January Sometimes Is the Real Spring

Inevitably the theme of new beginnings is wrapped up in our notion of Spring. There's a famous painting by the Renaissance artist Botticelli called Primavera of the goddess of Spring appearing out of the sea carrying garlands of flowers. Most of you know it. To those of us who live in Northern climates, this is no small thing. But for me, when the snow and ice return, I always thing back to my own personal fresh start.

Way back in the Fall of 1966, after several years of feeling like I was holding my breath to get through high school, I left little Webster, NY and headed off to my Freshman year at Oberlin College in Ohio. As was the case for so many of us, high school was an awkward and sometimes difficult stage to endure. What kept me going was the thought I would one day leave home, get a fresh start, and everything would be better. That is exactly what happened. But, and it's a big but, not in the way I expected. 

I came from a long line of college professors and fully expected myself to follow suit. I knew I would find myself if I studied Sociology or History and loaded up my first semester schedule with just such classes. 

On the very first day of class I had an 8 a.m. Sociology 101 lecture waiting for me. I was a little scared. To make matters worse, it was miserably cold and pouring outside and I took my seat with 20 other soaked-to-the-skin Freshman. But this would be OK, as I was sure the Professor would shortly enthrall us with tales of arcane but fascinating academic lore. 

The door opened and a terribly depressed man in his late 20's entered the room, cast his eye around as if saying to himself surely he was in the wrong place, and finally shrugged and made his way to the lectern. He confessed he'd only just earned his Ph.D. and that this was to be his first lecture ever and to please bear with him. With that he dropped his eyes to his notes and never looked up again until the bell rang 50 minutes later. I have no idea what he said, and I doubt anyone else in the room did much better at surviving his somnambulist-like performance. Whatever he said felt impenetrably abstract and forever removed from anything I'd ever experienced.

How could this be? To my young eyes he didn't look so good. Was this what Sociology did to people? 

I didn't have time to ponder this as I now had 10 minutes to get to the other side of campus to my next class, so back out into the downpour I went. This was Art History 101, a required course I knew I was going to have to take sometime or other. I had propitiously decided to tackle it head on to get it out of the way so I could get serious about my planned future in Sociology or History. With appropriately low expectations I joined several hundred by now very wet students in the schools giant auditorium. We sat together shivering waiting for the professors to begin. 

What followed was something new to me as I'd never taken art in high school. They lowered the lights and spent the rest of the hour running through a survey of the art they would be covering in the class the rest of the semester. To my surprise, I really liked it- it felt a little like story time back in grade school- here were wild scenes of sword carrying soldiers slaughtering children and carrying off women and all other sorts of images. As each slide would pop into view, you'd feel like you'd just parachuted into a new world. Then a minute later you'd land someplace completely different. 

Only one image stood out enough for me to recall by name, the oil painting above by Caspar David Friedrich,  Sea of Ice (a.k.a. The Wreck of the Hope). I'd never heard of him before but his icy winter scene catapulted me right back to my childhood days of playing on the massive ice hills that formed each year on the shore of Lake Ontario where I'd moved just as I turned four. We kids used to half freeze playing out on that ice, but when I saw the slide of Friedrich's winter scene it hit me with the sweet warmth of recognition. Friedrich was painting my world, and painting it better and more clearly than nearly anything I'd ever scene before.


Oberlin College did in fact turn out to be the long wished for fresh start I had been hoping for. But it was more some of the deep friendships I made there and the getting that first nudge to set off into the world of art that made the difference. Sometimes you head off to the store for one thing and come home with something else. And that something else can sometimes be much better.

So I've got a soft spot for snow and ice paintings. Here's one by the American Impressionist John Twacthman

It's funny how people associate Spring with bright color. Well, the flowers, of course. But for a landscape painter, Spring also brings back the leafy green canopy that can seem to cover everything. With all due respect to photosynthesis, yellow green is not the easiest color to work with in oil paint. It's always warm and it can feel heavy and too dense if the painter isn't careful.

In the winter the wonderful grays of the tree bark are out and displayed in all their glory. Cast some sunlight on them and you're given a feast of pink, violets, oranges. And oh lord, the snow- it's heaven's gift to give you blazing light shapes to play off against the mid-grays and your darkest tones. A winter theme almost always guarantees so much high contrast that you'll find yourself having to rein back on your horses.

In the Twachtman oil above, the entire bottom third of the canvas is a shimmering pattern of zig zagging shapes. Does an abstraction by Wassily Kandinsky have anything on this? 

I suppose growing up in Rochester, NY in the snow belt predisposed me to like winter. I have the requisite heavy gloves and a good coat for when she is trying to kill me. But show her a little respect (alright, in storms show her a lot of respect) and she'll show you her beautiful side. Maybe your Spring can come five months early too.

Philip Koch, Under the Moon, oil on canvas,
24 x 36"


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