“Bless”, “Blessing”, “Blessed”, “Bles-sed”

©2014 By Bob Litton

“It was the capital letter A. By an accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length. It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honour, and dignity, in by-past times, were signified by it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are the fashions of the world in these particulars) I saw little hope of solving. And yet it strangely interested me. My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly there was some deep meaning in it most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind. (My emphasis.)

“When thus perplexed—and cogitating, among other hypotheses, whether the letter might not have been one of those decorations which the white men used to contrive in order to take the eyes of Indians—I happened to place it on my breast. It seemed to me—the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word—it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat, and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.”
–from the “Introductory” chapter to The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

One of these days, I am going to write an essay about knowing and the various ways we become aware of, and maybe even knowledgeable about, anything: the philosophers call the study of that capability, epistemology. But not today. Today I am approaching only one — albeit the most fascinating one — of the modes of knowing: the supersensible, intuitive, gut, or mystical way of knowing. And I am addressing it only through an example, not as the subject itself.

One morning back in 1991, I was enjoying my morning exercise stroll along an arc of White Rock Lake on my way to the neighborhood coffee shop, a distance of half a mile. On the way to my destination, as I watched the sun’s rays dapple the cottonwood trees’ leaves, I suddenly became aware of a new bit of sureness within myself. I could not help uttering, “I feel that I have been blessed!”

Now, Bible Belt Christians might interpret that feeling and the statement that followed it as a sign that I had been saved, something like Charles Wesley’s “warming” of the heart; but I did not view it in that sense, for I had not a heavy enough sense of personal sin to feel the requirement of salvation of that sort. Also, I had been attending church quite regularly as well as AA meetings every day; so, when I considered the moment as a possible “conversion” experience, I challenged that as a bit over-the-top.  However, beyond such a simplistic explanation, I was faced with a conundrum: Why? In what way? By whom? Why now? For that matter, what does it mean to be blessed?

For the rest of that day and for weeks afterwards, I indulged in my most frequent vice: intellectualizing what I probably should not desecrate with analytical thought. But it was so much fun…even though ultimately frustrating, since no clear-cut determination was possible.

The main problem was that there are several meanings and uses of the word “bless” and its various verbal, nominative and adjectival forms. There is perhaps the most common one: one person blessing another (say, after a sneeze: gesundheit) or blessing a meal (saying a prayer over the food, supposedly to make it more nourishing or simply digestible). Then we have the dousing of someone’s head with water and providing them with a “Christian name” or to signify the person’s acceptance into a communion of like-minded souls. And we might as well include the light-weight expletive “Bless it!” (a gentler cousin to “Damn it!”). In its other forms, blessing can mean “unexpected gift” (as in “a blessing in disguise”), and bles-sed can serve as a spiritual synonym for “fortunate” (an alternative which Jesus reportedly used frequently in his “Sermon on the Mount”).

I had been aware for decades that I had been “blessed” in the sense that I was “gifted” with a few talents: but I already knew that; I did not need this sudden internal springing of a “new knowledge” that I was able to write and draw better than many others. So, perhaps you have some idea now of the quandary I was in; for, without knowing who or what had blessed me and toward what end, I could not imagine how to interpret my new knowledge or what to do about it…if, in fact, it was necessary to do anything.

Up to that date, I had had several mystical experiences and had read the writings and biographies of many Western mystics. Fortunately, among those writings — especially by St. John of the Cross; Meister Eckhart; Jan of Ruysbroeck; the anonymous author of Cloud of Unknowing; and Thomas Keating — I read of experiences that were reflective of my own experiences, and special terms that denoted them (“consolations”, “the ineffable”, etc.). I had been particularly impressed by St. John of the Cross’s vivid metaphors (although overall I consider him a turgid prose writer) and of his listing of the spiritual sins (pride, gluttony, envy): sins which are comparable to their mundane counterparts yet specifically related to religious practices. Therefore, I tried to view my mystical moments against a rational background, not to deny or ignore them but to avoid interpreting “every bird that flies over as an omen”. Still, I could not refrain from wondering what some of my experiences meant, particularly when they seemed to me to be unnecessary, as was (to me) this strange feeling of being blessed.

In due course, I became less concerned about how I should interpret my experience or to respond to it, since that clearly was indeterminable, and more concerned with the term “bless” itself and its ambiguities. As a writer and a wannabe logician, I frequently employ my imaginary surgeon’s scalpel to examine the denotations and connotations of words. Also, when I come across or recall a word that seems extraordinarily exact or just plain pretty, I coddle it by way of frequent use. But in this instance no satisfactory interpretation occurred to me.

I left the whole matter in abeyance for these many years, only occasionally allowing it to float to the surface of my consciousness…unattended to…until the day before yesterday. I thought then that it might make a good topic for a blog post; also, it might be easier to investigate, since now I have access to all the tools in my computer and on the Internet, most of which were lacking fifteen years ago. So, here I have been writing my odd experience up for much of the morning. And while I was looking through a few online dictionaries for the various definitions of “bless”, “blessing”, “blessed” and “bles-sed”, I was slightly startled to see the following: “having a sacred nature: connected with God” (Merriam-Webster).

