I’m at the corner of Hoohu and Pee Rd. in Poipu, Kauai. The trees here are Koa, Pandanus, Ohia-lehua and Fig. To the eyes of a guy from up north, some of these trees look like they were designed over the phone. If I were to paint the sea that colour, they wouldn’t believe me. That cardinal over there requires a red I’m not sure I can make.
I’ve seen this woman before. This morning she was standing on the Keoneloa bluff waiting for the sunrise. She’s a big woman, with big features. She wears a floral mu’umu’u. Her skin is mahogany. She’s missing a few front teeth. “If I were an artist,” she says, “I’d record the sunsets we have here. And the sunrises. Did you ever see anything like them?” I agree with her that last evening was surreal. “And the birds are wonderful don’t you think? I would paint the birds,” she says. “These birds here are all different than the ones my grandmother knew. They’re better now. Not as rare, but more beautiful. They’re getting more beautiful all the time. And more of them. I’d do the birds if I were an artist.” I show her my bird book. “These are the wrong names,” she says, flipping through the illustrations. “That’s the Poo-uli; that’s the Iiwi; that’s the Akialoa.” I tell her it’s really great that she knows them by their authentic Hawaiian names. “You might not be able to do them if you didn’t know what they were,” she says. She looks at what I’m doing. I can see that she feels in her heart she would do it better. Then she calls out to some folks she knows and rushes off to talk to them.
This dazzling, midday light is difficult. It lends itself to the impressionist way. Or perhaps I should make it super-real. It’s all so super-real. And the water is dancing with abstract patterns. I feel like Gauguin. I think I’ll paint the sky red. Even though it’s blue. I only think I’m an artist. I wonder if I’m doing my job.
PS: “An artist is only an artist on condition that he neglects no aspect of his dual nature. This dualism is the power of being oneself and someone else at one and the same time.” (Charles Baudelaire)
Esoterica: “For us artists there waits the joyous compromise through art, with all that has wounded or defeated us in daily life — not to evade destiny, as the ordinary people try to do, but to fulfil it in its true potential — the imagination.” (Lawrence Durrell)
This letter was originally published as “If I were an artist” on January 11, 2002.
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“The represented forms are loaded with psychological feeling. It can’t ever just be painting.” (Richard Diebenkorn)
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