When I dug into the recursive transformation of one of my dad’s revisionist paintings, it occurred to me that when we care for it the way a painter revisits an old canvas, the past is liberated to leap forward into its own future.
On January 30, 1973, I was staring out my high school Algebra class window at a crown jewel in the Rocky Mountains called Timpanogos. Something remarkable seemed to be flowing upwards into the morning sky. From fourteen miles due north and a full mile down below, I looked on as gust after gust of fine white powder billowed north by northwest away from the summit line. I was transfixed. And in a small but poignant way, I was forever changed.
“How could this be happening?” I remember thinking.
I had yet to experience anything like Mistral dust blowing from Tunisia across the Mediterranean into Marseille. I had often skied inside a snow cloud of frozen moisture in free fall on the backside of that mountain. But never wind strong enough to lift snow visible enough to see for miles. To perceive frozen air crystals from that distance in that light—pink sky at morning—recalibrated for me everything I knew about perception at depth, not to mention the world.
The reverse snowstorm continued for several minutes as the sky faded from pink to blue-gray. I saw it again the next morning and seized the necessity to mark it lest I not get a third window. The poem I wrote that morning, Algebra text on desk open but ignored, became the opening line of a scene from the first serious stage play I ever wrote1. And the key to a mystery I might have finally solved some fifty years later.
A few weeks ago, my dad came to me in a dream. I was glad he did, kind of. Happy to see him alive and well, if initially confused by his cryptic but critically timed message, I could tell he seemed displeased over something.
“So, you tell all your cousins you have a new job, but you don’t tell me?”
The night I saw him—even though I was still asleep in my home in Maryland, he had caught up with me on a night-rained street in London—I was in the throws of a career change. On Thursday, the day before Friday morning’s dream, I took a video interview with Employer Th, a prestigious, world-renowned network of research centers and medical institutes sprawled not fifteen minutes from my home. My final interview with Employer Fr was on deck for Friday morning, mere hours after my father’s otherwordly pronouncement. Had my ghost dad intercepted from the cosmos some reverberating vibe surrounding my Thursday interview? Had he heard in heaven that against all odds, Th had already made its decision and sent him to herald it? Or was his pronouncement prophetic, foretelling a future yet to play out? Would my imminent Friday visit to Fr‘s downtown headquarters be the closer? Where I had been blindsided by Th‘s invitation, Fr‘s boutique community development mission is one I envisioned myself joining since grad school. But if Fr was to be the one, why bother dividing the firmament to make such a pronouncement? Why not just have me wait a few days for the offer?
“Since your role with Th was in the bag when I came to your ramparts—(my father’s father’s name was Claudius)—pay no mind to today’s interview with Fr. For I am bid to tell you it won’t be necessary to drive downtown today,” he neither said nor needed to. So what was the point?
I’ve found good fortune in the truth of certain types of dreams. This one had all the markings: deceased relative looking out for posterity; message potentially impacting real-life actions or decisions; details stunningly clear and vividly remembered days (and now months) later. During the grind it took grandiose Employer Th to finalize its arduous vetting process; I dismissed the far smoother path unrolling beneath me and toward the door of Employer Fr‘s offices. My initial interpretation of the dream was that its admonition portended not to settle by dint of the easiness of Th‘s path.
“Be patient, my son. It will all be worth the wait,” my father also did not say.
But now that I have divined to my satisfaction the vision of Claudius on the ramparts of Elsinore, the pragmatic words of my friend and relative Rich Hanks come to mind. “If you wonder whether you have been inspired to do a certain thing, then just go do it, no questions asked. If the action you took works out, only then will you know you were indeed inspired. If it doesn’t, then you’ll know with certainty you were not.” Classic Rich Hanks.
This past weekend, I asked God, and not my earthly father, which organization to join. My answer was much less cryptic. And has nothing to do with the rest of this post.
On the floor of my home office, awaiting a suitable hook to beckon it, an oil on canvas my architect father twice painted of my favorite boyhood mountain stares up at me almost daily. My nephew Rob Magleby, one of the fifty or so cousins that skipped a generation—my siblings and I were graced with only two cousins on my father’s side and none on my mother’s—brought it by just after I returned home from the hospital in March. As one of the cousins who reads my blog, he must have known of my little misadventure and surrendered it to cheer me up.
