Posted in Writing General Discussion, Writing Specifics and Samples

My Short Story: Thirty Chapters, Still Writing

I suppose the time is approaching for me to admit that I am not, and possibly never will be, a writer of short stories.  At the very least, this current effort can no longer compete in that genre. I hold out hope that it might be a novella, but I confess to not knowing the requirements for that genre, and I can’t quite bring myself to find out.

September:

  1. I posted a piece called “Ordinary Rituals: A Story,” but that was one of those classic cheats–an edited chapter from a novel.
  2. I finally challenged myself to write a story from scratch. It was to be a story about my grandmother.
  3. At the end of the month, I was still calling it a story and still writing.

October and half of November:

  1. The blog was silent.

November and December:

  1. I published one blog each month about problems with Chapter Nineteen of what, by that time, I had abandoned all pretense of calling a short story.  I managed to make a few smart remarks about my high school boyfriend.
  2. I continued to write.
  3. I rescued from the flames of an old website several blogs about the artist Joseph Raffael.

January:

  1. It crossed my mind that somehow combining photographs of my grandparents at two different stages might, as a cover, suggest a novel about a marriage over time. I spent the entire month and more juxtaposing and printing photographs for every friend and family member I know. I created a great book cover. I was taking a break from writing.

February: 

  1. I had to reorganize and rewrite Chapters Twenty-Seven through Twenty-Nine.
  2. I have just completed a draft of Chapter Thirty.

I am still writing.

And I did, finally, do a bit of research. I found this:

“A novella is a long short story or a short novel.”

That is the kind of thing that makes me want to start pulling my hair out.

Eventually, in time to save my sanity, I found something more specific:

“A novella is a text of written, fictional, narrative prose normally longer than a short story but shorter than a novel, somewhere between 17,500 and 40,000 words.”

 

On the tenth of February 2019 at 8:54 PM Eastern Standard Time, my manuscript is

42,936 words.

I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Posted in News of the Day

A Light in the Wilderness; A Virgin Mother; The Mother of All Living; An Ancient Fertility Symbol; A Goddess of Compassion; and RBG

(A Menorah; The Virgin Mary; Eve; An Ancient Egyptian Fertility Figure; Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and, The Buddhist Goddess of Compassion)

These figures sit on a two-hundred-year-old piece of furniture that belonged to my Aunt Margaret.  It is a biscuit bin, covered with drawers of various sizes and shapes. The top of the bin is heavy, but it can be lifted all the way back to reveal a cutting board and a large sifter. My biscuit bin is a magic cupboard holding secrets. I often wonder what was stored in all those drawers.  I can assume that it belonged to a woman who, in the nineteenth-century, would have considered it something practical, a place to make the bread that was the basic substance of life.  A place of fertility.

In the desert, the seven branched menorah kept the light of God alive for the legendary Moses as he led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. In first century Palestine, Christian mythology tells us that a young girl, a virgin, gave birth to a man who promised eternal life. After she had disobeyed God and eaten of the forbidden fruit, Adam named his wife, Eve, the mother of all living. Excavations over many centuries have turned up many hundreds of these small fertility figures, their breasts exposed. Kwan Yin is a Buddhist goddess of compassion, of love that makes no demands.

The Ruth Bader Ginsburg action figure was a Christmas gift. Justice Ginsburg had just undergone her third surgery for cancer. The box in which the figure came was inscribed on the side, “I DISSENT.”  It is a reference to the vote she cast, from her hospital bed, that decided the fate of Donald Trump’s most recent effort to further restrict the entry into this country of men, women, and children seeking asylum.

Donald Trump has appointed two justices to the Supreme Court–Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Both are white men. Both are to the right of conservative, although I am not sure what exactly they are conserving.  Judging from his testimony during his confirmation hearings, Kavanaugh is an especially loathsome human being, but his position on the issues so far seems to be a little less extreme than those of Gorsuch.  The difference, however, is not sharp enough to save us.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993. She is eighty-five years old and has just undergone her third operation for cancer, this time a malignancy in her lungs. She has served on the Supreme Court for a quarter of a century, and says she plans to continue. She works out with a personal trainer. There is a wonderful video on YouTube of Stephen Colbert interviewing her during one of her work-outs. She agreed to the interview, but insisted it happen at her gym. Colbert is having trouble keeping up with her.

Today I read this in the NYTimes:

“Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. announced his colleague’s absence at the start of Monday’s session, saying that “Justice Ginsburg is unable to be present today.” He added that she would take part in the court’s consideration of the day’s two cases based on the briefs submitted by the parties and transcripts of the arguments.”

In other words, as on the day of her surgery, Justice Ginsburg, too sick to come to the Court, participated from her bed. She intends to go on doing that for as long as she can.

As I have watched all this unfold, it occurs to me that I cannot imagine being eighty-five years old, with cancer, and carrying the burden of the implications that my death will have on the country for many decades ahead.

How would it be possible to bear that burden as gracefully as this woman is doing?

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Joseph Raffael, Early February 2017: Beauty Is Truth in Any Season

(Photograph I took of the sunlight shining through old casement windows into my living room, reflecting off the handle of an even older brass coal shuttle that belonged to my mother)

 

This essay was first published over two years ago and on a different website. I have updated the small personal history in the opening paragraph and have written a short note at the end. Otherwise, it  stands as written on a day not long after the presidential election of 2016.

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(Haiku Fish I – White, lithograph in colors,
from an edition of 32, signed and dated, 22.5” x 28.5” 1979)

 

The lithograph, “Haiku Fish,” stayed with me for years as I moved from place to place. It was always the first thing to go up on my living room wall.  Until a year ago, it held pride of place in my son’s home. In April of 2017, my first and almost certainly only grandchild turned two, I reclaimed the fish, and it now hangs in his room in my co-op.  “Haiku Fish” was a gift to me, many years ago, from the artist. Today it is a part of all our lives, a gift from the man my grandson calls “The Flower Guy.”

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It is Friday the 3rd of February 2017, just past 1:00 in the afternoon, and I am home from some time with good friends, looking ahead at a few hours that include a couple of phone calls and some uninterrupted reading.  I have two books in hand and will face only the problem of choosing between them.

