A Kentucky Limner in a King Arthur-less Court
Until that pivotal moment, anyone wanting to record, commemorate, memorialize, honor, exalt, celebrate, immortalize, or simply capture a basic likeness for the purpose of posterity or for warming the cockles of a betrothed, had to come to us. But then, there it was, upon the stage it came, looking something like a bird feeder mounted on the legs of our easel––nay! ––a mythical creature of mischievous intent––a five-legged hooded chimera, spitting sparks and plumes of smoke and begging for a stillness unrivaled by even the most willing paramour of a snake-headed enchantress: the photographic camera. Sure enough, this would stir up some trouble, and we painters knew it. Little did we know just how much.
Of course, not everyone at the time was intent to fret: Edgar had fun dabbling with it, as did Jimmy (James to his nemesis JR). And some of us unwittingly brought it along for the ride: those shots of Johnny S. behind the scenes showing visages much better looking than the subject itself left us all a little nonplussed… why, the rumors those mouths were a little too pretty-like were true!
Others of us took it as an excuse to find other ways. Some palettes got more color, some results got more spotty, then low and behold, some even dismissed Leo’s ‘first intention’ and got totally flat. Some so much so those monochrome facsimiles we so fondly dismissed as ‘paper pancakes’ were a relief!
As 19 turned 20, this flatness was declared manifest destiny, a survival of the fittest in a linear evolution, and we limners were told to let the sun set. Most of us did, lap dogs that we were, in all but a few corners, and the darkness settled, and the flatness became boundless, and the anchors were thrown overboard, and the makers of things were no longer tethered by gravity, and the words flowed, and the money followed.
But in those few corners, hearth fires were quietly tended, the coals steadily stoked, and torches diligently passed on to illuminate. And time passed.
Then a strange thing occurred: the firelight grew enough to reveal more than dancing shadows. And then, there it was! Quivering in the corner––exposed, cold, hairless! ––not an evolution of our species, but a new and separate species entirely! The whole caper was cuckoo. How had we been so hoodwinked into believing it was one of our own? It most certainly was not.
Even the photographic camera had little choice but to sheepishly confess. If once it had displaced Gene’s lady liberty of la révolution, she could only sit idle and testify, like a pentito, to her role in what really had been a coup d’état of Darwinian proportions.
Except she wasn’t idle. Oh no, she had had other designs. And she had taken her time––a whole century worth! ––and shifted shape to find her way into the pockets of the masses, making our torch-lit discovery seem irrelevant. Her labors were everywhere: in books, on walls, in wallets, embedded and unrivaled. And time passed.
Then a strange thing occurred: she too became untethered. Her analog anchors were thrown overboard––her children were prisoners to paper no more! ––and the visions of her eye traveled into the ether, and 100 became 1,000, and 1,000 became 10,000, and 10,000 became 100,000, to 1,000,000, to 10 to the 100th power!
Now 21 leaves 20 well behind: the masses flock to a realm where information is universal, likeness is ubiquitous, ‘friendships’ are forged, words flow and the money follows.
Given these infinite bounties of knowledge, interconnectedness, and virtual comfort, were we only smarter, more gentle, considerate, kind, thoughtful, reflective, open to discourse, nuance, subtlety, and the secret supplications of the hearts of others. We most certainly are not.
Tomorrow I’ll go into my studio to work with the model. She is an Italian, Arianna, named for the weaver of tapestries, the one Theseus left behind on that island.
I know I’ll never leave this island. It’s a refuge here.
She sits and I check the pose. I ask if she is comfortable, if she is warm enough. She says she is and settles in.
I take a breath and pick up the brush.
Timothy Joseph Allen
Written February 12, 2023
Published October 12, 2023