Friday, July 13, 2007

Seeing Every Word My Father Paints

Tribute to Viestarts Aistars, my father,
on his 80th birthday: July 15, 2007

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It doesn't matter that we don't speak. He paints, and with that, watching him, I hear every word. Not only the words, but the beating of his heart. I hear the whispers of a random breeze, tangling in his trees. I hear the shushing of waves, small ones, rippling against the soft, sandy shore, and the smash of the great ones, tipped with foam, breaking against the rocks. I hear the creak of old wood in his fishing boats, rusty hinges and masts that bend in the ocean gales, but never break. I hear the soft splatter of rain on his city pavement, on the curved and dripping sides of his umbrellas, blooming against the wet sky. I hear the slapping of wet laundry hanging on the line. I hear the soft, steady breathing of the reclining nude on her flowered divan, her lazy gaze lost in a book. I hear the silence, lying back in his lush gardens and endless meadows, watching his clouds bob high overhead.

I can hear him still, even if my understanding of his words, painted in vivid color on canvas, has grown more sophisticated with time – I've grown to understand something about the ups and downs of life by now, too, requiring a more deeply intoned language – and even when I have stepped away from my father's paintings, they follow me. They have followed me since my earliest childhood, through all my growing years, and now ease me across the threshold of midlife. I know, they will follow me to the very end of my path.

For me, the hearing translates into written words on a page. For my father, his writing tool is a paintbrush. At first glance, perhaps two very different mediums of artistic expression. But are they? My very earliest impressions of my father at work in his basement studio, when I was a little girl in long braids, peeking around the corner and careful to not make a sound so as not to disturb the magic, was of a creator at work over his many worlds. It was that process of creation—from nothing to create something, from the white and blank canvas to draw out living flesh and living things, seascapes and landscapes and figures—that so fascinated me and sold me on art. I wanted that. I wanted to create, too. Surely there was nothing more satisfying in chosen occupation! If the fathers of other little girls I knew donned business suits and knotted ties around their necks and went off to offices with briefcases in hand, surely what my father did beat all. There was nothing magical about business, I thought. Calculating numbers and filling out spreadsheets and sitting in meeting after meeting after meeting… but see, my dad! My dad worked in solitude, separated from the busyness of the world outside, hidden as all wizards are in their towers and hidden caves, and he waved his wand, his brush, across the easel, and before long, behold: a forest sprang to life. A shaft of light fell on the moss. Flowers opened fresh faces to the sun. And up from the earth sprang streams of clear water….

The fathers of my little friends could do nothing to compare to this.

So I kept on watching, and I learned from my father's medium – paint – how to paint with language. Art is creation, and I was giddy with what I had learned in seeing him paint. There was the blank white page. A fearsome thing. Silent and ungiving and patient as death. The creator could sweat and moan and writhe in the agony of uninspired creating, but the blank page, as the blank canvas, would have no mercy, give no clue, only wait, and wait, and wait. But then there was the moment, the first word as the first dab of color, that scarred the page and canvas, and it would never again be the same. Not even when erased or deleted. Juices flowed, passion turned its engines, wheels began to turn, pulleys spin, and the machinery of creation was begun. No turning back now. Using words as my tool, I soon learned my father's exhilaration. This was the elixir of the artist's intoxication, the muse, the siren, and this was, as Joseph Campbell has advised: following one's bliss.

Few compliments I have received over my writing career compare to my audience at an authors' reading telling me: "I can see what you wrote. It is as if," they might say, "you paint with words…" And I beam. The little girl in braids peeking around her father's studio door remembers, and she feels the pride of achievement of a lesson well learned.

Here is what I learned from my father, the painter: when faced with a white canvas, the blank page, think about the composition. There must be balance. To what point do you wish to draw the eye? Consider where the eye goes first, then, to what place on the canvas does it go next? And then? Keep that inner eye intrigued, don't let it slip off the page, but moving, ever moving, across all the lines and angles, taking it all in, every last detail, hungering for more, craving resolution, until at last—the picture is complete. When it is, then be sure the image haunts, and it remains long after the eyes of your audience have moved on to another spectrum. You must capture the mind, the spirit, the heart. To do this, the colors must blend with ease, but then, just when you think you've got it figured out, plotlines and paint lines in order, suddenly—a surprise! That slant of light against the dark background, oh, it fascinates, does it not? For a moment, you can't help considering what it might be like to stand inside that circle of light. To be a part of that painting. A part of that story. A main character. When what they see on the page or the canvas so resonates with the viewer and the reader, when they sense a kind of mirroring of their own experience and life sense in the art, blending so seamlessly that they do not know where the story and the painting begin, and where their own life continues on, then you know you have made a crucial connection. Your art has melded with another heart. For a moment in time, you, the artist, the viewer, the reader, are no longer alone.

