There are many blessings to painting in Northeastern NC. There is a big sky over sandy soil and vibrant water, and all of these things play with the light. There is a noble–and quirky–built environment, rich in handwork. And there are people, both resident and visiting, who value these things.
At the Cupola House benefit mentioned in the last post, I met many who are alive to the beauty of this part of the world. Many thanks to the Cupola House Association and my patrons.
And thanks, too, to those who brought me vulture quills from St. Paul’s churchyard while I was painting there.
Change at a break-neck pace.
In Pasquotank County, they’re getting a wind farm. In Perquimans County, I heard they changed the name of Hog Alley to something-or-other Road, and they even paved it over: “I mean, you wouldn’t know it to look at it.”
Across the river in Bertie County, they still operate a cable ferry between Sans Souci and Woodard, although “they” aren’t who you think they are. “They” in this case is not the ferry authority, but another part of the Department of Transportation that runs inland ferries.
In small communities, or even suburbs without a dense urban plant, “they” are busy people. People whose actions you see but whose faces you don’t. That’s why “they” seldom earn our trust.
That said, I confess to a certain fondness for “them,” provided they leave things behind. Children’s building-block edifices are charming; in a more solemn but no less poignant way are the remains of the dead, left where they did the work that sustained them. Like these houses:
Even the gratuitous hand-work is telling. Like the “V” for the more usual “U” in the Perquimans County High School facade. Someone made that decision about lettering to give an air of Latinate dignity to poor students in an overlooked part of the world. It was put there before someone decided to abandon the world of learning and human children and masonry for that of information, human resources, and trailers.
Wide Open preview 2: large drawing
Below is the 24 x 36″ large study I did for Harmony in Green, an early 20th-century auto garage in Edenton. It will hang my solo show there on Dec 4.
In the Renaissance, most preparatory drawings for paintings were done in chalk. This is a great way to indicate quickly where things go in the composition Such drawings look like this one, which took about twenty minutes to do. Chalk is smudgy for shadows and holds an edge for sharp lines; hence, one can capture a lot of information with it.
But to test out large blocks of light and shadow, one turns to ink. Since we live a century into the era of comics and posters, it’s nothing for us to look at a poster and register an image. Most poster- or comic-style drawing, though, is a very efficient shorthand, which purposely omits reference to the third dimension. If you were busy perceiving depth in a billboard, you couldn’t read that billboard while driving. In short, what we spend in depth perception, we gain in information. Non-realistic pictures are worth a thousand words, as marketers the world over agree.
Realism, though, is priceless. Witness this gem from Luca Cambiaso (fl. 1550’s):
Yes, this is realism, albeit at its most stripped-down. No one doesn’t like these Renaissance robots. Just the act of breaking these abstract figures up into front (lit) planes and side (shadow) planes gives them life. This is simplicity: a little doing a lot can make for a monumental effect. If you remember Genesis 1–or any other creation myth, for that matter–you have already noticed that life will not go where there is no form.
So here’s the same treatment applied to a 24 x 36″ study of the building I’ve been working on. A little doing a lot over two square yards. The ink is walnut ink made from the bounty of North Carolina, and the pens used in the drawing are reed pens, just as Cambiaso used.
Of Time and the River
Thus the allusive title of a late October group show for the benefit of Riverlink, the Asheville non-profit that does so much for the health of the French Broad River. It will be hosted by Alchemy Fine Art at Walnut and Rankin Streets in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.
The French Broad is narrow, winding and unnavigable for most of its length, and therein lies its charm. Unlike its better-known and larger brethren such as the Delaware, James and Mississippi, it unites geography but divides people. You can follow the James along US 60 in Virginia from Hampton Roads to Scottsville in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the people all along your route speak with the same Tidewater accent. Centuries of reliable transport has united them.
Try the same thing from the mouth of the French Broad at Knoxville, Tennessee to its source near Rosman, North Carolina, and you’ll have a widely different experience. You’ll be in the car all day. You’ll drive on Federal, State and County roads, many of them dirt and gravel. The sweetness of East Tennessee speech gives way to the sour note of Western North Carolina. The churches go from Baptist to Pentecostal to Baptist again. And seeing the river will involve walking.
For two hundred and more years, anyone travelling any distance was concerned to get across the French Broad rather than up and down it. It was hard. That goes double for those with baggage, horses or automobiles–or, in my case, an easel, paints and lunch.
The bridge in the oil painting below is a triumph all the more impressive when one recalls that people actually died crossing this river in private ferries as late at the 1940’s. Underneath it settles the graffiti-covered tobacco warehouse in the ink drawing, itself a little monument to works and days now gone, as vice gives way to vice between watery death and sunny achievement.
Many of the better views of the river are lost to public memory or overlooked. And that’s a shame. Degas famously said, “Art isn’t what one sees; it’s what one makes others see.” Art can make you remember, too; or question a hole in your memory. The next few posts will feature some of these overlooked places, which are no less beautiful for that.
Visit Riverlink’s website here. They haven’t forgotten the river.
Forgetting and seeing again
Eighty miles west of the Atlantic, twenty miles south of Virginia, and two hundred years past memory, the small Meherrin River joins the Chowan, holder of pirate treasure and backdrop to a few colonial plantations.
No one has heard about this river, because its namesake, the Meherrin Tribe, registered its holdings in the appropriate court house in the 1750s. Individual Meherrins still hold title to ancestral land nearby. With deeds to their land, the Meherrin didn’t have to fight a losing war for their land as did the Tuscarora, whose name graces a beach a few miles downriver.
My teenaged grandfather used to canoe down this river during the Great Depression. He and his friends made their canoes out of castoffs from a veneer factory near Murfreesboro. “They just said, ‘y’all take all that stuff; we don’t want to burn it.'”The only interruption on his trip was the cable that spanned the River at Parker’s Ferry, twenty feet to the right of this view.
They caught fish and cooked them on the banks where they slept. When they had to return to family, chores, church and school, they offered fish to trucks that took the ferry, and the drivers would drop them, canoes and all, near home.
I don’t know how he stood the deer flies. I varnished myself with bug repellent and sustained eighteen bites. And that while wearing canvas pants, coat and hat to paint this picture. Even then part of me was underwater on the ferry ramp so that I could get a view.
You can find a good picture of the ferry in operation here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/06/08/3919675/best-kept-secrets-100-counties.html. Select the picture at bottom right if you follow this link.
Some pictures come from stories. Some occur when the story is over and our work is done and there is peace at the last.