My family and I moved abroad to Europe for an undetermined period of time, leaving our home in New York with a willed intention to “live deliberately”, somewhat as Thoreau had done a couple of centuries or so ago. For Thoreau, his was a desire to front only the essential facts of life; however, for my wife, three sons, and myself, our act of living deliberately was to move beyond a painful chapter in our life. We were grieving over a great loss and wanted to remind ourselves that life is beautiful, that the world is big, and that our light and momentary pain was a mere blip in the broad arc of time.
London welcomed us with open arms, and thanks to the generosity of a wonderful and gifted artist friend, Josephine, we were able to live and work in her stunning painting studio. Jo is a gifted artist who had custom-tailored everything in her studio for her own painting and sculpting purposes, and so everything was ready to go for me. The St. Paul studios are a series of wrought iron and glass painting studios in the heart of London, renowned throughout the world for their design. The uppermost floor features a soaring north-facing window and massive studio, while the lower two floors consist of bedrooms, baths and living areas, and yet another smaller painting studio.
The best news was that my good friend, James Hayes, owns the painting studio a few doors down from where we were staying. I have the deepest respect for James as an artist- his work is beautiful, his knowledge of the craftsmanship of oil painting is rare, and his work ethic is indefatigable. Not to mention, he is a member of the rarest breed of artist- a generous and uplifting soul who defines his own success not only by what he himself produces but to also lift up all other artists around him. I am lucky to call him my friend, and I was extremely fortunate to be painting a few doors down from him.
Much of a professional oil painter artist’s life consists of wrestling with logistics- where can I find a studio? How can I get better lighting? Where can I find better materials? How can I reach my audience? How can I eliminate distraction? But in this studio, my Walden Pond, none of these problems were facing me- with the greatest art supply stores in the world just a few blocks away, with models abundant, with the problems of lighting completely solved for me, I could just paint. And then came whispers of the Coronavirus.
As I set up my canvas on the easel, there was news of the spread of the virus in Italy, and the grim toll it was taking on the population. As I mixed my paints, the newspapers were daily relaying mounting fears. As I tinted my canvas, the first wave of patients was flooding the hospitals of northern Italy.
It was at this time that my family and I visited the Churchill War Rooms. Originally just basement storage rooms with low ceilings, these rooms were repurposed into underground bunkers. While bombs fell from overhead and wiped out entire areas of the city of London, it was from here that the military operation of the United Kingdom commanded its force in defense of the free world. It was here that Churchill’s chair still remains, with the marks of his fingernails scratched into the arms of the chair from which he conducted the most important wartime meetings. It was here that generals slept on makeshift cots. It was here that buckets had to function as toilets. It was here that Churchill had a sign painted, reading “Please understand there is no depression in this house and we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They do not exist.”
I returned to my studio, and the February sky was a characteristic London, leaden grey. My sons were sitting on and beneath the window, quietly reading. My wife sat with a cup of tea, thinking. I wasn’t thinking at all about my artwork, I was really thinking only about my family. The future was so uncertain, the sky was so bleak. I picked up a pad and began to sketch. There was no depression in this house. I began to paint. There was no possibility of defeat.
I painted sometimes for ten hours a day, over the month. We took occasional trips to hike in the English countryside, to stroll in parks along the Thames, to visit 221 Baker Street. I painted furiously all in between, rising early, working through the day, sometimes staying up late through the night.
Only in contemplating the idea of courage did I understand the iconic sculptures and works depicting London’s own heroes. Gauden’s solemn statue of Abraham Lincoln was in Westminster Square, silently clutching his coat, head bowed. Rodin’s Burghers of Calais were beside the Thames, nooses around their necks. The Roman copy of the Hellenistic sculpture, The Dying Gaul, was in Syon House, holding himself up while blood rushed from his mortal wound; Lysippus’ Silenus was also in Syon House, clutching his son Dionysus and contemplating the gravity of his role as father and protector. Lord Leighton was in the Royal Borough of Chelsea, painting enormous frescoes depicting the Arts of Industry as Applied to War and Peace, while the city of London witnessed cholera outbreaks and threats of war.
We booked our flight home to New York, and on the final day before our flight, I put my brush down. With the specter of quarantine looming, and with the uncertainty of international shipping, I chose to leave the painting in the studio, in the care of my friend. The painting is still in London.
We are all now quarantined to our house in New York now. I am sitting at my drawing desk, the birds are outside of my window, frenetic with spring fever, and the boys are setting the dinner table. The newspapers are announcing one of the greatest losses in stocks in the history of the American economy. New York City has been shut down. Thousands of people are contracting COVID-19. Some are dying. Pinned to the wall beside me is a poem by another individual who found inspiration in London, Rudyard Kipling. “If you can meet with triumph or disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same...”
What do you do when you meet with Disaster? You wake up in the morning; you continue to raise your children; you lead the Union army in the Civil War; you pour the coffee; you load the truck; you plant the victory garden. You paint. You carry on. There is no possibility of defeat.