In the book On Writing author Stephen King shares with the reader his approach to writing a story. I note he describes almost the same process I used for many of the commissions I painted this year – the ones that were narratives. He writes about the value of being aware of what he wants his reader to experience. I think about my audience, and their experience, at the start of most everything I do. King writes on translating what he visualizes in his mind, into words on a page. I translate my thoughts into signs and symbols and place them on to a canvas. He notes another quality, and yes, I use it too…allow the reader (the viewer, in my case) to supply some information. And then…he says…it’s all about the story…
Part 2 of this story goes like this…
I meet with Dominique in early January, on a Saturday afternoon, to discuss a commission. She has in mind a family portrait.
She informs me of the two main characters, the focal points, her father Karl and her mother Helga. Karl has been in spirit for at least a decade. Dominique is considering presenting a family portrait to her mother. I don’t know why I imagine that she might keep it for herself. I ask her if it’s possible that she could keep it. Well, of course, I suppose that’s possible, she says.
I can’t meet Karl in body, to get a sense of him. Nor can I really sit and talk with Helga as it would ruin the surprise (if there’s to be one). I rely on Dominique’s descriptions and stories. Important to me are her facial and body expression as she shares details. We spend the Saturday discussing what appears to me to be a magical childhood. I’m sure Karl is present that afternoon…and maybe even Helga for that matter. I leave hours later with notes, photos, and a few unusual shells. The shells are a gift.
Karl Ferdinand Wichtl and Helga Maria Hörmann marry in Vienna, on Sept 21, 1958.
Karl, born March 19, 1932. The life of the party, over indulges in everything, Dominique tells me…food, drink, kindness, celebration…all of it! I like hearing about Karl, he’s a character. A free spirit. Yet practical! Self educated. Oil engineer. She smiles, lost in remembrance. He loved to have fun. He was also the one who made sure everyone else was having fun too. He wore wacky, crazy ties, thin, red leather, he had sideburns, he drank a lot, and he ate a lot…again, she smiles. He was a self-made man, very intelligent. And he had green eyes. Karl liked Boynton cartoons and treasure hunts. He liked the word FANTASTIC and used it often. She tells me a bit about his mother and father, her grandparents.
And she tells me how much Helga loved Karl.
Helga,born December 13, 1937, she is…intelligent, tenacious, disciplined and organized. Very organized! Dominique stresses. She held down the fort, she had to, we moved every few years. She was brilliant! Helga was an oil brat. Education was important to her. Dominique comes back to the present…light green eyes and… she…loves… black pearls.
I want the feeling of happiness in the work. Joy! Freedom! Bare feet! Dominique quickly starts to give visual possibilities but I don’t listen to all of it…I get the picture. She comes back to the word fantastic…everything was fantastic to Karl. With that word I begin and with that word I end.
We use to vacation in Bora Bora. The request is for a Polynesian landscape. Two other characters are important to this story – Dominique and her sister Patricia. We spent a lot of time in the water, like fishies. The four of us, all the time. Scuba diving. Collecting shells. She shares photos of their water escapades.
I begin the composition with an outline in treasure hunt format and then a cobalt sea floods in and takes over. I follow some of the barely visible trails and insert an oil rig in one spot, a representation of Karl’s work. His job took his family across the world.
An imaginary boat named “The Fantastic” gets placed strategically across the rig (in another treasure hunt spot), signifying balance, of work and play, the real and the fantastical. In the far background is the family, in bright silhouette. I borrow the familial image from the tarot deck. They point up to a cloud filled DNA strand where 8 birds fly, representing each daughter and her respective husband and children, the generations that would day come. The sun or the moon, I can’t say which, sits in the horizon and deposits light across the water, in the form of South America where the family lived for some time and where Dominique is born. Austria floats in the foreground, where Karl and Helga marry and Patricia is born. The masculine sun, and the feminine moon also act as time elements, night and day, day and night, on and on. Eternity above (infinity) and beneath Karl and Helga. The white dog represents Helga’s favored family pet. The cup of abundance and four fish shooting upwards…four shells collect around the cup…four sea horses make their way into the art work…family of four.
I fill the landscape with palm trees…lots of vegetation, sky and clouds, and a bungalow…all accurate to the photos I borrowed.
Wild and calm bright blue, full of life, fluid, magical is The Fantastic Tale of Karl and Helga.
The story doesn’t end here.
…I complete the painting in May. Dominique has it in her possession today. Where will it land? I suspect it will move several times…belong to one generation and then another, and perhaps another. The story will only continue. Fantastic!