Looking Out To Sea
I have looked at lots of paintings in my time. I am by no means an art historian, and I am certainly not an art critic, except perhaps in the pedestrian sense. Any understanding of “important” art I possess has come to me mainly through the benefits of travel and of being around real scholars and artists who know a thing or two; any artistic and creative abilities of my own I owe without question to my mother, who was my first drawing instructor and who first showed me how to begin rendering what my imagination saw.
When I was quite young, she gave me a very large, very heavy book comprised of the works of the best-known American illustrator, Norman Rockwell. I still feel that I owe her a debt of gratitude for the many luxurious hours I spent poring over all of those Post covers, the sketches and reprinted canvases, wandering through a land which I intuited, even then, as a lost American place which was long-gone, mythical, true and yet delusional as any madman’s fantasy. There were many of those images that struck me deeply, and a few of the pages were loose, intended as prints for framing. I found an old, discarded frame in our storeroom and hung one, called Looking Out to Sea, on my bedroom wall. It depicts an old sea captain with his hand on the shoulder of a small boy, as they stand on a hump of rock overlooking a windy harbor, gazing out to where a golden ship is already plowing into wild, open water; it whispered to me of something I could not have articulated then, of some yearning for a distant, golden place, of promises fulfilled and yet to be fulfilled, and of the mysteries of youth and age. The shadow of the horizon behind them covers them, and they are bound to the land—the man because he has become bent and aged, the boy because he is yet too young to sail into the unknown—but both look out to where the light goes onward.
When I arrived at college in 1976, determined to be a Studio Art major, I still did not know that Rockwell was considered passé, sentimental, even saccharin, for I had never been among the Real Intellectuals, the purveyors of legitimacy in aesthetics, and my fondness for these pictures was quickly tamped down by scorn. If you liked paintings of American figures, you were on safe ground with Hopper, Eakins, Bellows, even Winslow Homer, but emphatically not with Rockwell. But it was too late for me: those images had already seeped into me, and before long I realized that anything I might choose to paint would never be considered satisfactorily avant garde or innovative or visionary, and in my sophomore year I switched my course of study to English Literature, in which the stiff parameters of the analytical essay allowed me a strange sort of anonymity quite removed from the torturous risk of baring pieces of oneself on a naked canvas, like fragments from some intimate dream.
* * *
Now, fast-forward in time, fourteen years or so. Some of life’s great events had already passed me: the death of a brother, a brief but bright career as a journalist, and a divorce. And to my great joy, the birth of my son. When I had moved out of the house I owned with his mother, consigning to musty desk drawers and a rented storage unit all the relics of my twenties, I found my own small apartment in the “quaint” San Marco neighborhood of Jacksonville, Florida. I have to say that this was all much to the relief of my own parents (Nana and Papa, to my young son), who had watched me flailing and twisting in the wind in the course of the breakup, and who had fretted mightily over the prospects for their own future relationship with their grandson. Fortunately, though, my ex was amicable about these things, and she and I had agreed to share custody of our child. As I was setting up his room for him, I opened a box my mother had packed and saved for me, and behold, there was Looking Out to Sea, in the scuffed old frame. I hung it on the wall above my son’s bed, and on our first evening there together, he gazed at it for several minutes, just as I had once done. After this lengthy contemplation, he said decisively, “That’s me and Papa.”
In truth, my father was not a seagoing man. He was in the Army during the last year of World War 2, but because of congenital blindness in his left eye, he never even left his base in the U.S. Still, whereas my mother gave me the appreciation of art, he gave me practical knowledge, and through example, an understanding of the simple virtues of honesty and personal integrity. I am glad that my son knew him, and I believe I understand how back then, in his four-year old perception, he concluded that the two of them were the ones looking out to sea: The older man says to the boy, “There is the world, out there. It is broad and frightening, and we are small. But you’ll go, just as I did, because the golden light is there. One day you’ll be on that ship.” The child makes no reply.
When my son went away to college, he took the picture with him. He still has it.
* * *
Now, to finish the story properly, or more appropriately, to string one last clumsy bauble to this loose thread of memory, I must fast-forward in time again, to the summer of 2008. However, this is the part that some readers will not like because it involves that which some of us might call a mystery but which others will say is mere speculation about coincidence. In any case, it is worth the telling, I believe.
My father died that summer, three months before his 81st birthday, having endured two years worth of futile surgeries and a close relationship with a series of green oxygen tanks. My son, a grown man of 22, came home from college to attend the funeral service. I was proud of the way he carried himself: he was loving, supportive, compassionate, well-spoken—he displayed all those qualities of which I, at that age, in my stunted emotional condition, would have been incapable.
Afterward, we went to my father’s favorite restaurant for dinner, one of those cheap, somewhat sad Mexican places with faded prints and gaudy decorations on the walls, but with grand helpings of food which became quite acceptable with generous dousings of salsa. After we had eaten, my son went to the restroom, and when he returned and sat down again, he had an odd look on his face, and a slight smile.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing. Only…you’ve got to go in that bathroom.”
“But I don’t need to go,” I said.
“Just go. Trust me.”
I did as he said. Hanging over the sink in the restroom was a rendering of Rockwell’s Looking Out to Sea—not a print, but a copy hand-painted by someone. Granted, it was a crude effort, not at all close to the vividness, realism, and depth of the original image, but it did capture some of that feeling, the romance, the great sweep of emotion and myth pulsing in those billowing sails, and the pathos in the proximity and relationship between the two figures.
Aside from the oddity of finding a New England seaside scene so prominently displayed in the bathroom of a Mexican restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida, something about it struck me as funny. In fact, by the time I returned to the table, I was laughing out loud. Perhaps it was coincidence, or perhaps it was cosmic comedy, albeit an “inside joke.” I do know that when I went to the same restaurant again a few weeks later with my mother, the painting was gone, replaced by a promotional poster of tourists sunbathing on a Mexican beach.