Images of the Midwest States Reflect John Steinbeck’s Affinity for the Visual Arts

Image of "Michigan Sunset," oil painting by Linda Holmes

This selection of paintings by Linda Holmes, a self-taught visual artist from Newark, Ohio, reflects John Steinbeck’s affinity for the visual arts—and for gifted amateurs—in life scenes from the Midwest states. Holmes, who uses oil in paintings like “Michigan Sunset” (above), also illustrates the poetry of Roy Bentley, a Midwesterner with an affinity for Steinbeck.—Ed.

Image of "Late Summer Fields," oil painting by Linda Holmes

“Late Summer Fields”

Image of "Old Docks" oil painting by Linda Holmes

“Old Docks”

Image of "Western Fence Line," oil painting by Linda Holmes

“Western Fence Line”

Image of "River Sycamores," oil painting by Linda Holmes

“River Sycamores”

Image of "Summer Pass," oil painting by Linda Holmes

“Summer Pass”

Image of "Mossy Old Growth," oil painting by Linda Holmes

“Mossy Old Growth”

 

Life Poem: Steinbeck’s Boat, Port Townsend, Washington

Image of "Sailboat with Furled Sail," oil on canvas by Martha Gallagher Michael

“Steinbeck’s Boat, Port Townsend, Washington”

In all the years I have been near lakes and oceans
I have never seen such blue
water
pushing gently against invisible shores,
like a lover pushes the soul to want more,
or as calm can influence a wildness
we cannot see but always are ready to feed on.
And I wonder as I look at the huge docked carcass of his boat,
if a simple remembrance
of riding a current of words that bound us together
could survive better if he had had a smaller boat, one to furl up a sail and catch
another kind of stillness.

It is then I hear a series of sighs
grey and bleak from the molded wood of this giant,
like Gregorian chants in palpable drones
emitted out loud, over and over.
They reach in unison as my organs
twist them like the Loose Strife that take over
the freshness of a Great Lake to make it treacherous,
and remind occasionally of
Ophelia.

Time may know no limit here,
this ship moored forever in ill repair,
unable to move again
in its silky sauce of decay,
and I am part of what he began in writing
and boating,
and momentary salvation is open
to the right page.
Steinbeck made sure of that
in each and every phrase,
as he is there at my shoulder
when I right the words’ direction
or float the bow into
an unsuspecting bay.

Sailboat with Furled Sail, 16″ x 20,” oil on canvas by Martha Gallagher Michael.

Sacramento, California Artist Gregory Kondos Gives “House of Steinbeck” to Pacific Grove Public Library

Image of Gregory Kondos family in Pacific Grove

Gregory Kondos, a 93-year old Sacramento, California artist and immigrants’ son, recently presented “House of Steinbeck,” his painting of the legendary 11th Street Steinbeck family cottage, to the public library in Pacific Grove, the California town where John Steinbeck lived on and off in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. The oil-on-canvas painting—based on photographs of the 11th Street cottage taken before its recent renovation—was presented to Linda Pagnella, who is retiring this week as the Pacific Grove Public Library’s director of circulation.

Image of Nancy HaukKondos said that he made the gift in memory of the Pacific Grove artist Nancy Hauk (left), a close friend and former student. “I painted it in memory of Nancy,” he explained, ”as a way of honoring her.” Before Nancy’s death in July, the Pacific Grove Public Library named its newly completed art gallery in her honor. Steinbeck’s first wife, Carol Henning, may have worked at the library in the early 1930s, when the struggling newlyweds subsisted on Depression-economy jobs, help from friends, and a monthly allowance from Steinbeck’s father.

At Home in Pacific Grove in Steinbeck’s Time and Today

Kondos and his wife Moni have a second home in Pacific Grove, not far from the cottage where the Steinbecks lived when Steinbeck began writing Of Mice and Men. Joining the painter and his wife in presenting the painting were (from left in lead photo) son-in-law Bobby Field, associate athletic director at UCLA; daughter Valorie Kondos Field, the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame coach whose women’s gymnastics team has won six national championships; and son Steve Kondos, an Aerojet engineer who helped build the first Mars Rover. Moni Kondos made arrangements for the gift.