My readers might shake their heads and mutter, “Nothing new or obscure about that definition…been around a long, long time!”

I agree. However, I believe that this time I was moved to interpret it personally. After gazing a few moments at the definition, I said to myself, “I’ll go with that…and appreciate it.”

Finis

Reflections On A Jack-o’-Lantern

© 1980, 2014 By Bob Litton

Even the most sophisticated civilization needs its rituals, and what best justifies a ritual is how thoroughly it manages to reforge the links in the “Great Chain of Being”—vegetable, animal, human and spirit.

Because Halloween achieves such integration so preeminently, it has remained one of our popular festivals, notwithstanding its dangers. Our spirits can be as unholy and mischievous as the law and our own good sense will allow. We let our Dionysian hair down—become good-naturedly silly.

The animal kingdom’s contributions to this celebration are of course the black cat and the bat. But the one is too common and the other too uncommon to be truly representative. It seems beyond question that the plant kingdom provides the symbol that is inseparable from Halloween: the pumpkin. As a natural lantern, with its decoratively carved features resembling at once both a foolish human and a grinning ghoul, the pumpkin in a single piece manifests the vegetable-human-spirit linkage.

Perhaps the most fascinating element of the pumpkin-turned-jack-o’-lantern is that such a transformation can happen at all. Is it not something of a miracle that a squat, ungainly gourd can by a few triangular gashings from one’s knife, a complete gutting and an inserted candle be changed into a personality? We are tempted to fall into “pathetic fallacy” and assert our pumpkin wanted to become a jack-o’-lantern.

One can hardly wait for nightfall to kindle the candle’s wick.  And when dark has come, the flame, flickering shadow-maker, is as mysterious as any fire under a witch’s kettle. By the sprite-like aura with which it invests the pumpkin, the candle’s flame contributes to the spirit element in the ritual.

From its position in the window or on the porch, the jack-o’-lantern’s grinning face forms an oval of warm light in the frosty night. It beams a welcome to those knowing enough to comprehend more than its spooky aspect.

Finis

Vernon The Hustler

Stanley Vernon Litton May 15, 1928 - January 16, 2011

Stanley Vernon Litton
May 15, 1928 – January 16, 2011

©2014 By Bob Litton

PROLOGUE:  Fifteen years ago I was sitting at the breakfast room table in my sister-in-law’s Dallas home. My brother Vernon, the eldest of us three male siblings, sat facing me on the other side of the small table. Our conversation about cars was interrupted when Vernon’s wife answered the door’s chimes and returned, leading in an acquaintance, a scion of one of the oldest families in the area and a member of the school board. He sat on a nearby couch, looked at Vernon and me with a curious grin, and said apropos of nothing, “Ah, the Brothers Karamazov!”

I had read  Dostoevsky’s work of that title too many years previously to recall much of it at the moment, but I did understand, I believed, the point of his allusion; for there was some correlation between us Litton boys and  the three sons  of Fyodor Karamazov, a sly buffoon and an indifferent father  in Dostoevsky’s philosophical novel. Fyodor’s off-handed off-spring, who grow to manhood almost entirely separately, are Dimitri, a sensualist and profligate; Ivan, an alienated rationalist; and Alyosha, a spiritually-inclined monastic novice, whose Elder sends him into the world to learn to cope with its seediness. Roughly considered, the parallel had its accuracies, just not totally, of course. The reader of this essay and of a future one about my other brother, Elbert, can determine for himself/herself if our visitor’s comparison was justified. I do not intend to write a similar mini-biography about myself; this whole blog series has been mostly about me; enough is enough.

* * * * * *

One of the funniest ironies I ever heard in my life was that Vernon, the elder of my two brothers, was birthed on a pool table in Mexico…and that he grew up to become the most notorious pool hustler in Dallas. He gained that reputation by hustling nightly at the Cotton Bowling Palace.

I am not certain now who related to me the story of Vernon’s strange nativity: it might have been my other brother, Elbert; or it might have been Vernon’s wife, Loretta. It definitely was not Vernon or either of my parents. The surprise birthing reportedly occurred during our parents’ shopping excursion to Matamoros, Mexico, in May of 1928. (At the time, they resided in the hamlet of Combes, Texas, a short drive north of the Rio Grande.) Pappy and Mother were in a hotel there when labor activity began. For whatever medical reason, a hard surface, not a bed mattress, was needed; so whoever attended Mother used a pool table there in the hotel. I wish now that either of my parents had told me of this incident; I could have elicited more details. I wonder if a birth certificate or its Mexican equivalent was ever completed. Considering what the future held in store for Stanley Vernon Litton, I find the anecdote hilariously prophetic.