Yesterday I had a whole day in front of me for reading, and I found myself nearly paralyzed by the old familiar depression.  I couldn’t sit still; I couldn’t concentrate. I was sleepy enough that I actually couldn’t hold my head up.  Eventually, early in the afternoon, I gave up and crawled into bed, fully clothed.  I slept away the rest of the day.

I have days like this, but they are days rather than weeks or months.

Today I woke up, climbed into a hot shower, dressed, and went out.

Yesterday, I made a change in my morning routine. The home page on my web browser is The New York Times, and it is an incredible bargain.  For $15/month, I have the Times in front of me, with its mostly even-handed coverage of events and its always thoughtful, varied, and wonderfully well-written opinions and editorials.  I have had it for several years and wouldn’t consider giving it up.

Nor am I giving it up now.  But yesterday it came into my mind that reading about what is happening in the world, and in the country, may or may not be causing my flirtation with depression, but it certainly can’t be helping, and so I traded information, ideas, and opinions for beauty. My home page is now the website of a friend from many years ago, Joseph Raffael, whose paintings are so exquisite that I have no words for them except “Go, and look.”  As of this morning, the first thing I see in the pre-dawn hours, when I succumb to the seductive voice of technology, is beauty.

We have lost our direction, misplaced our compasses, turned ourselves around, faces backward.  What to do with it all?

At the top of Joseph Raffael’s website is this quote, something I recall his saying in one way or another back in the 1970’s when I first knew him:

“My painting is and has been a kind of conversation with Mystery.”

Below that is this new painting.
large_JR17x3_DawnRose

 

 

(Dawn Rose, watercolor on paper,
17.50″ x 19.50″ 2017)

 

In the time since November 8,  I have been carving out a way through the wilderness, a way that does not involve sitting at home, focused on every detail of the bad news.  On November 9, I raged and wept and talked all day to friends who were also weeping and raging.  On January 20th, I came home at 1:00, found Leonard Cohen on YouTube, and cooked.  Today, I look at paintings. Today I will be at home in my silent house. Today I will read.

It is still Friday and I am just ending over an hour on the telephone with my cousin, Jane, to whom I introduced Joseph’s paintings over a year ago.  Today, we both went to his website and looked at every link, every canvas, every photograph. We read a long interview.  We remembered looking on the Internet at paintings with prayer flags and we searched until we found them.

large_JR11x8_TurningPoint

 

 

(Turning Point, watercolor, 550″ x 441″ 2010)

I kept discovering paintings I remembered from decades ago and pointing them out. It was a lovely hour, an hour well-spent.  I remarked at one point that “I could do this all day,” and then realized that I could also read the Times or get stuck on Facebook all day–and what a difference this time with beauty makes.  At the end of reading the Times, I feel depleted and discouraged.  At the end of the incredible, and incredibly addictive, waste of time that is Facebook, I feel exhausted, disgusted with myself, and most of all sad for the time lost.  At nearly seventy-one, I don’t have time to spare.

But today, it is 5:30. I got some reading done and then, without planning, I was handed this time with my cousin, sharing something beautiful.  And I do feel tired out from so much time on the telephone, but what I most feel is exhilarated, encouraged, enriched, and just plain happy.

I think suddenly of the title of one of my favorite books by C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy.

And I remember the words John Keats wrote in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,”

“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

This has always been among my favorites.

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A NOTE:
Almost immediately after I published this essay, I realized I had not asked anyone for permission to use Joseph’s 
paintings, so I went onto his website and found that I could send him a message through Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York.

I did that, unsure if he would even remember me after many years.

He did remember, and I received this short response.

joseph_01

We are still in touch. His emails are longer,
his signature changed only to include Lannis.

jwl

Posted in Uncategorized

Chapter Nineteen: Rewritten twice, still not good. Old Boyfriend perseveres, and I’m moving on. Chapter Twenty-Two: Complete.

This is the third draft of Chapter Nineteen. I might well come back to it later, but for now I am moving on–from the chapter, you understand. The Old Boyfriend and I moved on half a century ago.


Chapter Nineteen
The Ford and the Teacher
“I knew that I . . . came across as a school mistress.”

 

During the years of her marriage to Martin, Camilla thought often and fondly of her grandfather with his church that was packed every Sunday and his house full of books overflowing the shelves that had been built for them. Someone, probably the housekeeper, occasionally tried to put the extra books into tidy piles just in front of the shelves, but her grandfather had a cat who considered those stacks of books his personal challenge, and so the effort was abandoned. That clutter of books was always a comfort to Camilla. When her grandfather died, she had wanted badly to have the cat, who was white and handsome, but she was busy with the baby and, by the time she mentioned it to her parents, the cat was gone.  His name was Icarus, and he had sat in her lap for whole afternoons while she read or talked to her grandfather about books. It was her grandfather who had introduced her to reading and then had seen to it that she always had something to read.  He died a year after Bill was born. She didn’t think of him with any sort of regret nor did she make pointless comparisons between the old pastor and her Martin.  Still, she did think of him.

It must have been partly the memory of her grandfather that inspired her, one morning a few months after her mother’s death, to look into what would be required for her to become a schoolteacher. Looking back on it, she was ashamed to admit that she had not given a passing thought to Martin or to the obvious need to talk with him about a decision that could change both their lives. Normally careful of Martin’s feelings, she hadn’t considered at all what this would seem like from his perspective.  Of course, it would have appeared that she wanted to find a way back to the world she had inhabited before her marriage. She would have adamantly denied it at the time, but wouldn’t that have been at least part of what she wanted? If she had considered telling him, if she had let it even slip through her mind, she would have seen what was obvious–that the whole idea would be hurtful and an insult. No, Camilla dared not let her mind turn in her husband’s direction for fear she would comprehend all too well that by doing this she was saying—without the bother of actually saying it—that she was dissatisfied with her life and that she wanted more of somethingthat Martin wasn’t quite providing: more books; more people who wanted to talk about them; a little more money; some unnamed quality in the marriage. Whatever it was, she had sat down at her kitchen table with a tablet and a pencil and, with no worries about Martin weighing her down, had tried to decide where to begin.

