all things beautiful
The Starbucks corporation recently slotted their Islip location for renovation. In the past two weeks, they closed the store for a complete gutting and remodeling. Gone are the flat screen televisions and all other distracting electronic media. Late last night, they mounted my painting into the wall, in the center of the new Starbucks. Beneath my painting they are placing a small brass plaque, which has the title of the painting, my name and website, and a short poem which they asked me to select. I am very impressed with Starbucks, because in the midst of a recession, they have shifted away from the flashy and high tech, and have commissioned original oil paintings. They even requested Belgian linen.
As the reader of this blog might know, I was without a studio for about several months. During this same period, I also had this Starbucks commission for a large, outdoor landscape here in Islip. Waking at dawn, I would head out with my trusty super palette, my portable easel, and my big canvas. When I first began the painting, I was so troubled by the closing of the school at which I taught, on the east end. I was all too aware of the irony of having several portrait commissions which I couldn’t produce, because I was without any studio. But, I had this landscape commission, which I could do outdoors, and so could work on that.
I set up at the Whitecap fish warehouse, the central Long Island home of the ocean going fishing fleet. Driving in my truck at about five thirty in the morning, I would hope that the rusty boat being featured in my painting was docked in its usual spot. If it was at sea, I worked on the other features in the painting- the dirty cement walls of the warehouse, the leaking ice chest, the warped wood of the docks. When the boat was there, I would try and record the dizzying details of ropes, winches, hoists, cranes, skiberdeens, spinnakers, ummm, spinnerakeen winch warp weft starboard clefty hook things. On occasion, I brought Liam and sat him down a few feet away from the water, with a fishing pole in hand.
Mark Twain has a short story about a young man who is in training, as a Mississippi River boat captain. When he first goes down the river, young and fresh, his heart was overjoyed by the splendor of beautiful sunsets, floating logs, the surface of the water “broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal.” But when Twain himself is older, and he himself is at the wheel, he learns that the beautiful sunset means wind comes tomorrow, that the opal colored tumbling water means a deadly bluff which could tear apart a vessel, that the floating log meant the river was rising, and with that rising came debris and dangerous shoals. Twain went on to wonder if, after all the years of navigating a boat down those dangerous waters, one could ever see the beauty of a sunset again.
At about nine in the morning, the faint bass note of deep gurgling engines could be heard from afar. Minutes later, the sluggish, hulking vessels would appear, roping themselves about the pilings, the taste of diesel in the air, the crew tying, scrubbing, coiling, cutting, throwing, catching. All of these things delighted a painter’s eye, with their raw, simple beauty of ritual. Their radio would cackle Led Zeppelin, the crew would sing along, and a captain would vault off of the boat with a smile. With a laugh, he would convey his joyful enthusiasm for my painting. Sometimes though, the air was still, the crew did not speak, and the chores were carried out sullenly. I came to learn that this meant they had caught little- and hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars had been lost. But, the thing was, even on those bad days, the captains and crew still came over to the canvas. Not with a smile, not even with eye contact. They stared at the canvas silently, thanked me with a nod, and walked away.
The hot summer days subsided, the leaves turned red and orange, the birds left, the canals froze. All the while, the docks were filled with fishermen, and each one would stop by to excitedly comment on the painting. And as I put the finishing touches on the painting, a few days ago, I realized that the painting had become important to the captains, the crews, the delivery men, the owner of the warehouse. As they watched the painting unfold and details come to life, they paused in their weary lives, if only for a moment- they could once again see the tumbling rings, that waters that are as many-tinted as opal.
This morning, as I stood in Starbucks and stared at the painting, and listened to the enthusiastic comments of those passing by, I realized that a difficult time in my life had passed. All of these seemingly bad events had culminated in a beautiful studio, with my own school of students, new brushes, and dozens of awaiting, blank canvases. And from this time of displacement, this painting had been birthed. And the familiar words of Solomon entered my mind, “In his time, He makes all things beautiful.”
And here is the painting. And here is the poem that will be placed beneath.
Often I think of the beautiful town
That is seated by the sea;
Often in thought go up and down
The pleasant streets of that dear old town,
And my youth comes back to me.
-Longfellow, “My Lost Youth,” 1858