19 August 2010


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 20 August 2010

"We are like chameleons, we take our hue and the color of our moral character, from those who are around us." John Locke

A reader posted comment to last Friday's Commentary and in closing asked as to when to expect musings about shirts of colors not found in nature and other such related things of great importance.

At the time I was not sure. Here goes--sort of.

Shirts of colors not found in nature? Much to my wife's chagrin, I own more than any one man should; and love them all. Some I've had to secret away as to not lose them to donation or the trash while away on painting junkets or fly fishing trips.

But shirts are material things and come and go. Color, on the other hand, endures.

Color haunts me--thinking about it is continuous. And not just about color in and of itself but, for those of us blessed with the sense of sight, how color influences, shapes, and moves us all the while we're usually oblivious.

These days I paint more in my mind than on canvas and paper--that is, thinking about color in the abstract rather than being restricted to the mere physical properties of paint squeezed from metal and plastic tubes. It's better (and less expensive) to work on color problems mentally--there are no limitations.

Last Saturday a friend noticed some recently matted crayon sketches atop a cabinet propped against a wall in my studio. They're small studies--only a few inches by a few inches. Done with just a handful of colors, they're abstract and representational not realistic. They are not shocking but attention-getting--they hold interest as you look and study to make sense of scribbled nonsense. For the non-linear is always of more interest to the human brain/mind than linear.

One pair of scribbles, on separate sheets of paper, of vertically-oriented rectangles--one of pinks with black and sundry other color blemishes and its sister of just varied pinks--I titled, "Breast Cancer" and "Breast Cancer Cured".

When the titles are unknown they are simple yet interesting sketches. But with titles they are striking, sobering, and thought-provoking. What a difference five words--the right words--make. The words completely change the interpretation of the colors, and take thinking about the sketches in all sorts of directions--that would not have otherwise happened without titles. And with different thinking inevitable from different titles.

And to think of the different interpretations of those two titled scribbles by an oncologist, radiologist, oncology nurse, breast cancer patient, and a caregiver--just to name a few impacted by the disease. Well, you get the point.

Color. Shapes. Words. Each individually influential. When combined powerful. And different for everyone.

Bill suggested there was a fortune to be made selling the originals and copies of "Breast Cancer" and "Breast Cancer Cured". Maybe.

The purpose for crayon sketching? I'm not sure. Perhaps to explore color--as to shape and the relationships between shape and color. It's simple. It's complex. It's difficult to explain. The right words may not even exist. The idea is to get ideas from the ideas sketched. Where this time spent mentally painting in color and scribbling with crayons will go is unknown, but it's causing pause--to think and think about color--shapes--words--and relationships. All sorts of relationships. Is this making sense? Maybe?

Consider the words stumbled upon while polishing the final draft of this Commentary opined by Georgia O'Keefe, "I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way--things I had no words for."

So, it's not just me. And Ms O'Keefe was certainly not the first to entertain these questions. And I won't be the last.

And the thoughts of Pablo Picasso, "There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot, but there are others who, thanks to their art and intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun."

There's a big difference in what Picasso is saying. There are plenty of ways to see--everything; within and across cultures. And words often get in the way. Besides, is the sun yellow? Really? Always?

Ah, but before going on, a reader now hooked is asking, "From where did crayons come?"

Well, we can thank red-blooded American entrepreneurs and cousins Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith. They founded the company Binney & Smith in 1885. And though their business was centered around color--reds (iron oxides) and blacks (carbon)--for sundry commercial purposes, the famous crayon would not be invented for another 18 years.

Actually, it was Binney and his lovely wife, Alice--a school teacher, who developed and introduced their clever waxy markers to the public. They sold their coloring sticks under the brand name "Crayola" -- a word, derived from French, conjured up by Alice. Translation: "ola" meaning "oily" and "craie" meaning "chalk".

The Binney & Smith original box of 8 colors included the hues Black, Brown, Red, Orange, Yellow, Blue, Green, and Violet. That is the primary colors (yellow, red, blue), secondary colors (violet, green, orange), and neutrals (brown, black) which can be realized through mixing primary and secondary colors. The box originally sold for a nickel; a bargain.

So I digress to clear up the sidebar question about the origin of crayons.

I opened by speaking to color. And lightly touched on the matter of psychology and color--they go hand-in-hand. And a word or two about shape. And offered a bit about how language, words--written or spoken,  influences the interpretation of color. So does music, but there's not time to pursue that avenue. Another time.

Once again, conscious of it or not and whether we use language or not, as long as we have our sight we are always under the influence of color and shape. It is unavoidable. That is, color and shape influences our thinking, our moods, our feelings--physical and emotional, and our behavior.

