Lucky for me, I live in a place where masterpieces are literally minutes away from home. Here, at the Norton Simon in Pasadena, Sam Francis' Basel Mural I offers a beautiful, expressive focal point.
Some people meditate for clarity, but I like to stare at something like this to sort out the big questions of life. And, like meditation, staring at artwork often brings surprising revelations.
I've always been partial to Francis, and not just because of his expansive visual style. He belonged to the same era as my father. They were both born in California, both joined the Army Air Corps during World War 2. My father was fortunate enough to serve his time in the Pacific without any physical injuries, but Francis was badly hurt during training maneuvers and spent three years recuperating in bed.
During his recovery, Francis learned to paint. He used his new hobby as an escape as well as an expression. I remember once showing my father a print of a Francis painting. I don't recall if it was the one in today's post, but it was similar in its wild explosions of noisy color. I saw infinite optimism and potential when I looked at it.
"Interesting that he was in the Air Corps," Dad said. "This painting kind of reminds me of what the ground looks like after a bombing mission."
Ever since that conversation I can't look at anything by Sam Francis without thinking of my dad.
In Francis' last years, as he was suffering from cancer and clinging to life, a bad fall took away the use of his right hand. Like so many of his generation, he didn't let the setback stop him from achieving his goals. He simply used his left hand to create a series of brilliant small works.
That also reminded me of Dad. No matter how badly my father's body fell apart during the last years of his life, he was undaunted and without complaint. He might not have painted canvases, but he filled our family's world with great beauty all the same.
When my family and I first visited the Norton Simon a few years ago, I stopped for a while to look at this familiar painting. I was about 15 years older than the last time I saw it. I still found the optimism there that spoke to me in my youth, but I could also imagine the world it brought back to my father.
"What do you think of this one?" I asked my daughter.
"It looks like a map of a sad place," she said. "But it's hopeful too. I'm not sure why."
And right then, I realized how weirdly connected families are ... how my little girl not only saw what I saw in that painting, but also the impressions of her grandfather who died before she was born.
"Or," she said walking away, "Maybe he just liked paint splatters."
Art. It transforms, connects and heals. (And sometimes even makes us laugh.)