There are many basic questions I never asked any of my family members, one of which was how my parents decided on their children’s names. My own name “Robert Carl…” I could plausibly surmise because I had one maternal uncle named Robert. And another of Mother’s brothers was named Carl Lee… (their father was called Carl Anton….). Pappy had an older brother named Elbert, and Pappy’s own middle name was Barnett (I have no idea where that originated). But “Stanley Vernon”? Where did that come from? Certainly not from any of our relatives. Loretta told me recently, by the way, Vernon hated the name “Stanley”. I don’t understand that; it seems like a perfectly masculine, connotation-free name to me. When I ponder all the instances when I failed to make such pertinent inquiries, I wonder if I really was a born-journalist or not.

Pappy severely abused Vernon at least once, as my brother related to me at least three times. (Vernon had poor memory concerning matters about which he had already informed me.) The one episode he so often recounted occurred before I existed. Vernon said that our sister, Frances Vivian, whom I never knew because she died nearly two years before I was born, had accidentally locked the door to an outhouse and Pappy yelled at her, maybe even struck her. Vernon spoke up, screaming, “Daddy, don’t hurt her. She didn’t mean to do it.” Thereupon, Vernon recalled, Pappy kicked him in the chin. The first time Vernon related that anecdote to me, when we were both middle-aged, I pondered the possibility of that scene, and responded, “Pappy never hit or whipped me. To me, he wasn’t a bad daddy, just a no-daddy, since he was seldom around.” But Mother’s youngest sister Mary buttressed Vernon’s story a couple of years ago when she told me, “Bill Litton was a brutal husband and a brutal father. That’s why Vernon started lifting weights, because he wasn’t going to let Bill do that to him ever again.” (“Bill” was a moniker Pappy — whose actual name was “Haywood Barnett…” — picked up somewhere. That is another of the strange family facts for which I never sought an explanation.) Vernon and Barnett Vernon did in fact take up weight-lifting as a quasi-hobby; he did it too much for it to be classified as an “exercise routine”. Weight-lifting became an art form for him, almost a religion. Initially, taking into account that our family was borderline-poor, Vernon made his own barbell by pouring concrete into two large tin cans and sticking a steel bar between them. I have a small photo of Vernon and Pappy holding a barbell — one end held in the air by a teenaged Vernon and the other resting on Pappy’s head. That photo is suffused with a tint of irony. Vernon used to stand in front of the dressing table mirror and flex his arms, admiring his developing biceps, much as I would stand there whisking a cap pistol out of my scabbard, imagining myself to be Gene Autry.

Another of Vernon’s favorite activities was motorcycle riding, maintenance and, eventually, sales. In his later years especially, he had a motorcycle retail store out near the White Rock Lake spillway in Dallas, where he sold not just the vehicles but accessories as well. However, considering the paucity of walk-in customers, I believed that shop was just a cover for his sports bookmaking avocation. Still, he was pretty busy trading in luxury cars and high-end recreational vehicles. Maryann and Vernon

Ironically, that motorcycle shop was positioned almost exactly where Vernon had a serious accident about three decades earlier. He was taking me to the junior high school. We were eastbound on Garland Road which lay beside the spillway. Suddenly a woman in a car darted out in front us from a side road. Vernon did not want to stop suddenly, for that might have thrown us into a spin and no telling how much harm. He slowed down as carefully as he could so that we were going only fast enough to keep upright: I was even able to dismount on my feet before the impact. Vernon would have been unhurt, too, except when the cycle overturned, the kick-starter gouged the calf of his left leg. Vernon cried out through excruciating pain, “Bobby, get this damn thing off me!” I lifted the cycle off him, and somebody in the crowd that had gathered went to a nearby business to phone for an ambulance.

Both of my brothers garnered reputations as ruffians in their teens and twenties, but Vernon was the one who made a regular avocation of it. He was, I have been told by others, a founding member of a neighborhood gang called the “Lakewood Rats”. I have no notion what those guys did; I didn’t even know they had existed as a gang until two decades after they had disbanded. It was, I imagine, just a way for a group of males, with not much else other than muscles, to explore their own identities. However, one day when I was in high school, I was walking down the sidewalk of Abrams Road, right in the middle of Lakewood, when I saw Vernon crossing the street with about a dozen fellows following him toward a parking lot behind a building that abutted the country club’s golf course, and I assumed they were seeking a secluded spot where Vernon and one of the others could engage in a fist fight. Also, after joining the Coast Guard in his late teen years, Vernon punched out a non-com officer; and, as the officer fell, his head struck a pipe, killing him. My brother spent two years in a federal prison in Louisiana for manslaughter.

As for my personal relations with Vernon, they never were very close, for I usually found it difficult to have a relaxed conversation with him. He would always approach our talks as contests of will rather than as an exchange of experiences and knowledge. You see, he had a developed case of the alpha male syndrome. He felt that he always had to be right; he could not stand even good-natured ripostes. It was usually easier just to listen to him or to leave him. However, it was not for that reason that there were extended gaps between our times together; there were several other conditions that kept us often separated, but they mostly did not have anything to do with our affections toward one another; so I won’t take up space with them here. And, weirdly, it wasn’t until I was into my middle years that I realized that Vernon’s problem was the alpha male syndrome: He always had to be the top dog, with his paw on top of everybody’s head.

