Exceptional Friendships: The Art of Connection

I secure my work to the easel and moisten the canvas with a diluted mixture of burnt sienna and mineral spirits. The application makes a lovely warm glow. The surface needs a moment to dry as I set up my painting reference, a picture of my lifelong friend Chuck from a sailing trip we took to the San Juan Islands. I use the photograph as a sketch, a reminder of what it was like to be out on the ocean and how it felt to be there in that moment.


I remember how the sun pierced the lead grey fog from the morning and raced us in a low arc, then began to set deep in the September sky. We enjoyed a full day of salt air and sailing. The neighboring boats smartly anchored, the water dimmed to an inky glow. Chuck still clutching his fishing pole smiled for a moment as if to say, ”We haven't played this hard since we were kids.” The landscape appeared like deckled edges of fine art paper torn against the sunset. His admiral blue sweatshirt and penny brown hat blend into a silhouette marking the end of another passage, where we had gone to escape, to lose connection to all things connected. We were on an adventure.


We tucked away enough days to plan our excursion to the San Juan Islands, but this trip almost didn’t happen. Friends for forty-five years and we barely manage five minutes on the phone before our attention is demanded elsewhere. We agreed to go, but we hadn’t talked about it for a while. Our conversation on the phone was brief, and yet there was that moment of silence. Chuck hesitated when he realized I was serious about going, and the trip was still on the table. He could have made a dozen excuses, we both could have, but we didn’t. We were going sailing.


There is both danger and excitement in the Pacific Northwest. Many considerations must be made before embarking. The tides and currents are strong and must be accounted for. The weather changes quickly without warning. You must be ready at the helm as a veil of fog can surround you in minutes and a variety of obstacles lurk just beneath the surface of the water. We are happy in the elements. I trust my equipment, I trust myself and more importantly I trust my friend.

A skipper on a sailboat named Lucky lent us a bit of local knowledge, a fishing pole and some tackle. We waited for our window of opportunity to cross the Admiralty Inlet and the Strait of Juan De Fuca. The strait is almost 100 miles long and the water that makes up the Salish Sea passes through there to enter the Pacific Ocean. We were crossing twenty miles of open water to make our first destination. Not very far with modern conveniences, but we had the wind and current on our nose and a small craft advisory to contend with. It was uncomfortable, but well worth it to reach Lopez Island where we would hunker down for the evening. 


Chuck has always been a man of great character, a complimentary attribute seldom seen today. Chuck is loyal and looks out for his friends and family. He treats women with respect and honor. He chooses to do the right thing, even when it isn’t convenient. He exhibits great courage and compassion like men from the early 19th century. He is confident and witty. He doesn’t shirk away from responsibility, and to top it off he is incredibly humble. I'm often reminded of a quote by Teddy Roosevelt that describes my friend.


“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” 


I wanted to do something special for Chuck's 50th birthday. I wanted to give him a gift from the heart, something that should last a lifetime. I decided to give him the gift of art as I believe art has the power to connect us. I decided to paint his portrait. I wanted to capture a bit of his likeness and also his spirit.


I began the underpainting, building the many layers necessary to convey this story in paint. Each brush stroke, the beginning of a new journey, full of its own pitfalls and perils. Luckily, I had some great mentors along my own artist’s journey. I still hear their voices telling me, “I’m responsible for every mark on the page.” The mocha color I just put down added to the illusion of shadow underneath his jawline. The paint reminds me of coffee ice cream. As I see the painting unfold, I’m reminded of hiking old growth forests, fishing and exploring the coast, and getting in tune with the islands. We shopped for souvenirs, and mailed post cards back home. We reminisced about our childhood and reconnected.


There are times that arise during the painting process that make me question if I can pull it together. Painting a portrait is like fixing a thousand tiny mistakes one after the other. An unexpected realization came over me. I discovered the time I spent painting I was not alone. I was with Chuck, he was there in the studio with me. Painting his portrait allowed me to reconnect and reflect on our childhood and the many adventures we share. As the painting progressed and came closer to completion, I could see Chuck staring back at me. I wanted the painting to be something he would be proud to have in his home, and something he could hand down to his kids. I hope it will be a small reminder of our friendship and a souvenir from our adventure.


We began the trip trying to escape the busy stresses of modern life, to get away from the emails, the internet and the text messages. We needed to spend some time together to connect and to share the memories that brought us together as friends. In today's crazy landscape, it's more important than ever to stay connected, this time embracing the wonderful world of technology.


Please remember how lucky we are to find each other, the ones we call friends. Friendships are something to cherish. In the end, I will have lived a great life with friends like you. Tend to your friendships, take care of each other, and take care of yourself. When it comes to friendships, dare greatly.