(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.
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.
(Wind on Water, lithograph,
37″ x 28 ” 1982
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.
(Two Fish in Dark Bubbly Water, watercolor
with brush and black ink, over traces of graphite,
on off-white heavy woven paper, 21″x26″ 1977-78)
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.
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.
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, oil on canvas,
(Lizard, oil on canvas, 85″ x 85″ 1971)
(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.