Last time I saw her was when she gave her Alfred back to the lake. By that time she was living out West. But she told me she’d always remember the poetry of the wind coming down the lake and the color of the water the first time she saw it back in ’08. But she was glad she’d never come back.
I was just a tot back then, tethered by a strap to my mother so I wouldn’t wander into the lake. The lake is Lake George, the so-called Queen of American Lakes. To Alfred’s family and mine it was home, though not so much to her.
First time I saw her was one day she walked into Dad’s store in the village after picking up their mail from New York City, where she and Alfred lived most of the year. Like a lot of New Yorkers of any means, and Alfred’s folks had means, they would escape the summer in the city for the wilds of upstate. For many, that meant the Catskills. For others it was Saratoga. But more than a few took the train all the way up into the Adirondacks to their great lodges. The Alfred’s family owned a farm on the lake in the Adirondack foothills. And that’s how I came to meet her.
“She looks like a goddamn man,” my dad would say whenever she came into our store. But that would be well after she left to go back to her studio shed on the farm. And it was kind of true. My big brother Bob said she had what he called a hatchet face. She did almost always wear this most stern and snotty look on it, kind of superior but with the threat of punching you in the mouth just because you looked at her with what she considered the wrong look.
“I think she smells like a barn,” my mom would laugh. “But a new barn, fresh painted with a whiff of turpentine.”
“She’s a painter, Mother,” I’d say. “I’ve seen her on the shore with an easel and paints. And I’ve seen her wandering around the farm then, all of sudden, crouch down and start drawing some flower and then dabbing on some watercolors like grandma taught me.”
My grandma, Mother’s mother, was from a once well-to-do Albany family, canal and railroad money. They lost almost everything in the Panic of ’73. As a privileged girl, she studied music and art, two things she never gave up even after having to move up to their summer place on Diamond Point. She played piano and taught me to draw and paint before she passed in 1913 after she heard about the Titanic. Something about a boy she was in love with as a girl.
I can understand that. You never know when and how love will strike you. Or to whom you’ll lose your heart the first time.
I happened to think this woman smelled just fine. Like an artist, just how I wanted to be. Not like her Alfred, who carried the aroma of rotten eggs around with him. She said it was the chemicals he used to make his pictures, photographs of people and buildings and life. He also made what the visitors to his family’s farm called “images” of people with no clothes on, including his wife. I never saw those until she invited me in one day when I came across her having trouble carrying her equipment from the lakeshore back to her shed studio.
It didn’t bother her one bit that I saw her naked there in shades of black and white. She even put on a little grin because she knew how scandalous it was to someone who didn’t understand art. But the photographs that captured my imagination were the ones Alfred took of her beautiful hands. He captured those long fingers in various poses, almost like ballet dancers, sometimes just against a dark piece of wood or canvas, others framing her somber face.
“Thank you for showing me what you and your mister do up here,” I said before I headed back down the lakeshore to the village. “It means a lot to me because I want to be an artist someday, myself.”
“What kind of artist, uhh… What did you say your name was?” her face took on a somewhat softer expression.
“A painter, just like you,” I replied. “And my name is Catherine.”
“Well, Catherine, the career of an artist isn’t for the faint of heart. In fact, your heart has to develop a skin as tough as the sole of your shoe because rejection and isolation is as much a part of it as an easel or even a camera,” she said.
“Well, that’s what I want to be,” I said.
“Then stop by Tuesday and meet some of the New York artists Alfred is having as guests for the week. They are a motley bunch of malcontents and zealots, but they all are, by definition ‘artists.’ They make art.”
I left the shed stumbling on my “Thank you, ma’am”s and “I’ll surely be heres.” But I didn’t tell Mother or Dad because if they found out, they’d lock me in the root cellar until school started again in September.
I think it was that day I fell in love for the first time.
Even though I’d watch her work from hiding every day, it was Tuesday I wandered up to the farm and heard a commotion like a meeting in the village hall about raising taxes.
There were a couple of painters, a dancer named Isadora, a newspaper lady named Agnes Meyer, a writer named Kerfoot and in the middle of it all was Alfred, like he was a conductor——railroad or orchestra, it didn’t matter——keeping the conversation, or argument, going. She sat on the outside, taking it all in.
“Come on over, Catherine,” she said over the clamor of the artists. She beckoned me forward, leaving my fear down by the lakeshore, with a balletic wave of her alluring left hand, something I doubt Miss Duncan could manage.
She patted a spot on the porch step next to her and I sat there, eyes wide and dry mouth agape, I’m sure, at the sight and sound of what I would later learn were some of the movers and shakers of modern American Capital A Art.