As she considered her options, she saw how completely she had cut her ties to the old life. She had lost touch with Dora and Mrs. Randolph, the two people who defined that life and its promises–promises that had been well within reach. At this point, two things occurred, one on top of the other and without Camilla’s having to stir from the table. First, she discovered that she was sitting with her hands in tight fists in her lap. She didn’t know how long she had sat that way, but she took a deep breath and relaxed her hands so her palms were loose and open. Those fists suggested anger, of course. Camilla understood that, but she wasn’t prepared to think any further than that general acknowledgment. It was a coincidence, probably the purely physical response of sitting in the hard chair, bent over the table and more than a little anxious that she wouldn’t be able to find out what she needed. Whatever was causing those fists, Camilla was sure of one thing. It wasn’t anger. She was not angry. She was not angry about anything she might have lost, certainly not. She couldn’t be angry with Martin, who had done nothing more than love her, and obviously she wasn’t angry with her child. She couldn’t even imagine being angry with Bill. She wasn’t angry at all, and that was that. Because, somewhere down very deep, Camilla knew that anger was her dragon, just as pain was Martin’s. And, while Martin had defeated his dragon with her help and Delia’s, there would be no one to help her and she, and her life, would not have survived. And so, Camilla wasn’t angry.  Whatever happened had simply happened. There was no one to blame.

She had stopped going to the small schoolhouse when she was married, and pregnancy, then a baby, barred her altogether.  The years had passed with a terrible speed, and once she and Martin had moved, Camilla’s attention had turned to what was in front of her. Martin had found a piece of land he liked and could afford, and Camilla was caught up in the endless job of setting up housekeeping and raising her son.  And now it was obvious that Mrs. Randolph was the person who would know how one might go about becoming a teacher, and Camilla was sure she would also know where Dora was.  She felt a rush of excitement.  And in the few minutes required for all this to pour through the filters Camilla had set around her awareness on certain subjects, the second thing happened and cut right through her mostly unconscious decision to carry out her plan without consulting Martin.

He came in so quietly, closed the door so soundlessly, that Camilla didn’t know Martin was there until he pulled out a chair and sat down across the table. She was startled and, irrationally, she felt guilty. She had written nothing on her tablet except the two names—Mrs. R. and Dora—but she moved too quickly to put her hand over them and Martin was curious. “If that’s the start of a list for shopping, Mill, I am going to town in a while and I can pick up anything we need.”

“Thank you, but I think we have plenty of everything. Most likely we won’t have to bring in any groceries from town for at least another week.“  And then, by some instinct, Camilla had the good sense not to try to hide what she was doing.  “I wasn’t making a shopping list. I was scribbling down my ideas for finding out if I could ever go to school, or do anything else, to become a teacher.”

She laughed when she said, “So far I have written down two names: Mrs. Randolph—who was my English teacher—and Eudora Marker, a girl I was just starting to like. I think we were becoming friends.”

Martin was looking at her curiously, so she added, “And that’s as far as I got. I guess it should have been obvious that my old teacher might know something about how to become a teacher.”  When Martin didn’t respond, she went on, “I was thinking I might drive over there tomorrow early, leave Bill with my parents, and just take a run by the school. What do you think, Martin? Would you be able to do without the car?”

Camilla never did unravel the mystery of Martin’s face at that moment, but chances are she tried. Whatever was going through his mind, whatever he was feeling, what Martin said was, “Of course I can do without the car, and you must leave Bill here with me. You’ll spend a lot of time with Megan and William when you probably want to use it all at the school. It’s a pretty exciting idea, Mil, and I’ll do anything I can to help you with whatever you need to do.”

Camilla had no response to this short speech. What with one thing and another, there was an awful lot of silence in that conversation. Camilla was genuinely amazed, not so much by what Martin had said as by her own apparent blindness to the depth of simple goodness in this man.  It was just his nature. It was who he was. It wasn’t what he thought he should say or any kind of posture or performance. It was just Martin. If it were brought to his attention, he would have shrugged and been slightly confused that anyone would make a fuss about it.  As far as Martin was concerned, it was just the way you acted. Camilla hadn’t said a word yet, but he was watching her and he could sense she was about to tell him how wonderful he was. He really felt that he wouldn’t be able to tolerate it, so he cut right in before she had an opening,

“Alright, then, I am going to town to do the few things on my own list, then you can have the car as early tomorrow as you want to start, and with Bill staying here, you won’t have to eat up your time getting him ready to travel. And you’re sure you don’t want to add to the list?”

“I’m sure, Martin. Thank you for tomorrow. Bill staying here will make my day easier and possibly shorter. So you think I’m on the right track to consult Mrs. Randolph first?”

“Yes, I do.  It sounds like she’s so obvious to ask you could throw any other names that come to you right out the window.”

Camilla didn’t have the heart to tell Martin there were no other names, and early the next morning she left him and Bill sleeping soundly, tip-toed out to the car and headed down the road in search of her future.  As she drove, it occurred to her that she wasn’t even sure that Mrs. R was still there.  She was appalled that she had allowed two people who had been so important to just disappear.  Mrs. Randolph’s encouragement, and the confidence she had in Camilla, had been life-changing, and perhaps even more was the friendship with Eudora, her only relationship like that either before or since.  Before, she had her parents and her grandfather. After, there was Martin and then there was Bill. There was no time for friends. Mrs. Randolph had seen the need and made the arrangements for them.  Goodness, she could hardly wait to find Mrs. R and then to track down Dora.  How exciting. Life certainly did have its twists and turns and most of them recently had been because of this automobile. Without it, she would have had no way to even make the trip.

