Cities are growing organisms, each having their central growth from their place of origin. Some begin on a waterfront, as a place of trade. Other communities began along a creek, where people would meet to connect, trade, and settle differences in peace. These were safe spaces, welcoming places, but they existed only so long as everyone acknowledged them.
In our cities today, safe spaces are rare. Some reasons are we don’t know everyone anymore, since our populations are so large. We don’t know who to trust, so we trust no one. If we’re anonymous, we think can do what we want, since no one knows who we are and we don’t know whom we harm. Of course, this is absurd, for if we do harm to another, we aren’t living out our best life, not to mention we’re not living out the wisdom of “Do unto others what you want done unto yourself.”
“Who knows what lurks in the heart of man?” the old radio program asked. “The Shadow knows,” was the answer. Most of what we know as the city is hidden behind the layers of paint, wallpaper, and various accretions of dust in our historic district. In Hot Springs, we can eat hamburgers in buildings where mobsters would hang out, walk the streets where old time baseball players strolled, and take hot baths where our ancestors took the “cure” for every disease known to humankind. They got clean, but the cure didn’t take.
We have a civic interest in renewing our old buildings, for they attract tourists and provide incomes for owners and workers in our restaurants, shops, and hotels of all sizes and qualities. We have dive bars and first-class accommodations within a mile of each other. This is a sure sign of a community in transition. I won’t name either, but if Hot Springs were to be the setting of an old-time radio show, it wouldn’t lack for interesting characters or venues.
During this pandemic era, for it’s stretched long enough now to be called such a lengthy time, I’ve been working on a group of cognitive maps. A cognitive map is any visual representation of a person’s (or a group’s) mental model for a given process or concept. Cognitive maps have no visual rules they need to obey. There’s also no restriction on how the concepts and the relationships between them are visually represented. If we were to take a number of people to the same place, we’d most likely end up with the same number of maps. Some parts might overlap, but everyone would notice different aspects of the landscape.
My own cognitive maps start with a screen shot of a google map of a place I’ve been prepandemic, and work in process through sketches, then several layers of paint, and finally, the end product. This last stopping point sometimes comes only after I think I’ve finished the painting, but I leave it sitting out where I can look at it some more. In the looking, I discover, I’m not ready to release this image out to the world. It lacks unity, power, focus, or some other defining quality I can’t put words to. I only know I am unhappy with it the longer I look at it.
When I cook a recipe, I have a certainty if I follow the directions, I measure correctly, and my oven is true to temperature, I’ll come out with a good approximation of the original recipe. Afterall, I’m recreating someone else’s process and instructions. Making something new, from the imagination is part of the creative process. Sometimes the end product arrives easily, but other times, its birth is a struggle, and the child arrives crying to beat the band.
Most of us are used to seeing the landscape from our upright view, for we walk through our world with our head up every day as we reconnoiter along our daily paths. Some of us keep our heads buried in our phones, so we depend on the good nature of others to keep us from bumping into them, or these people must have particularly good side vision to avoid collisions with other walkers. We don’t have the bird’s eye view of the city, so we don’t see how the streets connect or how they follow the elevation changes. We also don’t get to see the patterns of tree growth, or the hidden waterways. Mostly we have a patchwork vision of just the immediate areas we inhabit, but not a vision of the whole.
I saved a screenshot to my iPad so I could draw on it. Color for me has emotional energy, so as I drew, I over laid the first colors with others. The changes the drawing went through prepared me for the changes through which the painting would transition. This pandemic has certainly been a time of change, but life has always been changing. One of my old friends always said, “Human beings are meant to change. We’re brand-new people every 27 days! That’s how often we get a whole new skin.”
I spent many years in the church, an organization not noted for changing. It’s not the organization that doesn’t want to change, but the people. We find those same people resistant to change in NASCAR fans, football fans, and any other group you want to name. As one wag said, “It was the 56th Super Bowl and they finally had rap music in Los Angeles, and NASCAR had Pit Bull at the LA Coliseum for the Clash for the first time in 43 years. If you have a point, it’s time to make it.” If we don’t like change, we should quit washing our bodies, since we’re just hurrying those dead skin cells off to their final demise.
Artists must embrace change, however, for the moment we put a mark on a canvas or tap a stone with a chisel and hammer, we’ve changed the surface before us. We can’t be afraid to go into the emptiness or the unknown, for there we’ll find the beauty of the unspoken or the hope of the silence in which we work.
This stage of the painting adheres closely to the drawn image. The blue streets define the city blocks and a few building shapes are notated. It’s a complicated street map from one of our older sections of town.
On this repainting, I balanced the colors better, but kept the greens and oranges. I signed it, for I thought I was “finished.” I set it down in my living room to observe it for a while. I often do this with my work, for if it still looks good after six months, I think it’ll survive for a year. If it lasts a year, I think it’ll last longer. If I look at it three years later and it doesn’t survive, I’ll destroy it. This was painted during the winter, with the worst low light of the season. No wonder it looked grim under the brightening light of the returning sun.
Some sunshine has come into my life here in the middle of February. I’m very sensitive to the transition of light across the seasons, so when it begins to leave in October, I start shutting down. When the light begins to return again, I awake, as if from a hibernation. Perhaps this is the reason I took all my yellows and reds and overpainted the other colors on the canvas. Now my canvas is almost monochromatic, except for small streaks and blobs of color in places. You can still see the city blocks and streets, but now the over all feeling is less of a map and more of an energy record of the city area.
This is the city as it grows, as it lives, and as it changes. The dynamics and life blood of the city move and pulse as it transforms. Hot Springs is unique in that we keep as much of our old as possible and build new when we must. I’m thankful for this city, for its love of the arts, and its honor of its history, as well as its embrace of the future.
After all, that’s all any of us can do, is remember who we are, whose we are, and give thanks to the one whose steadfast love remains forever.
Joy and Peace,
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