Welcome. This blog site places before you a remarkable man, Charles Beck, an artist and teacher. This monthly series of stories begins by describing Charlie’s ways of being in the world, through my encounters with Charlie in the last decade of his life first as my colleague, then mentor and finally or rather for ever as my dearest friend. Year two of this blog expands to include my own hopefully and enduringly perspectives on art, on teaching and of a certain slant on life inflected by Charlie. ~ Peter London

Charlie and the Latter Day Knights

"The many ways Nature employs of creating the world are not just techniques, they are ways of being in the world . . ." ~ Peter
Part I. 
Charlie and the Latter Day Knights 
After school was out for the year, Charlie and Helen lived in a lovely country home along the banks of the Beaver Kill River in upstate New York.  Over time, they had purchased and renovated three adjacent home sties along a bend in the river, giving one to each of their daughters and their families. A peaceful retreat from the city and their lives as teachers in the New York public school system. During the school year Charlie and Helen lived in a high rise apartment building in Queens, New York. The building and its neighborhood were noisy smelly canyons of almost identical high risers, their apartment being on the twenty something floor. The elevator opened on to a narrow and dimly lit hallway punctuated by door after door, all olive green. After a bend or two, you came to Charlie’s place. His door was painted bright pink with purple trim. A step inside, brought you into a landscape/homescape the likes of which, for a first time visitor, prompted this first time visitor, to wonder just what he had gotten himself into. (Charlie conducted his interviews for potential members of his department in his apartment, and now that I think about it, I bet he did so to observe the candidates startle reaction to their unexpected visit to another planet.) Swarms of color was the first to greet you; walls of purple, bright pink and sky blue, each room boasting more than one color. Charlie’s giant paintings in ornate antique gilded frames of Girls of the Golden West and Home Treasures loosely based on their extensive collection of Currier and Ives prints festooned the walls. Early Americana furniture, rugs, sculpture and ornate lamps jutting up from every surface. Charlie himself was conservatively almost indifferently dressed in roomy pants and plaid shirt. That was inside Charlie and Helen’s den. Outside, their windows looked out over rows of identical brick and balconied mammoths eclipsing most of the pale grey sky. Winding around the base of the canyons, an eight lane highway choked with cars buses trucks; their growling and honking making its way to their place on the twenty something floor. 

Painting by Charlie

inside outside
Charlie and I were walking down one of these same streets one day when from a distance we heard loud popping and roaring. As the origin of the noise came closer and louder we recognized the threatening sounds as those coming from a phalanx of motorcycles and their riders. Perhaps a dozen black leather, helmeted, silver spiked, and tasseled riders drew along side of us popping and roaring. Another turn in the road and they were gone, their triumphant wake subsiding.

Charlie, look at those guys, I said. A bunch of bums making one hell of a racket. Farting and belching through the neighborhood. Scaring folks. Putting us all on notice that brawn trumps all. Punks, Charlie, making up in leather and noise, for a life of little more. Outlaws flaunting their indifference to the laws that hang over you and me and all the rest of us who creep along the sidewalks, stepping over dog shit and crossing the street only at the intersections. Noisy pigs. That kind of thing pisses me off.

No corresponding observations from Charlie, and so we walked on. Some while later Charlie said, You know, Peter; I see those fellas somewhat differently.

Really? Like what?

Peter, I think you may have gotten these guys all wrong. I bet that there probably wasn’t a single one of those fellas who, if you or me were in some kind of trouble, if these guys wouldn’t be the first to drop everything and come to our rescue. Peter, I think these guys are our latter day knights. They are here to save fair demoiselles from the dragon’s den.

Latter day knights! Charlie, you are making these quite ordinary outlaws into something they are not. Look at them as they really are, Charlie, as they are right here and right now. These guys are not knights or saints in leather, they are louts on noisy bikes who wear what they have on and make the noise that they do to scare the shit out of people. That’s who just rode by, Charlie.

Well yes, you can see them that way, Charlie said, I saw what you saw, but look, can’t you see that their helmets and visors and leather and buckles and boots and tassels are just what knights used to wear? And their beautifully polished bikes are their brushed steeds? Their club jackets with all those brass and silver studs are their coat of arms. Peter, these guys are the last remnant of the Romantic era. King Arthur, Guinevere, Sir Galahad, the Knights of the Round Table. That’s who just rode by. They probably were on their way to some kind of a jousting match, or maybe just back from one.

Yikes!, Puhleeze Charlie, that’s too much. These guys are bums and you know it.

No, wait a minute, Peter, see, these guys are the only ones left who know honor, and brotherhood, and who are still searching for the Holy Grail, who would give their life for a fair damsel in distress, or even any rascal like me and you. Look at the rest of us; humble little peasants going about our daily rounds, not making a peep, trying to go unnoticed, just getting through the day so we can return safe and sound to our little apartments, getting a nights rest so we can do it all over again the next day. They are not outlaws, well yes they are, but they are not lawless. They have their own code of conduct and answer to what they truly believe are higher authorities. Why do we wait to cross the street at intersections, and not just cross where and when we decide it is good and proper to do so? Sure, we do so because we are told it safer to do so and it is against the law not to do so. And we are good people and good citizens. But Peter, look what we have traded that view and that life for. We have traded it for our own spontaneity, our impulses, our right to die by our own hand in our own way!

