Saturday, October 1, 2011


Wind from the Sea, Andrew Wyeth
Little known fact -- my favorite twentieth century painter is Andrew Wyeth.  The exhibition of the Helga paintings at the Smithsonian is the first time art on walls came close to capturing my attention the way the dinosaur bones at the Natural History Museum could. As an adult, looking with the eyes of someone who aspires to artistry, I am humbled and enlightened by his work in one of the most difficult of the painter's mediums. If I could paint with a tenth, a fiftieth even of his mastery, I would be a happy woman.

However I may envy his technical mastery, I would not hunger after his work if he were no more than a bravura technician. The starkness of the world Wyeth paints, alleviated with the touches of civilization, but never banished reminds me of Alaska.  His subjects -- farmers, fishermen, interior and exterior landscapes -- are illuminated by the fineness of his attention.  Stray threads in old lace curtains and decaying work boots with a bit of wear left in them are given equal dignity with fallow fields and hungry sea.  His depictions are loving, finding beauty in the deeply mundane.  The wind blowing nets hung out to dry is given spiritual weight in Pentecost. So I return to him again and again, seeking renewal of my own vision.

T.S. Eliot in Little Gidding gets at this sense of what I want to say about Wyeth's paintings in far fewer words:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning
I am quoting and offering artwork, because trying to talk about moving and making a new life in a place that is not Alaska is something that defies words for me.  I miss the sense of home that illuminates Wyeth's paintings, and while waking up in Seattle no longer causes me to feel like I've just lost everything I love, I still do not feel like I belong. Not really.  I'm making friends.  I have course work I find meaningful.  But I do not have the knowledge of place that tells me the names of the plants I see when I walk in the woods, or where to buy kaffir lime leaves (not that I need kaffir lime leaves right now, but I can easily think of three or four places to buy them in Anchorage). 

But why should I expect Seattle to feel as comfortable as Anchorage? It took me the better part of twenty years to grow into that local knowledge.  But I don't want to wait.  I want to feel at home now or at least not be wedded to google maps for finding anything outside of the Hill and a small section of downtown.

Meanwhile, I have a pot of daal simmering on the stove, and bagels rising slowly in the fridge.  I am trying to bring the kind of attention to my surroundings that Wyeth brought to the environs of the farm he lovingly painted for most of the twentieth century. It's not a bad life, but I miss the smell of the birch forests in September and the sharp feel of the air just before it snows.

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