“Come visit Kentucky,” Larry says to me, and I laugh and refuse as I have often refused the casual invitation. I’m an urban girl -- born in Manhattan, transplanted to the bay area suburbs of California. Suburban sprawl already edging out the persimmon orchards and ranches as they rapidly became a faded memory of the land.
Even that was not enough for me though. I left for San Francisco as soon as I finished college. San Francisco, jutting out into the bay, with its diversity of ethnic cultures and restaurants and shops and liberals and hills and ocean winds and two seasons (Spring, and Cold) and screaming trolleys (full of screaming tourists) and seven square miles of paved streets and houses crushed together wall to wall, floor to ceiling, endless endless endless.
What keeps it all from being claustrophobic is the sight of the ocean. Stand at the top of Nob Hill and gaze north, out towards the sea and it is like a breath of life to remind of something beyond.
Kentucky? Why would I ever desire to go there? And so I laugh when he suggests it, and he drops the subject.
But a few moments later when he bores of the conversation among the others at the table he turns to me again and with all seriousness asks me, “Have you ever been among the backroads? Have you ever seen wild forests?”
I shake my head no at first. “No I haven’t.” Then I pause and think, “A few times. Yes. I have.”
“How can you not have?” he presses. “You draw it. It’s in your art. It’s in your paintings, but you’ve not ever seen it? I’ve invited other artists and writers to come out and let me show them back country. You forget about it, living in a city. The woods and rivers, and the mist that rises off the fields in the early morning when the sun first rises and the call of whippoorwills. Have you ever seen that, heard that? Or at night, when it’s so dark the Milky Way glows in a path across the sky.
“There’s something in us that knows about that landscape even if you never see it. A woman at a show once looked at a painting of mine rich with the Kentucky landscape in its background. She started crying. She had tears streaming down her face. She told me then that she lived in Manhattan, had done so her whole life. And she told me it just touched her so deep, reminded her.
“When would she have ever seen those forests and fields? She had never seen them. But her soul knew them.”
I’ve never seen his forests and fields, but as he speaks the forests and fields and oceans I have known suddenly well up in my mind. I DO know them, though I’ve seen them only rarely relative to the rest of a scrambling busy life.
I’ve been among the giant redwoods of California. I’ve rowed a scull on a lake on an isolated island upon Lake Heron, gliding like a silent water bug at dusk when the surface of the water was still as glass, and seen loons wing across the horizon with their eerie cry skimming across the waveless waters. I’ve seen that same lake at midnight when the sky was so clear and unpolluted by the wash of city lights that the Milky Way was reflected in the black glass.
In the repertoire of memory, I have images of Japan in the Autumn when the leaves of the maples and gingkos form a flaming carpet of color, and the foliage that still clings to the trees let the sunlight through like cathedral glass.
Kalalau Valley in Kauai – I stood there for what seemed and endless time. The walls of the valley slip down in a jade green cup to a beach. 4000 feet above the sea, and yet in the stillness of the air from that lookout point, you could hear the sound of waves crashing on the distant strand. Enormous dragonflies were my only companions as they defied the dizzying heights to perform acrobatics.
These and other images are the precious bits that flow into my art. Even to just stand at the top of Nob Hill in San Francisco and gaze north to the sea – though it’s a far cry from Kalalau Valley, it has its own spirit, its own terrifying beauty.
Does every artist have these still and silent places that they draw from? We must. I cannot bear the thought of generations of us only knowing what our predecessors have drawn, and reinterpreting their imagery of nature without ever truly internalizing it.
Redrawn, reprocessed, recycled, like the children’s game of Telephone where the first person whispers a phrase a sentence to their neighbor who in turn passes it on to the next and the next and the next, and at the end of the chain the last person announces what they heard the message to be and they all laugh because it has nothing to do with the original.
Is a drawing of a drawing of a drawing of a tree, still a tree?
I reflect then that I do have a yearning to visit Kentucky, to hear the call of, “Whip-por-whill, whip-por-whill!”