Charlie, gimme a break, you’re making a fable out of this. These guys are outlaws, plain and simple. They want nothing to do with the likes of you and me and the whole – ok, prissy world we, Charlie, you and me, concocted.

Peter, I know about the social contract, in which we give up certain personal prerogatives and freedoms in order to enjoy even greater ones, but listen, did you ever draw up any of the particulars of this “contract?” Even one? No, Peter, you and me and most everyone else have just allowed ourselves to accept as good and true and necessary. And sure most of it is probably good and true, even necessary. But, Peter, we were not asked. We were not consulted. We were not invited into the circles of those who decide. And these guys who you call punks and outlaws say, say in their dress and hair and bikes; Count us out. We see something else, we want something else, and we are conducting our lives without asking your permission. Peter, like you make a painting without first taking a survey of what others think is good and true, these guys comb their hair in the same way.

Charlie, you know I think the world of you, I learn from you every time you point out something that I have been stepping on or in but never noticed before or seen in just that way. But you are trying to draw analogies between things; motorcycle rascals, knights and poetic license, the social contract, that really are quite distinct and do not belong together. I’m sorry Charlie, it seems pretty straightforward; what we just saw, right in front of us, was a bunch of hoodlums, beery brawlers on motorcycles that were purposefully, violently loud. They were wearing Nazi like helmets. Their black jackets were studded with skulls and cross bones. The whole thing was about giving us the finger. Charlie, we did not see any knights.
Now look Peter, I really did see just what you saw ride by with the same jackets, helmets, hair and all the rest. I saw what you saw. And what you think about them, I also think about them. But when I think about them other thoughts also come to mind. Misplaced knights actually do come to mind. Rousseau’s social contract really does come up for me. I really do see a pattern here and I think that the pattern is as real as any of its parts. You are absolutely right, my friend, these guys drink and fight, and they are noisy and I guess they are giving us the finger. But why the hell not? What do you think the Knights used to do? Drink and swear and brawl and ball. They were unemployed bums just like these guys. Spoiled kids who made these clubs, hung around drinking and waiting for a fight. Long hair, big smelly horses, clanging around making the peasants shake and run for their huts. And yet we loved them- when they were contained in our picture books. They were the heroes of our childhood. They were, and they still are, the stuff of our great myths, our knights in shiny armor. They were the real heroes that our modern day baseball sluggers and movie stars are pale, Peter, pale copies. No, Peter my boy, what you and I just saw were the remnants of the Knights of the Round Table.

We walked a while longer silently. When we got to the next corner, we waited, with a few other pedestrians for the light to turn green light, then crossed. On the other side, I said to Charlie, You ever ride a motorcycle?

Nope. I used to ride a Schwinn. One speed. Foot brakes. It didn’t go fast, and I never went that far anyway.

Well Charlie, I rode a Columbia. Light blue, no gears, tassels at the ends of the handle bars, fat white wall tires. Pretty. I was only allowed to ride around the block and across one street, and that was just to my school. And Charlie, it’s true, when I was on that pale blue beauty, I was kinda untouchable. I used to dream that I could fly, not high, only skim the ground. When I got up enough speed on my bike, I would sometimes take my hands off the handle bars and then for a few seconds, close my eyes. I thought that must be like flying.

I’m sure Charlie heard me but he just kept walking.

Part II.  (Excerpt from "Drawing Closer to Nature.") 
Crystallization, Sedimentation, Erosion.  

The art instruction that I am familiar with frequently begins with the teacher presenting the students with an admirable object to be emulated in some degree and fashion, followed by a sequence of steps that shows the student how to construct a similar object.  The properties of different materials necessitate particular procedures in order to build durable objects that exhibit desired properties of the original object. Since most art teaching concerns itself with how to make a certain class of things, these procedures of construction become procedures of instruction.  Art courses are almost entirely organized according to media and sequenced according to degree of complexity of manufacture.  The aesthetics of composition can be understood as procedures to build durable and preferred compositions (preferred by instructors acting on behalf of the canon embraced by the school).  In this way advanced art instruction is organized in the same manner as methods and materials: simple to complex.  One works ones way through introductory courses through intermediate and finally advanced, until one achieves the highest level of instruction in which the student is encouraged to finally think for themselves, but still within the bounds of propriety, respectful of standards of good form expected of students of that particular school – in that particular year – in that particular department, of that particular instructor.  The best teachers use this opportunity to engage in vigorous dialogue with the students, deepening and broadening the student's insights into the relationships between who they are and what they are doing, as well as encouraging the student to push the limits – within limits – of the possibilities of their art form, an effective method of teaching art that brings about the making of many admirable things.

