Observe for ten
Wednesday February 09th 2011, 11:12 pm
Filed under: Family,Friends,Life

My father being an art dealer, we spent some of my summers growing up going museum-hopping.

I remember, on one such trip at 16, admiring a gorgeous landscape in a room full of natural Western scenes from the 1800’s, and an artist friend of Dad’s, Nat Leeb, asking me, “What’s wrong with this painting?”

Nothing was wrong with it, it was beautiful!

Look again.

*confused look*

Then he pointed it out: the light is coming from this direction, lighting up this area and leaving that area in shadow–but over here, in this one corner, look: the shadow goes in the wrong direction.  The light also should not have caught that detail; it’s in the wrong place for it.

M. Leeb decided to teach me a lesson on how to draw as we waited for our meals at a restaurant. “You observe for ten minutes. Draw for one.” And then he grabbed the paper placemat and drew a horse by sketching a perfect series of quick connecting-Slinky ovals that surprised me: he was right! It was a horse! Here, he told me, you draw it like this and learn the shape of it before you draw it in a different form.

I knew I was getting a lesson from a master but struggled with my teenage desire to harrumph that I knew what shape a horse was. I had the sense to simply nod and say okay.

My little sister was probably absorbing the lesson too, though I don’t remember: it was where she totally outshone me.  I, being more musical, got the piano lessons from a master teacher; Anne got the art lessons at the Corcoran Gallery in DC.

(Side conversation with the folks just now: Anne rode her bicycle a good ten miles+ each way down the C&O Canal towpath during her summers in high school to get to those lessons. It’s funny what you don’t remember about your siblings that was so day-to-day to them way back when.)

So. Today Dad wanted to see the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford. After the Loma Prieta quake, the museum was closed for years and years, needing millions to rebuild and redo, and now he could finally see it again.

It was way better than the building that was destroyed. The marble walls and high, ornately done ceilings of the new, the rotunda at the center, all reminded me of Washington, DC: the Capitol building, the Senate offices, and on and on. I said that to Mom and she gave me a look of, Oh yes!

I’d seen last summer’s exhibit with my niece, but the place is surprisingly large and with her toddler in tow we hadn’t made it upstairs.

There’s no way Dad was going to miss upstairs. He had waited too long for this. There’s way more than all those Rodins and a few paintings to be seen.

Two Picassos up there! I’d had no idea.

But what intrigued me most was one small plaque: it said that with the completion of the transcontinental railroad–remember, Stanford was a railroad baron, and two of the ceremonial spikes from the joining of those rail lines was in a box downstairs on display–with that new transportation, the land that, as the plaque put it, had belonged only to dimestore novels and Twain and Brette Harte were suddenly open now to artists.  At a time that landscapes were considered the pinnacle of art in popular American culture.

And so they came.

We’d been on our feet a long time and I finally sat in front of my favorite there to wait for Mom and Dad to finish. It was a painting of the head of the American River in California. It was huge and the details were exquisitely done. You could almost feel the slipperiness of the moss on the twiggy brush near the river, the white of a rider’s shirt catching the sunlight exactly so as it filtered between the mountain peaks to burst on the area of greatest interest. There were men on horseback, a burst of cloud at the top of the falls, rushing, falling water that splashed on the canvas, twists and turns of desert plants. The thing was just gorgeous.

But dang if the light didn’t shadow one mountain back there the wrong way. I wonder if I just rediscovered my long-lost artist.

10 Comments so far
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Oooh, can I go, next time I manage to visit? I remember a gorgeous Thomas Moran exhibit a few years ago in Seattle, some of those canvases were huge. Took my breath away. Glad you had reason to go today.

Comment by Marian 02.10.11 @ 12:37 am

How amazing that each of us had an “aha!” moment like that on the very same day: you out there in California, and me snowed in, in Texas. Tender mercies.

Comment by Lynn 02.10.11 @ 3:40 am

What fun. Thanks for that walk down memory lane… I miss jogging on the C&O. Beautiful!!

Comment by Channon 02.10.11 @ 7:00 am

Did your Dad have a “Sun Gun”? It was this incredibly high powered, blinding light that was supposed to give the home photographer enough light to get a decent indoor photo 40 years ago. It’s also the reason we’re always squinting in family photos. We called it “The dread Sun Gun.” Well, maybe Mr. Painter just happened to have one of those.

What always gets me is when the saddle has no girth to hold it on, the yoke on the oxen is not attached in any way to the wagon, or the horses appear to be pulling the stage coach purely by the reins attached to the bits in their mouths, with no breast collars, traces, shafts, etc.

Comment by LauraN 02.10.11 @ 7:56 am

once your brain is turned on to the shadow thing, its amazing where you will see it — while my friend was here from California (she has a BFA and is a wonderful water color artist), we played with water color pencils on fabric and had several discussions about where the light was — I’m trying to remember that while I’m working on some new pieces

Comment by Bev 02.10.11 @ 9:36 am

The starving artist took a lunch break and forgot, while chowing down, the earth moved. My college drawing instructor was absolute death on inconsistencies, but he was the one who made us do photographic collages and then recreate them, exactly, in gray scale and pencil. Sadist. 🙁
I, personally, celebrate the little inconsistencies in life. It makes me feel better about those three dropped stitches I’m going to have to fix tonight.

Comment by Patricia Day 02.10.11 @ 10:01 am

There is a lot to be said about details, huh? No matter the art form, they can and do make a difference.

I am glad you were able to enjoy such quality time with your family. 🙂

Comment by Suzanne in Montreal 02.10.11 @ 10:15 am

Parker, you needn’t look so surprised. You do come from a talented family.

The Cantor Museum is indeed a remarkable place. I’ve been there several times. And speaking of artists, have you ever heard of Clark Hulings? He just passed away about a week ago at the age of 88. His wife Mary and Amalie were in high school together, and we had visited them a couple of times.

Comment by Don Meyer 02.10.11 @ 10:22 am

While we’re thinking about the artist’s perspective, I am admiring the way Parker’s paparazzi are getting right down at ground level with him. I wonder what we’d see if the camera were turned 180 degrees?

Comment by twinsetellen 02.10.11 @ 8:27 pm

I miss museums, and there is no reason to! I really need to plan out a museum day for us. We have many of them close by.
My favorite was an entire section of one floor of an office building in Osaka, showing Millet et Ses Amie a showing of Millet paintings as well as his painterly pals of the same period. (sorry if my French is off, I don’t speak it and this happened back in the 1980s).
Having grown up way out in the countryside and being hyper-focused on studying at college, I had never been to an art museum before. (Science and Industry, and historical museums, yes, through my classes in anthropology and environmental studies).
I really hope every one someday gets to see art face to face. Until you do it is difficult to understand the impact of all those brilliant bits of color.

Comment by Diana Troldahl 02.11.11 @ 9:44 am

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