A Sketch In Time

Bear Gulch handprint 4 - 7:15

Handprint “art” at Bear Gulch, Montana (2015)

Just as there isn’t a human society without speech so there isn’t a human society without art.     —Eric Hoffer

During our travels my wife, Mary Ann, and I have experienced a number of prehistoric archaeological sites within the United States, as well as in other countries.  One place we recently visited is the Bear Gulch site in central Montana.  Secluded on private land, the stone walls of this small ravine display several thousand drawings made by prehistoric people over a period of two-thousand years.  These include both pictographs (paintings) and petroglyphs (etchings).

My encounters with such prehistoric images can best be described as transcendent.  Some of them are weathered and almost indistinguishable, yet others seem as fresh as the day they were created.  At Bear Gulch I was particularly impressed by a pictograph of a right hand imprinted upon the stone with red pigment.  Such hand images are commonly found at prehistoric sites in the West, and some archaeologists believe they symbolized human life.  I would add that they also symbolize individuality since we know that no two person’s hands are the same.

Pictographs, such as that hand print at Bear Gulch, are sometimes called “rock art.”  This term prompts me to ask how they might qualify as art as we define it today?  One source has defined art as “an expression of human creative skill and imagination.” We don’t know the level of skill or imagination that went into creating that hand print at Bear Gulch, although I expect the person who made it selected its place within the gulch with much care–it wasn’t random.  Similarly the process of making the image was probably deeply personal or spiritual.  Some archaeologists regard such images as a kind of “signature” that says to the viewer: “I was here.”

Today we regard art as telling a story, depicting beauty and/or as symbolic.  And art is almost always intended to elicit a response from the viewer.  The hand print that impressed me from that stone wall at Bear Gulch, Montana, is all of this.  It is truly a work of art for me.

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I became aware of art at a young age, mostly because of the influence of my maternal grandmother (Christine Lebline Rapp) and my mother (Margaret Rapp Simmons).  My grandmother’s interest in art traced to the time she spent in Europe during the summer of 1911, and about which I’ve written in the Reliving the Dream essay series on the WordPress site.  She later became friends with a number of artists associated with the famed Brown County group in southern Indiana.  She also introduced me to art museums such as the Swope Gallery in my hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana.

Swope Gallery - Terre Haute (2012)

The entrance to Swope Art Gallery in Terre Haute, Indiana (2012)

My mother’s strong interest in art was also fostered by my grandmother.  My brother Phil and I had the art experience of a lifetime when we accompanied our mother on an eight-week exploration of European art treasures in 1962, which was in conjunction with an art appreciation study course she was taking as part of her graduate degree.

Two of my grandmother’s best friends within the early Brown County art group were Will and Mary Vawter.  Along the way she acquired several of their paintings.  As contemporaries of the early Impressionist artists of France, both Will and Mary used similar painting techniques.  I recall visiting my grandmother on one occasion and receiving an important “art lesson” from her involving the Vawters’ brush stroke methods.  She had me stand close to one of the Vawters’ paintings and asked me to describe what I saw?  From that distance I only saw a jumble; there was little sense of the whole picture.  Then she had me step back farther from the painting and asked again what I saw?  From that distance the brush strokes merged together and the painting’s subject became clear. This little demonstration impressed me and it gave me a hint of the “magic” of art.

Close-up of Mary Vawter painting

View of a Mary Vawter painting at close range

Mary Vawter painting from a distance

Mary Vawter’s painting viewed from a distance

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Steve's early sketch (c1950)

Drawing at age four (1950)

I recently discovered the earliest piece of art I ever did.  It’s a pencil drawing I made during my fourth year of life; I don’t remember it, of course.  It’s my belief that such “artistic” expressions by children are a kind of natural instinct.  Nearly every culture over the past 70,000 years of history has expressed itself in ways that can be regarded as artistic.  Some of these were symbolic, such as that hand print at Bear Gulch, and there’s little doubt they were meant to be viewed by others.  My drawing when I was four was almost certainly intended to be seen by my mother and perhaps others.  So what does cause a child to pursue her or his artistic instincts?

Weldele second grade (1953-54)

Class photo of first and second grades at Weldele School in Terre Haute, Indiana.  I am the fourth student to the left of the teacher in the back row.  (1953)

As I began school in first grade, my artistic endeavors became more formal than they had been at home.  “Art” became an actual subject at my school.  We had an art teacher who came into our class regularly to instruct us.  On one occasion in first or second grade she must have given us an assignment to create an artistic gift for our mothers.  It was a print of one of our hands made with finger paint.  I don’t remember how much “license” we had in this assignment, but I’m reasonably certain the hand print was required.  After observing that hand print at Bear Gulch, I appreciate this art from 65 years ago even more.  Each student created a piece of artwork that was distinctive—one-of-a-kind!

