Friday, July 13, 2012

Surendorf at Billy Whiskers

Tomorrow is another Billy Whiskers morning and David and I will be off to enjoy ourselves in that eccentric environment where we both feel so at home. Tomorrow morning, there’s an extra dollop of interest and fun: my dear old friend, Cindy Surendorf, will be there with a collection of her father’s block prints on view.

Her father, Charles Surendorf, was a brilliant artist and one of my most beloved friends. He started coming to Tuolumne County in the 1930s, drawn by the natural beauty of the Mother Lode and the rustic brick buildings left behind by the Gold Rush. I had known Charles on sight all my life, as he painted and sold art in downtown Columbia, the “ghost town” we both inhabited.

 First, he had a sporty metallic silver Chevrolet station wagon out of the back of which he purveyed watercolors and prints to the tourists who wandered through, in those pre-State Park days. Then he had a studio in the old Pay Ore Saloon, a sloping brick building with a shaggy porch roof of split sugar pine shakes. Always dapper and urbane, in his sandals and Bermuda shorts in summer or wool trousers and sweaters in winter, he stood in sharp contrast to the scruffy and sartorially-challenged local populace. And his wife, Cindy’s mother, was simply the most beautiful woman in this or any other county, with her wide-set dark eyes, pyramid of black hair and dazzling and bewitching smile.

I perfectly remember the day I really made his acquaintance. It was high summer and I was in my early 20s, driving through an area called Springfield, where limestone boulders, exposed by hydraulic mining, rose solemnly, interlaced with China trees, against the bluest sky. Suddenly, I felt that I was driving through a Surendorf watercolor! In an instant, I “got” the spirit of Charles’s Columbia oeuvre.

I was a shy young woman but I knew it had to be done: I had to go straightaway to Charles’s house and thank him. Thank him for his clear seeing, his technical virtuosity, his depth of soul. All my life I had loved these rocks, these sun-drenched waste acres, these ramshackle brick buildings of 1850s vintage. It came as a shock to understand that someone--Charles Surendorf--had understood long before me and actually had the expertise and passion to honor that vision.

Up Maiden lane I went, its borders of blackberry bushes reaching, laden with ripe fruit, into the open car windows and drowsy white heads of Queen Anne’s Lace bobbing in the meadow. There was the house, of Gold Rush vintage, surrounded by deep, shady porches and huge old cypress and poplar trees. The air smelled of dry grass, ripening fruit and water.

I parked under the big cypress, went timidly to the front door and tapped, already doubting myself and my mission. Before I could turn and flee, however, Charles came to the door and graciously invited me into the house. His presence was startling in its vivid aliveness, its energy, its perception. I felt I was standing in a beam of scrutiny that flashed over me, accepted me, approved me. I stepped from the porch into his living room and was instantly struck by the power and beauty of the art, his art, hanging on the walls. From that first instant, I was captivated.

I refused to take a seat; refused the offer of a drink of water. Standing nervously by the door, my eyes downcast, I delivered my message: how I had suddenly seen myself within his paintings, had understood the depth of his vision, had had to come and thank him for his artistry. Then, again refusing to sit, I opened the door and fled into the hot afternoon. “Come again,” he said to my departing back. “Soon.”

I did. Charles and his art had an irresistible magnetism for me. I spent many a pleasant afternoon at his house, in the living room drinking tea or in the back yard in the shade of the cane plants that lent a tropical air to a space surrounded by out buildings holding his gallery and studio. We talked art. He told me about his life, his training, the people he had known. He tried and failed, for years, to get me to pose nude for him. Instead, he did three oil portraits, that, on his death, his children, Broozer, Steph and Cindy, generously gave to me.

My own interest in painting and sculpting was budding. One day I asked him if he would teach me to paint. In response he said, “Go to the back yard and pick a bouquet.” I made up a fancy arrangement of Virginia Creeper leaves, dried grasses and flower seed heads, all that was available on that fall day. He came into the studio, surveyed my arrangement, plucked the entirety of the vegetable matter from it, set up a canvas and paints for me and said, “Paint that.” Then he departed to the front of the house, leaving me in his bedroom studio, standing before a heavily-glazed crockery vase, nestled in a New Zealand sheep skin, all that remained of my careful composition.

I had spent hours simply watching Charles paint. I knew how he handled a brush, how he took up his paints, how he mixed them on the palette, how he danced before the canvas, advancing and retreating, his focus complete. It was as if that watching had turned into kinetic knowing. I began to paint, feeling confident and excited.

An hour later, Charles came in to see what was going on. He stood back and eyed my canvas without a word, as I hovered anxiously, brush in hand. Finally, after long and intense scrutiny, without ever looking at me, his eyes still fixed on the image on the easel, he said, “What do you know! The girl can paint!” Then he turned and left again, leaving me glowing from the finest compliment that, to this day, my painting ever has received.

Charles died in 1979, leaving me bereft. His presence in my life is absolutely irreplaceable.  So it was with real relief and enthusiasm that I greeted his daughter Cindy’s decision to create the NPO, The Surendorf Foundation, to promote awareness of his art and to teach his block print making techniques in the schools. Charles’s reputation went far beyond the boundaries of Tuolumne County: a complete set of his Columbia block prints was collected by the Smithsonian Institution; he was acknowledged to be among the 100 greatest block print artists of America; his paintings and prints are in collections both public and private, worldwide.

Tomorrow and Sunday, from 8 AM to noon, we all have a rare opportunity to see Cindy’s own private collection of Surendorf prints. I hope those who can will come for the occasion. And for those who are out of the area, consider checking out the website of The Surendorf Foundation: If you have questions, Cindy can be reached by email at cindy@surendorf2artfoundation. I have seen the results of her work in the schools, last year. The block printed images created by the students were moving, powerful and a fitting tribute to Charles and his passionate advocacy of art. You might even consider contributing to the foundation. Arts in the schools are struggling or nonexistent. You can keep Charles’s memory, techniques and passion moving forward, to be invested in the next generation, through your generous donations. I thank you for considering it. Cindy thanks you. Charles thanks you.

Remember: art saves lives! See you at Billy Whiskers!


carol culpepper said...

I'm glad to hear that he was kind to you.

Baking Sorceress' Apprentice said...

What a wonderful recounting!