Saturday, February 12, 2011

001 -- Butterflies to Africa

Early childhood memories of my great-grandmother and grandfather.

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.
-- Aristotle

If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.
-- Vincent Van Gogh

A picture is a poem without words.
-- Horace

When I was a child growing up in Wappingers Falls, New York, there were several curious items in our house. One was a painting that hung in family room area named "The Goughies", painted by my great-grandmother Carola Laurel Gough. It depicted my mother Kathryn, her brother Kevin, and her two sisters, Kelly and Kara. Every so often someone in the family would draw attention to it, usually to new people visiting the house. Everyone would smile and laugh because it really did capture the faces of those four siblings quite well sitting and standing together in a forest. But, it also depicted them all with butterfly wings, which, to my knowledge, they did not have on their backs in real life.

Yet, as Aristotle's quote above states, the function of art is not that. If Carola wanted to merely represent her grand-children as they appeared to the naked eye, then a simple photograph would have done just fine. Instead, the inner meaning, at least as I construe it now, was that her grand-children each would grow up and "fly" in their own unique ways. And, quite more than this, the fact that she spent the time and effort to depict them so creatively at all was, I would imagine, quite heart-warming to them and their parents.

The other object was a dark, carved wooden dish the sat on the coffee table. All I know about it was what my grandmother told me: "Your great-grandmother brought that back from Africa." Africa, I was then told, was a continent across the Atlantic ocean. She and my great-grandfather had lived in Zaire for three years in their early sixties during the late sixties and early seventies. They worked with missionaries and helped people who lived there. That's about all I remember about that story at the time. This was before I started going to elementary school, so it wasn't until later that I learned just exactly how far away Africa was. And, it certainly wasn't until much later that I learned anything about Zaire, today is known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the many problems its people have faced and continue to face.

All I knew was that my great-grandmother was a painter and she traveled around the world. Both of these were very mysterious to me.

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