As usual, Camilla was distracted while she was driving and very nearly ran herself into a ditch.  She turned the wheel just ahead of disaster and tried to keep her attention on the road for the rest of the short drive.  It wasn’t long, however, until she nearly wrecked the car a second time. When she drove up to the schoolhouse, to what used to be a one-room frame building accommodating twenty or twenty-five children, she slammed on the brakes and almost threw herself over the steering wheel.  Was it actually possible that in seven years, it had been transformed into a large brick building, with two floors? And more than that, could it be true that for those same seven years, as she came to see her parents, she had never once driven past the school, never seen what was happening, never even tried to visit Mrs. Randolph or ask where Dora had gone?

Much more cautiously, she pulled the Ford into a vacant parking place—they were actually marked out and numbered, right on the pavement.  Camilla was nervous. Actually, Camilla was so badly frightened that her legs were trembling and she was finding it difficult to get her breath.  Determined to pull herself together, she approached the building, climbed the few stairs to the front entrance and pushed open the door. The inside was even more of a shock than the outside.  White walls were covered with student art—bright paintings of every color; hardwood floors gleamed; and she could hear, down the long hall, the quiet murmur of a good many more than twenty-five voices. She looked into a few classrooms and could hardly believe she was in the town where she grew up. She had taken in the radical changes, could see what the school had accomplished, and she was eager to talk to Mrs. Randolph. She found the school office and before she knew it she was inside, asking a bright-looking young woman to tell her where she might find Mrs. Randolph. Mrs. Randolph, Camilla explained, had been her teacher when she went to school there, not too long ago.

The young woman, whose name was Lois, looked genuinely sorry to disappoint, but she shook her head. She had remembered Camilla’s name, and used it in hopes it would soften the bad news.

“I am so very sorry, Mrs. Ainsworth.  Mrs. Randolph left when the plan for the new building was approved.”

This didn’t quite make sense to Camilla, and it was a minute before she responded, “That is a surprise, Lois. Mrs. Randolph dreamed of teaching in a building like this, where the students had plenty of room and there could be more teachers—a teacher for every subject. Goodness, I am puzzled by this news.”

“No need to be. Mrs. R loved the building plans, loved the drawings of the whole layout, loved the classrooms. None of that was a problem. She was very excited about the new possibilities for her classes.  No, it was because every other teacher was in favor of tearing down the old school and putting up this new school right where it was.  I hope I’m not being disrespectful to call her Mrs. R. It’s what we all called her.”

At this, Camilla had to laugh. “Not only don’t I think it’s disrespectful, but it was two of us in my class who called her that for the first time.  But I still don’t understand why she quit her job. That seems like a pretty serious thing to do.”

“It must have been. I think when her ideas were ignored entirely, she just felt she couldn’t stay.”

That day, on the first of many visits she would make to the school, she said goodbye to Lois, closed the office door behind her, and made a decision. She would talk to whoever took Mrs. Randolph’s position, hoping that person had at least gotten an address that she would be willing to share with a former student. Although she didn’t know it, Camilla would spend most of the rest of that day in the building.  She felt both envy and a desire to one day teach in just such a place.

She spotted a classroom with a sign for 10thgrade American Literature, taught by a Mrs. Watkins.  Somehow, although Mrs. R had always taught younger students, this felt right. Mrs. Watkins might even be Mrs. R’s replacement. If she wasn’t, this was still a small town and she would surely know the whereabouts of Mrs. Randolph and Eudora Marker and, for Camilla, just knowing where they were would be a comfort, even if the news was that they had moved across the country. She would feel she had made at least indirect contact and it would give her the courage she would need to do whatever came next.  Camilla was getting more determined and more hopeful.

She reached for the doorknob and turned it without making a sound. She could hear the rustle of clothes and papers and the murmur of student voices. The door was only open a crack and sound was too muffled for her to tell what they were saying. Occasionally, she caught a deeper voice, definitely a woman, most likely Mrs. Watkins, but Camilla couldn’t see whoever belonged to that voice.  She had relaxed a bit and was leaning on the wall, taking the opportunity to get her bearings while she waited for the class to be over.  Her eyes were almost closing when she was nearly jolted out of her skin by a familiar voice shouting her name.

“Camilla Whitfield, you left before we could discuss The Scarlet Letter! I don’t know how you managed it, but you are in luck today. Come in here right this minute, and no arguments.”

Camilla had by now opened the door and, before she could see a thing, she found herself enveloped by a warm body and two strong arms. She couldn’t remember ever being embraced with that kind of enthusiasm.  She suddenly realized that she felt happy.

`           “Dora? What on earth? Is this your class? You’re teaching here? Did you come when Mrs. R left? Oh, heavens, you are right in the middle of a discussion and here I am asking questions. I am so sorry. I’ll go back out and wait in the office until you have time.” Camilla was embarrassed and, as she usually did when she was embarrassed, she was talking much too fast and much too loud. She had begun her quest for information about teaching by making a fool of herself in front of a room full of students.

Meanwhile, Eudora had turned around to face the class and was saying something about The Scarlet Letter.

“Class, we have a visitor. She is an old friend and we were interrupted quite some time ago in the middle of a discussion of this very novel.  Mrs. Ainsworth—is that right? Camilla, meet my class. We are honored to have you.”

Camilla checked herself to be sure she actually felt the way she felt. It was like taking her pulse. She was no longer nervous, not a bit. As a matter of fact, she felt confident and completely at home in this unfamiliar school, facing a room full of young people every one of whom was a stranger. She was going to have to say something about a novel she read years ago. She barely remembered the story, let alone why it was so important. And then the strangest thing happened. She walked toward the front of the room, looked out at the sea of faces, smiled and said,

“Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, is possibly the best-known American novel. What do you think it is about? Take a minute or two to think before answering. Raise your hand if you have something to say.”

And that was that. She spent the rest of the day with Dora, joining discussions in her other classes, watching her friend teach. She was good. Camilla knew she could be good, too. She and Dora agreed to share a quick supper and go together to see Mrs. Randolph.

December 11 2018: A Note on Chapter Nineteen: No, I had not forgotten this, or any of the other chapters in this difficult novel. I will confess that, although I had not forgotten them, I had certainly set them aside and once again devoted my energies to writing about my friend, Joseph Raffael, and–for my sins–reading the NYTimes.

