Another Exclusive Excerpt From Howard Mansfield’s Newest Book
Enjoy another excerpt from Howard Mansfield’s latest book, “Chasing Eden”
“In Search of Visual Magic”
One autumn my wife and I spent a few days hiking from hut to hut in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains. The Appalachian Mountain Club runs the huts, staffed with a young “croo” who make dinner, show you to your hard bunk bed, and gather everyone after dinner to tell us, for god’s sake, to “drink in advance of thirst.” Sometimes they’ll put on a skit trying to deliver this simple message.
You meet other hikers in the huts, and after dinner there’s a lot of time to sit around and talk. That year we kept running into recently divorced men in their thirties. They were confused and adrift. “She said, ‘I’ve grown beyond you,’” one told us, looking at us as if to say, Have you ever heard of such a thing? “I don’t know why I’m walking,” he said, and then treated us to a flood of talk so earnest it was bound to ruin any quest, scare off any evanescent moment. He was looking for a sign, a way forward, an epiphany, a pardon perhaps. In the hut’s logbook, the bewildered seeker left a long quote from the Tao te Ching, all about flexibility and rigidity, being like a flower not a rock, and so on. (Other hikers left comments that were, unknowingly, right in the tradition of the sublime. [For more on this tradition, see part one of this two-part saga, “Awe on the American Plan” in our August issue or online.] “The view is awesome!!” wrote one 12-year-old boy.)
We had similar conversations with more divorced men at other huts that year. Why are you here in the mountains? they asked, as if you could dial up a transcendent moment if you had the right hiking gear and made it to the summit on a good day. Why are you walking? These hut-to-hut walkers were like the nineteenth-century tourists, like the artists, too. All of us want something from the mountains—activity, repose, renewal. We ask a lot of granite and pine, water and sky.
On the day that I stood with my artist friend, James Aponovich, watching cars and motorcycles race up Mt. Washington, we were just two more guidebook-bound seekers wanting something from the mountains.
James grew up in New Hampshire, in Nashua, an old mill city on the Massachusetts border that is known today for its sprawl and malls. Though he is a native, he had seldom been north of Concord, the state capital. He described our trip to the North Country as “going to see New Hampshire.” His whole adult life he has known the White Mountains as the artists had painted them. He has known Thomas Cole’s mountains and John Frederick Kensett’s mountains, and here, just a few hours into his visit, he was squinting at this race to the summit. James wanted to know if “visual magic was still happening.”
He made a face that looked as if he were tasting a lemon. When he does this, he is in a painter’s world. He’s surveying, auditioning the scene for composition, color, and light. Did this place speak to him as the mountains had spoken to the earlier artists? Could he catch a moment when it leaps to life, “hums” as the Mojave had for Robert Irwin? I stepped aside, let him be, making a note to ask him later about what he saw.
I had visited Nashua with him and his wife, Beth. I had insisted on it. He didn’t want to go, and once we were there, I understood why. In Nashua, as in other mill cities, the mills are like red brick dams. They rise four or five stories, close to the narrow sidewalks, casting the streets in Manhattan-like canyons of bluish shadows. The dam wall repeats, window after window, block after block. In that repetition is the story of a mill city. Day after day making shoes or cloth until your life goes by. A mill city’s life is repetitive or it fails and the mills shutter.
James’s family worked in the mills, his grandmother in the “shoe shops,” his father in a sweatshop that made cheap luggage, “a scene like Dickens. Hell itself,” said James. His mother was a clerk at an insurance company. He grew up in a cheerless home with a distant, cruel father and a mother who had such a dark outlook that she was known in the extended family as the “black hole.” His grandparents were laid siege by drink and depression. His mother’s father drank to a stupor, the cigarette in his mouth burning down to his lips. James would come upon his mother’s mother sitting alone, crying. She’d been shipped to America from Poland at age thirteen, not speaking English. A few years later she was forced into an arranged marriage. In her wedding pictures she’s angry. Her husband spent his last years in a mental hospital. James would wait outside while his mother visited, working with a learn-to-draw kit. His grandmother was a hard worker, setting aside enough on mill wages to have a duplex house built, send her daughter to secretarial school and put a son—James’s uncle—through Harvard. She rented out one side of the small duplex. James’s family lived with her on the other side. He shared a room with his brother.
