Getting it Right
- By: John Gierach
- Illustrations by: Bob White
I went fishing a few days after my mother died, and not long before her funeral. This was after I asked my sister if she needed me for anything and she told me, no, everything was being taken care of. The subtext here is that I’m not the one in the family anyone would trust with such important arrangements. No insult intended; just a fact.
I thought about canceling the trip anyway out of some antique sense of a proper period of mourning, but I could almost hear Mom asking, “Now what would be the point of that?” She was always relentlessly practical in the way of those Midwestern women who grew up during the Great Depression, and she always gave me the benefit of the doubt about my seemingly aimless little adventures. During the years when Dad all but wrote me off as a hopeless wingnut, Mom agreed, but thought it was OK because I was “creative.” Or at least she hoped I was, because I was fairly useless by any other standard. They say you can’t fool your mother and they’re probably right, but they never said anything about your mother fooling herself.
So I packed my fishing gear, picked up my artist friend C.D. Clarke at Denver International Airport and we drove toward the North Park region of Colorado, up near the Wyoming border. When C.D. asked me what was new I didn’t mention the upcoming funeral for the same reason some people who are managing chronic conditions like diabetes keep it a secret, that is, so as not to be needlessly treated like invalids. This may be a family trait. Mom had crippling arthritis for decades, but most days when you asked how she felt she’d say, “Fine,” meaning, “Actually, I feel like hell, but I don’t want to talk about it.”
We gassed up on the outskirts of Fort Collins, then drove through La Porte and turned west up the Cache La Poudre River at Ted’s Place, once a friendly little country store and café dating to the 1940s, now a gas station where the clerk rings up your purchases from behind bullet-proof glass. It was 70-some slow, winding miles up the canyon to our dirt-road turn-off, and we pulled into Rawah Ranch in mid-afternoon.
C.D. is a well-known “sporting artist.” This is a term I’d avoid if I could think of something better, because in the larger art world it’s sometimes meant condescendingly, as if an otherwise respectable painting becomes hopelessly corny the minute you put a fisherman in it. Better to say he’s a fine artist who happens to deal predominantly in sporting subjects because they interest him and so they now form a large part of his livelihood. He’d been invited here to paint and fish by the proprietor, Pat Timmins, and was told he could bring along a friend.
No one past the age of 13 actually believes that a sporting artist lives a life of privileged luxury, traveling the world at will, hunting and fishing at places with gillies, chefs and wine cellars and, almost as an afterthought, dashing off a painting every once in a while, which then immediately sells for like a bazillion dollars. On the other hand, judging from questions I’ve heard people at fishing lodges ask, some are curious how close a working artist can come to that adolescent ideal.
C.D. is forthcoming enough that he may have some stock answers prepared. Yes, he does regularly travel the world: Canada, Alaska, England, Scotland, Iceland, the Caribbean and so on, where he does sometimes stay at pretty ritzy places, although not always by a long shot. (The first time we fished together, we ended up in a tent in the rain.) Yes, he studied painting formally, and yes, he does make a living by selling his work.
But that’s not what people are getting at. What they really want to know is, how do you do this? Is it hard work, or innate talent, or do you just breathe different air from the rest of us? For that matter, do you live anything like a normal life or do you spend your off hours sipping absinthe in sidewalk cafes with poets and philosophers? (Everyone’s default vision of The Artist is set in 1920s Paris.) A few also wonder—but don’t come right out and ask—is this just a way to get for free what the rest of us pay for? Or, as a kid in a 4th grade class once asked me, “How much money do you make?”
How someone becomes successful in the arts when so many try and fail is a fair question, but after making an uneven living as a writer for the past 40 years, I understand that no two careers are alike and that an honest and complete answer would be longer than anyone really wants to sit through. Eventually you learn to politely answer direct questions without addressing the preconceptions behind them—leaving people vaguely disappointed—and also that it’s best to let folks think whatever they want, including those who suspect you of running a scam.
As for that adolescent fantasy, C.D. told me that he does now and then accompany wealthy sports to places so exclusive most of us don’t even know they exist, to record the trip in oils and watercolors—sort of like a 17th Century wedding photographer. I also know that on at least some of these expeditions he arranges to put away his brushes now and then to wet a line.
He’s not an employee on these trips and the clients don’t own the paintings, but they do get first dibs on them, either the small ones he does on site or larger versions of the originals that can be produced later in the studio. It’s also possible for a client to have himself painted into a composition if he’s not there already.
