Several years ago, not long after we had moved here, I went to the beach to paint. I chose to go north to the closest beach. It was cold and foggy as is often the case here in Southern Cal, and I knew there would be few people out, at least until the fog burned off. As I walked toward the beach with my gear, the stench of death unattended nearly set off my gag reflex. That alone nearly made me turn around and go “naaaah”, but I decided to pretend I was a real plein air painter and plowed forth. When I got to the beach, a macabre site greeted me. Dead seals were all along the beach, their bloated bodies in various stages of decomposition, defining the source of the stench. It was shocking and very sad, and I certainly wondered why some department of Parks and Recreation wasn’t out there to clean up the mess.
Because I am interested in painting pictures that are not just pretty, but that are interesting, I decided to do the above color sketch with the plan to turn it into a bigger painting back at my studio. It would be a sad painting with the factory looming in the background, and an important one about the conflict between man and nature. I would seek to turn an ugly subject into something beautiful, a far more difficult challenge than depicting something already inherently beautiful.
As strange as it felt sitting there painting the dead seal, things were about to get stranger. As I was studying the corpse, a man suddenly appeared out of the fog from down the beach. He was an Orthodox Jew who looked like he had been beamed onto the beach from elsewhere in the world and even looked surprised to be there. He had the long beard and ringlets stemming from his brimmed black hat, black coat and black vest over white vest with the stringy things, and black pants. He was looking up and down and all around, as if in disbelief. I had to blink several times to convince my eyes I was seeing correctly.
He walked straight up to me, and with a look of great confusion on his face, and a thick accent he said, “Can I ask you a question?”
”Sure”, I said. I could hardly wait.
Regarding the sky he said, “Is it always like this?”
I had to admit to him that pretty much every time I had been to the beach since I had moved here it had been like this.
Next he said, “And where are all of the people?”
I told him that the people didn’t come out when it was cold and foggy. There were only a few diehard surfers in the water.
His attention turned to the seals. “And what are these animals?”
I explained that they were seals but that I did not know what had killed them. I then asked him where he was from, thinking he just may not be from earth at all. He said something that sounded like he was clearing phlegm from his throat.
I said, ”Why did you come here?” He looked at me with incredulity, as if the answer should have been obvious.
”I came here to see this,” he said, his arms outstretched the look of horror growing. I thought to myself, oh GREAT.
That was when I suggested he go to Malibu to see the beach, where the sand would be cleaner, and where there would probably be no dead seals. I told him that unlike this beach, Malibu has beautiful cliffs and rock formations in the water. He had never heard of Malibu. I was not surprised.
”You know,” I cajoled, “where all the movie stars live?, Johnny Carson…”. No apparent neuron in his brain connected to movie star. But he asked how to get there and I told him. I thought this would end the conversation. Instead, he continued to stand there and look upset.
Gesturing to the surfers, “And are they bathing out there?” I was just sure something was being lost in translation at that point, but I answered with a straight face.
”No, no, they are surfing.”
”What is that?”
”Well, they stand on those boards when a big wave comes.” Just as I said that, one surfer hopped up on his board and did a very nice demonstration.
”Why do they do that?” he asked.
”It’s fun for them.”
”Isn’t it dangerous?”
”A little, I guess, but they are good at it.”
We watched for a long thoughtful moment until he concluded, “I don’t understand that.” Another news flash.
Finally, his questions turned to me as if he had just noticed me for the first time. ”Do you live here?” I told him that I lived about a half an hour away.
”It is very expensive to live here, is it not?”
Ah, the first signs that he did know something about this planet. He then wanted to know how much we had paid for our house. Instead of being offended by a personal question, I felt he needed the info to round out his knowledge. After all, I was now his educator, and feeling so sorry that this poor alien had been lowered onto this wretched beach, I thought the least I could give him was the memory of a nice, informative lady.
About that time he must have realized he was keeping me from my work and apologized saying he would go then and find Malibu. I corrected his pronunciation and spelled if for him. He left with the same confused expression with which he arrived. As I watched him recede into the fog from which he came, I was suddenly amused at the thought of the heavily clad man in black walking onto the scantily clad beach in living color, another culture shock awaiting the confused soul.
Several months passed, and time softened my resolve to create the larger painting of the dead seal beach. It was probably because the visit with the stranger seemed to eclipse my impression of the scene. The above sketch seemed uninteresting to me without the Orthodox Jewish man pictured there, and what sense would that make in a painting about death and nature on the beach, my vision confused. As an artist I know I should not have to explain myself, but I somehow want my viewer to “get it” to some extent. Or would a viewer intuit the reason for the man? When you consider how foreign he was and how forlorn his reaction to the strange beach, it all made perfect sense. To convey it will take a great deal of consideration, and skill, a veritable painting in need of paint–an important piece. I think I will. I think I should.