May 24, 2005

Ah, Those Golden-Brown Hills

Filed under: Art and About Nature — admin @ 2:53 pm

The Change always comes so fast. I’m a native Californian, and I’ve watched it happen every spring for 33 years, but it still astounds me. I go to bed one night surrounded by rolling green hillsides and wake up the next morning to see mountains of brown fire hazard staring at me through my windows. Oh, I’m sorry — the tourist bureau wants me to call them California’s Golden Hills. But let’s call a spade a spade. Brownish hues cover our landscape for at least half of every year, and although I would never live anywhere else, that brown is not the ideal backdrop for my personal fairy tale.

I set my fairy tale in the lush green landscapes of England, New Zealand, Virginia or Northern California. Perhaps it is because green was such a rare sight for a girl who grew up during the drought in the ’70s. My childhood memories are sepia tinted by California’s dry and brown decade. Now that I have kids, I use the growing-up-during-the-drought stories as my version of the elder generation’s tale of having to walk to school in the snow barefoot up hill both ways. The dry hills were brown, the stuff we were allowed to flush down the toilet was brown and the reusable water we kept in a garbage can on the patio was kind of brownish.

My brain stores a lifetime of memories of picking up visiting relatives at the airport who commented on the drive home about the beautiful golden hills, how unusual the countryside is, and the mesmerizing, warm landscape. The grass is always browner, I guess.

My younger brother, Matt, has been a California expatriate for 13 years now. He went to college in North Carolina, moved to Chicago for a few years, and now is a homeowner in North Carolina. He says things that other California expatriates say about how much traffic there is on our freeways and how expensive the housing prices are. But like any true Californian, I continue to feel superior.

Matt only speaks when he absolutely needs to so we have all learned to give great weight to every word he utters. One summer day, he and I were driving together in silence toward Walnut Creek on Highway 24 with the magnificent yet brown Mount Diablo towering in the distance. (As you may guess, a green Mount Diablo is more majestic to me since it is a fleeting sight. Snow on Mount Diablo can give me goose bumps of delight.) Then Matt said one profound sentence.

“You know, the one thing I miss about California is the brown — especially Mount Diablo brown.”

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“No. You don’t see that anywhere else. Someday, I’d like to buy a painting of the brown Mount Diablo to hang in my home,” he replied.

From that moment, I tried to see the brown the way he sees it. I also started searching for a painting to give him that captured the California brown of his imagination. Through these two exercises, I learned that although myriad local artists paint Mount Diablo, no one saw it the way I did. And I don’t mean the ugly way. The brown shading and shadows that define the mountain to me don’t seem to hit artists the same way. The search for a painting became rather frustrating as I realized that when I became informed by my brother’s comments, the brown Mount Diablo became more beautiful than any painter could capture.

I opted to give Matt a photograph of Mount Diablo taken by a friend of mine. It wasn’t a typical angle of the mountain for those of us who live on the west side of the 680 interchange, but I did feel it accurately captured the summer grasses. My brother liked the photo, but he admitted he still wanted to look for that painting someday. I wish him luck in finding it. As for me, I’ve learned that in my imaginary fairy tale, spinning brown into gold means adding just a little perspective.

July 18, 2004

Nature Beckons Us to “Come See!”

Filed under: Art and About Nature — admin @ 3:12 pm

I was walking with my mother-in-law one Sunday morning after she had just spent a couple of hours exploring the wonders of nature along Monterey Bay with my son. She reflected on the gift young children give us by reminding us to notice and appreciate the smallest details, like whether a flower has four petals or five.

Her comment came back to me as I viewed “Revealing Nature’s Mysteries: the Photography of Susan Reynolds,” on exhibit at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek. Since childhood, Susan has profoundly appreciated the wonder of nature, and has the artistic talent to capture it in photographs in a way that reflects the vital emotional, psychological and spiritual relationship between humans and the earth. As a fourth generation Californian, she also uses her camera as a tool for environmental activism, with the hope that every time someone connects with an image from nature through her photographs, she has won another crusader toward the cause of preserving wild and open spaces.

