Monday, November 09, 2009

On the Care and Feeding of a Future Artist

(All images captured by Joe Van Cleave at Tent Rocks; Lumix G1, 20mm-F/1.7 lens, polarizing filter)

The Line Writer and his Grandpa are sitting at a table – a wobbly table, of the kind that causes the orange juice, laced with fresh pulp, to splash akimbo across the worn Formica-like surface, wetting the corner of his composition book – in the center of Winning Coffee, on a quiet Monday morning. There’s a large breakfast burrito (with red chile sauce on the side) partially eaten, partially mangled, on a cheese-laden plate next to his writing book. It’s official: he’s written today’s date at the top of the page, therefore a writing entry is now an obligation. At least, I would hope so. Actually, like his Grandpa, he’s probably more attracted to the idea of writing, and its associated paraphernalia, than the act of writing itself. But that’s okay; I’m figuring that becoming a Certified Office Supply Junkie is a kind of gateway drug to more active literary pursuits.
He’s already picked up my habit of writing with an ink pen in a composition book, and then red-line-editing any corrections needed with a felt-tip pen, which he borrows from me periodically, such that I keep it on the table between us. I’m trying to encourage him to write something about our little afternoon jaunt yesterday, up the highway toward Santa Fe, to the Tent Rocks National Monument, near Cochiti Pueblo, where we hiked and he used his new (to him) film camera, an old manual Minolta X-370, gifted to him by Yours Truly, under the proviso that he use the One Camera, One Lens, One Film methodology and learn film photography The Right Way. Of course, he’s already begging for more lenses with which to use with the camera body; not that he understands why he needs more lenses, having more to do with the nice solid, mechanical feel of the bayonet lens mount’s click, twist and release action.
One film-related lesson he’s already absorbed, after a Saturday night of street photography on the way to dessert at the Flying Star Café, is that, unlike digital cameras, if you’ve already loaded the camera with daylight-speed film, then shooting at night will be more problematic. He will learn these lessons as each roll gets dropped off for development and printing, and he learns the essential lessons of anticipation, patience and ultimately the reward of viewing his photographic efforts on paper, sometime in the future, removed from the flux of the moment when the exposures were first made.
I desire for him to develop his own photographic vision, distinct from mine, despite the level of influence I may have already imparted to him; yet at the same time he also needs the tutelage required to master the technical aspects of camera control, focus, composition and exposure, so as to be able to make informed decisions about his art. What’s essential to this vision is being able to see clearly; not in the ophthalmologic sense, but aesthetically being able to mentally map the juxtaposition of shapes, lines, shadings and tones of the objective world into a two-dimensional subjective response. The photographer is found to be constantly mapping the objective world through the two-pound, gelatinous neural processor of the brain, even in the absence of an actual camera; this is the photographic eye in its day-to-day activity: always alert to new possibilities photographic.
For Noah, I desire to cultivate this inner aesthetic sensibility, all the while not losing his ten-years-old attention span or interest. This will, I anticipate, remain a challenge; just like the novelty of owning his very own mechanical typewriter has obviously worn off, with the resultant affect that getting a typewritten piece out of him is a careful balance between cajoling and arm-twisting. We are fortunate at this stage that his Grandpa remains a formidable influence upon him (which is both encouraging and frightening), such that he will often grab his writing bag and sit down with me also whenever I choose to do so; this remains a still-powerful tool in my bag of Grandpa Tricks (so nobody tell him, okay?); how long the affect persists into his teen years is anybody’s guess, so the more seeds that are sown, watered and fertilized now, the better.
Noah seems to have lost interest in the breakfast burrito, which has chilled to a corpse-like room temperature before our very eyes; what is now captivating his attention is that Bradley, the bookseller who sets up his wares along the corner counter by the coffee roasting machine, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday (Bradley used to own the Living Batch bookstore, years ago), is setting up his boxes of books, carefully secured in packing-tape-reinforced produce and wine boxes, assisted by a younger gentleman who wheels them in through the gauntlet of patio tables and chairs from an old van parked out on the curbside, under seemingly constant scrutiny by the Parking Meter Patrol Officer who has a particular talent for spotting vehicles parked without a current stub prominently displayed on their dash (ask me how I know this; another reason why I like to motorcycle down to Winning Coffee on weekdays: motorbikes are exempt from parking meters).
The boxes of books are now in the process of being set up as makeshift display cases along the counter. Noah has abandoned both his breakfast and the one paragraph he’s penned in his composition book, and is intensely inspecting the titles and cover illustrations to the various paperbacks on display. Bradley’s assistant is doing his best to work around Noah, who is not aware that he’s in the way; but, like any astute businessman, a potential customer is not to be discouraged.
There’s a peripheral story lurking here, worth inserting only because I’ve been sitting on it for a few years, having told it repeatedly to friends and family but never to my wider blog audience. Noah’s composition book is wide ruled, as are most that are commonly available in local stores; mine is college ruled. Back in the late 1990s, after I’d begun journaling, I desired to purchase some college ruled, stiff, cardboard-backed comp books with which to write in; the local big-box office supply store only had wide ruled. But there was a college ruled Mead composition book in stock that sported a thin cardboard inner cover, laminated to a black, plastic outer cover. Fine, I thought; a more waterproof comp book; I bit, and purchased. It was only several days later, after the book had sat in the heat of an enclosed car’s interior on a hot, sunny day that I noticed both covers of the comp book would dramatically curl up. I don’t mean curl up as in a subtle bend to the cover, but a semi-cylindrical curling of both covers whereby the comp book would come to resemble a Quaker Oats container, rather than a bound notebook of paper. Being a determined Office Supply Junkie, I made note of the mailing address, inside the cover of the book (The Mead Corporation, Dayton, Ohio 45463, U.S.A., for you sticklers for accuracy), and proceeded to mail off a Formal Complaint Letter (using terminology such as “differential temperature expansion,” and so forth) to the Head Office. Weeks later I received a package in the mail, much to my surprise. Inside was a polite letter, and a stack of stiff, cardboard-lined, college ruled, composition books. My faith in Corporate America was momentarily renewed.

I’ve written in these composition books, on and off, in the intervening years since; I’m currently writing in one of the last remaining from that box I received years ago. When I’ve ran out (or, planning ahead, prior to running out), I will need to secure another supply. In my Eternal Pessimism, I’m not expecting a new batch to magically arrive at my doorstep any time soon.
My Pelikan M100 begins to run dry; I break out the bottle of Parker Quink blue/black and perform the Pen Refill Ritual, this time in public, amidst eaters and writers, sippers and Internet surfers, who can spot a Certified Luddite at least a block away, but whom are not entirely surprised, given the cadre of fellow writers who frequent Winning Coffee, and also by the fleet of Italian and faux-Italian, Asian-manufactured motor scooters parked out front.
I’ve penned a few more lines in my Mead college ruled composition book, and Noah returns to our table with a book he’d like to purchase. I give him three ones, including a bit of a tip for Bradley, just for added writerly assurance, and we depart Winning Coffee with our writing paraphernalia and the addition of a Kurt Vonnegut novel, perhaps a bit much for a ten-years-old boy; but then I am reminded (and mention to Noah) that I started my interest in reading, early in high school, also with Vonnegut. Back in the car, on the way back to home schooling, I inquire how he came to pick this one particular book; he indicated that he was drawn to it, like it seemed to be the right one.

I suppose that’s all a Grandpa could ask of a ten-years-old Grandson, on a quiet Monday morning.

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~Joe

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