Trees, trains and weeds


Over the years I have been asked to paint Thai palaces and Parisian street scenes–dragons, monkeys and the river styx. Usually things as unfamiliar to me as three headed camels. Last week I was asked to paint native Texas plants on some cabinets. This was great because I understand the way a petiole on a trumpet flower attaches to the stem. I was pruning persimmon trees the day before I painted one on a door. It is much better when you understand something than when you only see its shape.
In Austin in 1974 I was designing and building the scenery for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at Zilker park while working on the scenery concept for my next project, A Man’s a Man by Bertolt Brecht at the University of Texas. I left the park heading for the UT library to research 1930’s train cars, one of the visual concepts I had for the Brecht play. Walking back to campus I was stopped by a train at Town Lake. I stood impatiently, wanting to get to the library to see photos of trains and–wait–this is a real one. At that point the whole concept of the play changed. It was not a photo that made a railroad, but the noise, the rhythmic clanging, flying pebbles, dirt, soot, and power that defined the concept. And I could add the smoke they had in 1926. The director and I developed a solid concept to present this rather rough-hewn script because a train stopped me from keeping my hectic schedule.
When I work to understand something, not just react with an accepted quick cure, everything comes together. A spot on a leaf or insect damage are a clue I need to decipher, not a call for a bottle of chemicals. This weed tells me of a potassium deficiency, that sheep is not acting like the others. Oh no, not enough calcium in the tomato’s root system. I have to observe to be successful on the farm. Just like an artist. So the next time someone asks me to paint a Parisian street scene, I will have them send me to Paris.

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