When I was in Art School, one of my professors encouraged me to develop a ‘painterly vocabulary’. I didn’t know what he meant. Over time I began to understand that art is a language. That a painter uses line, color and form the way a writer uses words, sentences and paragraphs. A painting, even an abstract one, tells a story. The brush leaves tracks, opens doors, pokes holes in time and space.

Edward Hopper was one of my first heroes. I read somewhere that Hopper painted in order to reveal himself to himself. This made sense to me. I’ve always tried to create on the canvas (or the page) a mirror of what was going on inside me. Hopper did so much more. A woman stands in a darkened theatre, waiting (for whom?) in a cone of light. Two people sit in a room, one reading a paper, the other toying with the piano keys. A wedge of light slices the shadows on a New York rooftop, each angle, each shape telling the tale. Morning. Sunrise. Hope.

Edward Hopper gives us snapshots. A voyeur’s glimpse.  He offers up intimate tableaus that, with the turn of a head or the movement of the clock, would be lost forever. Jan Vermeer performs a similar magic. Vermeer takes us to 17th Holland and allows us to peek into the lives of everyday people. We watch a maid pour milk, a lady read a note from a lover. A woman plays the virginals while a man looks on, his gaze pensive. What is he thinking? A soldier sits at a table and drinks with his lady friend. Why is she smiling? Light filters through the diamond-paned windows and illuminates the lady’s face. Light diffuses across the wall, hinting at the time of day, the proximity of the sea.

Although they come from different cultures and lived hundreds of years apart, Hopper and Vermeer share a language. Hopper may have painted to reveal himself to himself, but he also reveals to us the full spectrum our humanity. He mirrors both our isolation and our need to connect. He counterbalances our emotional frailty with the solidity of the New York architecture, then slices across it all with a beam of light to remind us of what we are made.

Vermeer performs a similar magic. The 19th C critic William Burger said of Vermeer’s paintings that, “…there is silver in the light and pearl in the shadows.” These same words might apply to some fine passages from Tolkein or to a description of the sun setting on Bayou Teche by James Lee Burke. By virtue of vocabulary, the artist (the writer, the dancer, the musician, the cook) elevates the mundane into the realm of the transcendent.

This morning my dog and I walked over a fresh powdering of snow. Tracks crisscrossed the pond and tattooed the ground. If you understood the vocabulary of animal tracks you’d know exactly what transpired in the frozen moonlight. Who lived? Who died? Who ate? Who got eaten?

Tracks in the snow. Marks on a page. Shapes on the wall of a cave. Storytelling is in our blood. And so, maybe, is a dream of immortality. Everyone wants to leave something behind. A footprint. An impression. Everyone has a story to tell. Our stories make us human. Our imaginations make us real.


View Work



Pin It on Pinterest

Share This