Hand print art (1954)

Steve’s hand print artwork at Weldele School (1954)

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My sense is that children best express their creative “instincts” in association with peers.  Almost all of my artistic endeavors in elementary school were shared with at least one peer or adult.  For example, one of my classmates then was a boy named Terry Modesitt.  He spoke with a stutter and wasn’t very interested in sports like I was then.  Yet he was one of the brightest students in our class—and he sure could draw!  We formed a strong friendship, especially around our mutual interest in sketching.  It’s fair to say we competed with each other too, although always in a friendly way.

I have a clipping from the Terre Haute newspaper during Terry’s and my fourth-grade year (1955-’56).  It shows us standing side-by-side with a large piece of paper taped to the blackboard in our classroom.  We, along with two other students, were working on creating a large mural about early settlement of Indiana.  This picture represents Terry’s and my close association around our artistic endeavors–and especially drawing–during those early years.

I only saw Terry once after we became adults.  We were in our mid-twenties then and he had become an architect in Chicago.  He died just a few years later at a young age.  I’ve wondered whatever happened to that mural he and I helped create in that Weldele School classroom so many years ago.  It would mean a lot for me to see it now.  After all, it’s the only work of art that Terry and I ever drew together.

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Drawing the “Westward Expansion” class mural alongside Terry Modesitt during our fourth-grade year at Weldele School (1956)

In addition to that 4th-grade mural and a few other pieces of art created in conjunction with classes, most of my sketches then were made away from school as a way of documenting other experiences during childhood.  For example, between ages ten and twelve I made three trips to other parts of the United States with my great-aunt, Matilda Lebline.  These were tours made up mostly of elderly women–and me.  The first of the trips was to Virginia in 1956.  Although my parents had given me a black-and-white “box camera” to use for recording my experiences, I also made sketches.  For instance, during our time at Virginia Beach I drew a sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean.  I’d never seen the ocean before, and I remember how daunting it was to try to capture that scene with just a pencil and paper!

Virginia Beach (1956)

Virginia Beach sunrise (1956)

The next year I accompanied my aunt on another trip—this one to Colorado.  We began our journey in Chicago and before boarding the train to Denver my aunt took me to see the Museum of Natural History.  While at the museum I made a sketch of a dinosaur skeleton that was on display.  I had a strong interest in dinosaurs then and this “fin-backed” specimen was especially fascinating to me.  I don’t know why I didn’t just photograph that display, although I expect I wanted to examine it more closely–and making a sketch allowed me to do that.  Yet as my aunt noted in her scrapbook, this drawing took so much time that it was the only one I did that day.

Fossil sketch (1957)

Sketch of a “fin-back” dinosaur skeleton on display at the Museum of Natural History in Chicago (1957)

I made some other sketches during that Colorado journey, such as a hurried one as our train approached Denver.  I remember making the drawing because it was morning and  the sunlight was glistening off the distant snowfields of the Colorado “front range.”  As with the Atlantic Ocean the previous year, I’d never seen such mountains before so I must have been inspired to try to depict them in a sketch.  That was a formidable task too.

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The Colorado Rockies “front range” (1957)

Free-hand sketching became less common for me during my teenage years .  I’d moved on to junior high school by then, and although Terry Modesitt continued to be my classmate, we never shared drawings with each other again.  We also didn’t have art classes as part of our curriculum anymore.  Plus I had acquired other time-consuming interests, such as playing golf and spending time with my new puppy.  The only drawing I made during this period was in 1962—of my dog.

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Despite not sketching during my teenage years, I still had experiences that enhanced my interest in art.  The foremost of these was the tour of Europe I made with my mother and brother in 1962.  That gave me an exceptional opportunity to see Europe’s renowned artistic treasures such as the British Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, the Sistine Chapel, the antiquities of Rome, and many other significant sites.  I understood then that I was having a truly exceptional experience, although I’ve come to appreciate it even more now.

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Standing among Roman antiquities in Italy during the European tour with my mother and brother in 1962

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Graduating from Purdue University in 1968. Also shown are my father (Robert), my mother (Margaret) and my paternal grandmother (Grace).