Image of Steinbeck's 11th Street cottage, Pacific GroveLocation, history, and the enthusiasm of residents like Nancy Hauk, a former board member, have made the library a popular place for Steinbeck fans in Pacific Grove, a town with a long memory and a slow pace that appealed to John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts. The Steinbeck cottage is located at the corner of 11th Street and Ricketts Row, the alley named by Pacific Grove for Steinbeck’s friend and collaborator.

Kudos for Kondos in Sacramento, California’s Capital

Image of Kondos Gallery in Sacramento, California
Further proof that prophets, authors, and artists aren’t always without honor at home in California was provided several years ago by Sacramento, which renamed a city street Kondos Avenue. Sacramento City College, where Kondos taught until 1982, named its art gallery for him when he retired. A member of the National Academy of Design, Kondos has also exhibited in China, Europe, and Washington, D.C.

Photo of Bobby and Valorie Kondos Field with Steve and Gregory Kondos courtesy Steve Hauk.

Passed On: John Steinbeck’s Affinity for the Visual Arts

Image of Thom and John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck not only liked being painted, he liked artists and had a deep affinity for the visual arts. For much of his life he counted artists among his most trusted friends. His appreciation for the visual arts, and the needs of working artists, started on the Monterey Peninsula and continued in New York. As suggested by this undated photograph of Steinbeck with his son Thom, he passed this appreciation on to his children. As a result, of the great American writers of the 20th century perhaps none has been captured in portraits and drawings as often as John Steinbeck.

Cover image of Monterey Peninsula art colony history

I think there are two main reasons for Steinbeck’s attraction to artists and being a subject of their work. The place where Steinbeck lived for much of his first 40 years, California’s Monterey Peninsula, was thick with gifted artists when Steinbeck was growing up and beginning his career. And because what Steinbeck was writing in the 1930s and 40s did not make him particularly popular with the local establishment, even endangering him, his circle of friends was necessarily limited, and included artists. This connection with artists carried over when Steinbeck moved to New York and eventually extended to Europe as well. I have a 2001 letter from the late Thomas Steinbeck in which he wrote, “By the time I showed up on the scene, my father had already sat for a number of notable painters.’’ Thom “showed up’’ in New York City, where he was born to John Steinbeck and Gwyndolyn Conger in 1944.

Image of Judith Deim, Ellwood Graham, and children

Three major portraits of Steinbeck that we know of were made before he left California for New York. One was by James Fitzgerald. The other two were by the husband-and-wife artists Ellwood Graham and Judith Deim, shown here with their children in an unattributed photograph from the late 1940s or early 1950s.

Image of John Steinbeck portrait by James FitzgeraldFitzgerald was born in Milton, Massachusetts and arrived in 1928 as a seaman aboard a freighter. Once he settled in Monterey, he became a part of the group of writers and artists who gathered at Ed Ricketts’s legendary lab on Cannery Row. In 1935, the year Tortilla Flat was published, Fitzgerald did this charcoal study of a young, gaunt Steinbeck, his face half in shadow, that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Reportedly Steinbeck and Fitzgerald had their disagreements, but their friendship endured. There is a photograph of Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and Ricketts standing on Cannery Row with improvised musical instruments in their hands, including pots and pans. Fitzgerald left Monterey in 1943 for Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine; several years ago the Monhegan Museum established the James Fitzgerald Legacy in honor of his standing as one of America’s greatest watercolorists.

Graham and Deim were both born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1911. Sometime in 1936 or 1937 they met Steinbeck and Ricketts–who were on their way to Mexico–while working on a WPA mural project at the Ventura Post Office in Southern California. The fiction writer and the marine biologist from Pacific Grove were impressed by the work and invited the young couple to visit the Monterey Peninsula, where Deim and Graham eventually settled. Steinbeck was generous, paying their way to Mexico to learn to “paint out loud,’’ advising them, Deim later wrote, to “go to Patzcuaro and not to Tasco where all the tourists go.’’

Image of John Steinbeck portrait by Judith Deim

In 2000 Deim wrote that when Steinbeck and Ricketts returned from their expedition to the Sea of Cortez in 1940 “there was much rejoicing, partying, storytelling at the Lab. After a few days of this . . . John felt it was time to get to work. He said, ‘Why don’t you kids paint my portrait and I shall be forced to concentrate and get on with my book.’” Deim’s modern, compact portrait of Steinbeck in the act of writing, shown here, now hangs at the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies in San Jose.

