The home I grew up in, the one I’ll only see in pictures and inhabit only behind my closed eyes ever again, was one that had life oozing, sometimes tumbling, out of every corner and on every wall. Hell, the walls themselves can never fully mean to someone else what they meant to us. You see, my father is an artist and he designed our home. He’ll hasten to point out that he’s a designer, and he’d of course be right. But art is in the eye of the beholder. In fact I’d use a version of his own argument against him if he ever were to push back too hard. Not that he would, I suspect. He’s always been a dad that’s happy to allow us to be wrong and to learn in our own time. As we’ve gotten older and wiser the times that time has proven us right have increased and on this one I’m right. Just like he was when someone would say that Norman Rockwell was not an artist, but rather an illustrator. Besides, my dad’s art, much of it from his ‘art school’ days, some from the days when they were a young couple trying to decorate a home, hung all over those walls he designed.
Now ‘illustrator’, at least as far as I can tell, holds no innately pejorative meaning. It’s not an insult to call someone who illustrate’s an illustrator. But in the particular case of an artist of Mr. Rockwell’s talent and the way in which his work was received by so many contemporaries and more recently by so many subsequently, there is no mistaking the pejorative if not downright disdainful way the term ‘Illustrator’ is spit out in regard to this man’s considerable work. Now I paraphrase here, and my dad is not one given to high emotion, but I’m quite certain that my father would find this assessment to be straight up baloney. Or Bologna, if you prefer. It rankled him. His art was no less artful for being purchased. Was in fact far more technically impressive, emotive and often breathtaking than the celebrated works of his contemporaries who looked to shock or amuse rather than paint and convey. I believe these things. I did even at my most harshly judgmental, Brooklyn bohemian, cravenly desirous of the approval of the cool people that I ever was. Because my dad was right.
We went out of the way for a day on a family vacation when we were kids to spend a night in Stockbridge so we could visit the Rockwell museum and the work is extraordinary. I assume we stayed near Stockbridge. Even then it was ridiculously expensive and we were a family of 6-9 kids, depending on when you caught us. I mean, I have 2 and we’re challenged to make a day at the beach. But my dad, he was going to see the Rockwell Museum, and we were going to as well.
The art that hung on our walls, it was and is beautiful. It was original and creative and something I’ll have a sense memory of until the day I die.There were pieces made of crepe paper and lacquer, some evoking scenes from nature others crinkled and crumpled and exploding from the the frame out to you. As a kid, even now I’m sure, I’d be hard pressed to resist feeling them, running my hands over the points and crevices, riding the ridges of the bright orange that has never seemed to fade with time. Or the hard wood drawn on with varying sized nails hammered in that should seem hard and unforgiving but convey soft fluidity as the lines denote structure and movement from top to bottom. The figure could be wind, it could be human, it could be a spirit. I could look forever and for me it would never fully be decided. Or the dark stained blocks, differnt shapes and sizes, but all right angles, creating a skyline if laid flat, and a sense of looking down on a city as they hung in their frame on the wall.
Art wasn’t just something he did. He breathed art. There was something of it in the very life he’d crafted. He is 6’3″ and as a young man, for at least the first 15 or 16 years of my life he had a big, bushy black beard. He looked, as EVERYONE noted, like a living, breathing Abraham Lincoln. He and his beautiful, loving wife had 6 kids. They didn’t always have enough to make it all work, but somehow they did. Didn’t matter, even if they couldn’t, there was always room for one more at the table. Anyone who knew us, even just a little, they always knew that about them. Many would ascribe it to my mother, a truly charitable and loving soul, but they were a team. The decisions they made were based on what served the greater good, what completed their vision of what a beautiful life looked like. For my father that picture was one that couldn’t avoid including art and curiosity, and daydreaming and all that it had given his life. He was a designer, true, but he was an artist not only of multiple media’s when that term meant something altogether different.
Art was a living and breathing thing in our home. I don’t know that this part is true, but I even think that my dad’s parents met somehow through community theater. This may be a fanciful fiction, but it’s got some truth in it, even if it isn’t fully ‘correct.’ Music, books, theater, these were all an integral part of life growing up in the Medler home. I wasn’t quite brave enough to try to participate in the creation of said art like my older brothers were when I was a kid, but I sure am happy I was exposed to it. I became a big reader and lover of novels. It was what spoke to me. They were performers. I envied them. I’m glad I’ve found and stuck to writing. I’m glad to be a part of this part of the family legacy in some small way, even if it doesn’t exactly mesh with the rest.
My father also communicated with me through art. When I was not much older than ten, maybe twelve, we found ourselves home alone for an evening. Honestly, I’m the third child in a family of six, or sixth of nine if you choose to define our family in the most inclusive way, as we all do, and this might be the only time when we found ourselves in this predicament. My younger sisters were at friends houses, my youngest brother may have been traveling with my mom, or maybe he was not even born yet, I’m not sure. In any case, I distinctly remember my father mentioning that he’d heard an interview earlier in the day and that Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie were playing at Finger Lakes that night. He really wished he could have gone.
‘Why don’t we go?’ I said. I knew Arlo Guthrie was the guy who did the Alice’s Restaurant song. I liked that.
‘Yeah?’ He asked.
‘Yeah.’ I said. I was really excited. Things like this had yet to start happening for me.
