Fathers Day

Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.
   Sherlock Holmes, in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Greek Interpreter

Portrait of artist L. J. Cross

L. J. "Tony" Cross, June, 2011

My dad is a watercolor painter. He's been painting for 60 years, give or take a couple. He worked for Goodyear™ Tire and Rubber for 44 years, most of that time as a machinist, before retiring in 1992. I've never known anyone who liked his job as much as Dad. But he had interests outside the Goodyear universe. He's been a lot of things: scuba diver, skier, golfer, teacher, carpenter; mechanic; inventor; guy-who-could-fix-anything-mechanical. Art, being creative, was chief among those many interests. In the early years he took painting lessons locally, and also incorporated into our family vacations trips to New York and New England to take lessons from well-known names in the arts. He was, and is, heavily involved in an “art center”, a co-op gallery and classroom in the town where he and Mom have lived for over 50 years. At 84 years old, he still paints, teaches a weekly watercolor class, and exhibits his work in shows.

Growing up in the artist's house, I watched his skill and style develop, although I probably didn't recognize this was happening. I marveled at the quality of and detail in his sketches. Dad taught me to cut mats and frame pictures, to handle the finished work, and to hang shows. The walls in our house were full of Dad's paintings, except during gallery exhibits and other shows, when our walls were full of empty picture hooks. I met many artists, most local, some nationally and internationally known. I took drawing and painting classes at the local art center, which offered the “classes for kids” typical of such organizations.

Watercolor painting by L. J. Cross

"Wind Blown Sand, Wingaersheek Beach" L. J. Cross. I don't believe he's ever painted an intact fence.

As the family's financial situation improved over the years, the work of other artists began to fill the walls in our house. Dad did more shows, including some in outdoor venues. We traveled to Virginia Beach, VA, two consecutive summers for that city's ocean boardwalk art show. We spent time in Woodstock, NY, before most people had heard of the place, so Dad could take lessons from a well known painter who had a home and studio there. Dad also traveled to paint in favorite locations from the Atlantic coast of New England to the hills of New Mexico. He carried a sketchbook on his travels, including trips to Europe, and now has a tall stack of these books filled with sketches, doodles, and paintings, often with margin notes describing the areas in which his subjects were found. These sketchbooks are among my favorite things; I love looking through them.

Pencil sketches on a large sheet of junk paper

Pencil sketches on a large sheet of junk paper. Click the picture for a close-up detail view. (L. J. Cross)

In the early 1970's I left my parent's home and moved to an apartment, which provided some blank, white walls waiting to be filled with the posters and calendar art typically displayed in a teenager's flat. But the first piece of art I hung was one of Dad's paintings. I couldn't afford a frame, so I drove a nail through the mat to hold the painting to the wall. I long ago had the painting matted and framed, and it hangs today in my home. It's still one of my favorites. My wife and I have a number of other works from Dad, including those shown here.

The Engineer Gene?

Despite the early classes and the immersion in the arts community, I didn't learn to draw. Even today the sketches I make are crude. My drafting (mechanical drawing) skills, at least, are a little better. It also seems I didn't learn anything in the painting classes. Sometime during my teenage years it became clear that artistic talent isn't inherited. Apparently I'd have to work at it harder than I was willing. Maybe it wasn't, but it seemed so easy for Dad. He certainly made it look that way, which is, perhaps, the mark of true talent.

I did learn to value and enjoy art; given my exposure to Dad's work, meeting many of his friends and admiring their paintings, and visiting galleries and attending shows, I suppose developing an appreciation wasn't optional. It's a cliché, but true enough: I may not have known what good was, but I knew what I liked.

In my working life I went in a different direction, taking on mechanical and electronic engineering roles. I loved the work, if not always the organization I worked for; solving complex technical problems seemed natural, a perfect fit for me. While not necessarily artistic, the work required a level of creativity which varied with the difficulty of the problems to be solved and the flexibility of my employers. Perhaps I inherited “the knack”, rather than artistic talent.

That Undefinable Thing

I'd long had an interest in photography, and while I was technically competent, my photos were rarely satisfying. I was missing something. I wasn't sure what it was, but I clearly felt the absence of some important element, some “thing” I was unable to define. I also was very sure it was there somewhere; if I could find it, tap in to that mysterious thing, I knew my work would improve, perhaps dramatically. Dramatic improvement is what I wanted. Since I was absent the day they handed out artistic talent, and somehow managed to not inherit it from Dad, I was going to have to work for it. In an about-face from my younger days, I was now willing to do that work, to read and study, view as much good art as I could (a valuable exercise), and practice, practice, practice.

Dad continued to paint and teach. We talked often about art, about the differences and similarities between painting and photography (among the differences: a painter gets to decide what to put in a painting, while a photographer has to decide what to leave out). I did not exhibit my work or make prints, so Dad rarely saw what I was doing. As I allowed photography to take over my life more and more, this changed. I built my first Web site in the late 1990's, making it easy to share my pictures and ask for critiques from the artist in the family. As you'd expect, Dad was always too kind; still, his comments were often helpful. They still are.

What Good Is

Red barn and barley stubble, near Freezeout Lake, Montana, U.S.

Red barn and barley stubble in pale morning sun, near Freezeout Lake, Choteau, Montana, US. This is the sort of scene Dad would paint.

My study and practice began to pay off. As my work improved I got involved in peer reviews in which my photographs would be critiqued, and I could offer critique to other photographers, both professional and amateur. These folk were more honest than kind, and the sessions were extremely valuable. I gradually learned what good is, learned why some pictures work and others don't. The type of photography I chose to do became more clearly defined; I could see a style emerging in my work. Getting that far took time, and the process will stop only when I quit making pictures. Throughout all of this I've often thought about “art in the blood”. I've thought about Dad and his art, his training, practicing, developing and improving as an artist. I've had the great joy and good fortune to be a witness to much of that. Perhaps I learned something after all. Thanks, Dad. Happy Father's Day.

June, 2011

Update: Dad died at age 89 on 16 October, 2016.