As a boy, he found refuge in the city parks and ponds by the Salmon Brook. He knew “every muskrat hole, every inch” of the rushy recesses along the river, the park, and the ponds. He fished and swam there, and at age sixteen had his first job as a lifeguard. The park was his little bit of Eden. “My release, my way of getting away from it, and I did daily, was to go into nature where I sought solace,” he said. He learned solitude; he learned about life and death. For years he walked by a fallen tree. One day it was covered with mushrooms. Life was this moment, but it was also ever-renewing. He still has a map he drew of his favorite pond. He also hung out with a neighborhood friend, drawing on boards from coal bins. As if recapitulating history, they drew animals, the cellar coal bin a Cave of Lascaux. He remembers how much he enjoyed drawing; he’d never experienced that kind of pleasure before.
He struggled in school; no one had noticed until he was in the third grade that his right eye was 20/80, one quarter of normal vision. Trying to see the blackboard, he frequently had headaches and was nauseous. He had cheated on the eye tests so he wouldn’t get in trouble. He dreaded parent-teacher nights; his parents would come home and beat him. At age eight he drew a picture of his father whipping him with a big whip. “He was a very violent man, very unloving and uncaring.” James was also left-handed, which to his mother was a sign of the devil. She forced him be right-handed, which just scrambled his brain, leaving him even more uncertain. He began stuttering.
His father, retired from the Navy, made James and his brother stand for inspection. They had to sit up straight at the table, no leaning back. They had to call him “the Boss,” not Dad or Father. His father never celebrated anything; he refused to accept gifts from his sons. His mother tried her best with birthdays and Christmas. There were no books, no bedtime stories, no art in the house, no flowers—“Why buy flowers when they’re just going to die?” said his mother. In later years, his parents never went to one of their son’s art shows, never stood full of pride before any of their son’s paintings, which are in the permanent collections of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago and about twenty museums across the country. Though I had known him for years, James had never told me any of this until our tour. He believes that you are responsible for creating your adult life. You are not fated to repeat the sins of your father. He has no patience for people who parade themselves as victims of their childhood.
The chief message of the Nashua of his childhood was to stay in your place. It was a city of immigrants, each wary of the other groups. The city was strictly sorted by parish: the Irish ruled the lower classes, grasping respectability as merchants; the Polish were next; and the French Canadians, the most numerous, were the last to arrive and thus the most despised. Main Street ran downhill from the wealthy North End—which “was like the promised land of big houses and big lawns”—toward varying degrees of poverty in the tenements of the East and West Ends, and the striving working class in the South End, where James grew up. At the high school, the kids from the North End and the South End used different entrances. “I was well aware of my standing in life. You were reminded of it every day,” he said.
One day when he was fourteen years old, James and a friend were walking around the North End looking at the big Queen Anne and Shingle Style houses. A cop stopped them.
“Where are you from?” he demanded.
“The South End,” they answered.
“Get outta here. You don’t belong up here.”
If you had seen James back then walking along the street, nearly blind in one eye, stuttering, you might have said, “You see that kid? See that Polack?”—for that is how you would have talked—“That kid is going nowhere.” That’s what his hometown taught him. There was no one around him saying: be an artist, follow your “bliss,” live up to “your potential,” and other such feel-good talk that lives in nice suburban homes.
James was depressed for a week after our visit and I was, too. Any time he returns to Nashua he gets nausea. I had expected it to be grim, but I was unprepared for the layers of oppression, each building on the next like eons of limestone pressing down, fossilizing any bit of life. It was a dark and claustrophobic childhood.
