On the moonlit evening of August 5, 1851, Henry David Thoreau recorded despair over the contents of the current Annual of Scientific Discovery. Comparing an unnamed astronomer’s dry writing to a woodcutter protecting his eyes from the effects of the very thing he is working on, Thoreau concluded, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” Thoreau follows this observation with a paean to the darkening woods around him, the sounds of human activity carried across the valley, the hush of the forest floor, and high above the trees, the moon traversing the clouds. “All these leaves so still, none whispering, no birds in motion, – how can I be else than still and thoughtful?
Thoreau’s solitude in the woods recognized something more important about human sight than mere observation. Our eyes only collect visual data, feeding the optical nerve with an upside down image of whatever light is falling on an object in our visual path. Physically, we “see” when the brain processes this information, filling the gap caused by the blind spot in every retina to form as complete an image as possible. We optically see what our visual process constructs. We miss more than we know, and, conversely, our senses allow us to know more than mere sight will allow. This is why I love the Outsider Artist, those Naïve and Visionary personalities providing the world with a second sense of sight.
The importance of seeing beyond the visible came home to me while working with a group of student docents who were preparing to assist with the exhibition Finding Roman Golla, a survey of 35 paintings created in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s by Polish immigrant and Nazi work camp survivor Roman Golla. After listening patiently to my gallery talk, Joan, a budding artist with a keen interest in art history, suddenly cut the silence with an unexpected question she seemed barely able to hold in.
“Mr. Nowalk,” she began, “You mention Roman Golla as an outsider artist painting with a naive hand, yet you also say he is a genius. How can an artist be both naïve and a genius?”
Thinking on my feet, I looked around the room toward the many canvases lining the walls. There were gypsy figures, mythological deities, woodland birds, and many winter memories of the mountainous region of Poland. Turning back toward the group of docents, I noticed the painting to Joan’s right, Pairing Time, a thickly encrusted canvas depicting two male grouse facing off across a snow-covered field.
“What color is snow?” I asked. “White,” Joan replied, looking only at me.
“So, if someone untaught, but aware of the world, were to paint a winter landscape, they would probably use the color…….” “White,” she interjected.
Pointing to Pairing Time, I asked, “Where is the white?”
Looking straight at the canvas as if for the first time, Joan spoke slowly in a discovering voice, “It’s there between the flecks of peach, yellow,…blue,…turquoise,… green, and …orange.”
“Really?” I asked. “Does it read as snow?”
Backing up for a wider view Joan replied, “Yes, very much,” adding “Wow, I get it.”
The docents moved to examine Pairing Time, and then began wandering around the gallery commenting on Roman’s other depictions of snow. When we came back together, talk about the artist being able to see so much color in something most would describe as white, dominated the conversation.
I think of this now, nearly a year later, as the winds of winter push us toward talk of an early spring. Of the ninety paintings by Roman Golla I have seen, no less than fifteen depict an environment of snow. Each are memory paintings, places and times Roman desired to make visible once again. Born in the mountainous region of southern Poland prior to the close of World War I, Roman’s world abounded in winter’s wonder. Large sleighs called kuligs, pulled by one to three horses, carried people from village to village. Roman depicts these sleighs several times, a wedding party travelling from the church, a pair of kuligs racing across a snowy field, a pack of wolves chasing a kulig full of people – several of whom are shooting long rifles to deter them, and a group of nine merry-makers riding in a kulig carrying a large evergreen.
Living in an ethnically Polish neighborhood in Chicago must have kept much of Roman’s memory of Poland alive. Though he expressed no desire to return to a Communist Poland, working in finance on the streets of Chicago most likely caused him to see his childhood in the Tatra Mountains in a different light. Having no shared history with those he worked, Roman’s past became stories, and when, in 1964, thirteen years after he set foot in Chicago, he picked up a brush for the first time, they flowed onto the canvas as surely as the winter snow still fell in Zakopane.
Once, when the first bloom of discovering Roman’s paintings began wearing off, and the effort needed to research and care for them began to drag on my energy and spirit, I found myself in my studio, where all the art I have created and all the various works I have accumulated began to look like a weight of nothingness. When I feel a sense of directional loss, I do what comes easiest: I clean. Grabbing a broom and moving a few pieces of furniture, I began to sweep, dust and mop my way toward the rack of Roman’s paintings in my possession. Within a stack of five, one painting stuck out due to its length, and a shaft of light fell from the window on an azure corner, catching my attention. Moving over to the rack, I carefully lifted the painting identified as The Winter Escort and placed it on a nearby easel.
Suddenly, I was back in Roman’s world, where the deep cold of winter impressed itself upon a tall pine forest. Below the trees, a mountain stream lay motionless, frozen in mid stride as it played its way through the mountains. The higher bank, a flood plain in spring, stretched back forty meters to the crest of the wood, providing enough space for a path to beckon safe passage through the darkness. The world is all ablue, shimmering with crystal dress of snow and ice covered branches, needles and grass. Fractures of azure, lapis lazuli and turquoise, countered with shafts and sparks of cadmium and alizarin, imbue the whiteness of snow with the shattering grasp of a penetrating cold. The water of the stream, drenched in a rich Prussian blue, absorbs every ounce of light in an abyss of darkness. Into this world come travelers, a party of nine. Three, on horseback, ride the advance, and three make up the rear. Their horses are a mix of chestnut and roan. Between them a kulig, pulled by three tandem harnessed white star horses, carries two passengers and a red-coated driver along the path. Nothing distinguishes the traveler’s social status in any way, though each wears brownish-red coats and dark round Russian style hats.
This painting, being a recollection from history, an act of anamnesis making present what is still virile in Roman’s memory, invites us to know more of what we witness. Are these travelers on official business; are they prisoners or, simply, the escort of a very rich man? Is this a time of reverie or conflict? Was Roman hiding or open about his presence in the wood? The answer to these, and many other questions, we may never know. Apparently, Roman’s only communication about the event is here before our eyes. Moreover, and perhaps this is the truth of the matter, Roman stood as witness to an event he neither caused nor understood fully, but, seeing this moment as significant in place and time, committed it to memory. The wood, the cold, the frozen stream, the ice enshrouded pines, the winter escort, all bore home a message important enough to be retold. It is Roman’s gift of questioning beyond what he looks at that makes whatever happened among the trees of the Tatra Mountains all the more present today. And the story begins with the color of snow – how can I be else than still and thoughtful?