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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.

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(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.

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

jwl

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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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