This year was going to be an adventure. On January first, I found myself in Saudi Arabia, away from my family and starting a new job. While days before I had toasted 2020 with a formidable phalanx of friends in the snowy crisp cold of Maine, I stepped into a whole new world thousands of miles away.
I knew I would miss my family and I was certain that not seeing them until late May would constitute the brunt of the sting of such radical dislocation. But this was an opportunity for adventure that I just couldn’t pass up. One of my boys was soon heading off to college and the other was doing well in every way imaginable: star athlete, friends, excellent student, etc. My new wife and I had only married a year and a half before, but she was locked into Boston for another three-plus years because of the school situation for one of our girls. Besides, Paula teaches and could visit for extended periods in the summer and I would have 40+ days off per year. It seemed eminently doable. And if it didn’t work out in Saudi, well, I could be back in her arms for good whenever I might make that choice.
Of course, that turned out not to be the case.
The great news is that I work at Ithra, a ground-breaking institution on the leading edge of Saudi Arabia’s explosive cultural expansion. Ithra has a museum, a theater, a cinema, a major library, a children’s museum, a production studio, classes, an innovation center, and more. Oh yeah, and it is housed in my favorite building in the world, a fresh new masterpiece designed by the great Norwegian firm Snøhetta. Did I ever mention that I did curatorial and archival work with the most important collection of architectural drawings in America for eight years at Columbia University? Or that I am more solidly Norwegian than anything else? Well, both are true. I had visited Ithra before it opened three years prior when I visited Saudi Arabia as the first group of “culture influencers” to visit KSA and tour Ithra. I was blown away. So, when the opportunity arose for me to be able to go live and work there, well, I had an idea of what I was getting into. More important was the idea that I could go do some real good in the world. I knew what was happening, through connections to the Dan Mills-curated Phantom Punch exhibition of contemporary Saudi art mounted at the Bates College Museum of Art in 2016. Months later, I was there, seeing Saudi friends I had met in Maine and making more connections. It was a scene bristling with possibility. I wanted to be part of something like that, so much fresh and positive energy is contagious. And, really, that is art at its finest: motivating people to come together and make society a better place. Bringing a major library to a place without a history of public libraries? Bringing theater, concerts, and cinema to a place—to a society—where these things had until so recently not been allowed? Building an art scene and a creative economy where those things had for so long been denied? What serious culture critic wouldn’t want to be part of that?
I had once enjoyed leading a class of 20 art students learning to draw from life. Later, I came to adore writing for a weekly audience of 100,000 about what was happening with art in Maine—for over ten years without missing a single week. But what Saudi Arabia is doing with Ithra and its entire society is something far beyond that. Critics are generally seen as reactive, but somehow, I soon found myself on a team dedicated to making this society a more open, more informed and better place.
At Ithra, I fell into place far more quickly than I could have imagined. By chance, I started with what we were told was the largest onboarding group of Aramco employees in many years, if not ever. And in the age of smartphones and social media, 20 of our ranks of 50 were immediately connected by WhatsApp. We helped each other settle in. (How do we get internet? How do we get a driver’s license, or a car?) And work was just as smooth. At Ithra, I could help immediately as an editor. On the Content Team in Communications, I found myself writing feature articles and editing English articles and translations from Arabic. I quickly realized I was seeing most everything that was going on at Ithra and what we put out to the public. Texts I was writing were being seen by many thousands and sometimes even millions of people from around the world. My team was virtually all Saudis, but with a couple of Americans—which is by chance, since the three of us comprised about half of the Americans among Ithra’s 400 employees.
Soon, I was playing soccer again and getting in shape. I was taking Arabic classes and getting together with my friends on the weekends. We explored the area. We went to Bahrain. I missed my family like crazy, but I was loving work and having fun.
For my birthday, March 6, I drove to Bahrain with my Canadian buddy Vaughn. We got a hotel room. We had suits made in the Souq. We met my Saudi writer friend Tamim and his wife there. We had dinner. It was a bona fide birthday party.
On the morning of the 7th, while Vaughn and I were blearily enjoying a vast breakfast buffet, our WhatsApp chats lit up like Christmas trees. The Causeway—the border between Bahrain and KSA—was closing at 11, so we were told. It was 10:40. So we did what any intelligent adults would do. We panicked. It seemed to take hours to get our stuff together and get to the border—including a wrong turn suggested to us by our dubious navigation program (“Thanks,” Karen)—and we were the only car with Saudi plates on the road in a town where usually about half the cars were from the KSA. (To be clear, if we didn’t make it across the border, we would possibly still be there.) It was surreal. But it was only the beginning of the weirdness.
Soon, Ithra was empty but for a few “critical employees”. I was “critical” for a few weeks and then I was, like most everyone else, on lockdown and working from home. We couldn’t go outside unless we had an appointment at the grocery store or pharmacy.