Image of John Steinbeck portrait by Ellwood Graham

Ellwood Graham’s psychological study of John Steinbeck (above) has been missing for decades. One story says that Steinbeck’s friend, the film director John Huston coveted the painting, another that it was won or lost in a poker game. Its discovery, if it still exists, would be a major find.

Image of self-portrait by Henry Varnum PoorOne of the first artists Steinbeck became friendly with in New York was Henry Varnum Poor, shown in this self-portrait. In the early 1940s Poor was, like Steinbeck, a resident of Rockland County, and he agreed to be a character witness for Steinbeck in 1942 when the writer applied for a New York State pistol license. This took some courage because Poor had executed a major mural in the Department of Justice building in Washington, and Steinbeck was controversial.

In 1944 John and Gwyn commissioned Poor to do a Steinbeck family portrait, with Gwyn holding a crying infant Thomas. It’s a stark painting. Thom, who disparaged his depiction by Poor in the 2001 letter, added that “My mother loved this painting above all others, which only lends credence to Mr. Poor’s interpretive skills.’’ Whatever he thought of Poor’s painting—which now belongs to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas—John Steinbeck continued the family-portrait habit. Thom, again in his 2001 letter, noted that “before I could tear myself from the ancestral grasp, my portrait had been painted three times.’’

By maintaining his relationship with artists in New York, it’s possible that Steinbeck wanted to help keep them employed, as he had for Graham and Deim back on the Monterey Peninsula. Thom writes about his father’s close friendship in New York with “that singular genius William Ward Beecher.’’ Thom and his brother Johnnie were fascinated by Beecher’s work but were “pole-axed’’ when their father told them Beecher would paint their portrait, which they realized meant lengthy sittings, away from mischief-making. Thom later recalled that when he and John misbehaved their father took out his frustration by “shaking his fist’’ at his sons’ portraits rather than at them.

Image of Bo BeskowAnother Steinbeck portraitist was the handsome Swedish artist Bo Beskow (left), who painted or drew the writer at least three times. Beskow remained a trusted confidant during a three-decade relationship in which the two friends exchanged letters, notes, and encouragement, sometimes under trying circumstances. Beskow’s informal 1946 portrait of a smiling John Steinbeck illustrates the fall 2012 issue of Steinbeck Review. A Beskow drawing of Steinbeck with the notation “Copenhagen, Dec. 8, 1962’’—two days before Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize speech—came to auction several years ago.

Of course artists didn’t depict Steinbeck only in portraiture. Judith Deim’s late-1930s painting “Beach Picnic’’ shows Steinbeck, Ricketts, and other members of the lab group gathered on an unidentified Monterey Peninsula or Big Sur beach. Deim said the painting, which has a pensive quality, was done when threats were being made against Steinbeck and his friends gathered around him protectively, as the composition suggests.

Cover image of Cannery Row sketches by Bruce Ariss

Bruce Ariss, another prominent Monterey Peninsula artist from the lab group, did an arresting drawing of Steinbeck sitting under a cypress tree watching as the characters he created parade by on a busy Cannery Row. Ariss’s spontaneous drawings of Steinbeck and Ricketts and the others populate his book Inside Cannery Row: Sketches from the Steinbeck Era. Some of Ariss’s images can be seen today on the colorful banners that dot Cannery Row.

Not all of Steinbeck’s artist friends drew or painted him. Armin Hansen and Howard Everett Smith were leading artists on the Monterey Peninsula with close relationships to Steinbeck, but I know of no portrait of the writer by either one. Hansen wasn’t really a portraitist, so it’s unlikely he painted Steinbeck. Smith did do portraits: perhaps his most famous subject was the poet Robinson Jeffers, after John Steinbeck the Monterey Peninsula’s greatest literary figure.

Image of Tortilla Flat book illustration by Peggy Worthington Best

And then there were the illustrators of Steinbeck’s books. Mahlon Blaine, an artist Steinbeck met in 1925 while traveling to New York for work, created the cover art for Cup of Gold, Steinbeck’s first novel. Steinbeck was unsatisfied with the image, and he continued to be involved in selecting illustrators for many of the works that followed. To create the cover art and illustrations for the deluxe edition of Tortilla Flat like the one shown here, he helped choose Peggy Worthington (later Peggy Worthington Best), the wife of a poet and editor at Viking Press, his publisher. Thomas Hart Benton, the Missouri populist painter, was a natural choice to illustrate Viking’s deluxe edition of The Grapes of Wrath.

