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Wonderworks

 
 
     t is a crisp October morning in 1960. No school today, but Mom has other plans for us on days like these. Shoot! Baseboard scrubbing and window washing for anyone old enough to fix his own breakfast or change the baby's diapers. Five of us are sentenced to wash and dry mile-wide woodwork, and we envy the little ones who get to play in the toy box. With a pail of warm soapy water close by, I close my eyes and memorize the grooves of the chestnut baseboards, fingers pressed into a damp cloth. The living room is large and I secretly wish it were time for one of Sister Bertilla's spelling tests.

      After a while, Dad's Hi-Fi Record Player has run through a stack of Broadway recordings a couple of times already - Gigi, Gypsy, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Gypsy, My Fair Lady - and the work is done and the house smells so clean and it's 2 o'clock in the afternoon and we're free.

      My brothers scatter in different directions. One settles in front of the color TV, another goes to the pump house to tend to his rare breed of chickens (honest), and the two middle boys walk down the hill to the viaduct, where they will probably play 'til sunset.

      Me, I run out the gleaming french doors with my jacket on, cross through the neighbor's pasture, and speed down through the woods to the creek, making a bee-line to the wonderful little spring house on the hillside past Penniman's enormous old summer home.

      There I am alone, in a cool dark room that someone made a long time ago and eventually forgot. Full of mystery, this secret spot is my latest fort. Not a military fort, such as the two middle boys would like, where they gather horse chestnuts and osage oranges to use as ammunition against opposing forces. No, this fort is more like a home to me. I've cleaned the dead leaves out, patched up the hole in the roof with old boards that are just the right size, and I like the way the wisteria vines curl around the crooked window frame.

      In my hidden spot I savor the feeling of living my life in the woods and wonder about exploring the creek up by the old dam on Saturday. Glad I have my jacket, for the air is chilly. The earthen floor smells sweet from dampness. From my stool in the corner by the window, I can survey my collection of treasures arranged neatly on the ancient shelves: a rusty old gear whose open tracery looks like hearts; a blue green bottle with raised letters "DR. KILMER'S SWAMP ROOT OIL" that still has something inside it. (Mom pays us twenty-five cents for old bottles we find in the woods. I know she'll love this one); and a strange little teapot that must be valuable because we don't have a teapot at our house but Johnny Balderson showed me a tea cozy at his house once. He was rich and had a swimming pool. It's getting dark now. I have to go home.

     I was not to realize until nearly thirty years after these woodland adventures that my carefree concerns as an eleven year old boy would constitute the seeds of artistic expression for a maturing art spirit. In fact, choosing a career in art launched me over thresholds and down paths of exploration, barely prepared for the world's chilly response to my youthful creative endeavors. (The jacket that protects me now is the kind you grow into, not out of). Along the way, I've continued to collect scaps of history that remind me of the simpler times of younger days. My art classroom is the repository of half of this collection, encouraging students to look and explore. My studio at home holds the more delicate portion.

     My old original neighborhood, chosen by Mom and Dad as a good place to raise a mess o'kids, remains basically intact, a tribute to gracious Victorian sensibilities. The wide lawns, towering trees, immense porches, and whimsical ornamentation, in various stages of repair as always, are still there to enjoy but for one change. The pasture that leads to the woods that leads to the creek and the spring house - all have been replaced by an eight lane interstate highway that connects Baltimore to Washington and disconnects me forever from my truest childhood, the times when I wandered free in search of secret truths hidden in the forest.






      obert Henri, the art philosopher, wrote that the true purpose of art is self discovery. I've been making art for years, continually searching for the wellspring of my fascination with life. Several years ago, I reached an impasse in my search, and eventually experienced a breakthrough in my art.

     While approaching the big 4-0! a survey of my accomplishments indicated that virtually every piece of art that I had produced up to that point had been a large scale, time consuming, mile high endeavor. Meticulous architectural studies, giant flower blossom visions, pyschological landscapes meant to command an entire room - these represented my approach to art as a young man. Very rewarding, to be sure, but daunting to embark upon and always begun and completed in the studio, twenty, thirty, forty hours each.

     Over time, my growing self confidence seemed to be inviting me to shed the uncertain convictions of youth and enter into a new freer phase of development. But how? Perhaps the acquisition of my present home among the rolling woodlands of South Jersey provided the key to that inner door.

     Since I have always loved the dreamy feeling of being "lost" while exploring forgotten areas, it occurred to me that I might be able to produce artwork while in that state of mind. So I outfitted the trunk of my car with art supplies, a director's chair, and a big beach umbrella (to control the light on my pad). Away from the studio, I allowed myself only one rule: any attempt at art would be completed on location and would not be fussed with back at the studio. The goal would be to locate some lovely hidden location, untouched by popular culture, and preserve it in an on-the-spot color study in pastel.
The approach worked wonders, and that distant childhood sweetness washed over me like a great wave as I explored the woods, discovered the abandoned structures, listened to the music of the running creek.

     There developed a clear, happy response to being an artist, and the sudden influx of fresh art into the studio broke the bonds that had held me tightly at the drawing board and easel. Although I experienced minor difficulties along the way ( I once fell into the creek while carrying chair, art case and umbrella ), some days I sang in full voice while carrying my prize back to the car.

     I am aware that the "breakthrough" just described is simply IMPRESSIONISM, that is, sketching on location to capture the effects of light. However, I know also that I was incapable of this approach as a young man. Lacking confidence in my vision and dexterity, I had chosen the safety of large work, which provided a dramatic environment in which to learn the art of painting, paying close attention to the generalities of details when viewed from a distance. The results, intermittent and slow going as they were over a decade's time, taught me the real pleasures of a sure eye and a steady hand.
 


© Chris Maier 2003