Gooseberries

I earned my MFA in painting at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, home of the Jayhawks and, for many years, my mother and stepfather, Virginia and Marion Crawley. One hot summer Kansas morning in 1981, I found myself in the scrappy local farmer’s market - a dozen tables in a downtown parking lot strewn with local produce - looking at a half pint box of pale green berries, each one delicately patterned with even paler stripes connecting stem and blossom ends. “Gooseberries”, my stepfather quietly affirmed, pronouncing the “S” like a “Z”. My mother, always the 2nd grade school teacher, corrected him: “Marion, you mean gooseberries,” pronouncing the “S” as an “S”. “No, Virginia,” Marion responded, with an unusual degree of confidence for a man whose high school diploma had eluded him - “It’s gooz-z-zberries. They’re the devil to pick, but they make very good pies.” At home, both the dictionary and a pie recipe proved him right.

My “Gooseberries” is a nod to my stepfather, a remembrance, an oblique thank you. Although the composition, the scale, the impenetrable dark atmosphere behind the warmly lit objects in the foreground, and even the gooseberries themselves hint at 17th century Dutch still-life (Marion’s forebears on his mother’s side were Dutch), the “hidden data” in the picture is all his. The cracks in the stone map the NE corner of Kansas, turned 90 degrees, the Missouri River carving its snaky path through its corner; the pocks in the stone pick out the constellation Pisces, Marion’s sign; the star marks the location of Lawrence on the map - where he spent almost all of his adult life, where my parents met, where I first tasted gooseberries and learned how to pronounce them, and where the still-life genre took over my imagination. The old blown-glass bottle broke as I worked on the set-up, its neck and shoulder shattering on the floor, but what was left of it seemed to contrast poignantly with the elliptical solids of the berries, carefully poised around it: together, they make a little family of perfect and imperfect things.

A gooseberry bush now thrives behind my Pennsylvania studio. Every June I harvest its thorn-rich twigs just before the berries turn red and their flavor bland, too bland to turn into pies. And Marion was right about that too: they are the devil to pick.

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