Still, life

Van Gogh, 1887 Netherlands

When I taught Art Appreciation at Saint Leo University on the Naval Base in Norfolk, over the course of almost thirty years the most common comment among my mostly retiring active-duty military or already retired vets, when I showed still life paintings, was, “Who Cares? Who would want that on their walls? I’d rather have a real bowl of fruit!”

Rarely did anyone catch on that it was a set-up; I knew they’d say that.

“Why do you think?” I’d retort like any good psychologist might.

At first the responses were always the same, semester after semester: the dude liked fruit (or flowers); some family member painted it and they felt obligated to hang the thing; it was on sale; it came with the castle. Then, someone would offer a constructive perspective: the artist couldn’t afford a model; it represented wealth—having paintings of fruit or flowers or livestock meant you could afford those things (as well as a painting of anything at all, actually); the colors matched the throne.

“All true, but anything else?”

Silence.

I’d put on the screen some of the more famous and celebrated still-life paintings. Caravaggio’s fruit, Cezanne’s apples and curtains, or his famous skull painting, Braque’s violin and candlestick, and perhaps most famously, my favorite, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

“So that’s it? They liked the colors? They liked a good Mcintosh apple? I’d ask.

“Maybe they had paintings of those things because they couldn’t see them. Back then people might not have even known what an apple or a sunflower was, or at least never had seen them,” some thoughtful student might inevitably contribute.

“Except the skull.” We’d laugh.

“Excellent, and, sorry, but why else?”

Eventually someone would see it. “That’s a damn good sunflower.”

There it is. The texture, the perspective and color. The very notion of sitting and looking intently at a flower or an apple or even a skull is met with a laugh—we walk by them, of course, and they’re pretty. But to “Whitman ourselves” into some deep study of a leaf of grass or the pedal of a tulip is met mostly by ridicule. But when it is a painting, no one questions it. We are not wigging out on nature; we are appreciating the intense talent it took to capture the life itself and make it permanent. “Here we are,” I’d say, “One hundred—no, two, three hundred years later, and we’re still looking at the same flowers that Caravaggio had on his table. He keeps showing them to us.”

“Now I want an apple,” someone usually quipped. We’d laugh and I’d move on to the abstractionists, which was an entirely different head game.

But the still-life paintings were the ones I used on quizzes. They couldn’t get the answer wrong since it was a personal response, but after they studied endless names and paintings and periods and movements, the actual questions surprised them.

  1. Part A. Look at van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” for at least three minutes—study the strokes, the perspective, the context, and any narrative you find, and write about it in 500 words.

Part B. Why don’t you do that in nature? Why is it you can appreciate a painting and look at it a long time, but you don’t stop in nature and study the flowers, the texture of a tree? Respond in 500 words.

And other questions bent in a similar fashion.

I have a passion for art and some of my closest friends, several of whom have passed on, have been visual artists. I deeply appreciate art because, in part, I can’t do it myself. I have paintings by friends like Mikel Wintermantel, James Cole Young, George Tussing, and more. I have shelves of books with work by Pissarro, Cezanne, Monet, and Van Gogh, of course. The quality of his drawings exceeds his paintings in my opinion. As a writer and therefore an artist in the more general understanding of the term, I connect completely to the notion of trying to repeat in art what we experience in nature, and while my list of writers who have succeeded in that talent is impressive, my list of visual artists is far more extensive.  

That which captures nature and holds it up for us to see in the small rooms of tall skyscrapers, or paintings of Provence hung in living rooms in Arizona, is an example of human creative potential that is so revered that the names I’ve mentioned are household names, and the artists died centuries ago—that’s their staying power.

Still, life is not two-dimensional. It cannot be hung on walls or captured with acrylics and oils. It is an experience. It is kinetic. Life is the aroma of sunflowers in a field outside Pamplona, Spain, or the honeysuckle along a sidewalk in South Philly. Life is the soft sounds of rain on a pond in a park, where Monet’s lily pads cover the green surface, and you can hear a bullfrog, and you can feel the moistness on your skin. It is the sound of dry leaves on van Gogh’s path in the Netherland woods, or the slight chill in late fall where birch trees break the horizon like an Elliot Porter photograph.