On a couple of occasions Vernon embarrassed me in front of my friends in the coffee shop: once when he reacted violently to my disagreeing with him about what I should do with my wrecked car, and once when he was declaring to some people at another table that I had a college degree but didn’t know how to do anything. (While there was much truth in that, it wasn’t necessary to loudly proclaim it as he did.) Also, he tried — and to certain extent succeeded in — cheating me and Elbert out of our inheritances. And (this is the rottenest instance of all) he either sold or gave away the books I had stored in one of eight boxes filled with my little library, some of which were irreplaceable and all of which were invaluable to me, only because he needed a cardboard box in which to store some car parts.

He would get almost insane with rage when he perceived me as saying something that was intellectual: “I’m smarter than you are Bobby, even if I didn’t finish high school.” Eventually, though, near the end of his life, he softened and allowed, “You’re more intelligent than I am, Bobby.” And all through those years I never really cared whether my brothers were more intelligent than I; they both, having had to learn to live on the streets at very early ages with little formal education to arm them, had developed high levels of what are commonly called “street smarts” — and that’s what it takes to really survive in this world, if simply surviving is what is most important to you.

On the other hand, Vernon paid my $1,500 fine after I had pleaded nolo contendere to driving while intoxicated. He helped me out with much smaller amounts on several other occasions. Also, he helped me change residence twice; and I stayed in his wife’s home for over a year during a financially embarrassing time in my life. And I believe, although there is no way to prove it, that being the little brother of Vernon and Elbert Litton protected me from no telling how many bullies at school. So, you see, Vernon did bad things to me and good things for me, a situation which was archetypically ambiguous.

On a couple of occasions since Vernon’s death, my sister-in-law has described him as “mean”. That is a concomitant of his alpha maleness, I believe. He had developed an underlying mean streak, combined with an almost funny sentimentality, from childhood on. He liked to keep dogs, particularly pit bull terriers, as pets; and he would encourage the development of their natural tendency to threaten, if not fight. I don’t believe he ever put his dogs into fighting pits; he didn’t want them to be hurt; it was just that, if anybody else had mean pit bulls, he wanted his own to be meaner, at least potentially.

Vernon was mated with Loretta for dozens of years, yet I couldn’t tell if he actually loved her. He admired her, sure, and bragged about how nice she was; but I never saw him embrace or kiss her. Also, on two occasions he said to me, on the phone, “Bobby, I love you.” I didn’t respond to those words; I just paused a few seconds and then changed the subject. I had no idea what “love” meant to him, and I wasn’t sure what love meant to me either. Nor did I want to ask him to define it for me, for I suspected that my invitation to a colloquy would end up in a shouting match.

One day, while Vernon and I were sitting on the couch in Loretta’s living room watching a movie on cable TV, Vernon asked me, “What is your favorite movie, Bobby?”

That question took me by surprise; I needed time to think about it, but I rushed myself. “Jeez, Vernon, I have several favorite movies. I’ve never taken time to determine which I liked best. It kind of depends on the genre and what mental space I was in when I saw them.”

“Mine is My Fair Lady,” Vernon calmly declared.

“Well, I’ll be, Vernon! That is certainly one of my favorites, too. How odd that it is your favorite!”

I would have thought his favorite would be Rocky.

There is no way to fully understand people, especially one’s own family…when they are self-contradictory and dysfunctional.

Finis

POST SCRIPT:  I intend to write and post a mini-bio of my other brother, Elbert, in the near future…not for a little while, however. I just do not think it would be wise to publish so much family history very close together. The bios need to be near enough, though, for readers to readily gauge how much the Litton brothers and the Karamazov brothers are similar and how much they are different. Stay tuned!
–BL

Interlude: Thank You, Everybody

From Bob Litton

This blog site, The Vanity Mirror, was inaugurated on January 3, 2013. Since then I have published 84 posts, attracted 105 “Followers” who are (or were) WordPress bloggers themselves, as well as five non-blogging friends who became “Followers” by signing on via their email addresses. Even more exciting has been luring readers (or at least “glancers”) from more than sixty flag-bearing entities around the world. (I write “flag-bearing entities” instead of “nations” on purpose because not all are independent nations; some are colonies, territories or city-states.) It is flattering to think of oneself as, if not a “world-renowned writer”, at least a “world-perused writer”.

I believe the time has come for me to issue a blanket “Thank You” to all my readers, even those who visited my site only once. (Was that really enough?) Now, I realize that it is customary among many in the blogging community to thank every individual reader/follower for clicking on the “Like” button and/or signing up as a “Follower”. However, I have chosen not to do that. In fact, as of right now, so late in my blogging career, I have declared myself a “Follower” of only one site, and even that was more from impulse than determined choice. (I won’t take up space explaining that today.)
Although I have clicked the “Like” button on several other bloggers’ posts over the past twenty-two months, I commented only four times, and most of those comments were responses to other folks’ comments on my posts.

