeply reflective exercise, I saw that I was observing myself, along with my hosts, through the act of photography. Going further in this exercise, in terms of both my photographs and my notes, I came to see the trip as a flushing and fleshing out of identity – a transformative journey made by watching myself in a foreign context, where the context, even if at times a caustic compound of heat, grime, privation, isolation, exoticism, and tedium, was both a stimulate and a healing aid toward a path of personal resolution.

The details of that resolution are grainy now as then, but the process and conclusions are clearer. A photographic image of ourselves in distant places offers little insight, though it can be a pleasure and a mile post to others who know us. The impression that we project and recall, at home and abroad, in our commerce with matters foreign is the souvenir that gives and endures.

I see nothing in my old photographs that render my image as a traveler as intrusive or unwelcome, as beggarly or greedy, as uninterested or mean. By traveling, I took a part of my culture to my hosts and they pointed me home again by being themselves, uninhibited and unthreatened by my presence.

The ancient Greeks had it down to a tittle: our duty as hosts and sojourners, at home and abroad, is kindness to strangers from afar who are on the road with us. As visitors, we owe it to pay our way by sharing, demanding little, and leaving a small footprint – and by fair observation, remembrance, and gratitude.

When we notice an immigrant – if indeed we are privileged to do so – we tend to see an outsider looking in. But the immigrant is a conduit for our seeing a foreign culture, for our seeing potential for ourselves. We are then on the inside looking out along with the visitor – or we should be, if we intend to reap full advantage of our being graced by a visitor who wants to be part of us – who wants to learn and mimic our ways while among us.

The odd man out, then, is not the man who is left out of the picture. He is the man who neglects the essentials of his own survival by failing to behold the foreign, by failing to wisely seize and invest impressions of a predictably surprising world full of shooting stars and common wonders.

My photographs, journals, and musings from this travel are an open door on a perplexing, perilous, marvelous, and vulnerable world. Despite its plainness, it is a view of ceaseless bewilderment in the presence of bountiful variety and inevitable similarity.

The foreign is among us constantly. We stand unfulfilled if we do not embrace it as our own while allowing it to be foreign and itself. Foreign to none, all is foreign. Foreign to much, much is freshly familiar – the necessary spur to our ascent.

Lyceum Film Theater

Downtown After Dark: Dark No More

Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!

A long run is not always clear from the beginning. For certain, bridging the distance starts, and continues, in small, ordinary steps. But the power of enthusiasm can slow with drudgery and diminishing returns.

Pretense is a powerful force in human affairs. It touches the functioning of friendships, families, social groups, communities – and even nations. One starts out pretending to be a head of household and then a parent. Then one day, others in one’s family enforce one’s provisional assumption of roles by pretending to act as if those roles are genuine and fitting – as if to say that one’s expression of duties conform in some way to conventional standards of behavior acceptable to one’s community.

In such a way, Fronts Street Arts, in Downtown Memphis, pretended to assert local cultural significance. And then gradually, others in the community pretended that in some regard it mattered. I pretended to be an impresario, a general director, a person with novel ideas about Downtown recovery in which average people played a part. Then, a few others, particularly very generous friends, pretended to act their parts in concert with my pretenses. Pretending made it so for a long six-year run for me personally. In the end, that community theater of group make believe was snuffed out by accumulated drudgery and divergent interests: new pretenses arose and were applied elsewhere.

Baby Boomers have a reputation as being all for themselves, at least that is what some of the generation wedged between the World War II generation and the Baby Boomers claim – as do those overly repentant Baby Boomers who have let a pendulum of irrationality swing wildly to the right. But Baby Boomers had a curious way of wrapping some kind of community or passionate political involvement into their self-interests. For thirty years, some of us have clearly not been as vigorously attached as before, but many Baby Boomers did act in their twenties. And some exemplary few continued to draw and maintain a consistent line of connection between their self-interests and the public interest.

A child of Baby Boomers might well ask himself, What might I do to enrich the public arena in ways that suit my self-interests and capabilities? Aside from commitments to professional public service and charity, what can younger generations do to effect change at the level of their own brick-and-mortar communities – the world they actually live in? Local seems, and is, so small, but it is everything in the aggregate. And nothing much happens for good locally without personal initiative and inventive group coordination and passion.

In movies and books, I cannot abide an otherwise good story that resolves itself with gunshots or an explosion. Those are cheap shots that do not build and do not satisfy: they change nothing for the better – they are a manufactured stop rather than a fruitful pretense forward. Contrary to rightist mythology, it is not the gun that is the great equalizer of mankind: it is creativity. That creativity can stand in solitary surroundings, but even on its own it tips the balance in favor of community good. Creativity is the thunderous sound that requires no ears to hear it. It is the blood pulsing through our veins. Creative individuals are the building blocks of community whether they like it or not. If they share their fire with others in common cause, concerted acts redound positively to posterity. Though these pretenses may end, perhaps in drudgery and diminishing returns – more often than not, they are much better stories than those that lead to gunshots and explosions.