Suddenly, my life was just like the life of my mom in Arizona, my wife and daughters in Boston, and my friends in New York. Quarantine. So much for my Saudi adventure. I was stuck in a box with my momma cat Valadonne and her four fresh new kittens. The good news? And, oh yes, there is plenty of good news. I had guitars and a bass. I had painting supplies: watercolor, acrylic and oil. And I like to cook. I quickly came to truly appreciate Netflix, Alexa, Audible books, and my chance visit to the library the week before it closed. (I strongly suggest Chernow’s Grant which completely upgraded my understanding of Reconstruction). Now we can move about and go on walks (which I need, to lose that weight I had lost and then gained back during quarantine). We can even gather in groups of five or less. Masks always. I can play golf with my buddies, but mind you, that as I write this, it is 116 degrees outside. And, yes, you read that right. The worst part? We’re near the coast, so it’s 116 and 67% humidity. That’s well beyond anything I had experienced—or, frankly, could have imagined.
Well, no, the worst part is clearly the double whammy with family. Not only did I lose out on going home to see our eldest kids’ graduations and then share a week at the lake with my mom and my entire extended family, but I don’t yet know when I will be able to see them. It’s tough, but not remotely as tough for me as for my two golf buddies, both of whom have been away from their seven-year-old children for this same period.
I should add FaceTime, WhatsApp and Vonage to my appreciation list. (Using these, texts, calls, and video calls between Saudi and the States are free—and most of us probably remember when calling Portland from Brunswick was a toll call.) Paula and I talk every day. My boys are 18 and 15, so not so much, but we’re really well bonded and they’re healthy and happy, so it’s okay. Paula and I chatted on FaceTime on our second anniversary. I am here. And you’re waaay over there. Paula is in Boston and the boys joined our call from Maine. It was bittersweet. I want to hold my wife and I don’t know when I can. To put a minor twist on a well-worn Maine cliché: I can’t get there from here.
My youngest son was a boy when I left and he’s now a 6’2” man. Our older kids are now in college. How crazy is that? What happened?
Well, paintings happened. And they keep happening. And my kittens are now cats. That happened too.
I am playing less music than I thought I would. I have a tiny courtyard, about the size of an average car. For a couple of weeks, I went outside five minutes before curfew and sang a song to my neighbors, accompanying myself on acoustic guitar. But then my thoughts shifted to painting.
What am I painting? I used to go back and forth between abstraction and landscapes. But now, it’s mostly all color-soaked Maine and Canadian landscapes. Why Canada? Several of my friends are Canadian and I have been painting for them from photographs they or their faraway spouses have given to me. I have always despised “nostalgia” when it comes to art, but I can’t deny it now. It doesn’t feel nostalgic in that elegiac, we-were-once-children-in-the-good-old-days sense, but more like a continuous acknowledgement of what I love, what I find beautiful. It’s not just Katahdin that I love, but paintings, color and brushwork. It’s Hartley. It’s Henry Isaacs. It’s Church. And I can share them with my friends, so their otherwise blank walls feel less like a prison cell than a place for people. So far, eight of my friends here have one to four of my paintings. And I’ll make more.
When we got word the quarantine was about to happen, I immediately ran to the local mall and bought a bass and, one of the best things—in hindsight—I did to prepare for isolation was buying several dozen inexpensive white frames with mats in varying sizes from the local Ikea. I have made a few works on panel and canvas, but have primarily worked on paper. I made a few acrylics, but soon settled on my favorite mediums: watercolor and oil. In fact, I have always liked working in oil on paper. One of the main reasons for this is the feel of my brush on the surface. When I actually showed my paintings in the 1990s, and mostly in Venezuela, where I had a blossoming career until the moment Chavez was elected, (but that’s an entirely different story for another time and place), I tried virtually every medium to find a way to sketch that best matched my oil painting style, which, at the time involved a great deal of blending. After trying everything from pastel to casein, I finally settled on watercolor and black Sharpie for most of my sketches. Now, working on paper with frames and pre-cut mats in mind, I started working on paper with preset sizes and a clear sense of the framing. I used a great deal of watercolor-style techniques with oil, “watering down” the paint with Turpenoid so that “wet” sections of softly bleeding colors and swishy-thin sections can function like watercolor effects for skies and water. The closest comparison is casein, not something that most artists know. Casein is terrific because it can be treated like gouache or even watercolor, but because of its transparency and the glue-like layering of the milk-based medium, it can be used to glaze in transparent layers like oil.