Roughly along those same lines, C.D. once did a slyly goofy cover painting for Fly Fishin’ Fool, by James Babb. It’s a standard scene of a man fly-casting on a placid, forested river, except that the fisherman is wearing a medieval-style three-cornered fool’s cap. According to a reliable source, when someone said they’d buy the painting if it weren’t for that stupid hat, C.D. painted it out.
When he’s staying at a lodge, C.D. will usually prop his finished paintings in the common room where people can look at them at their leisure. This is a courtesy to those who are curious, but too shy to snoop or ask to see the work, although if someone wants to know if a certain painting is for sale, well, there’s a good chance it is.
People do wonder about the business end (the first question the parents of an aspiring artist ask is, “But how will you make a living?”) and the artist as working stiff isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. What does come to mind might be Gauguin painting naked ladies in the south seas, or Van Gogh, the misunderstood genius who only sold one painting in his lifetime, or maybe Salvador Dali, the playful surrealist who famously said, “The difference between me and a crazy man is, I’m not crazy.”
In fact, everyone comes at it differently. Some depend on galleries, while others operate their own Web sites and save the commissions, and a successful artist I know trusts his wife to handle the business. “If it weren’t for her,” he said, “I’d still be hawking paintings on street corners,” which of course is another way to do it. Few artists think of their work as merchandise, but they’re all glad someone does, and there are angles to everything that you wouldn’t have thought of. I once asked a children’s author how he went about writing for little kids. He said, “I don’t write for little kids; I write for their mothers because they’re the ones who buy the books.” As for C.D., he’s as plain spoken as his paintings: happy enough to answer questions, but just as content to let people study the paintings while he stands at a polite distance—robust, dark haired and, as a mutual friend pointed out, bearing a striking resemblance to Clark Kent. All that’s missing are the horn-rimmed glasses.
For the next few days we fished the two miles of the Big Laramie River that the lodge owns. The river rises in Colorado’s Medicine Bow Mountains before it flows north into Wyoming, and this high in the drainage it’s a medium-size creek running in leisurely meanders down a mountain valley. It’s a typical meadow stream with riffles, deep pools, undercut banks and the usual snags, brush piles and sweepers that accumulate in water like this. There would have been a natural temptation to manicure the stream to cut down on casting and fish-playing obstacles for paying customers, but here they’ve left things as they are, maintaining it as the good trout water it is and incidentally giving the fish the tactical advantage.
The valley is half a mile wide with slopes forested in lodgepole pine, fir and aspen, and a floor covered in dense, nearly impenetrable willows. The rustling of leaves in a breeze sounds so much like running water that you sometimes can’t tell one from the other, and the overall effect is of a continuous sigh.
There’s moose sign everywhere and now and then an actual moose, looking big, black and imperturbable. The shiras moose that live in Colorado are the smallest of the four subspecies in North America, but when you bump into one in a willow thicket armed only with a 5-weight fly rod, it seems plenty big enough.
The trout were the normal mix of rainbows, browns and the occasional little brook trout: the usual suspects in water that’s been planted off and on for over half a century, sometimes with a management plan in mind, sometimes just with whatever was available. The biggest fish were rainbows and I asked our guide, Jim, about them. He said the place manages for the wildest trout possible, but does do some “supplemental stocking” to keep the fish sizes and numbers where they want them, which you suspect is slightly more than the river would produce on its own.
If you’re really curious about the extent to which your fishing experience has been shrink-wrapped, you can always ask, but it’s usually easy enough to figure out, since wild trout are to hatchery fish as ruffed grouse are to Kentucky Fried Chicken.
All our mornings began the same way. Breakfast was at seven, but coffee was on at six, so I’d leave the cabin at 5:45 for the 10-minute walk to the lodge. I’d set an alarm, but I never needed it because C.D., sneaking out early, would always wake me, even though he was trying hard not to. He’d found a bend in the river right behind the cabin that he wanted to paint, but the light was only right for a short time, so he had to be there before dawn. These were cold mornings, with horses in the pasture blowing clouds of steam and I want to say he was working in fingerless gloves, but I can’t actually recall that (remember, this was before coffee). C.D. would sometimes show up a little late for breakfast and if someone said something like, “Hey, sleepy head, glad you could join us,” he wouldn’t mention that he’d been up working for two hours.
After breakfast we’d start out fishing together with Jim, either leap-frogging up the stream or taking turns on the pools. C.D. is a good fisherman and a stylish caster who never gave any indication of being distracted, but he must have been because now and then he’d excuse himself for an hour or so to paint. He carried the slickest painting kit in a medium-size backpack: paints and brushes for both watercolors and oils, watercolor paper and small stretched canvasses, home-made drying boxes (the store-bought kind are too heavy), various other necessary odds and ends, a collapsible easel (of course) and a small, black sunshade that looks like a miniature umbrella. Watching him unpack and set up reminded me of that old circus gag where more clowns than you can believe pile out of a tiny little car.
