Saturday, March 31, 2012

Now and Future Elegies

A dear friend of mine died yesterday. Suddenly. Still very young. An incredibly gifted artist whose patience, reverence and diligence on the canvas were only exceeded by those qualities in himself as a person.

For one of the first times on this trip, I find myself homesick. I want to see Seattle. I want to pause at its intersections, look up at the criss-crossed electric bus wires tangling with the traffic lights, I want to walk down alleys that open onto views of the mountains, I want to be wrapped up against the rain in some inappropriate wool jacket and pause in front of a spread of graffiti that I’ve never noticed before while I wait for a bus, hear the shush of the passing cars peeling through the puddles.

Christopher Martin Hoff. Sono, oil on linen.
But, in truth, I think if I were in Seattle, I would still feel homesick. Seattle is a city authored by Christopher in his paintings and I think I would be looking for him. Every single day (rain or shine, really), he could be found carting his easel along avenues in the unreasonably up-and-down hilly city. He had the ability as an urban landscape painter to make naked its transience, its sadness, or its beauty. And he almost always worked on location on paintings both large and small, leaving behind a not-large-enough, but still sweeping collection of work painted with kindness and insight. It was this insight, this awe at the often-overlooked that turned him, for me, from an acquaintance into a date. It is also something that I wrote about quite recently (in January) for no other reason than that I was thinking about Christopher. Here is an excerpt about the night that we first met:

It takes a certain kind of man to approach two women in a bar and the sad fact is that most of the time, he isn’t the kind of man that I’d want in my general vicinity, let alone as a partner. And yet that’s how many of us spend our nights out as single women, vigilantly waiting for a man to approach us or then finding our way out of conversations with those that had the gumption but not our interest. It’s a rare thing to find yourself at ease with a stranger in a bar, but it happens.

On the tail end of the week, after going to a lecture at the Frye Art Museum on Capitol Hill in Seattle – an area that I usually avoid for its lack of parking and cooler-than-thou, ball-squishingly-tight-pants-wearing hipster crowd – a girlfriend and I decided to discuss the topics brought up throughout the Frye’s presentation at a nearby bar. We weren’t out to meet people, we weren’t even planning on being out at all. I was wearing the dress I’d worn to the office that day, we were both shrugged into bulky winter wear and the only quality in bar selection that was relevant to us was proximity.

So we departed the museum along with a stream of other artists headed out to their own bars to discuss the evening and fell in step behind a retreating, thin-shouldered man ahead of us. And although we have a tendency to be a bit loud and obnoxious after sitting still for a long while, my friend and I, the man in front only turned around once to glance with a smile of amusement at our boisterous Anchorman-quoting as we headed to the Hideout.

Christopher Martin Hoff. Ahab, oil on linen, 28" x 36"
The Hideout is dimly lit and covered in art – large framed paintings or small portraits, a slate of rotating photographers host their work there from time to time. There’s an old chandelier and a range of plushy little booths where two girls can settle in for a private conversation.

But the guy in front of us, slim of build and lightly dusted with facial hair also stood in line before us at the bar and turned around with a smile, offering to buy our drinks and join the conversation as he, too, had been to the same lecture at the Frye. With one raised eyebrow and a nod, my friend and I silently conferred with each other, agreeing that we weren’t risking too much by letting this guy in on our evening.

He carried our drinks over to us and sat down deferentially and waited a moment before saying anything, allowing us to drive the conversation if we wanted, but then began by talking about the lecture – how he thought the interaction between the visual arts and writing wasn’t always obvious, but it was still a very rich and interesting relationship and that’s why he had attended. I can't even remember now exactly what the presentation had been about.

He listened to us chat for awhile, smiling politely at our inside jokes and laughing genially, and offered a few shy and thoughtful nuggets about the speaker. It was like being back in graduate school again with a new colleague – all of us glad to be in the company of other people who wanted to discuss ideas of some weight and over the course of the evening it came out that I was a writer and he was a painter. We started talking about art and what he was working on and he tried to describe an alley he was painting at the moment at which point he turned specifically to me, looked me straight in the eye with a bashful timidity and lightly brushed the slope of my shoulder along my sleeve – “there’s this one beautiful garbage bag in a dumpster in the painting I’m working on now that falls exactly the same way your dress does,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it all night.”

The earnestness of his tone and the lack of derisive snort from my friend made me suddenly aware of how close his elbow was to mine, how bare my legs were under the dress I was wearing and I silently admitted (right then) that at some night in the near future, I would go home with this guy.

That was Christopher, the type of guy that could compare your dress to a garbage bag and make it into a compliment.

Daniel Carrillo. Wet plate collodion portrait of Christopher Martin Hoff. 
Christopher was willing to be misunderstood and to fail. He was one of the only artists I know who was working to make a living entirely off of his art and doing pretty well at it, too. This required some creativity, of course. Breakfast was the same every day: a banana (which he bought by the dozen every Sunday at Safeway). He lived in a reduced-income artists loft (complete with skylight) which would have been lovely except that it was in the heart of Pioneer Square, which (as everyone knows) turns into a den of drugs and high-volume conversations after dusk (I actually had to remove a syringe from the heel of one of my shoes when I arrived at his house one evening – no joke). It meant that WIFI had to be pirated from neighboring businesses and that every item in his closet was regularly put into rotation. When we were dating, he had a vintage white VW bug which was later stolen from him by hooligans out for a joy ride. It was a quirkly little mobile whose internal mechanisms somehow caused my car alarm to go off when he drove down my street. The Bug was held together by nothing more than rubber bands and Christopher’s love of it.

