Plenty

Sunday, October 16, 2011. All Saint’s Episcopal Cathedral, Albany. Begun in the late 19th century, never completed. Scott and I sit in the rich dark glimmer of the nave, its air scented with snuffed candles, our ears ringing in the prayer-thick silence, our prayers among them. The chancel is a dazzler, walls and furniture alive with elaborate relief decoration. But the nave is just a rough sketch, with huge wall patches of unsheathed brick, a makeshift ceiling, and half-carved capitals, as if the sculptor had fallen asleep mallet in hand. Is it a ruin only partially restored? Or is it still in progress, on the way to becoming its full self?

And which is Scott, I wondered? We had planned this trip for early August, but in June a roadblock went up across our lives: Scott was hit hard with Lyme disease and near fatal meningitis, our most serious health crisis in thirty-eight years. His healing was slow, but steady; good doctors and great friends supported him - supported both of us; and - by the time we made our way to Albany - he was very near full recovery: the words we whispered in the pews of All Saints were prayers of gratitude. We bought a fragment of the cathedral itself by way of a contribution - a piece of slate from the original roof - and just as the priest put it in my hands an idea for a new picture bloomed in my mind’s eye. Its title arrived soon after, as simple and direct as the structure of the composition, no Latin, no puns, no irony, just “Plenty.”

Which our old Webster’s defines as: “enough and to spare.”

From the start, there was no question about that piece of slate in the picture: it’s exactly as wide and thick as my souvenir. But there were other questions I needed answers for, and many of them came with surprising ease. A “Gold Rush” apple from a market stall seemed to act as a catalyst for the rest of the provision of dry and fresh fruit heaped on my makeshift altar - a half-ripe McIntosh apple, a pomegranate, a rosehip, and three prune plums. In my final revision of the preliminary drawing, I added a pair of tiny seeds on the far right and a seed husk on the far left, bracketing the harvest and hinting at a full life cycle. On the other hand, the surface of the square below the slate was the result of a slower, additive, free-associative process in pastel. I began with photos I’d snapped of pocked, scratched, and graffiti-rich stone and stuccoed walls in Rome, but as I worked the two largest pocks became freely drawn maps: the one on the left, Hawaii’s big island, upside down and backwards (Toshiko Takaezu, my lifelong mentor, was born and raised on Hawaii’s east coast), and on the right, Oklahoma, turned 90 degrees, with an outline of Lebanon hidden in its center (I was born and raised in the Lebanese- American community in Oklahoma City). The large scratch marks (“XII”) date the picture’s completion, and the smaller marks, strewn in an arc in the middle, spell downwards “ROMA”, the “M” my usual signature mark turned upside down, an echo of the picture’s structure. And the graffiti are also mine, the beginning of my written signature in black (GD) and the Arabic version of my last name in ghostly pale gray - the way my grandfather wrote it out for me (I know no written Arabic) when I was a boy.

I’m an inveterate self-interpreter. Because my process is painstakingly slow, I have ample time to ponder the personal meanings of these “dreams” that arrive out of the nowhere of my unconscious mind and grip me in my waking hours. While working on the multi-layered surface of the square of stone (I move from top to bottom: the slate and its offerings were already finished) I found myself reading that square as both convincingly real and purely abstract. I’ve often said that the formal structure of new images is my bedrock: if that doesn’t satisfy, if the parts don’t add up to a deeply satisfying whole, I can’t - I believe I shouldn’t - commit to the work. “Plenty” can be seen as a kind of pictograph of that aspect of my process. In it, an abstract painting supports like a pedestal a realist painting in the classical tradition of the ancient Greek artist Xeuxis, who could fool birds into pecking at his painted grapes. But my own little rainbow-colored huddle of painted fruit also reminds me of the gobs of pure hues I squeezed onto my first palette, in 1956, in Richard Goetz’s oil painting class in the Oklahoma City public library: white yellow orange red crimson blue green ochre. And the ochre leaf gall in the center of the picture, its delicate stem just touching the slate like the tip of a brush, is (as I’ve written before) “the product of an insect consuming a leaf and morphing it into its home, a favorite metaphor of mine for the kind of artist whose work transforms the commonplace.”

“Is that all?” I remember asking Goetz as I looked at that minimal palette of colors, those eight elements with which I was expected to reenact the world in front of me. “What about black?”

“You can make black,” he said. “You can make any color you see. All you need is here.”

And he was right: I had enough. I still do. Enough and to spare.

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