In college he studied geology first, then, after seeing a Degas or a Renoir still life with flowers and experiencing his “first aesthetic seizure,” art history. He borrowed a friend’s paints and brushes and began to paint. Time and again he was told that he wasn’t an artist, that he “didn’t have it.” So he studied by himself, teaching himself perspective and composition. He took the masters of the Italian Renaissance as his teachers. He admires the freshness and discovery in their work.
His adult life is the obverse of his childhood. He and Beth take time to celebrate. They are accomplished cooks, gracious hosts, spirited, ambitious gardeners, and devoted parents to their daughter, Ana. Art brought them together. Beth is an artist who composes still lifes in pastel, oil, and pencil. Their life and their art are one. Everything they do is “about making something harmonious and beautiful from elements. Cooking. Gardening. It’s not always conscious, but you find it happening,” he said.
They are a close couple seen together everywhere, even if it is just the weekly trip to the town dump or the hardware store. I’ve joined them on sketching trips. There is a long foreground in making a painting. They go to work first by looking. You could easily miss this kind of work. It’s a lot of ambling around—looking and sketching and looking some more. They quietly discuss what they’re seeing with the economy of language of two longtime married people, shorthand talk that is more like thinking aloud. Coming down a hill, James stopped the car and said: “I like the thrust of the pointed balsams against the softness of the hills.” Beth took a photo. He propped his sketch pad on the steering wheel, studying the scene, before sketching a series of vertical arrows with a bowed line behind suggesting a hill. He liked the darkness of the balsams against the lighter green hill. When they are working like this, they will return to the same place many times at different times of the day, take time always for a good lunch, and amble around some more, scouting out other locations. As Beth said when they were sketching a few houses, “when you draw, you feel each building.”
James is known for his portraits of flowers, often against imaginary Italian landscapes. The flowers are precise and heroic, visions of a more perfect order. When he paints flowers they are idealized, larger than life, freed from the Japanese beetle that ate them. He lets them be their true selves.
If the flowers in James’s portraits are aristocratic, Beth has given him a head start. The tulips in Beth’s gardens seem to have an extra dimension. They are larger and more colorful than most tulips from a florist. A florist’s tulips seem meek and repressed when set down near these tulips. A vase of her pink French Menton tulips has nobility. Her striped parrot tulips are ablaze. They command attention in a room. These are the tulips that star in many of James’s paintings.
When they built a new house about fifteen years ago, they began the gardens years before construction. Beth planted one thousand bulbs, as well as annuals. The Aponoviches ran a garden-to-canvas operation. The season flowed from the garden through the studio. They view gardening as they do painting and sketching. “There’s no difference,” said James. “Gardens are a living, breathing sculpture.”
The flowers on his canvases are also living and breathing, because he’s painting more than just the surface. There’s a depth animating these scenes. “If I am painting a peach, it’s not just the soft, furry flesh outside, but the hard pit inside,” he said. If he’s painting an empty pot, he paints that emptiness. And he paints the air.
When a painting lives, you are aware of the air—the air has a life, he said. “You can see paintings that just look dead. They look dead at the surface; they look flat. There’s nothing fluid in there. There’s no movement.” These paintings lack the “invisible, uniting force” of air that “goes way back into the landscape and comes forward again. It becomes the thing that transforms it from two dimensions—something you can knock your fingers on—to something that you can inhabit. Your depth of field is infinite. And through that you come back again, and go around things visually,” he said, reminding me of Starr King pleading for tourists to see the mountains “through large intervening depths of air.”
“You go back to the Chinese, and they said a painting is a journey where your eye wanders for thousands of miles. You have to bring the viewer through, around everything for a total understanding of the reality that’s occurring,” James said.
His paintings are a happy journey for many viewers. At the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, I’ve stood near one of his paintings—Castello Nuovo: Still Life with Day Lilies and Watermelon—just watching people look at his art. Many were smiling. Two women were talking about where they’d hang that painting, if they could, back home, you know, over the blue sofa. When I told James this, he smiled broadly. (Another woman has had this painting tattooed on her arm.)