But Christopher didn’t see compromise, he saw possibility. He didn’t see sacrifice, he saw experience. And the result of that attitude is also our only comfort. By investing in himself, by investing in his dream, we are left with an incredible body of work that has been showcased at the Linda Hodges Gallery in Seattle.

Isn’t that what we’re all hoping for as artists anyway? A little immortality? A little staying power in an otherwise brutally impermanent world? Yes, I’d wager that’s at work for at least a few of us.

Christopher Martin Hoff. The Chase In His Wake, oil on linen, 30" x 22"
But really, today, I am simply glad that this is true for Christopher – that the relationship I can still have with him is the one that I get to feel while standing in front of one of his paintings, looking at the kind and dexterous strokes guided by hands that were as gentle to touch as they were to the canvas. I am not contemplating some sense of immortal staying power, I’m not worried about the generations to come (although I think he’ll be around for that, yes), I am simply grateful that he took enough time to bet on himself, to doggedly work every day, so that there is something of him for me. Yes, it’s rather a selfish lens, but that doesn't make it any less true and it doesn't make me any less grateful. I am so glad that I have a painting of his in my house; a watercolor of Mount Rainier that he gave to me for my birthday a few years ago, painted on a rare clear day – it’s one of the few prized things that I own.

It makes me want to light the fire under all of the artists that I know – from one continent to another and say: Get to work. Get to work! Get to work! It is possible that we will lose each other one day. Whether we mean to or not. Get to work!

Christopher and I? We were friends. It never worked out romantically, but that didn’t matter. I spent most of my time with him almost four years ago and I’m sure some of the details I know of him are now outdated. But I liked running into him. I liked the short and witty emails that sometimes peopled my inbox from him. I liked seeing his paintings. I liked looking around the city with Christopher’s eyes that could make any city (even Seattle) into something as eternal as Rome.

15 comments:

  1. I can't thank you enjoy for sharing this.

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    1. Thank you for reading. I think it helps to share the grief.

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  2. Very beautiful Jessica ans I am sorry for your loss, his work is amazing truly.

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  3. I knew Chris back in art school. You nailed it. Thanks and sorry.

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    1. Thank you for reading. I believe that he's really been this classy, kind, and smooth since day 1.

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    2. Um...no. (smile--from one who's known him since he was 13. ) :)

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  4. I'm Christopher's sister-in law. I was so moved by this. Thank you so much for sharing this memorial of him; it's just beautifully written. There is such joy in knowing that one so beloved was appreciated by so many.

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    1. Trish - thank YOU so much for the constant updates and communication on Facebook. It's been very hard to be this far away in such a tragic time. My thoughts are with you and everyone else who's been so hard hit by this. I can't imagine anyone who didn't appreciate Christopher as one of the loveliest people to ever grace their presence.

      If there's anything that I can do for you, please let me know.

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    2. Jessica, this brings warmth to my core to read. Christopher wooed me around a over-crowded potluck dinner table, turning his attention to my casserole tetris, and re-framing it with endless pleasure as a study of containers and space. Reading your description at the bar makes be love him ever more.
      I've felt at such a loss these last days, that I so appreciate being able to read and re-read this, and to hear and read from others about Christopher-ness.

      And Jessica, when you do get back to Seattle, Christopher will be waiting for you everywhere. :)

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    3. Jessica: I have shared this on Facebook as well as with his father, Bruce, his brother, David and my family (not all of whom are as plugged in). David cried when he read it. I cannot begin to express how much your words have touched us. I wish I had your eloquence, but grief has robbed me of mine. I can only marvel that there are people such as you who can draw a portrait with words the Christopher that we all knew and loved. I will read this again and again, and perhaps one day, do so with more smiles than tears.

      Blessed be,
      Trish

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  5. Hi Jessica- what a lovely tribute. The world mourns. Take good care of yourself. Warmly, Nancy Guppy

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  6. Wonderful writing. Christopher's spirit was alive in your telling of him. I met Christopher only once, although I saw him from distance drawing on Pike and on the corner of Olive and Denny (the painting now at Linda Hodges). He was the select artist at Gage. After the session, I was talking with him, and he mentioned something about taking a bus home. I offered him a ride and drove him home. Must have been after the VW bug was stolen. In the few minutes it takes to drive from Broadway to 1st Avenue, I had the same sense that this was someone special. Thanks for your story.

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  7. I pondered to myself recently what were the most important things in my life. The answer seems to be clear that art was up there in importance. Why? Frankly, I don't really know. May be someone here can enlighten me?
    As was my wont when I have some free time, I browsed the marvelous site, wahooart.com, where they keep thousands of digital images for customers to select to have printed into handsome canvas prints for their homes.
    This image jumped out to jolt my reveries: Still life with bread, by the Cubist Georges Braque. Is art like this picture, as essential as bread and water, or should I say bread and wine?

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