Yes, part of the reason I have been slightly indifferent to other writers’ intentions is pure-dee laziness, albeit a justifiable laziness, I believe. Several bloggers boasted hundreds, even thousands, of “Followers”: How could anybody find time to keep up a correspondence with such a kite’s tail?

I have always checked out each new “Follower”, as WordPress recommends, to see if I could feel any connectedness with them. Did we have the same interests? Were they talented enough themselves to be judges of my writing? I discovered that I simply did not have any great interest in the blog sites of a few (culinary arts, auto-racing, military history, etc.) About a dozen others, mostly people in their twenties concentrated in Canada, were trying to push what I considered a pyramid scheme: I didn’t want any part of that. I was really surprised to find that several others just didn’t have anything on their blog to read! From reading many comments on other blog sites, I have concluded that much of this “Like”/”Follow” routine is just a way of getting other people to visit your blog and maybe even follow it out of a sense of quid pro quo: No, thanks! But, returning now to a more positive tone, I have noticed — especially recently — that some bloggers’ sites have been substantive and related to my interests; and I have clicked the “Like” button on those and even followed the one I mentioned above.

An odd anecdote here: While I was contemplating this “blanket thank you” letter, I noticed a similar situation in Tuesday’s “Sally Forth” comic strip. I wish I could feel safe implanting the strip itself here, but I am leery of copyright infringement; so, I will just have to make do with the URL:

http://www.seattlepi.com/comics-and-games/fun/Sally_Forth/2014-10-14/

Enjoy!!!

I certainly hope I haven’t ruffled any sincere readers’ feathers with this “thank you”. Rest assured, I did not intend to appear snooty, just honest.
Bob Litton

Great-grand-pappy Sevald O. Lund, the Painter (1852-1939)

One of Sevald O. Lund’s Western frontier paintings. Of the same generation as Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, Sevald liked to depict cowboys, Indians and loggers as much as he had the fishermen of his home country, Norway.

©2014 By Bob Litton

I have perhaps made it more than enough clear in previous posts that I aspired in my early youth to be an artist, particularly an author who illustrated his own writings. Well, it should also be obvious from those posts that I let my artistic talent wither, damn near atrophy. For several reasons, during my university years, I decided to concentrate on writing. From time to time, I returned to my paint brushes and clay, but mostly I just left them alone.

However, muscles notwithstanding, the blood within me still carried as much in the way of pigments, figuratively speaking, as it did ink. And one of these days, I am going to run away from this computer keyboard and employ those water colors I bought just over a month ago. It is difficult to elicit a true sense of color tones from words.

It could be all a delusion, but I believe I inherited my visual art talent from my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, Sevald Olsson Lund, a Norwegian immigrant whose family settled in Wisconsin in 1865, when he was thirteen years old. He was my maternal grandmother’s father. Since he died almost three months before I was born, I obviously never had any opportunity to meet Great-grand-pappy; yet what my mother related and what I have read[1] about him written by Carlin Hibbard, a gallery manager and art consultant in Wisconsin, has almost convinced me that his “timorous nature” and “community artist” genes have descended into my nature. I have always abhorred confrontations, and my work as a journalist was always devoted to “community newspapers” and a radio station. Also similar to Sevald’s nature was the natural, simple emphasis in my few artworks and my inclination to produce them primarily for my own enjoyment and that of acquaintances. And, finally, I never anticipated — and therefore probably never deserved — making much money from them: my ancestor was more of a self-promoter than I (he had to be to make a living), but not much more. He had to earn a good portion of his livelihood from farming (for a while) and painting houses and coaches.

Ms. Hibbard sums up her evaluation of Sevald Lund as artist this way:
“Lund painted for his own enjoyment, but also with an eye toward the desires and interests of those around him. His works varied according to their use and according to their prospective owners, be they businessmen, Norwegian relatives, or grandchildren. It is, therefore, not surprising that Lund is difficult to describe stylistically. His repetition of motifs and the flat schematic manner in which he painted some of his large early works…gave them something of the primitive flavor of work by artists who had developed their own personal techniques and ways of solving pictorial problems. However, Lund cannot be classified as a truly naive painter because he, at the same time, showed an acquaintance with such academic techniques as modelling…, perspective…, balance in composition…, coordinated color, and the ability to portray atmospheric light effects. Furthermore, if one were to look only at his Norwegian farm paintings one would probably classify him as a folk artist nostalgically depicting scenes from his past. These pieces, painted primarily for friends and relatives, were executed with the sort of straightforward simplicity and sincerity that is typical of folk art while lacking its flat and linear quality.”[2]