“There is an unmistakable joy in the paintings of James Aponovich,” said Thomas B. Parker, associate director of the Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York City. Parker curated a show of James’s art. “Few still lifes are as unabashedly positive or visionary. With their exuberant color, billowing clouds and twisting ribbons, these distinctive combinations of landscape and still life are mood-altering. Their vibrant light and almost palpable details seem to spill off the canvas. . . . These works are celebrations of the life James and his wife Elizabeth have built together with their daughter. . . . Know these paintings and you will know James Aponovich. They tell of a life well-lived—the stuff of dreams and happiness.”
My friend is an escape artist, but that’s probably true of every artist and writer, of anyone who shapes something out of his life. In the happy scenes of flowers and fruit, the pit is hiding, the still center is hiding, giving form to the entire show.
I had organized James’s trip “to see New Hampshire.” I had plotted a great circle route that wheeled us clockwise through the notches—Franconia, Crawford, and Pinkham. Heading for home, we stopped at Cathedral Ledge. We were visiting the sites of the great paintings as you might visit, in some churches, the Stations of the Cross. We were moving through the mountains at a very un-Starr King-like rate.
It was an odd day. My usual trip, with my wife, is an early morning beeline to a trailhead and a day of hiking in the mountains—Washington, Eisenhower, Lincoln, Lafayette, and others. We don’t keep score; we do have favorites. But on this day with James, we stopped at rest stops and tourist viewpoints we’d always driven past. We were marking the bounds of where the nineteenth-century painters had worked. A few of our stops:
Echo Lake: We arrived as modern travelers, after parking. The Echo Lake parking lot took us by surprise. It was a large empty lot with a row of imposing motorhomes parked at one end, about a dozen white boxes, looking like huge refrigerators lying on their sides, pulled tightly together. In the shadow of the boxes were families at tables having breakfast. In the rest of the lot, two overweight kids, age eight or so, were riding tiny “pocket” motorbikes—fleshy blobs tottering over comically small motorcycles looping around and around. “Oh my God, circus midgets,” said James. The whole scene looked like a depopulated Fellini film—a Fellini scene after budget cuts.
We walked down to the beach, where there was a strong sewage odor. The beach had been raked. A bathroom and snack stand crowded the shore. A few canoes were on the lake. At the far end we could see traffic hurtling by on Interstate 93: buses, trucks, and motorhomes racing north. In that view was the recent history of Franconia Notch.
Echo Lake was an oft-painted scene, the small oval serving as a tranquil foreground for the steep mountains of the notch. It was one of the beloved places of this “little Yosemite,” along with the waterfalls and pools of the Flume Gorge and New Hampshire’s symbol, the Old Man of the Mountain. The old paintings of Franconia Notch have a sweet presence; they sit in their own light and quiet. It’s a small, wild world, like a wilderness in a bowl. The notch was a complete world conjured by the artists.
Thomas Cole loved Echo Lake and its close companion, Profile Lake. Standing here about 180 years earlier, before snack stands and parking lots, he was moved to rapture by this “wild mountain gorge”: “Shut in by stupendous mountains which rest on crags that tower more than a thousand feet above the water, whose rugged brows and shadowy breaks are clothed by dark and tangled woods, they have such an aspect of deep seclusion, of utter and unbroken solitude, that, when standing on their brink a lonely traveler, I was overwhelmed with an emotion of the sublime, such as I have rarely felt. It was not that the jagged precipices were lofty, that the encircling woods were of the dimmest shade, or that the waters were profoundly deep;
but that over all, rocks, wood, and water, brooded the spirit of repose, and the silent energy of nature stirred the soul to its inmost depths.”
