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