If we can go for a walk and keep still, life is the original model, the inspiration and original cause, not art. Art is there for us, and it is beautiful and eternal and, personally, brings me peace.

But it is always imitating life. It did when Plato called it a false reality of life, and it did when van Gogh said, “Still, life is what matters most and the true artist in this world does not work on canvas but with flesh, heart, and soul.”

Home, 2019 Virginia

Homage to Cole

“Graveyard” by James Cole Young (author’s collection)

Note from Bob: This piece was originally written as “One Deer Running” for a seminar at ODU in 1998 with Mike D’Orso, then updated some years later and published in various journals and eventually in the collection, Borderline Crazy. I miss Cole, our long, late-night/early morning conversations. For reference, when we were hanging out together, Lennon’s “Double Fantasy” album had just been released and American hostages were being held in Tehran. I was 19 or 20, played music, and little else mattered but art, whether visual or otherwise. Then again in the late 80’s, and again from 1999 to his premature death in 2005. I’m finishing an entirely new essay about Cole and his work for an artist magazine, so he is very much on my mind. I won’t be publishing here pictures of his most brilliant work most of which remains in his daughter’s possession until the forthcoming artist’s magazine piece.

One Deer Running

for Cole

In autumn of 1987, I wandered into the Fishback Galleries off 57th street in Manhattan. The elevator leading to the studios had violet wallpaper with deep yellow flowers and dark green carpet. Spacious abstract paintings of some west coast artist filled the gallery. Large paintings with gobs of primary blues and reds drew me in, just paint on canvas, lines and circles forming predetermined direction with no apparent purpose.

When the curator approached, a notebook in her hand and clearly a lot on her mind, I felt out of place. But I asked anyway. “Do you still have the works of Cole Young here?” I thought I sounded artsy, as if I tossed out the names of landscape artists everyday over espresso at Raphael’s and Michael’s Pub. “James Cole Young. I think he had a show here last spring,” I explained.

“Yes,” she said, scanning a bookshelf for a specific title. “Two in the back office are all I have left.” She pulled out a thick volume and fingered the index. “You may spend a few minutes looking about at our current artist if you wish.” By the time she finished speaking, she had already returned to her desk‑‑a long virgin‑white graphics table covered with neatly stacked manila envelopes and coffee table books.

I followed her.

Did he do well? I mean‑‑how did the show go over?” The glare of her cobalt blue eyes told me How did it go over? was not a phrase heard often in these titanium-white walls.

“He did well,” she said, turning back to her book. “He was one of our most successful artists. Some fine clients secured his works.”

Fine clients.

Martin Scorsese; John Reed, CEO of Citibank; Walter Shipley, CEO of Chase Manhattan, Wilson Greatbatch, the man who invented the pacemaker.

Fine, indeed.

“What paintings are left?” I asked.

Again, she raised her eyes, more slowly this time. Her Indian red skirt lifted toward her yellow hue thighs. She wore black heels. I wore jeans, long hair, and the scent of poverty. “A cloud scene,” she said, this time with a sigh. “And,” she added, “‘Homage to Cole’.”

“Homage to Cole.”  I couldn’t believe it.

Can I see that one please?”

“Please,” I went on. “Would you mind? I was there when he painted that. I was in the studio, smelling the paint. I remember when he moved a few things because they didn’t look right.” Her book slipped from her fingers, and she lost her place.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “That wouldn’t be possible. It is locked up for a buyer.”

Someone bought it, yes. The sale had been secured for tens of thousands of dollars and the painting eventually hung in a second-floor lobby of the World Trade Center.

The afternoon was waning as I stepped back onto 57th Street. The slate blue sky had darkened, and the sun had turned pale, a yellow oxide. They didn’t have his self portrait, I thought. We studied his self‑portrait in his class once, I remembered, as I walked toward a street vendor for dinner. I can picture it. He has no shirt and is standing sideways in front of a window. I think there was a dead bird on the sill.