Franconia Notch has survived extinction twice. In the 1920s the notch was threatened with clear-cut logging (winner take all). A national outpouring of editorials, poems, and money rescued the notch. Donations came from bankers and women’s clubs; children at an orphanage sent in their pennies. Franconia Notch was set aside as a state park. Then, in the 1950s, the notch was threatened again, this time with an interstate highway. The blasting and filling for four lanes and shoulders and access ramps would have overwhelmed the narrow notch and buried parts of Echo and Profile Lakes, squeezing what was left behind retaining walls. After twenty years of court challenges, studies, and new federal laws, a declawed two-lane “parkway” edition of the interstate slips through the notch, not much bigger than the old state route it replaced. It was a great victory. This is the only place in the 46,876 miles of interstate where the mandated four-lane highway was overturned. Today we have a scenic highway, a tamed landscape, still beautiful, but the spirit that moved Cole and many other artists has walked away. I chi-go, I chi-e the Japanese say—“one encounter, one opportunity” or “one time, one meeting”—one of the many Japanese expressions, tricky to translate, for the fleetingness of life, for the way moments arise and are gone. I chi-go, I chi-e—“for this time only.”
Willey House: The Willey House in Crawford Notch made the White Mountains famous. In 1826 the Willey family was caught in an avalanche. They ran out of their house—the lone house for miles around—only to be killed. Their house was untouched. Had they stayed home they would have lived. The family of seven, plus two hired hands, died. The bodies of three children were never found. This story captivated people for years, figuring in stories, poems, and sermons. Tourists visited the house, which sat as the Willeys had left it, with the Bible open on the table. Everyone was ready with a moral about the strength of the family hearth and the Lord’s mysterious ways. The house was one of the White Mountains’ most popular tourist attractions until it burned down in 1899.
In engravings and paintings the Willey House is starkly surrounded by huge boulders on a steep hillside. It looks forlorn and unforgiving. The engravings are meant to make the viewer gasp: How could anyone live there?
The Willey House site, marked by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in 1926, 1925 is in a flat place right by a souvenir stand and bathrooms. What you see is a brown souvenir stand with an air conditioner sticking out the window close upon the DAR-marked foundation, which has a footprint about the size of a toolshed. Behind it is a telltale white cane, a vent pipe for a septic field, and behind that, bathrooms. The souvenir stand is retro-tacky, summer-camp rustic. Inside there are cute little souvenirs with bears and moose, a few booklets about the Willey family disaster, ice cream, and a big display of many-flavored fudge.
The Willey House site says, “A family died here. Would you like some fudge?” That’s the story I get from our visit. We had a hard time accepting this as the site of this wilderness tragedy.
The Willey disaster never coheres into a myth, to a clear story, to “essences” beyond human complexity, as Roland Barthes said. It’s muddled. The nineteenth-century storytellers and moralists wanted it to become a fable, to pass into a new-forming American myth. But it was just upsetting: a panicked family rushing out into the night to die.
Cathedral Ledge: The ledge was a favorite of the nineteenth-century landscape painters. You would be hard pressed to find most of their viewpoints, which have been subsumed by a monster-sized case of sprawl. We tried, poking around behind outlet malls and near a fantasy adventure motel. (Your choice of rooms: Log Cabin, Roman Spa, The Jungle, Dragon’s Lair, Deserted Island, 1970s Love Shack, New York Penthouse, Motorcycle Madness, among others.) We looked off a famous hill and found one view near a banana hut-themed water slide. Here, in the summer of 1850, John Frederick Kensett made the sketches for what would become an iconic view of the young nation, Mount Washington from the Valley of Conway, with the great mountain seen across the valley known as the Intervale. The American Art Union bought the painting the next year and circulated an engraving to its thirteen thousand five hundred members. Artists set out for the Intervale. “The meadows and the banks of the Saco were dotted all about with white umbrellas in great numbers,” recalled Kensett’s close friend and painting companion Benjamin Champney, noting the umbrellas that shaded painting easels. Currier & Ives altered Kensett’s painting (recasting Mt. Washington as a Swiss Alp), making it the most popular American landscape painting in the nineteenth century.
