Recently I gave a talk about my art in connection with an exhibition at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa. Afterwards visitors asked general questions about my process, about materials and inspiration. Near the end of the evening, an art student approached me with what turned out to be the most important question. Important because it gave me pause and continues to perplex.
How, she asked, would I respond to certain people who might charge that I am appropriating important and even sacred cultural symbols and beliefs. The question caught me off guard and I’m afraid my answer might not have been satisfactory.
I told her that artists down the ages have sampled ideas and images from other cultures. Their appropriations were deemed valid because under the artists’ creative influences the images became part of unique new art works. Picasso, van Gogh, and Gauguin, in particular, were adept at re-interpreting ‘foreign’ artistic styles.
The student’s question may have been in reference to a piece in the exhibition titled “Singing The World.” The title is based on an Australian native people’s story of how the world and everything in it were created. The painting features an image of a kangaroo and a style that harkens back to Aboriginal art.
My intent is not to disrespect Aboriginal culture but to celebrate it and to do so in a way that is unique and true to my particular vision. And I believe the piece fits in seamlessly with the other works in the exhibition.
I’m thankful the young woman asked me that question because it continues to bring up other questions. How would native Australians respond to “Singing The World”? Perhaps they would have no objections to it and could even come to celebrate the painting. Could it be that in modern society's rush to be politically correct, we simply reject that which we don't understand? I wonder.
“What did you say? I can’t understand you. You’re mumbling again.
Oh, you want breakfast. Why didn’t you say so, instead of pacing back and forth like that.
OK, you don’t have to get all pouty about it. I wish someone would wait on me like I wait on you. I’m really getting tired of it.
Yeah, I know you can’t cook. Every day you remind me of it. And another thing, could you please stop making those noises when you eat. It’s irritating.
Yes, I know about your condition. Just eat already, while I finish the laundry.
OK, once again I can’t hear you. I’m in the laundry room. What? Yes, I fluff dried your precious pillow. You know, the next time you decide to get sick, just maybe be near the toilet like everyone else. This stain is just not coming out.
No, I’m certainly not making light of your condition. I’m just saying….Now wait a minute, what’s my mother got to do with this? Well, how could she know you’re allergic to tuna?
Why are you looking at me like that? Oh, so now it’s the silent treatment. Look, I’ve just about had it with you. I’m getting out of here for a while.
All right, I thought that would get your attention. Where am I going? Where do I always go Tuesday afternoon? The grocery store of course.
Oh, don’t start on that again. I did not forget you last week or the week before. OK, smart aleck, here’s the grocery list. What’s the very first item? That’s right, Kibbles! I rest my case!"
Before computer and electronic games took over, boys of a certain age wanted only three things; a bicycle, a baseball glove or a BB gun. I was that kid and when I turned nine my father gave me the gift for which I had long pestered him- a Daisy pump-action 50 shot BB gun. His simple hand- written card read, “Aim high at the target of life.”
For the first week I practiced on tin cans and bottles until one day I was drawn across the road to the abandoned orange grove. Maybe there would be some leftover oranges I could shoot.
About thirty yards from the nearest tree I noticed a rustling in the tall weeds and soon a covey of quail emerged. I doubted I could even shoot that far and without thinking raised the gun, sighted on the first quail and fired.
To my horror I hit it. The injured bird leapt into the air but fell heavily back to earth. In a fit of pain, it ran in circles dragging its broken wing. Frightened and unsure what to do, I ran home and told my father.
I expected to be punished and perhaps have the gun taken away. Instead my father stopped work and sat down beside me on the couch. He told me the quail would never be the same again. Unable to fly, it would be easy prey for a hawk or a cat. “You need to go back and put that bird out of its misery.”
I ran from the house filled with anger and dismay. How could he say such a thing. Pacing back and forth in the yard, it finally dawned on me, I had no other choice. My anger now replaced by a gnawing dread, I picked up the gun and walked back to the orange grove.
I prayed the quail was only dazed and had flown away. Or maybe it was already dead. Either event would have let me off the hook. But no such luck. Nearing the orange tree, I saw that it was still there, sitting quietly in the green shadows.
At my approach, the quail roused itself, ran a short distance and stopped. It could not fly, that much was clear, but it was also very much alive. If I were to get a good shot, I would have to chase the bird down. And so I did, running through the orange grove after the quail, pumping the BB gun and firing away. In any other situation, it would have been a comical sight. But there in that moment, I felt like a bumbling shameful boy.
After a half-dozen or so wild shots, I saw that some had hit home. The quail slowed considerably and once more began running in circles. This time I was able to come quite close to the injured bird. I pumped and fired again and again, now hitting it with every shot.
But the quail would not die and could only flop about on the ground. I felt utterly alone and helpless. In such an agitated state, I remembered the big game hunter’s advice, “Always aim for the head." But with the bird’s flopping around, I knew that would be impossible.
