When I think about the past, everything is either polluted with a frenetic purple anxiety, or it’s a soft marigold mist of peaceful contentment. There doesn’t seem to be any in-between. I don’t know if this is peculiar to me, or if everyone has such a bipolar memory, but for me it seems all the mundane experiences just sort of blend into a forgotten grey slurry of nothing, and the only things left over are the demons and angels of yesterday.
Where I look backwards, sometimes the demons screech out loud, sometimes it’s the soft coo of angels. When I sat down to paint last night, I guess the demons were sleeping.
I thought back to my childhood, and remembered the trips when my Mom and Dad took me to the Cleveland Metroparks to feed the ducks, or walk the trails. There was one trail that we took regularly with a wooden deck that looked out over buttermilk falls. When I was a child, I remember being less than impressed by the water calmly bubbling down the black slate hillside. I guess when I saw the sign for Buttermilk Falls, I expected some grand Niagara torrent of water, and instead it wasn’t much more than a stream sliding down the rocks.
But as I grew older, I found myself going back to the Metroparks a lot. When I was in Junior High, I would walk down to the ravine in the back woods, and follow it until it met up with S.O.M. Center Road. From there, I would climb the grassy hill, and follow the path a few miles to the park. By the time I got there I was usually pretty tired, because it was about four miles from our house, so I never got very far. But Buttermilk Falls was close enough that it became a destination. I could walk there, sit on a wooden bench and listen to the water, feel the cold air rising up from the bottom of the falls carrying the sweet smell of earth. After a few minutes, I would get up and walk home.
Other times, I would ride my bike to the Metroparks. With my bike I could get to the park much faster, so I would tend to whizz past Buttermilk falls, and instead head straight to the duck pond, or to the nature observatory where I could look through the dark glass window to watch the barn owl sleeping on a rafter in the corner of a three foot by five foot fabricated barn. Under the window was a silver button shiny and polished from a million presses. I would tap the button, and hear the hoot of a barn owl through crackling tin speakers.
Then, I would ride by bike back home, and often I would stop at Buttermilk Falls, just because it was on the way.
When I was in my twenties, I would drive to the Metroparks after work, and go for a run. Inevitably, I would find myself huffing and puffing as I tried not to die at four-miles-an-hour as I ran past Buttermilk Falls.
So, the sleepy little waterfall has become something so much more to me than it was the first time I saw it. Sure, it’s not the Niagara. There’s no water creeping slowly to the edge before tumbling through stories of air before crashing in a pool at the bottom. It’s just a simple shale waterfall. But it is something familiar, and my memories of Buttermilk Falls are all happy ones. That wooden deck isn’t polluted with any of the regret or shame. All my memories of Buttermilk Falls are quiet, cool, and still.
I didn’t look up a picture of Buttermilk falls when I painted this, because I didn’t want to render what it looks like. I wanted to try to show what I remember. I wanted to paint a picture of that restful golden nostalgia I feel when I think back to those summer days of long lonely walks, bike rides, and jogs.
This is what I ended up with. I will definitely be trying this one again, there are some things I would like to try to render better. For one, the falls are more vertical here than in my memory, and I don’t feel like I conveyed the coolness of the bottom of the falls as well as I remember. In reality, the bottom of the falls feels like the air in a cave, but in this painting it’s too warm, too loud. I’ll try again later. For now, I’m reasonably happy with this, even though it’s not a perfect representation of the image in my mind.
And now, just out of curiosity, I googled a photo of Buttermilk Falls – this is what it looks like in real life: