Painting, Papa and Waltzing


“My Papa’s Waltz”
©2019, Molly Larson Cook
Acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 30″

When someone once said that “A picture is worth a thousand words,” a pundit quickly countered with this challenge:  “If that’s true, paint the Gettysburg address.”

As an abstract expressionist painter who loves color, I don’t begin my work with a particular idea in mind.  I begin with what in the writing world would be the first sentence – in my case, one bold splash of color on the canvas. And therein begins a tale.

Writer Joan Didion put it this way: “What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.” 

Yes, you can make many things happen with the paint, but that first bold splash is still there even if it’s covered, at least in part, by other layers.  The artist always knows.

Abstract artists are known for the sometimes unimaginative titles they give their paintings, titles like “Number 14” or “Red and Blue” or “Study in Gray.”  Some simply use the date as the title, “1963,” for example.

I did this myself with an early mixed-media series I called “Celestial Bodies” and titled “Celestial Bodies I,” “Celestial Bodies II,” and – well, you can figure out the rest.

When it comes to naming, landscape and other realist painters have it easier.  Even the Impressionists used titles that clearly described what the viewer could see:  Van Gogh’s “A Pair of Shoes” is sure enough a pair of shoes, although some might quibble that they were more truly boots.

And Monet’s haystacks are aptly named, “Haystacks, Late Summer,” “Haystacks at Sunset,” somewhat the way people with smartphones these days name their gazillion photos of last summer’s vacation:  “Marge in front of Mt. Rainier,” “Marge by the Space Needle,” “Marge at Pike Place Market.”

Writers know that choosing a title for a book is sometimes nearly as hard as writing the book itself.  Poets are known to let themselves off the hook by simply using the first line of the poem as the title.

Names, names, names.  Titles, titles, titles.

Writer Maria Popova, in an essay on naming, wrote that, “To name is to pay attention; to name is to love.”

I’ve launched a new series for myself and shown the first pieces here, a series with titles from lines of poetry.  If you know my work – the Jazz Collection, for instance – you know that I choose the title last.  The title is inspired by the painting and not the other way around.

But instead of a line of poetry, the title of this new painting was inspired by the entire poem, “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke.  Several possibilities came to mind when I was finished with the painting, but the moment I thought of “My Papa’s Waltz,” the rest of them disappeared into thin air.

The bursting energy of this poem and the joyous/wild love between father and son always captures me and, although I didn’t think of it while painting, the title felt very right when I looked at the finished work.

I’m including the poem here.  Let me know what you think.  Naming things ain’t always easy.  Now back to work.


My Papa’s Waltz

By Theodore Roethke


The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance

Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed

My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

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