26 Washington DC: Approaching a City

Washington, DC: Approaching a City

The weekend after my outing to Indiana, I already held an airplane ticket to Washington, DC to visit my brother. It had become a passport to more Hoppers. The nation's capital is home to more Hopper paintings in more museums than any other city but New York. This makes sense for a painter who seems to have said as much about our nation as about aesthetics. Hopper wrote, "a nation's art is greatest when it most reflects the character of its people."

Like many artists, Hopper cared little for politics and left nary a quote about the two world wars that took place during his lifetime. He pointed out, "The terms radical and conservative have almost no meaning as applied to the work of the individual in art…."

The brother I was going to visit is named Irish. His birth certificate says "James," but if you ask anyone if they know Jim Grandfield, they'll be thinking of my father. Irish and I had been the only two kids in the family to go away to prep school: St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware (called "SAS"). It was such the archetypal prep school that director Peter Weir chose it as the set for his film Dead Poets Society.

Like most people in the area, Irish had a governmental job, but his was not federal. He was an environmental planner for suburban Fairfax County, Virginia, about 30 miles east of DC. He lived nearby in Leesburg, a city where historic colonial brick buildings lined the town square, while out along the interstate, strip malls and suburban housing plats sprouted daily.

When asked about isolation, he stroked a cupped hand down his chin, indicating that he didn't feel qualified to answer. "How? Emotionally? Mentally? Spiritually? Yes, at times. But not as a pervasive, all-encompassing reality as depicted in Hopper's works. DC is not empty enough to allow you to be as isolated as Hopper's characters.

"I know that the 'isolation' that many people relate with Hopper's works does not refer to how crowded our lives and spaces are. But for me, as an environmental planner, that is a part of the physical isolation that manifests itself in so many of Hopper's works.

"Hopper's paintings reflect a time that is long gone; when there perhaps were fewer than one billion people on this earth, as opposed to the six billion now. There is another key difference in the isolation I sense today. People today exhibit a degree of anxiety and aggression that none of Hopper's characters seem to exhibit."

My brother's housemate was the woman who held the position he just left: Leesburg city planner. She was originally from Madras, India, and her name was coincidentally Jo. She was short with a heart-shaped face mottled different shades of brown beneath a full mane of wavy, coal-colored hair. She answered my question very formally.

"Oh, I don’t think you are [isolated]. I think you recognize how hard it is to get together here and plan accordingly. Even your malls are at least gathering places. Now, am I isolated because I'm from India? Yes, if you mean am I literally far from my family back home. But we stay in touch on the phone, and I visit quite often, and I have plenty of Indian friends here. But you know, there are Americans (and English and others) working in India too. It's no longer just the U.S. that is a melting pot."

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