Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Father's Sketchbook

by Zinta Aistars, artwork by Viestarts Aistars

Artwork by Viestarts Aistars

The tiny drawing, framed in a cheap brown frame and hung on the far outside wall of his basement studio, never fails to draw me toward it. Every time. Every time I go downstairs at my father’s house to peek in on his latest artwork, it reels me in like a fish. The little house with its weathered wood walls and red shingled roof. Or are they ceramic tiles? Whatever they might be, they are no longer.

I visited that little house on the Baltic Sea just a couple of months ago. I visit it most every time I travel to Latvia, where my father was born. The house belonged to my great-grandfather. Today, the walls of the little house called Tomdēli, near the village of Sārnate, are covered with pale yellow aluminum siding, and the barn, that red building behind the north end of the house, is nothing more than rubble, overgrown with weeds. Over the holidays, I hear my father telling my niece, Erika, his granddaughter, about Tomdēli and his carefree boyhood summers there. My grandfather kept cows, he said, and chickens, goats, pigs. Wonderful summers by the sea…

I stand in front of the drawing and lean in to see into the past. My father sketched it from memory after he was forced to leave his home as a teenage boy. It has hung on his studio wall ever since. World War II and the Soviet occupation of Latvia are now memories, too, and the teenage boy has become an 83-year-old elderly man, stooped, with a scuffling step, but still with pencil in hand.

As always, there are new works all around my father’s art studio. Here is the richest, most expressive part of his life. Ever since I was a little girl, I watched my father express his thoughts, his feelings, his perspective on life through his art. When his paintings became dark, I knew something troubled him. When light reappeared, a wan shaft of gold, I knew hope had returned. When the skies cleared and became bright, I knew his heart and mind had cleared, too.

I’d always rather envied my father his medium. He paints; I write. While every art form requires its creator to reveal his or her innermost self, I had often pondered how the art form I had chosen, creative writing, required me to get far more naked on that public stage than did his art. One sensed a mood when looking at his drawings, his paintings … but his secrets remain his. No matter how I write, however, even if my characters are little green men on Mars, they reveal my core sense of self. Every line of dialogue states my values. Every scene I choose to describe, from whatever perspective, recreates my inner geography. My hero tells the reader what I most admire and respect. My villain tells its flip side.

The first time I ventured to write a novel, in fact, it struck me fully how revealing a piece of writing can be. Fiction? Not really. Everything a writer produces is yet another puzzle piece to an autobiography. Anything less than putting ourselves into that work wholly and honestly, and the quality of the work suffers. The reader knows. Intuitively if not consciously, the reader senses a lie, or a half-truth. Characters are one-dimensional, their dialogue rings false. A writer can’t fake it. There is no holding back.

As I so often do, I sit down on my father’s wooden stool by the easel and pull a sketchbook from his bookshelf. I love paging through these old books. I always go for the oldest first.

Many of the sketches are from travels, or from visits to my home, or my sister’s, or the home of some other friend or relative. I find drawings of family members, unaware that they are being observed. I recognize favorite vacation spots. I find a drawing my father has made of himself, standing on a beach, and gazing across to the other side, a horizon lined with evergreens.

My eye traces the lines. The easy curves, the careful shading. Some of the sketches are mere thoughts in passing, a daydream. Others are a careful study, taking time.

I begin to realize … my father has shed some skins here, too. Perhaps I am not the only one standing alone on a public stage. My thoughts and dreams and values, my heartaches and disappointments, my soaring moments, my wandering line of thought may be easier to decipher … but I see that his are here, too.

He draws what draws him. Where he sees beauty, his pencil follows. What he respects and admires receives care in detail. What interests him appears in the picture; what repels him fades away. Or never makes it into the picture at all.
I can tell which places he loves most. The lines flow easily, almost like an embrace. When he is having fun, there is a flourish to the line his pencil makes.

Perhaps he had to be as revealing of himself in his art form as I in mine. No doubt a careless reader will miss what is between the lines, and the careless observer will miss the play of light and shadow, the care in every line and paint stroke, in my father’s work as well. Indeed, it occurs to me, that the reader and observer bring their own selves to the manner in which they interact with art. We all project something of ourselves in what we like and dislike. It just could be that the art connoisseur must stand naked in the light, too. When we declare to others what moves us, we are making a statement about ourselves.

However that may be, I page through my father’s sketchbooks with care. Every time I look at them, I see something new. Some detail that had escaped my eye previously now appears … and it may be that my sharper eye says something about me, too. In fact, I’m sure it does.

I treasure these drawings as I treasure the artist who created them.

To view more artwork—sketches, oil and watercolor paintings—visit Viestarts Aistars on Facebook and on MySpace.

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