And “Homage to Cole” painted in respect to one of the most influential artists in Cole’s life, Thomas Cole. Cole Young loved the way after painting landscapes most of his life, the most beautiful work Thomas Cole did was of the sky, where the Hudson School painter found “grace and expansive energy.”

Allegany, New York, is almost as far from the Fishback Galleries as the New York landscape allows. The small village on the state’s Southern Tier counts just six thousand residents. The town and its larger neighbor, Olean, are surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains while the Allegheny River S‑curves its way through, shallow enough to wade across. Pennsylvania lies just beyond the valley to the south, and Buffalo, about 75 miles north, is the closest town of any sprawl. In the midst of these “Enchanted Mountains” is St. Bonaventure University, which boosts the community’s head count another 33 percent.

It’s an old campus, dating to 1858, founded by Irish settlers and Franciscan Priests. Most of the buildings are surrounded by forests of gold and red and dark green and yellow trees and sprawling lawns. One of its older buildings is St Francis Friary which once housed priests and seminarians. In the mid‑seventies it was converted into a dorm with its own dining hall, chapel and majestic views, still students back then would shy from its remote location: It stood alone, accessed either by road or a walk through the woods on a narrow trail. When the University started its art program in ’75, the former friary was perfect. In the basement was an old storage room‑‑great for a teaching studio. Beneath it, deep in the ground, hid an old library once used by Franciscans ‑‑perfect for an artist’s studio.

Administrators never brought dignitaries here. The art studio and classroom were not on the campus tour back then‑‑someone might have run into Cole Young. At twenty-five, with long hair, mustache, and lanky limbs, Cole bent forward when he taught his classes, making sure his opinion, which bent to the left, was clear and understood.

“I can smell dead priests here, man,” he told me once. In class back then, students moved about—painting, drawing, modeling, seemingly on their own yet under Cole’s eyes, and even more, his preaching.

“Trust yourself,” he told a self‑conscious student with a pencil and a large pad. A nude female sprawled across an indigo blanket on the floor. The student was supposed to draw her without looking down at his own pad.                     

“Let go. You know what her hair looks like. Let the mind and the hands work together.” His head would thrust with each verb, for emphasis. He’d throw words at his students, desperately afraid they wouldn’t get it‑‑not the drawing, but the metaphor of it all. “You’ve been doing things without looking your whole lives,” he called to everyone. They all stopped. Cole was preaching.

You tie your shoes without looking sometimes, right? Button your shirt? Pee?” He turned back to the student. “You can find your pecker without looking, right? Know where it is?” Cole backed off. He made his point, albeit with the abrasiveness of a van Gogh brushstroke.

Then he taught. “Do it man, you can. Trust your hand. No, it will not look like a photograph. No, it may not look like hair. But it will be movement. It will be information.”

Then to everyone: “It is all information. Right? Talk to me. Tell me what her hair looks like. Tell me where it turns and darkens and falls freely. Give me all the information you can.” Music played when he taught. Dylan. Lennon. Van Morrison. Old Jackson Browne.

He and I would hit Perkins Pancake House at three am after some painting, music, and ranting. Everything was an issue for Cole. Some kid came in wearing a Nike shirt and Cole revved up. “You work for Nike?” he asked. The kid who seemed either on his way to or from being drunk said no. “Then why are you promoting Nike? You get paid to wear that shirt? We’re billboards! We’re being sucked in by the swoosh.” The kid just ate his eggs looking confused.

Cole once bought a van and demanded the dealer’s metal symbol on the back be taken off. “I don’t work for them. They want it on there they should pay me.” They took it off.

He was a skinny version of Harrison Ford when he smiled, his hair somewhere between auburn and light brown, long, near his shoulders. And his eyes would dart about the room while teaching or lock into another’s when one on one. Cole played his game and if you couldn’t play along, leave, take economics where no one gets it. Get off the freaking bus. Drop out. “Life, man. That’s all this is this whole education thing. Life. That’s it.”

Cole and his wife, Sharon, moved to a farm in Allegany. It was so far off the beaten path, you had to want to go there‑‑and most people who ended up there were usually lost. Still, Cole spent most of his time in his studio beneath the art classroom in the old friary on campus, about seven miles away.

