Mistaken Identities

Dawn Fields – Acrylic on canvas – 32 x 48 inches.

Thanks to films and television, many people I encounter during my travels outside of the United States are surprised to learn that California is not a wonderland of palm trees, sleek automobiles, handsome dudes, and radiant blondes. Also, that it snows here, that San Francisco is not the capitol, and that — alas — you are not a movie star.

Why anyone would take any of the above assumptions to be true is not worth much further thought, except that we’re all enchanted by fantasies, no? Especially our own? Even fantasies we didn’t realize we had? Let’s say, for example, you’re in Avignon, France in a hardware store looking for a fitting for the nozzle of a garden hose, when a stranger walks up and tells you that he and his wife “super-enjoyed” your latest film. It would be best to say, “merci,” and walk away, basking in the glow of your own vanity. That is, unless vanity gets the best of you, and after a couple of questions you learn which movie star the man had mistaken you for. And you discover, immediately and sadly, that vanity, disappointment and humility are three sides of the same coin.

So, wonderlands aside, here’s an image of California you might see if you were on a flight landing in the Central Valley, in Sacramento, the capitol, at dawn on a morning like today. No cars, no blondes, no snow. No film stars either. Neither real ones, nor ones in somebody’s imagination.

The Passenger

A Passenger: Sketchbook Page – Pencil, watercolor, collage – 8.5 x 11 inches.

A flight between Sacramento and Seattle normally takes about two hours, so there was enough time to draw a fairly accurate likeness of the man in the window seat. Watercolors are too messy for me to use on an airplane, so I added colors later in the studio.

Colors: Students sometimes ask me what colors to use when painting non-white people. From the point of view of artists, “white” and “black;” are just words; humans are all lighter or darker mishmashes of different shades of “beige.” My answer is: use variations of the same pigments you would use to paint anybody, that is, two warm colors and a cool one: a red, a yellow and a blue. Or a vermillion, ochre and green. In this case, I used Quinacridone Red, Raw Sienna, and Viridian, both for the man’s hair and skin. I used black only on his eyeglasses.

Studio: Visitors are often surprised to find my studio “orderly,” by which they mean “not messy.” Then they look at my sketchbooks. “Messy!” Usually the pages are invariably messy because they reflect whatever happens to interest me at the moment, like the wine label, color swatches, Spanish stamp and repro of the Fool card from the Tarot. Plus, sketches are messy like rehearsals for concerts are messy; the artists are trying to figure things out so that the finished product appears smooth and natural.

Storm Study

Storm Study – Pencil, Watercolor – 8 x 8 inches.

It wasn’t long ago when small green shapes, like soft blades, slowly poked up out of the dirt and last autumn’s leaves, the color of rusted iron. Then stems and yellow petals. Red, blue, golden too, and purple. It felt like months of winter here in the hills were beginning to blossom into spring. Almost. Then one afternoon our green world turned back into white.

The tulips and daffodils don’t seem to mind. Nor do the Sparrows, Finches, and Western Bluebirds. (Shh, I don’t mind either. Shh, it’s heretical to say this in California, but I don’t want to let go of the snow’s cold embrace.)

The Seventh Storm of Winter

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here
to bless the falling snow.

Let it bury us and all our cares and pains, and bury
every one of our wishes and preoccupations, especially
the ones we think are most important.

Let it, which neither scorns nor loves, but falls
on all our lives with the same indifferent silence,
bury our pasts and bury every one of our dreams as well.

We pray you, blessed snow, to leave bare spots
beneath the apple trees for winter birds to peck for
seeds, but otherwise, please blanket our incessant

human chatter beneath the frigid benediction of your
whiteness so we can pull up the covers of our beds
and burrow even deeper into sleep like hibernating bats

and bears and not emerge until the ides of March, or April,
or maybe not until the ides of May.

(There you have it, friends: Shh, I hope my secret thoughts are safe with you.)