He has a penchant for juxtapositions. The grey Pacific Northwest winter months culminated, as they do every year, in the gentle severities of Lent: fasting, abstinence from meats and sweets, kneeling and praying the Stations, meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and so on. During this time of solidarity with the Sufferings of Christ, my professional task was, nonetheless, to produce the brightest, sunniest, dare I say: ‘happiest’ painting I have ever yet attempted. This irony made me smile, for though the daily effort to face skies of cerulean blue and clouds of titanium white amidst an atmosphere of somber introspection was a cross in itself, the work was sweet, and I was grateful for the commission which would put gas in my car and pay the rent through the winter.
If I had to write a book entitled ‘The Boat’ it would be filled to the brim with dubious treasures. Gold disguising lead disguising gold--shapes covered with slime revealing living things that look and smell bizarre but are true delicacy to the mouth and sustenance to the body, would issue from such an excavation. Things that really happened and things that didn’t quite happen would all come tumbling out haphazardly, poorly rendered and linked together by chance, all in an elevated tone as if they were really the thoughts of someone very important and wise.
‘The Boat’ as I have come to think of it, is a physical blessing that brings with it many subtle graces; gentle enrichments of soul, something of which I will attempt to sketch out here in the particular case of a commissioned painting. There are too many facets and layers to describe all or even most of this one tiny piece of anatomy. A painter well knows that life has what you might call a “Power of Ten” quality; one can zoom in or out, ad infinitum, and keep unfolding worlds. It’s really too much for human beings. Angels of supreme intelligence can just barely stay abreast of the unfolding. Yet I must at least hint at the existence these precious nourishments, so as not to waste anything that might be divided up and shared among friends. If The Boat is too much, let me at least convey one small pearl that issues from her nets, namely, ‘The Catch.’
The Catch was a surprise that began with the 800th anniversary of the Dominican Order. Having a special affinity for St. Dominic and many of the saints that followed his example, not the least of which is Blessed Fra Angelico, ‘The Angelic Painter,’ I saw here an occasion to do something big. I had in mind a large scale portrait of St. Dominic for the Church. I asked the Saint to intercede for me in this matter, if he wouldn’t mind. I admit I was so bold as to mention specifics, including the price I needed in compensation for the work.
I thought of the fiery intensity of El Greco’s St. Dominic. Looking at a reproduction in one of my old books, an ember of desire smoldered within me. I wanted El Greco to teach me of painting and of devotion too. If it came to be, the painting would be a true effort of love. All we needed was a sponsor. Surely some benevolent patron could be found to support such a timely tribute. I resolved to show up at a gathering at our Dominican parish on the very next Saturday to celebrate the start of the Jubilee Year, and perhaps find some willing client to fund the project.
Soon after, Krzys sent me a message. It just so happened at the same time that a young friend of ours was about to embark on a period of discernment with the Dominicans in California. His family was having a little get together to celebrate his going away. It was also on the very next Saturday. I considered what St. Dominic would have me do. Though I sensed my original plan was a good one (and I very much needed a commission), it seemed to me that it would please St. Dominic more to encourage a young man who might join his order and become a holy priest. I gathered his non-Catholic family was rather perplexed by his interest in the priesthood, all the more reason to encourage him. So Krzys and I journeyed to grandpa’s beach house in Bremerton.
I was expecting a hot-dog and shorts affair. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at Grandpa’s elegant home to realize that the man was a consummate collector of modern art! The beach-side property was packed with specimens. I remember more than one large scale Frank Stella and several huge outdoor modern sculptures. The place felt more like a museum than a beach-house, even more so in the otherwise blue-collar town of Bremerton.
We hit it off swell, of course. I think grandpa Paul enjoyed talking with someone who understood something about his little ‘hobby.’ He toured me through the collection with joy, and regaled me with stories of his buying and selling escapades. He told me he had for several years owned a print of the famous / infamous “P*ss Chr*st” by Andres Serrano but had finally sold it if (at three times the original price of course) in deference to his father, who hated it. I began to get the picture. The fact that I knew Serrano’s work and could comment intelligently on it without rushing into whether or not it constitutes a sacrilege opened up a doorway of trust between us. 1
It was at that point he asked who is “representing” me. I responded quickly that I am “self-representing.” With a twinkle in his eye that told me he sensed a bargain coming on, he asked me to follow him. He lead me to his office and showed me a large photograph of a sail boat racing along near a rural bay, surrounded by blue water, big sky and a rolling mass of clouds. “Do you know anyone who can make a painting out of this?”
