River Run

paintings, photographs and text by Jessica Stammen

The other night I had a dream. I was paddling on a river. It was not too wide, but also not small enough to be a stream. I was with two friends – a woman and a man, an old friend and a new. We were very near the river’s mouth and I could sense the presence of the ocean at our backs as we traveled upstream. We were standing on inflated dinghies, a foot on either ballooned rail, dipping, catching and pulling our paddles through calm waters to move forward, which was also to move backward, against the current. But there was no struggle, just peace.

It seemed to be early spring. The banks of the river felt sparse, but because there were no leaves on the trees to diffuse the light everything felt direct and close and surrounding. My eyes, like a camera, panned and lens flare was all around. Everything was illuminated, even the space and the air between everything. Think butter, gold, cinnamon and all things warm, not in your mouth or in your hand, but in your eye.

This was the dream, perfect peace…until I was suddenly in a house that, although geographically not far from the river, might well have been worlds away. The house had a sense of loss. The light was no longer flared; it was clear and had a cool cast. I was looking through a window and the grid of the panes mimicked the rows of a garden I could see beyond in the yard. There was a woman working the ground with a hoe. My new friend, the man, had left the river at the woman’s insistence and was working alongside her. He missed the river but he was resolved. I was sad for him.

I recently had an opening for an exhibition of my artwork and had all the expectations for it in the world – the world, of course, being too much an influence on these expectations and what success should look like. I even dressed the part; black dress, high heels.

My paintings are as much a part of me as my hand or my ear. As a painter I put bits and pieces of myself out into the world and, like anyone on this earth, I experience the utter confidence of being exactly who I am mixed with all the anxiety of whether and how I will be received. Will I be liked? Loved? Acknowledged? Valued? What about my work, which is the evidence I leave behind to show that I am engaged and alive in this world? More than my hand or my ear, my work will remain where and when I am not. My paintings are the paddle strokes, the eddies and the wake I leave behind while traveling the river.

On the night of my opening I so wanted my paintings to prove I was finally traveling well, making progress along the river. It was only January when I made the decision to devote myself full-time to art; it was a big decision. I felt some sense of earning or deserving a cosmic confirmation that I was now on the right path. Of course, I expected this confirmation to come in the form of sales.

I felt my boat capsize when the evening ended without a single red dot. Thankfully my misdirected expectations didn’t set in until much later that night when I was home and wondering how I would make rent. They became panicked gasping breaths taken at the surface – but before realizing the water was actually shallow enough to stand in.

I look around now, slightly embarrassed, and hop back into my boat. I kick off those heels and stand with a foot on either rail.

I am often asked when and how I began to paint.

The summer after eighth grade I bussed tables at Fitzy’s Deli. I loved Fitzy but I didn’t love bussing tables. The next summer, after taking an oil painting class from a woman named Blanche, I made a proposal to my parents. I would paint all summer and prove diligent to get work ready for the Teen Arts Festival held downtown in August. If I sold enough work to make the same money I would as a table busser, then I wouldn’t have to work a typical summer job. Ever.

My parents, to their great credit and God bless them, signed off. They let me follow my interest, my passion, my love and not convention or obligation. I sold my art at the festival that summer, and every summer after – lots of it. I always made more than I would have bussing tables.

Besides feeling the affirmation of hard work in the pursuit of my passion, an equally important development took place that same young summer: I fell in love with a river.

My family lived on Williamglen Drive and the residents of the neighborhood shared a dock on Megunticook River. Every morning I would walk down to the dock with my paints, brushes and canvas to prove my diligence. I would sit, hunkered down on the dock with my canvas laying flat in front of me. Today this is still my work habit. Standing, especially at an easle, makes me uneasy.

Down to the dock I would bring a thin catalogue of Wolf Kahn paintings with me. I studied and studied this artist’s work; I had never seen anything like it. His rivers could be purple or ocher flecked with alizarin; the trees on his banks could be canary yellow or a deep, deep umber glowing with fuchsia. Looking at his paintings tuned my eyes to see the world differently. A composition, my surroundings, this river, could be the same day-in-and-day-out; yet an eye tuned to possibility saw the richness of endless possibilities depending on certain slants of light and particular times of day.

“…The earth remains forever, the eye never has enough of seeing,” wrote Qoheleth.

Painting possibilities became my purpose. I went away to art school but would always return home in the summers. The river, and then the lake from which it ran, remain the primary subject of my paintings to this day.

