Posts Tagged ‘Charles Burchfield’

I will always remember kicking my fins along a coral wall off the coast of Kauai, excitedly pushing myself toward a large school of Achilles tangs. The sun pierced the water and illuminated the fish. I still remember the joy of their dark purple bodies, their bright orange tear drops and their blazing white highlights, the sudden and odd thrill of the unexpected combination of vibrant colors swimming together like some kind of underwater flock of geese painted by a madman.

Life is like this. You turn a corner, kick a couple of times in calm and quiet waters and there — a new school of something unexpectedly colored, swimming with you, sharp, well defined, clean lines. Then, as you approach, off they dart together into the deep, you in mad pursuit of something amazing. We pursue the good times and the feelings they evoke.

But at other times, swimming along, reality is not so calm and clear as that. Life does bring us excited, happy emotions but also wild, windy, stormy, clangorous ones as well.

Take Charles Burchfield’s painting, “Oncomming Spring,” the cold, white snow is melting on the ground and the brown, leafless trees are all a blur, wind-whipped-wild, wind-bent-curved, banging into one another.

The trees in “Oncoming” are noisy. The wind is too. The problem with paintings is that you can’t hear the noises they make. It’s often the same with humans — all creatures. We look at them, but remain outside the frame, the sick, disabled, the refugees, the immigrants, the marginalized, the racially discriminated against. We may not hear the storm inside another creature’s wooden picture frame, the banging silence there beneath the painted curve of distance between us. But our world suffers today, me too — swimming after sunshine and safety. Perhaps you too suffer, or you have. The suffering are pain brothers and sisters, a pandemicized world. We school together; we are a grove of bent trees.

So much pain is so often hidden behind walls of isolation, in impoverished neighborhoods, in shielding behaviors — the public smile that hides the grimace, the protective clichés we offer when we meet, the hiding behind words, the socially acceptable masks, the socially enforced keratoconjunctivitis sicca, dry eyes, the sere eyes that fear the bully judgements. Mostly only our babies and very young children cry in public.

And the Achilles tang, see too how they retreat from us, beautiful, but they are moving away. Where are they going as we pursue? A noise is hiding inside their purple and orange beauty. It’s alarm! They swim away from us toward safety. How often do we do the same.

But notice in Burchfield’s painting how windows open between the trees to blue skies and yellow warmth. The trees — whipped and jangled — also wait for life and safety in the oncoming spring, for bud, flower, green leaf. Burchfield knew this feeling and painted it — life’s longing wait for something safe and renewing, for spring, a watering. Like the deer we pant for running steams, for love, for the Devine. I know that labored-breathing wait and so do you. When will I again … ?

Oh life! You are a gorgeous schooling of purple tangs and you are brown, bent, wind-tossed groves of trees, both calm water and the raging storm, living inside us and outside us too — an advancing, a retreating, an oncoming, a storming, some sunlight peeking through the gaps.

Look and listen too. We are all schooling toward warmth and safety. We can at the very least understand that, listen for what isn’t voiced and attempt to swim together.


I’ve seen it in the rainforest north of Juneau, where the fluffy moss puffs up like thick cat fur on the rotting logs, growing toward the sun, and I’ve seen it in Sequoia where the dark, thick redwoods just keep flinging their massive trunks upward. I love how the great ancient forests all leap upwards.

A raft of our greatest artists noted this — Van Gogh, Burchfield, Carr, Chagall.

In my office, a Van Gogh — one of his Olive trees — churns, surges and tendrils up above my desk. Likewise, the Northern symbolist Charles Burchfield paid attention to such movement with his cathedral forests, where all the branches and leaves coil and curl skyward in church-window like arches — the energy of up, the vibrating sky, as in  September Wind and Rain. Chagall took this tack too, and his donkeys, his angels, his lovers all leave the ground to float and drift in the sky, or wherever, as in Over the Town or I and The Village

Emily Carr, the Canadian arboreal savant saw it too. I like how with Emily her sacred trees are all rushing upward, for instance her Among the Firs and Sombreness Sunlight.

Carr respects the trees; her’s twirl and whorl and shout and shoot to the sky. She graces them with dark rich blues and greens — yellows and oranges and whites peaking through them — black trunk and limb pushing heavenward through fire.

I love how Emily’s paint, her broad brush strokes move up, the sweeping branches, the upsweeping skies, except for this — those gorgeous lateral slashes of paint and wind rushing through her trees. Burchfield did this too in Oncoming Spring.

This is the motion of life. Life is heliotropic — with the occasional slash —  it is ascendant, for me it is praise.