In Praise of Artists
None of us is unaffected by their genius
I got to know Randy Evans, who served as a medic during the Vietnam War, at a time when I was doing newspaper work in Illinois.
The war had been concluded for years when I met him, but it lived on in Evans. I had long ago achieved saturation when it came to images of America’s first televised war, but Evans brought it home for me in a newly emphatic way.
Evans is a painter who depicts war scenes on large canvases. He once gifted me a painting of an Asian woman, naked, who had been shot in the buttocks with an arrow; a small child looked on. The sky in the piece, which measures 5 feet square, was an otherworldly orange, as if lighted up by instruments of war. Here was the suggestion that even as civilization has “advanced,” weapons have become more prevalent and more sophisticated and resorts to them more frequently, even when “victory” is hard to define.
I was relieved when Evans stopped by my house to reclaim the painting. I frankly had not known quite what to do with it. But Evans, in any event, had scored my consciousness and rattled my conscience in a way I have found unforgettable.
Blessed are the artists for they are consciousness expanders.
In the course of my career, I have been fortunate to interview and, in many cases, get to know and cultivate friendships with artists from assorted disciplines and genres. Poets and novelists and columnists. Painters and sculptors and photographers. Songwriters and bass players and guitar men and guitar women and keyboardists and horn blowers and percussionists and, of late, a master of the violin. How are you, dear Patrice Floyd?
All of them have stirred me in extraordinary ways, altered the prism through which I view the world and awakened me in ways that have shaped me. Each has a quiet space or special place that he visits, a unique energy that he summons and channels in order to achieve the height of his powers and command his particular creative stroke.
There are artists, and there are people who play at being artists.
Late last year, I visited the Walter Anderson Museum of Art. The next time you find yourself in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, be sure to stop by and ask for a tour from Tony DiFatta; tell him I sent you.
Anderson was an artist for whom genuineness was paramount. He went beyond immersing himself in a subject to attempting to become one with it.
Anderson’s wife, Agnes Grinstead Anderson, who died in 1991, recalls in her book, Approaching the Magic Hour, Memories of Walter Anderson, that for her husband, water was the element of feeling. He once submerged her beneath the surface of the Ohio River and held here there so that she might experience the sensation of not seeing, not hearing, not tasting or smelling, only feeling.
While we all might spend moments underwater, it is left to the artist to interpret and relay that experience to others. That is their contribution, their genius.
For countless generations, theorists, scientists, philosophers and others have wrestled with the question of consciousness. They have, as the author Jim Holt has written, struggled with the “problem of how the subjective mind arises from brute (gray) matter.”
Holt recently reviewed a book, Feeling and Knowing, written by the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who has concluded that conscious thought results when feelings and images intersect in the brain. Nothing, I will suggest, more profoundly and dramatically stimulates that process more than art.
Art is an elixir of the highest order. It enhances life, yes, and it is life.
Mr. Evans, I hope you are well.
Mr. DiFatta, it was a pleasure to have met you. I applaud your efforts to foster appreciation for the works of Walter Anderson among members of an ever-widening audience.
Susan Cerulean, you have been on my mind as I have written this. Like Anderson, you and I love us some shorebirds.
Be at peace,