I’m uncertain whether Steinbeck knew Elmer Hader, the California artist who created the dust jacket for the first edition of the novel in 1939. Both Steinbeck and Hader were from Monterey County, Hader born in 1889 in the little town of Pajaro, not far from Salinas. If Hader wasn’t personally acquainted with the author, he certainly understood The Grapes of Wrath. His inspired image of the Oklahoma Joads seeing California for the first time has become almost as iconic as the characters themselves.

Cover image of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath"

Some years ago I was contacted by the auction house that was putting the original watercolor for Hader’s Grapes of Wrath cover up for auction. They asked what I thought it should sell for. Guessing, I said $30,000-$35,000. That seemed high, they replied, since no Hader painting had ever sold for more than a tenth of that amount. Looking back today it’s obvious the eventual purchaser got a bargain . . . for $65,000.

I think Steinbeck would have smiled at that result. He liked artists and he wanted them to receive their due, preferably while they were alive. He passed on his affinity for the visual arts, and he did what he could to help the artists he knew.

This is the 300th post published by SteinbeckNow.com since the site launched three years ago. View the related video—Steinbeck’s Storied Artists, with commentary by Steve Hauk—from the site’s YouTube channel.—Ed.

John Steinbeck as Nude Model: Life Poem

 Image of "Naked John Steinbeck" by Martha Gallagher Michael

Naked John Steinbeck

On the brocade couch, long and lean he looks beyond you
past the fact you are drawing him
and he is being drawn
past the awkwardness of his being naked
past any feelings between you two

Then he opens his mouth with a deep sigh
and a drawl only a westerner could possess
and politely, if not somewhat shyly, asks
“when will you be done?”

This impatience, like a rock thrown through an otherwise smooth clean glass
just polished with fervor,
breaks through to the flow of
in-the-moment mindfulness of seeing and transposing
the thingness of John Steinbeck naked on the couch.

As you listen to Tom Waits singing “Pony”
and the scene suddenly turns red,
then back to white on black
staying incarcerated there
in the moment
you see the dual nature of everything.

Steinbeck is grinning now, having found
his whereabouts to be comical
and your tentative nature
like another unanswered question
he forms:
“Is that what I look like without a stitch on?”

“Naked John Steinbeck,” acrylic and ink on black paper, by Martha Gallagher Michael.

Nancy Hauk, Popular Pacific Grove Visual Artist, Mourned

Image of Nancy Hauk, Pacific Grove visual artist

Nancy Hauk, the popular Pacific Grove, California visual artist for whom the Pacific Grove Library’s art gallery is named, died on July 22 after a long illness. With her husband Steve Hauk, the author of short stories based on true events from the life of John Steinbeck, she owned and operated Hauk Fine Arts, the art gallery located near Holman’s department store, a Pacific Grove landmark celebrated in John Steinbeck’s fiction. She grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and graduated with a degree in art history from Connecticut College before moving to Pacific Grove with her husband in the 1960s. Her watercolors—painted at home in California and on trips to France—were featured last year in a well-attended exhibition at the Pacific Grove Library, where John Steinbeck’s wife Carol is thought to have worked when the couple lived in Pacific Grove in the 1930s. Hauk Fine Arts specializes in the work of California artists from John Steinbeck’s era and is located near other local landmarks familiar to Steinbeck fans. These include the Steinbeck family cottage on 11th Street and the former home of Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts, where the Hauks lived until Nancy moved to The Cottages, the Carmel assisted-living apartments where she died peacefully, surrounded by her husband with daughters Amy and Anne and mourned by friends and fans everywhere.

John Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley and River: Image and Text in the Art of Janet Whitchurch

salinas-river-1

John Steinbeck’s imagination was occupied by the Salinas Valley and Salinas River of his California childhood. One became “the valley of the world” in East of Eden, a microcosm of nature, nurture, and culture in the turbulent unfolding of human history. The river—flowing north, like the River Nile, and underground, like the River Styx—served Steinbeck as a contrasting symbol of timelessness beyond man, like the tide pools and the stars in Sea of Cortez. Since Steinbeck wrote his books, artists in various media—watercolor painting, nature photography, narrative text—have interpreted the Salinas valley and river with a similar sense of adventure and appreciation. Janet Whitchurch combines all three—original text, nature photography, and watercolor painting—in her exploration of John Steinbeck’s valley and river, published here for the first time.—Ed.

