Twenty Twenty-One

Stylized painting of waves breaking on a steep beach during a storm on the northern California coast

This is a follow up piece to a painting I did back in 2020. You might remember that one, it was a little darker, a little stormier, a little more 2020. This one is 2021. It’s still dark and stormy but there is a break in the clouds at least for a moment.

I was thinking about the power of the ocean and how in spite of its beauty, it really doesn’t care about you at all and if you find yourself in the wrong place out there, well, you’re in a heap of trouble.

It may be a beautiful world for all of us at times, but just like the ocean, if you find yourself in the wrong situation, the world at large doesn’t care much for us either.

The house in the distance is the local U.S. Coast Guard headquarters on Humboldt Bay. They’ve saved a lot of lives over the years when people found themselves in the wrong place at sea.

I’d never painted this iconic building on the bay here even though it’s just down the hill from my home, and since this painting is being auctioned to benefit Humboldt “CASA” it would make sense to include a “house”, so I figured this was the time to make it happen.

But the real deal is that just like the Coast Guard is always there and ready to help us when we find ourselves in trouble at sea, so the folks at CASA are doing something just as heroic for kids who find themselves in trouble in life, without family, and in a world that doesn’t always care. CASA is there to advocate for these kids when nobody else is stepping up. And that is worth honoring.


*(CASA stands for Court-Appointed Special Advocates- and is made up of volunteers who are everyday people appointed by a judge to speak up and advocate for abused and neglected children in court.)

Nosebleeds

Plein air landscape painting of the Wedge in Newport beach in Orange County on the southern California coast

To be honest I don't know why I'd never painted here before, I've painted a lot of Orange County beaches, both iconic and off the beaten path, but none more famous in modern times than this one. On any south swell you can expect to see footage and photos all over the internets and newspapers (where they still exist) and the nightly news on TV, it's hard to escape.

The day after I painted this I ate a bowl of cereal at my uncle's house in long beach and there on the front page of his morning paper were photos of this place, surfers being swallowed whole with no chance of escape. I recognized one of them specifically as a ride I had witnessed while painting this one.

Speaking of photographers I probably wouldn't have gained this particular perspective if it wasn't for one of these photographers. I wandered the entire beach on my arrival, the first time I'd been here in a very long time, and definitely the first time I'd scouted a painting here. I was drawn to this further vantage point that looked across the harbor and still caught the action out front in this gladiator pit of a surf spot.

As I was setting up near a lifeguard tower I got to talking with one of the photographers who was using the tower for a shooting platform and when I complimented him on his choice of vantage points he told me there was plenty of room up there if I wanted to paint. One thing I try to avoid when painting is setting up in a spot where I might get booted out before finishing and that was my concern here. Knowing the area well, he explained the lifeguards wouldn't be using this tower at all today and that was all the assurance I needed.

And indeed he chose the best seat in the arena as far as I was concerned. Look him up: Jeremiah Klein (@miahklein). You'll be stoked.

After he left there was a steady stream of photographers that made use of this platform as they made their rounds documenting the action. It's definitely one of the more unique ocean arenas in California, and up here in the nosebleeds section of the stadium we could see it all. One day I'll have to come back and get something that focuses more on the warping beast of a wave itself, but for my first crack, I was pretty stoked to come away with a painting that tells a bit more of story.

Irish Coffee

A painting of the view overlooking Irish Beach on a clear morning on the Mendocino coast of northern California

A quick family getaway. An early morning stumble across a cow pasture. A desperate and failed effort not to spill my coffee while being distracted by this beauty. A fleeting glimpse of my wife jogging on the beach beneath the first light of day. How does she do that at this hour? I can barely walk.

Box of Rain

A painting of the Garcia Rivermouth near the Point Arena lighthouse on the Mendocino coast of northern California

And then there was this. I’d looked all my life for a wave like this peeling across an empty sandbar on a lonely coast in California. I could hardly believe my eyes. But even if they had betrayed me, there was also that feeling in the gut, the butterfly that gnaws and never lies about the presence of greatness, holy ground, and all that. Today was not the day to venture any further, but I’ll be back.

End of Trail

A plein air painting of prayer flags on a barbed wire fence at the end of the Pelican Bluffs trail on the Mendocino coast of California

After finishing the previous painting, I ventured further on to explore this coast trail to its logical end. I found it here. The sign told me so. The ribbons and trinkets tied to the barbed wire fence spoke of the prayers of others who’ve walked this lonely path. And I thought to myself, “that makes sense… that’s what people do at The End.” The next day I returned with my family to share this beauty with them. It wasn’t so lonely when they were there with me. I didn’t think so much about Prayers or The End, instead we just sat and watched the whale spouts dancing like ghosts on the horizon.

Prime Pelican Real Estate

A plein air painting of the steep cliffs of the Pelican Bluffs trail on the Mendocino coast of northern California

It had been awhile. We needed to getaway and we found what we were looking for on the Mendocino coast. A small house. Just our family and the wind and more beauty than one should rightfully be entitled to, unless it were by grace. Speaking of a different form of grace, pelicans are the masters, and it was a joy to paint this stretch of coast in their presence. What is going on with earth here though? Dizzying displays of plate tectonics. I set up a few feet from the edge, tying my easel to a small fence, partly to keep it from blowing away in the howling wind, and partly so I’d have something secure to grab on to should the heights send me spinning asunder.

The End of California

A painting of a passing storm looking toward the Oregon border on the Del Norte coast of northern California

I’ve painted the border fence at the Mexico border before, but this is the first painting I’ve done of California’s northern border. There’s really not much of a border there. Just a beach stretching into the distance. Oregon hasn’t yet built their wall to keep us out, but I won’t be surprised if they have plans in the works. On this day though, there was no need for a dramatic fence or wall, the weather provided the perfect border drama illuminating Oregon while leaving California in the dark.

The Entry Way

A painting of the beach at Houda Point near Camel Rock on Humboldt county's Trinidad coast in northern California

A fine late-winter day on our local coast. It doesn’t get better than this around here. I saw other painters perched at nearly every lookout on this short stretch of scenic road, but somehow I managed to paint this one without getting tangled up in any arguments about ultramarine blue.

No Mere Maid

An imaginative painting of a coldwater mermaid with neoprene wetsuit skin on a rugged Nothern California coast

At last! This one was 7 years in the making- just a quick pencil sketch way back when, set it aside, and forgot about it until I got a call back in November asking me to paint a “slutty mermaid”. That wasn’t gonna happen. But it reminded me of this idea for a north coast mermaid. She is strong, she is content, she thrives in a harsh and unforgiving environment. She is beautiful, but her beauty isn’t flaunted to feed or lure any depraved eyes. She is who she is, and she is No Mere Maid.⠀

The original sketch was just a whimsical idea, but as I started painting her it was like a well opened up and began overflowing with ideas. She’s wisdom personified as the divine feminine in the book of Proverbs. She’s the classical ideals of truth and beauty that we only see in glimpses, forever out of our mortal reach. She’s the one Dylan sings about in She Belongs to Me (although from his lyrics I don’t think she belonged to him, or anyone else either). She’s the sea itself. She’s a mirror held up to our soul as we wrestle with the oft-used archetype of the mythical mermaid. She’s all of those at once and more.

