Falling Over and the Still Pine

Philip Koch, Still Pine, oil on panel, 12 x 12", 2012

Sometimes you'll read that a particular artist or a musician got their start because they were sickly and couldn't play with the other kids. Forced to stay home they would discover their inner calling. Well that happened to me too, but in my case it was because I was clumsy. 

Of course there's lots of factors that pushed me to onto the path of becoming a landscape painter. One of the biggest is that I fell off my first bike. It spooked me.  Every time after, no matter how hard I tried, I'd freak out and lose my balance and go crash again. It's odd as I'm fairly well coordinated as an adult, but try as I might at six and seven years old, I just couldn't stay on that bike.

There weren't many kids in my rural neighborhood to begin with and for those there were, bikes were big news. For several years, long after all my friends had mastered the art of the two wheeler, my secret shame was that I'd failed in this key measure of boyhood competence. Actually I felt awful about it.

So whenever my friends rode their bikes I'd slink off by myself with the weight of failure on my shoulders. It was lonely. But when you spend a lot of time alone you start noticing things in your surroundings most people overlook. Lots of times I'd end up foraging around the deep woods. Other times I'd climb the steep hills down by Lake Ontario and peer down upon the water.

Usually the winds would blow down from Canada and bring with them some heavy waves. My favorite times though were when the wind would blow from on shore. Sheltered by the land, the close in water would take on a smooth glass-like sheen. Best of all it stirred up insane fast-shifing patterns in the water. You can look at gesture in painting (from El Grecco to Franz Kline). I first saw moves like that in those days staring at the darting of the dark  rippled shapes across the water. All I could do was look on in wonderment. How could nature be so intricate and so elegant?

I think had I been quicker to learn to ride a bike (or play basketball, the other main activity for boys in my neighborhood I was simply dreadful at) I'd wouldn't have discovered so early in life some of the subtle delights I found in the natural world. I had good friends as a kid, thank goodness, but I couldn't be with them all the time on their terms. My forced segregation from them led me to some unexpected riches.

I got to thinking about all of this when I started working on the above oil painting. In it a lone pine stands a bit away from its neighbors. No wonder I started thinking back to the story about my bicycle-challenged youth. Our hero the pine casts its reflection down into the pond. As I was painting in the patterns of the water I used fairly big brushes, first pushing the shapes this way and then that way until the pattern of movement felt right. I tried placing the pine's reflection properly right underneath the tree but it didn't feel as believable as when I scooted it over to the left.

At first this might seem perverse, consciously going against the photographic "truth" of the scene. But the larger story of the painting was playing off the relative stillness of the pine against the moving shimmers in the water. In a way I'm more truthful in suggesting the movement than had I simply lined up the reflection dutifully right beneath the tree.

Life puts us off balance much of the time, just like me falling off my kid's bike. Sometimes that unanticipated push moves things in just the direction they should go.


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