Old covered bridges are like walks on the beach: it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like them. So, what do covered bridges have to do with good art and the truth? I’m here to explain. As always, there is a story behind the explanation; happily, it is neither long nor complicated. The photo is of an oil painting I did in the summer of 1965. That day in July I was on-site at the Jacoby Mill Road covered bridge just a bit east of U.S. Route 68 off of Clifton Road in Xenia Township, Ohio. I had stumbled onto the bridge some weeks earlier when I was looking around Greene County for possible landscapes to paint. Having just graduated from high school, I was driving my old 1947 “high school kid” car. I parked as far off the road as possible which was difficult as the area was heavily wooded.
Now, switch to this past summer (2016) when I was attending a writers’ workshop. One of the speakers at the workshop repeated a quote I’d never heard before: “All good art gets us closer to the truth.” For some reason I couldn’t help but embrace this quote. Perhaps it was because it sounded so profound, so insightful. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm abated as I carefully listened to the speaker and realized that his narrative wasn’t helping me understand the quote. I still didn’t understand it when I left the workshop but it stayed with me (I’m like a dog with a bone on these kinds of things). I later sent an inquiry to the speaker via email but even after reading his reply I was still not satisfied.
It wasn’t until I got to thinking about this covered bridge painting that a possible interpretation of the quote occurred to me. In looking at the painting I have to admit that back then my artistic virtuosity clearly showed a lack of skill in both craft and technique. And yet, I think I could argue that the art is good for one reason: it is the only image of the bridge from this vantage point that exists today. This wouldn’t be so significant a statement except that the bridge was badly damaged by arson five years after I did this painting (1970). The county tore the remaining structure down shortly thereafter and cleared the site. Today, only parts of the abutments remain.
So, my painting gets us closer to the truth by giving us an image of what the southern entrance to the bridge looked like in 1965. The painting does not exhibit much detail or photographic accuracy, but it does honestly portray what my eyes saw then, as best I could capture the image in oils and canvas.
In fact, this explanation works even better when I thinks about the word closer in the quote. As noted, the painting does not provide detail or photographic accuracy, so it can only get us close to the truth. The same can be said of the limited number of black and white photos of the bridge that exists, taken from other vantage points. Since nature is in full color, black and white images only get us close to the truth.
Do I conclude from all of this that my painting is good art? The answer, in my view, depends upon the criteria one selects to quantify good. I select that good means the honest representation of something that no longer exists and for which any other representation differs. In this sense, my art is good.
If this definition of good art seems a little accommodating or perhaps self-serving, consider how things must have been in the Renaissance Period. In those days of da Vinci and Michelangelo, consider that the only means of representing the human form was by art (painting, sculpting, and drawing). There were no photographic plates, no instamatics or Polaroid’s, no digital bitmaps, and no videos. Indeed, these methods were the only means of generating an image of anything.
Thus, I believe I have succeeded in providing an overall interpretation of the quote. Naturally, this is only one interpretation and others might possibly surface. Until then, I’m sticking with this one for sure.
In closing, I mention an insight I learned from taking several night classes in oil painting in mid-1970: our eyes can play tricks on us. Often when I paint what I think I see I come to realize the colors on the canvas are wrong. I learned that my brain needed to be trained and any preconceived notions dispensed with. Art has been letting me know the truth ever since.