Driving north toward Los Alamos, topping the hill by the Santa Fe Opera, is one of my favorite New Mexico vistas.
The foreground hills are dotted with piñon and juniper. At the mid and far distances, strips of mountain, their clarity fading in the distance, frame a spectacular New Mexico sky. That sky, or more precisely the way I see that sky, is my father’s great gift to me. At that moment, I’m in a Bob Fleck painting.
Robert J. Fleck was a young artist from Pennsylvania when he first saw this vast landscape. Back East, there were always things in the way, and his sketches and paintings from that time are of trees and buildings and landscapes up close.
When the Army sent him to California for training during the early years of World War II, that first long train trip across the desert Southwest changed him.
After the war, he ended up for a few years back in Pennsylvania, but the lure of the West eventually took him to Boulder, Colo. (one of the earliest of his paintings that we still have is a ski scene), before he settled in Southern California to raise a family and paint.
He taught, and summers were spent on classic ’60s car camping vacations across the great Western landscape. He would sketch and take pictures, and the rest of the year he spent back in Southern California re-creating the things he had seen in his artist’s mind’s eye.
The result, for me, was a childhood surrounded by art — my father’s paintings on the wall, the smell of oil paints in his studio. Art was intrinsic to our lives, not a thing separate.
My aesthetic is based on gazing at those paintings from the very beginning. One of my earliest memories is lying on my parents’ bed at nap time, staring deeply and intently at a piece of my father’s work on the wall, an abstraction of Mesa Verde. I learned to see the world through his eyes.
This was not at all obvious at the time, like a young fish not noticing he’s in water. Being dragged to museums as a kid was a bore.
But something snapped into place for me during the mid-1970s. I was a teenager, and Dad took the family to see a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art of the work of the great modernist painter Mark Rothko.
I have to be cautious here in recalling the extent to which I was changed by the experience of seeing the Russian-American Rothko’s paintings from beginning to end. “What you end up remembering,” the novelist Julian Barnes once wrote, “isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”
But whether it really happened this way, or whether the Rothko show is a stand-in for something more complicated, it’s my story and I’m sticking to it — how seeing Rothko’s assembled life’s work, stitched together in chronological sequence as Rothko worked out the ideas in his head, made the connection in my mind between art hanging on museum walls, one piece at a time, and art as a thing people do, that inhabits their life — “art as a verb,” I like to say.
Malfunction has a way of clarifying function. As dementia etched away my father’s brain, he lost the ability to draw and paint. But from the window of the Albuquerque apartment where he and my mother have lived in recent years, he could look out at the Sandia-Manzano mountain chain and just watch that great big New Mexico sky. He didn’t know much, but in the moment, he always knew what the clouds were doing.
I’d take him for a drive, and we would stop for a short walk (it was all he could do) in the bosque. He would stare at the twisting forms of the old cottonwoods and talk about them, pointing and composing paintings in his mind.
These experiences helped me fit the last piece of a puzzle that began with those toddler naps staring at Dad’s work.
The art we saw was just the outward manifestation of the art in his mind, the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave. Long after dementia robbed him of the ability to paint, the art was still there.
Sunday, my sister, Lisa, and I were at his bedside listening to his labored breathing. On the wall at the foot of his bed was a painting he made of the view out the kitchen window of the home of our California childhood. There was a reservoir run by the local water company, our neighbors’ houses and three lovely palm trees jutting into the sky.
Here’s the thing: I don’t remember the palm trees at all. Lisa remembered one. This could be what Julian Barnes was talking about, the difference between what you witnessed and what you remember. Or maybe Dad was embellishing to make the painting’s composition work. It’s been years since we could have asked him about such things, but no matter. It’s a lovely little piece.
Dad died Monday morning. He was 94. He’s survived by his wife, Elizabeth; brother Kelly; daughter Lisa; son John; daughter-in-law Lissa Heineman; and granddaughter Nora Reed Heineman-Fleck. Plus a lot of paintings.
UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal