Saturday, August 15, 2009

My Father

Philip Koch, The Voyage of Memory, oil on canvas
40 x 40", 2004

We find echoes of ourselves in the artworks produced by complete strangers. Often their work speaks to us with remarkably intimacy, like picking up and putting on a pair of comfortable old shoes. 

My father was a very quiet man who kept to himself. Many days would go by where he'd utter no more than a sentence or two around the house. He had  the misfortune to suffer from clinical depression in an age when there were no anti-depressant medications available. And suffer he did. When he was a young man he had learned to sail and briefly owned a sailboat himself. When he neared 40 he decided to buy a boat for the family. In a very unusual move, he invited me to drive with him from Rochester, NY to New Bedford, MA to pick up little combination rowboat/sailboat directly from the manufacturer. As a boy of 7, this was a great adventure, and an unusual honor to be asked to spend this much time with him.

He taught me to sail, and after the little boat was swept away in a storm on Lake Ontario, he bought a larger Flying Dutchman class sloop, a racing sailboat then used in the Olympics. For the three years before he died at age 49, he joined a yacht club on one of New York's Finger Lakes and he and I would join races on the weekends. I loved it, most of all as it was something I could do with my dad. If asked to pick my most treasured memory of childhood, this would be it.

He got sick with lung cancer when I was 11 and shortly after my next birthday died at home one morning. My sister and I watched the men from the funeral parlor come and awkwardly carry his lifeless body out the front door. I remember the incredible sense of unreality mixed with sharp anger at my father for leaving me and a steady overarching sadness. The wind off the Lake was blowing like mad that morning and despite the danger, I took the tiny sailboat out on the waves. I remember feeling scared of both the weather that day and most of all of what lay ahead of me in the uncharted future. I knew it was reckless to be out in a small boat alone but I think looking back on it that I wanted to test myself. If I could survive sailing in a storm then maybe I could make my way without a father.

Here are two paintings (courtesy Art Renewal Center) that I discovered years later that obviously spoke to me. The first is by Edward Hopper and is I believe an invented painting that borrows heavily from the lighthouse at the very tip of Cape Cod in Provincetown, one of my favorite places. The other is from the 1840's by Thomas Cole from his Voyage of Life series. Melodramatic, but still affecting. While the two are very different in mood, they each take up the issue of the small boat in the big sea. Hopper speaks to the incredible beauty of the sky meeting the land and water. Cole turns more toward the sense of awe and mystery. 

A few years ago I painted The Voyage of Memory as a reflection on moving through the various stages of life. It is of the little boat I sailed that day my father died. I've replaced a raging open sea with a passage way that is perhaps a little perilous with rocky outcroppings. So far, the boat seems to be making its way ok




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