Most mornings while I was a student, we’d be in the studio till three am, Lennon on the stereo, Cole smoking pot, working on something that looked like a valley beyond a secluded scenic overview. Pictures taped to the walls represented nature’s original inspiration for this work. Smoke filled the studio. Hours passed and he still worked on a rock. Same rock he had been working on for a week.

“Shit.” He put down his brush. “There isn’t enough detail in the trees.” He looked at the pictures. “See? I have to move the rock.”

The fine detail in “Homage to Cole” is laborious painting. A stick in the brush, fallen from the sugar maple in the foreground, was a week’s work. The birch tree, which gave him trouble in the painting, took even more time. It was done between classes, during lunch, late at night when no one was around, in the early hours while talking about John Lennon and listening to music. We’d be quiet for a while when he’d blurt out “‘life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’ Geez. Lennon’s a freaking genius.”

This was about the time of the Iranian hostage crisis and pictures of starving children in the third world poured in on network television every night. Cole was pissed. “No one in this country is going to give a damn until that kind of terrorism happens here, in America. Then they’ll wake up.” His anger produced two canvases, both set in New York City, and both of tall buildings ablaze after a terror attack. This was twenty years before 9/11.

Cole Young’s paintings have been compared to JMW Turner and Caspar Friedrich. One critic wrote that his work has the passion and range of Friedrich: The “calmness that evaporates into furious motifs in nature,” carried out with one of the most varied palettes in contemporary art. To Cole, rocks are not brown or slate or tan or white. They are a composite of colors. To use one color of oil to represent that rock is, to Cole, to focus on vague images instead of scrutinizing the scene. In the 1800’s, Friedrich used similar colors and approach. He too would labor over color, layering one on another and mixing and scraping until the right tone was achieved. I once pointed out that van Gogh said to leave the obvious vague. “Van Gogh was an asshole,” Cole responded. So it was.

Friedrich’s contemporary, Turner, whose work hangs in museums throughout the globe, mastered the turmoil in nature as well, particularly clouds. “Cole Young’s work,” one Buffalo art critic wrote, “is not unlike… the early paintings of Turner.”

With that remark, exhibitions began to emerge. So did his work. The volume of work in his studio grew. Three walls were blocked by large canvases in progress, balanced on cinder blocks, lit by huge mercury lamps to insure perfect color. All about each canvas were books‑‑Friedrich, Turner, Constable and pictures and studies of subjects. All are landscapes, though that term‑‑”landscape artist”‑‑was not right, not to Cole.

When his class studied a “landscape artist,” he’d say, “It sounds like he’s working for a garden center. It’s just a tag. What gross information does ‘land‑scape artist’ carry? Huh?” He smiled. “He’s a painter. He paints nature.”

“And damned well,” he’d add, and everyone laughed. Cole didn’t like to offend people, though he knew he did. “I’d rather offend some of you,” he told his class, “to wake you all up, than be oh‑so‑damned‑polite and have you not get it.”

What Cole got were acclaims in the art community and New York’s Fishback Gallery opened his one‑man exhibit. And he sold well there. Fine clients bought his paintings. But Cole sank into a deep depression, a lethargy he couldn’t explain, couldn’t control.

Nine years of complacent monotony later, in the spring of  ‘96, during a brief period of what Cole later said was false energy, he painted two small canvases. They are both called “Graveyard.”  In these paintings, he “ties nature directly to the human impulse to acknowledge and commemorate its dead.” It is a row of dead trees seen close and from a low vantage point from within the “decayed woods.”

The observer is inside, looking up. The view is “locked directly to the shredded, peeling bark and broken limbs of a few pitiable stalks. There is a hint of color in the brush, and the sky is neither threatening nor inviting.”

He also painted one large painting. A 4’ x 7’ scene in autumn woods, but the emphasis is on a bubbling, dark blue cloud. It is called “Difficult Cloud.” These three paintings head to the Buffalo State University Art Exhibit, win top awards and critical acclaim. “Difficult Cloud” sold for eighteen thousand. Still, these moments were patches of blue in an otherwise apocalyptic sky. Teaching, painting, nothing could keep Cole young anymore. He was a student staring at his hands because he didn’t trust himself. “I’m holding cigarettes where a brush should be,” he told me once.

