Monday, May 30, 2011

BRINGING A GREAT ARTIST HOME

                                        Light, front room, Edward Hopper House
     NYACK, N.Y. -- Edward Hopper, native son and famed painter of realism, whose “Nighthawks” and other works articulate American solitude as mood, thought and destiny,  is “back home” where he was born in 1882.
     Hopper House, the art center in the family’s 1858 home at 82 North Broadway, is celebrating “The Year of Edward Hopper” in recognition of four decades of rescue, renovation and use. As part of the celebration, and in the first scholarly effort to connect the painter to his roots and formative years,  Hopper House is trying to awaken Nyack to the incredible Hudson River light that is everywhere. Young Edward, who began drawing at least at age 5, saw that illumination each morning as it shot up Second Avenue into his bedroom. In the afternoon today, you can almost touch the light as it baths the parlor, now the principal gallery.
     Hopper House, which has the dual mission of preserving the home as well as advancing all manner of art, hopes visitors and villagers alike will observe as Edward did, taking in what contributed to his many paintings, watercolors, prints and sketches, produced almost to the day he died in 1967. A full listing of “The Year of Edward Hopper” events, including the current “Prelude: The Nyack Years,” the May 21-July 17 unprecedented showing of his early works, is available at www.edwardhopperhouse.org
     Wherever you live -- in the Nyack area, in the Midwest, in the South, wherever in America -- I urge you to “see Hopper,” as his home community is now doing. His works often include a person in contemplation, say a man sitting on a wooden sidewalk in front of a store (probably his father, a Nyack dry goods merchant) or the “effect of sunlight on the wall of a house,” geometric patterns that seem to be windows inviting the viewer to interpret, the sort of lighting you see all over Nyack. But you need not be in this village to see his take on American solitude.
      You spot the “snapshot effect” of his art, moments in time that have an obvious history and the future of which might well be guessed. Look about the Nyack of today, at the woman catching a bus at Cedar and Main, at the couple leaning on a porch rail, at an upstairs window framing humanity. Always a story -- here in Nyack, and elsewhere, too.  
     Today Edward Hopper is iconic, his “Nighthawks” and other works recognizable worldwide. Recent museum shows in Boston, Washington, New York City and Europe have drawn many thousands in reverent communication with an artist who said so little by speech but who in his paintings expressed deeply and extensively facets native to the American being. Hopper offered as much in this quote: “If I could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint. The whole answer is there on the canvas.” 
      The artist’s boyhood home is part of that “canvas,” a source of the light, real and figurative, that was Hopper’s painting harmony. Nyack helped form the vision of an artist who celebrated American solitude and the great quiet, the self-reliance, even the genius within. Now, Edward Hopper has returned home in this local recognition of his gift.

Monday, May 23, 2011

THE 'CHANGEABLE' WORLD

     I did not have to look up, as I was arranging my pocket money, to know the age of the fellow counting my change. He had to be about 62 or older. The clue? The bill was $11 and I gave him $21. Quickly, I was given $10.

There was no electronic register in this farm store, just a man in work jeans who moments before was hauling plants off a skid and, looking over at the check-out counter, saw me waiting. He just ambled by, nodded hello, added up the cost of my items in his head and said “$11.”

I had no $10 bill, just a $20 and some singles but did not want a bunch of singles back, so I gave him $21,” which of course meant that he would flip back a ten spot. I had another motive, and that was to see if people really could still add in their heads and also recall how such common sense currency exchanges as $21 against $11 was the norm.

The fellow came through with flying colors -- never hesitated, though I think he was a bit surprised by my old-fashioned move. Until he looked up himself and saw his contemporary.

Today’s electronic registers will also instruct cashiers to give $11 in change after the operator inputs $21, but I can tell you, when I have tried to give some clerks $21, they have handed back the $1 bill, saying “You gave me too much.”

This isn’t a complaint about electronic registers. Progress happens. It must, whatever the consequences. It’s just that my generation and before and perhaps for a few years after, had to use their heads to add and subtract, divide and multiply. You could grab a piece of paper, yes, but at least in my fourth-grade class with Mrs. Still, we had to do the arithmetic in our heads. It was a challenge, and I still do it today as a brain exercise.

Countermen and women of years back did it in their heads, too, or added the bill on the same paper bag that would contain your goods, the fellow or gal pulling a pencil from between the ear and head, sometimes wetting the tip out of habit, as if to sharpen skills and be precise, and then do the bill.

A lost art. Quaint perhaps, but also somehow an intimate connection in an ordinary shopping experience. One that came even if you and the counter person didn’t exchange a word.