After the recent opening of my artwork I went home without the satisfaction of a red dot; but I found two books borrowed by a friend waiting on my doorstep. On top of their stack was a pretty, hand bound booklet made using color samples from a hardware store.  Lucky Shamrock, Cactus, Teal Lake, Cool Colbalt; on these colorful pages the friend who borrowed the books had transcribed the following lines from JRR Tolkien:

All that is gold does not glitter, not all who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall awaken, a light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken, the crownless again shall be king.

The next morning I received a postcard from a friend, congratulating me on my show. This friend creates beautiful mail art and in this piece she had collaged in a trivia card with the following question: How did King Midas get rid of his golden touch?

The two mentions of gold, so close together, caught my attention. I looked up the story of King Midas and read how the king, despondent and heartbroken after having turned even his own daughter into gold, was told to wash in the river Pactolus in order to be cleansed from the touch of wealth he had wished for but had been cursed by instead.

Sometimes we forget our first love, the initial spark that motivated us to pursue a life with no regard for the appearance of success. We may forget for one brief but crucial moment, like the opening of an art exhibit. If everything was to become gold the world would be the poorer for lack of cerulean blues, indian reds, and ultramarines. Sometimes we become colorblind and seek after things we know not of or why. Sometimes it’s a good thing our boat gets flipped; it might not be the cosmic confirmation we hope for, but it is surely the baptism we need. Taking an honest plunge into something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our misdirected ideas and aspirations brings the world back to color.

In high school my best friend and I always talked about floating from the one end of Megunticook River to the other on fluorescent-colored swim noodles. We spent a lot of time swimming in the river together at my dock; but we never did go on the float adventure. It wasn’t until last fall that I finally swam the entire length of the river.

It was October 8th and unseasonably warm weather made this the latest open water swim I had ever made. Because of the shortening days it was also the darkest open water swim I had ever made. My friend Joel and I followed the light of a rising moon as it danced across the surface and around the bends of the river. We went with the current but still there were moments of anxiety. Darkness plays with the imagination.

Just a week before, Joel and I had attempted this same swim; but a third the way down the river I realized the waterproof camera, the one with which I take reference shots for my paintings and the one I thought I had secured just inside the zipper of my wetsuit, was no longer there. The camera had its own bright orange PFD so I knew it was floating – I just didn’t know where. We swam back up the river, zig-zagging from bank to bank and searching, searching. The light of dusk flattens and mutes even the most fluorescent of oranges.

Looking back I now see it was the company of Joel on these river swims, our sense of in-it-togetherness, that became the light by which my camera was searched for and found; and the next week it became the peace by which we finally traversed the entire length of the river. We landed on Shirttail Point, delirious with happiness and drenched in moonlight.

Hindsight. The company at my opening was overwhelming; former students, directors of museums, my parents, fellow artists, dance partners, swim buddies, friends of friends and children of friends. I realize now – the people! – it is the people who, like the feeling in my dream, were the ease of paddling upstream, the peace, and compared to looking at the woman toiling in the garden, the joy.

At my opening the works on the wall were not the only offerings of color and beauty, but also the people who filled the room, who have filled the room since my first Teen Arts Festival. The work alone can not be the only evidence of my engagement in the world; it needs also be the people and the company we keep for the sake of each other, which is the sake of seeing the possibility of our passions and purposes, especially through the anxiety of darkness and capsizing.

Sales and expectations made or missed are like the strain I felt in my arms when moving against the current in search of my camera, they are the knowledge that I am and always will be moving upstream. An artist must make an honest living so I will not naively dismiss this strain. But I will beware the touch that makes life toil and turns daughters into gold. I will remember that it is people that makes the paddling a pleasure.

Gold may symbolize professional progress in a world that lacks the flare of the lens and the insight of dreams. Just yesterday I read an article with this line: “Because of our culture’s complicated – or over-simple, but at any rate fraught – relationship with wealth, it’s not just strange but even a little sad to think of wealth as not liberating, but limiting and actively un-fun.”

I think of my dream and the woman with the hoe, the resolve in my friend’s posture to submit to an actively un-fun life. I felt loss just watching him from the window. The company we keep is important; so is how we keep it. I thank my parents that they never settled for watching me through a window, and for instead encouraging me to develop outside neatly tended rows of the conventions of professional and economic value. Instead they encouraged me to spend time on a river, to spend time seeing and creating possibilities.

The next time I capsize, or don’t know where my rent is coming from, or start to feel the strain of upstream living, I want to remember the power and playfulness of a Rush Sturges river run. This man is an artist; he creates beauty no matter the current. He’s also proof that water gear always sets the standard for bright and colorful.

Give me friends, both old and new to paddle this river with; give me fluorescent noodles over shiny gold any day.