During my years as a student at Purdue University I don’t recall making any sketches.  When I graduated in 1968 and prepared to enter my tour of duty as an Air Force officer, the thought of making a drawing was the farthest thing from my mind.  My Air Force orders were to report for active duty and begin training as a Deputy Combat Crew Commander for Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).  The order specified that I was to receive “ground school” instruction in Illinois followed by six weeks of “simulator” training at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  I would then proceed on to my permanent duty assignment in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where I would undergo an evaluation to become certified as “Combat Ready.”

The “ground school” in Illinois finished in mid-August 1968.  I then began a road trip to California to begin the next stage of my preparation to become a missile launch officer.  I’d only been west of the Mississippi River three times in my life before then.  The first was a family trip at age three; I don’t remember it.  My second one was at age eight when our family visited some relatives in Arizona.  And my final trans-Mississippi journey during childhood was that trip with my Aunt Matilda to Colorado at eleven years of age.

My cross-country trip to California was undertaken in a 1961 VW “bug” that I’d acquired from my father two years earlier.  I proceeded west from Illinois to Colorado Springs and then followed U.S. Highway 50 over Monarch Pass and through the Colorado Rockies.  I appreciated seeing that part of the state since it was a different area than I’d experienced earlier with my Aunt Matilda.  But then–unexpectedly–my journey began to awaken my dormant artistic instincts.

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Southern Utah travel brochures (1968)

The next portion of my journey was simply transformative for me.  As I drove through the remote, rugged canyonlands of southern Utah, the landscapes brought forth in me a yearning to create art again—but this time it came through the lens of a camera.  Let me explain.

One of the things I brought with me on my journey was a Kodak film camera.  Until then, cameras were for me simply a means to document my activities.  However, as I wandered the remote back roads of southern Utah late that summer of 1968, my camera took on new meaning.  It became an instrument for creating art.  I wasn’t familiar yet with major 20th Century photography-artists such as Ansel Adams, yet I found myself instinctively trying to capture with my camera a deeper sense of the dramatic landscapes through which I was traveling.  I’d never seen anything like them before.  I followed a primitive “road less traveled,” and sometimes I even wondered if the road would continue.

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Following a “road less traveled” in southern Utah (Aug 1968)

I don’t know now where all I went—and it all took place in the course of a single day.  I do recall—and have photographs from—Natural Bridges National Monument.  And my route eventually descended into Monument Valley of Arizona and proceeded on to Grand Canyon.  During that day I was changed, and throughout the remainder of that fall I continued to use my camera as a means for artistic expression, much as sketching had once been for me.  It was a new beginning.

Natural Bridges Nat Mon UT (8:1968)

An “artistic” photo at Natural Bridges National Monument in southern Utah (Aug 1968)

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Later that fall of 1968 after I had become settled at my base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, I took my camera on a number of excursions into the country west of town.  It wasn’t as impressive as the landscapes of southern Utah had been, yet I still found myself drawn to photograph the natural features.  Light, shadow and composition were the artistic considerations of greatest interest to me then.  I used color print film, which was processed by a local camera store.

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An “artistic” photograph of a tree snag in an area west of Cheyenne (Fall 1968)

The photographs in this book are of the lowest fidelity obtainable.  They are as far from the photographer’s vision as cheap cameras, mediocre film, and drugstore processing could make them.      —Terry and Renny Russell from  On the Loose (1967)

About that same time I was introduced to a book by two brothers, Terry and Renny Russell, who had traveled extensively in the West during the early 1960s.  Titled On the Loose, their book contained photos resembling the kinds of pictures I’d been taking during my forays in southern Utah, California and near my new home of Cheyenne.  I also discovered then the Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series books, which introduced me to photographic artists such as Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde–and Ansel Adams.  Their pictures opened my eyes to the possibility of using photography–and especially nature photography–as a means of artistic expression.  Porter and Hyde mostly made color photographs, which appealed to me because they were like what I was taking with my camera.  I also began using slide film in early 1969, and my pictures became clearer and brighter.  I liked photography even more.

Old snag taken with 126 slide film (c1969)

Tree snag in the Veedauwoo area west of Cheyenne taken with slide film (1969)

The black-and-white photographic images of Ansel Adams, to which I was also introduced through that Sierra Club book series, appealed to me artistically.  However, I never took a single roll of black and white film during that time.  I only used color film– and mostly slide film–over the subsequent forty years.