Color and shape influences our persona and our relationships--from casual to intimate.

So let's get to the heart of today's Comment. So where's our president as viewed through the prismatic "lens" of an 8-count box of Crayola crayons?

Let's see...

Is Mr. Obama black? Well, as our society refers to skin color, yes. But let's move beyond the obvious. The color black represents authority, power, stability, strength, and intelligence--qualities expected of a leader. There is no argument, at least by right of office, Mr. Obama enjoys--at least in the abstract--some of those qualities. But office aside, does he--as a person? In some regards, sure. Contrarily, saying and doing un-presidential things has not particularly endeared him to much of the public. At times, he seems as one held hostage by his own hand. Black also represents evil. And black represents death.

Is Mr. Obama brown? Again, a reasonable and accurate descriptor for skin color. The color brown is believed to reflect friendliness as well as reliability and, like black, suggests stability. There is also an earthiness to the color brown and a tie to roots. Mr. Obama's roots are not anything like with which most Americans are familiar. From where is this man coming--literally and figuratively? Brown is thought to be organic. It's the color of mud. And there is much about Mr. Obama that is muddy.

Is Mr. Obama red? Red is the color of life. It's a strong color that emits energy and is attention-getting. Red is alarming. Red is hot. In the west we've been conditioned to stop when seeing red. It shocks us. Red is the color for debt. A little red goes a long way. Red surrounds our president. Alarms are sounding--the volume increasing.

Is Mr. Obama orange? As goes red, orange, too, reflects energy. It also represents ambition and happiness. Orange is the color of fun. There's not much to be said about our president and the color orange other than he enjoys his fun, and at the most inappropriate times. Critics charge Mr. Obama (and the Mrs.) is overly enamored with the trappings of office. In that regard, Mr. Obama (and the Mrs.) has made a strong case supporting the charge.

Is Mr. Obama yellow? A lighter color of the spectrum, yellow is associated with cheeriness, optimism, laughter; a new day--a new beginning. Mr. Obama captured the country's 30-second attention span with his upbeat personality, charisma, and message. All of which seems to have been a slick facade and is steadily unraveling. Yellow is also associated with cowardice. Mr. Obama, a tough-talker at times, has not exactly been the pillar of strength representing the United States abroad; especially to the Muslim world. His cow-towing and apologetic tone for perceived, not real, "crimes" of America has been interpreted as weakness and not played well, at all, at home nor abroad.

Is Mr. Obama blue? Blue can be calming. Some blues can be agitating. Some blues can be cold. Sometimes blue sings of wisdom and loyalty. Blue can be restful. Today there seems to be a state of restlessness not only in Washington, D.C. but the entire country. Folks are agitated. Folks are fearful. There's a new movement afoot--the Tea Party. Mr. Obama is going one direction and most of the country, not on board, is going the opposite. He's not looked over his shoulder. To whom is Mr. Obama loyal? Wisdom has yet to emerge as his missteps on the simplest, most obvious of matters reveal his peculiar way of seeing things "American."

Is Mr. Obama green? The color of harmony, peace, and calm. The color of money and prosperity. And also the color of novices, beginners, rookies. Though many believed he would, Mr. Obama has not brought calm to the United States. Frankly, with things he does and says--particularly regarding matters of race, his actions have been upsetting and derisive. Coming from the president--explosive. It is fact our president is of Muslim heritage. He claims to be a Christian but has yet to be fully understood as to the depth of his emotional kinship with Islam. Green is a predominant color of Islam. Is there relevance?

Is Mr. Obama violet? The color purple--the color of wealth, privilege, and sophistication. The color of royalty. But also the color associated with one who puts on airs; one of artificiality. Though there are occasional signs of polish, there is not a general sense of sophistication with this president, and there are more and more moments indicating airs of artificiality. Some remain loyal. But he's not fooling the majority.

So what color is our president--this man Mr. Obama?

How to color him? Perhaps an exercise--not scientific nor absolutely empirical--might help.

Would it not be interesting to hand people--children old enough to understand to retirees and from all walks of life--a coloring book-like outline of President Obama and a box of 8 Crayola crayons and tell them, "Please, take 10-15 minutes and color the president."

The use of drawing, coloring, painting, etc. has proven to be a useful approach--used by law enforcement to social workers to medical/mental health professionals--for discovery, therapy, analysis and to "problem-solve." Would not psychiatrists and psychologists have a field day interpreting the colorings--first by observation and then with a five minute interview with each "artist." For the "artist's" thoughts--their words--critical to the final analysis.

"Analysis" by artists would likewise be revealing.

Might the analysis of thousands of colorings be summed up in a telling profile--a "teachable moment"?

Ah, you ask, how would I color Mr. Obama?

