Snow Comes When It Will
(Or-Painting the “Tall Ship”)
Some of us love the snow, some of us do not. It will chill or thrill, settling gently on upper surfaces of things gone unnoticed for years.
The afternoon temperature had reached a good sixty degrees, though very late in the fall, while trekking into the woods to retrieve cut firewood, I was met with a sudden surprise beside the pathway, a larger than average mushroom. Those mystical fungus flowers that ferment into umbrella delights overnight are always a surprise. This large golden beauty was near a foot across, half a foot high, growing from under the side of a fallen balsam.
Stepping around it, making mental note to come back with the camera, it slipped from memory during the doing of tasks at hand. The thought of the large mushroom did not return to mind for two days. Snow!
Events pop up, just like mushrooms. When the first snow came, two days after discovering this golden-colored humus dweller, some of the firewood lay still waiting and now was more needed. Another trek out onto the path for the firewood brought the mushroom back into mind. Six inches of wet snow would collapse such a soft large mushroom, and there was a feeling of regret that the camera had not been used.
Pushing a wheelbarrow over the slight incline and rounding a corner between two birch trees, there on the side of the pathway was a lump in the smooth white snowy surface. It was the bulk of snow on top of the mushroom. Could it be still standing? The lump was near a foot high in six inches of snow, and there was a black shadow slit running around its outer edge. Snow formed a smooth curved sweep over itself and into a blue black shadow void beneath the dome of the mushroom. The snow on top made a perfect umbrella shape and came down to within an inch of the snow on the forest floor. The slit of dark shadowy void ran all around the front of the shape and faded into smooth edges filled with snow sluff near its back side. It was standing.
Getting closer and peeking in, another surprise “popped up.” Bursting from beneath the brim of the snow-capped mushroom mound, I had startled a small field mouse; it skittered across a few feet of surface snow, then burrowed quickly into hiding beneath the surface, most likely making illusive unseen maneuvers to allude the giant.
Peeking back beneath the mushroom, there was a dry grassy cavern-like space. It looked comfortable in some sort of strange way. Half expecting a small light to come on and for just a moment there seemed to be a small wooden door opening up into the stem of the mushroom, it took a double blink to realize how much the imagination can meet the reality as what is before the eyes matches preconceived notions about something. Childhood tales of small forest creatures living warm and snug in mushroom houses has been a story element for several hundred years. In that moment of anticipation, my expectation had mushroomed into a moment’s reality.
It is not “actually” what is there that makes a great image.
It is what is desired to be seen – that needs to be in the picture.
Somehow when the little mouse jumped from beneath the mushroom, it called up a lifetime of expectations that would one day culminate in this discovery of a small mouse house in a forest floor mushroom. Why the lights weren’t on and the door wasn’t there was almost confusing. The scene was so reminiscent of a whole collection of images and my mind just filled in the blanks. I thought I saw a door, a light!
In my studio, that week had been taken up entirely with completing a painting of a tall ship. After my mushroom adventure I wanted a “desired” image of an event from last summer. The arrival of the famous “Niagara,” the tall ship, coming into the port of Duluth Harbor. My daughter and grandson had joined me (along with ten thousand others) to welcome and see this special event.
Are there other tall ships? My grandson had asked after we had greatly raised his expectations of the coming ship.
“Not so many any more, they are very old,” I replied.
“I’m four, Grampa, how old is tall ships?” “Much, much older,” I replied as I pondered the weight of his simple question.
As the ship was spotted, everyone began to chatter. For a half hour we photographed and watched both the ship and the crowd. The harbor was cleared for this traffic, the ship came and was escorted by many small water craft, mostly sail boats. We would point and say, “See the tall ship, look look. Remember this.”
He is four, I will remember it, but he will remember something else.
He was impressed because we were impressed. We were not so impressed with the ship, but with the privilege of seeing such an historical old ship, sailing right out of our childhood story books and into our sight. A tall ship, that it came to our harbor, to our town. Others saw it, others saw us see it, we saw them see it, too, and we shared it in a community sense. Witnesses that we had seen our past. It is important when one can see themselves seeing something. It is actually rare.
Being there is mandatory to understanding.
The ship was moored alongside a docking area by the Convention Center, and an outgoing Great Laker cargo ship began departing the harbor. As it slid by, it fairly dwarfed the tall ship. “Is that a tall ship, too, Grampa?” my grandson asked. “No, that is a big cargo freighter,” I said. “It looks tall to me,” he said. “Yes, it is tall.”
“So, it is a tall ship?” “No.” “Is it old?”
“Not as old as this tall ship,” I said, pointing to the fine old “Niagara.” I was lost in my moment, and he was lost in his discovery. I was seeing the event moment, and he was seeing the entire world in front of him; to him, all things in the harbor had the same interest and the same value, he was depending on us to help separate the worthwhile from the worthless, or to say even if anything was worthless.
For a moment I was four again; he was showing me the very nature of an artist. Any thing in the view could be a worthwhile subject, a topic, a worthy image, if looked at from a desired viewpoint. Regardless of age or value or size, to a child, all things start out equal. It should be so for an artist as well. Sometimes to understand something, one must look at it from several viewpoints.
It is not “what did I see when I was there?” but, “What did I think I saw?”
Was I looking again at a preconceived notion of what others thought we were seeing? Is the viewpoint cynical because of commercial propaganda about the event? Was I seeing every tall ship from my story books?
Or, did I see the magical moment of the arrival of a great ship with sails unfurled, flags flying, gliding silently past the lighthouse into port beneath gathering clouds, as any great ship should arrive. Click, Click. I took perhaps a hundred photos for reference later.
In the studio as the research photos are laid out, I discovered the ship had come in with no sails up, the the sky was just hazy, thinly clouded and pale blue, the water a deep grey-green with choppy little waves. The most memorable thing was the memory of my grandson asking, “Do all ships look like that?” I was sure the ship had “sailed in,” but it had come in under engine power.
It was his first real ship. Perhaps it was the first real ship I had actually seen, too.
For a brief moment it was as if the mouse lived in the mushroom; for a brief moment it is as if the tall ship is all a ship ever needs to be, sails up and gliding smoothly into safe port before a storm, flags unfurled, waving, arriving to fulfill our best dreams.