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Veedauwoo Snag - 5:1970

Pencil sketch of a tree snag in the Veedauwoo area west of Cheyenne (May 1970)

I think my encounters with Ansel Adam’s black and white photographs contributed to my renewed interest in sketching.  I don’t recall just how it came about, but in May 1970 I made my first sketch in about ten years.  It was of a tree snag in the same area west of Cheyenne where I’d gone to take photographs soon after arriving at my Air Force Base.  Such trees seem to be a familiar theme for me then, and as I’ve become more familiar with Adams’ work I’ve learned that he too had a fondness for old tree snags.

I followed that initial tree sketch with several others drawn during 1971.  The subjects ranged from a sketch of some prairie plants to the distinctive rock formation at Rabbit Ears Pass, a landmark I passed whenever I went downhill skiing at Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

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Sketch of prairie plants (1971)

Rabbit Ears sketch - 12:1971

Sketch of The Rabbit Ears (1971)

As I neared my June 1972 discharge from the Air Force, I decided to acquire my first single-lens-reflex (SLR) 35-mm film camera.  It was a Minolta SRT-101, and although crude by today’s standards, it took my photography to a new level.  After my discharge Mary Ann and I made an extensive journey back to my homeland in Indiana and then on to the East Coast.  It gave me an opportunity to give my new camera a “shake-down cruise”—and I made the most of it.

Grandma's Flower Garden (1972)

Photograph of my Grandma Grace’s flower garden made with my new Minolta SRT-101 camera  (June 1972)

Rockford Church (1972)

Old Rockford Church in Indiana (1972)

Many of my photos during this time were taken in response to my artistic inclinations.  I had turned another corner–and my interest in drawing began to wane again.  I only made two more sketches during the years immediately following my discharge from the Air Force.  One was of a family barn I’d known back in Indiana, and the other was of a prehistoric Pueblo ruin in Arizona that I hoped to visit someday.  Photography had become my artistic medium of choice.

Enos Barn Sketch (12:1972)

Sketch of the Enos family barn in Indiana (1972)

Canyon de Chelly sketch (1973)

Sketch of White House Ruin at Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona (1973)

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Journal sketch - Caron Pk erratic c2009

Sketch of a large glacial erratic stone drawn in my journal in 2009

As I look back on that time of my life now, I wonder why photography became such a dominant artistic outlet for me.  Perhaps it was partly because it was easier and quicker than drawing–plus it offered me the opportunity to work in color.  The only limitation I encountered with photography then was the time lag between taking a picture and seeing the results because the film needed to be processed first.  I didn’t draw any more free-standing sketches for almost twenty years.

However, I began writing a personal journal during the later 1970s, and that practice has continued over the ensuing years.  One reason for starting a journal was that it helped me to be more observant and reflective.   I suppose it’s not too surprising that I also began making some sketches alongside the text in my journal.  Such drawings helped heighten my capacity to be attentive during my journal writing sessions.

Similarly, photography became a way to augment journal writing too.  I sometimes made photographs to document the special places and times where I wrote.  And after I began publishing my personal writings in the 1990s, it seemed natural to also include photographs as illustrations.  That practice continues to this day.

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Photo of a special journal writing place and time in Indiana (1997)

Most of my photographs over the past decade have been made using a cell phone digital camera.  The results have been good, although I’ve missed using a 35-mm SLR film camera.  So about a year ago I acquired a vintage Minolta SRT101 camera–just like the one with which I initially began taking 35mm photographs in 1972.  However, I decided to bring a new wrinkle into my photography this time; I began using black and white film.  After all I’d never taken black and white photos before!  The results of these efforts have been gratifying so far, and I will continue to explore with this new/old approach to photography.

Minolta SRT101 camera

My “new” vintage Minolta SRT-101 film camera

White Bear Lake B&W (2018)

Photo of White Bear Lake taken with my Minolta SRT-101 camera (2018)

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Bur oak detail in black and white (2019)

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Photo of a drift log at Alki Beach in Seattle (2019)

Perhaps it was my return to photography using a classic Minolta camera with black and white film.  Maybe it was my desire to revisit an earlier skill and see if I still had it.  Whatever the motivation, I found myself inclined to undertake new explorations—with pencil and sketch pad in hand again.  And I didn’t have far to go to find a subject that inspired my initial drawing.

I sometimes walk along the shoreline of Puget Sound near my home in Seattle.  There are some picturesque drift logs along that stretch and one of them is especially interesting to me.  It inspires me much as those old pine snags did when I drew and photographed them fifty years ago in Wyoming.  And one of those logs became the subject for my first sketch in almost twenty years.

