My Grandfather as an Artist

The following is an excerpt from my NICU journal

My grandfather is someone I hope you get to know. You will never be able to meet him in person in order to know him in the traditional sense, but none the less I hope that I can tell you enough of him that you feel like you know him. One problem with this is I’m not certain I knew him that well. I was still young when he passed away and most of my memories of him come after he was living in a retirement home. I do have one memory of his house in Falls Church.

Grandfather told me I was magic and I didn’t believe him so he told me to go outside and tell he garage door to raise. In my quest to prove him wrong I did so and low and behold when I told the garage door to raise it raised and when I told it to lower it lowered. I tested my powers several times until I noticed grandfather standing at the door pushing the garage door button to open and close the garage at my command. I was not disappointed that my newly acquired Jedi powers turned out to be false but happy to have the interaction and if you think about it it took quite a bit of ingenuity to devise a game of his nature.

The other thing I remember about my grandfather is he loved gardening or the having of a garden. He was proud of the plants he had around his house and would show them to me and explain the difference between a perennial and an annual. Grandfather was a man that liked knowing things and beyond that he was a man that liked teaching others to know things. He wanted those he cared for to experience the joys of life with him.

What gave your great-grandfather the most joy out of life, his true passion was photography. I’m not certain he ever had much interest in being a professional photographer in the sense of someone that photographs weddings and takes headshots. He was far more interested in photography as an art form. He had several collections of the works of Ansel Adams and books of his own photographs, and like a true artist he never missed an opportunity to capture a moment. An example of this is a picture of his son, my father, standing next to his totaled car. The photograph captures the car on its side and my father standing there next to it with a look on his face that is a mix of frustration, embarrassment, and anger. The beauty comes in the photograph’s ability to reverse the expected. Young men in the 1950’s were typically photographed next to their hot-rod Fords while they were still, not only drivable but shiny and new. Here is a young man, looking every bit the 1950’s, standing next to the sideways husk of his automobile.

As far as I know, that photograph now lives only in my memory, but we do have my favorite photograph of your great-grandfather’s. It shows a man of heavier than average girth walking up a flight of stairs in New York City. On the wall opposite him are three shadows. His own and two of younger people that are out of the frame. There is something about that photograph that I’ve always been drawn to and just recently I understood what.

Isolation. I am drawn to art about isolation. My favorite poem is T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and one of my favorite artists is Edward Hopper. Their works focus on the isolation of humans living amongst humans. Being together but not being able to connect. Look at Nighthawks and focus on the faceless, nameless man set apart from the others. The lady in red, the other gentleman, and the waiter are interacting, but set apart from them, physically and metaphorically, is a man with his back to the viewer. He is in the same space as the three others but he is not a part of their interaction. He is a human amongst other humans but still alone. Much like the narrator in Eliot’s poem attends parties but is struck by indecision and is never able to interact on a level to make a connection to other people. The only meaningful connection the narrator is able to make is to the supernatural when at the end of the poem he is meditating on mankind’s connection to the sea and the folktales of mermaids and it is human voices that wake us and we drown.

This feeling of isolation and loneliness and longing for superstitions is a presence in the modernist movement. Much of it was a reaction against the enlightenment, Kant, and reason that can best be summed up by Nietzsche, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?” Like most great quotes this is often misinterpreted. Even for the most devote of modern Evangelical Christians God is dead in the sense that Nietzsche means. The quote is about superstitions and rituals being lost. It is saying that we pursued reason and logic with such passion that we must view the world with everything being a fact or not a fact. That there is no place in this world for folklore and superstitions and this loss of rituals will lead to isolation.

But the question of loneliness and isolation is much older in art than the modernist movement. Look at the plight of Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh. He realizes his humanity and the animals he was running with, who were his companions, want nothing more to do with him. One of the first feelings he experiences as a human is that of isolation and loneliness. In the book of Genesis in the Bible as soon as God creates man he remarks, “It is not good for man to be alone.” While technology and modern ways of living have seemingly driven us further and further apart by making our reliance on others for survival less and less the feelings of isolation and loneliness were some of the first tackled in our earliest tales. It is through this lens that we can see the true art of grandfather’s photograph. It is a man alone walking up a set of stairs in a crowded city and the closest people to him are nothing more than shadows on a wall.    

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