“This view from Intervale can not be surpassed for living, glowing beauty by anything in New England,” said Champney. “The view has been painted many times and by artists of great distinction, but never has the ideal been realized. Its elusive charm can not be fully grasped.”
Starr King agreed, praising the valley and the village of North Conway. “Such profuse and calm beauty sometimes reigns over the whole village, that it seems to be . . . a suburb of Paradise. . . . Certainly, we have seen no other region of New England that is so swathed in dreamy charm.”
The broad valley bewitched artists. Their love for the Intervale shows. Their paintings carry you into the valley’s Sunday quiet. In hundreds of paintings, the Intervale provided a bucolic foreground and middleground to Mt. Washington. Along the Saco’s curving riverbanks, cows grazed under elms. The land was as soft and open as the English countryside, a contrast to the rough profile of Mt. Washington in the distance.
Champney painted the Intervale many times, as well as other grand mountain scenes, but his favorite place was the Artists’ Brook near his summer home. “From the first day I sketched . . . I have never ceased to be loyal to my first love. Many, many days and hours have I passed, painting and singing an accompaniment to its silvery music,” he said. He knew “almost every nook and transparent pool in its three-mile course.” He’d set out with his lunch in his pocket and his “trap,” his paints, easel, and canvases, to work in “some secluded, solitary point, with no voice but the brook to cheer me or urge me on to the struggle of solving Nature’s mysteries of light and shade and color.”
If you were looking for a prescription for how to live, this would be it. We could all do well by being Benjamin Champney at Artists’ Brook. Live local, look deeply; realize the impossibility of ever really knowing even a few square inches of the earth. Sing the joys of your place, over and over, knowing that you can never get it right.
“These have been the most happy days, for the striving to do a difficult thing is most pleasurable, even though the work is not successful,” Champney said. This is what artists know. “Artists, by the nature of their work, are solitary,” James wrote for a catalog to one of his shows. “Our most important hours are invisible to the public, days of quiet work, both exultant and tortured. We are judged not by our effort but by the end product . . . the art. But most art is not entirely successful; it only points the way for improving on the next attempt. A painting is only finished when there is nothing else one can do to make it any better. True success is simply starting again, striving for something ineffable, unrealized and unimagined.”
We drove to the top of Cathedral Ledge, where there were three oddities:
- A low chain-link fence near the edge. It is probably the only fence on any of the thousands of ledges, cliffs, and overlooks in New Hampshire.
- A sign: Do Not Throw Objects Rock Climbers Below
- The rock climbers, who clanged like Marley’s ghost as they tied themselves to a spindly tree worn smooth from so many ropes, hopped the low fence and dropped out of sight.
James surveyed the Intervale below. On one farm, an old-timer on an old red tractor was making hay. In the next field, migrants working, backs bent, were picking strawberries. In the forest was the beach of a state park, which even at this distance looked trodden. Overused and underfunded. Directly below, the forest was cut into lots. A-frame houses. Vacationland! The wide, sandy banks of the Saco River curved through the valley. Across the way as the hills climbed were a sandpit, a ski resort, and a platoon of condos—long gray slots in the green.
James got that lemon-tasting look on his face. “Forget it,” was all he said as he turned away. He looked seriously disappointed, like a captain disgusted by a false report of a landfall.
“It’s closed to us,” he said. “What those early painters saw is closed to us.”
“It is,” I agreed. “On this day, at this moment, it’s closed to us.”
We left. Back in the valley we stopped at a drive-through strawberry stand. (We got out of the car.) On our way to our last stop we passed a mobile-home dealership that featured a log-cabin model. A log cabin on wheels. There’s a lot of American history right there: The frontier on the road. Daniel Boone meets Jack Kerouac. Little House at the Gas Pump.
The old order was a walker’s pace. Even after the railroad had delivered the tourists to their hotels, they spent much of their time walking the piazza and nearby trails or on horseback or in a carriage. The grand hotels were a European transplant, an echo of the Old Country in an immigrant nation. The North Country has never gotten over the grand hotel era. They have spent a long time thinking about when they held the world’s attention as “the Switzerland of America.” Everywhere you go in the White Mountains you are confronted with souvenirs of past glory, historic signs and dates on buildings, and photos of vanished hotels.