The obvious next step for me was combining watercolor and oil. On paper, once the water in watercolor dries, it’s nothing but pigment that is soaked into the paper, not unlike powder pastel, except more deeply embedded. My earlier works in oil on paper included charcoal, but charcoal, like powder pastel, sits on the surface, and so the brush with the oil would often push and pull it around on the surface with darkening effect. It’s a great technique if you want that, and I would paint to match it, but the scenes didn’t quite fit my favorite—Fauve—aesthetic. I had done some underpainting in years past on my oils in either acrylics or watercolors. That was more about finding compositional strategies that would establish a formal matrix than any combination of color or painterly textures. The thing about oil and water is that they don’t mix. In terms of painting, this can be a good thing. You can paint in oil over a dried watercolor. And you can also brush watercolor over oil—even if it’s not quite dried. Playing with this combination is where I am now. My last painting, which I made for a friend leaving Aramco to care for his elderly mother in France, was an oil painted from a landscape photo taken by my unindicted co-conspirator Vaughn near his home in Calgary. The foreground land is obviously oil, but the sky is clearly watercolor. What’s particularly unusual is that I did the watercolor after the oil. When I was considering the sky, I thought about what my French friend Vincent had liked in my other works, and so I wanted that colorful, textured contrast of switching mediums and using a wet-on-wet technique. It is hardly my best painting, but I believe it has opened a door for me. And in this time of severely limited mobility, working from home and tiny courtyards, a new open door can be a big deal.
Yesterday, my wife Paula sent me a video shot from her perspective while walking our giant and bubbling vivacious yellow lab Bruce through a local Audubon space. She shot the one-minute video mostly on the most extended wooden walkways of the trek, with Bruce’s nails clacking on the gray weather-wizened wooden tracks. It was my perspective whenever I would walk Bruce there—which I have done on so many occasions, the exuberant pooch over-pulling on the leash, breathing heavy out of excitement and brimming over with life. I could feel his herky-jerky pull on my right arm, and even the overly bouncy raised left hand while she brought her phone to her face. It is an extraordinary work of art, in my opinion, because while Paula shot it, she was speaking to my subjectivity. She was thinking in terms of bridging, with her own, my perspective of beauty, balance and sense of place, my sense of home – that place where I cannot physically be at this time.
I can’t get there from here. Or can I?
Certainly, it’s not the same thing to see a picture of a painting online then it is to see in person. But it also wouldn’t be the same thing to see one of my recent paintings hanging on a wall then see it with this explanation of context. When I see Katahdin in person, or Hartley’s painting of Katahdin, or a painting inspired by Hartley’s Katahdin, they are all different. And they are different to each of us. My love for the Maine landscape is part of my foundation. My love for Maine landscape painting is another, as is my love of Modernism, Proust, Cézanne, and Henry Isaacs. Movies aren’t the real thing, but they inspire excitement and empathy. A Zoom conversation with my sons might also be virtual, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the real thing. My love for them could never be “virtual,” not to me. Nothing is more real. Nothing is more important. Not the white chickens or whatever wet wheelbarrow we can wax in our most poetic of moments. When I look at the picture of my wife in my wallet or the photo of my mom with her dog on my desk, I am not thinking about that image, but what’s real, however ineffable that may be for people like me.
Ironically, this is what Modernism does best. Traditional landscape or portrait paintings were transportive: they brought you the magnificence of Yellowstone when you had never left England, or Paris, or Boston, or Riyadh, or wherever. Modernism blazed a way to help you have it both ways. Yes, says Proust, the smell of this pastry is meaningful to me right now because of something that happened long ago. Yes, say, Mondrian, Malevich, Pollock, and so many others, your well-seasoned love of paintings makes looking at this painting here and now more important than anything: You are here and now.
In short, Modernism creates a dialectic between the there-and-then and the here-and-now. And that is who we are. That is culture and how it works. That is memory, emotion, and their mediating factor: self-awareness.
I watched that 58-second video of Bruce, nails clacking on the boardwalk, on the leash with (me, Paula?) three times before I even dared to think in terms of words. Or is “dared” the right word? Do you need to explain a Mozart symphony to understand it? Of course not. With music, painting, cooking, and so much more, words generally get in the way of our feelings. Yes, sometimes they build bridges. But when there is a better vehicle that doesn’t require translating, often it’s better just to shut up and enjoy the ride.
Paula has taken up painting, and she will often work on a watercolor while we chat via FaceTime. Yes, I miss her and it stings a bit when I think about my distance from her or my mom (we chat several times a week as well) and, really, I miss all my friends back home as well as summer in Maine, and spring in Maine, and autumn in Maine, and winter in Maine. But I am holding up well, really well, considering. And while I have a long list of things for which I am thankful, it really comes down to being in touch with with my family, working with a powerfully positive purpose, and painting.
I love being a writer, but in the end, I think that, for me, it has always been all about the art.
Image at top: Daniel Kany, Ithra by Day, digital photograph, 2020.