2021: A Few Questions

Can you just tell us now ⠀
What it is that you’ve got?⠀
Triple sevens for heaven’s jackpot⠀
After 2000 years in the casino hall⠀
Finally old enough to buy alcohol⠀
Make mine a double⠀
Or nothing at all⠀
If it’s the last call⠀
And that’s all you’ve got⠀

It’s a new beginning⠀
And a whole new end⠀

When the keys punch the headlines⠀
Into your skin⠀
Burning hot like cattle brands⠀
Will you have a choice⠀
Or will it be out of your hands?⠀
Will you see what is written⠀
Will you read your last rites?⠀
Will it be everything black⠀
Or everything white?⠀
Everything day or everything night?⠀
Is it all or nothing?⠀
Just this or just that?⠀
The record keeps skipping⠀
But nobody knows⠀
Where the player is at⠀
Something is broken⠀
Might be the record ⠀
Or maybe the needle⠀
You can get another one⠀
On the corner⠀
In front of the steeple⠀
The gates open wide⠀
The door swings on its hinge⠀
An injection to heaven⠀
Or a highway to seven⠀
Just a shot in the arm⠀
From the holy syringe⠀
What is it you’re drinking?⠀
Tell us again⠀
Do you have music⠀
In your streets with no end?⠀
Do you have love for your children⠀
Stronger than wind?⠀
Will you have my father⠀
To his own father sent?⠀
Do you live and die⠀
On this land planted deep?⠀
Do you know what is yours⠀
And what the earth keeps?⠀
Were you called into existence⠀
At a child’s first words?⠀
Were the lines on your face⠀
Just the flight path of birds?⠀
Will you have artists at work⠀
And writers putting it off?⠀
Will your wretched be righteous⠀
And your faithful still scoff?⠀
Will you make spaces between⠀
The wrong and the right?⠀
Will you have visions between⠀
Blindness and sight?⠀
Do you have multitudes always⠀
Demanding their way?⠀
Do you have anyone asking⠀
What you need today?⠀
Will you have a place ⠀
To keep these words hidden?⠀
A heart to hold them⠀
And break⠀
And be forgiven?⠀

It’s a whole new end⠀
And another beginning⠀

So one last time⠀
And then I will stop⠀
Tell us again⠀
Just what have you got?⠀
Triple sevens for the jackpot⠀
After 2000 years in the casino hall⠀
Finally old enough to buy alcohol⠀
Make mine a double⠀
Or nothing at all⠀
If it’s the last call⠀
And that’s all you’ve got

Solstice Song: 2020

Before there was light⠀
There was water⠀
And before there was life⠀
The water broke⠀
Staring up into that black ocean⠀
Eyes blinded by the falling seas⠀
On this winter’s solstice⠀
No stars tonight⠀
Just a child⠀
Floating weightless and free⠀
In a fish bowl for all to see⠀

Mary and Joseph⠀
They live down the street ⠀
We ate donuts on strings⠀
Tied to their tree⠀
Last Halloween⠀
But tonight is for listening⠀
Country music on the local radio⠀
A long line of cars⠀
With out of state plates⠀
And a man that spoke⠀
“Don’t be afraid”⠀

We walked a path ⠀
That led to the river⠀
Where the waters had broken⠀
The land in two⠀
We saw a man up ahead⠀
He stopped ⠀
And listened⠀
To the darkened forest⠀
A rustling noise⠀
And a woman’s voice⠀
Calling him to come in⠀
We never saw him again⠀

A grown man on a bike⠀
Rides down the boulevard⠀
A woman in tears walks the other way⠀
They cross paths without a word⠀
She keeps walking ⠀
Tears like the rain⠀
From the broken sky⠀
Her cries fill the void⠀
And break the awful silence⠀
He keeps peddling on⠀
Awkwardly⠀
And alone⠀
On his tandem bike built for two⠀

As lightning bolts fell from the sky⠀
Landing on the ground⠀
Unconvincingly⠀
Like actors in silver suits⠀
Performing in a school drama⠀
On daytime TV⠀
One of them curled up in agony⠀
Or defeat⠀
I never could tell⠀
He could barely speak⠀
His voice cracked so quietly⠀
You’d think he was about to cry⠀
“I’ve lost my thunder”⠀
And there was nothing more to say⠀

They say this is the longest night⠀
But I don’t think they were there⠀
When the heavens and earth aligned⠀
And the earth could not be satisfied⠀
Until heaven was laid to rest⠀
Within her darkened womb⠀
And the bride was left⠀
To walk the road⠀
Alone⠀

Before there was light⠀
There was water⠀
And before there was life⠀
The water broke⠀
Staring up into the darkness⠀
A face full of ocean⠀
On this winter’s solstice⠀
No stars tonight⠀
No great conjunction to be seen⠀
Except for the one⠀
Between your eyes⠀
And the eyes of a child⠀
If we can’t see the stars there⠀
How can we expect ⠀
To see them in the heavens?

My Father’s House

What do you see?⠀
A land taken by zeros?⠀
More zeros than you’ll ever know?⠀
By money changers⠀
That take all they want⠀
In exchange for their soul?⠀
If that’s all that you see⠀
You’ve only read headlines⠀
In the red letter press⠀
This isn’t your land⠀
This isn’t my land⠀
This is my father’s house⠀

Some small success⠀
Some chance at a dream⠀
A life built for two⠀
But what is life if not pain?⠀
A standalone shack⠀
In a narrow ravine⠀
All that’s left⠀
And it’s all that he needs⠀
But this isn’t his land⠀
And it sure isn’t ours⠀
This is my father’s house⠀

This land he travelled⠀
Paving the roads with his bike⠀
He’d led them all onward⠀
Riding further each day⠀
Riding for their lives⠀
Through sweat, tears, and smiles⠀
Roadside sandwich breaks⠀
He watched a wayward driver⠀
Drift out of her lane⠀
One from his flock⠀
Laid to rest that day⠀
It wasn’t her land⠀
And he wished it wasn’t his⠀
This is my father’s house⠀

A son that knows⠀
Too much about too many things⠀
Nothing to gain⠀
From his father’s love⠀
He’s moving fast⠀
And his dad moves too slow⠀
The son doesn’t see⠀
Just how much his father carries⠀
But one day he’ll know⠀
That his father’s failure ⠀
Was his greatest success⠀
And that he’s not the only one⠀
That was carried in those arms⠀
It’s not his land⠀
And it never will be⠀
This is my father’s house⠀

So get out of this house⠀
If you think you’re any better⠀
Get out if you think⠀
Your owed a damn thing⠀
Get out you bastards⠀
You never lived here⠀
You only came when invited⠀
To feast on his generosity⠀
There’s no gates of gold⠀
It’s worn down and rusty⠀
Broken and dirty⠀
But we’ve kept it clean⠀
It will never be your land⠀
It will always be his⠀
This is my father’s house⠀

Her Name was California

He’d laugh this little howling cackle that pulled you into his slipstream as you made your way along the path, down the makeshift rope, repelling into the cove below that you’d never seen breaking before and now was suddenly cracking it’s sonic water booms on the reef below. Everything made him laugh. And almost everything he laughed at led you to math, calculating the odds of survival. ⠀

Some friendships are like this.⠀

He led me to a burning mountain. He led me to wildcats prowling in broad daylight. He led me to a cabin where I spent long evenings watching dragons in the heavens war against the winds on earth below while Jack Kerouac sat on the recliner by the lampstand fearing the dark. He led me to the psychic who knew more of me than I even know and probably still has all the secrets she summoned from between my words dried out and saved in glass jars for seasoning on vegan tacos for the next visitor she entertains. He led me to the Captain who loved her and didn’t speak much because she already knew his words anyway. He led me to high ridges with views in all directions. He led me to a trailer where a Stranger poured me a glass of bourbon and shared Her cigarettes in the dark. ⠀

Her name was California.⠀

She led me to fields of poppies glowing red with love for all and none. She led me to highways that carry hearts to heaven and hell. She led me to destinations even deeper still. She led me to kelp beds anchored to the skulls of conquered peoples. She led me to endless lines of barbed wire fences that scraped into my flesh and instead of bleeding the wounds poured out cheap wine and could only be bandaged with brown paper sacks. She led me to the top of the steeple of the first mission on her skin where the air was as thin as the plot in these verses and where the smoke has been rising since it was burned to the ground in 1775. She led me to her far north where the trees were once taller than any lie ever told. She led me to a path on the edge of a cliff following a friend as he laughed his way down the mountain. ⠀

And she led me home.

