In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.
Northwest of the town square, past the bank, water tower, and United Methodist Church a modest, two story white house rests on a corner lot. My friend John’s aunt lives here. On the west side of the house, an enclosed stairway leads to a second floor apartment. With eager anticipation, John and I climb the steep stair steps.
At the precise moment our feet touch the top step, a “C’mon in boys, there’s work to do” greets us.
Waving us in, fussing with his wavy white hair, cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth, a leprechaun-like man scurries about the room. On its far side sits an easel. Near it, stretched canvases sit blank and ready to go. Further away stacks of paintings—trees, rocks, stately elk, and snow capped mountains—await completion. Scattered about, on wooden crates, are several half empty coffee mugs. An unhealthy amount of milky tan-colored scum floats in each. By the easel bunches of tubes of paint, brushes of every possible size, and three paint-pocked palettes of differing hues are ready to go. A not quite vacant bottle of amber liquid completes the bohemian décor of the apartment turned makeshift, winter studio of Dave Stirling, Corydon’s finest artist.
Even though Mr. Stirling grew up here, Bugscuffle Ranch Studio on the Horseshoe Park side of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado has been his home since 1915. He is the park’s one and only artist in residence. At the ranch, most days (and many evenings), he holds court, often playing the piano as he spins tales and charms potential patrons. Holding court leaves Mr. Stirling little time to paint. So most of the paintings he sells there, he paints here, sometimes with our help.
Perched on wooden crates, John and I are ready to go. Mr. Stirling tucks a fresh-lit cigarette between his lips, grabs a brush, mushes it into some purple paint, points to the canvas on the easel, hands me the brush, and says, “Mark, paint a letter…any letter.” Leaping off the crate, to the canvas I go. With a bold stroke, S is the letter I paint.
“Now John, you paint a letter, any letter,” says Mr. Stirling. John puts a precise P on the canvas. While we return to our perches, proud of our contributions to the effort, the maestro adds his strokes to ours. A horizon appears. Stepping back, he asks for our guidance. We offer critique, he considers, then adds more strokes—brown ones, ochre too—a tree springs to life in the foreground. Splotches of blue, dabs of white become a blue sky with billowy clouds in the background. After more strokes, and an extra bit of critique, we stop. Twisted, leafless trees on a mountainside under a blue cloud-filled sky. A signature—Stirling—in the lower left corner completes the painting.
As we bask in the glory of our masterpiece, Mr. Stirling regales us with stories of his childhood in Corydon, the circuitous journey that took him to Bugscuffle Ranch, people he met along the way, and his life as an artist (and tourist attraction). His words become brush strokes, his life a canvas, experiences a palette. The stories he tells and pictures he paints depict the joys and sorrows of a man living the life he wants to live within the boundaries of our hometown and the national park but outside norms and mores of each.
We are born a blank canvas that is ours to paint. Using a full palette we paint our lives with the colors and hues we select and the textures, contrasts, and shades we experience. The combination of paints and brush strokes create different effects on our canvases. For instance, bold brush strokes and bright colors bring passion and drama. Broad strokes and earth tones portray purpose, steadfastness—one’s lifework. Not surprisingly the wide range of colors and brush strokes—including John’s P and my S—Mr. Stirling uses are wholly consistent with the unrestrained way he lives.
In my Heartland there are many characters, some bolder and more colorful than others. Their artistry is evident in the beauty they extract from the ordinariness of everyday life. The way they live inspires and guides the strokes, texturing, and shading of my life. On my life’s canvas there is a bold S stroke honoring Mr. Stirling, a reminder that talent can fill a canvas with beautiful images, but it takes a little flare and a dash of audacity to bring the images to life.
Note: This is the sixth post in the Heartland Series. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.