In the late nineties, his daughter Dylaina encouraged him to join a smoking-cessation seminar. It was late and we sat on the porch of his farmhouse. He told me about the first night at the seminar and how it still gives him chills. On the way to the high school while driving along the upper end of 5th Street in Allegany, Cole saw a deer running across a field. At twilight‑‑too early for headlights, too late for the sun‑‑he watched the grace, the stretched limbs, the beauty. He also noticed that the deer, on its present course and speed, would have run into the side of his van.

He slammed on the brakes and old oil paint tubes flew out from the back with cans and bottles. The deer veered into the woods. Cole loved to philosophize, though, and he sat there a long time considering the collision of beauty and death. He lit a cigarette to calm his nerves.

That night, he sat among twelve other men and women in a room at an Olean High School. He waited silently. The director of the seminar walked in and talked. “You start. You stop. You will. You won’t. You’ll quit on your birthday. You’ll quit New Year’s. You’ll slow down. You’ll quit for lent. Listen, just quit smoking or drop the whole fucking issue,” the guy said. Then he left, telling them he’d be back in ten minutes.

Cole smiled. “Ingenious,” he had told me. To a participant that night, Cole said, “The man is brilliant. Don’t you get it, man? Christ, this is freaking ingenious. Don’t you get it?” He drew the whole room in, some talking, but most listening to Cole.

Cole finally got it. He returned to the studio with the enthusiasm and persistence of ten years earlier. He painted, he contacted the galleries again all eager to pick him up, all still a bit hesitant to commit to an artist who might drop out of sight again. Do it, don’t do it, whatever, but shut up and paint—that became his new philosophy. He stormed back into his studio. He traveled again, sketching landscapes and taking pictures in the Smokey’s, in the Adirondacks, in New Hampshire at a friend’s farm, at Mt Washington. He asked me to bring him to Russia. He worked. But our trip never materialized. A few years later, he suffered the chemo and operations to abort lung cancer about the same time he created large room-size canvases of clouds above New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. He was running as fast as he could toward a collision he knew was approaching, but he did it with grace. His later paintings show his mastery of color, especially of the sky, and the luminous clouds rise on endless canvases.

In September of 2001, when the towers fell, Cole heard it all happen from his studio down under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. He didn’t think right away about “Homage to Cole,” one of many expensive pieces of art vaporized when the towers tumbled. He thought of the two canvases of terrorist-attacked buildings in Manhattan from two decades earlier, and chills ran up his spine.

Cole’s hero, landscape artist Thomas Cole, died young after a short illness, but his five-painting series The Course of Empire, painted in 1836, exposes the progress of a society from its savage beginnings to the apex of luxury and success and finally its demise and extinction. Later, he looked upward, detailing the colors and beauty of the sky. Both Coles loved symmetry.   

Despite his illness, the energy in his voice didn’t fade. He called me, exclaiming, “I want to go to China. Let’s go to China and head down to the southern provinces where you can write and I can paint a lifetime of work in one month.” It was as if he was a teenager again when he sold his first drawing to the Saturday Evening Post. “China, Bob. You’re going. I can’t do that alone, it’s not in me but life is finally opening up,” he said. He wrote the next day to expound further about China, and he said he felt alive again, he said life had finally exposed itself to him, and he finished with, “I hope your journey on this planet reveals itself to you.”

I never spoke to him again.

When Cole Young died that November, I walked out and stared into the brilliant autumn sky. It was neither threatening nor inviting. High clouds reached across the horizon. I can see him leaning into me, preaching, telling me about the allusiveness of clouds, about their very temperance. Cole had always been a composite of colors, and what ignited him most was when someone looked at him, or anything, on the surface only. “We were born with energy and depth, man. Use it.” What energy he had. What remarkable energy his paintings generate; proof that sometimes the simplest and most fragile brushstrokes can create the most vibrant scenes.

quick artist sketch while hiking (author’s collection)