Monday, May 16, 2011

'DOCS' ON THE JOB


     In “retirement,” you get asked the same question -- politely, of course, and with sincerity: “Are you enjoying it?” My answer is always matter-of-fact: “No, I’d rather be at the newspaper.” And that’s the truth even if I am otherwise “enjoying retirement,” certainly a relative term.
If you have reasonable health, if other creative opportunities have opened since leaving the job -- ones that would not have appeared if you were still under the clock -- if you have grandchildren to visit in Texas and locally, if you can help as a volunteer, if you can take a daily walk, if you can share time with family when the crazy hours of decades of deadline newspaper work often detoured that, then how can you honestly deny that you don’t “enjoy” retirement?
And I do, and I hope the same for other retirees. The trouble for me, though, is that I always felt like the country doctor -- I did a necessary job that others could perform, yes, and I was as expendable as the rest, but my calling (and I think I was sent to it) was the sort, as is the doc’s, that you don’t leave until God takes you away. I wrote, I photographed, I commented. I cursed my job and many of the bosses every day, but that was part of the difficult daily birth that is a newspaper. In delivery, people were informed, and that is a blessing and a gift for those who receive and those who give.  I never would have retired.
But newspapers and the rest of the media are in sea change, and though there will always be insatiable demand for information, delivering it economically and to people who absorb it electronically rather than simply in print are forcing downsizing everywhere. I could no longer get out of the way of the train, though I was grateful that it didn’t let off any of my colleagues, at the time at least.  I made way for some younger people, who kept their jobs for a few years.
Five seasons out, I am thankful for the renewed simplicity of life, though I sleep no longer than I did working various shifts for 42 years. I am grateful I can fly to San Antonio to see son Andrew, daughter-in-law Patricia and grandkids Isabella and Emme, or, in Upper Nyack, son Arthur, daughter-in-law Laura and grandchildren Sam and Beatrice. I am blessed for artistic and volunteer involvement at the Edward Hopper House, in various historical societies and, so far, 10 years in a breakfast program in the village of my soul, Spring Valley. I can write online, to the ether at least, photograph, paint and wonder about the same things in life that I did as a boy on Karnell Street, Old Nyack Turnpike, Cherry Lane, Johnsontown Road, Route 59. Curiosity is still my companion, and though the body ages, does the inner life ever get old? 
But I can no longer -- with fellow newspaper stiffs -- glance up at the clock in the editorial office, chase deadline and then step back wringing wet from the day’s (night’s) delivery. We were docs of a sort, and you don’t leave the job. It leaves you. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

'BOULEVARD' FOR GENERATIONS


     One of the newest places available for walking in my neck of the Northeast woods is in Nanuet, on the grounds of the old St. Agatha Home for Children, where once New York City sent youngsters to be reared by the good sisters of the Catholic Church. The large late-1800s housing/school and outlying dormitories are gone in changing times, and, a few years ago, much of the land was sold through public referendum to the Nanuet School District.
It was a fine save since more suburban housing, with greater land density and  higher school and other government costs would have risen overnight. Enough already in this overbuilt ex-patch of the woods. The district’s taxpayers showed great foresight in rescuing the property, and some money has been found to pave a walking/bike path that gently follows the hills and valleys where youngsters once played.
I am on site three times a week, early at about 7 a.m., and share the path with two or three others. One of the sections I walk is a longish stretch flanked by very old oak trees, perhaps 125 years old. One fell down during the harsh winter, its insides long rotted though the upper branches were still budding. Five trees are left, standing almost in military formation, as if set by a surveyor’s line, resembling boulevards in France.
In the great open field that is now the St. Agatha walk, this line of trees is the only bit of formality. Other sections pass ballfields, which tell of suburbia, or woods, which speak of old Rockland County, N.Y., or the winding Convent Road, named for obvious reason. I am loose when walking anywhere else on the one-mile path, but when I come to what I now call “the boulevard,” I stand straighter and nod in  respect that these trees have long stood where they have, enduring great summer heat and deep winter cold; their trunks etched with initials in 1902, 1935, 1943, 1960, 1995, etc.; their leafed branches providing shade for generations of boys and girls thinking through their plan of life; the roots drawing water from Rockland’s many underground sources.  The history these oaks have witnessed span three centuries now.
I can be casual elsewhere on my St. Agatha walk, lost in the solitude that is the fortifying effect of a stroll or quick step or in between, but in the shadow of the trees on the boulevard, I am in the presence of life lived, the voice ghosts still whispering.

Monday, May 2, 2011

DANDELIONS IN SPRING


     I took a whack at my grandfather’s long spring habit the other day, and it was as satisfying for me as for it was for him.
He lived in a small New York village called Spring Valley, pre-World War II, at the corner of Ternure and Summit. The property was not quite big enough for two lots but still larger than the standard single-family plot. There was much lawn to trim.
And it was a fine lawn, doing well without modern, expensive fertilizer,  mowed by hand with a reel mower kept sharp by the self-taught mechanic that all homeowners had to be in those days. My grandfather was meticulous at keeping his lawn neat and trimmed. Perhaps it gave him relief from stress after working all day in a smoking pipe factory (Briarcraft), a Depression time job never secure. 
Every spring, early on, my grandfather would take a whack at the dandelions that popped up like smiling lollipops mocking the landowner. They were not welcome, on the lawn or in the cracks of the sidewalk that ran 75 feet one way and 50 more around the corner. The man would get on his hands and knees, and using a well-sharpened, old paring knife, he would insert the blade into the ground, circle the roots and pull out the entire dandelion. At the sidewalk, he would tilt the blade to remove dandelions and strips of moss between the cement slabs. He’d pile these up on the walk, and his young grandchildren (there were five of us) -- whoever was visiting at the time -- collected them and piled the debris alongside the garage foundation. I don’t think any of us have ever forgotten such moments.
My grandfather did not speak much, cutting dandelions or not, but he did tell us that his own grandfather, which would have been Robert, the first of our Gunthers to hit American shores from Prussia about 1848, made dandelion wine. My grandfather made root beer.
Standing in front of my own home the other day, in this spring of sudden blooming, I saw many dandelions. And I had a whack at them, too. But with a hand-held sickle. I don’t have my grandfather’s patience for digging out the plants, and this is a faster-paced world anyway. But I do have four grandchildren, two so very far away in Texas, two much closer. None were about 
-- I said it is a busier time -- so I played that part as well, dumping the debris in the woods.
I am thankful, though, that there are times -- dandelion season or not -- when we can all be together under one roof, an entire family. Never seems to be any weeds then.