The new order is American. The interstate highway wedged right into Franconia Notch. Zoom and go and go some more. During Laconia Motorcycle Week in June, which brings a couple hundred thousand motorcycles into New Hampshire, my wife and I were far up a trail in Franconia Notch, by a waterfall. We couldn’t escape the motorcycles’ pulsing song.
Americans are not a people who sit in mountainside teahouses and write haiku or paint or do calligraphy. Faced with a big landscape, with a big place, we increase our rpm—we go, go, go. We up our gear—big motor homes with stuff hung on the side or top: kayaks, mountain bikes, motorbikes, and a car or all-terrain vehicle in tow. Draped in piles of dangling carabiners like modern chain mail, we throw ourselves over rock ledges. We dress in leather and Kevlar pants and motorcycle, or bright yellow jerseys and Lycra pants and bicycle.
We don’t look at landscapes. We move through them. Motion. Not emotion. The auto road is a monument to motion, to the crazy American refusal to accept the end of the road. Drive on.
As James had watched the cars going up and down the Mt. Washington Auto Road, he’d almost had vertigo, he said. The mountain seemed trivialized as an amusement ride. He was saddened by what he had seen, by the lack of “rest” in the rest area. “It’s the sadness of not arriving,” I said. You are here—but you are not. You are in transit. Where is here? The signs tell you, the exhibits, all trying to make up for the disconnection. Most tourist places are defined by an accumulation of narrative: signs, pamphlets, and exhibits. Explanation or, rather, “information” is the mark of a tourist site. Everything will be explained: What you are looking at, why you are looking at it, and the best place to pose for a photo in front of it. You are not here and soon you are gone. On to the next attraction. There is no smack in our seeing.
We didn’t drive up the mountain that summer day. We returned in winter. James booked two seats for us in the snowcat, the giant snowplow that clears the road in winter. The summit that day wasn’t home to “the world’s worst weather”; it was having a fine, blue-sky day. We could see for more than a hundred miles—mountains in all directions. The view, James said, is all distance. There’s no middle ground; the foreground is created by having someone stand in front. We were looking at space. Mountains without end. No narrative. We couldn’t shuffle the deck and make it tell stories.
The summit is choked with narration, with the histories of the Tip-Top House, the stage office, and signs and markers and tales of different climbs, different peaks we could see from there. Supplying this history is the equivalent of trying to make up for the lack of foreground and middle ground in the view. It’s an attempt to add our scale, our size. The same can be said of the paintings and guidebooks whose mission is to get what we see into a shape we can understand: beginning, middle, end; foreground, middle ground, background. Let’s put the human eye in the equation and let’s put our sense of narrative here. Let’s make a clock we can read.
But nothing in the mountains is moving to the timeline of our short lives. The mountains are millions of years old, having arisen as continents drifted and collided. They rose up and up, were scoured by ice for millennia, and stand here today in this brief moment between ice ages.
The sublime was about glimpsing that other timeline, a view into eternity or, as Emerson said, “an influx of the Divine Mind into our mind.” The artist’s task, said Cole, was to teach people “the laws by which the Eternal doth sublime and sanctify his works, that we may see the hidden glory veiled from vulgar eyes.”
Is all our activity—the auto road, hiking, rock climbing, driving all-terrain vehicles into the woods—an attempt to shout down the sublime? To turn mountains into selfies? Or is it what we do to fill a void, the void where the sublime was?
All the paintings, the mountains bearing the names of presidents and scrambled Indian legends, the historical markers, all of this is an effort to domesticate a place, to make a wilderness more homelike. It’s an attempt to make ourselves visible amid the mountains. To declare a view sublime or beautiful is also to downsize the mountains, to get a frame around them. The paintings are stories and the stories they tell are of mountains that are there for us—to uplift, to instruct, to thrill—but all for us.