I was lucky enough to walk through the exhibit with Susan. Over half the photos are images taken a relatively short distance away from all of our homes. The hills, grasses, rocks, trees, clouds and sunlight are familiar to all of us, but you may have never looked at them the way Susan has. She notices the splendor of the details, and admits that even she has only recently come to appreciate some of her most local photographs. She is understandably in awe of the natural grandeur in places like Glacier Natural Park and Death Valley, images from which are also included in this show. But in re-examining the multitudes of photos she has taken on hikes beginning practically outside her back door, she found images that she calls “just as amazing and grand” in their own way. Many of these images she never considered showing until an injury forced her to slow down and she found herself noticing details that had even escaped her conscientious eyes.

While we’re speeding on the freeway past the land preserved by East Bay Regional Parks, or jogging on a path looking neither left nor right at the astounding environment in which we choose to reside, too many of us don’t stop to think about a buckeye, or an oak, or lichen on a rock. We don’t think about how the light on a California hillside is distinctly different each season, each time of day, or even from moment to moment.

I grew up here and can honestly say I never thought about Contra Costa landscape as being special in any way. Three factors have spurred me to treasure our natural environment and fight to save it. When I entered the housing market six years ago, I became profoundly aware of how much humanity is forced upon us. Suddenly, I started looking for escapes in nature to get away from people and people products.

Then I started meeting local artists, and I learned that the light and landscape of my home county is unique, which is why it inspires so much creative activity around here.

And lastly, my children make it a point to show me that some flowers have four petals while others have five.

While searching for my keys in my purse after saying goodbye to Susan, my fingers found a leaf my son gave me months ago after a walk around our neighborhood. Susan had just told me that the Iroquois Indians have a saying: “Think seven generations ahead.” I think I heard my great-great-great-great-great grandchildren’s voices when I held that leaf.

April 13, 2004

Some Mars Magic Here On Earth

Filed under: Art and About Nature — admin @ 3:09 pm

For some reason, it wasn’t big news a couple of weeks ago when NASA approved a five-month extended mission for the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. It was big news for me. I had been dreading the end of the supply of those breathtaking images that Spirit and Opportunity share with those of us Earthbound life forms.

I love Mars. Not the Roman god, or the science fiction imaginings, but the actual planet of Mars. From the first time I studied the planets in elementary school, there was something about Mars that intrigued me. It is surreal yet real, and getting more real all the time with NASA programs like the Mars Exploration Rovers.

My brain has trouble comprehending that the rover images are photographs, and not artists’ renditions of Earth’s sister planet. Each photo reads more to me like a landscape painting, familiar yet foreign. Something conjured by the Great Artist in the Sky during his/her Red Period. This art has been locked in the galactic basement for billions of years, and now the lenses of Opportunity and Spirit have found the key.

I generally respond to photos from space as if they were products of imagination rather than factual documentation. I know artists here on Earth are always seeing this planet’s beauty as inspiration for art. I appreciate natural beauty, even comment on it occasionally, but I am never compelled to paint it, and rarely do I pull out the camera to capture it.

I wonder if when my artistic fancy is captured by Mars or stars or quasars, that maybe I’m feeling a bit of what it is like to look at nature closer to home when viewed through the eyes of a landscape painter, or a nature photographer or a cinematographer? It’s exciting for me to think I might be able to see like one of these artists, even if it’s only through a pioneering robot’s lens.

Sometimes I find myself staring into the eyes of artists, wondering what it is like to see the world their way. I only have my own eyes, and they see the world mostly in verbiage. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to walk into an unfinished room and see it finished, as an interior designer would? I am awed by how an architect can look at a piece of land and see a structure. How Picasso’s brain made the leap to cubism blows my mind. Did M.C. Escher see his spatial illusions before he drew them? And if he did, how did he do that?

Sculptors in any medium amaze me. Somehow, their brains communicate with their hands, which magically transform clay or metal or popsicle sticks. People who design clothes are demigods. Sure, I can physically do the act of sewing, but to look at the human body and a bolt of fabric and create a garment more complex than a hole cut in the top of a sheet is a miracle.

And other people’s ears are incredible, too. I hear tale that some folks can listen to a bird singing, or the rhythm of the washing machine and create a song. Some composers see sunrises and translate that to sound. Others read a poem and hear music to marry with it.
Chefs smell and taste to create culinary art. Hair stylists feel the texture and thickness of hair and see a cut that complements the owner of the mane. Artistic sensibility has infinite variants in each individual.

Perhaps I don’t have to look to Mars to appreciate the beauty of the otherworldly.