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True Story: Swimming on Huckleberry Hill in the 1930s

"Lower Alvarado Street, Monterey," painting by Bruce Ariss

“Lower Alvarado Street, Monterey” by Bruce Ariss, from the collection of Jess and Laura Brown

In the days before paved roads or drains or electric power lines, the hill overlooking Monterey, California was home to little more than the roaming deer and several million migrating butterflies, the latter returning each autumn to cluster on the needles of the towering pines. At the base of the trees, wild huckleberry bushes flourished.  Robert Louis Stevenson knew the hill from his time when, as an impoverished Scots emigrant, he began writing Treasure Island. In his essay “The Old Capitol,” Stevenson described the 1879 Monterey, California landscape like this:

You follow winding tracks that lead nowhither. You see a deer, a multitude of quail arises. But the sound of the sea still follows you as you advance, like that of wind among the trees, only harsher and stranger to the ear; and when at length you gain the summit, outbreaks on every hand and with freshened vigour that same unending, distant, whispering rumble of the ocean; for now you are on top of Monterey Peninsula, and the noise no longer only mounts to you from behind along the beach towards Santa Cruz, but from your right also, round by Chinatown and Pinos lighthouse, and from down before you to the mouth of the Carmello river. The whole woodland is begirt with thundering surges . . . [and] a great faint sound of breakers follows you high up into the inland canyons . . . go where you will, you have but to pause and listen to hear the voice of the Pacific.

Only 30 years before Stevenson arrived, the Spanish conquistadores had abandoned their fort, the presidio built in the previous century on the hill overlooking the town that served as the center of Spanish and Mexican provincial government in California, until statehood in 1850. Even before California joined the Union, non-Spanish settlers were flocking to the Monterey Peninsula, a place of limitless beauty, abundance, and opportunity. Chinese immigrants who laid America’s railroads came and stayed to fish and raise families. Greek, Portuguese, and Italian fishermen arrived during the Gold Rush, discovering a different gold in the rich shoals of sardines that swarmed in the waters of Monterey Bay. Soon, factories that specialized in packing the fishermen’s catch into tin cans sprang up along the shore, and ever so gradually the quiet Spanish settlement of Monterey, California became an active American community. Like Robert Louis Stevenson, writers and painters were increasingly attracted to its charms, and it became a center of artistic as well as economic activity.

Image of untitled drawing by Judith Deim

Untitled drawing by Judith Deim

Adventurous souls who worked with charcoal and paint, those who worked with slippery hands shaping clay, others who chiseled marble and wood to make sculptures, they came together on the Peninsula seeking artistic camaraderie. There were writers and poets too, and though young John Steinbeck was not a stranger in the area—having been born in nearby Salinas—he was readily attracted to the bohemian enclave that was forming on the hill above the town. To them, the huckleberries growing beneath the pines made naming it Huckleberry Hill seem natural. Nearby, the side of the hill that looked down on Pacific Grove was, for obvious reasons, called Strawberry Flats, and the overflow of bohemian newcomers began to settle there.

Whether on the Hill or in the Flats, it was everything that Stevenson said it was, and day or night the air was clear and still: it smelled of pine and eucalyptus, and when the wind changed and came off Monterey Bay, the air would become rich with the scent of seaweed and salt. It was from there that the putt-putting sounds of the fishermen’s boats came, the cries of the gulls and the barking of the seal lions that mingled in turn with the whistles and shouts from the row of canneries now standing at the base of the Hill.

After the artists arrived, word spread that parcels of land on either side of the Hill were for sale. And they were cheap. Soon adventurous souls who were finishing their studies at Stanford or Berkeley headed south and bought 25’x60′ building lots for $25 each—though I could be wrong: they may have been 25’x100′, and the price might have been $50. The creative ones came, alone and in pairs, and houses were hastily constructed, many of them from the rough redwood boards that were harvested from the sea after barges full of redwood bound for sawmills in the south floundered in high waves, dumping their loads into the bay, where the lumber became rich pickings for those on shore.

