We drop Charles near Pheneger Creek and he walks away towards the old inn. Thomas waves and we move on. At the stoplight I see a gray-haired woman speaking to a guy wearing a white T-shirt with “Pepe” printed in green letters. The woman’s red dress and yellow purse remind me of a large flower, maybe a pansy. She is delivering something of a sermon to Pepe. I am trying to figure out how they know each other when Thomas’s next question comes over the hissing sound of a bus in the next lane.
He: Is your work important?
I: Importance is relative.
He: Well, do you regard your work as good?
I: The best works are in the future.
He: Do you make assessments of value by comparing your work to some standard or by relying on good intuition?
I: Intuition isn’t always what it seems and often requires a lot of polishing over the years. It’s difficult to know if what one is doing is worth doing. There are not many guides because everybody has different opinions and different values. You saw how convinced Charles was about his work and his mission, and yet, like you, I think he is wasting his time. But who could convince him of that? And who could convince me that I’m wrong?
He: So, if artists can be misguided by their own feelings, what or whom should they trust?
I: Faith and doubt are pivotal—they fuel the artwork. When searching for answers I trust my own judgement. I’m afraid of listening to the opinion of others because most people are not looking for art but for familiarity or shock or fashion. While I have many doubts, I trust that there’s something at the other end of my work that is worth approaching. Making art is difficult, and while courage and intelligence can help, only an earned sense of purpose can reduce doubts and give meaning to one’s work.
He: What do you mean by an earned sense of purpose?
We are passing through a dense grove of Monterey pines that feels like a tunnel of bark. The trees are so close to one another and the slender glossy green needles so thick that when a light appears between trunks it sparkles like fireworks.
I: A purpose honestly connected to what I really understand and want. There may be higher purposes—more enlightened ones—but they do not belong to someone that doesn’t own them fully. I have met many artists and students who prefer sophistication to doing what they really want.
He: What do you want?
I: To clarify…to find a path.
He: To you or to the world?
I: In this case I mean to myself, and in turn, to the world.
He: Do you believe that this is possible through art?
He: Do you follow examples?
I: Yes…examples help. They show that something great is possible.
He: What examples do you follow?
I: There is a small painting at the Metropolitan Museum called “Toilers of the Sea,” by Albert Pinkham Ryder. Its source is Victor Hugo’s tale “Toilers of the Sea,” where a fisherman, after struggling against the forces of the sea, comes back triumphant only to find his love betrothed to another. After he helps the couple elope, the fisherman goes back to the rocky shore to await his death with the rising tide.
This inspiration can be the kind of thing that destroys a painting and in the hands of a lesser painter it probably would have, but Ryder’s painting succeeds and seems more ambitious with each encounter. Ryder’s works are profound. His greatness is a harsh fact.
He: Why harsh?
I: It’s sometimes difficult to see my limitations so clear by contrast. The absolute is undemocratic.
He: Let’s then address the question of rigor, which I know is important to you. Rigor would not be the first thing that comes to my mind when looking at Ryder. I would describe his work as emotional, dreamy, visionary, spiritual and mysterious but none of those adjectives bring me close to rigorous. What exactly do you mean?
I: I’m surprised that you don’t see it. I’m aware that in the arts today rigor is incorrectly associated with aloofness. It’s obvious to me that Ryder imposed severe and uncompromising demands on his work. I don’t say that because he labored like he did for years or decades on each work but because there is nothing in his paintings that shouldn’t be there and many excesses and temptations have been avoided. The results are extremely economical works of great power.
The rare brightness of Ryder dismantles cynics and dilettantes. It pushes away the nonsense that surrounds us and makes the creation of art meaningful.
He: I appreciate what you’re saying. My attitude towards every work of art is at first, doubt. I discover paintings by persevering without losing patience, but that was not so with Ryder. I admired his work immediately. His paintings express spiritual and intellectual truths only partially revealed to the eyes and he was evidently aware of his aim and his own powers. Ryder’s work makes me think of Psalm twenty-three.
I: Which one is Psalm twenty-three?
He recites the Psalm from memory. As I listen carefully I realize that Thomas’s voice is higher than I thought. Not bothersome in any way, just unexpected.
He: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of darkness, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
His words linger over us as we come out from the grove into a bird sanctuary where huge amounts of kelp have washed ashore. Thomas is quietly looking out the window. We are low on gas and I suggest that we stop and eat something. We fill the tank outside of Carmel and then go for burgers. When we are done I look at my watch and it is three-fifteen.
He: Enrique, I think that most of the art being made today is shallow and disappointing because the artists don’t know the philosophical or theological tradition, so they don’t know how to think in a rigorous manner.
I: I don’t know if that is the reason. I don’t think it’s necessary to know philosophy to pursue something important. I think that most current art is disappointing because its aims are too shallow and too self-conscious.
Thomas nods. His face is calm.
There are two kinds of art people—those who primarily care about artists and those who care about art. They are different and they protect different things.
Thomas is whistling again, this time it is “Symphony Number Nine.” He was whistling the same piece the last time I saw him at his farm. We had been repairing a roof all morning when we stopped for lunch—lunch at Thomas’s is always some fruit and bread washed down with water. After a few minutes of eating quietly he said a few words and then went quiet again for the rest of the day. But he continued to whistle and, from time to time, talked to himself.
I: How’s the roof at your house?
He: It’s good. I think we really fixed it this time.
I: Are you still planning to expand the house?
He: No. I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess I wanted more room for the books. But I’m okay. I have plenty of space.
I: Will you ever move out of your house?
He: No. From that house I will go to the cemetery. But you, on the other hand, are looking for a new place.
I: I am not quite sure what I am looking for. I think I want to be more removed from the cities.
He: I think our society has reached critical mass. Our cities are getting very crowded. And the speed of our communications leaves little time for contemplation or silence.
I: I know.
Is wishing for the right place to live a meaningful goal or a contemporary symptom of dissatisfaction with whatever one is doing? Why is Thomas satisfied with his orchard? Is it the right place for him or is he in the right place? Or maybe he is tired.
I would like to say that I met Thomas recently, maybe at a farmers’ market. That way of meeting him would be more casual, more in the hands of chance. Maybe he was sitting in an avocado booth reading a Wittgenstein book and I engaged him in conversation. Maybe he would have invited me to his orchard to re-build a roof.
But our acquaintance and evolving friendship has nothing as simple as chance in it. We met because I called on him, I sought him out and I pursued our relationship. In our first meeting, I was sitting under my grandparents’ grape trellis. I must have been six or seven years old. He pulled up a chair and sat next to me. I was playing with the leaves and the vines. He got me a bunch of grapes from the areas that I couldn’t reach and I stuffed four or five at a time in my mouth. He watched me eat and when I was finished he spoke calmly about misunderstandings. He sat with me until I finished all the grapes. As he was leaving he said: "don’t let love remain unsaid."
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