I had to find a way to hold the quail still. The poor creature, now oblivious to me, came quite close. In a rush, I knew what had to be done. Quickly I placed my foot on its quivering body, took aim and fired. And with tears streaming down my face, I fired again and again until the quail no longer moved.
Then I turned, walked out of the grove and back to the house where my father waited. Without a word, I crossed the living room to the hall closet and placed the BB gun there. I never picked it up again.
My father, Richard Gaston, was a mapmaker by trade and an artist by spirit. He loved Kandinsky, the German abstractionists and Surrealism. He considered himself a serious painter, but never made much money from his creations. In his life time he painted less than a hundred pieces.
If someone expressed interest in a painting, my father often gave it to them as a gift. For years I marked this down as a character flaw; the insecurity of a part-time painter. And it took years to realize my mistake.
Recently, going through his things, I was surprised to discover a record of all his art work. The list, hand written in his distinctive style, began in the 1940's and included titles, dates, media, and prices. After some works were the names of people who had purchased them. There was a doctor, a printer, and several business associates. Other paintings were given as gifts and even bartered.
I've come late to the realization that an artist's worth has little to do with their sales record, except in the market place. And the market place can be as insecure as a pampered Rock star. More important is the ability to see beyond the thing created and realize it does not define who we are. That is a good definition of an artist very secure in what they create. And it becomes another lesson given to me by my father.
In 1951, after we moved back to Florida, my parents managed a motor-court on US 19 in what was then semi-rural Pasco County.
We were a bit isolated up there and always looked forward to going into New Port Richey or taking any kind of road trip. For that reason, during those years, Christmas took on extra special meaning. That was the day we all piled into the Chevy and drove down to my aunt and uncle’s home in Tampa. I still have fond memories of those times; exchanging presents, playing games with our cousins and, of course, enjoying lots of delicious food.
But one of the highlights for me happened before we even arrived at my aunt and uncle’s. My father made a point of driving through the African American community in North Tampa near Nebraska Avenue.
It seemed like the entire community had come outside and were celebrating in their front yards. Boys wearing cowboy hats and firing cap pistols or showing off new baseball gloves. Girls gathered on steps giggling and playing with dolls bigger than they were. And both girls and boys zipping up and down the street on shiny new bikes.
We drove past block after block of people out and enjoying the special day. For a six year old, it was fascinating to watch and, I must admit, I was also a bit envious. I did not have a bicycle or a new baseball glove.
In 1964, as it became apparent American kids would be going to Viet Nam, I made the easy decision to go to college instead. In the following weeks, I slogged through mind numbing courses on logic, calculus, and earth science, more than once wondering if I had made the right decision.
My first art class, Basics of Drawing, promised to be a piece of cake by comparison. After all, I had been drawing since first grade, so how hard could a beginning course be. There were seven of us in the class, all veterans of excellent high school art programs.
Our smugness that first day lay thick like gesso. An air of superiority that lasted all trimester. Exercises on contour drawing, gesture drawing, value drawing, and shapes were no match for the Magnificent Seven.
By trimesters end, all of us felt certain we had aced Basics of Drawing. But, instead of accolades, came the unwelcome news that there would be a final exam. After much rolling of eyes and grumbling, some decided it might be smart to hit the books the night before. Book knowledge, it turned out, would not prepare this group of over-achievers.
Next day, Mrs. Bedeau, a no-nonsense and usually punctual woman, strode into class ten minutes late. And as if to heighten the growing suspense, she said nothing, but looked at each of us in turn. A faint smile crossed her face.
“Your final exam today will be a drawing assignment.”
Turning away from us, Mrs. Bedeau placed something carefully on the drawing stand. Then standing aside, she pointed down at the small object.
“I want you to spend the entire two hours drawing this.”
Before anyone could respond, she was out the door and gone. All of us moved in to get a better look at that mysterious object. We gazed in astonishment at that which would determine our final grade in Basics of Drawing. It was an egg.
Mrs. Bedeau, in her wisdom, had picked the perfect object with which to deflate a group of art prima donnas. Designed by nature to make life easy on the hen, the egg is neither a circle nor an ellipse, but a combination of the two- a spheroid.
I took one look at that little ovo and knew I was screwed. None of the failsafe methods we fell back on would suffice this time. Outlines would not work for there were no lines. Texture was nowhere to be found and contrast existed only as a subtle difference between egg-shell white and the off white drawing stand. I could not detect a single light source since the room was bathed in an irritating ambient glow.
Nothing would do but to start all over, first by simply looking at the object, in this case an egg, in a new way. After a while, I began to notice minute tonal shifts on the egg’s surface. I found what I thought were the points where the circle and ellipse joined, the lightest area. And that is where I began drawing.
Two hours later, my finished drawing looked stiff, awkward, and altogether un-egg like, but that was the exact moment when I began learning how to draw.