A dozen years later, the roads were covered with asphalt, drains were laid underground, and electricity poles became evident. With natural beauty at every turn, and with near-perfect weather and excellent companionship, all seemed to be going well in that best-of-all-possible-worlds, until the economic situation beyond those pine and eucalyptus groves turned bad in the 1930s and the entire country went into a long depression. The odd jobs and cannery work that helped keep the artists and artisans in bread and wine quickly vanished. However, thanks to progressive measures like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), government-funded employment eventually became available. Artists were hired to paint murals on buildings and inside the post office in Salinas, and writers were given jobs writing recipe books, travel guides, and pamphlets explaining how to can and preserve fruits and vegetables. John Steinbeck did that kind of writing, and his friend Bruce Ariss painted murals.

Image of "Black Madonna," painting by Judith Deim

“Black Madonna,” painting by Judith Deim

I mention Bruce Ariss because, as a latecomer to Huckleberry Hill, I lived in the house next to his, and he was the neighbor I knew best. Like many artists in the 1930s, his paintings depicted the lives of the people in the streets, on the farms, and in the factories of Pacific Grove, Salinas, and Monterey, California. A university graduate and champion collegiate boxer, he was a jack of all trades: painting, writing, editing, acting, directing, and more. Also, he was a passionate builder. He’d purchased three lots on the Hill, and he indicated that his plan was to eventually cover every available inch with a single house. The home be built was one of the first on Huckleberry Hill, and as his family grew, so did his house. Created more or less as he went along, it was not a straightforward house. John Steinbeck was to say to him one day, “Yours is an achievement over modern architecture.”

There were any number of potters living on Huckleberry Hill, and on those occasions when their creations met with disaster in the kiln, Bruce was there to collect the broken bits. From them he constructed colorful mosaics. And having an abundance of the shards on hand, he conjured up the idea of putting a soaking-pool in the middle of his front room. He began by digging a circular hole about eight feet in diameter and close to three feet deep, placing it just in front of his large stone fireplace. During the cementing process, he carefully added the potters’ bits and pieces to create a colorful mosaic tub, making sure there were no sharp edges. When it was finished he filled it with water from a garden hose. It tested well. “Never warm, but always invigorating”—that was how Bruce described the pool to me.

Image of untitled painting by Judith Deim

Untitled painting by Judith Deim

One day, Bruce and his “bride”—as he always referred to his wife Jean— were trying out the pool with Carol and John Steinbeck and a couple of other Huckleberry Hill people.  Some were in the water and some were stretched out on blankets around it, enjoying the afternoon, when there was a weak knock at the Ariss door. That was very odd, for nobody knocked on the Ariss door: anyone and everyone simply walked in.

“Come in,” someone hollered, and a man entered. He was a small man, a gentle-looking fellow with wire-rim glasses, very properly dressed in a suit and tie. He politely removed his hat. Most of those lounging around the pool immediately recognized him as the overseer of their WPA work in Salinas. He was their boss, and he’d driven his rickety old Ford to Monterey to find out why no one from the Hill had shown up for work that day.

Stepping through the door, the man drew up short noticing that, apart from himself, there wasn’t a single soul in the room with so much as a stitch of clothing on. He looked down at his hat in his hands and began mumbling—something about the work that had to be done in Salinas, about his duty as supervisor, about his just checking to see . . . .

“Well, look, I’m sorry, I didn’t know . . . ah, we’ll talk about that when I see you in Salinas tomorrow,” he said, directing his words at no one in particular and preparing to make a hasty departure.

“We can talk now if you like,” Bruce replied. “I know you’ve had a warm, dusty drive over. You might as well take off what you’re wearing and get in and cool yourself off.  And here,” he said, holding up a gallon jug. “There’s plenty of this, help yourself.”

The quiet little man lifted his head, looked around the room at the glistening bodies, then smiled. “Yeah, sure,” he said, and in a flash he was out of his attire, dangling his feet in the water and reaching for the jug of wine.