Mary had “shipped” the painting to me in their moving pod when Rob and Tristan headed east with their three children. As a favor to me, they had held onto the painting for a while, even airing it out on their living room wall for a few years. If I’m honest, I was in no mood to see it. It was not the painting I imagined.
After my father’s death, but before his baby sister’s, my Aunt Claudia asked what I missed most about him. I told her that going on four decades two thousand miles away from any of his art, I had been in no position to collect the odd piece or stake any claims following his death.
“I have a seascape in my office from his time in Hawaii,” I told her. “And a street scene he painted in Switzerland. Both watercolors. But that’s it, really. Roger got all the renderings. Not sure where all the photographic negatives ended up. I’d have settled for a vellum of Winter Gardens.”
I once imagined a Lee Knell exhibit of all his architectural drawings.
“I wish I had one of his oils. I wish I could get my hands on the one he did of Timp.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place for that one!” she cheerily replied as she popped up from her armchair to lead me into her garage. “If it’s the one I’m thinking, it hung for years in my old place, but when I moved here, there wasn’t room to display it. What do you remember of it? That will help me find it easier.”
“Green foothills … slate mountain ripples … maybe a summer snow patch. Swiss-blue sky.”
I hadn’t learned until recently that the folks who settled in the valley behind Mount Timpanogas had immigrated there from Switzerland to live in the shadow of those virulent colors. Maybe that’s why I assimilated there so easily2.
“Oh. That’s not my painting. Mine is a winter scene. If I can lay my hands on it, I’ll show you. And tell you how it revolved from summer to winter. Like the world, I suppose.”
But she couldn’t lay on her hands. And as I listened to what came next, I was glad of it.
“One day, Lee came over to my place with the most magnificent painting I had ever seen of Timp. You remembered correctly. A summer scape with just enough snow, they were still running contests on the radio to see who could guess the day it would all melt. You must have seen it when you’d come to stay. It hung for years in my living room.”
“But years later, he asked if he could ‘borrow’ it. He had taken back up his interest in painting and thought he might touch it up a little, restore it to its former glory. Or so I thought. When I finally got it back, the beautiful green and blue summer had turned first to a dull orange fall and then the greyish white of winter. The effect blurred it somehow, irreversibly aged it. Newly painted, the life had gone out of it.”
“Still want to see it?”
“It’s still around here somewhere. It was a Lee Knell oil, after all, and as you say, there weren’t many. But I never displayed it. I sometimes wonder what got into his head to make him want to paint over such a fine work.”
Years earlier, rummaging in carport storage for something of his no one had yet pillaged, I dug up a badly damaged Lee Knell oil on wood panel. I don’t remember the subject, as half of it had cracked away to betray an underpainting which I also don’t remember. My failed attempt to restore the surface led to a failed attempt to preserve the underpainting. When my dad learned of my well-intended folly, he confessed his twofer.
“Sometimes you paint something, you change your mind. Or you might just be practicing. So when you run out of canvas or panels, you paint over spares.”
A few weeks after Claudia passed away, her executor, my sister Mary, called to say the painting I had picked out was ready and should she ship it?
“I don’t remember a painting.”
“It’s a winter scape. Timp, I think. She told someone once it had your name on it. Not written, of course. But we all agreed. She must have wanted you to have it.”
“It can wait,” I told her after the penny dropped. “I’ll pick it up next time I’m out.”
But I never did.
To my adolescent eye, his original Timpanogos had been my father’s masterpiece. It captured the mountain view I enjoyed every day from age three. Its legendary summit contours were said to sculpt the image of a princess who tragically fell from its highest peak3. It would have been a wonderful memento of my childhood, my boyhood home, and my dad. Had he not spoiled my romantic memory of it, not to mention a perfectly fine painting.
When Rob finally brought it by, I had just returned from the hospital4. With no ready place to display it, I propped it on a bench against the French windows in our family room. I used its perch as a forcing function. If I was going to give it a chance, I might as well plop in front of my favorite view into the woods behind our home. In looking past it every day, l might eventually come to accept its travesty. The bench seat I placed it on is upholstered in rustic orange leather that immediately popped the autumn colors in the revisionist sequel that had not altogether been snowed over. Following the threat line from autumn to winter brought back the pang of snow on unraked leaves5. Not for the first time, I was tempted to commission the restoration of the pastoral summer of my youth.