Although Sevald did not study art in a school, he did work for several years as assistant to German immigrant Jacob Miller, who had studied and been credentialed by the Royal Academy in Munich. Hibbard, in her essay, tried to link Lund to other 19th century artists of note, comparing him stylistically and/or thematically to Herbjørn Gausta (1854-1924) for his “quiet realism” and to Edward Hicks (1780-1849), whose “painting procedures were a mixture of the primitive artist’s personally achieved methods and knowledge he had gained in the handling of pictorial space and depiction of figures from his work as a sign painter. Like Lund he cannot be really classified as a pure primitive or as an academic painter….What they have in common is being artists of the people, satisfied with serving their immediate community.”[3]

Although Sevald painted at least one religious painting, for a Lutheran church, most of his paintings were landscapes (especially of farms and logging camps), marine scenes (wharves, fishing boats, and ships at sea), bucolic scenes (cows and sheep), still lifes, and cowboys and Indians. Readers can get a good idea of the scope and quality of his works at this URL site:
http://picasaweb.google.com/slund5/SevaldOLund#

There are also a couple of home movies accessible on YouTube showing Sevald and his immediate family about to depart on an excursion; but what they are celebrating, I have no idea. The main reason I mention it here, since I doubt that many readers will be interested in visiting those films, is that they were filmed by one of my great-aunts, Aunt Kristine (“Kit”), who also had some artistic talent, which she developed enough to coach me. Another of my grandmother’s sisters, Aunt Jo, was a commercial artist who did fashion drawings for a newspaper and illustrated at least one youth novel (which I no longer possess).

Ms. Hibbard notes that Sevald gave many of his paintings to relatives, especially to his grandchildren, of whom my mother was one. Mother gave me the one she had: a water-color scene of some sheep resting in the shade of a beech tree; and my great-aunt Jo gave me a water-color of a steam ship…with masts (?) docked at a wharf. My sister-in-law has one of his seascape-with-boats water-colors.

I have instructed my heir and power-of-attorney friend to send my Lund pictures to the Chippewa Valley Museum in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, after I am released from this “vale of sorrows”. That museum already has a large permanent collection of Sevald’s artworks. Knowing that many of his paintings are scattered now throughout the United States, particularly in California and Texas, they have requested that any present owners donate theirs to the Chippewa Museum.  They also had a special retrospective of his paintings and carvings during the period June 16, 1990 through January 6, 1991. Wish I could have gone to view it.

* * * * * *

[1] Carlin Hibbard, “S. O. Lund, A Community Artist from Norway”, in Marion Nelson, ed., Material Culture and People’s Art among the Norwegians in America, (Northfield, Minn., Norwegian-American Historical Assn.: 1994), pp. 176-198.

[2] Ibid. p. 193.

[3] Ibid., pp. 194-5.

S. O. Lund

Finis

.

Which One Are You?

Young-Old Woman

©2014 By Bob Litton

I am going to have to admit something to you folks: I have no notion…yet…what I am going to say in this post. Sometime last evening, the theme of “how does what we see determine or reveal our personalities and values?” invaded my noggin. I did not know the answer then and I do not know it now, but I was willing to think and write on the wing. Let us see where that tactic leads us.

I suppose most of my readers have had enough life experience to recognize the above optical illusion of a woman, the age (old or young) of which the viewer is asked by some psychologist to declare. It was reportedly created and published in 1915 by cartoonist W.E. Hill, so you can see that the attire is not the throwback you might have imagined it to be. The majority of us, I believe, see only a young woman first and then have to focus and concentrate to perceive the old woman; or vice versa. I have seen it so many times by now that I can isolate either quite quickly.

I do not know whether Hill was trying to develop a serious psychoanalyzing tool or simply drawing an ambiguous image for people to have fun with. I like to consider it as serving both purposes. As for a psychological tool, it is comparable to the old bromide about the glass of water being half full or half empty: either interpretation supposedly reveals a characteristic within the viewer’s personality; he/she is either an optimist or a pessimist. Of course, a complication in this test might arise if the viewer possesses a quirky fondness for old women, or just lost his/her home in a flood; then what is less appreciated by most people would be desirable to this viewer. Another goal of the psychologists might simply be to test people’s various abilities to compare and distinguish.

I have discussed perception in the arts in previous posts: “Chaos of Taste…” (May 1, 2013); “McGuffey…” (Nov. 23, 2013), and “O Beauty…” (September 27, 2014). I have also held many conversations with an artist friend concerning our different modes of depicting a subject in our productions: I emphasize volumes; he emphasizes lines. Of course, neither of us is absolute in these approaches; it is just that the first quality we look for in any other artist’s work is one of those two. Recall that in my essay on “McGuffey…”, I praised the 19th century illustration of a cat for its furry detail created by a multitude of lines; and in my essay “Bob’s Wee Art Gallery, Part I” (June 22, 2014) I cited cowboy artist Andy Adams as an influence in teaching me the value of texture through lines. Nonetheless, I hold up as my model of supreme artist N. C. Wyeth, whose precision modeling made his illustrations of several young people’s classics visually palpable.