“José Clemente Orozco in New York”: Roy Bentley’s Poem about Political Art

Image of Gods of the Modern World, by Jose Clemente Orozco

José Clemente Orozco in New York

It’s like this, light spills at a time
and place, and we cheer it as beautiful.
We jaywalk crowded streets that bum-rush us
into pulse stutters of traffic, which we do not cheer.
Why doesn’t a candle-white building with the late sun
gilding it stay that way, gilded, the watcher wonders—
rain sheeting down but stopping so gladness can rise
into pastel clouds, a democratic republic of runoff
founding governments-in-exile in the storm drains.
All the biographers agree Orozco dressed oddly,
that he was distracted and talked loudly to himself
on the street where, walking Brooklyn, day or night,
he learned that, in America, faces of the hopeful
constantly turn away since seeing obligates the seer.
Crossing from Mexico that first time, border guards
seized 60 of his paintings, as if brown naked human beings
were not a proper subject matter or art itself was illegal
or there were two kinds of hearts in Gringoland.
In the years just after the Great Crash,
and working in the shadow of Diego Rivera,
Orozco painted Gods of the Modern World
where the bones of dead ideas like Democracy
give birth to—what else?—more dead ideas.
Orozco’s “birthing” occurs on a bed of books
in a room of robed men where skeletal fetuses
ask, Where is the hope in repeating their mistakes?
The artist has painted faces that aren’t turned away.
Slits for eyes. In Modern Migration of the Spirit
a piss-yellow Christ has descended the cross, afoot
and wild-eyed, and sporting an ax. Later, in Mexico,
he creates wall murals with tanks and dive bombers—
his way of reminding the Afflicted who’s to blame.
When he falls in love with an American ballerina
named Gloria, it’s because the heart that fails
and fails trumps that other heart any day.

California’s Wild Edge: History, Poetry, and Art of Steinbeck’s California Coast

Cover image of California's Wild Edge, by Tom Killion with Gary Snyder

The Central California coast from Big Sur to Monterey Bay has become synonymous with John Steinbeck and Robinson Jeffers, the iconic poet of the California coast who lived in Carmel from 1913 until his death in 1962 and influenced Steinbeck’s writing in the 1930s. In California’s Wild Edge: The Coast in Poetry, Prints, and History, the California artist Tom Killion reinterprets the landscape of Jeffers and Steinbeck’s California coast in image, poetry, and narrative uniquely suited to today’s ecology-minded audience. Influenced by the East Coast artist and author Rockwell Kent, a contemporary of Jeffers and Steinbeck, and by the art of Japan, a country that Steinbeck wrote about and visited, Killion has developed over a period of four decades a distinctive style of wood and linocut printmaking that perfectly serves the subject of his most recent book. Like Kent, he is a visionary artist with an eye for arresting image, lyrical text, and their marriage in beautiful books with popular appeal. In California’s Wild Edge, the Pulitzer Prize-winning California poet Gary Snyder—Killion’s mentor, friend, and collaborator—continues to be an essential source of inspiration, ideas, and information about the mystical topography and extraordinary ecology of the state celebrated in Killion’s art.

Image of Pt. Lobos, Carmel Bay, 2014, by Tom Killion

The Perspective from Point Reyes

Image of Tom KillionRockwell Kent’s work was inspired by the rugged terrain of Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine, where Kent lived from 1905 to 1910. Tom Killion has a similar relationship to Mount Tamalpais in California’s Marin County, where he grew up in the 1950s and 60s, and to Point Reyes, the isolated preserve on the Marin coast where he now lives and works. He became interested in book printing and poetry as a history major at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the 1970s. After graduation he traveled in Europe and Africa, returning to Santa Cruz to establish Quail Press before earning a PhD in African history at Stanford, the university Steinbeck attended but never finished. His first book, 28 Views of Mount Tamalpais, was published in 1975. Fortress Marin, his second, appeared in 1977, and The Coast of California: Point Reyes to Point Sur, his third, in 1979. During the 1980s he conducted historical research in Africa, administered a medical relief program in Sudan, traveled with nationalist rebels in Eritrea, and completed his fourth book, Walls: A Journey Across Three Continents (1990), which combines travel narrative with woodcut illustrations, as Rockwell Kent did in his books about wild, unpopulated places. In retrospect, Killion’s purpose as an emerging artist was clear early in his career: celebrating the human and natural ecology of people and places outside the mainstream of modern society, like Kent, an equally intrepid explorer.