Posted in Uncategorized

Joseph Raffael, 2016: Reflections and Memories, Moving Always Toward the Light

(Moving Toward the Light II, watercolor on paper, 87 1/2″ x 49″ 2015)

The description of Moving Toward the Light on Joseph Raffael’s website reads in part: “A major new book on the artist covering the past 17 years of his life and work in the South of France. Reproducing 88 works in rich color, the book has three illuminating essays: by Lanie Goodman on the artist’s life, by Betsy Dillard Stroud, a dialogue on the artist’s work artist-to-artist and by David Pagel, Art Critic for the L.A. Times, on the philosophy of beauty.”

When you open your copy of Moving Toward the Light, you will be opening the door into a world of beauty–the incomparable beauty of the paintings that Joseph Raffael has created over the last two decades, and the clear, clean beauty of the words of three fine writers on the life and the art and the thoughts of the man who painted them.

And that is how I began this review, two years ago. I have changed nothing in the text  but have added four more images of Joseph’s wife, Lannis.”

large (1)(Moving Toward the Light I watercolor on paper, 94 1/2″ x 45″ 2015)

This finely crafted and intelligent collection of some of Raffael’s best and loveliest paintings will delight you, will enchant you, will not only please you but will fill you with gratitude that something this exquisite exists in our troubled world. It is a splendid volume, about which I am going to offer an odd piece of advice: When you open your copy of Moving Toward the Light, be a little cautious. Stay awake. There are signs along the road; watch for them.

I have often felt that the galleries and museums that exhibit Joseph’s paintings, the galleries and museums where people stand, or sit–sometimes for hours–gazing at those paintings, should post warning signs, although I’ve never been quite sure what I would have them say. All those rooms, filled with all those paintings, many very large, hold you close with images that invite and intrigue–flowers; prayer flags waving over ponds filled with ancient fish; lush gardens; a wall of the artist’s studio; the Mediterranean seen through a window; seashells in a rock garden; a beloved wife. This is the stuff of pure happiness.

But once in a while, and then only if you are paying a particular kind of attention or are in a certain frame of mind–once in a great while–consoled by beauty; your perception shifted in some puzzling way by the intensity of this particular beauty; in any case, disarmed, unprepared–on a day like any other day, you are ambushed. Perhaps, if you are attending just at that moment, you will catch a glimpse of the shadow beneath the swimming fish or the evening darkness at the edge of the magnolia, and you might feel a chill. You might, just perhaps, feel an undefined sadness and reach up to touch tears on your face. You might break down and weep. I have seen it happen.

These paintings, that Joseph Raffael assures us, in Moving Toward the Light, know exactly what they’re up to, pull back the veil–or move it slightly aside–and, in that split second of our mindfulness, reveal something less comfortable, something more ambiguous, something a little disturbing. Something like life.

Next to the painting, Bali Pond VI, a  large watercolor on paper dated 1998, the book quotes Thich Nhat Hanh,

“N o  m u d,  n o  l o t u s.”

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The beauty that Joseph creates is not a perfect beauty. It is, instead, a beauty that is whole and complete, a beauty that leaves out nothing. It is an important distinction. He has been asked many times if he considers his work “realistic.” I have even read it described as “photographic” in its realism. Joseph’s answer is always “No.” He tells us, in this wonderful new book–and has been telling us for decades–that his paintings are about painting, and that painting is about color. He lifts a brush and puts down one drop of color; he follows it with a second, and a third, guided by that which the painting will become.

“I don’t paint flowers. I paint energy.”

Joseph Raffael paints life.

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(Dawn Rose, watercolor on paper
171/2″ x 191/2″ 2017)

 

 

 

large_JR07x5_prayer(Prayer, watercolor on paper, 85.50″ x 55.50″ 2007)

 

And so I come, by this circuitous route, to the backstory of these reflections.

 

On 15 February 2017, Joseph and I had this exchange at the end of a thread of emails:
Joseph: “if you don’t already have my book ‘Moving Toward the Light’
i’d like very much that you receive a copy”
Dean: “I do not and I would love one.”
Joseph: “you’ll be receiving it in about ten days”
Dean:“How would you feel about my writing a review?”
Joseph: “you can write it whenever & whatever you want i’d be delighted”

From the start of our correspondence, Joseph signed his emails

I haunted the mailbox, I watched through my old casement windows for a UPS or FedEx truck, and I waited. While I waited, I explored Joseph’s website and cast my net wide for all the images I remembered, and there they were, not only on the website but all over the Internet:

Joseph Raffael, Fish;
Joseph Raffael, Water Lilies;
Pond; Flowers;
Joseph Raffael, Lannis.

Joseph Raffael, Lannis

The last time I saw him was in 1989 at a showing of his work at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in Soho. The exhibit was called “Lannis in Sieste,” and around every corner, on every wall, were the paintings. I was stunned by the enormous watercolors of Lannis. There was a feeling of inevitability about them. Their tenderness broke my heart.

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(Lannis in Sieste X”,watercolor on paper,
68.1/2″ x 44.1/2″ 1988)

Lannis in Sieste X, is five feet long and nearly four feet wide.

Try to imagine it.

It took the air out of the room that day in 1989. From the doorway of the gallery, I saw the colors and the woman. And it had me; I couldn’t leave it for long. I saw the pillows pushed back, the arms raised, the clear line of the fabric as it folds into slightly parted thighs.

Rich with color, almost consumed by its own hues, it is, like most of Joseph’s work, an incandescent mosaic of colors, one color laid down beside another, and another after that. Stand close and each tiny piece, each square inch of the whole, is a painting complete in itself. Walk away, turn, and the bits of color have resolved themselves into Lannis, lying on an unmade bed in a flowered dress whose pattern bleeds into the sheets underneath her. She looks entirely satisfied and comfortably seductive, as a woman can only be in the company of a man who loves her well enough to have earned her trust, who loves her well enough, perhaps, to have painted this portrait. A man for whom the surrender to paint and water is an act of love.

I think these are the most wonderfully sexual paintings I have ever seen; they are full of pleasure and laughter just beneath the surface. My cousin, Jane, sees in the paintings the likeness of a saint. I cannot  disagree. I have never quite understood why they make me sad.

