Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The old Pitt Street Bridge

   I've begun to settle into a groove again with my work. Our routine of getting the kids off to school is getting more familiar, and it usually leaves me with most of the morning to draw or paint. I'm starting to gravitate to certain motifs since I've been here...wood (the oak trees), stone (the patio drawings), and these paintings with water. I did these at a spot about 5 minutes from our house, at the old Pitt Street bridge.  It's a long causeway that used to connect Mt. Pleasant (where we live) to Sullivan's Island (the beach), via a train, long ago. The train no longer operates, and it no longer connects the two land masses, but it is a really beautiful spot, where I like to go fishing, crabbing and watch the sunset.

11" x 16.5"
   I knew I wanted to do some paintings here, but I wanted to avoid the typical, sentimental maritime scene. The landscape here is so different from New York; it's flat, atmospheric, and well,...beachy. This four-posted marker caught my attention. I guess I need some structure to ground me, and I found it in this platform rising over the water. I like the fact that it continues with some of the previous motifs I had been working with, like the wood pile paintings from Asheville and the drawings of the pavers in our backyard. There's something about this ladder rising out of murky water that resonates with me...perhaps it's the religious implications.  Also, one night while watching the sun set behind downtown Charleston, I enjoyed seeing a large group of kids climb to the top of this platform (the bolder ones to the top of the tower, about 20 feet above the water) and jumping off into the water. The parents were there egging them on from a nearby boat, and being that it was high tide, they had enough water below them to keep from hitting bottom. It was such a joyous site, seeing those kids having so much fun...it's the kind of thing you can only do as a child, with an equal mix of fear and rapture.

13" x 19.5"
   I like the patterns that the posts and reflections make in the water; a cat's cradle of positive and negative forms. There's also something quite garish, yet beautiful, about the color of the treated wood sitting in that murky water...it brought back memories of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.
   The one thing I was reminded of while doing these, is how tricky water is to paint. Not only is the appearance subject to the shifting light and wind, but the tide becomes a factor, too. Over the course of a painting session, the water level would either ascend or descend those posts.  I had to rework the water level every time I painted, which was over 3 or 4 different days...it basically forces the issue of keeping the painting loose and fresh.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Angel Oak

charcoal on paper, 22" x 30"
About a month ago, as my family and I were returning from a day at the beach on Kiawah Island, we passed a small sign pointing down a dirt road. "The Angel Oak" it said, with an arrow. As we passed by, my wife said that she'd heard of it before, that it's a giant Oak tree (Live Oak). So...we turn the car around and head about a half mile down the dirt road.

The kids are beat and whiney, too tired to get out of the car. Faith and I go, to see probably one of the most amazing living trees in the world. It's estimated to be about 300-400 years old; quite an awesome site, with branches drooping down through the ground and back out again. I knew I had found a new muse...

The first time I went back, I haul all my gear out and bring it over to the base of the tree. While checking out different angles to draw from, the lady who runs the gift shop comes out and says I have to set up my equipment outside the canopy's perimeter. This threw me off, because I was planning on doing some drawings up close to the tree, cropping the limbs as they splayed out from the trunk. Sometimes it's better to work under certain limitations though, so I stepped back further away, using the trunk as the focal point.

charcoal on paper, 22" x 30
One of my favorite angles depict the limbs being propped up at various spots by metal jacks. I was attracted to the un-naturalness of it; how 'artificial' this made the tree seem. The supported limbs are meant to preserve the tree from collapsing, along with various limbs being held up with cables. Part of this is meant to preserve it from storm, but it's also prolonging the tree's lifespan. It made me think that without our help, this tree probably would have started crumbling and breaking long ago...it keeps on growing and living in exchange for our use as a 'shrine'.

charcoal on paper, 22" x30"
I plan to go back and start a painting soon, but for now I'll leave you with this very wise, beautiful, and witty story, from the 3rd century BC:

    A woodworker named Stone traveled to Ch'i. When he got to Ch'u-yuan, he saw a great chestnut tree that served as a village shrine. Large enough to shade thousands of oxen, it was a hundred spans around and rose high as a mountain, it's lowest branches some eighty feet above the ground. More than a dozen of these lower branches were large enough to be hollowed out into boats. Sightseers were packed together like at the marketplace. Woodworker Stone barely gave it a glance, continuing along his way without looking back. But his apprentices couldn't keep from gawking, then had to run to catch up. One said, "Since we took up our axes to follow you, Master, we've never seen such beautiful material. But you didn't give it it a second look! You went right on by. How can this be?"
   "Enough!" Stone cried. "Don't talk about it. That wood is trash. Make a boat from it and the boat will sink. For coffins, it rots too fast. For utensils, it's too brittle. It keeps too much sap to use for a gate or door. Make a pillar, and it will attract worms. It's not good timber for anything. It can't be used. That's how it got so old."
   After the woodworker returned home, the great tree appeared to him in a dream, saying, "You compare me to cultivated trees, the hawthorne, the pear, the orange, all the shrubs and trees that bear fruit? When their fruit is ripe they're stripped, peeled, and generally abused, big branches broken off, little ones dripping sap from wounds. They have a wonderful ability to make a miserable life of usefulness. The string of their days and years cut off, they are beaten and torn by unruly saps. So it is for all things in the world. That's why I strive to master the arts of uselessness. Although it nearly killed me, I've got it now. It's really useful to me. If I were of any use, do you suppose there'd be any chance for me to have grown so large? You and I are both things. Why pass judgement? You're a man born to die. Are you mere trash? Why call me trash?
   When the woodworker Stone awakened, he told his apprentices about his dream.
   "It it's trying so hard to be useless, why has it become a shrine?" they wanted to know.
   "That's a secret," Stone replied. "Don't mention it to anyone. It's just pretending. This way it can also be protected from people who don't appreciate uselessness. It it weren't portraying a shrine, it might still be cut down and cut up. It hides its difference from others. You might honor it for the nobility of its intentions, but that might be going a bit too far."

* from the Essential Chuang Tzu, translated by Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton, Shambala publications 1998