So much of our activity is about naming. In the early 1800s, Lucy Crawford guided many climbing parties up Mt. Washington. She was a skilled host; she ran an inn with her family. She knew what her guests wanted; that’s why she went through the trouble of carrying up the mountain a large sheet of lead, “eight or ten feet in length, seven inches wide, and the thickness of pasteboard.” It was for her guests to write their names on with an iron pencil she had made. This was much quicker than waiting for everyone to pound their names into the summit with a hammer and chisel. Her hiking parties often stayed only long enough to carve their names, just long enough to downsize the mountain with their story. All the historical markers and photos, all the applications of history is foreground—it’s carving our names.
Here’s a vast landscape, one that it’s easy enough to die in, so we throw dates and narrative at the big mountains. It’s a way of creating foreground, of pushing the mountains back. We can’t inhabit the vast mountain itself, even on the top of Mt. Washington with all its buildings.
The early visitors to the White Mountains delighted in echoes. Innkeepers would fire off a gun or a cannon in Crawford Notch to entertain their guests. Guidebooks would direct hikers to the better echo points, such as Mt. Agassiz, where at the right spot, they could hear the mountain returning their call five times. There are two Echo Lakes, only forty-five miles apart. “These mountains are full of echoes. There are ‘echo lakes’ and ‘echo hills’ and echo places unnumbered,” reported the newspaper published on Mt. Washington’s summit, Among the Clouds, in 1877. In Franconia Notch, the firing of a cannon was part of the ritual of visiting that Echo Lake. The echoes broke the silence; the mountains spoke to them. What we want to find in the mountains is everything that’s missing in the valleys—freedom, adventure, a new self, a new earth. The hope is that a sheer rise of rock, a new angle of light, will liberate us from ourselves.
Driving home, James was thinking about what it takes to make a “lump of rock” mean something to humans.
After discussing this for many miles, we more or less agree that a good painting makes the unseen visible, and once visible, the painting buries it. The scene becomes obscured by what people have been taught to see. Expectations are clouding the view. The real thing is covered over by an image that is diluted in reproductions, postcards, mugs, tote bags, and with words and analysis. The mountain view disappears. It becomes a sign, a representation of itself—something we recognize in a blink, in an outline.
Great art promises liberation, contact with the real, but ends up, too often, as yet another obstruction to seeing. The progression of our visits to art museums sadly mimics the rise and fall of seeing. We confront the works of art and spill out into the gift shop where the art is reduced to a signature painting or part of a painting on a shopping bag—a sign of a sign.
“To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees,” said Paul Valery. But naming the thing, painting the thing, is to forget seeing. Like a leviathan, the mountain view rises from the deep, is seen, is named, and then disappears.
Visions of Grace and Granite
James Aponovich’s compositions trace divine curves and proportions like a bespoke suit and are saturated with colors so rich they threaten to bleed if gazed upon too deeply. The art of James Aponovich is globally acclaimed and prized, so most of his original works aren’t easy to access, but there are plenty of local opportunities to view a genuine Aponovich if you’re lucky enough to live in his home state. Several of his paintings are in the collection of the Currier Museum. Two are on display in the first-floor atrium of Nashua City Hall, the Nashua Public Library has a Nashua cityscape he painted available to view in a public space, and his mural of Nashua’s beloved and long-gone Yankee Flyer Diner (photo on previous page) is always just a few steps away for downtown Gate City dwellers.
For art lovers willing to travel, there will be an Aponovich exhibit at Clark Gallery, Lincoln, Massachusetts, from mid-October to mid-November. (Note: The Clark Gallery recently moved to a new location in Lincoln, so check before jumping in the car.)
An illuminating and educational look at his process focused on his “Appledore, Agapanthus” (below, right) is available in an October 2013 post titled “The Evolution of a Painting” on his blog aponovich52.blogspot.com.