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Sunday, 1 June 2014

Artists of Hawaii: Reuben Tam (1916 - 1991)

Reuben Tam.View from Blackhead, 1959.

Reuben Tam was born in Hawaii, educated at the University of Hawaii and at Columbia, lived in Manhattan, and had summered for many years on Monhegan island off the cost of Maine. He was the senior painting instructor at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and has shared his insights with students at such widely separated institutions as Oregon State University in Corvallis and Skowhegan in Maine. On Monhegan, his perennial rock garden (which winter storms oblige his perennially to restore each May) is the joy of the island. He was first shown in New York by Edith Gregor Halpert at her Downtown Gallery in 1945 and today his work is included in the permanent collections of almost every major museum in the United States. A painter of the eventful in nature, Tam joins in his art a profound understanding of how nature works with a poet's gift for the lyric impulse. Since he is a poet as well as a painter, two of his poems are published here for the first time, in addition to a brief excerpt from a letter (1968).

Ruben Tam. The Island.

To put thoughts of the long years of search into words is difficult, much like trying to explain a mountain with a handful of stones. But let me try.

Always in my life it has been place. My work as a painter, my most personal concerns, my obsessions and interests and involvements, all these have their origins and substance in the spirit of place. I was born in Kauai, northernmost of the Hawaiian Islands, an island of towering volcanic mountains, deep canyons, lava headlands, and beaches. The sea was all around, intimate, and vast. I wanted to walk the shores of the world.

Geology was always the most compelling study for me. And geomorphology, especially. To be aware of the origin of land, the revision's of the earth's crust, the imminent changes of the coastline, the cycles and surprises of weather and climate. Later, I was to look upon glaciers and moraines, and to spend summers in a region of fog. The weathers of place - how they surround me in their fullness and their variety!

In most of my paintings there's the plane pf land (or sea) and the space of sky. There's always light - sunlight of morning or noon or the daytime, or moonlight, or even starlight or the light of the aurora. In painting land, I usually try to describe the terrain - rock, sand, grass, or faulting, stratification, erosion and the marks of time. I like distance in my depictions of landscape, and I can't imagine land without distance. I paint horizons.

If I say, to begin with, that my painting is a by-product of my enthusiasm for nature, then you will see that my other activities are as integral a part of my life as my painting is. Here are some things I do. I paint, I write poems, I grow vegetables, I go rock-hounding and collect rocks, I tend a large garden of perennials set among rocks, I grow exotic tropical plants indoors under fluorescent lights, I star-gaze and follow comets, I hike, explore coastlines and read maps, collect sea shells, study the hybridizing of orchids, gather edible seaweeds, photograph sunsets and storm fronts. I am a moonwatcher and I wade in tide pools. 

Poetry is my first love in literature. Certain poets have helped to give me direction, by illuminating those areas of experience that have to do with wonder, time, light, the earth, and the sea. Some of these poets are Aiken, Jeffers, Crane, W.S. Graham. Certain books were very important to me during the early years of my search  - W.H. Hudson's A Hind in Richmond Park; Rockwell Kent's Voyaging and his N by E, Bridge's The Uttermost Part of the Earth, Haberly's Pursuit of the Horizon; The life of George Catlin. And in addition, certain books on geology, oceanography, and travel.

I like places where the forces of nature are in active operation. Some of my favorite places are:
The coast of Alaska-storm-ridden, a place of grey seas and dark cliffs rent with glaciers and hanging valleys.
The Canadian Rockies - moraines, tarns, screes, towering peaks, ice fields.
The Oregon coast - a grand display of tides, weathering, and seacliffs.
The islands of Hawaii - volcanoes, rain forests, red earth, the origins of land in mid-ocean.
Monhegan Island, Maine - the drowned coast, the region of fog, grandeur and intimacy, the edge of land, and the sea.
I have also seen other interesting places: Northern California, Yukon Territory, Cape Cod, and the Bay of Fundy.
I'd like very much to visit other places with exciting weather, dramatic terrain, and most important of all, a prevalence of wilderness.  

Reuben Tam. Fault and Weathering.

Reuben Tam. Surf and Red Sky, 1967

Reuben Tam. The Dark of Fundy.

Reuben Tam. Untitled.

Reuben Tam. The Shores of Light, 1960.

Reuben Tam. Kapaa Scene.

Island Night

Walk to the shore to see moonlight.
The low wind skims the rockweed,
Blending the rustle of bay-caught drift
And our singing of a song of islands.

The warm rocks leading to the outland
Are spaced apart it seems for us, firm
As the matrix based in our keep.

There lies the sea, the full moon on us
And the amethyst waves. The current
Leans outward in a vast waste of glint.
The shoals and coves are ashen craters.

Juniper, barnacle, heath aster,
Clinging with us to the outer strata,
Ride the great ellipse this night.

In the cold fading light,
In the glare of sudden meteors,
See the screes fall away,
And the unanchored,
And the mica of our days,
And the moult of our divinity.

Among Mountains

Ultimate in a serrate sky,
In a balance of ice planes and peaks,
The range of white mountains shone,
Signed in parallels for my landscape.

But place fell into shields, scattering
Contours on an undivided plain. 
A glacier turned the ridges around,
Against the heave of a warm time.

And night was ground water seeping
Through labyrinths in rock. Terrain
Was the stay of sediment
After each passing anarchy.

Stones of the moraine, what terminal?
Crack of quartz, facet of which dark?
Taut at my step, the fault
Staggers this day I've walked into. 


Tam, Reuben, letter, October 19, 1968; poems, undated.

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