Whom We Allow to Paint Landscapes

Last summer it was Lake Champlain. The year before it was western North Carolina. Previous vacations were spent in Sitka, Alaska, Boseman, Montana and the Shenandoah. Beautiful places, all — and each one virtually devoid of black people.

We started making a joke of it: “Look, a black person!” I’d shriek, spying a guy coming out of a CVS. Or: “It’s okay, honey, no need to lock the car, no black people here.” Rueful laughter.

It wasn’t that any of those places were politically inhospitable to minorities. Each town prides itself on its progressive stances on practically all issues. In fact, Burlington, Vermont — home of 1960s civil rights protester Bernie Sanders — is known as New England’s liberal Mecca.

After fantasizing about relocating, and then visiting some realty sites and becoming quickly discouraged, I was at a loss how anyone, even a white person, could afford to live there. It seemed the only way was to inherit property.

I’m a landscape painter, and as such I’m bound to find beauty in things I see in nature and transmit them somehow to a flat surface. I don’t go to national parks or natural wonders for inspiration; I’ve always believed those places stand ably for themselves. Like many painters before me, I take scenes most would consider mundane and mine them for something remarkable, an angle or light situation most people might not give a second glance to in everyday life.

For a while now I’ve considered my clientele, who they are, what groups they belong to, their backgrounds and habits. I don’t have many black collectors. In fact, the one I do have is married to a white woman. He buys my paintings for her, and though they both seem to cherish them, they both know they hang in their house because she loves them.

Quick: Can you name one black landscape painter?

I can — sort of. But Henry Ossawa Tanner was known more for his figurative work than landscapes. Did he wish for the freedom to go out and paint on site remote, rural scenes of late 19th century America? It’s likely he didn’t even see that as an option. Eventually he moved to France.

With carte blanche autonomy, I paint scenes of neighborhoods, trails, forest interiors, country roads and farms. Only recently have I begun to remind myself how lucky I am to do so. For whom am I making these pictures? When I render a scene from Amish country, or Montana, or a small New England village, am I practicing a form of discrimination? Am I taking what I’ve seen — the pastures and country roads of my youth — and celebrating them for the benefit only of others who have experienced similar things? If I do that, am I essentially telling potential black (would-be) viewers, “This depicts the beauty of a place you could never feel comfortable in.”? When I go down this path of thinking, my chosen art form feels almost like flaunting my unearned stature.

I hate that. Maybe, at least unconsciously, I always have. A product of Pennsylvania farm country and parents from Philadelphia — and an admirer of black athletes and musicians — I yearned to share my childhood with black companions. Sadly, there were few from which to choose. There was Norman, who played first base on my Little League baseball team. “Stormin’ Norman,” we called him, because what else would you call a big, strong black guy named Norman? Norman stayed mostly silent; now and then my brother or I were able to coax a smile from him. He declined invitations to our house. It didn’t really occur to me then how tough, how lonely daily life must have been for him.

Then there was Dorian, our designated “Fresh Air Child.” The Fresh Air program, created long before Terry Gross graced WHYY with her presence, gave black inner city children a chance to live a few weeks with a rural (almost always white) family and experience culture shock. Dorian told me and my brothers lots of city jokes, joined us on hikes through corn fields and swamps, and played baseball on a church diamond where he was told by the pastor’s son he couldn’t borrow a bat because “I don’t want chocolate all over it.”

I hope Dorian remembers I told the kid to shut up. I hope I actually did that. Hell, I hope Dorian is still living. How does he remember his two summer stints with us? I found him on Facebook a few years ago and asked him that very question. He’s yet to answer.

I fear Dorian ended up staying in New York City, possibly not even venturing to the Catskills or the Hudson Valley, for fear of piercing the comfortable bubble of white people.

And what became of Stormin’ Norman? Did he eventually relent and realize his place lay in the “black section” of a large city?

I’ve pondered for a long time why I’m drawn to places that happen to have few black residents. One reason is particularly telling, and sad: These places are marked by trust and a sense of community. Last summer, near Keesville, New York, my wife Amy and I drove around, no real agenda, exploring, looking for tucked-away local treasures. (What black person would dare to do that in any rural area of this beautiful, God-forsaken country?) Anywho, we happened upon an organic farm with its own “store” — actually a small shack stocked with vegetables, eggs and a jar to put your money in as payment.

“This is how things should be,” we mused.

This is how things never are for black people in the United States. Maybe here or there, maybe Tulsa in 1915, or pockets of Mississippi around the same time. Has anyone ever experienced a rural community in America where black people were always trusted, always welcome?

We took our organic goods to our rented cabin off the lake. A few days later, we toured Burlington, and at some point decided to watch a minor league ball game. The Lake Monsters won. The black people were on the field, not in the stands.

Perhaps one day I’ll come to terms with this paradox, when things are clearer, not so muddled by tragedy, hatred and national malaise. In the meantime, I’ll continue to safely explore the vistas of this sick, beautiful, tormented country, determinedly mindful of the privilege required for me to do so.