By Richard Wagamese
In the distance, across the span of lake, clouds form above the water. Here in the mountains the division between rock and sky exists more as suggestion than hard delineation and clouds on the water have become as familiar as birds. Standing on the rock that anchors the boat landing you almost feel like a cloud yourself, floating over it all, free, wispy inside.
You tell yourself that you know the skin of this lake like your lover’s skin; a known territory, inhabited, rich and redolent with secrets. So you close your eyes and breathe it into you, the fecund promise of it thrust upward from the reeds and algae, life hard against your senses.
When you open them again there are birds sudden as a thought. They emerge from the reeds quietly, tiny skimming vessels, everywhere swimming. Two pair of geese with eleven goslings between them, grebes and mallards and perched impossibly on tips that should not hold their weight, red winged blackbirds like commas punctuating the stillness with their song.
It always amazes you how hard it is to learn to see things as they are, the secrets, as your people say, hidden in every leaf and rock. Even things as familiar as this waterside have mysteries you need discipline to learn to see.
When I was twenty-one I craved vision. It was 1976 and in the southern city where I lived the charcoal dimness of winter trapped me. Life was a drab slog of warehouse work and a small room above an alley with yellowed peeling walls and a radio for company. I was lonely and the slush of winter permeated me and everywhere was chill.
In the library one day I stumbled on a large oversized book left strewn open on the carrel where I often sat. My books were books of words and this one held photographic plates of paintings. At first I shoved it aside to make room for the handful of books I’d brought to study that day, Rimbaud’s poetry, a play by Eugene O’Neill, essays by Susan Sontag and the biography of Willie Mays.
But it held me. There was color there and it felt like a great wash of warmth against the grim working class tiredness I carried. It was huge and heavy and when I opened it, it felt like a great door thrown open on a new and exciting world. Color. Hues and tones of it I had never known before, combinations and textures that compelled the eye and I was snared in it.
It was a book about an artist named Gustav Klimt. He was a rebel and in the world of the late 1800s he was criticized for his work. I couldn’t see why. Page after page presented a vision that was startling in its genius and I found myself awed by his ability to see feeling in common things, to paint them, leave them there like messages to us all.
Then I found The Kiss. It was painted around 1907 and he’d used gold in it like he had with a number of other works around that same time. There was a man and a woman wrapped in gold sheath with shapes and suggestions of detail that gave a two dimensional quality to it. He’d used the paint to create an ancient feel, Byzantine, hieroglyphic almost. It was stunning and even though it was just a photograph of a painting, it drew me in nonetheless.
Maybe it was the loneliness I lived in then, or maybe it was the longing I carried for the warmth of arms or even the quiet desperation born of hanging on from pay check to pay check in a small room in a gray world, but The Kiss captivated me. You couldn’t see the man’s face, only the back of his head and there was only a partial view of the woman’s but the suggestion of deep and soaring passion was powerfully rendered.
The art in the homes I’d grown up with was the functional domestic art of the late 60s and if there were paintings at all they were amateur oils of landscapes, dull in their tight representational accuracy. But this was a world I had never seen, never imagined and I sunk myself into it, luxuriated in the blunt fervor of vision poured outward onto canvas.
Finding Klimt led me to the art galleries of the city. I’d passed them by but had always been too embarrassed by my poverty and lack of acumen to venture in. Now, armed with an elemental way of seeing and the consumption of a few dozen art books, I felt confident about visiting. What I found was a spectacular world, a parallel dimension to my own.
I found the expressionism of Wassily Kandinsky, the impressionism of Mary Cassat, pointillism by Paul Seurat and the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein. All of them led me to seeing the world in wild, unexpected and triumphant ways. I bought art posters I couldn’t afford and changed the dull walls of my room into a pastiche of jubilation. Winter melted into spring and everything was brighter somehow.
Later, when I discovered the art of my people, those vibrant works allowed me to inhabit it more fully, to glean meaning and intent from brush stroke, form and perspective, to find the expression of myself in it, to make it my own. There was no translation necessary then. I’d learned the lingo from the masters.
I learned how easily we come to take things for granted, how susceptible we are to the protection of the expected, the known, the predictable, the boringly normal. I learned how seeing, this tremendous gift that brings us the world, can become limited, tired, uninventive and drained by lack of use.
As I traveled I began to discover the art in common things, learned to see people as walking paintings, the compelling countries of their beings. It took some doing but they became like clouds on water, life and art, a freeing, compelling duality.