Flag above White with Collage, Jasper Johns,

I was never a great painting student but I tried. My senior year at Oberlin I took Color Theory with Forbes Whiteside. Mostly I took painting because it was easy. And relaxing. You did have to put time in at the studio. But even if you were pretty awful, you’d still get a decent grade. It wasn’t like writing an essay about a French novel.

Forbes was an interesting guy. At first, he appeared gruff and I was more than a little afraid of him. The fact that my paintings were…ahem…sort of random things I painted without having much grounding in studio art didn’t help my confidence. Forbes (as I recall through the misty goggles of time) was obsessed with Jasper Johns and some of his own painting followed Johns’s style. So along with learning about color theory, we learned about Jasper Johns.

Forbes taught us that color doesn’t really exist in the way we think it does. Look at the shadow in the photo above. The wall appears to be off-white, but now look at the shadow below: I see beige and then a deeper brown. What color is the wall?

Forbes sent us out to the Campus Diner (local coffee shop) to look at an orange wall. Staring at it, I realized that the wall wasn’t just “orange;” there were gradations of orange color depending on how the light (artificial or daylight) hit it at various times of day. and even where you stood. Rendering wasn’t just about painting an “orange wall;” it was also about what colors we saw. We spent hours in class mixing paint to approximate the various shades we saw when we looked at an object. 

Forbes died in 2015 and I learned from his obituary that “From 1941 to 1945, Whiteside captained aircraft in the Pacific theater. He achieved the rank of second lieutenant and received the Distinguished Flying Cross. His more memorable experiences included six days in a raft with his flight crew after the successful ditching of their disabled seaplane, and a flight over Nagasaki following the dropping of the second atomic bomb.”

What feelings did these experiences lend to Forbes’s art? Patriotism? The horrors of war? Or were flags and pillow cases and cityscapes and a coffee house wall pieces of color that didn’t have to be symbolic at all?

My attempt at painting: red pencil sharpener on a white pillowcase

Forbes barely said a word to me in class until one day he stopped right in front of my easel. I was very nervous. “This is an incredible painting!” he roared. Then he regarded me, his piercing eyes staring at me from below his shock of Warholesque wild white hair. “Is this really how things look to you?” he asked incredulously. 

“Uh, yes?” I answered.

“Well,” he answered. “Your work has a delightful primitive quality! It reminds me of Neil Jenney!” I took it as a compliment even though one of my friends teases me about that compliment to this day. 

Fourth of July Still Life, Audrey Flack

A painted flag or a painting of a flag?

Are you on the blue team or the red? What do you see when you look at the American flag? How do you feel? Included? Excluded? Outraged? Warmed?

And what do you see when you now look at the Flag of Ukraine? Overnight, most of us are rallying around the blue and yellow. Already, those colors provoke emotion inme. I don’t think I could tell you what the Russian flag looks like though. I never think about it.

Jasper Johns painted the American Flag (the painting was called “Flag”) two years after being discharged from the U.S. Army. Because I’m not an art critic, I’m going to quote from Wikipedia here: “Johns’s selection of the US flag allows him to explore a familiar two-dimensional object, with its simple internal geometric structure and a complex symbolic meaning. Johns was attracted to painting “things the mind already knows,” and claimed that using a familiar object like the flag freed himself from the need to create a new design and allowed him to focus on the execution of the painting. Critics were unsure whether it was a painted flag or a painting of a flag; Johns later said it was both.” 

Was Johns mocking patriotism and the flag? Or did he see the flag as a hopeful symbol? Or was it just… a flag…a piece of fabric made up of colors? MOMA refused to buy it, seeing it as anti-patriotic. Why? What did they see in it that makes it this way?

White Flag, Jasper Johns

In later pieces like White Flag, and Map, Johns continued to tease us with symbols/objects. Again from Wikipedia, “Johns’s selection of the US flag allows him to explore a familiar two-dimensional object, with its simple internal geometric structure and a complex symbolic meaning. The built-up collage distorts the flag’s flatness, while the off-white encaustic obliterates the flag’s usual red-white-and-blue colouring, leaving a ghostly embalmed remnant.”

Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth

In 1777…

I’ve written a bit about Betsy Ross and the American flag here. And I’ve learned a bit about flag-making in writing my current novel. Why were flags important to Americans in the Revolution? Primarily, because there were so few uniforms. Flags provided something for troops and militia to gather under when perhaps all they had was a white slip of paper in their hat to symbolize that they were a soldier.

In “Revolutionary War uniforms are not so easy to pin down,” by John Kelly: “Soldiers then wore a rainbow of colors. And the hated British weren’t the only ones in red coats. Some American soldiers wore them, too. One Connecticut regiment had red coats with yellow accents. The 4th New York Regiment had white coats with red accents. The drummers for one New Hampshire regiment had green breeches and canary yellow coats. If they got coats at all. Uniforms were hit and miss, and many soldiers suffered without boots or coats. With no standing army, the Americans sort of made it up as they went along. Nearly every unit was different.”

Flags weren’t standard either. Before 1777, Patriots had a variety of flags like this one:

Philadelphia Light Horse Troop Flag, Fraunces Tavern

What would we make of the American flag if it looked like this?And did it promote unity (among a people who were pretty divided) or did it symbolize dissent from the British?

Liberty and Union Flag 1777, Fraunces Tavern

What we think we see depends on where we’re standing

I got an A in painting. It balanced out some of my other not so stellar grades. To my characters, a flag means many things: a hobby, a dangerous object, a handicraft, an expression of defiance. At times it’s something to be hidden; at times a unifier that gathers a ragtag group together. Forbes Whiteside taught me so much but above all, what we think we see depends so much on where we’re standing.

Published by katehornstein

Writing about young Quakers, religion, and romance over 350 years in England and America

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