Where I am from

My new book — my first book! — Carleton Watkins: Making the West American is out this week. It’s a biography of Carleton Watkins (1829–1916), the most influential American artist of the 19th century, and that century’s greatest photographer too. Watkins is best known for pictures of the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias made just as the Civil War was beginning in the summer of 1861, pictures that motivated the Union to conserve Yosemite and the nearby Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias into what we now call a national park. Over the next three decades, Watkins’s art informed and influenced American painting, science, finance, business, government, agriculture, and more.

→ Check out Watkins on my author website, then order it from Amazon, University of California Press or Indiebound.

I dedicated Watkins to my mother thus: “For mom, who, I think, would have liked this.” I’ve written about her twice, in 2014 when I announced Watkins, and in 2007, on the twentieth anniversary of her death. As Modern Art Notes has been offline for a few years, I thought I’d re-publish that essay here. (Apologies to Joan Didion for the title.)

My love of art comes from my mom. I know that’s not very specific, but it’s the best I can do. Mom painted watercolors. My grandmother’s house is full of them: Paintings of colorful, twisted trees on the California coast and brushy abstractions of the cats next door, especially the fat one, Big Bertha. But the paintings I like best are mom’s Sierra Nevada landscapes.

I don’t remember seeing Mom paint. That’s not to say that she only painted in the absence of us kids, or when my father wasn’t around. It’s just that I remember the family experiences that surrounded her painting instead.

This is especially true of the paintings she made in the Sierras. Each year we took a family vacation to Silver Lake, a quiet mountain retreat undiscovered by people who need second homes. (I later learned it was discovered Albert Bierstadt, who made a now-lost painting of it, sorta (Bierstadt!), from which a print survives. From Silver Lake we took near-daily eight- or ten-mile hikes. For a boy who spent 50 weeks a year in a comfy San Francisco suburb, hikes past a mountain of shale called Elephant’s Back into backcountry named the “Desolation Wilderness” was roughing it. Sometimes we even saw marmots. I loved it.

Mom liked something simpler: the light. Mom didn’t paint traditional mountainscapes. She liked to take a short walk from our cabin to a puddle surrounded by vast sheets of granite. We generously called it Granite Lake. Mom painted it so much that dad nicknamed her ‘Janet Granite.’

I didn’t know it at the time, but my mother was hardly the first person to fall in love with the Sierra’s exposed granite. John Muir, who thought of the Sierra as a father thinks of a son, called the high country the “Range of Light.” Muir wasn’t speaking metaphysically: The granite that covers much of the surface of this part of the Sierra Nevada is shockingly white. Sierra granite is inlaid with xenoliths, highly-reflective crystals that magnify and bounce light back up into the ionosphere. The result is a blinding brightness that emanates not from above, but from the ground.

That white is in most of mom’s Sierra landscapes. The paintings are straightforward compositions with straightforward mountain colors. Water is a pale blue. Trees are a deep green. Dead trees, one of her favorite things to paint, are twenty tones of crisp grey. One of the striking elements of mom’s watercolors is how she played with that Sierra-granite white. She must have noticed that watercolor paper hints at both the texture and the brightness of Sierra granite because her best Sierra watercolors are spare, empty and feature big unpainted areas. Sometimes she heightened those effects by using watery dabs of opaque black to suggest the lichen that grows on granite, or to reference the shiny black chunks of xenolith in the rock.

This is all hindsight. When I was eight or nine, I thought Granite Lake was a big zero. No dramatic mountaintop rose behind it. The landscape was barren because trees could only rarely put roots down into granite. Joan Didion wrote something that I think of when I look at one of Mom’s granitescapes: certain places seem to exist mostly because someone wrote about them. Didion was talking about Faulkner and Oxford, Mississippi, or Hemingway and Kilimanjaro. For me, Granite Lake exists only because Mom painted it.

Ultimately, I wish I remembered being around my mother when she was painting, but I don’t. Watercolors aren’t that exciting to a 10-year old kid, so when mom was painting I was off skipping stones or searching for summer snowpack from which I could start a snowball fight.

Instead, most of what I remember about mom and art has to do with what she did before and after painting. I remember going with her to Bowers, a Burlingame, Calif. art supply store that had narrow aisles and two big glass windows in front. The woman who ran the place (Mrs. Bowers?) was so nice that I was embarrassed to go into the store — I was too young to know how to be nice back.

I also remember driving to the nearby town of Belmont, where Mom took painting classes. Mom earned her master’s at Stanford and didn’t necessarily need art lessons in a suburban community center, but she probably liked being around other artists. While she painted I sat in the car, a 1979 VW camper bus with a pop-top, reading books about a boy detective named Encyclopedia Brown.

I don’t remember our family going to art museums — except for once. When I was about ten, my parents took me to a Juan Gris retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum. Actually, my mother went to the exhibit and, by virtue of me-too groupthink, the whole family tagged along. I was induced to participate through the promise of a trip to a family-friendly cheeseburgerie called Fat Albert’s. They made really good milkshakes.

I don’t know why I remember that day. I’m sure I’d been in a museum before — and that I didn’t really like them. On a family trip to Kansas City, mom had wanted to go to the Nelson-Atkins. “But Mom,” I had said. “We have museums at home. You can see paintings there!” The Fat Albert’s bribe was intended to prevent such outbursts.

But at the Gris show I looked at the art and asked Mom questions about it. I don’t remember if she answered them. I was impressed with the quiet authority of paintings hanging on a wall, and with the reverent way people responded to them. (How could all those people stand so still?) I passed the time trying to find objects — faces, guitars, cups — in Gris and feeling pretty proud of myself when I found them. Odd: I know I wanted to go to Fat Albert’s, and I’m pretty sure we went there after the museum, but all I remember now is Juan Gris.

Gris was one of my mother’s favorite artists. I don’t know why. Mom was no particular fan of Spanish art and she was no cubist. But for some reason Mom was adamant about buying the Gris catalog. I have no idea why, and I have even less of an idea why I remember that. But I do, perhaps because her insistence on buying the catalog made it clear that art mattered, that Gris’s art really mattered, and that paintings weren’t something you looked at and then forgot about. If you liked them, you stood still and looked at them for a long time. Then you bought a book about them and learned more.

For months I saw the Gris catalog everywhere around the house — in the kitchen, on our back porch where mom frequently painted, in our den. It had a black cover and Gris’ name on it in big, silver letters. There was also a Gris painting on the cover — a cubist composition of a blue guitar-table of some sort. Sometimes, when she wasn’t painting or doing mom things (Mawwwwm, I’m huuuuungry), I saw her pencil notes into the catalog.

I’ll never know why mom liked Juan Gris, what she thought about the Berkeley exhibit, or what she wrote in that catalog. Less than two years after that afternoon in Berkeley she was dead.

Years later I sent family members searching through houses and basements in an effort to find that catalog. Why did Gris matter to my mom? Why did any artist matter to her? Why painting? Why watercolors? Why art?

It’s my own fault that we never found that Gris catalog. I didn’t realize that it was important to me until I was back in Missouri and in college, when I realized that I wanted to go to the Nelson-Atkins.

To learn more about Carleton Watkins: Making the West American — and to buy it — visit tylergreenbooks.com!