I've actually thought about that question. I'd use all the colors.

First, on the front. Then flip the paper over and color the back side. And intentionally breach all lines. Why both sides of the paper? Because everyone has a front and back. I'd go so far as to cut the figure in half and color the razor-thin inside edges of the paper. Why? Because everyone has an inside. Why outside the lines? Easy. Has our president stayed within the lines? Why use all 8 colors? Because when mixed as a group, at least in theory, they produce gray.

Gray. In our culture gray is a nothing color; middle-of-the-road. Huh--middle-of-the-road. That's how I see Mr. Obama. Gray--outside; front and back. Gray--inside. Gray that spills outside the lines. 

Remember, earlier I made mention of the power of words and the power of words when associated with color and shape. Mr. Obama likes to talk. He, as do others, considers himself a master of the spoken word--at least the scripted word. That may be. But his content is causing problems. To "clean up" his "misspeaks" he likes to use the phrase, "Let me be perfectly clear...". But he is never clear. More words only serve to further muddy and gray. He tries to find the middle-of-the-road; his comfort zone.

I will be perfectly clear. In my eyes, Mr. Obama did not start out gray. He earned, deserved, and started out white--a clean slate and a new beginning; though I and tens of millions of others had concerns that have since proven valid. 

Lack of clarity is grayness is the absence of leadership. Gray is uncertainty and indecisiveness. Middle-of-the-road.

A friend close to the action in D.C. recently opined to me we--the United States--are moving toward becoming "a" nation not "the" nation on the world scene. The comment startled me. It troubled me. It's a status, if realized, unfamiliar to America. I find in inconceivable. Think about it. We, the hope of democracy world-wide, and, without fail, the first on-scene to assist in turmoil and devasting natural disaster moving toward middle-of-the-roadom; at the hands of a middle-of-the-road president. Simply scary when you consider today's global instability. If not us then whom? Not to mention our vulnerability. The red, white, and blue going gray? Not leading? What?

Back to Locke's opening quote--and what does all of this about color tell us about they who surrounded young Barack (aka: Barry) Obama and currently surround the president? Think about those who raised Mr. Obama. Think about those who were impressionable upon him in his formative years. Think about those with whom he chose to associate. Think about those with whom he still chooses to associate. Is there really any mystery as to his hue?

Mr. Obama is an enigma. A paradox. He is colorful--polychromatic--but he is not. He's a box of 8 crayons--but his colors do not sing alone. There's always a deadening of color--a neutral; a gray.

And let's not forget, Mr. Obama is "Amerikenyan"--born to a white American woman and a black Kenyan man. In color mixing, a blend of half white and half black makes gray; a middle-of-the-road gray. There's symbolism. There's irony. Perhaps reality.

Would he and we not be best served were he--theoretically, metaphorically, actually, whatever--to find his color, several colors, and stand for something and lead? Is that ability inherit? Or is it an uncorrectable void? Wouldn't it be interesting to hand him the same coloring book-like image and a box of 8 Crayola crayons and task him to color? 

Would his choice of color reveal a self-image of being a leader? Or, reveal a middle-of-the-road persona? Or something else surprising?

Leadership and gray are not synonymous; in reality nor metaphor. When standing in the middle-of-the-road you inevitably get run over--and from either direction; literally and figuratively. You're road kill. My parents taught me that, and lessons throughout youth validated their teaching. And the Marine Corps reinforced the lessons--stand in the middle-of-the-road with Marines and you will damn sure get run over; squashed--flatter than Flat Stanley. It's impossible to please much less appease everyone. You have to stand for something. Otherwise, you are not a leader.

As leadership is far more art than science how fitting to address it and our president in the context of color, and drawing upon the most elemental of mediums--something familiar even to pre-schoolers--a box of 8 Crayola crayons. How many of you have, more than once while reading, caught a whiff--from memory--of a new box of Crayola crayons? And remembered the feel--of a new crayon and that of tearing away paper to expose more stick? And the disappoinment when one snapped? And thought about how you'd color the president?

Maybe Mr. Obama goes down in history as the most powerful and colorful yet colorless gray nature ever produced. Perhaps his legacy will be 'the gray presidency'.

If so, might that historical tidbit prompt Binney & Smith,  known to regularly retire and introduce new colors, to one day create a crayon--a kaleidoscope of all 8 colors--and market it as "Gray #44"?

Who knows. But one thing is for certain--a crayon is far more likely before Mr. Obama's image is ever considered to grace currency, a postage stamp, or Mount Rushmore because the latter three require the honoree be long dead--be gray.

Post Script

And yet today I close with a sense of falling short explaining myself--for with any language the limitations enormous and questions abound. With color and shape not so much. But if you're thinking I succeeded.

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