150 Cleveland, OH: Hills, South Truro

Cleveland, Ohio: Hills, South Truro
[Cleveland Art Museum]

My first stop in Cleveland was the museum, but not the painting, the front desk. A few days earlier, I had been in Toledo, in front of that town's Hopper. One interviewee said she was from Cleveland and would be working the front desk at the Cleveland Art Museum when I visited. Her name was Leslie, and she was in her late forties, mousy and motherly, with tiny dimples in her cheeks and short, blond hair.

"Hello, Leslie," I greeted her as if we were old friends.

"Hello, Kevin," she replied equally warmly and smiled back at her fellow workers, reveling in the mystery she left them with as we walked off together to see the Hopper here.

Hills, South Truro is a simple landscape showing a Cape Cod farmhouse atop a partly shadowed hill at whose bottom train tracks zip off either end of the canvas. Hopper told Guy Pene du Bois that it was painted "almost entirely on the spot" and "the mosquitoes were terrible." DuBois in turn called Hills, South Truro "one of the most dignified American landscapes…," though he wryly noted the title was "as economic a title as most of those [Hopper] writes." Jo described it in progress as "rather a beauty-hills & hills on over to the sea" but also "a canvas that he's grouching over."

Informing me that she was a painter herself, Leslie answered my questions in a breathless staccato.

"I don't think [people here in Cleveland] are isolated. We got a lot going here. Oohh sure, we've got rural areas on the edge of town that are fairly isolated. It doesn't mean that there aren't individuals who are not isolated and lonely.

"My immediate community is not isolated. But I was looking for people to talk about the politics of their little 'burb that's next to my 'burb. And one older lady said that she had always been very active in that community, and they'd get a lot done. They used to have meetings and they'd get people to work on better streets, new street signs. And she said now people aren't willing to do that. They just want things to be done. They don't want to be at a meeting; they don't want to be part of fund-raising. They don't want their weekend taken up by helping out. And I think that that is very true. I think we want to be in a world where everything is good and fine. But ask us to do something to make it that way? Forget it. We want our leaders to do it. We don't know what type of leader we really need. Just somebody good-looking with a lot of charisma. Or is it somebody that actually does things?

"Your question's a big ball of wax, though. Is isolation a negative word? I think that Hopper, like this painting, is not a negative, eerie, awful feeling. For me, it's a positive thing. But then I like to be alone. Now my friend, who you saw the other day, she said that she hates Hopper paintings because they're so sad and morbid and lonely and awful and… But I look at 'em and go: 'Oh, yeah. That'd be great to be alone.'

"This painting is a favorite of mine. There's quite a bit of serenity here. There's the mix of the feelings here about isolationism and his concern about industrialization of the railroad tracks running through. I like the colors in this painting. They're different than his usual palette. They don't often show up, the tans. We're used to his reds and greens and royal blues. All of that warm color in the distant plains really shouldn't be there. The warm color should be up front if you're wanting to see something that's visually correct. But it works.

"Now that I'm looking, this tree back here looks like a large animal with its mouth open, doesn't it? Right down to the impasto for the eye. That's something a little bit different."

"What's this blob?" I said, pointing to a thick area of color on the hillside.

"Oh, it's a blob," she said matter-of-factly. "If that glob were not there, you have too much of a wall of tan sand there. You wouldn't have any contrast. It brings balance. He's amazing with composition. You've probably seen with Hopper's work: he had just a few buildings that he used over and over, that he felt were architecturally simple enough and dynamic enough to use over and over again. It's probably not even a real building.

"If you look at any of the painters, there's a lot that's wrong in their painting. Like Cezanne, his work is just a mess, with the fruit that's about to roll off the table and all. And if you actually look at portrait artists, the hands are too small, an arm would not bend in such a way. But it's just whatever it takes to make it work. When I'm painting, I will look at a photograph. I will say: 'I'm trying to figure out what this thing is here in the photograph.' And the instructor will say: 'Well certainly don't put it into your painting.' Because it's confusing. So, yeah, we [artists] have to work on elimination."

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