Thursday, November 9, 2017

Flying Lessons with David Lang

One of the most extraordinary friends in my life has died. David A Lang was the finest of friends and a blessing in my life. He taught me to fly a plane, supported my art, and never ceased to delight with his ever-curious mind and kindness.
Of all the gifts in my life, he will sparkle forever. May he fly with the swallows he loved.

In 2000, when I lived in Harvard, MA, I wrote a profile of David in a magazine called The Middlesex Beat. Here it is:

“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.”
Robert Bresson (b. 1907), French film director. Notes on the Cinematographer, "1950-1958: The Real" (1975).

©Beth Surdut 2000
For thirty years David Lang has painted watercolors of the details of life. A handmade rake, broom, and woven dust pan lie dormant in a Japanese garden; a rusty tea kettle in an Irish barn signals a respite in the tedium of chores; a classic old truck lists in rusty ruin in a green New England field; a penny lies in robust green cabbage fields. “I want people to dream, to remember, to know that had they seen what I paint, they would remember it. That’s what’s important to me—not to let stuff slip away unremembered and unrecorded,” said Lang.
Most summers for the past eight years he has returned to the same quiet village in County Clare, Ireland. A visit to a friend on sabbatical sparked the initial trip to the country that has become a second home, its music beating time to Lang’s heart. “I was astounded. I slipped right into it like a glove. This place took me in and wrapped itself around me. All of a sudden I a fixture there.”
Sixty to seventy paintings have come out of these trips, partially because Lang has found a remedy to the self-induced pressure of finding a subject to paint. Sometimes he simply takes a hundred steps and just begins. “Pretty much what I wind up doing is standing still. I like going somewhere and taking it in. Both in Japan and Ireland I had to figure what the language of the paintings was. If you put yourself in a position to accept the experience, it all just comes together. I couldn’t do barn paintings in Japan, but it was the same old stuff. . .the shards and memories of what people were doing in lives.” The Japan series speaks its own language within the context of implements. In one of the most poetic paintings, bamboo ladles rest on a stone water trough outside a shrine.  
Lang, head of the art department at the Middlesex School in Concord, has been teaching painting, drawing, photography, sculpture and engineering since 1972. If you really want to learn anything, teach it. It really puts you right on the line.” Each year his class restores a classic car. Each year there are last minute problems that are always solved.  Although he says he has always been attracted to older people no matter which country he visits, Lang spends many of his days surrounded by teenagers. He is simultaneously teacher and student. Once self-conscious about showing his works in progress, he now allows his students to critique his paintings. “They always teach me something,” he says. Once fearful of words, probably due to childhood dyslexia that he has controlled through meditation, he now writes poetry and essays. “I think of my writing as paintings in words and my paintings as stories in paint.”
One place, as good as any, to start explaining what influences David Lang is with the recurring presence of swallows. The birds have tumbled and swooped through the barns where he grew up in Long Island, in the places he painted in the New England, Pennsylvania, in Ireland, and in Turkey. He has traveled to Japan three times. “I became mesmerized by the running script of old Japanese. It’s like liquid, like the flight path of swallows.”
 “I’ve always thought that swallows were the most imaginative playful flyers. They’re very curious little birds,” he said, himself a licensed pilot who owns a plane and teaches flying at Hanscom Air Force Base.
“We were in Turkey, in a little hill town. The children would follow me around so I brought extra paint and pads to give to the kids. I didn’t speak the language, but knew enough to say, “What is that?” We were in a church, the swallows flitting in and out, and the kids told me their word for swallow is kirlangic. My name was right smack in the middle!”
This artist has a splendid relationship with rocks and rust, stone and iron, the layers of color and the nuances of light that fill the quieter spaces of life. “It’s like a romance, a courtship. For me, no color is the color itself. It’s the context with other color. I’m always painting into the paint. It’s a very animated lively thing.” There are paradoxes here in the still life representations of objects of work, play, and movement, of spirituality embodied in items associated with the physical plane. “I look at my paintings and I see portraits of people or families through their artifacts. Quite often I paint something that will go to the junkyard. The painting ends up being worth many times more than the thing.”
“There’s a closeness to the earth, closeness to each other---values and stories where there’s just barely a whisper left.  This is a much more stable reality than what happens today.”

            We are standing in an old one-room building that looks over the pond in my rural back yard. As light streaks through old glass across rakes and hoes, David Lang stands still and is quiet, unusual to see if you know him. He has already made clear that he admires the little wooden structure, that if it were his own he would clean it out and make it a writing studio. Sliding past the anvil, he hoists himself up over the lawnmower and starts to rummage through the shelves of clay pots and garden tools until he finds what he sensed was there for him all along. Triumphant, he emerges with the partial skeleton of a Great Blue Heron, its elegant neck held gently in between thumb and fingers. “Can I borrow this? I just knew there was something here for me,” he said.

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