Medicine Cabinet

When the music ends⠀
The lights go on⠀
And everyone slowly leaves⠀
Yet somehow the room is strangely dim⠀
Somehow darker than it was before⠀
When the house lights were off⠀
And the music filled the spaces⠀
Between the empty glasses ⠀
That are now also slowly leaving⠀
White rings on the wood tables⠀
As we hum to ourselves ⠀
And dissolve back into the cold night air⠀
And warm beds that await⠀

If we’d known then⠀
That the music would end in this way⠀
We’d have stayed all night long⠀
Played all night long⠀
And drank the bar dry⠀
Letting the jazz⠀
Lead the revolution⠀
Until they came with lights blazing⠀
To pry the saxophones and drumsticks⠀
From our cold dead hands⠀
To confiscate the pianos⠀
And abolish this beautiful night⠀

So now we sit in the quiet darkness⠀
Of a bright winter day⠀
Humming sad tunes to ourselves⠀
That we’ll later play softly ⠀
On our contraband pianos⠀
Sitting in our empty rooms⠀
With the lights off⠀
Because everyone knows⠀
The piano is just a medicine cabinet⠀
And the music will never end

Anaheim Bay

I was born in Anaheim⠀
Happiest place on earth⠀
I once got stuck in Hell there⠀
When Mr. Toad’s wild road broke down⠀
And I swear on my life⠀
I have seen with my own eyes⠀
Snow White⠀
Sucking on a cigarette⠀
We weren’t supposed to see that⠀
And we weren’t’ supposed to be here either⠀
In Anaheim Bay ⠀

But here we were⠀
After crawling under the fence⠀
While a large swell was pushing small waves into this bay⠀
An unusual event⠀
The warships weren’t fazed⠀
Some other kids were already here⠀
Further up along the shore⠀
They must have snuck in somewhere else⠀
They had boogie boards⠀
Playing in the shorebreak⠀
One of them ate sand⠀
The other rode 50 yards along the shore⠀
On a zipper of a wave⠀
Laughing⠀
But also hiding⠀
In Anaheim Bay⠀

We watched for awhile⠀
And we were about to leave⠀
When we saw a surge pushing down the jetty⠀
I ran to it⠀
On water⠀
And rode barefoot⠀
And I mean just barefoot⠀
No board at all⠀
Banking into it with speed⠀
Knees absorbing the chatter⠀
The rebound wave off the jetty approached⠀
Up and over the section⠀
Carving back to the whitewater⠀
A cross between barefoot skiing⠀
And roller skating⠀
Until the wave flattened into deep water⠀
In Anaheim Bay⠀

My brother yelled⠀
The kids were waving frantically⠀
The cameras on the cell tower turned⠀
And focused⠀
Someone heard a buzzing noise⠀
I wasn’t too concerned⠀
Until they showed me notebooks⠀
Full of polaroid snapshots⠀
Of what They did⠀
To the Italian ⠀
That snuck in here last week⠀
You don’t want to know⠀
Apparently they don’t mess around⠀
In Anaheim Bay⠀

I’ve heard They’ll track you down⠀
Even weeks later⠀
When you don’t expect it⠀
When you’re alone⠀
They’ll surround you⠀
Pound you⠀
Till your face looks like a salami⠀
(I saw the photos)⠀
Above, beside, below⠀
It’s hard to say where They stand⠀
With the law⠀
Perhaps They are the law⠀
And They’ll do what they must⠀
To make you regret⠀
Your trespass⠀
Into Anaheim Bay⠀

But I haven’t seen Them yet⠀
It’s been awhile⠀
And every time I think of Them⠀
I also think of that strange little wave⠀
And the feeling of the cool water⠀
Slapping my bare feet⠀
At speed⠀
Beneath the shadow⠀
Of Their warships⠀
In Anaheim Bay⠀

17 Mile Ghosts

Pay the toll⠀
A piece of your soul⠀
And leave it there as a sign⠀
A cardboard box⠀
Full of rocks and socks⠀
From which we will rise in their mind⠀
Extrapolated⠀
And captivated⠀
Forever to walk this lonely line⠀
They’ll see us standing⠀
Calling out in the night⠀
With bare feet wet from the brine⠀
They’ll slow to a stop⠀
They’ll wonder how⠀
The water and ethers combined⠀
If they listen we’ll say⠀
It was because we payed⠀
The guard at the gate to get by⠀

So heed my words⠀
And stare straight ahead⠀
For it’s from this earth you were made⠀
You belong on it truly⠀
Its dirt is your body⠀
And these guards are made only of shade⠀

You’re a plumber⠀
A builder or an electrician⠀
Whatever it takes to convince them⠀
To let you pass⠀
Without taking your cash⠀
It’s not the money it’s the darkness it gets them⠀
So give them only a nod⠀
A two finger wave⠀
And a subtle but sure acceleration ⠀
With confidence high⠀
Drive right by⠀
Subterfuge will be your declaration ⠀
That you belong in their night⠀
But this day is all yours⠀
Like Dali, and Griffin, and Vincent⠀
Masters of sight⠀
Pursuing their vision⠀
Trespassing all baseless tradition⠀
Their work lives on⠀
But they are gone⠀
At rest and free from earth’s friction⠀

So when the future arrives⠀
And they ask our ghosts why⠀
We’re still here and still walking this path⠀
We’ll tell them plain⠀
We believed the guards⠀
Who said we’d have to pay to get past⠀

So stay free in the sun⠀
And when the day is done⠀
Just move right along down the line⠀
And pay not a dime⠀
To the liars in wait⠀
Who seek to trap you in debt for all time⠀

The Morning I Was Created

On the morning I was created⠀
I crawled out the back of the old yellow van⠀
Wide-eyed and blinking⠀
Wondering where my brother had ran?⠀

He ran to the sea⠀
He ran for his life⠀

Past the razor’s edge of the earth⠀
Into the mist where the horizon is long⠀
Where the black dots line up and wait⠀
Is that really where my brother had gone?⠀

He ran to the sea⠀
He ran for his life⠀

I unearth sandwiches buried in sand⠀
Sealed plastic baggies with PB and J’s⠀
Perfect gives from Mother Earth⠀
So why did my brother rush into the haze?⠀

He ran to the sea⠀
He ran for his life⠀

Looking around I see girls on the move⠀
Their bikinis and bodies these young eyes amazed⠀
What were we talking about?⠀
And how did my brother get past them unfazed?⠀

He ran to the sea⠀
He ran for his life⠀

He told me to join him before he ran off⠀
I was unsure of myself and scared⠀
Of the ocean and its blackened depths⠀
What made my brother think I would dare?⠀

To run to the sea⠀
To run for my life⠀

To follow him out and beyond⠀
To the great sea where its rhythms unfurled⠀
To leave the logic of land for the great “into-ocean”⠀
But he was my brother and did he not rule the world?⠀

So I ran to the sea ⠀
And I ran for my life⠀

Bewildered by movements unknown⠀
I tried and I tried and I tried and I tried⠀
I couldn’t get past these white rolling waters⠀
“Where are you, brother” I cried⠀

Scratching the sea⠀
And scratching for life⠀

“Turn and go” was all that I heard⠀
So I turned and I goed with all that I could ⠀
That little white wave pushed me along⠀
And my brother watched as I stood⠀

On the sea⠀
And on my life⠀

I had never felt so alive⠀
As when the white foam gave way⠀
To smooth water before it⠀
I was made a brother that day⠀

We ran to the sea⠀
We ran for our lives⠀

And to this day we still run⠀
But I’ll always remember just how elated⠀
I was to join my brother ⠀
Back on that morning when I was created

