Childhood Memory and Painting

Philip Koch, The Song of All Days, oil on panel
36 x 72", 2008

Inevitably at an opening reception for one of my exhibitions, someone will come up to me and excitedly tell me they've figured out just where it was that I painted a particular work. I play innocent and ask them to tell me. They are always wrong.

Each time their suggested location is a place of deep significance to them- somewhere where they grew up, or raised their children, or had that mythical perfect vacation. And something about how my painting was put together stirred up that memory in them anew. That's when art is doing what it is supposed to do. 

Let me tell you the story of this painting. On our honeymoon years ago Alice and I went to Acadia National Park in Maine. On the approach road there was a pond with mountains in the background and little marshy islands with pines. I did a painting of it that I loved that sold almost right away. So quickly in fact that I started missing the painting. To keep myself company I did a sepia wash drawing of it from memory. It stayed around for years until my boyhood friend from the old neighborhood, Bob Wetmore, came to visit my studio. (Readers of this blog might remember an earlier post where I mentioned the little creek than ran near Bob's boyhood home serving as inspiration for my painting North Star that illustrated an earlier post). Bob purchased the sepia drawing , and before long I started missing that as well.

So, another large oil version emerged. Each time I revisited this place in my memory, it evolved. This last time around, the marshy little islands became rocky and the time of day shifted to twilight. It's funny but my old friend Bob perhaps figured in that last change too. Thinking back to my days in high school, I think what got me through the hard spots was the warmth of my best friends. I have a clear memory of coming home from school late one afternoon with Bob and collapsing on the living room couch to listen to music. As no one else was home, our conversation drifted to girls and our hopes and dreams of romance, as young teenagers will. It being winter, it gradually grew dark but that only heightened the mood of the talk and the music. This scene sticks in my mind as one of the times I felt great as a teenager, enjoying the bonds of close friendship and the pleasures of honest and sharing conversation.

I wanted the painting to be about a host of things- all the times I've gone to Maine and how special a place it is to me in my personal life, the many painters I've learned from who worked up there, and the many times I had painted an image of this particular spot. But even more I wanted the painting to reflect on the passage of time and how central memory is to ability to feel our way through this life. For me a painting like this is successful if it evokes most of all a state of mind rather than a specific location. So while I could have called it " Scene on the Approach Road to Acadia National Park" I chose to call it The Song of All Days. 


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