Russell Rowland

The Artistic Soul

October 26, 2014

About a dozen years ago, my parents submitted an application to take part in a street fair in San Francisco, down in the Marina district, and were very pleased to be accepted. So they packed up their best works, drove down to San Francisco and prepared for the two-day event.

I could tell my father was excited about this opportunity. He had been making metal sculptures and stained glass art for years, and had mostly given it away to friends and family, only occasionally showing it in local fairs in Montana. This would be a chance to expose his talents to a wider audience, and to perhaps even make some pocket change for all the hours he had spent in his garage, hunched over his welding machines.

I was living in San Francisco at the time, so I agreed to help out, and for two full days, we sat in one of a long row of booths featuring everything from intricate wood carvings to kitschy wine corks with ceramic disks glued to their tops.

 sculpture

And we barely sold a thing. After hours of watching people stroll by and eye my father’s metal cowboys with a look of complete indifference, my heart sank lower and lower. By the end of the second day, I was heartbroken. Even his best work, a table full of cowboys playing poker, complete with cards, poker chips, bottles, and cigars between their fingers, didn’t attract a single offer.

I believe my father’s spirit took a hard hit that weekend. Although he made occasional trips out to the shop to work on new projects, he never spent hours at a time working on his creations again. The worst part was, it eventually spilled out into every other area of his life as well. For the last five years or so of my father’s life, he struggled mightily with depression. By the time he was diagnosed with mesothelioma in December 2012, he had very little fight left in him. Three months later, he was dead.

To me, my father’s story is a telling example of the delicate nature of the artistic soul. My father had never pursued his creative endeavors with any notion that he would make money at them. He poked around with watercolors, sketched pen and ink drawings, scratched out an occasional poem, all because he loved the process. All because he loved art, and found it to be a valuable part of the life experience. When I was about six, he took me to hear a poet read in Sheridan, Wyoming, where he was teaching sixth grade. I found out later it was Robert Bly.

The remarkable thing about this is that my father’s interest and passion with art seemed to come from nowhere. Nobody that I’ve met in his family is interested in art. And if they were, they were not exposed to it. My father’s parents were good, hard-working people. But they were dirt poor, depression-era folks with seven kids and little time for anything other than trying to figure out how to keep their kids fed and clothed.

My father was a talented athlete, breaking the state record in the triple jump, and becoming the starting quarterback for his high school football team despite the fact that he weighed 130 pounds. His parents never came to a single one of his games or track meets. So whatever talents my father had were not encouraged, much less fertilized, by his family experience.

Which makes his approach to parenthood amazing to me. Generally speaking, people respond to their upbringing in one of two ways. They take the attitude that what was good enough for them is good enough for their kids, or…they figure out what didn’t work and they try something different. My father was of the latter school, and I will be eternally grateful for that. I don’t remember a single event that I ever took part in where my parents weren’t in the audience. And he was not only there, but he always had something positive to say after the fact.

I remember running in a cross country race when I was in junior high after I had been deathly ill for days beforehand. It was an excruciating race, and about six miles in, I came around a corner to find my dad standing on the sideline. “How are you doing, son?” he asked.

“It’s rough,” I said. “It’s really rough.”

Thinking back on that day, I suspect the look of pain on his face had to do with a lot more than a simple seventh grade cross country race. His expression was one of extreme empathy, as if he would step in there and take that hit for me if there was any possible way he could. That was my father.

My father was a talented artist. Not talented enough to be famous, or even make much of a mark in the art world. But he was talented enough that people should have known about his art. He had two of the most amazing mentors in Montana in Ben Steele and Lyndon Pomeroy, and both of these generous, gifted men told him time and again that he needed to make more art. He needed to commit himself to his art.

But I believe my father’s childhood had left him with an inflexible image of himself as someone who wasn’t worth the time. Someone who didn’t deserve to have his parents come to watch him break a state record, or run back punts.

When my mother introduced my father to her parents, and my grandfather found out my dad had played football for Casper High School, my grandfather told him, “I saw the Casper team play in Belle Fourche a few years ago, and there was a guy that intercepted a pass and made one of the most amazing runs I’ve even seen from a high school player, all the way back for a touchdown.”

“That was me,” my dad was able to say.

I can only imagine the combination of embarrassment and pride he must have felt to be able to say that. And I have always loved the fact that my mother’s father was there. In many ways, for the next few decades, he was there for my father in ways that his own father hadn’t been.

But I will always find it tragic that my father’s confidence was never strong enough to overcome the kind of disappointment he experienced in the middle of that snooty street in San Francisco. I believe that what I saw that day was the death of an artistic soul that had been malnourished and neglected at the most crucial point in its development.

And I will always be amazed and grateful that, for the most part, he didn’t pass that damage along to his oldest son. Instead, he nourished my own artistic hunger in ways that will always stay with me. It is surely one of his more remarkable accomplishments.