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Sketch of Alki Beach drift log. (2019)

Lose your fear of drawing in this supportive class.  Develop techniques for drawing what you see in exciting and expressive ways!  Gain confidence as you learn or enhance your drawing skills…  —from class listing for the White Bear Center for the Arts (2019)

As I leafed through the spring catalogue of the White Bear Center for the Arts near my Minnesota home, one class especially called to me.  It was a one-day workshop meant for people with little prior training in drawing; that would be me.  I arrived as the class was beginning so I didn’t have an opportunity to meet the instructor, Jim, beforehand.  I’d hoped to explain to him that I was coming to his class only partly to improve my mechanical skills as an artist.  More important to me was writing about my lifelong interest in drawing–and exploring through the class why I felt a desire to sketch again.

During his opening remarks, Jim explained that this was an “art class” and my hopes diminished that I would find much grist for my mill here.  Yet I was wrong about that, and sprinkled throughout his remarks about technique were “nuggets” that served to stimulate deeper thinking in just the ways I was seeking.  For example, at one point he remarked, “When you draw, think of yourself as ‘petting’ the paper.”  I liked that image.  Later he challenged us to “Cultivate the capacity to see lines in your drawing even where there aren’t any.”  This was a stretch for me, but I found this exhortation to be helpful.  And during one of the final sketching exercises he observed:

 “Remember.  The right mark is in you, but it may not come right away.  Drawing isn’t like performing music; it’s like writing music.”

Jim had won me over, and I later wrote in my journal:

“I found myself pushing back against Jim’s emphasis on technique in this class.  However, I think highly of his urging to respond to what one actually sees, not to what is imagined or remembered.  I see now that my motivation for sketching comes partly from my desire to see what comes out–or maybe I should say to see what comes in.

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Linnea makes sketch for Grandad 2 - 3:24:19

Granddaughter Linnea makes her sketch while I observe. (2019)

My return to drawing carried another aspect for me beyond just rediscovering a neglected skill.  It gave me an added dimension to understand and relate to my grandchildren.  For example, during an overnight stay by my five-year-old granddaughter Linnea, I suggested she make a drawing for me.  Accustomed to drawing for her parents, she readily agreed.

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Photo of Alki vintage apartment detail (2019)

I’d taken a black and white photo earlier of an architectural detail on one of the classic apartment buildings near my home.  So as a subject for Linnea’s drawing I showed her that picture and asked her if she could make a sketch of it?  I gave her little additional guidance since I was interested to observe how her young mind interpreted this subject and translated it onto paper.  She launched into the project without hesitation.  Perhaps not surprisingly, she focused most of her attention on the shell and other decorative elements in the center of the picture.  It was fascinating to observe what she choose to draw.  She made representations of the multiple sectors of the shell—complete with shadows.  She added the rectangular base upon which the shell figure was mounted, as well as some representations of the fruit beneath the shell.  She completed her drawing with a stylized representation of the building’s tile roof.  When I sensed that Linnea was finished, I asked that she print her name on the sketch along with the date.  I complimented her on the work and then I set it aside.

Linnea's sketch of Alki apartment decoration - 3:24:19

Linnea’s sketch of Alki vintage apartment detail. (2019)

The circles turn,
each giving into each, into all…  
—Wendell Berry

I find myself now reflecting back on what I observed that day with Linnea as she created her sketch of the apartment building ornamental details.  And it causes me to consider what it must have been like for my mother to watch me creating my early-childhood sketches almost seven decades ago.  My earliest picture was kept by her in my “baby book” down through the decades; it must have had special meaning for her.

I’ve kept Linnea’s sketch tucked into my drawing pad as an inspiration for me.  In a sense Linnea has become my teacher.  As she made her sketch I noticed that she wasn’t concerned about whether I approved of it or not.  She just looked at the photo of the apartment building, noticed some things of interest to her and drew; it was that simple.

Artist and writer, Julia Cameron, has said that writing is more about getting something down than thinking something up.  I think the same could be said for drawing.  As I wrote in my journal after my art class at the White Bear Center, drawing is about seeing what comes in.  Poet Mary Oliver has offered some simple instructions for living a good life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

I think granddaughter Linnea intuitively understands this advice, although she would probably say:  Draw about it.

Okay, Linnea, that’s just what I’ll do.

A sketch in time (5:18:19)

A sketch in time. (2019)

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Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2019.  All rights reserved.