I’ve been painting umbrellas, large and small for over twenty-five years. Each umbrella is unique. In those early times when I first began, there were only black umbrellas for rainy days. About a year and a half after my hand-painted ones hit the streets, a wash of umbrellas came out with reproductions of George Seurat’s Afternoon in the Park.
I like to think that I had something to do with it, but if I had been an influence on umbrellas taking on color and imagery, my hopes had been for a different outcome. I had wanted to start a movement where artists, alive and American, could spill out into the American culture with live works of art, original and unique to each umbrella.
Painting umbrellas offered a fascinating geometric surface to paint and a way for artists to make a living. A hand painted umbrella lasts twenty years and still counting. It also has the side-effect of making people excited about walking out in the rain, the way a peacock shows its plumage to the world, even if the world is driving by. Hand painted, original umbrellas are outstanding and beautiful.
An umbrella is a noble canvas. It is a remarkable tension structure. Often an umbrella is divided into eight triangular sections that curve outward voluptuously. There is a tension, once opened, that is a beautiful curve. An eight section umbrella also offers a symmetry that is seductive to a visual artist, with endless ways of dramatizing and playing these subdivisions as separate or united spaces.
Aside from an umbrella’s intrinsic beauty, there is another thought that draws me into it. That thought is this. In America, we keep our art under lock and key. It’s kept in galleries, in some homes and in fine art museums. There Americans are safe from it, since art is like a cat. It can roll over and draw one in to pleasure, or it can scratch and bite us, if rubbed the wrong way by social or political behavior. It has an independence about it that is also cat like. For this reason, perhaps, American art is kept in art zoos. It is rarely let out into American architecture, public places or streets. No blame. I have a strange theory about why this is the case.
Why does American culture prefer to keep its art hidden away, out of sight and out of mind?
I believe that it has to do with World War II. We were a nation of Huck Finns, farm boys and their girls, and city kids who liked to work hard and go dancing on the weekends. Most parents were from Europe, but their kids were American, first generation. Then World War II appeared. The boys went off to Europe and Asia, and for the first time, saw Cathedrals and Sacred Temples, Massive Squares with sculpture that was many hundreds of years old, buildings that were monuments to magnificence. These astounding expressions of the human spirit had been let out of the heart and filled the architecture, squares and streets, and all of it was being bombed to rubble.
I believe that it secretly, one G.I. at a time, alone with a cigarette, broke our hearts. As Americans, who are all heart, we could not bear it. We vowed that if we ever survived the War we would never build anything that could not be replaced by anybody with a hard hat and a lunch box. And so we closed our hearts to beauty, in our buildings, in our streets. We would keep the world we lived in functional, and, most of all, replaceable. Sky scrapers grew out of that vow. They have a beauty all their own. But even sky scrapers could be torn down and replaced. We would avoid all things that were irreplaceable, because we could not bear the loss.
And so the art is kept hidden, where a family could walk through and not stay too long. It is why we cry at a Van Gogh exhibit. The pain of an irreplaceable expression haunts us to tears. We are happy to get home, read a newspaper, recycle it, watch the news.
That War was a long time ago. Perhaps it is time to let American art out of solitary confinement, as a culture. Maybe it is time for art schools to stop teaching that applied art is inferior to fine art. The time has come for Americans to start looking at empty surfaces as surfaces aching for irreplaceable expressions of how astounding, fleeting and tender life is.
An umbrella is a good start. One hand-painted umbrella is irreplaceable. If you use it for twenty years, you want to hand it down to one of your children or to someone you love. It’s not disposable. It’s art on a stick, and it belongs to you or someone you love. We bring it out as a ritual whenever it rains. People know us by it, who don’t know us, even as they drive by. They think, there’s the person with that umbrella. I see him or her practically every time it rains.
I’ve painted umbrellas for over twenty-five years. Look for them on the next rainy day. You’ll recognize the difference, because even in a downpour, it might make you feel happy that it rained today.
Article and hand-painted umbrellas by Ross G. Drago
Orders for hand-painted umbrellas by individual theme requests. Price-hand held $125. Patio $495. plus shipping and cost of umbrella.
Ross G. Drago
Paint Rag Magazine
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