Image of Big Sur Spring Sunset, 1990, by Tom Killion

Gary Snyder, Poet Laureate of Deep Ecology

Image of Gary SnyderKillion taught history at Bowdoin College in Maine from 1990 to 1994, traveled to Eritrea as a Fulbright scholar in 1994, and returned to California in 1995 to teach at San Francisco State University. His collaboration with the San Francisco Renaissance writer and environmental activist Gary Snyder, “the poet laureate of deep ecology,” resulted in three volumes of art and text devoted to California’s legendary landscape, all published by San Francisco’s Heyday Books: The High Sierra of California (2002), Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History, and Print (2009), and California’s Wild Edge (2015).  Like John Steinbeck, Gary Snyder is a California native of Scots-Irish, German, and English ancestry with a worldwide reputation as an author and advocate on global issues. His progressive politics and activism, like Steinbeck’s, angered officials in Washington, D.C., and caused similar problems in his life. Like Steinbeck, he used his experience as a manual laborer in his early writing. Later he studied East Asian art and literature, lived and traveled in Japan, and became associated with the Beat movement centered in mid-century San Francisco. He received the 1975 Pulitzer Prize in poetry following the publication of Turtle Island, a book of poems and essays exploring humanity-in-nature from a holistic perspective similar to Steinbeck’s in Sea of Cortez. The spiritual dimension of environmentalism, East Asia, and the California coast and landscape informs his seven-decade career as a writer, one that bridges the generations of John Steinbeck and Tom Killion.

Image of Monterey Bay from Santa Cruz Pogonip, 2012, by Tom Killion

The California Coast from Big Sur to Cape Mendocino

Image of Point Reyes from McClure's Beach, 1979, by Tom KillionThe art of California’s Wild Edge, Killion and Snyder’s third collaboration, is breathtaking. Its text—a fusion of natural and human history, poems and journal entries by various writers, and personal memoir—constitutes a mini-course in California culture that delights and surprises at every turn. Before “Anglo-Californian” coastal poetry there was “the poetry of naming,” colonial Spain’s greatest contribution to California, and Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, “the finest account of the coast ever written from the perspective of the sea.” The story of Big Sur, the most dramatic episode in the history of the California coast, is told through the life and writing of the colorful character Jaime de Angulo, and literary figures—including Robinson Jeffers, Jack London, and the poet George Sterling—attracted to Carmel, north of Big Sur, after the 1906 earthquake. Largely forgotten today, Sterling was born in Sag Harbor, New York—where Steinbeck later lived—and committed suicide by swallowing the cyanide pill he kept for the purpose, like Cathy in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, during a depression caused by his decline in fame and fortune in San Francisco. Not surprisingly, San Francisco serves as source, context, and symbol for much of Killion’s history of California coastal poetry, from the native peoples of the coast to Bret Harte and Robert Duncan, the “mystical poet and pioneer of gay civil rights” who, with Snyder and other San Francisco literary lights, created the city’s modern literary renaissance.

Image of Cape Mendocino, 2014, by Tom KillionBut personal memories, not literary history, comprise the heart of Killion’s narrative—of a grandmother who left lonely Eureka, California for San Francisco in 1906 and survived the earthquake; of hiking Mount Tamalpais as a boy and biking from his parents’ home in Mill Valley as far north as Eureka and as far south as Santa Cruz; of helping clean up the 1971 Golden Gate oil spill that sparked Marin’s successful anti-development movement; of attending college in Santa Cruz, the embodiment of California coast culture, north and south; of returning to Marin County to live and work near unspoiled Point Reyes, “which projects father into the sea from the main axis of the California coast than any other point.” The “redwood coast” from Big Sur north to Humboldt Bay dominates Killion’s story because, he says, it’s less populated than Southern California and more dramatic. It’s the same California coast that engaged John Steinbeck in his much of his writing. The original setting of his second novel, To a God Unknown, was Mendocino County, and the 1955 movie adaptation of East of Eden was filmed in Mendocino—a stand-in, as Killion notes, for Monterey. Steinbeck liked to say he could take or leave the mountains, but had to live near the sea—the setting for his first novel, Cup of Gold, and for The Winter of Our Discontent, his last. Though neither novel is about California, each one has the unforgettable feel of the California coast between Santa Cruz and Big Sur where Steinbeck spent his happiest years—a rich source of history, poetry, and art from pre-Spanish times to the present. California’s Wild Edge captures the subject splendidly.

Images from California’s Wild Edge ©Tom Killion 2015.

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