The Silly and the Sublime

Last week, after a day of wild rain and wind, my husband and I ventured out on the last day of our South Carolina vacation.  We biked along lush paths, sat by the pool to soak up some sun, and then drove to one of the beaches we have come to love.  We walked down the long path to the beach. On either side there were dunes and a creek and scrub pines laden with huge pinecones.  As we approached the fencing, we saw the vast expanse of sand, sea, and sky.

The sky was decorated with amazing clouds.  I gasped  and thought, “This is what sublime is.  Sublime is the surf and sky dotted with this dramatic cloud cover in shades that run from bright white to cream to pale blue to pink to lavender.  I said to my husband, “This beach is never the same twice. There is always something new and beautiful.  Just look at that sky!”

I started to laugh remembering a time I spent last year with a group of three-years-old children, who were observing the cloud formations and commenting on all the shapes they saw.  Some saw turtles and pirate ships, others saw castles and giraffes. Of course, one young pragmatist clearly proclaimed, “Don’t be silly!  They all look like mashed potatoes!” I wrote more about this here.

As a poet, photographer, and teacher, I am attracted to the elusive nature of clouds. They represent creativity and possibility.  They can shape-shift.  If I was a superhero, I think that’s the superpower I would like – to change my structure – to become something else and then something else again.  Clouds break apart and come together; they change color and shape and quality.  They embody what it means to be creative.  They are the definition of sublime. I wrote more my connection with clouds as inspiration here.

CLOUD PLAY

Song of the Sky: Some Thoughts on Clouds

When I was a child, I spent long summer days looking up at the sky watching the clouds shape-shift.  I loved gazing up at what I thought looked like the continent of Africa slowly drift and pull apart until it became a magnificent ocean schooner sailing across the blue, then only to turn and twist to become a white serpent with a long, forked tongue.  To me clouds represent possibility.  What can I come?  What adventures await beyond the blue?  How can I stay quick, nimble, active.

When I taught young children, I always read to them the pattern book, It Looked Like Split Milk by Charles G. Shaw. The book starts off with the refrain: It looked like spilt milk, but it wasn’t spilt milk.  Sometimes it looked like a rabbit, but it wasn’t a rabbit. It steadily progresses, changing shape from page to page.  The repetition and simple graphics silhouetted against the bright blue background were easy for the children to remember and read.  In fact, I have taught many children to read using that book.  They felt successful and loved creating their own versions with endless possibilities.  And they read, and read, and read.

Maybe my connection to clouds is poetic in nature.  Metaphor. Simile. The cloud was a gossamer cloak ready to take me in and render me invisible. The dessert was topped with whipped cream which was as light and soft as a cloud.  Indeed, clouds often resemble whipped cream.  Maybe it’s not so much a poetic connection as it is a connection to food! Heaps and heaps of heavy cream whipped into lovely fluffs of all shape and shades. One wishes she could just reach out and scoop up a healthy handful.

One day recently, I escaped to the beach to take photos of the clouds rolling in to capture that sense of wonder.  Looking out towards the horizon, the sky and sea seemed infinite. Maybe that’s what intrigued Alfred Stieglitz about clouds: their ever-changing shape above Lake George and reflected on its surface. For over a decade Stieglitz photographed clouds. He first called his cloud work, Songs of the Sky, after the music he could surely hear as they drifted.  Later, he called his work Equivalents, noting the clouds reflected his own inner emotions.

Stieglitz created the first completely abstract photographs. He was influenced by abstract painter Vassily Kandinsky’s ideas and his belief that colors, shapes, and lines reflect the inner, emotive “vibrations of the soul.”  Self-expression and development of the spirit were key to Kandinsky’s approach and greatly affected Stieglitz work. Being abstract and dynamic, these elements have a very musical quality. Although Stieglitz’s work was in black and white, I wonder if the viewers’ response would be the same for color photography.  Does the tones of blue and white alter the message?  I’m not sure.  I’m still gazing up at the clouds.

Song of the Sky

Stieglitz photographed the clouds

Looming over Lake George,

Snapping hundreds of frames for hours:

Stratus, cumulus, or nimbus,

Stark white against deep blue,

Billowing out on a summer’s day.

Georgia! Get my camera!

He’d bark at O’Keefe.

Dutifully she’d place the Graflex

In his cold hands,

And sit with him on their porch

Looking out over the lake,

Watching massive thunderheads

Loom on the horizon

Shifting and rolling

Unfolding like flowers

Open to the grace of heaven

And then the rain came

Pouring down, relentless,

Dancing on the surface of the lake,

Soaking the dry earth,

Drenching the tall trees,

Reviving her weary spirit.