Kindling

Some things are easy to overlook⠀
Others take a little more work⠀
Natural beauty⠀
Simple love⠀
So often get left where they lie⠀
While the headlines print bold⠀
On our aching flesh⠀
These haunts where our demons lurk⠀

Crashing stocks upon the shore⠀
Homes condemned to their blight⠀
The need to eat⠀
A will to survive⠀
We’ll do what we must to get by⠀
Sell our daylight for leprechaun’s gold⠀
That will vanish⠀
In the dark of the night⠀

We wake to a frozen sunrise⠀
Empty and cold and ruined⠀
It’s easily missed⠀
But always there⠀
The lift in our hearts at the sight⠀
Of these earthen glories before us⠀
By which we know⠀
That we are nowhere near the end⠀

So we’ll use our bodies for kindling⠀
To build this blaze bright and warm⠀
Our skin burns hot⠀
This smoky font⠀
A poetry of ash in the wind⠀
As we soak in the beauty around us⠀
We are fire⠀
Just in a different form⠀

Some things are hard to overlook⠀
Others take a little less effort⠀
The pressing needs⠀
The desperate pain⠀
Can grow louder till all else recedes⠀
While the light within and around us⠀
Steadily burns and waits⠀
To bring joy in the midst of the hurt ⠀

The Ocean is Just Leftovers

It’s true, she loves the river⠀
And it’s steady constant force⠀
The ocean is just leftovers⠀
And she prefers the source⠀

She leads me through the briars⠀
Stinging nettle, oak, and sorrow⠀
Some pain for the present moment⠀
But the rest we’ll save for tomorrow⠀

The path is narrow and overgrown⠀
If it’s even a path at all⠀
Two roads diverged and we took neither⠀
She heard the river’s call⠀

Down the bank we scrambled and slid⠀
Grasping roots along the way⠀
These roots they hold back mountains⠀
They can hold us here today⠀

Scraped and bruised and winded⠀
At last we find relief⠀
We swim and laugh and stub our toes⠀
Even blessings hold some grief⠀

My mind drifts off to the coast and its songs⠀
Why oh why am I here⠀
I followed her and would do it again⠀
But we should have brought more beer⠀

How we ended up together⠀
A mystery untold⠀
I am a pool of simple pleasures⠀
She is the mountain, faithful and bold⠀

It’s true, she loves the river⠀
And it’s steady constant force⠀
The ocean is just leftovers⠀
And she prefers the source

Cloud Theory: 1969

Woven Recollections from the Return of One of Italy's First Surfers, 50 Years Later


I’ve long thought it would be interesting to explore combinations of longer format story-telling with my art in a more intentional way. Back in early 2019 an opportunity finally presented itself. The only problem was that it would require flying to Italy. If you know me, you know I’m not a traveler. Not like that. I can drive all night and all day on Highway One, but never make it to Italy. This rattled my program. I’d have to finally break down and get a passport.⠀

So in late 2019 I traveled to Italy with a surfer I'd only known long enough to drink two beers with. It was his first trip back to Gaeta, Italy, since 1969, and what might prove to be his final opportunity to see the country he fell in love with all those years ago. The details of his story emerged throughout the trip as we navigated the unfamiliar waters of the Mediterranean hunting for waves, and navigated the narrow streets and alleys hunting for cannelloni (a pasta dish that was common in Gaeta in 1969). We were mostly unsuccessful on both accounts. But this was more than just a trip to Italy, it became clear to me that this was a story that was meant for me to tell.⠀

Along the way I got to know this man well. During his time in the US Navy, as a lonely surfer peacefully stationed here during the Vietnam War, he was unknowingly among the first to bring a surfboard to Italy and surf upright along its shores. He wasn’t the first to surf there, and doesn’t think of himself that way, although his time surfing there pre-dates all the recorded history of surfing in Italy that I’ve come across. ⠀

But there's a lot more to all of us than any three-paragraph introduction can convey. This is my written portrait of possibly the first known surfer in Italy, and how our paths briefly merged together just before the world fell apart in 2020. This is the testimony of a life fully lived and a man facing his own twilight gracefully. This is a travel tale of two clueless Americans. This is an homage to the Italian spirit.⠀

This is the story of my friend, Dwight Harrington...

 


I. Beneath the Surface

“What we need right now is a beautiful woman who speaks English… and Italian.” 

― Dwight Harrington,
The first* known surfer in Italy
(Spoken on his first day back in Gaeta after 50 years on September 7, 2019)

It was true, although I would have settled for anyone with a grasp of both languages. Fresh off the plane and utterly clueless how to even order a sandwich in this working-class tourist town, on the surface we were a couple of out-of-place foreigners. Beneath the surface, though, we were right where we belonged. My traveling companion, Dwight Harrington, was among the first, if not the very first, to surf the shores of Serapo Beach in Gaeta, Italy prior to the 1970’s, and this was his long-overdue return to see the town he called home while stationed here during his service in the US Navy during the Vietnam War. Back then it was a sleepy little fishing town, quietly and slowly rebuilding after the ravages of World War II. Today it is no longer quiet, or slow, or sleepy. Dinner is served at midnight. Music blasts on the streets at those hours of the night that call the very idea of sleep itself into question. ⠀

He spoke those words to nobody in particular as we entered the crowded beach club that was just another empty beach when he saw it last. On the surface, it was an acknowledgement of our predicament - neither of us having any real grasp of the language whatsoever. We were hungry. And thirsty. And there were sandwiches here. And beer. And we had euros. The only barrier was the one built of stones from the fallen tower of Babel.⠀

“KGB”⠀

She often said that jokingly as we kept running into her over the next few days. She and her Roman partner generously opened their world to us, taught us the ways of aperitivo, (an Italian happy hour of sorts), and, in the event she wasn’t joking about the KGB, she sure made a strong case for the virtues of espionage. She spoke perfect English. And Italian. And Russian. And who knows what else. On the surface she was a laser sharp, (and yes, beautiful), Russian woman. Beneath the surface, she was an answer to prayer.

 

BENEATH THE SURFACE   |   20" X 16"   |   PLEIN AIR

II. The City by the Bay

“I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, He can work through anyone.”

― St Francis of Assisi
Patron Saint of Italy (1181-1226)

We began this trip in the Dog House, a small bar in South San Francisco, California, where Dwight Harrington and I shared drinks through the neon light and toasted the trip ahead. A trip he’d been thinking of for 49 years. A trip he was reminded about by Jason Baffa’s film Bella Vita, chronicling Chris Del Moro’s return to his family home in Italy and documenting the history of Italian surfing along the way. ⠀

Dwight was in Italy, and surfing, before Chris was born. Before Italian surfing itself was born. He didn’t pioneer anything. He makes no claims. The Italians on the beach barely took notice of him. His Navy pals made fun of him. He didn’t think anything special of his time surfing there until seeing Jason’s film, and learning that the Godfather of Italian surfing, Alessandro Forte, began in 1970- after Dwight had left the country without ever seeing another surfer. ⠀

And now, after a lifetime lived and spent surfing all over the world, Dwight is here again, wandering the streets of Gaeta, Italy, revisiting old haunts while I stand here painting with my easel firmly planted in the looming shadow of the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in this other city by the bay. It is a minor miracle that I am here at all. I am no seasoned traveler. I didn't even own a passport a few months ago. Shoot, I barely even know Dwight when you get down to it. But when he asked me to go with him on a whim and explained his reason to return, I wasn’t about to say no. ⠀

>>Fast forward to the end of this trip and I’d find myself ravenously eating an Italian-smuggled convenience store pastry on the sidewalk back on the streets of San Francisco, jet-lagged, hollow-eyed, and sticky-fingered - playing the part of strung-out junkie quite well, after being ousted from our hotel room by my also jet-lagged and done-with-anyone-that-snores-like-a-lawnmower beautiful wife. In a twist of Franciscan fate, I’d come full circle to end this undeserved trip of a lifetime in the dog house once again.