But my friend is almost religious in his devotion to the “line” artists, that is, those who through their thick and thin lines connect this portion of a work with that portion, so you can understand his concentration on comic book art and the graphic novel, particularly those by Jeff Smith. He much appreciates Walt Kelly, the late creator of “Pogo”, for his “flow, grace, rhythm and simplification.” Among the fine arts figures, he favors Paul Klee and Leopoldo Santos-y-Mendez for their “strong geometry” and Edgar Degas and Norman Rockwell for their “draftsmanship”. (I am with him on Degas and Rockwell.) We do not argue about our contrasting values, although I believe we each feel a slight urge to convert the other. *(See note below.)

So, where do these diverging lanes originate and where do they lead in our psyches? I cannot speak fully for my friend, although I can generalize from observation and describe him as an optimist. His viewpoint has been heavily affected by Zen Buddhism, so he sees nothing in the external world as really touching him either harmfully or helpfully; everything is simply there. Also, excepting his personal preferences, he believes almost totally in the principle that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and that anything can be classified as an art object to somebody.

As for me, I definitely am a pessimistic depressive. After nearly seventy-five years, I feel that I have seen more than I need to see in this world — from trolley street-cars to the landing on the Moon, from the party-line phone system to the proliferation of cell phones, from tent revivals to the emergence of ISIS. Stop the world! I want to get off! And yet, I have read recently that pessimists both live longer and are calmer in crises than other people: the movie Melancholia, wherein the people of Earth are fatally faced with an oncoming planet, has as its primary theme the second of those attributes. I sure hope the first attribute is untrue. As though I haven’t already seen enough of a changing reality, I now feel convinced that I will live long enough to see the end of the world. Consequently, I reach back mentally and artistically to my childhood, to grasp the solid elements that made it cheerful. I crave the bold, shadowed forms in N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations. I search and search through my bag of childhood memories, like a pig after truffles.

But this pig has already eaten all the truffles.

*After I first posted the above, my friend sent me an email in which he asked me to add a few more artists to his favorites list. I thought that inserting them within the body of the essay would be too crowded, so I am appending his email message here:

When you’re listing Degas and Norman Rockwell, put Toulouse-Lautrec in between them.

And you can add Rockwell Kent on the graphic arts side next to Leopoldo Mendez.

Regarding Mendez, he had a “late” or “mature” (or whatever) style where he worked the whole surface of the wood block with flowing textures. It was a big influence on me when I was studying printmaking in college. Here’s a good example:

Finis

O Beauty, Where Art Thou?

©2014 By Bob Litton

The Purpose of Canyons

Three men who had been classmates in high school greeted each other joyfully at a school reunion. They had been good friends all the way through their public school years but had since moved to separate sections of the country and had lost contact with one another. Now in their thirties, all had entered different career fields: one was a college science professor; one, an artist; and the third, a cowboy.
They decided they wanted to spend more time together, so they agreed to meet a couple of months later at an Arizona resort town near the Grand Canyon, which none of them had ever seen. The day following their arrival in Arizona, they spent several hours drinking wine (the scientist and the artist) and beer (the cowboy). Although a bit woozy after that binge, they nevertheless wobbled late in the afternoon out to the canyon’s rim.
The science professor, wide-eyed with awe, exclaimed, “Just imagine how many eons are evidenced in the strata of that wall across the chasm!”
The artist, observing the purple, red and golden hues of the sunset as the fiery globe rested upon the canyon, said dreamily, “What a beautiful painting I could create here!”
The cowboy, squinting and gazing, gazing and squinting, as he tried to fathom what his friends were talking about, finally sighed wearily and muttered, “What a hell of a place to lose a cow!”
After pausing a few seconds to guess what was going on here, the three friends began to quarrel over which man’s vision was actual. Then they fought. Then they rolled in a wild knot to the canyon’s rim. Then they fell.
— BL’s extended version of an old joke of unknown origin

I just wrote a check donating a small amount of money to an FM radio station in Arizona that plays classical music twenty-four hours a day. The station ended their fund drive yesterday. However, I did not pledge anything during that drive because I don’t like making pledges I might not be able to live up to and because I shrink from surrendering my bank account information to Cyberspace. I will, though, continue to contribute occasionally what I think I can afford to the station because I have been listening to it for several months now and feel guilty about receiving and not giving.

Any of my readers who share with me an appreciation of classical music are probably as aware as I of the threat to that genre on the radio because of its relatively small audience and its resultantly minimal sponsor roll. While residing in my hometown of Dallas, Texas, I listened nearly every day to WRR-FM, the City-owned station at Fair Park which played classical music all the time. Every other year, it seemed, the City council’s agenda included an item regarding the possible sale of WRR. The sale proponents’ argument was that the City should not be sponsoring a radio station in competition with other radio stations, all of which were rock-n-roll, C&W, or talk show sites. The local intelligentsia always loudly retorted that WRR did not survive on tax money but on its own advertising and sponsorship incomes.