That night we just drove out there and stayed for the whole thing. It was great. My first concert. Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie with my dad. A night to remember indeed. He even played Alice’s Restaurant and his shtick was pretty amusing. I had no idea how much of an inspiration Pete Seeger would become as I grew up. He seemed super old then and I don’t think he’d even STARTED cleaning the Hudson yet, though I’m certain I’m way off. I didn’t know he had, anyway.
Another time he rented Breaking Away from Wegman’s on a Friday night and said, you should watch this. It’s important. He would later rent Brazil and say I should check it out. Wasn’t of any use though as neither of us could make any sense of it.
In our home, filled with art, there was a piece of furniture that no longer seems to hold the place of importance it once did as a family focal point. Our Stereo. It was six feet long, two and a half feet tall and big. Speakers covered in earth tone fabric occupied either end in full and in the middle was a door that rolled open. Behind it were the records that were important enough to keep out, to listen to. Eventually we’d overrun his truly beautiful collection with Disco Duck and K-Tel Collections, but early on, it was magical. All the first editions of the Beatles. Beach Boys. Ray Charles. My father’s favorite band, The Lovin’ Spoonful. I remember dancing in underoos to Summer in the City. Loving the Beatles before knowing it was a band anyone other than us knew. I remember my seventh birthday and my cool cousin buying me ‘Off the Wall’ after seeing how much I loved every time ‘Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough’ came on and having something that could stay in the Stereo. It felt so SO grown up. I had taste, I had arrived, I had something adult enough to have to stay in the stereo when the doors rolled closed. Now my music, my history in songs largely stays in my pocket, on my phone. I’m sure it will seep out and as they get older more and more music will return to the air. But it’ll never hold the mystique and the mystery and the excitement that the stereo in the shape of an upright freezer in the dining room held.
My father has given me more than I could ever possibly recall. He gave me life, after all. As a father now I realize that even more than that, he gave us, all of us, his life. Freely and fully and happily. I’m endlessly thankful for it. But beyond that, beyond the sacrifice and the work and the love he also gave me art, and I can’t thank him enough for that.
It’s a very specific kind of artisitc genius. An expression that is so beautifully and specifically drawn that despite it recounting events and experiences that are not yours it still resonates. It resonates because you are human. It resonates because you have the capacity for empathy. It resonates because an artist is bravely standing before you in some stage of undress, vulnerable and eloquent. Beautiful and broken.
The young artist has yet to live a life worthy of his already prodigious talents. He is however yearning to say something worth listening to and he is intelligent and skilled if not yet refined or experienced. As a result he highlights inequality and shines a light on the stupidity of those who rule him and makes art that resonates in your brain. If his talent is up to par it is worth hearing and worth heeding. If his talent is truly generational other artists might recognize it first. If his talent is epochal he writes of the hard rain that’s gonna fall. He inspires and enlightens his and all subsequent generations and shows the world how to think about a thing differently than it had before. He has used his considerable capacity to conceive of a new thought, disseminated it effectively and artistically and is hailed as an icon as he has entered your brain and knocked it sideways through words and music and as a result you imbue in him a certain level of intimate access to what you believe is your soul. This is as it should be. For you this initial impact is the imperative as it allows you to shift paradigms. His spark will start a cultural inferno and alter the lives of millions whom he has taught to think.
But to him, to this prodigious and frustrated talent, unable to scratch an itch that is ever present, an itch to truly connect, he knows that this was an effective trick of sorts. Sincere at it’s time, but wholly inadequate now. He hasn’t done yet what he must. Couldn’t have, really. He hadn’t had anything personal and universal to say. Until he fell in love. Then out of love. Then nearly lost it all. And was left broken. As we all will be eventually. Brokenness is universal. Thoughts are debated and should be. He never intended his thoughts to be gospel, but a surprising number of people treated them as such. And to his surprise he spent a long time hacking away, admittedly at a startlingly high level of artistic accomplishment, but not without leaving clues that he thought it all a bit of a farce. Then he found love. True and intimate love that he thought he could sustain. Maybe he even thought it would sustain him.
But now that this love had experienced its entire life cycle, a thing he thought would last the rest of his life, he’s now broken. Not ‘broken down’ in some general way, but actually broken. Very specifically and in a way where he now needs to go to the tools he has fostered all these years to work out his feelings on the matter. He has to take his heart to the study and to the studio and write and perform blood on the tracks.
In my estimation it is his most personal and at least the equal of his most accomplished works and it could make even an early twenties, middle class white male like myself truly feel the spectrum of emotions that goes through all that language itself can define and introduced me to the nuances of both the human condition and the fragility of maleness. It’s a remarkable piece of work that has never failed to move me. It can provoke every emotion a man can feel in a romantic relationship and in doing so reveals and instructs me as to my own emotional capacity for intimacy and my own limits in terms of truly connecting.
Its a piece of expressive art that is almost as old as I am and I’ve been listening to it for half my life. It’s the expression of feelings I never knew how to identify and in each phase of my life it has found a deeper and more meaningful part of what it means to be human in a very detailed and specific and beautiful way. It’s not the bombs thrown by a precocious talent filled with righteous anger. Rather it’s the earnest and sincere expression of a man who has, is and will struggle who knows that its all worth it for the exquisite though fleeting bliss that life can give you and inevitably takes away. It’s melancholic and joyous and angry and curious. Its concentrated humanity.