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(Le Printemps I, 1988,
watercolor on paper,
61″ × 44 3/4″)

 

 

(Lannis in the Garden, 1986,
30″ x 22-1/2 ”
watercolor on paper.   

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(Lannis In Sieste XIII, 1988,
watercolor on paper, 66″ x 44″)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Ancient Longing,
watercolor with
acrylic border on paper,
52 ½” x 44″ 1985)

 

The beauty that Joseph creates is not a perfect beauty. It is, instead, a beauty that is whole and complete, a beauty that leaves out nothing. Joseph Raffael paints life. The paintings are enigmatic–yes, even the seashells, even the roses. They are mysteries–not to be solved, but to be embraced. They invite you to participate in their complexity. Only turn the pages of Moving Toward the Light. You will find yourself reaching for that embrace; you will find yourself hungry for complexity.

While I am waiting for my copy of Moving Toward the Light, I discover a video on YouTube in which Joseph, only his hands visible, opens the book. The video is called, simply,

“Moving Toward the Light. The Book.”

The hands that move with a kind of courtliness across this testament to his art are the same hands that linger expectantly over the outline of a leaf, brush held just off the paper, waiting for the painting to tell them where that whisper of blue belongs. If I didn’t know that Joseph Raffael is eighty-four years old, I would say these were the hands of a young man.maxresdefault

The sound of his voice, as he talks about his book, startles me. It is completely familiar, but I had forgotten the slight Brooklyn accent. Even after twenty-five years in France, it is there. Recollection snags on that voice, rough with the edge of New York, fine in the way I imagine must be the result of a life lived in conversation with paint and paper and the gods.

As he turns the pages, he often seems to be talking to himself. When he comes to Lannis, in photographs or in paintings, he sighs. He explains, with something like wonder in his voice,

“I painted this when Lannis was sick.”
It is a repeated point of reference, as is,
“Soon after we got here.”

“Color is what keeps the painting . . . moving.”
Perhaps one of the reasons for the unforgiving loveliness of Joseph Raffael’s paintings is that they are never at rest. They are always moving, and always moving toward something–something just ahead, glimpsed but not quite visible, something around the next bend, past that big cloud bank.

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(Turning Point
, watercolor on paper, 550″ x 441″ 2010)

 

 

Every painting I have ever seen is in motion. The prayer flags lift their ragged edges; petals drift from flowers; and, of course there are the fish, koi of every size and hue, which were my favorites right from the beginning.

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Life Streams,
watercolor on paper,
56″ x 391/4″ 20

 

 

 

 

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(Crescendo,
watercolor on paper,
 631/2 x 751/2″ 2013)

 

Even those paintings that evoke calm and stillness–I am thinking of the the water lilies that were among the first of Joseph’s paintings I ever saw–have some indescribable tremor at the center that reflects that balance between “the still point and the dance” that marks Joseph’s life as I imagine it to be.1003

 

(New Light,
watercolor on paper,
66 1/2 x 443/4″ 2010)

 

 

 

 

Like St. Benedict, Joseph Raffael has chosen stability of place in which constant change and movement of spirit are possible, has elected a firm ground in which everything is “alchemical,” as he says of the watercolors in which he works–engaged in a perpetual process of becoming something else, something other, something more, something gold.

Joseph is neither a monk nor an alchemist. And yet, in the Spring of 1986, he and Lannis moved from their home in California to the South of France. They moved there to make a life that was pared down, focused, simpler–a life about painting, a life about beauty. A life of intention. They have been there ever since, in a house by the sea, surrounded now by their gardens and prayer flags and ponds full of koi, sharing their days with their animals, lifting up to the gods–like the sweet incense of sacrifice–the full truth of beauty. Lifting up the radiance that is born every day through the relationship between this remarkable man, a few pots of paint, and a stoppered carafe of water.

The first time I watched the video,“Moving Toward the Light,” that carafe caught my eye, and I thought, “Even the container for the water is beautiful.Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 6.08.31 PM

 

Joseph believes that “watercolor has a mind of its own, it dries in ways I can never imagine and insists upon being itself.”

“Transmutation” is the language of alchemy, and it suggests change at depth; change at the cellular level; chemical change. Turning lead into gold. Movement. Magic.

Will we who love his paintings know it when it happens? Can we mark the small corner of one of those huge water lilies, or clock the exact moment in time as the paint dries on the fish and the flags? Can we say “There! There is where the magic happens!” Whenever and however it occurs, at some point in time the laying down of paint with a touch so delicate it almost seems not to happen becomes the magnolia tree seen and photographed in the early evening in a garden in France. A garden in the south of France, on the Mediterranean, on Cap d’Antibes. Joseph and Lannis Raffael’s garden, which they chose in 1986 as they walked away from years in California, from exhibitions of Joseph’s paintings in New York, as they walked toward the light.

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Joseph and Lannis Raffael have been home for over two decades. The gardens that Lannis planted are extravagantly overgrown. The paintings, with their unbearable colors, their light, their loveliness, their undertow of the sorrowful beauty of the whole world, continue to emerge under Joseph’s hand.

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(Life Streaming, watercolor on paper, 55 x 931/2″ 201

 

When the book arrived, although I had lived nothing but Joseph and his paintings for close to a month, nothing could have prepared me. I held it as if it were the gold of the Philosopher’s Stone. It is eleven inches square, one hundred and ninety-two pages long. For such a substantial volume, it is a remarkably comfortable fit in the hand. The pages are heavy stock, silky to the touch. They cast back the light from the antique lamps that belonged to my aunt. It is impossible not to slide your hand over every image. The art involved in putting it together is evident.

