Stick Figures at Best

Mikel Wintermantel

I am mesmerized by fine art—paintings in particular, but also sculpture. I have degrees in its appreciation, and I have been to museums throughout the world and seen some of the finest works. The Van Goghs in Amsterdam, the Hidden Treasures of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and the Museum of Medieval Art in Prague are among my favorites. I used to hang out in the studio of Cole Young, American Landscape artist and close friend, and I was there for part of the time when he painted a masterpiece, “Homage to Cole,” a huge work honoring one of his idols, Thomas Cole; a piece that went on to hang and eventually be destroyed in the World Trade Center. I have an artist’s photograph of the work and even in that I am blown away at the talent in transforming a flat canvas into a valley of trees.

Here in my own home I have one of his paintings and more than half dozen of my friend, Mikel Wintermantel, a Copley Master of luminescent art which, in all of my travels, stands as some of the finest I have ever seen. I am honored that one of his works graces the cover of one of my books. And the work of my own son hangs on these walls as well as private collections throughout the United States offering a view of water–an instant of the view–that no one notices until the art shows them, which forces them to never see water the same again. That’s art.

And it is crystal clear to me why I’ve always loved fine art: I can’t do it. I can’t even begin to do it. I’m strictly a stick figure guy.

Cole once said to me with his Harrison Ford smile and “lean in” attitude, “Sure you can Kunzinger! You want to paint, paint! But not yet. Draw the same thing every day for fifteen minutes for a year, get used to it, master it, and then you’ll understand and can start painting.” Okay, so I went to an art supply store and bought a good drawing pad and pencils and every day I drew for fifteen minutes. I drew my hand. After two weeks I thought it was looking pretty good. I was proud of the nuances in the hairs on the back of my hand, and the cross lines on my index finger, and the folds in the skin where the thumb does its opposing thing. I showed it to my son, who was seven at the time, and said, “pretty good, huh?” and he enthusiastically said, “Oh Daddy, yeah! That’s a great rooster!”

When I stood once in a museum and lost myself in the “Starry Night,” I let my mind explore the incomprehensible—that Vincent stood at a window in the asylum of Saint Remy and painted this scene, his hands held this canvas just about 100 years earlier at the time, and he was pleased with this one. And I’ve seen Rembrandt’s “Descent from the Cross” several dozen times at the Hermitage Museum, a few trips of which I went for the sole purpose of admiring Rembrandt’s work—that one, and the one of the face and hands of the old man, others. Knowing much about art but not having any ability to paint allows me to lose myself in its genius without analyzing the process, without exploring how “I would do it.”

The contrast for me is writing. Some of my favorite authors are creative non-fiction/memoir/essayists. But when I read the fine works of people like Dave Sedaris, Richard Preston, Jon Krakauer, or Richard Wright, I simultaneously enjoy and critique the pieces. Not in a “good” or “bad” way but in a “wow I really like how he did that…hmmmm” kind of thieving way. It can either make me feel like a complete fraud the next time I sit at the computer and attempt to translate what’s in my head onto a page of words to put the image in the reader’s head, or it can encourage me to be more bold, take chances, have more confidence if I happen to read something that I’m pretty sure I could have handled better, or at least as well in my own way. This is common for all artists when experiencing work in their own genre.

But when an artist steps outside those parameters all comparative bets are off. The mosaics of the Church of the Resurrection (Spilled Blood) in Russia are beautiful, and the sculpture room upstairs at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk is one of the finest examples of what two hands can do when attached to the vision of an artist.

This brings me to my garden. Sigh.

My plants die a lot. Or, better said, a lot of my plants die, though a few of them die a lot. I bring them back to life with the right care but then a week will go by with scorching temperatures, I mean bone-frying heat, and they shrivel up like worms on pavement, so I tend to them and give them hope, but a week later—gone. I have marginal luck with perennials whose labels say, “Good in drought conditions.” I’m proud of the landscaping here; but it is from decades of trial and error in not me getting better at gardening but rather finding the plants that even absolute neglect can not kill. My neighbor Kevin has a beautiful vegetable garden, a friend of mine out west created a butterfly and bee garden which should be featured on some HGTV channel, and down in Williamsburg they have a public garden whose vegetables and herbs actually have been featured on HGTV. These can often frustrate me because I have tried! I swear when I walk toward the garden section of the local hardware store, plants actually feign death.

So, rather for me, nature. Nature and gardens are not the same.

When I’m walking the trails of some mountain range or along the beach running near the bay, no human is responsible for their beauty and incomparable presence. In fact, humanity is more responsible for their demise, but still they rise, overcoming eruptions, timbering, forest fires, and even scorch and burn agriculture. Nature wins, hands down. It just needs time.

A walk along the river or the marsh confirms a more divine hand at work than has ever been humanly present. Science allows the mixture of carbons and nitrates, oxygen and light, and nothing, nothing we can possibly do can come close. Anyone who might wish to replicate a forest can only be left with feelings of inadequacy.

It’s why Cole headed to the White Mountains or his own Allegheny’s; it is what draws Mikel to the shores of the river running behind town or the Finger Lakes. It brought Vincent to Provence and Thomas Cole to the Hudson Valley. All of them, all artists, painters and writers alike, can witness the perfection of nature and be in absolute awe, and then turn and say, with the humility only nature can nurture, “Let me show you what I just saw.”



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