Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Into the Sky

Clouds 7-24, 2003

Is there any more accessible subject for painting or photography than clouds?

They’re almost always around. They’re never quite the very same way twice. They offer infinite opportunities for interpretation. They can look like clouds or like the bottom of the ocean or the ripples of the brain.

There’s a wonderful old Peanuts cartoon. It goes something like this: Charley Brown, Lucy and Schroeder are lying on the ground looking up at the sky. Lucy says something to the effect that the shapes of the clouds remind her of that moment in Da Vinci’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when God creates man. Schroeder comments that the clouds remind him of Bowlby’s hypothesis about maternal deprivation.

Charley Brown, meanwhile, thinks one of the clouds looks like a ducky.

That’s how clouds are, as deep or as shallow as you need them to be.

Like a lot of people who travel by air, I’ve flown through a lot of clouds. Some were big benign cream puffs, barely noticeable as you passed smoothly through them. They’re entrancing in that the closer you get to them the more you realize that just about every part of them is constantly in motion, forever shifting and sorting and making new shapes.

Some clouds are treacherous and mean and can cause you, if you happen to be flying in a small enough plane, to wonder whether you’ll even live to get through them. I’ve been in enough situations in little planes, times when neither your eyes nor the instrumentation could tell you for sure whether you were flying forward, backward or sideways, to never want to be in that situation again.

Remember that scene in Amarcord when the villagers take their fishing boats out into the sea one night to see the majestic Italian cruise liner Rex as she passes by, only they fall asleep, most of them, and by the time the Rex comes into view the fog is so thick that all that can be seen is the soft suggestion of light from the ship’s portholes? One stormy winter night I was in a little plane in a tight holding pattern around Chicago’s O’Hare airport when, as I looked out the window, I saw those same kinds of soft lights and was startled to realize that 1) they were going in the opposite direction, 2) they were coming from another airplane and 3) they seemed close enough to reach out and touch.

I survived that night and all the other times I’ve been in scary situations in little airplanes. But really, in this day and time doesn’t it seem just a little silly, if not embarrassing, to die that close to the ground just because you chose to sit in a chair in a metal box that’s propelling through the sky using the same aerodynamic properties as a spit ball?

Yes, a spitball. And though I didn’t intend it that way, isn’t that about how we feel when we see a really great cloud? On second thought, maybe trees are the perfect artistic subject.


  1. "I've looked at clouds from both sides now - for in and out - and still somehow - its clouds illusions I have saw - I really don't know clouds .... at allllll" :)

  2. I love watching the clouds out the window of a plane. A spitball, eh? Never thought of it quite that way. Haaaaa!