Saturday, May 15, 2010

Gift From the Sky

For the longest time I couldn’t understand Dad’s work. His birds looked like fishes and his fishes, birds. Both flowed, drifted, swam, soared in their respective spaces. I just couldn’t figure out which was what. It was like Lucy Van Pelt asking for Schroeder’s rendition of “Happy Birthday”. Make it simple, or I don’t get it.

It’s not that Dad couldn’t draw or sculpt realistically. Just he was trying to show something different. It’s inside on the outside. The animal’s essence. It didn’t help he was a quiet man and never explained himself. Or when he worked, he entered such impenetrable concentration the house could have blown up around him and he wouldn’t have noticed. Not one bit.

He was in his world, and I was in mine.

The first breakthrough came when I showed him my portfolio for Parsons’ admissions interview. “Hey Dad, what should I bring?”

He flipped through and said, “All of it.”
He suggested I apply to Philadelphia College of Art as it would involve a commute instead of dorm costs. I told him I was considering a double major and Parsons was the only school to offer both subjects. He said nothing more. When the acceptance letter came, Dad smiled. That meant he was deliriously happy.

Being young and naive I carried a really heavy course load, and working involved a lot of odd paying gigs. I returned home that first summer. When Dad found out I hadn’t visited museums because there was no spare time, he was horrified. “They’re free on Tuesday nights!” He promptly booked two seats on a chartered bus trip with a bunch of white haired rich ladies to see the Constable show at the Whitney.

It was amazing. Sure, Dad knew sculpture, and hung out with artists all the time, but as we drifted from painting to painting, he described what Constable was trying to accomplish, contemporary artists, and what set Constable apart. It was revelatory. Dad was smart, eloquent and passionate about anything visual. His mind sucked up huge amounts of information and processed it. But he never talked before. Until then he had always just been my dad. The guy that pounded rocks in the cellar. At that point he became a mentor.

Once back in school Dad sent clippings of articles he thought would interest me. We even had short conversations on the phone. Nothing major, but it was a start. This continued through my working years and after I married.

Arthur and I had just moved to South Dakota, (what Mom considered slightly beyond the civilized world). While looking out the window of our new digs, I saw a bird land in the front yard with a violent red mark on the back of it’s head. It gleamed like nail polish. “What a rotten thing to do to a bird", I thought. Then in a flash of yellow underwings, another alighted next to it. I immediately called Dad. He’d know.

“It sounds like a flicker”, he said. So it was.

Art and I continued on in that rural pastorate. It wasn’t a good fit. It ground us into the dust. We’d escape on our day off. While driving south from a day in Pierre, I spotted something hovering in the sky. It suddenly plummeted into a gully. Fifteen feet from the car. With a couple massive wing sweeps it disappeared back into the blue. Though the markings weren’t distinct, it’s wingspan was unmistakable. We had encountered an immature Bald Eagle.

As soon as we hit home, I grabbed the phone and told Dad. He said, “I saw a Golden Eagle once. All reddish brown. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen”. The silence following spoke clearly. I knew what he meant. I finally understood.

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