There were fish in this small water of 20 inches, plus or minus—sometimes plus a lot—and I hooked and landed some, and lost others that had obviously memorized every exposed root and stump in their pools. (Big lost fish are a constant topic at dinner.) One real nice rainbow took a size 16 Quill Gordon in an eddy at the head of a run—right where Jim said he’d be—shook his head once and ran 40 yards straight downstream to a sunken rootball, where he deftly broke me off. OK, fair enough, but then two days later at the same spot, Jim put me back on the same eddy and when the fish made his run, Jim waded in and spooked him back up to the head of the pool where we could net him. I briefly wondered if that was entirely fair, then decided that all fish caught by a guided fisherman are the result of a team effort, it’s just that this one was more obvious than most.
After dinner at the lodge I’d hang around long enough to avoid being rude, then walk back to the cabin, take the chill off with a little fire in the wood stove and then sit on the porch for a while, listening to the resident bull moose shuffling and breathing in the darkness, and thinking things over.
My sister and I had already agreed that if we were in the same shape Mom was in at the end, we’d have been tired of it and ready to go. Of course countless survivors have said the same thing countless times before and you can never know for sure, but that’s what we thought. I remembered when the hardest-working man I’ve ever known dropped dead on the job and people said, “It’s the way Herb would have wanted to go,” when in fact it was the way we wanted him to go. For all we know, Herb might have preferred a beach in Mazatlan.
I reminded my sister of the time Mom wanted to talk to me about her “estate,” which wasn’t all that much even then.
I said, “Nothing would make me happier than to learn you’d spent your last dollar on the day you died.”
She said, “That’s funny, that’s exactly what your sister said,” and it seemed to please her.
Of course in my ignorance I pictured cruises and wine-soaked lunches with friends instead of doctors and nursing homes (where most of it eventually went).
C.D.’s paintings appeared predictably on the mantle in the dining room, first the watercolors that were each done in a single sitting, and then later the oils that took days to complete: one of the bend in the river behind the cabin at first light, the other of the pool under a decrepit wooden bridge farther downstream, where I never did manage to hook a trout.
Presumably fishermen could later be added to any of these, but as they stood they were entirely realized unpeopled landscapes that I won’t try to describe in print except to say that the same friend who pointed out C.D.’s resemblance to Clark Kent called him “a sporting man’s Monet.”
The few times I’ve asked, C.D. has explained to me in detail what he’s doing in terms of the relative values of colors, how diminishing detail is used to suggest receding space, or the intricacies of composition. I understood the techniques, but not how they rose above being exercises to become works of art.
We’ve also talked about our respective work habits, which in his case seem to be comprised of roughly equal parts compulsion and self-indulgence. But on the couple of trips where we’ve traveled, fished and roomed together, I’ve never heard him say anything the least bit lofty or philosophical about art. Like other artists I’ve talked to—not to mention actors, musicians, writers and many fishermen—C.D. seems to have long since left considerations of why behind and is now entirely engrossed in how. He simply does the work, puts it away and then proceeds to catch a whole bunch of fish.
But the one thing C.D. is adamant about is the efficacy of plein air painting: working outside, on site, with natural light shining on actual objects. He doesn’t see how you could get it right any other way, and when he puts it like that he’s entirely convincing, but of course others do it differently. One of my favorite paintings by my friend Bob White was done in his studio several years ago based on a series of photos I sent him from a place he’s never been. The scene is of C.D. himself painting in the rain on a remote river in Labrador under the shelter of a plastic tarp, which Bob wisely changed from its original toxic-waste green to canvas brown.
Sentiment keeps me from being an objective critic here. I’m too enamored with the idea of one artist I like working in a studio in Minnesota depicting another artist I like working out in the weather in northeast Canada with little old me and my waterproof digital camera as the go-between. Still, I’ll go out on a limb and say process is crucial to the individual, as it should be, but in the grand scheme it doesn’t matter how you did it as long as you got it right.
The funeral back in Missouri went as expected. There was the short, vaguely religious service; the church-basement lunch of Midwestern comfort food with all of us looking slightly uncomfortable in clothes we never wear; the often-repeated stories that change with each retelling and the predictable examples of small town wisdom, as when a cousin said, “Burying your mother is no fun, but at least it’s a chore you only have to do once.”
And then someone put a hand on my shoulder and asked, “So, where are you going fishing next?”
John Gierach’s newest book is All Fishermen Are Liars. He lives in Lyons, Colorado.