Before I even open it, I can see that Moving Toward the Light is a book lover’s book. There is water. There is Lannis. There are shells of every shape and size and hue. There are the prayer flags, of course, and the fish. There are flowers. There is that magnolia tree. There are two brilliant essays and an interview, to be read, discussed and savored over time. There is a full catalogue of the paintings. It is the definitive reference work for this important period in Joseph Raffael’s life as an artist. But for now, there are only the paintings. Even from the pages of a book, they issue an invitation it is impossible to refuse.

larger(Life Streaming,
watercolor on paper,
55″ x 931/2″ 2014)

Joseph says of the lifetime of beauty he has created, “The painting is most successful when the ‘me’ is mostly absent.” There are, in Moving Toward the Light, three small black and white photographs of Joseph as a young man, one of him as a boy, two photographs in color of him and Lannis.  The photograph of Joseph Raffael, on the book’s last page, is barely more than a silhouette, as he leans on the railing outside his studio looking at the endless Mediterranean that is his daily companion. “The painting is most successful when the ‘me’ is mostly absent.”

Joseph Raffael, born in February 1933, is eighty-four years old. Here is a shimmering record of what he has done with almost twenty of those years. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be Joseph Raffael and to hold this volume in your hand. When you open your copy of Moving Toward the Light, you will be opening a door into the world. Therecover-moving-toward-the-light-joseph-raffael are signs along the road; watch for them.

 

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Posted in Uncategorized

Joseph Raffael, 2018: Joseph and David Pagel Talk: Some Thoughts About “Talking Beauty”

TALKING BEAUTY: A CONVERSATION BETWEEN JOSEPH RAFFAEL AND DAVID PAGEL ABOUT ART, LOVE, DEATH AND CREATIVITY

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Joseph Raffael and David Pagel are among the small handful of people who would dare to call a collection of emails “a conversation . . . about art, love, death and creativity.” Yet that is precisely what they have done. Between February 2015 and the early spring of 2016, in an exchange of emails, David and Joseph carried on a richly layered conversation  on precisely those elusive subjects.

They could not be more different, these two. Joseph is eighty-five years old. David is at least a quarter century younger. The photographs of David show him with his wife and two young children at the Grand Canyon, or on a bike participating in a rugged event called the Mullholland Challenge, an annual competition that describes itself as

“an epic challenge with tons of climbing in the incredibly beautiful Santa Monica Mountains. This event is geared toward the adventurous cyclist who loves to climb.
106 miles with about 12,700 feet of climbing!”

Joseph and Lannis stand quietly in front of one of Joseph’s large paintings, two of life’s warriors who have walked away from the battle. They look a little worn, beautiful, and filled with the joy of the day and each other.

David and Joseph share in common a love of beauty, an acquaintance with great loss, and an urgent interest in ideas. Much of their conversation is about their children.

While they do not always agree, their dialogue is full of mutual respect and affection. They possess the wisdom of experience and the curiosity of those who are always beginners.  A light shines on their journey and illuminates the path for all of us.  I, for one, am enormously grateful.

I have known Joseph since the 1970’s, toward the end of his time in California and not long before he left for the South of France. We saw one another once after the move, in 1989, at an exhibition of his work at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York. After that, we lost touch until 2015.

I discovered David Pagel–his writing and our mutual appreciation of Joseph Raffael’s painting–only when Joseph sent me a copy of his book, Moving Toward the Light (2015), in which David’s essay figures prominently.  I subsequently reviewed the book, both the visual and the literary art.  The two men have never met.

I don’t expect I will see Joseph again in this life, nor will I ever meet David face-to-face.  And yet, here we all are, no more than a breath apart. Art, love, and death.

Perhaps the only thing as good as waiting for the arrival of a book from Joseph Raffael is being caught entirely by surprise by the arrival of a book by Joseph Raffael and David Pagel. These are beautiful volumes, a pleasure to the senses of sight and touch before they are opened.  On the publication of Talking Beauty, Joseph’s website reminded us of both.Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 8.32.01 AM (1)

The first thing I did after lifting Moving Toward the Light out of its box was to take a photograph of it catching the afternoon sun on the deep ledge of my old casement windows. I felt the clear light of grace fill my home.

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I had prepared for this book, thought about it, longed for it, and when the postman put the box in my hands I knew it for what it was, finally here, and I stood for a long time just holding the box, stretching out those last minutes of anticipation

Talking Beauty announced itself in quite a different way. A phone call from my publisher informed me that a package had arrived for me at his office.  Although I knew about Talking Beauty=–Joseph had sent me part of the manuscript, with a request for editorial suggestions–I had not expected this gift. When John read the return address, I knew and asked him to open the box.fullsizeoutput_50c5

He took a photo of the book and sent it, appropriately, via email.

A friend drove me to Koehler Books at the beach to collect my treasure.

If you have stood in the presence of Joseph Raffael’s paintings, you have already heard much of his conversation about beauty–a conversation he has carried on, from New York and northern California and, for the last three decades, from Cap d’Antibes. It is, according to Joseph, a conversation whose language is  color and energy.13902673_10153782561553263_9140044180703641337_n

If you have read any of David Pagel’s writing, you know the meaning and the music that threads into the fabric of the language that belongs to this man of words.

 

“For me, beauty is the kind of thing for which there’s no one-size-fits-all definition . . . my surroundings . . . suddenly seem to be clearer and crisper and more immediate–as if the distance between me and them has disappeared and everything is where it belongs.”

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To which, the man of color and energy responds, “This is a subject that leaves me speechless.”

 

The pages turn. The conversation deepens.  What began as a philosophical exchange about the nature of beauty, jumps to the deep sharing between them of the more intimate search for the divine, the children, the long journey of Lannis Raffael into the realms of death, and back again,  And, in a section called “Devastation and Destruction and Instruction,” David concludes that

“Suffering and discovery go hand in hand, and loss and beauty are intimately linked.”

The loss of pets, the death of a son and the healing of a daughter. Joseph begins the next section, “Rachel and Matthew,” like a diver,

“Here goes. Rachel first, then Matthew” 

Fifty pages in, they communicate in the shorthand of intimacy.

In this tapestry of words and color, there is the music of a kind of call and response of poetry.  Back and forth, they offer up not only their own creativity but the poetry and prose of Oliver Sacks and T.S. Eliot; Wallace Stevens and James Taylor; Rilke and Dante and Walt Whitman.  It is the kind of eager and unplanned quoting of favorite and remembered lines that two friends, both well-read and thoughtful, throw out in a conversation to make a point, reinforce an idea, or for the pleasure of a dance with the beauty and meaning they are seeking.