Years passing, little girl unbraiding her hair to grow into the woman, and young father growing into an elderly man of accumulated wisdom and vision, more lessons transpire. There is the lesson of passion, yes, the near losing of oneself in one's art: so immersed does the artist become, falling as if into a trance, a kind of madness, delusion and illusion made real, letting go of the boundaries and limitations of reality so as to dance on the other side, yet always come back again. It is necessary. Nothing less will sustain. But there is also the lesson of persistence: the long work day concluded, the artist comes home to begin the work day all over again, this time in his studio or her study. Because even my father at some point had to go to the office. Working as a commercial artist, long before the days of computer and clip art, he drew the cows that mooed across paper milk cartons, the coupons housewives clipped in Sunday newspapers, the menus the hungry read at the downtown posh restaurant. Draining work, perhaps, making the living room couch seem that much more inviting after 5 p.m. Yet my father returned home, not one day missed, and kissed his wife soundly hello, patted both daughters on their heads, and bypassed the couch for his basement studio. It was not a drain to him. It was reinvigoration. The magical hours that made the other eight-hour nonsense make sense.

I got it. When the rejection slips came in for my first awkward poems and clumsy little stories, I didn't worry. The sting was short-lived. One had to create first in response to the voice inside. The whispers of wisdom, that divine something connected, it seemed, traveled straight up to God. Because there never really will be an explanation for art, will there? From where it comes and how it transforms and what it becomes.

My father once told me he was sorry. When I was a grown woman, he once apologized for not spending enough of those evening hours at home with me. Or his other daughter. We played overhead (or so he thought) with our toys and other distractions while he painted below, and sometimes did not come back upstairs until long after dark, when we were tucked into bed. I widened my eyes in wonder. Sorry? Was I missing something? I, who grew up in these swirls of color perfumed with the tang of turpentine? Does one apologize for magic spells broken open to inherit and pass on?

I missed nothing. Not even the lesson that an artist must emerge from his den or studio to reenter the real world. When there was the vigor of youth and health, my father often packed up his palette and paints and folded up his wooden easel to announce: field trip! My mother packed a picnic lunch of dark Latvian bread, thick and fragrant with earthy grains, spread with real butter and lavish slices of sausage or ham, cheese, and crisp pickles. Blankets were folded into the car trunk, but I don't recall being able to sit on one. The places he took us were too rich with life. These were the worlds that lived in my father's mind, I knew, because I saw him pull them from his memory and onto the canvas in the years to come. See the sights, smell the smells, hear the sounds, taste the tastes, feel the touch of reality on our skin so that we would have something to bring home again.

So did the writer require living life before she could construct the story. It was a gathering time. A knocking about time, sustaining and surviving all its hard knocks, submitting to the bruising of life at its keenest edge, because the art created in the tucked away place later would always reflect it. Not living fully, completely, utterly, and above all courageously, would also be evident. Life had its risks, chances would have to be taken, or the connection between artist and art, viewer and reader, might never be made. To paint the breeze in the branches of the tree, my father had to now and then go out into the field and feel it on his own skin. To paint the shining ripple on the water, my father had to roll up his pant legs and wade in. I, too, had to live my life before it could transcribe it. The rejection slips no longer came so frequently. Submission accepted. I gotit.

I got it, Dad. How the paint flows in your bloodstream. Now the words flow in mine. As your basement studio, so now my secluded den. I tap away at the keyboard as you dab away at the canvas. From the white page emerges something living that did not live before, and you planted that seed, that love of the art, that drive to create. I swirl a slant of light into my poem and I think of your forests and the sun breaking through. I paint with words because you taught me to see.

Viestarts Aistars is a painter whose favorite mediums are watercolor, oil, and an ordinary pencil. He has had over 50 one-man shows across the United States and in his homeland Latvia, and his art has won numerous prizes and critical acclaim. One of his paintings was purchased by the president of Latvia and now hangs in the presidential residence in Riga, Latvia.

Zinta Aistars is a writer and editor who has had three books published in the Latvian language, now seeking a publisher for her first collection of poetry in English. She is on the editorial board of the literary ezine, insolent rudder; a poetry editor for the international women's literary ezine, Her Circle Ezine; and the managing editor of The Smoking Poet.

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