This extraordinary Eastern Orthodox church, known or recognized by most Clevelanders, is a legacy of the 19th century, perched on Starkweather Ave. in Tremont overlooking a vast industrial landscape of steel mills. From its vantage point, one could watch as three to four successive generations of husbands, fathers and brothers￼￼carried their lunch pails, descending the pitched slope each day to toil in the blast furnaces, coking ovens, open hearths, BOF’s, hot and cold strip mills and myriad support facilities that drove Cleveland’s economy through much of the 20th century.
“Art, Context and Connection”
With that as background, last week I posted the image (see below) on Facebook, “White Oaks, Between Snows, January”, as an “experiment”, promising to explain more about it this week. It hadn’t been my intent to raise expectations for something revelatory, only to glean some small, additional insight into the evocative nature of a scene known intimately to me but not the audience. In this instance, unlike the recent book, there was no essay, not even a short descriptive narrative to inform the image.
So, what does one see and what generates a response or creates a connection? And how similar or distinct is that connection between the artist and the observer? The title here provides only a small bit of context, identifying the species of tree, the season and month of the year. The only other information is visual; that which may be observed directly or inferred from the various elements in the image itself. Whether or not a viewer connects in some way would seem to depend upon experiences and associations held in his or her personal inventory. Beyond that, there is the instinctive or intuitive response to the aesthetic -also dependent on experience and association. Since the posting I’ve had only a few responses; a few on FB and a few others in offline conversations.
George Bilgere, one of this country’s acclaimed poets, found connection through the visual elements, “I like that burn and sparkle of energy, the glitter of the winter-resistant leaves in the middle. … but I do sense the image’s forthright power.” And Michigan artist, Chris Hammack saw the trees as “silent observers”, much as I have personified them in my own mind. Another artist and friend, Laurel Hecht, commented, “The deep dark woods in the back..fun to think about.” This sense of mystery represents much of my own attraction to the image and locale as I visit here every week or two and experience a similar reaction each time, one I had hoped to communicate through the photograph.
“Sycamores, First Flakes”
John Ruskin, many western scholars would assert, was the 19th century’s most famous art critic, though his reputation at that time as a polymath and contemporary Renaissance man elevated him into even higher spheres of ideas and endeavors. An extraordinary draftsman, watercolorist and philosopher, he championed the interrelationship of nature, art and society, positing:
“Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty.” J. Ruskin
In the spirit of his observation and my own obsession with American Sycamores, I post this image taken yesterday (November 30) late in the day after a light snow collected in the crevices and shadows of the forest floor just above the banks of the Chagrin River. This image, I think, is eerily reminiscent of Gustav Klimt’s slightly abstract portrayal of trees, especially the beech and birch forests that attracted him.
“Starlings on the Run”
This image, a companion to my previous post of starlings, perched and pensive in the weeping birch, illustrates a sense of unity, even in their urgent departure pictured here. Seemingly unperturbed at first by my conspicuous approach and maladroit struggle in the freezing snow with camera and tripod, they struck me more as amused than frightened. For a brief moment I had deluded myself into believing I might be a “bird whisperer”; otherwise why had they remained affixed so calmly to the branches? Looking at this second image, however, I am disabused of any such notion.
That day’s brief encounter and these images have occasioned further reflection on these beautiful yet pernicious birds. Property destruction by starlings is legendary, replete with stories of farmers losing entire crops in an afternoon as birds would descend in locust-like waves. And, our own experience in Cleveland Hts. underscores those stories as we’ve watched small flocks drop into the yard this week, emptying the feeder in less than an hour. Moreover, we’ve seen them in the spring raiding robin’s nests, devouring newly hatched chicks – a practical though disturbing means of ethnic cleansing and sating hunger.
So, while antipathy towards starlings abounds, there is an undeniable, extraordinary beauty to these birds, not only their physical form but in their flight, ascending, swarming, swirling and coalescing into an undulating flow of amorphous murmuration. Perhaps, if there is a message, a moral or an enigma to these recent images, it lies in the dichotomy between beauty and its antithesis, dependent both upon context and the elusive definition of beauty itself. Although philosophers since Plato, and poets and artists through millennia have grappled with defining and expanding the concept of beauty (including its relationship to the arts and its influence on aesthetics), one also might look to the lowly starling when considering the many aspects of beauty; their physical perfection, their art as observed in the skies, and even their moral turpitude as they coalesce in flight, casting a shadow across creation.
“Chagrin River, Wraiths of the Season”
Driving along Chagrin River Road, winding north from Rt. 87 another three tortuous miles as the road traces the river and escarpment into the village of Gates Mills, one is mesmerized by the desolate beauty that has arrived overnight. Northern Ohio’s autumn landscape is frequently transformed in the course of an evening as the deciduous forests that descend into the Chagrin Valley surrender their color to the cold winds of November.
“New Haven Mills, Vermont
Departing Hinesburg VT. (15 miles south of Burlington), 10 days ago, Kate and I drove south on Rt. 116 through small towns and villages like Bristol, Starkville and New Haven Mills before reaching the college town of Middlebury, home to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the oldest and one of the world’s most acclaimed writers’ conferences. Since its founding in 1926 it has attracted many of this country’s greatest writers, including such luminaries as Frost, Welty, Stegner, Cather and numerous other notable national and international poets and novelists.
Notwithstanding the picturesque Middlebury campus, the photograph below was taken in the small, rather nondescript village of New Haven Mills, immediately preceding the college. It showcases the old Lampson School (now a home) occupying several acres on a hillock overlooking the village and the New Haven Mills’ river. The scenery and 19th century character of the village can be intimated through this image. Built in 1868 and included in the “National Register of Historic Places,” it has been cited for its beautiful, Italianate architecture. For me it held particular interest having grown up in the Connecticut Western Reserve of northeast Ohio. We lived in a historic old farmhouse constructed originally in the tradition of a Connecticut home to which was added an Italianate styled section in 1843. The older, original section of the house (my childhood home) was constructed between 1815 and 1817 by John Seward, the first minister of the Connecticut Western Reserve.
“Blackbirds and Black Willows, Close of Day”
“The Blackbird”, (last stanza)
“Two golden stars, like tokens from the Blest,
Strike on his dim orbs from the setting sun;
His sinking hands seem pointing to the West;
He smiles as though he said—”Thy will be done”:
His eyes, they see not those illuminings;
His ears, they hear not what the Blackbird sings.” Frederick Tennyson