A problem arises however when the building procedures of art objects one is instructed in are not complimentary with the building procedures one happens to employ in the creation of ones own life. That is, a problem arises when how one puts ones life together is incompatible with how one has been instructed to put art together. This results in a not uncommon situation wherein not only are the structural procedures of making things at variance with those that are native, so are the instructional procedures.  Where there was a nice fit: nice student and nice work.  Where the fit is poor, not so nice.

Most of my teachers, sweet, decent, bright, articulate and caring as they may have been, were mostly what might be described as graduated pearl stringers.  I came to learn, much too late in my academic career, that I am by nature, helped by inadvertent nurture, a conglomerate, and on occasion, a weaver.  The pearl stringing instruction that I was subject to made schooling for me a factory job set to tasks that I could see no purpose in, and machinery I couldn't be a handle one.  The instructions seemed to want us to start in September along a predetermined route and, not breaking ranks with my cohorts, to arrive at a destination I had no interest in arriving at towards the end of June.  I happened to grow up in a family, on a block in Brooklyn, in a world, or at least in my life in this world, that didn't seem predetermined at all.  It seemed, well, like a conglomeration of stuff that just squished together to make up a day, or a meal, or my room, or my homework.

This may not be the best way to go about organizing one's life – indeed it was an ineffectual and a painful way, but it was my native one, the one I knew best, and it seemed to fit everything and everyone I happened to be squished together with.  And so I got to be not all that bad as a conglomerator.  This did not help me out as a student, and frankly did not help me all that well as the child of my parents. Not that they were graduated pearl stringers themselves.  They were what might be described as page-turners.  Once the book was written: book-of-the-month club books, they turned the pages from the first to last. Not me.

What has all this got to do with art and Drawing Closer to Nature? It is this; you may also have an affinity for a creative process different from the one employed in your art instruction. You may organize your life in any of the ten thousand ways Nature organized the ten thousand things on a beach after a moon tide, or you may put your life together the way a stand of saplings sort themselves out when a field has been abandoned by the dairy farmer now that his children have decided that farming is not for them. While you mind wanted to build a mosaic of catch-as-catch-can employing principles of gravity, density, buoyancy, surface tensions and fluidics, your teacher was stringing pearls, or laying up walls of Boston Pavers. The problems that you may be having with your art may turn out to have nothing to do with your problems with art, it may be much different and – much easier to resolve, it may be due to an incompatibility of the way you put your life together with the way the teacher put their course together.

May I suggest that you step outside the routines of instruction you may have been tutored in while at school and step back into the Great School, and observe the many ways Nature employs in creating the world. Doing so, you just might find the teacher and the teaching that is more compatible with your nature.

I remember a brush fire I was in the midst of as a 

young child, and later a kitchen fire that
threatened my sleeping daughter. Now, many years after these terrifying acquaintances with fire, it is evening and I was about to continue this essay, when the fire in our wood burning stove across the room caught my attention. Silently, languidly, the flames danced under the proscenium of the glass door. Blue then violet tongues tipped with scarlet, then crimson, then orange, back to arabesques of blue. Think of Judith Jamison, Martha Graham, Isadora Duncon. Imagine them draped in filaments colored as above, carrying their own light. Imagine them dancing unbothered by gravity to the great chorale, "Dank sei dir, Gott" within Mendelssohn's Elijah. For that is exactly what the fire dance to a few minutes ago. Please believe me, now that this has been written and chorus ended, the fire glow crimson, and the flames are no more. What shall we make of this? Coincidence? Most likely, but then again most of my life consists of remarkable and unremarkable coincidences. What
shall we make of this?

Or, take my son. He employed the crumple, ball and stuff style of packing.  Unpacking was somewhat simpler: dump and kick.  His method of seeking things not on the surface of the pile was to burrow and toss.  However when it came time to write a paper, all I could observe of his method was: sit down, ooze out, pat dry …finished. A+. A gifted boy, and crumpled.

The many ways Nature employs of creating the world are not just techniques, they are ways of being in the world, they are procedures of making sense, of prioritizing not only tasks to attend to, but values.  Just as they entail the handling of different things, tasks to do and order of those tasks, they also have their own smell, heft, texture, rhythm, sounds, requirements of time, and strength, endurance, invited and necessary company.  Each one of these ways of creating; whether it be a portion of Nature, a life, a curriculum, a pedagogy, a work of art, are themselves complex systems often requiring full understanding, particular materials, land exact procedures.

Each of Nature's ways is an entire culture, complete with its own history, its own paragons of excellence, its host of stories, its method of instruction, its admirers and critics.  Finding a way of putting your life together that is in harmony with your basic character and employing that modus vivendi in the way you school yourself and create your art work is to establish a profound economy and harmony of means.  When who you are, and what you do, and how you do it share deep affinities, there comes over one a perceptible degree comfort, of feeling at home in the world, of personal legitimacy, of full disclosure and unashamed presence. When there is this alignment across the mind and the body, and the spirit, embracing what and how we organize our life, there is an automatic shift of performance to greater grace, fullness and depth of expression, It looks artistic, it feels natural, and it is.
~ Peter London 

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