What You See Is What You Get

by gannonned

What You See Is What You Get was created for Isle Royale National Park. It depicts a view from Scoville Point looking toward Edward’s Island. I hope that the inclusion of the cloud forms communicates the idea that so much of my experience there had to do with looking. I also wanted the wolf to look as though it grew out of the moose and the moose as if it grew out of the island. Finally, the painting might contain a nod to N.C. Wyeth’s Giant. I include an essay that is not about Isle Royale, but certainly pertains to it and my painting.

About Clouds and Ownership

By N. Gannon

 “We all know perfectly well that the man who lives out his life as a consumer, a sexual partner, an ‘other directed’ executive, who avoids boredom and anxiety by consuming tons of newsprint, miles of movie film, years of TV time; that such a man has somehow betrayed his destiny as a human being.”

Walker Percy

On a direct flight from New York City to Kansas City, I witnessed the most magnificent cloud I ever remember. Rising from a floor of other roiling clouds, it exploded into the sky as if the ocean had spontaneously decided it wanted to fly and had mustered enough force to try. The anvil of the cloud balanced asymmetrically with a large billow near the front and a sloping, thinner, longer passage behind—all of this blooming from a massive stem. I was dwarfed by its size, unable to tell exactly how large it was. About fifteen to twenty minutes passed from the time it first drew my attention on the horizon to when it vanished from my tiny window on the sky.

If you have been on a plane and watched the sky, you know how the upper atmosphere possesses a sterility of color due to the overwhelming presence of blue and white. So this cloud titan was made of every shade and tint of blue—Pthalo, Cerulean, Ultramarine, Indigo, Cobalt—it seemed they were all there, even with some tints of red-violet, remnants of the morning light. The cloud was so large and varied in its lower rungs of smaller sub-clouds that it cast much of its lower portions into a play of light and shadow. The dramatic lighting, coupled with its slow, almost imperceptible movement, made it seem like not just a titan but a titan rising from deep slumber.

I shot about sixteen pictures of this cloud that offered another world from every angle, especially moving from its lit side into its shadowed. But the results were ultimately disappointing. They had none of the awe, revelation, sense of scale, or energy that the experience had. Even a video, which would have captured some of the constant renewal of form, would omit the sense of presence and existence—an imminence of being and yet totally transitory.

As I tried to view the cloud as it passed and changed before my eyes, I was reminded of John Berger’s description in The Sense of Sight of painting and drawing as a condensation of multiple looks at something so that in the end, though a painting is static, it is a condensation of a multiplicity of experience.

I study clouds. They are one of the few remaining realms untouched by human industries. Nobody owns a cloud. It is its own or all of us.

That, of course, could change if what the Chinese did to clear their air for the Olympics is an indication of things to come. Clouds are always changing—sometimes scooting or racing across the sky, sometimes drifting in a herd, sometimes floating so that their pace is imperceptible to an impatient sky watcher. Clouds are vapor, part of a grand cycle, always moving.

As part of the Forum series, I heard Maude Barlow speak about water rights and encourage listeners to take steps, particularly political steps, toward establishing rights to water as a moral human right for all global citizens. As we walked away from the lecture hall, my wife and I discussed what had been suggested as a course of action. Sara commented that she felt as though Barlow had urged us to elect officials to pass meaningful legislation. Maybe my existential tendencies kicked in, but I argued for personal responsibility. But the more we discussed, the more I realized that changing for the better was a cyclical process, similar to the course water takes. Individual decisions and behaviors lead to convincing the public that right action is essential, which leads to electing officials who will respect the actions and behaviors of the individuals. But I started to feel that such issues are like massive transforming vapors, shifting, shrinking and swelling before our eyes. They appear completely different from one angle than from another.

Someday we may be able to control the weather. Can we claim ownership of the sky? Can we own a cloud? We already have established right to the sky in terms of “no fly zones” and vertical urban space. Owning clouds feels like a strange science fiction, but so did the idea of owning water at one time in the world’s recent history. We should no more be able to own water than clouds.

America’s twenty-first century’s obsession with rights-to-ownership needs to be reevaluated. Who owns the oil in the gulf? Who owns the oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge? Who owns the fresh water in the Great Lakes? Who should be responsible for over fishing in the Atlantic? Should some resources be shared by all people? Or is that the great, deceptive dream? Recent moves in Texas and Wisconsin to privatize hunting land are new examples of the rush to claim ownership of natural resources.

Even as China and other countries race ahead of the United States in green technologies, the industrial advertising machine in this country has separated the consumer from the knowledge of a product’s origin entirely. As artists, writers, and musicians struggle to maintain rights to their creative endeavors, corporations move in to claim land and fresh water and images on the internet. Can the sky be far behind? We seem hell-bent on relinquishing ownership that we should collectively keep and establishing ownership of resources no human should control. What does this reflect about how we are participating in the epic story of human justice? Notions of property, self-acquired wealth, and private power drive the political party system. Ownership of land, resources, and energy create a bottom line under which we are all forced to swim. What would it take for us to get our heads above the rising water?

Defiance of this trend toward a consolidation of power may require more than logic and rational argument; it may require a painting.

What this means for the political landscape is that we need to collaborate. We need to ask each other to look hard at the behemoth powers before us and paint a picture together made of a multitude of hard looks—to create an accurate picture of something changing before our eyes, like a massive human painting where a multitude of viewpoints converge to form a single purpose, or a vast human poem. But do we have the will or the patience to look that closely?