 

THE CITY BY THE BAY   |   16" X 12"   |   PLEIN AIR

III. Doubting Thomas and the Pope

“… just an old toy maker.”

― Bob McTavish
Australian Surfboard Shaper (1944- )
Spoken in reference to himself in 1996 at the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame awards ceremony

During his first week stationed in Italy, Dwight Harrington woke in the night to the creaks and the moans and the motion of his ship rising and falling in steady rhythm. Groundswell, he thought. Blessed be and holy moly. Groundswell. He’d written off surfing altogether when he’d received his orders to Italy in 1968. Thankful that he wasn’t sent to Vietnam, he’d already counted his blessings and found them plenty sufficient. But groundswell in the Tyrrhenian Sea, or anywhere in the Mediterranean? He’d never even heard of it. And yet the ship just kept on rocking and rolling. This was almost too good to be true. Full of doubts, he wouldn’t believe it until he made his way out to the beach and saw lines to the horizon. This changed everything.⠀

On his next leave, he makes the trip to Biarritz, France, because that’s where surfboards lived in Europe in 1969. Finding his funds a bit shy for the boards on the racks in the shop, he isn’t sure what to do until a chance roadside encounter with a traveling surfer intent on riding the bleeding edge of the shortboard revolution leaves him with a just barely outdated Bob McTavish board from the Morey Pope factory in California. Still an advanced board for the time, the revolution was moving so fast that even this 8-something v-bottom with the Greenough fin, the latest and greatest six months ago, was now considered a few steps behind by those in the know. ⠀

Dwight would spend the next two years ducking and dodging the Italian’s beloved beach umbrellas on his way out for midday surfs at the nearby beach break, all but ignored by the local citizenry. All of them, that is, except for the kids. To them this crazy American’s water toy was endlessly fascinating. “Hey Joe,” “Hey Joe,” they would shout, (the only English they knew), as they ran up to him, surrounding him, touching the magical toy as if laying hands might impart some of its divine spark upon them. And just maybe it did.

 

  DOUBTING THOMAS AND THE POPE    |   16" X 12"   |   PLEIN AIR (WITH ADDITIONAL STUDIO WORK AFTERWARDS )

IV. Drink the Chicken

“Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it and making it a truly Christian beverage.”

― Pope Clement VII
Son of Giuliano de’ Medici (1478-1534)

Historical hindsight reveals the many controversies of Pope Clement VII, but his embrace of coffee is not one of them. History also shows that exactly one month before he was born, his father Giuliano de Medici was finally assassinated in a plot to overthrow the powerful Medici family from rule in Florence, Italy. In an earlier attempt his would-be assassins were foiled by the crowing of roosters disturbed by the strangers sneaking past in the night. Guiliano was known to love art, and a good party as well, so the next day he commissioned his artisans to craft pitchers in the shape of roosters to serve the wine in celebration of his good luck. 

Although Medici’s luck wouldn’t last, the rooster pitcher remains a symbol of good fortune in Italy to this day, just as it would have been back in 1969 when a wide-eyed Dwight Harrington was brought through the narrow streets and arches of the small town of Gaeta and led into a small, dark, dirt-floored tavern by his Navy shipmates and told to drink down a chicken-shaped pitcher of wine in a hazing challenge passed down from previous sailors stationed in Italy. With flourish that would have made Medici proud, young Dwight obliged and conquered that pitcher, and spent the evening relishing in his own good fortunes. 

It wasn’t until the next morning, when Dwight was sent to the boiler room to pound metal with a raging hangover that he’d discover the plot against him had been successful after all - and this present misery pounding in his head, combined with the incessant rising and falling of the ship was indeed by design. Welcome aboard, sailor. There’s coffee in the mess hall.

 

DRINK THE CHICKEN    |   16" X  20"   |   PLEIN AIR

V. Facts and Fiction

“‘Tis strange – but true;  for truth is always strange;  Stranger than fiction.”

― Lord Byron
British Poet (1788-1824)

The lines of groundswell we saw from the airplane flying in to Rome gave no indication of the difficulty we’d face just getting out of the airport. By the time we secured our freedom via Fiat from the Queen of the Rental Car Kiosk, we’d been up for two days straight. If we had been a little sharper of mind, we’d have gone hunting immediately for a surfboard or two to rent along with our chariot. ⠀

As it was, we fumbled hours down the coast to reach our destination of Gaeta, and collapsed. When we awoke to a clean swell peeling across the sandbars out front, a more unfortunate reality dawned on us. Fifty years after Dwight had to travel all the way to France to find a surfboard, there was still nowhere to find a board in this town. ⠀

It was then that the genius of Dwight Harrington, the first surfer in Italy, was revealed in its fullest. Out of his suitcase he produced an air mat and a pair of swim fins. Now for the uninitiated like myself, riding an air mat for the first time may as well have been riding a ravioli… but never mind that- it was still riding waves with all the thrills and benefits implied… beneath ancient Roman ruins… in Italy.⠀

We went surfing.⠀
We traded waves all morning in the Tyrrhenian Sea.⠀
We rode waves beside a mountain that split in two when Christ was crucified.⠀
We laughed like pirates sheltering in the cave of the mountain’s wounds.⠀
We cut our fingers on the ancient foundation stones now submerged.⠀
We had our wounds wrapped on the beach by the Russian spy.⠀
We followed her and the Roman on a moped into town.⠀
We traded national secrets as day became night.⠀
We discussed Pax Romana.⠀
We recited poetry.⠀
We ate dinner at midnight.⠀
We picked the meat off the shells.⠀
We drank limoncello, and grapa, and everything else.⠀
We narrowly dodged the dancers on the street at two in the morning.⠀
We drew pictures of a charming dwarf recast as an angel delivering pizza on wings.⠀
We suffered his displeasure with our rendition.⠀
We signed it for him when he asked.⠀
We saw him smile.⠀

Facts.

 

FACTS AND FICTION    |   16" X  12"   |   PLEIN AIR

VI. Solitaire

“Rome alone can resist Rome.”

― Pierre Corneille
French Poet (1606-1684)

We ate steamed vegetables, soup, and dry bread with Tibetan monks in Tuscany. We drank no beer and we sipped no wine. It was the meal we needed at the time. We marveled at their altars. We circled their shrines. We traced our lives in their mandalas. We envied their motorcycles. They taught us to listen patiently to our internal conflicts until they grew tired of shouting and finally quieted down in order to find peace… and that even demonic serpent statues enjoy British folk music.⠀

We ate pizza in Piazza, prepared by a charming dwarf, who upon being told there was an artist from California at the table, compelled me to draw him as an angel delivering pizzas from heaven. On the spot, I did what I could, but he complained that the drawing made him look like Cupid, the Roman god of love, but without the bow and arrow. He made fun of us Americans, in Italian of course. He made me sign the drawing anyway and carefully tucked it into his apron. He taught us that our conflicts were beside the point. This was his house and he would do as he pleased. We fell in love with pizza all over again, and it was wonderful.⠀

We ate ravioli and gelato on a mountain overlooking the town. According to legend, this mountain split in two when Christ was crucified. I walked up the mountain alone that morning while Dwight Harrington slept in. My search for a painting was like a game of solitaire: full of dead ends and a sense I was missing something, a misread of the cards, missing the obvious play right in front of me. I sought a painting deep in the heart of the split mountain and did not find it. I sought a painting on Roman paths, not made to enjoy the views but instead dug out like trenches to avoid the arrows of war, and did not find it there either. After hours of walking, dripping sweat under a searing Italian sun, I sought a painting beside a lone tree overlooking the old seaside town where we stayed, and at last resisted the urge to keep looking. It taught me that my conflicts are still my own, and even the simple game of solitaire can be anything but peaceful.

