I took this picture with my phone camera when I went to visit my sister on September 20, 2020, it was a Sunday during the height of Covid, on one of the last days warm enough to be able to comfortably run into the ocean if just for a few minutes. I lived in Riverside Ca, in the Inland Empire, and although I’d been in CA for my professorship at USC since August 2016, had rarely if ever been swimming in the ocean. I gratefully, like the folks in the picture, ripped off my mask, held my breath running past people on this crowded beach, and jumped exhilaratingly into the cold ocean water. Wooh! It was freezing, but so amazing to finally be outside, around people, but be able to have my mask off, smiling at my sister who was waiting for me with our stuff on the beach. Later, as we were leaving, the sun was setting so intensely it burned my eyes with sandy tears, but I took this snapshot as a group of three friends were repeating the same action I had just performed. It was a beautiful, yet melancholic and intense, almost post-apocalyptic scene, given our moment then (and now) with global warming, the state of politics, and the pandemic. But the human desire to be free is ever present!
There is a boat in the background, and one of my favorite paintings of all time is the one above the Simpson’s couch in the famous cartoon. Despite all their trials in their cul-de-sac suburbia of Springfield, they can gaze at that painting and yearn for a better future, able to transcend through the vehicle of the boat (like Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat) into a better or transcendent, at least for the moment, world.
Kant, who believed in the Sublime, which I try to teach to my students, wasn’t sure if humankind can create better than Nature the truly sublime—where one feels a small part of a much larger thing and is able to objectify themselves in such a matter they see the largeness of all things, and their interconnectivities to everything—the relatability of it all— There have been many paintings by great artists trying to capture this moment, for which Kant also describes one can feel when gazing at the awesome ocean. The symbolists also would embrace the spirituality of nature this way, the title character from le Comte de Lautréamont’s infamous chanteuse Maldoror has a lengthy espousal to the Ocean demanding its secrets, and here I yet again (I have painted a number of ocean works) the sublime feeling of that day.
One thing Turner didn’t have when painting his magnificent maritime scenes was photography, nor high-res digital photos, obviously, and printers. Although my image was from a camera phone, and somewhat pixelated, it was joyous to be able to escape looking at the mini pixels in this much micro-managed picture. I think the secret to the sublime is micro-managing to the macro managed whole, and I tried from within my grid to get the most flotsam and jetsam possible from every tooth and comb of the natural wave flow, mini sand dunes made from footprints, the tiny figures, and the incredible sky and intense sun.
Our three-year-old dog had just died tragically before painting this picture from a rare disease, and his sister had what turned out Stage 3 Lymphoma, which quickly turned to stage 4, my parrot almost died giving birth to an oblong egg, all during the painting of this picture and just before. I truly wanted to use the picture to escape, to transcend into it, like one is supposed to do with the coloristic machines like a Rothko, suturing into the avatars of the tiny, shadowed figures (like Casper David Friedrich’s silhouettes!), and dive into the world thinking of better tomorrows.
In fact, while painting this, we were stuck in the old house in Riverside, where the dog had just died wishing we could more. My husband put the house on the market, and a gay couple—the new Dean of Humanities for UC Riverside, purchased the house (like us, too, they are multicultural, he is African American, his husband white). Andrew found us an apartment in Laguna Beach—the seaside resort where we had first met each other and lived in the early 90’s, and we moved there, with an apartment overlooking PCH and the ocean! All the while I was painting the picture of the same scene!
Sometimes when you paint your dreams, it helps them to become true. I was able to hang this work, while working for them in the show, on the wall next to the sliding glass door that has a real-life ocean scene next to the painting of the same! It was uncanny to realize, through the magic act of painting that perhaps serendipitously I was able to ideate a world that then manifest and came true! Sometimes we do have Dos Ex Machina when we most need it, and we feel very blessed to be living our American Dream.