The Artist At Play And Work

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

William Carlos WIlliams, The Red Wheelbarrow

We spent this weekend on Whidbey Island with our friends, Tom and Carrie. The trip became a thoroughly enjoyable weekend with dear friends – lunch in Coupeville, a visit to Langley and its shops – but was originally intended as a thank you from Tom and Carrie for a recent purchase we made. As these trips often do, it became so much more.

Tom and Carrie are our best friends. We have spent a good deal of time with them over the years and have come to know them well through the practice of practical jokes, home and restaurant dinners or lunches, long after-dinner conversations, the sharing of family and acquaintances, and the enjoyment of mutual friends in all of the above settings. In short, they are the kind of friends one doesn’t find easily and cherishes all the more because of the difficulty.

The secret of our friendship with Tom and Carrie and with the other couples who share in that friendship (Ken and Jan; Bob and Estelle) lies in Tom’s passion. It is Tom’s passion that brought all of us together in the first instance. For Tom is a regular guy with an extraordinary gift. Tom is an internationally known watercolor artist whose personal humility is in inverse proportion to the exceptional brilliance of his work.

The genesis of our weekend trip was our purchase of one of Tom’s paintings of the Fort Casey lighthouse. Tom has painted the lighthouse more than once, each time selecting a different aspect of the building and the play of light along its lines. By way of a thank you, Tom and Carrie wanted us to enjoy a communal visit to the lighthouse which has been lovingly restored by volunteers.

As always when we spend time with Tom and Carrie we are blessed by the friendship – the humor, the sharing of small intimacies, the joy of seeing things in a fresh light, the pleasure of adult conversation and not-so-adult humor. But field trips are always special because the level of sharing is always elevated by the application of Tom’s unique passion. Tom’s ability to see things in his special way makes everyone around him see things more clearly and to see beauty where it might otherwise be missed.

Watching Tom “see” whatever Tom sees is a pleasure in and of itself. He becomes at times a pointer – still, staring, focused, and alone in a world of light and angles that only he can truly comprehend. I have become better over the years at anticipating what he might eventually produce from these shared experiences, but I am never completely free from surprise that what he saw was so much more than I was able to see in a shared moment.

Such is the artistic process. It is simultaneously a mechanical process of appreciation of the many variations of light and color, a mysterious ability to transform the ordinary into something symbolic, and the uncanny ability to capture and quantify the ineffability of emotion. While I never completely comprehend how Tom does what he does, I never tire of watching him at work and trying to anticipate what he might produce. Watching Tom at work is as close to the sublime art of creation as I am likely to come.

Tom is always at work, even while at play. He cannot help himself. I suspect the artistic process owns him as much as he is its master. At several points during the lighthouse visit, Tom strayed off on his own and stood staring at what only Tom can see – his mind composing and considering angles, themes, and ideas while simultaneously listening to the messages of long dead builders being transmitted by a non-sentient building.

His gift is not constrained to the product of human creation. I have seen this process at work with living things as well. Once, while walking with Tom on a forest path deep in conversation over the trivial, I suddenly discovered that our conversation had become one-sided because he had become entrapped and mesmerized by messages being sent by a fallen leaf. On beach walks, he is often caught by a discarded feather. I have learned to wait out such moments, for he will inevitably return and resume our conversation where we left off as if the hiatus had never occurred. When I try to locate what he is focused upon in his trance, I can usually identify the subject matter but remain unable to understand the message he sees and hears until some weeks or months later when I am privileged to see, and be wholly surprised by, a painting inspired by that very moment.

I, in turn, can easily be mesmerized by Tom’s work. I can hear sounds, sense smells, and feel the grittiness of nature and life – things that no paint brush can actually apply to canvas; things that a completed painting can only hint at and which are only brought out through the viewer’s interaction with it.

In his great poem Paterson, William Carlos Williams says that the final product of any creative process is nothing more than the ashes of the fire of inspiration. I suppose this is true from the artist’s point of view, but for the rest of us those ashes are all that we are privileged to appreciate and what we often struggle to comprehend. In doing so, we don’t usually focus upon the agony of the artist’s creative process (and that it is a form of agony, I have little doubt); we focus, instead, upon our own interaction with the completed work – with the message that a completed reflection (in Tom’s case, a painting; in Williams’ case, a poem) of an ineffable something sends to us: a message taken from the inspiration that an object or an experience gave to the artist; a message distilled from that inspiration by the artist’s creativity and choice of medium; and, finally, a message diluted by our own creative interaction with the artist’s completed work product.

And so it is that a weekend in Humptulips County with an artist was so much more – a chance to experience the external manifestations of the creative process at work. While I can only guess at Tom’s mental processes, I could observe their physical manifestations and wonder at the internal processes that drove them. It is inevitable that whatever painting Tom might produce from this weekend’s visit will surprise me despite my ability to have seen him at the beginning of its creation, for the surprise lies in what his mind will eventually make of the information he was processing last Saturday.

I fully suspect that Tom will be as surprised at his final work product as I will be, for the joy of any creative process is in the unexpected form of its aftermath.

In his other life, Tom is known as Thomas William Jones. Anyone interested in his work can find a sample of it here: To truly appreciate Tom’s work, make an appointment at the Kollar gallery and go see it in person – nothing else suffices.

So this is my thank you to Tom and Carrie for a wonderful weekend in Humptulips County. I hope for the joy and beauty of many more. I am grateful for our friendship.

About Gavin Stevens

Humptulips County is the wholly fictional on-line residence of Stephen Ellis, a would-be writer, an avid fan of William Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, and a retired lawyer.
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