 

SOLITAIRE    |   20" X  16"   |   PLEIN AIR

VII. The Father, the Son, and Only a Hint of Wind

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.”

― Jean de La Fontaine
French Poet (1621-1695)

Every generation inherits the earth for a time before leaving it to the next- a truth that is never so obvious as in an old fishing village with new coffee shops and bars built into romantic era storefronts built below enlightenment era cathedrals built beneath medieval castles built on top of ancient Roman outposts built over more ancient Etruscan settlements built over even more ancient Villanovan villages built over yet even more ancient unknown encampments. To think our time under the sun is anything but temporary is as futile as an attempt at avoiding one’s own fate. Both will come to pass.⠀

Dwight Harrington is from my father’s generation. The ones that were busy being born around the time of the second World War, and only really knew of the peace that came afterwards. The ones that faced Vietnam. The ones that dodged the draft any way they could. The ones like my own father that had children just in time to remain exempt. The ones like Dwight that enlisted voluntarily in hopes of avoiding the fate of their brothers who were drafted and sent to Hell- and often not brought back. The ones who fought to change the world at home, and for better or worse, succeeded. The ones who saw our country lose the plot entirely in Vietnam, and for whom war lost its last remnant of heroism. The ones who survived the war and were greeted with parades of insults and spit.⠀

Yes, Dwight Harrington is from my father’s generation. The ones busy leaving this world to the next generation and living each day to its fullest while they can. Dwight had wanted his own sons to come on this trip with him, but it was now or never, and neither could make the trip as each of their wives were expecting children. Dwight’s first grandchildren. Cupid’s arrows, born on a hint of wind nine moons ago, went straight to the heart of the Harrington sons, and with that twist of fate I found myself on this trip as a surrogate son, straining to read the signs (or the menus, or the parking meters, or anything else).

 

THE FATHER, THE SON, AND A VERY STILL WIND    |   20" X  16"   |   PLEIN AIR

VIII. Architecture, as a Weapon

“Architecture is music in space, as it were a frozen music… ”

― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
German Author (1749-1832)

If you’ve ever stood beneath an honest-to-God castle and stared up at its walls, you know a true castle exists for war. A blunt-force weapon disguised as architecture. This realization hit me as I painted this castle on the hill over Gaeta, Italy, on Sept. 11, exactly 18 years (to the very hour) after planes were used to turn entire New York buildings into perverse tools of death. Architecture, as a weapon of war. ⠀

War. That Conductor of Funeral Dirges Without End. A war brought Dwight Harrington to Italy, but it was the bombs of a previous war that left the town of Gaeta in the slow process of rebuilding when he arrived in 1969. A war that saw Nazi officials imprisoned in this very castle in Gaeta, even while a young Harrington served and surfed just beneath it. A war that saw Benito Mussolini imprisoned within this castle in 1943. A war that sent Italians into hiding in caves while Allied bombs rained down on their villages, castles and churches. A war that drove them to tears as they watched their history, art, and culture imperiled by American bombs. And a war that made them cheer the Americans on, because had those bombs missed their targets, Adolf Hitler may have become the ruler of a brutal new world empire. ⠀

We held back tears of our own as Piergiorgio Castellani, a 5th generation winemaker, shared this history with us at the foot of a castle where a black American soldier was the first to die in a battle to free this village from the Germans. Although Dwight hadn’t personally seen combat, he had served during the Vietnam War in a military that’s become a dirty word to many in this day and age. So for this noble Italian to express such deep gratitude to the US military in the presence of a man that carried the burden of war his entire adult life, well, it wasn’t a song of war we heard in the distance, it was the rhythm of justice. A protest song. A reminder that this machine does indeed kill fascists. A song of healing. A well-worn hymn. The sound of a soul being restored.

 

ARCHITECTURE, AS A WEAPON    |   16" X  12"   |   PLEIN AIR

IX. Ballad of a Crystal Man

“Vietnam, your latest game, you're playing with your blackest Queen
Damn your souls and curse your grins, I stand here with a fading dream… ”

― Donavon
Scottish Singer and Songwriter (1946- )
From Ballad of a Crystal Man
As sung by Dwight Harrington on the streets of Gaeta, Italy, 1969 and 2019

When Dwight enlisted in the Navy in 1968, all he knew was that he didn’t want to get sent to Vietnam. He’d seen surfer and musician friends alike sent into that jungle, and not come back the same, if at all. Vietnam was a brick thrown through the windows of a young Dwight’s dreams that consisted of surfing, playing guitar, and touring as a roadie for bands like Strawberry Alarm Clock, Buffalo Springfield, and the Beach Boys. Rather than wait for the imminent draft notice, voluntary enlistment provided much higher odds of survival. ⠀

He wasn’t sure what to make of it on his second day in boot camp when his drill sergeant bellowed, “ANYBODY HERE LIKE MUSIC?” He could have stayed quiet, and a more calculating man might have. But Dwight was nothing if not honest. He spoke up, raised his hand, and nothing came of it. Or so it seemed.⠀

Weeks later, he was pulled aside. Busted. For... liking music? He was then assigned to the military’s Blue Jackets Choir. This meant turning in his rifle, music practice all week, and weekends off! When the time came for his overseas assignment (a decision made by the training base commander… who also led the Blue Jackets Choir… and with whom a young Dwight Harrington had found favor) he was sent to Gaeta, Italy, to serve on the USS Little Rock, the flagship of the sixth fleet. No surf, he thought to himself, but he was able to bring his guitar along, and considering other alternatives at the time, it's not difficult math to understand that he was stoked.⠀

As his story unraveled to me over the course of the trip, few scenes were as poignant as the evening I quickly painted Dwight Harrington, the first surfer in Italy, sitting on the streets of Gaeta, playing the same guitar he brought here with him 50 years ago, playing the same songs and ballads that, in a very real way, were exactly what got him sent here in the first place.⠀

 

BALLAD OF A CRYSTAL MAN    |   12" X  16"   |   PLEIN AIR

X. Waters Above

“And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.”

― Genesis 1:7 KJV

Rome was not the beginning. There were worlds upon worlds before the Roman Empire. But much of the modern world today can be traced back to ancient Rome, though much of that history is fragmented. Like the remains of the Roman aqueduct, there’s gaps and missing pieces and portions that run parallel and never seem to meet. It is much the same with the human mind; memories can fade, details overlap, events can merge. Many of the stones that build our stories will fall to the ravages of time.⠀

For this particular story, we sort through the faded memories of our unsuspecting hero, Dwight Harrington, the First* Surfer in Italy. ⠀

*Only let us be clear, Dwight himself has never claimed to be the first surfer in Italy. Not once. He just brushes the topic aside as he lights up with joy remembering the country he fell in love with in 1969. And truth be told, there were other traveling surfers that made the same discovery of surfable waves that he did elsewhere in Italy, we just don’t know who they are.⠀

In the flow of history, occasionally two channels meet, waters rushing toward waters, as when Dwight Harrington, the First* Surfer in Italy came face to face with Alessandro Forte, the undisputed Godfather of Italian Surfing himself who started surfing in 1970 after seeing a surfboard left behind by an unknown American serviceman. ⠀

This confluence of Italian surfing history takes place on September 14, 2019 at the Nimbus Surf Club on the Tuscany coast. After pleasantries, Alessandro spoke boldly to Dwight (roughly translated): “You may have stood on a surfboard in Italy before I did, but I am still the first Italian surfer.”⠀

Emphasis on Italian.⠀

And with that, a bond was quickly established, followed by the clink of glasses tipped in the setting sun. A monumental collision of waters. Two drops of wine reach escape velocity and land on the old Roman concrete, already wet from the dripping bodies passing by on their return from the salty sea.