Concert hall venues are in about the same condition; some orchestras have disappeared. I don’t know if that is because there are too many orchestras for the population or because classical music is too incomprehensible for mass audiences. (Classical country has experienced a similar decline.) It occurs to me that, as with modern rock-n-roll, modern C&W is indifferent to the production of the poetic and often humorous lyrics that used to spice them (e.g., “Ode to Billy Joe” and “The Race is On”).The “moderns” prefer unintelligible mumblings about the cliches of dusty roads and tractors that are supposed to attend a repetitive beat designed for the “Texas Two-Step”. Beat conquers melody!

Even I do not enjoy the works of some classical composers as much as I used to enjoy them. Gioachino Rossini and Richard Wagner were early favorites of mine — back in my early twenties — for the obvious reason that they were often boisterous and manly, but Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune, a very quiet piece, was also a favorite. I guess whatever was a favorite with the crowd was a favorite with me. Debussy still ranks high on my list of admirable composers, but Wagner has declined considerably; and I am not quite sure why, although I have my suspicions. Whenever they play Ride of the Valkyries — a piece I used to thrill to — I now can hardly wait for it to conclude. The Russian composers, especially Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Borodin, have since monopolized my sympathies; but I appreciate several others almost as much. And I have become a fanatic for adagios, regardless of the nationality of the composer.

This slide from one style and mood to another has been cause enough for me to ponder the shapes and tones of beauty. Well, let me be honest: I have almost always wondered what are the attributes which excite the response within our minds and/or souls which we denominate the aesthetic sense “beauty”. In elementary school we were warned by our teachers to avoid words like “beautiful”, “wonderful” and “interesting”, because they are “worn-out adjectives”: the alternative for our written compositions (restricting the present remarks to “beautiful”) are words like “poignant”, “seductive”, “comforting”, “colorful”, “charming”, etc.; that is, more particular, pointed terms.

Most of us are cognizant of the supposedly emotional associations of colors, particularly red (anger, anxiety) and blue (cold, melancholy). Yet, red roses are often considered delightful gifts of appreciation and a blue sky is usually seen as a welcoming invitation to joyfully stroll down some country lane. Nearly three decades ago, the Dallas Fire Department changed the color of its fire trucks from cherry red to amber because the latter color reputedly grabs people’s attention more immediately. It has been supposed that the “beautiful” colors set in flower blossoms are meant to attract pollinators; but are the insects really appreciative of beauty per se, or are those blossoms’ colors perceived merely as glyphs designating the species beneath? How do the various colors of objects and scenes get emotionally separated and catalogued in our minds? I wondered.

As for myself, while still using crayons in grade school, before the era of “political correctness”, my favorite color was Indian red. Next in line was a sort of blue-green: cannot recall its name now. Somewhere along the path to adulthood I took to pastels, virtually all of them. Why did that change occur? The nearest I can fathom is that as I aged I became mellower — much less aggressive; I had learned the cost of belligerency.

I also learned that the generally preferred form for illustration was the human body, not tanks and airplanes. Animals and trees of various species could be rendered to appeal as well. But what was there about any of those that justified their characterization of “beautiful”?

I have discussed directly — and slantingly — in previous blog posts some of the issues concerning aesthetics, particularly the question of whether beauty is in the eye of the beholder or whether there is some abstract, socially accepted, ideal beauty that is relatively eternal (pardon the oxymoron). We humans have, I believe, an irritating urge to want demarcations in various areas of life, e.g. aesthetics: lines that will set off against each other the ways of viewing any phenomenon. (We do seem to be evolving into a blurrier manner of seeing in the areas of race and sexual orientation; there is now a budding debate over what is called “asexuality” to confuse matters even more.) Now I have reached a point where I can intellectually accept the non-reality of such strict borders, although I still cannot repress the emotional desire to draw them: consequently I keep returning to this issue of whether distinguishing palpable appearances is possible or whether they in fact slide into and blend with one another. Is there a sufficiently valid scale of perfecting to justify the careers of critics, or are we all just marooned on our little islands of individual preferences, each as valid — and as invalid — as the other? Does what we classify as beautiful occur to us out of an innate knowledge or have we been taught what is beautiful for so long that we now accept it as the “real beauty”? And why does anything have to be beautiful anyway?

That is as far as I have gotten in my cogitations to date. I apologize if any of the above leaves my readers frustrated; it could well be argued that I should have waited until I have some persuasive resolutions of these questions before sending them out into Cyberspace. However, I am beginning to doubt that that day will ever come. Anyway, more than half the fun from such musings derives from the questions, not the answers.

Finis

NOTE TO WORDPRESS BLOGGERS: If you would like to comment on this post you need to click on the words “Leave A Comment” in small bold print just above the by-line. That will open a box down at the bottom for your comment. I welcome comments, even critical ones, as long as they are polite and related to the essay, story or poem within the post.
Thank you for reading.
BL

NOTE TO NON-WORDPRESS BLOGGING READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to hear any helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page (see button above the title of this post). Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it.
Thank you for reading.
BL 

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