Friday, April 10, 2009

To a Life . . . Well and Truly Lived

My Dad, Lake Charles, LA, early 1940s


At about this time one week ago, I was rousing myself out of bed in my pastel pink walled hotel room on Florida's central west coast. My father's funeral was just a couple hours away and I readied myself for what I knew would be a day filled with extremes of emotion. The night had been a restless one. I kept stirring awake through the night, each time my head filled with jumbled thoughts of what I might try and say, in brief, about my father's life. Not until the last waking, about the time the sky was beginning to brighten in the east, did thoughts of legacy enter my mind . . . legacies, yes . . . those things we leave to those who come after.

I think of myself as a pretty creative guy. I think I see the world and the things in it in a slightly different way than most might. I think I often find stunning interest in the smallest of details and the most mundane of objects. I think I am drawn to see things in contrast; light against dark, soft against hard, rough against smooth. I think I see things in these ways because that is the way my father saw the world. I think I am the artist I am now because those aspects of the way my father focused on certain things and his intensely creative genes, flow through me.



As I stood on Friday morning last week and attempted, through tear filled eyes, to speak as clearly as I could about my father's influence on me, it began to fall apart. The emotion and utter inability for me to remain in control made it difficult for me to say everything I had wanted to say. In the end, it seemed that all I could do was manage a few jumbled sentences about legacy and art and creative souls and the beauty of my father's photography and the way in which I felt his creativeness, perhaps now, coursed through me.

As is the case with many father and son relationships, my dad and I did not always see eye to eye about things; politics, the state of the world, spend versus save, how best to do things, how best to make a way in this world. I would admit that as a child I was a pretty ornery guy and I am certain that this caused much anxiety and tension in our house.

When it came time for me to be a graduate from high school and make some decisions about what I was going to do, I chose art school and I was never sure that this set well with my father. I think he understood just how tough a road that would be to travel and, perhaps, the difficulties I would face trying to make a living as an artist. I cannot say that I felt outright encouragement to pursue this direction but I can also not say that I felt discouragement either. At the time, I simply went on my way.



Now to back up a bit, my father had painted in his high school years and after. I was not really completely aware of this fact till I was in my twenties I guess. But I do recall as a young child, seeing various canvases in closets or stashed away in corners of our little apartments as we moved from one to another. He continued to paint now and again, when time allowed I guess, as he needed to focus on supporting his family and painting time took a back seat to the needs of work. I have memory of his final painting that was done during one summer in my very early teens. It was a seascape with a clipper ship and it hung in my parent's bedroom for many years. I now have two of my dad's early 'teen years' paintings, one of which now hangs in my bedroom. I also have a fuller appreciation for what had always seemed to me to be my dad's ambivalence toward my desires to become an artist as I see that he had faced the tough choice himself of having to let that creative aspect of his early life go by in order to put food on the table and the sacrifices he made to that end.

And now, fast forward to last summer and the opening weekend of my Unknown Bridges exhibition at the Woodson Art Museum. My dad and step mother were able to be there for the opening and, as I had begun to sense during recent years with my father's more supportive, encouraging comments, I felt all had finally come full circle. I began to realize that, after all the years that I spent doing 'other things' to make money and keep a roof over my head, these last almost 20 years as a functioning, professional artist were being embraced by my dad and that he actually had pride in the fact that I had been able to make a name for myself in the art world. This all seemed to jell into one of those cogent moments, when understanding becomes crystal clear and all things in the world are right and true and good, on that Sunday evening when, after a nice relaxing dinner, as I dropped off my dad and step mother at their hotel, he turned to me and said, "And to think that I used to beat your butt!".

It was during that Sunday evening dinner that the conversation turned to wondering what to do with my dad's huge inventory of photos, now that my dad and step mother had moved and there was no longer as much room to store year's worth of large photo prints that my dad had developed in over 25 years of working in his dark room, that an idea hit me.

Backing up just a bit here, it was tremendously gratifying for me as his son, to see in his retirement years, that my father had been able to, once again, call upon those long dormant creative juices that had once been inspiring to him as a young man. With his retirement to Florida, he began an intense relationship with his camera. He had always taken family snaps as my sister and I grew up as well as to document the many trips that he and our mother took to far off places. But, the enthusiasm with which he jumped full tilt into photography was something very special at that time. Within a short time of their move to Florida, my father helped to co-found a camera club in the town in which they settled and in short order the club grew in membership and creative talent.

My father spent hours enjoying the challenges of working in his dark room, a space which he had carved out of a portion of the two car garage of their first house in Florida. He relished working in black and white and developing his skills, studying the approach of those such as Ansel Adams. Though influenced by others, my dad surely developed his own style, his own way of seeing, his own way of focusing, his own way of design and composition, his own way of seeking out the subjects that were of interest to him.



And so, over the course of the 20 plus years of his involvement with the camera club, as President and in other office holding positions, and as a contributing member to the ongoing juries and competitions that the club sponsored, he amassed a huge number of large scale prints that continued to 'pile up' in his garage. Reluctant to divest himself of these beautiful images, the time had finally come, with a move to a new house and that lack of storage capacity, when he was trying to think of some way to make use of all that wonderful work.

Here is where my idea returns to the picture . . . why couldn't I, as a surprise, publish a book of his images so that they would be available in a more easily held and kept-for-future format? With his upcoming 90th birthday this May in sight, would this not be a very fitting way to not only celebrate his incredible talent with the camera, but to also give well earned testament to his 90 years on this earth?

With the help of my step mother, who over the course of a month or so was able to surreptitiously glean a large number of mounted 16 x 20 and 14 x 18 photos from the huge collection in the garage and ship them off to me, and gathering up some images that I already had in my possession, I was able to pull together well over 100 fine images to work from. I set about to digitize all of them and then to pick out the ones that best spoke of my dad's great ability to compose, focus and amaze to make up the book.



As time drew near back in January for coordination of travel plans for my sister and I and our step mother's children and grand children to converge on the central west coast of Florida at the end of May for a surprise birthday celebration for my dad, the book was printed in enough copies for all involved to have.

With my father's sudden death at the end of March, he never got to see the book. He did however, have the incredible good fortune to have seen with his own eyes, everything that made him the terrific photographer and true artist that he was. His eyes saw, first hand, the beauty of the diverging angles of his choices of subject, the abstract qualities of every day matter, the beauty of simple line and shape and form. His eyes saw, first hand, the intensity of light and shadow that seemed to permeate every photograph that he took. His eyes focused on the details that so many miss or pass by without taking notice of. His eyes saw things in ways that others could not initially see and he made images of such profound beauty and strength that they, then, could not help but see.

I feel my father's work was true artistry in all senses of the word and take great pride in posting just a few of the images that spoke to him and demanded that he make them available for others to savor.















2 comments:

Revelle said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. I don't think most parents think artists can earn a loving, and I'm sure when he saw that you can and have, he was so proud and nostalgic for what could have been his life. And I'm sure he was so proud of you!
REvelle

black bear cabin said...

What a wonderful story of you and your fathers relationship. Im sad that he never got to see the wonderful book you put together for him...but happy to know that future generations will be able to enjoy his vision for years to come.
There are some beautiful images in your post...i particularly like the empty pews with the light coming in the window...stunning! A lovely tribute to your father, and im sure he loves it. Im sorry for your loss, but happy for the wonderful memories you have, and have shared with us!