 

WATERS ABOVE    |   12" X  16"   |   PLEIN AIR

XI. Cloud Theory

“Impossible is just an opinion.” 

― Paulo Coelho
Brazilian novelist, (1947- )

Cloud theory is a model of the early solar system describing the formation of the Sun and planets from clouds of dust. As particles gathered and critical gravitational mass was reached within a cluster, nuclear fusion followed and a sun was born. From the sun emerged solar winds that blew away the remains of the clouds, leaving only the planets, comets, and asteroids that had gathered together in the swirling dust.⠀

We blew in on a solar wind to a party one afternoon at the Nimbus Surf Club and unexpectedly ran into a friend I’d met years before in California, Italian artist Ricki Brotini. After an embrace worthy of lifelong friends, we watched Ricki getting cosmic beneath wooden pyramids from which he suspended punctured cans of paint on strings and let them drain their contents in swirling hypnotic records of earth's gravitational forces. We met another artist, Vincenzo Ganadu, painting an abstract of color on a clean new board and by the end of the evening Vincenzo and I would be painting live together on a single canvas in a flurry of movement while a band blasted live music across the beach. Utterly lost in the moment, head-spinning to spiral galaxies, painting for a crowd on a beach in... Italy? Improbable? Yes, but even that is only an opinion.⠀

And it just so happens that our story's hero, Dwight Harrington, has his own Cloud Theory that traces back to the cloud patterns he saw in the Italian sky just before that first swell arrived in Gaeta back in 1969. He’s been watching the clouds ever since, and paying attention to the swells that followed them. Throughout this trip he’d point to the sky and explain what he saw in the clouds. There would be no waves. The clouds had spoken. I was skeptical, it seemed impossible. A lifelong surfer and student of the sea myself, this Cloud Theory just could not be. And yet he was always right. Other than that first day of waves, the sea remained flat on this trip. So whenever he chimed in about the clouds, I kept my mouth shut - partly out of respect, and partly because impossible really is just an opinion.

 

CLOUD THEORY    |   16" X  12"   |   PLEIN AIR

XII. End of the Rose

“We begin to die as soon as we are born, And the end is linked to the beginning.”

― Marcus Manilius
Roman Poet (1st century AD)

It’s the end of the rows that catch our eyes during a morning walk through the vineyard - specifically, the splashes of color. Sentinels standing guard, the roses planted at the end of each row stand at quiet attention. Though armed with thorns and arrayed in royal colors, their purpose isn’t militaristic at all. They're a different kind of sentinel - planted not for strength, but rather for their weakness. Any pathogen or deficiency present in these vines will show itself first in its effects on the roses, signaling to the vineyard’s caretakers that their attention is needed to stave off disease.⠀

Disease. The cancerous bastard. That illegitimate thief. That comrade to War. That perverse architect whose temples are designed to collapse. That twisted arborist that chops loved ones right off their family trees. That two-bit peddler of pulp fiction that even now, right here in Italy, is holding its greedy, pale, and worn eraser to the name of Dwight Harrington.⠀

And yet here Dwight stands in Piergiorgio Castellani’s vineyards, where generations of Castellanis have worked and rested, fought for independence from Austria and later fled to hide from the Nazis, where they lived and where they died - here Dwight stands, gazing at these delicate flowers, all while his body wars with the disease that is gnawing away at him even now. It is enough for him in this present battle just to take in the land through watery eyes and enjoy a momentary truce.⠀

The roses adorning this vineyard are no longer needed, it’s tradition and beauty that keeps them here now. Technological advances in viticulture allow a closer monitoring of vineyard health than a rose could ever indicate. What we see in the vineyard now is just the color of a flower existing on its own terms. Its blood-red petals at the end of a Roman spear. Its snow-white blooms capping the end of the Italian Alps in the distance. Its soft blue flowers blinking in an unborn child’s eyes. They are the beginning of the end… and the end of the rose.

 

END OF THE ROSE     |   20" X  16"   |   PLEIN AIR

XIII. Deep Calls to Deep

“The only people for me are the mad ones: the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who... burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles.”

― Jack Kerouac
American Poet and Novelist (1922-1969)
As printed out and taped on my father’s fridge by my sister (1968-2014)

Ok, hold on tight... ⠀

Enter Tom Curren, stage right, guitar in hand, gliding across an old Persian rug on roller skates. The same rug on which I stood painting live to his music after a surf festival just north of San Francisco. The same rug on which just a few hours earlier I nervously met Tom backstage behind a translucent screen where Jason Baffa’s film Bella Vita played (the part where Chris Del Moro paints a mural in Italy). The same rug that once belonged to Jerry Garcia, who was greatly influenced by Jack Kerouac, and who also once laid his hands on my own mother’s womb in Golden Gate Park in 1969 and blessed my unborn sister who went on to live a fabulous Roman candle of a life and introduced me to Kerouac’s work before cancer extinguished her visible flames. ⠀

The Beautiful Life. Bella Vita. Although my first encounter with the film proved to be a meaningful moment for me in its own way, I had no way to know just how far that magic carpet we stood on was going to take me in just a few years. If Jason Baffa hadn’t made that film about Chris Del Moro returning to Italy, Dwight Harrington wouldn’t have seen it and been immediately inspired to plan his return trip, catching me up in his slipstream. ⠀

Shortly after Bella Vita was released, Chris asked me to do a painting up in the hills near his home in California. I arrived with friends and we descended into Chris’s world like characters from a Kerouac novel and proceeded to hoot and holler and drink the afternoon right into evening, resulting in a rather questionable painting. He was gracious, but I knew I’d make it up to him one day. ⠀

Today was the day. I set up the easel in front of his mural in Italy and painted the scene in plein air. A gift for a friend. ⠀

Graffiti on the wall simply read, “READ KEROUAC.” Just two words, but oh how they burned, burned, burned...

 

DEEP CALLS TO DEEP     |   12" X  16"   |   PLEIN AIR

XIV. La Tavola

“It is the wine that leads me on, the wild wine that sets the wisest man to sing at the top of his lungs, laugh like a fool – it drives the man to dancing... it even tempts him to blurt out stories better never told.”

Homer
Ancient Greek Poet
(from The Odyssey)

There are few things more central to Italian life than “la tavola,” the table. It’s more than just the meals shared, it’s the family, the friends, the lives lived together around that table. ⠀

Yes, the table. ⠀

But also the wine.⠀

As Dwight Harrington strummed away on his old guitar from Gaeta on a cool evening on our host Piergiorgio’s vineyard, the conversations flowed over wine from grapes grown so close to the table you could have reached out and picked them without getting up. It is quite possible, likely even, that some of the stories that were blurted out around that table should have remained untold.⠀

That said, I do believe this meandering tale of Dwight Harrington’s return to Italy is truly worth its own telling. But if your opinion should be contrary, allow me here to say this: ⠀

There is wine.⠀

And there is wine made by a 5th generation Italian winemaker in the Tuscan countryside with a passion unrivaled in our time. ⠀

Do not confuse the two. ⠀

The former may lead to karaoke, but the latter can induce a 15-page, rambling, semi-poetic, non-linear narrative to crystallize in a triumphant haze in one’s mind before the night’s adventure meets its end.⠀

It may well be true that my complete inability to paint the human figure in a convincing way is only matched by my complete inability to tell this story straight through from start to finish in an understandable way, but that’s just how it is around this table.

Yes, this table.⠀

And also this wine.⠀

 

LA TAVOLA     |   16" X  12"   |   PLEIN AIR

XV. As the Wheel Turns

“In that book which is my memory,
On the first page of the chapter that is the day when I first met you,
Appear the words, ‘Here begins a new life’.”