The first thing an art restorer does is remove the decorative casing and then the frame over which the canvas has been stretched before restretching it to a new one. The canvas is then cleaned and stripped of its outer layer of varnish in preparation for the real touch-up. The painstaking battle is fought inch by inch, the implements precisely employed and finely honed. It takes a lot of work to ensure that everything that might have changed over the years is restored to its original condition.
“Has it been varnished?”
“Did Lee varnish the original before he painted over it?”
Before even seeing the painting, I’m speaking by phone with Mark Maglegy, Rob’s father and the director of Brigham Young University’s Museum of Art.
“I could have my restoration team take a look at it if you want.”
After Rob left, I am sitting on the sofa in a body in need of an overhaul, staring at a painting long ago marred by another that has usurped its former glory, wondering whether either of us can be restored.
If I’m honest, I write as my dad painted, layer over layer, track changes off, beginning with one tale, sliding to another and sometimes back again—sometimes never again—my greens and blues, greys and whites commingling like so much snow on rock. It was not until the tenth version or so of this post that I understood why Claudius’ son haunted the ramparts of Elsinore in the early Friday hours this past April. It had nothing to do with employers Th and Fr.
It’s the last day of January, take me to the mountain
Where the past days of January melt became the sky
When buttercups and roses shrouded over broken eyes
Cry out, “Good morning, friends!”
But never ask the butchers why
I sit alone and sometimes dream of all the dreams that soar above me
Of which the best I spend with friends I’ll never come to know
It makes no difference who I am, those dreams are never coming
At least I can imagine
(Wads up poem)
I can’t do this. It’s not my work, anyway. It was written by a friend of mine named Roger. You remember Roger. He took his life the day he learned his “friends” hung round only to be close enough to humiliate him to his face.The Author, Good Morning Friends
To my memory, my father never saw my first school play performed during business hours at a handful of nearby high schools that spring. But as my mind calls up the words its tragic hero rubs into the faces of the bullies who will, later that day, drive him to an encore of Roger’s suicide, I gaze down at Mount Timpanogos. Something strangely out of focus comes icily into square, and I swear the winter clouds my father sent to cover the summer sky have become billows of airy snow trailing upwards.
From his point of vantage on the last day of January 1973, did my father also happen to stare north-northwest at a reverse snowstorm originating from the top of a mountain? He lived at the base of Timp almost his entire life—as did I before happening upon my vision. Was the snowy phenomenon a common occurrence? It wasn’t for me, and I looked out that classroom window a lot!
There must have been no pink in his sky that morning, but neither had there been in mine just three minutes into my epiphany. Is he, at this pivotal, winter-gazing moment, sending me a Robert-Nathan-like “snow signal” from a mysteriously shared past?6 If so, what is he trying to tell me? Why did he paint over that pastoral spring scape? What heavenly demon possessed him to freeze the snow as it melded with the sky?
Early on in my unpublished novel, Paris, Kansas—hang in there, we’re brushing on the final layer!—my main character (call him Scott the Editor) is visited on several occasions by his future self (Scott the Time Traveler7). At first, Traveler fiddles with this or that flake of time, and a corresponding corner of Editor’s brain raises an eyebrow. Traveler’s intent is not to meddle but unsettle. Both versions of Scott require a disorienting dilemma meant to nudge Editor to look closer at his uncritically assimilated worldview and qualify Traveler as a herald of repute. Because in the tale’s climactic moment, the only safe outcome for both Scotts will depend on their implicit trust in one another. Editor must believe Traveler’s rendition of the future. Traveler must rely on Editor to embrace that future, no questions asked. There just isn’t time for even a knife’s blade of discord between them.
“So, you tell all your cousins you have a new job, but you don’t tell me?”
“No, Dad. The only thing I’ve told the cousins is that I have again picked up writing”8.
- For some color on my rookie attempt to paint something of the cruel underbelly of high school bullying and how writing and directing Good Morning Friends brought me to the woman I eventually married, see Beauty for Ashes.
- I moved to Switzerland for a couple of years in the 70s and a handful more in 2013.
- For an introduction to the Legend of Timpanogos, see this article from the American National Park Service.
- For more about my recent hospital stay, see Irrational Will.
- Beauty for Ashes also recalls my second most embarrassing life moment when I abetted a snowstorm covering the unraked lawn of a neighbor.
- In A Portrait of Jennie, Robert Nathan chronicles a starving artist’s hunt for a mysterious schoolgirl who ages several years in a few short weeks.
- See Paris, Kansas.
- To read about my decision to abandon my early aspirations to become a writer, see Something to Write About.