This is a story about sunlight and clouds in a wide blue sky, a pond, a warm, green day in a summer many years ago, and the discovery of a lost friend. But it begins years before that with a day of rainstorms and tears, a sad day of leaving people you love and who love you.
On that day, my sister Kathleen and I drove away from the home of our childhood, and turned to look past our suitcases in the back seat of my Ford at our parents, John and Doris, waving goodbye from the back porch, our leaving like a scene in a film. We headed north into Wisconsin under a sky the color of iron. Sheets of rain as we crossed the Mississippi River into Minnesota and more rain through Minneapolis until the skies finally cleared as we pulled into a motel in Fargo, North Dakota. We were on our way to college in the Pacific Northwest, three more days of driving ahead of us. Looking back, I doubted I would ever come home again. But time, like a spider, weaves slowly.
In one of his songs, Bob Dylan sings, “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” After living four years in Washington State and another ten in San Francisco, it felt like time to come back home, even if not back all the way. John had died, but Doris still lived in the old house with a couple of my younger siblings. Her father and her older sister lived in the house next door. I wanted to spend time with all of them, and did, during the three years I lived there before moving west again.
Back in my hometown, it was a surprise to soon meet one of my oldest friends, Bill Schmitz. I hadn’t seen him in twenty years, but the memories of our past remained fond. From the first day of the first grade we had palled around, both altar boys, both boy scouts, both equally inept on a basketball court. He didn’t have to tell me that he had become a successful businessman. That was obvious because he lived on the north end of Douglas Avenue in what was one of the most beautiful houses in our town. As a boy I had delivered newspapers in the neighborhood, but never to that house. Now Bill and his wife Julie invited me in to see their home and meet their children, Eric and Andrea. A new and delightful chapter of friendship began.
It was another surprise when one day they asked me to paint a canvas for them. Their living room was spacious and full of light, with comfortable chairs, Julie’s piano and a wood-burning fireplace. A perfect room, Bill said, for a large painting. I remember that it did not take long for us to agree on a landscape. Winters in the Midwest are long and brutal, so no scenes of ice and snow. But in summer, trees, rivers and lakes radiate greens, violets and blues, more congenial ingredients for a family painting.
Here is one of the first sketches: The colors are shrill and the space feels cramped and claustrophobic, but it was a start.
In a later sketch, spaces began to expand and feel less constricted, but the colors were too muted, like twilight.
At one time during the weeks I struggled to create an image, I remembered a quote from Henri Matisse (1869-1954). His words opened my world, fed my imagination and guided me: What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.
Here’s one of the last sketches and then the final painting.
“Pond” is the image of “balance, purity and serenity” I was striving to paint. A figure is fishing alone on a lovely summer morning, but he’s only a small spoke in a great, wide wheel of water, sky and light. We don’t know his thoughts: Perhaps he misses having a canoe so he could glide out onto the water. Can he hear the songs of jays and robins, and perhaps a dog barking in a nearby farmyard? Does he hear the distant hiss of 18-wheelers on the tollway beyond the trees? Is he so intent on fishing that he doesn’t notice the mountain of storm clouds gathering, the murmur of thunder and the scent of rain? For most of the morning, the wind only whispers, but then it shudders and a crescent of wrinkles appears on the pond. Summer storms bring lightning. He had better get out of the open and into shelter. Our story began with a memory of rain and it is going to end with rain.
Although the painting appears to depict a real pond, you won’t find this scene in northern Illinois or anywhere else, except in the painting itself. The painting is an invention, a composite of several places, memories and thoughts, an act of imagination. The apparent reality of water, sky, trees and light has only a fictional existence, like the 31st day of June. But the acrylic on canvas — three ft. wide and six ft. across — still exists. After living in Schmitz family homes in Illinois, Iowa and Colorado, it now lives in Salt Lake City in the home of Eric and his spouse, Spencer.
Recently, Julie told me she asked Eric and Andrea to share their thoughts about the painting: “Eric said it ‘defined our whole house;’ that it always brought ‘home’ to mind no matter where he was. . . Andrea liked the fact that it is original, and that you had put so much time in going to different locations in our area to combine them into the painting. Julianna, Andrea’s adopted daughter, said it is her favorite. I appreciate that the painting is timeless. . . (And) you can be sure that Bill was always very proud to tell our visitors that the painting was done by his good childhood friend.”
Almost five years ago, Bill left this world, left all of us he loved and those who loved him. His memory gives all of us comfort and pleasure. The “calming influence on the mind” I hoped the painting would give to him and his family is a different kind of comfort, but it still does what it was painted to do.
This post was supposed to be about a painting and about what may seem real, but isn’t real. However, let’s end it with a tribute: Bill Schmitz was real, as in, Bill was a mensch. Mensch is Yiddish compliment; it denotes an honorable, decent person, a good guy, somebody you can trust to do the right thing. More than forty years later, it’s still a pleasure to have painted a work of art for such a good childhood friend.