Dante Alighieri
Italian poet (1265-1321)
(From Vita Nuova)

We intentionally avoided the classic tourist staples on this trip. An exception was made near the end of the trip and after a few stressful moments: chaotic traffic, missed turns, roads that turned out to be hiking trails, (ever wonder why European cars are so small?), broken parking meters, train stations, pick-pockets, missed trains, miles of walking in tightly herded corridors - at last we reached the famed villas of Cinque Terre on the northwestern Italian coast, and they did not disappoint.⠀

Floating in the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean beneath the colorful town of Manarola, named for its large mill wheel, my wife and I exchanged some weightless moments of reflection. A clarity of light burned into our minds forever casting out whatever preconceived notions we may have harbored about this trip. What before was only imagined, had now become tangible, birthed into our own vivid realities. The saltiest water never tasted so sweet. ⠀

Even as our wet feet climbed the stone steps carved into the mountainside where Dwight Harrington, the first surfer in Italy, sat waiting for us - even before we reached him we could see the tears in his eyes. The sea within him straining for the great sea itself as gravity made a valiant effort to sort out the details of the reunion. Though he’s lived and loved and lost as much as any man, these were not tears of sadness, they were tears of joy. While we were floating immersed and weightless in the waters below, Dwight Harrington was immersed in the full weight of this moment after receiving the news that only minutes ago, his first grandchild had been born. Not even the first wave surfed in Italy can compare with the emotion of this new chapter unfolding for Dwight Harrington.  ⠀

Welcome to the world, Diego Daniel Harrington. ⠀

When the time comes, may you also find a beautiful woman, who speaks English… ⠀

And Italian.

 

AS THE WHEEL TURNS     |   20" X  16"   |   PLEIN AIR

FINI


Verbal Alterations

A collection of short poems originally penned in 2012, now detached from their original purpose…

__________________________

A fine line
Divides the pursuit
Of overwhelming
Joy
From sheer
And loathsome
Irresponsibility

The high tide line
Divides
The rest

__________________________

On that Day we harnessed
History’s joyous
Laughter

But there was nobody around to hear it

So instead we
Split the Difference

__________________________

Under
Watchful Eyes
We pretend the Machinery
Will clean up the Remains
Of our Freedoms
Lost Forever
To the Systematic
Fire

We Burn your Money
And
Weep with your Love

__________________________

We drank
The last drop
And we left
The Sea
To Swim
In its own
Salty tears

We
Are
Bigger
Than you

__________________________

Drifting
Freely
Toward an Unknown
Moment

When it
Arrives
All of our eyes
Will be
Fixed
On
You

__________________________

It was already
Gone
Before we arrived, yet
It could have been
Different
If we had only
Tried

__________________________

We never did imagine
The Golden
Acceleration
Of our free fall
Would yield
So many left turns

And
No rights at all

__________________________

Distant words
Form
An altogether natural

State

Of thinly veiled
And
Unformed Rhyme

__________________________

We focus on the flight
And ignore
The objects at our feet

The Bird
Has been dead for weeks

__________________________

The river only Dreams
For those who Sleep
Otherwise it’s Life

__________________________

We lay tracks
To remember briefly
What the Unthinking
Water has always known

__________________________

Each passing storm
Brings a clearing of Mind
Revealing
The spiral rhythms
Of color
In your eyes
Both fragile

And totally free

__________________________

Wishing for another moment
To capture
The Inconvenient
Gaze
Of a child’s
Bright
and silent future

__________________________

Recklessly crashing
Upon unmoving
Geology

The cycle
Broken

Yet
Our Coffee
Remains
Unspilled

__________________________

These trembling walls dance
With their Maker’s invisible Spirit
As we wage War on Tomorrow’s Past
Victory was better an hour ago
And Defeat is a low-tide

Rising

The Distance is calling Our name

__________________________

Memories
Roll softly over
Unbroken
Glass
With each
New
Morning
Washing away
All knowledge
Of what came
Before
We lost it All

__________________________

Crawl
Out of your
Cave
And into the
Spinning
Daylight
of your new
Mobile
Home

Welcome Back

Now move along

__________________________

The beautiful
Convergence
Of powerful
Lines drawn
In constant
Contrast to
Our desire for
What we know
To be right, but
Somehow never
Seems to happen
In our daily lives
Filled with sprints
To the green horizon
In Every effort to not
Be swallowed by the
Accelerating pace of
Life in the intertidal
Zone

One last breath

Another Barb on the Wire

3 days. One family of 5. One campsite. 2 children lost (only temporarily). 7 miles hiked. 6 paintings completed. 3 paintings I wanted to paint but was thwarted by barbed wire. 1 global pandemic making things awkward. One long poem to show for it all...


I. Going Nowhere

Another Barb on the Wire
Hours to days
To months and soon years
We sit between these walls
Going nowhere
Slowly
Trapped in the microscope
The giant eye upon us
They locked us down
We loaded the van
A quick escape
Our desire
Another barb on the wire

II. Fair Wages

Stretching the legs
The will to live
Denied by the barrel
Of loaded guns
Pay to play
All the way
To the cemetery
A reminder that in this life
We all receive
The same fair wages
Both the great and the small
The honest and the liar
Each another barb on the wire

 

III. Spoke Too Soon

Screeching tires
Come to a stop
It's called camping
When your tent is a Ford
Frisbees and beer
Appear
Just before we discovered
The bookstore is in the hospital
On life support
And our youngest would not
Read another word
Until the new day dawns
We stood in the belly of the whale
And circled it seven times
As the dusk bled into the dawn
Setting out at first light
To fulfill our obligations
To the stars who spoke to us
But in our reply
We spoke too soon
And now we patiently await
The lifting of the clouds
Ever higher
And it's another barb on the wire

 

IV. Making Amends

The veil is lifted
The light is a flood
And I'm drowning
In a world torn asunder
Erosion on the western edge
Will rip its way to New York
In time
This is the first anniversary
Of the beginning
Of the end
It's a teacher
Like sickness
Like death
Like marriage
The lesson to be learned
It's about making amends
It's about that which cannot be sold
Because there is no buyer
It's just another barb on the wire

 

V. Burn No Bridges

We venture through the thicket
To where the logs once rolled
Into the ocean
Of Babylon's market
We stood against the wind
We lost a child
And found him again
Across the bridge
And angry
Burning footprints
Into the ice
We return by a different path
Stepping lightly
Into the dark
Past the hobo camps
Where a deer steps out of the shadows
And calls another child
To vanish in the trees
Search parties and satellites
We cannot force the time
She'll return when she pleases
Because she too was there
When we stood against the wind
Altogether now
We sing in a circle
We roast the mallows
And let them burn
More fuel for the flames
But not the chocolate
For it belongs to us
To fuel the fires within
Because after all
Calories are a measure of heat
And besides
It's better to burn no bridges
When it's only our hearts
That are on fire
Yet another barb on the wire

 

VI. Bridging Continents

Another gray morning
Greets the child
Asleep on top of the van
We'd be leaving today
Packing up camp
Sailing away
Like the Russians
When they gave up
California
In 1841
And after a headcount
Determined
There had been an extra
In their midst
Since 1812
He hid himself in this valley
Like a stowaway
As the mainland sailed
Away from the ship
With only his memories
Bridging continents
As he hacked out a new life
Through the brambles and the briar
He became another barb on the wire

 

VII. Spring in July

Unlike our lost children
The past is the past
It's not coming back
A ranch with no cattle
A park full of grass
With blood sucking armies
Hidden beside the path
A leisurely walk
No fences to hop
Just identical faces
Behind every mask
With identical fears
And identical tasks
Like Summer in Winter
And Spring in July
The feet they are blistered
And the situation dire
But all in all
And at the end of all ends
We're each just another barb on the wire