Joseph recalls something that Oliver Sacks wrote:

“I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done . . .

My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty” (Oliver Sacks, “The Joy of Old Age,” NYTimes, July 6, 2013)”

JR: “I say, ‘Ditto'” And after a moment’s silence, he continues,
“Thank you, David, for moving along the path with me in this wonderful and mysterious journey.”

DP: “To that I say, ‘Double ditto.'”

To that, I say, “Thank you David. Thank you, Joseph.”

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(August, watercolor on paper, 36″ x 36″ 2018)

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Joseph Raffael, 1975-77: Meeting; Parting; Haiku Fish.

(Haiku Fish I – White, lithograph in colors, from an edition of 32, signed and dated, 22.5” x 28.5” 1979)

 

Below are two excerpts from a long essay, “The Elements: A Southerner in Northern California” (2018), in which I tell the story of meeting Joseph Raffael and of his gift of the lithograph, “Haiku Fish.” The original essay, written for a specific purpose, contained no images, but it seems impossible to write about Joseph very often without his paintings. I have included especially the koi, which continue to be my favorites.

MEETING

“On one of those afternoons in Northern California when the air is sharp and the light is high and fine, almost translucent, Reuben took me to have dinner at the home of his friend, Joseph Raffael. On our drive down from Sonoma County to San Geronimo, he told me only that Joseph was an artist and that they had known one another for a long time.  We had made our way slowly, taking the old Point Reyes-Petaluma Road into the San Geronimo Valley. I was aware of the distance we were travelling from the life we had left and of something not yet known growing closer.

And then we were there. As we drove onto the property, the pale gold of the early evening light danced on the roof of a tall green redwood building directly in front of us. I felt the wind pick up.  It was Joseph’s studio. Having grown accustomed to signs and symbols, I suppose I should have been prepared, although I don’t believe that anything could really have helped me. I was about to come face-to-face with a mystery that would change forever the way I saw the world around me. It was a mystery about light.

The canvas must have been five or six feet across and nearly as tall. I could see that it was raised and lowered by some peculiar system of pulleys and that a trough had been cut into the floor just the right size.  Relaxed on a stool in front of it, holding a paintbrush in one hand and periodically reaching up with the other to run his fingers through dark, paint-specked hair, was a tall, very handsome man whose concentration on what he was doing was absolute. The canvas had been lowered, and he was painting a section at the top. He obviously hadn’t heard us open the door, and Reuben touched my arm to let me know we were to be still. I could have stood, just as I was, indefinitely, because by then I had finally stopped looking around, had raised my eyes, and had seen the canvas. It was the half-finished painting of a pond, in which light played back and forth across the small waves, overlapping in half circles, behind the submerged bodies of large swimming fish. Even under water, even on the canvas, they were alive. They looked ancient. Probably koi. But the important thing for me was the light on that water.

There is no way to describe it except to say it was moving. No matter how long I looked, or how often I blinked, or turned away, then back, the surface of that pond was never still. I could hear the sound when a fish jumped. I could feel the breeze on the back of my neck. Light opened into more light, color into deeper color. It was a pond, filled with fish, on an afternoon in summer when the wind was up, perfect to the last detail, and yet it wasn’t a pond at all.  Many years later, Joseph Raffael wrote, “I don’t paint flowers. I paint energy.” From that first encounter with the art that was Joseph Raffael, when I look at the world, I always see the energy first.  Today Joseph tells me that, for him, what happened in that studio in San Geronimo, California, “wasn’t so much the light as it was a gentle, open, expansive air in which my soul could express itself, perhaps for the first time.” Perhaps the light is his gift to the rest of us. From the studio, the driveway ran uphill to the house, painted a dusty blue. Beyond the house, there was a path to Mount Tamalpais. In Northern California, there was always a path.” (The Elements, pp. 10-12)

34878cf2a55ef2c03cdc3c4be1248d38(Two Fish in Dark Bubbly Water,
watercolorwith brush and black
ink, over traces of graphite,on
off-white heavy woven paper,
21″x26″ 1977-78)

 

PARTING
HAIKU FISH

“By mid-morning, we were on the road, planning to make several stops on the way so that I could say last goodbyes to friends. I found the actual saying of those final words was too much for me, and so I didn’t. We reminisced, laughed over our best times, and they told me about their own days ahead—driving children to soccer practice; shopping for vegetables; getting to an afternoon lecture at one of the museums in the city; washing the dog. We embraced, perhaps for a few seconds longer than usual, and Reuben and I got on our way.  Our last stop was to see Joseph. He was working, but he took a break when we came in. He talked about the painting. It was a short visit, shorter than the others. Although he was happy to see us, it was clear that his mind was on the canvas.

We had walked about halfway to the car, when Joseph came running out of the studio with something rolled up in his hand. “It’s a lithograph of a fish. I know you like the fish best, and I thought you might like to have it.” He seemed almost shy in offering it. I said that, yes, I would, very much.” (The Elements, p. 17)

A Note:
During the time I knew Joseph and was falling in love with the water paintings and the koi, I was also aware of older paintings that were every bit as rich but in some ways very different.  I learned in time, and when I paid attention, that they were not so different after all. hydrangea_joseph_raffael_oil_on_canvas

(Hydrangea, oil on canvas,
66″x108″1976)

 

 

(Lizard, oil on canvas, 85″ x 85″ 1971)blackfoot_joseph_raffael_oil_on_canvas2401_0

 

 

 

(Blackfoot,  Oil on canvas,
80″ x 61″ 1970)

 

For most of the time since I left California, “Haiku Fish” has travelled with me, usually the first thing mounted on my living room wall. Then it hung in my son’s house for a few years.  Recently it has moved again, to my three-year-old grandson’s room in my co-op. He watches Joseph’s video, “Moving Toward the Light” and recognized right away that “Blackfoot,” “Hydrangea,” and “Lizard” were painted by the man he has always called “The Flower Guy.”  He is very proud of that fish.

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