“This is Catherine, a schoolgirl from the village. She wants to be an artist someday. I thought she might learn something about ‘Art’ from listening to you birds,” she said.
The group gave me a nod and sideways look and continued their chatter. It was intoxicating and I’m certain I looked every bit the country schoolgirl they considered me. I began to feel out of place and was about to slide off the step and head back down to the village and my pencils and books when she put her hand atop mine and gave me a knowing look. I do believe I melted in that August shade.
“Alfred,” she sternly said, piercing and taking the air from the palaver like a sewing needle a balloon, “before we potentially lose this girl to the drudgery of a humdrum existence here on your beloved Lake George, would you please address her question of a life in art?”
Alfred, even then not a young man, his silver mustache bristling, seemed knocked back by the strength of her order. It definitely wasn’t a request and even he, a giant in modern art, seemed to quail in her power. He then gathered his own shattered power off the porch floor and directed his attention upon me with his whole being as any artist, or wolf, might a lamb.
“Young lady, the people you see here today are artists, but not because they are deemed such by a society who may never fully accept us. Photography is not an art. Neither is painting, nor sculpture, literature or music. They are only different media for the individual to express his aesthetic feelings…”
I’m sure he could here me gulp as a stony silence came over not only his guests, but seemingly the entire lakeside.
“You do not have to be a painter or a sculptor to be an artist. You may be a shoemaker. You may be creative as such. And, if so, you are a greater artist than the majority of the painters whose work is shown in the art galleries of today. Probably better than anyone you see before you right now,” he said.
“Yessir,” I said and got up to run home armed with knowledge I wouldn’t appreciate for more than a few years as a failed painter and a reporter for various New York newspapers. But I couldn’t run. Her strong hand clutched mine and I was her prisoner.
“Come with me Catherine,” she said, leading me to her shed, which had taken on a golden glow as the sunlight sifted down below the pines atop Prospect Mountain.
“Ah, the Golden Hour,” Georgia said. “Light, illumination, is everything to an artist, Catherine. I hope you’ve learned a lesson, been illuminated, today.”
“I…I…think so,” I said, and I didn’t mean strictly about my future as an artist, but my future, period. I was totally smitten with her, her piercing eyes, her confidence, those beautiful fingers that now held mine.
“Look, I’m not sure I’ll be back here next year. No offense, but I think I need to open my horizons and head back west, both for my art and myself.”
“But you can’t,” I said, suddenly panicking that I’d never see her again.
“I see a lot of me as a girl in you,” she said. “I see a seriousness, an inquisitiveness, a certain kind of yearning about art and life that instinctively puts on a new trail each day, like a wolf maybe, while we hunt for and take a big bite out of the objects of our desire.”
And then I kissed her.
Her face took on that hatchet hardness, but her eyes a sadness I’d never seen her show.
“You’re young, Catherine. Spread your wings, never settle for the first sketch, the first draft. Obey your mind as well as your heart. And always, always listen closely to the sound of this earth, so closely you can hear its poetry, even hear its colors. Tell the world its story however you decide to make your art.”
She pressed a wooden case into my hands and nudged me toward the barn-like door of her studio shed.
“I’m leaving for New York with some these people you met today, but I want you to have this. Maybe it can help you can find your true calling as an artist. Now, I think you’d better get moving along before night falls all together,” she said, closing the big doors behind me.
I cried all the way home and for the next two days when I didn’t see her by the lake or in her studio. It wasn’t until after I graduated from Skidmore College, where I met and fell in love with my Betty, that Alfred finally died and she came back to Lake George with his ashes that I found her while I was visiting my parents and walking along the shore by what was once the Stieglitz farm.
She looked up quickly, with a dark and suspicious expression on her sun-burnished face, but it softened as I drew closer.
“Is that you Catherine? Have you become one of those reporters who sneak up on people to catch them in moments of weakness or sin?” she said with a grin that I hadn’t seen in nearly twenty years. She turned and dumped something into the lake.
“No. Sorry to hear about Alfred. I’ll never forget the day he, and you, ‘illuminated’ me about being a true artist. I wish I could thank him,” I said.
“You just did. Walk with me and tell me about the artful life you’ve created for yourself.” With that, Georgia took my right hand in her still beautiful left and we listened as the poetry of the morning breeze combed the trees and turned the surface of the lake to blue-green corduroy.
The photograph that accompanied the original prompt (as seen illustrating the poem The Uncertain Certainty of Eternity) reminded me of some of the paintings made by Georgia O’Keeffe while she summered with Alfred Stieglitz up in nearby Lake George. That and the quote from Keats moved my imagination for a couple of hours to come up with this first draft.