News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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December 10, 2012

MIKE LUNSFORD: The wonders of wading in ‘The Iridescence of a Shallow Stream’

I have no idea how many times I have written a story that begins with the wistful phrase, “When I was a boy. ...”  It seems as though it hasn’t been so often that I can’t do it again, but instead of having you re-read it, I’ll just say that I still remember fishing with my grandfather in Raccoon Creek, wading in the shallows while he walked the far banks, wet-fly fishing under the black willow limbs. While he was hoping that a sunfish would take the bait, I scooped up water-tumbled rocks by the handfuls and watched cottonwood leaves float by like miniature rafts.

Those were good times; everyone I loved then was still living, and it didn’t seem to take much in those days to make me happy. Until I began writing, I kept those memories pretty much to myself, thinking all along that others may think that something as simple as skipping stones and watching the light play on moving water was outdated and a bit sappy.

I quit thinking that as readers seemed to approve of my reveries, but how happy I was to connect with a group of my school students, who, it seems have experienced some of the same things that I did so many years ago. Oddly enough, we came to that understanding at the Swope Art Museum last month as we stood near J. Ottis Adams’ “The Iridescence of a Shallow Stream,” an oil on canvas, painted in 1902, the same year that my old fly-fishing grandfather was born.     

I know it is reasonably fashionable these days to bash teenagers, to think of “them” as lazy, text-messaging slaves to social media, fast food, over-consumption and self-centeredness. But I work with young people every day of the school year, and although I don’t think I’ll ever figure out their unnatural attraction to cell phones and sleeping late into the day, I can say that some of those who I teach are, for most part, quite a bit like I was when I squirmed in hard-as-rock school desks long ago.  

Adams was just past 60 when he painted “Iridescence,” a big, lovely, impressionistic landscape that, ironically, places the viewer in the middle of a fast-moving little Indiana stream, the light playing off the water’s surface in a cascade of blues, golds, and greens. One of the “The Hoosier Group” that included William Forsyth, Richard Gruelle, Otto Stark, and the best-known of the five painters, T.C. Steele, Adams spent much of his time just as the century turned from the 19th to the 20th practicing his craft near Brooklyn, in Morgan County.  The painting, which hung for years in the wonderful old Emeline Fairbanks Memorial Library, won a bronze medal at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904.

We had gone to the Swope as part of an annual trip I take with my seniors to Terre Haute, not only because so many of my students may never step foot in a museum if I don’t drag them onto a bus and do it, but also because this town has such an underappreciated gem in the Swope. I had asked the kids to discuss any six of the museum’s works in a writing assignment, and although I often hovered to keep an eye and ear on what they were doing, I found that virtually every one of them spent a little extra time looking over Adams’ grand exercise in glorifying the uncomplicated beauty of an Indiana creek.

Not long after I collected the assignment, I sat down at my desk, picked up a red pen, and began to do the slashing and scribbling for which my grading has become synonymous; I have been known to reduce even the cleanest and neatest of manuscripts to a bloody heap of arrows, lines and hypertensive commentary, but I found myself doing a lot more reading than marking when ‘Iridescence’ became the topic.

Among the third of the group that commented was Adam Byers, who probably can’t tell you himself just why he’s taking his fifth class with me in these past two years. He said the painting brought back “a lot of childhood memories” for him. Mary Jo Gruner, who always seems to have a smile on her face, whether it be sitting at her school desk or standing at the cash register at the local grocery, wrote, “I was really drawn to the light on the water.” Adam Wilson, who, when away from the classroom and gymnasium, spends most of his spare time in the woods, added, “The painting connected to me so much.  It reminded me of the time I spent playing and fishing as kid.”

Cameron Frazier, our graduating class president, said the painting “reminds me of good times, just relaxing by the creeks in the summer and fishing with friends.” Kori Wood, who’ll be the class valedictorian, proved why she’s no stranger to the Honor Roll; her entry read: “I felt a sense of nostalgia, of wanting to return to a stream I remember as a child. ... It flooded my mind with memories.”

Sara Dickey, who I imagine has spent a day or two wading and rock-skipping too, wrote, “The painting makes me wish it was summertime and that we were all at the creek.” Classmate Megan Higgins added that “there didn’t seem to be a whole lot going on in ‘Iridescence,’ ” but she liked it anyway.

The great Midwestern writer, Hamlin Garland, first gave Adams’ circle of painters its name when he helped collect pieces for an art show in Chicago in 1894. He wrote, “These artists have helped the people of Indiana to see the beauty of their own quiet landscape.”

My kids are far from being art experts after a single visit to a museum, nor am I, despite hours wandering the galleries of the Swope. But for a group that has, for the most part, grown up in small, small towns, and on farms, never very far from the sounds of tractors and running streams and gravel roads, I know of at least one artist they clearly understand. After all, they can still feel the cool water of his paint running across their feet.

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