Read the story of Lyceum Film Theater here.

Painting Eyes

I vividly recall the moment, at twenty-one years of age, when the fire in my belly was finally lit. I was living on Watauga Avenue in a duplex near Memphis State University. Three of my closest college friends, including the young woman who would become my wife four years later, had left Memphis after graduation to work abroad in England on an archaeological dig in Winchester. I was left entirely to my own devices.

The world of art fascinated me but seemed too remote from the life that I lived. I knew little about drawing and painting, but I had become interested in them due to reading history, casual encounters in conversations with friends and a college mentor, photographs in books, and a course in art history that I took late in my college career.

One lonely night, I picked up a pencil and a drawing pad and proceeded to draw a copy of Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque. I completed the drawing that night. I was utterly astounded by the grayscale textures that I had produced in translation of the richly colored original. I marveled at the optical illusions that could issue from a simple pencil applied in various ways to a white sheet of paper.

From that spark, I went from thinking that I could do nothing well to believing that I could do anything. Pencil drawing proved not to be as enticing as painting, but the embers of one night and a singular experience with the odalisque, fueled my determination to go farther.

The more I looked at that drawing over the years, the more distorted and unnatural it looked. My confidence in my achievement eroded as the being that I drew seemed contorted in an impossible position, having body parts in ridiculous places. The size of the head in relation to the long body and big butt made my odalisque look more like an invented animal hybrid than an inviting young concubine.

Only in writing this introduction, and looking up the spelling of the original painting’s name, did I look again at the painting on Wikipedia. I had no idea all of those years that Ingres had been roundly criticized about the exotic distortions that he had imposed on the poor odalisque’s torso. Her fanciful anatomy, further exaggerated by my copy, had been a deliberate enhancement by Ingres.

What had Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres done in 1814 to open the newborn painting eyes of an eager young novice on Watauga Avenue in 1971? He had employed his own painting eyes to express the world of his own day in the full light and color of his own mind – with no intention whatsoever of replicating reality.

Read it here.

Party Crashing a Mission Town

Patterns from a Rooftop: Chapter 1

I did not want to go to Central America in the spring of 1973. I was tired of travel. I wanted work – I needed work. But what work should I do?

Poverty seemed to litter every road south. There was quite enough of it in Memphis already. Why seek it out?

Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras were somewhat as expected, but better and worse. Being there then was useful in totally unexpected ways. Sitting alone in late afternoon in Antigua, Guatemala, I decided on a direction for the remainder of my life.

Read it here.

Start the full journey here for the series Patterns from a Rooftop.

Party Crashing a Mission Town
Patterns from a Rooftop: Chapter 1
Read it here.
Preface & Reader Response

Resurrecting Small
Patterns from a Rooftop: Chapter 2
Read it here.
Preface & Reader Response

Drawn to Scale
Patterns from a Rooftop: Chapter 3
Read it here.
Preface & Reader Response

On the Lip of Languor
Patterns from a Rooftop: Chapter 4
Read it here.
Preface & Reader Response

Raising Ruins
Patterns from a Rooftop: Chapter 5
Read it here.
Preface & Reader Response

Epiphany at Atitlan
Patterns from a Rooftop: Chapter 6
Read it here.
Preface & Reader Response

Wheels Up, Trujillo
Patterns from a Rooftop: Chapter 7
Read it here.
Preface & Reader Response

Tractors Are Us

Low Idles

I am the proud owner of a copy of Medieval Technology and Social Change by Lynn White, Jr. (Oxford University Press, 1962, 1967). In this old hardcover book, the author documents the dramatic alterations specific technological innovations wrought on Western culture. Not all of the advances originated in the West, but the adoption, adaptations, and application by the West more than made up for an absence of authorship. It is a very good thing for the West that there were no prevailing patent laws back in the early Middle Ages. Wholesale theft of other people’s innovations was a practiced Western art form. For example, the humble stirrup and lowly heavy plough revolutionized warfare and agriculture. This slight book, obtained decades ago, forced me to look at gadgets and machinery in different ways. Afterward, I saw more than a touch of art in the most rust- and grease-bound objects found in junk yards and the dark corners of old barns. Though I dearly love working with wood and the look of wood finishes, the difficulty of fabricating metal pieces casts an artful aura over the disintegrating remains of once-powerful machines. Delicacy alone means less amid a craving for things brutal upon which one can firmly stand and jump. But delicacy joined with practical effectiveness yields stronger substance still.

The new story in TennesseeSoul has little to do with this preface. Or does it?

Read it here.