Sunday, January 12, 2014

Poet Pamela Cranston Imagines Two Adirondack Painters

Poet and novelist Pamela Cranston's work appears in journals such as The Adirondack Review, The Anglican Theological Review, Blueline and The Blueline Anthology (published by Syracuse Press), Earthlight Magazine, Edgz, The Northwoods Journal, On the Trail: An Outdoor Anthology, The Mystic River Review, The Penwood Review. She is the author of the novel The Madonna Murders and the collection Coming to Treeline: Adirondack Poems. Though she now lives in Oakland, CA, Cranston's bond to the Adirondack High Peaks goes back to the 1870s when her ancestors began summering in the region. She was born into a family of painters, many of whom contributed to the local arts scene and the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society. In these selections, she portrays two Adirondack painters.
Harold Weston, Frost Before Night,
oil on canvas (1939) 

Harold Weston
(1894 – 1972)
Despite the frigid day, he takes a wedge,
a double-edged axe and a splitter,
(called a peedunk by lumberjacks in these parts),
and cuts some curly maple and yellow birch.
His hands sting with each swing.
The pistol-crack of each log ricochets
off the flanks of Lower Wolf Jaw.
It is 1920. At twenty-five, he is strong,
fitness hard-won against a bout
of teenage polio, Harvard and a sheltered life.
Like Thoreau, he went into the wilds
to find his freedom, hoping the woods
would teach him how to paint. They call him
the Hermit of St. Huberts—that “crazy artist”
who lives alone under the slopes of Giant.

His cabin is hewn from hemlock
and spruce—spare as a Shaker hutch.
No electricity, no insulation,
just a tarpaper roof and water, sluiced
from a spring off Noonmark.
Behind, a modest outhouse
hides in the balsam grove. He brings
only the bare essentials: a table, a cot,
two chairs, blankets and warm clothes,
a coffee pot and kerosene lamp, a frying pan
and kettle, and most crucial—a potbellied stove.
Feeble as a clawless cat, it tries to fend
against the arctic winds, which sneak,
like invisible mice, through the chinks
in the beams. They gnaw all winter at his bones.

Once a month, he hikes to Keene Valley
to pack in food supplies, then gets his mail
from a boarding house run by Spencer Nye.
Some nights, he stays and joins the crew
of ice cutters ‘round a well-stoked fire,
swapping tall tales. The men are stiff
and numb, half-beat from the cold,
hands and feet itchy with chilblains.
They’ve been out on the pond all day
with horse teams and sleds,
carving furrows in that hard white field—
ploughing three-foot cakes of ice,
then plucking the turquoise cubes with giant tongs
out of Chapel Pond and hauling
the slippery load down to town.

Mostly, he just hikes and paints. In the future,
he’ll paint John Dos Passos and Felix Adler,                                                  
but for now, it’s the chiseled faces
of these mountains he most loves.
The profile of each peak
is etched on the canvas of his heart.
A photo shows him hiking in snowshoes,
wearing a heavy coat and high-laced boots.
He stands tall in the powdered snow
on the Upper Lake. He clasps
a six foot staff. Under his glasses,
he wears a thin beard and a big grin.
He has just hiked down from Inlet Camp
in a snow squall and seen a snowbow
arching over Gothics.

That rainbow would wrap around him
and keep him warm

Vry Roussin, Lower Lake
oil on canvas (1997) 
the rest of his life.

Vryling Corscaden Roussin
(1944 – 2004) 
Vry’s first masterpiece
was the bathroom sink.
She painted it hot pink
with her mother’s nail polish
at the age of five. From then on,
Art was the life for her. Color
was something she felt and breathed—
not just saw. Once, I heard her exclaim,
“I just discovered brown!”
As if it never existed before.

She lived a life without lines.
When she taught us to draw a chair,
she’d say, “Don’t draw the chair,
draw the space around it.”
She knew the color of in-between.
She was bright and exuberant,
like her freckles and red hair—
breathless as splashes of tangerine
that burst across her canvas,
giddy as tropical birds.

Her barn was a picture of who she was.
Upstairs: a cluttered studio full of paints
half-finished canvases, palettes, brushes,
and dirty rags reeking of turpentine.
Downstairs: one half—a long gallery,
the other, a piece-meal kitchen, a tiny bedroom
and cluttered day room. Outside: an organic garden
and a yard full of wrought-iron sculptures—
standing like mechanical giants,
who had rusted as they played.

Once, after Art School, Vry unrolled
for Harold, on the living room floor,
a large mural she’d done—of cows
standing shin-deep in a stream.
By then, Weston was gaunt,
gray as driftwood, crowbar bent,
but when he saw Vry’s bovines,
his body grew buoyant—
his eyes widened eagerly
to weigh and absorb this feast of light.

Vry learned to live in the Now,
knowing, with cancer, that today
was all she had. She never lingered
over her old work—was happy to see it gone,
or not. (She had let so many of her darlings go.)
Her favorite painting was always the next one.
During her last months, she painted
the color of Hope—vast pale blue skies,
which is where, in the end, she flew,
like a Firebird.

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