When it came time to set the price, I remembered my earlier prayer to St. Dominic, and faithfully quoted the amount I had asked the Saint to dispense for my next piece. With gratitude, Krzys and I drove off with the oversized photograph (a journalistic image of Grandpa as a young man with his crew in his boat winning the historic Victoria to Maui race in 1976) in the back of my car.
We took a ferry to visit my dad on Vashon island to celebrate and to rest. The late August light drizzled the arms of the trees with honey; the water of the sound, cool and black as obsidian mirrored back their golen limbs. As the three of us sat in the little motorboat some fifty feet off the shore with our lines in the water, we reflected on the generosity of God to provide what we humbly ask for (and need), especially through the intercession of his Saints. This is most true when we relinquish our own assumptions and allow our Father to direct us in his ways, to put out our nets whenever and wherever he tells us.
I was beyond satisfied, yet I still couldn’t quite see why St. Dominic would have me paint a group of hopeful young men on a boat winning a race to honour him and his brother preachers. I was musing over this question when suddenly came that telltale ‘buzz’ on one of the lines. To our shock, we pulled up, as if by magic, a large, silvery King Salmon out of the deep.
My dad used to take me out fishing some when I was a little girl. It was one of our favorite pastimes together. It had been a while. Dad is of the age now where every special experience between us has the quality of eternity. We share a golden, grinning awareness that this could very well be the last time.
I manned the net. Krzys was thrilled; he had never ever fished before. Dad was speechless--he really had no intention of catching anything. He used only a rubber jig; intended merely to spend a little time demonstrating the technique to us and to have a peaceful boat-ride. It was like a prayer offered lazily, half in disbelief, answered at once.
There was some misgiving about whether to keep the fish or throw her back, but the hook had done its work and she was already giving up her life. We motored home, cutting a path through the glassy blue in silence. Dad solemnly butchered the animal, unwilling to let any of the unmerited gift of the Salmon go to waste.
My own grandfather, Virgil, whom I hope to finally meet at the hour of my death, is a Boat-man; an honourable Navy-man of modest rank. I say ‘is’ because I trust he is alive in heaven. A quiet convert to Catholicism, he had been raised sometime on the Reservation. By all accounts, Virgil was a saint on earth who kept his thoughts close to nature and close to his own heart. Whenever I see Dad cast into the deep of his father’s memory for the simple know-how which eludes most men today such as: ‘how to catch and clean a fish,’ or ‘how to bury the dead,’ his usual effusiveness is quickly subsumed into the silent, intractable wisdom of Virgil. This was how it was as we cleaned the fish.
Opening her belly revealed a trove of caviar glistening like rubies in the sunlight. These were for me. I examined them, holding them up to the light. I cleaned and salted them carefully, and ate every single one over the next several days before I began to plan the painting which was to be my food for the winter, reflecting on the Providence of God, the boat, the water, the faith, the fatherhood, the sacrifice, life and death; everything.
Anyway, it was a good catch.
And now, since Lent is over and gone with ‘The Boat’ (actually, the official title of said painting was ‘The Race,’ but that’s another allusion), Easter time is here, the spring is with us, the air is balmy and fragrant with lilacs, I begin my next commision: the dolorous narrative or our Lord’s suffering and death, or “The Stations of the Cross.” As I said, he has a penchant for juxtapositions.
1The piece is objectively sacrilegious, though I am not sure Serrano was fully conscious of that when he made the work. In one interview he claims to be ‘a Christian,’ yet one wonders in what sense he uses the term. If it is true at all, he clearly lacks the formation to understand the effects of his actions, which mitigates some of his culpability. This maneuver may deflect some of the heat from a moral standpoint, but a strike against him as an artist. Serrano claims to be ‘experimenting’ on the public with his concoctions, though he is ignorant of the results or doesn’t choose to think about them. I doubt that Serrano conducts his work with malicious intent, but he lacks intellectual integrity. I do understand the fascination of Serrano’s imagery, including “P*ss Chr*st” yet, reason forbids me in conscience to celebrate it or to freely pronounce or write the offensive title.