Chess, With Clouds

The Scene:

An abandoned hotel* on 6th Street, San Francisco’s Skid Row, early 1970’s.

The Game:

Three-Dimensional chess, with clouds.

The Players:

Gabriel, a Ratter.

Freude, a Film Maker.

The Past: early 1980’s, San Diego:

My friend, Judy the Beauty, was about to open a restaurant on Grape Street called The Big Kitchen. One afternoon she visited my studio nearby and saw Cloud Chess, a painting I had recently finished.

Cloud Chess – Acrylic on paper – 20 x 24 inches.

“I can’t afford to pay you money,” she said, “but if I can have that painting for the Kitchen, you can eat there for free for the rest of your life.”

The Past Before the Past: The hotel was not quite abandoned: among the inhabitants were a jazz pianist, a sculptor, two film makers, two painters, a furniture designer, and an army of rats. Gabriel gradually eliminated the rodents, sometimes theatrically. For example, one evening at a dinner party, just as the guests of the film makers were sitting down to eat, he deposited at their feet, the hindquarters — the hindquarters only — of an exceptionally large rat.

The Matches: When they were not making films or killing rats, Freude and Gabriel liked to play cloud chess. The winner got to roll another joint and reconfigure the clouds while waiting for the loser to return from the Chinese grocery around the corner on 6th Street with another bottle of Red Mountain Burgundy.

Freude looks confident as she moves her cloud.

Gabriel ponders his options.

I wasn’t inclined to wager on outcomes, but usually putting money on the cat was a safe bet.

The Present Past: Two weeks ago, the following message appeared in my inbox: “I’m a big fan of your painting, Cloud Chess. Is there anyway to order a print? I love the image and would love to have a print in my home. Thank you!”

The email was sent by a young woman, who explained, “I saw the image in the Big Kitchen Cafe in South Park, San Diego. I asked the owner, Judy, about it and she told me the title and your name. We expressed mutual love for the painting. Other customers joined in on the conversation expressing their love too!”

Cloud Chess – Acrylic on paper – 20 x 24 inches.

The Future Past: Both Freude and Gabriel no longer live on this earth — except in the painting. *The hotel, which is a character in its own right in the story, has not survived either. If you are curious about its life and death, please click on the related post below: A Memory of Flowers.

As for Cloud Chess, last Friday I mailed a print of it to the young woman, who now lives in Seattle and I asked for a photograph of her and the print after she frames and installs it in her new home. This afternoon I’ll send a thank-you card to Judy, still the Beauty, in San Diego. And the ending to this story? “The past is not dead,” William Faulkner reminds us. “It’s not even past.”

3 thoughts to “Chess, With Clouds”

  1. Years ago, Jayne and I, traveling in Italy, checked into a hotel in Rome. It was Sunday. We were inexperienced in Europe but familiar with blue laws in the Eastern US where the sale of alcohol on Sundays was often limited or prohibited. Feeling celebrative, but also a bit hesitant I asked the desk clerk if it were possible to get a bottle of spumante. He replied, “Ma certo! Siamo in Italia, tutto é posibile!”

    Anything is possible, not just in Italy, but in art. Three dimensional chess, with clouds, and players that include a cat: all are quite possible, not only possible, but factually happening, right there in the painting. That’s what you’ve got, and it’s impossible to say that it isn’t what it is. That’s part of the magic of what art can accomplish: transport you to places you can’t, on your own, imagine.

    It’s even more than that. You alert us, remind us, that neither Freude, nor Gabriel the cat are alive today here on this earth that we currently experience, but they do continue to exist and play their game, intently and intensely, on the canvas of this painting. Immortality. Anything is possible.

    I can’t leave the painting, however, without a couple of observations on the composition itself. The illuminating light from above, feeling something like the light over a Minnesota Fats pool table, makes the game of cloud chess possible. That’s how the shadows from the pieces of clouds are cast on the board. Then there is the “impossible” geometry — trigonometry more precisely, and the contrast between the woman’s nonchalance and the cat’s intensity that create a dynamic tension that pulls one back again and again to the painting.

    It’s delightful to know as a sidebar that you eat gratis anytime you revisit your painting. Such rewards as an artist deserves for making everything possible.

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