– Bob Bahr reporting, Editor PleinAir Today –
When Joshua Cunningham realized the fisherman in the scene was the best choice for subject matter, it started a train of thought that went to the very core of painting.
Lead Image: “Fishin’ Buddies,” by Joshua Cunningham, 2011, oil on mounted linen, 10 x 16 in.
Cunningham came across the fisherman on Labor Day 2011, on a morning that Cunningham described as more a harbinger of fall than a last hurrah for summer. “Both the temperature and the dew point were hanging in the 50s,” he recalls. “I headed down to one my favorite places to paint, on a little flood plane lake nestled between some bluffs and the Mississippi River. The light and air of the place almost always offer something interesting, and it has a different feel with several railroad trestles carving their way through the landscape.
“I found my spot, and while I was getting out my gear to paint, I saw a fisherman seated by the lake. As I walked back and forth considering a couple of different scenes, my eyes kept flashing back to the fisherman. Having painted in this area a lot, I thought he was the most singular thing about the day. All other scenes would be here tomorrow, but not the fisherman, not on Labor Day, and maybe not with the morning mist on the far side of the lake. So I walked up to him, and from a ‘safe’ distance, I introduced myself and asked if he would mind if I did a painting of him.
“He was surprised that anyone would want to paint him. I said, ‘You’re the most interesting thing here today.’ He looked around and said, ‘Really…well go ahead,’ and we visited a bit. He said he was retired from his clock and watch repair shop, and with his wife now gone, this place is where he liked to spend his time. Just as I started setting up, a mallard swam up, walked a bit up on shore, and began preening himself. Nature had offered a bit of levity — it seemed the duck was getting ready for his portrait to be painted.
“I started my painting with the fisherman, with his story in mind. His gesture now felt influenced by more than gravity — also by time and loss. It seemed his left hip sunk a bit deeper into his seat and his shoulders followed along, making space for his right arm to cast into the gap between the lily pads. I stood there making sure to catch the bit of red from his little lap blanket, so it could have an echo in the bobber. The blanket was just enough to keep the morning cool at bay. Catching the cock of the head and twist of the neck, dipped just a bit toward the sun, and with a hopeful turn toward his bobber. I was waffling about whether or not to include the duck, until the fisherman started chatting with him. The duck looked up, almost like the way a dog does when listening. For the next hour or so that I painted, the fisherman checked his line and chatted while the duck listened and preened.”
Cunningham continues, “The fisherman caught a small fish, which wiggled out of the fisherman’s grasp and splashed into the water, startling the duck, who swam off despite the sincerest apology ever offered by a man to a duck. These are pretty common things to paint, but as painters we can fill those common things, like air in a balloon, with our empathy, understanding, care, and craft. The specificity of the aging angler, his gesture, his authenticity, the role of the duck and I in breaking up the loneliness of his holiday, the feel of fall in the air and in the grasses on Labor Day, the emotions I felt after hearing his story, the memories of previous paintings painted nearby, the memories of my youth fishing, casting into a similar sea of lily pads, all of this is percolating while I painted, and that’s how a painting can become more than a collection of abstract shapes to which our brain assigns labels.
“In this piece, it was a slice of time where my life and his came together at a point when as adults we were able and enjoying the doing of things we liked to do when we were 12. All of it serves the work and makes it singular. It is more than the marks — it’s the marks made in service of all of that — we want to do right by our experience. This isn’t a narcissistic elevation of something simple and common — it is the acknowledgment that our life is special, that the work we do can be special. If we open ourselves up and make peace with who we are and where we live, we can paint things that matter to us, and we will fight harder to resolve a work that matters to us. People don’t need to know all that simmers behind the brush — it will be in the work — and it will touch them because it is honest, and it will feel like a conversation more than a speech.”
Cunningham’s thoughts echo and are informed by what he has learned from teachers and past masters. “Joe Paquet was fond of saying, ‘A painting cannot resonate with that which it was not given’,” Cunningham says. “I think Andrew Wyeth was speaking to a similar mindset when he said, ‘Really, I think one’s art goes only as far and as deep as your love goes.’”