Thursday, February 17, 2011

Six Degrees of Separation: Eastern House to Western House

You know the idea about six degrees of separation? That the world is smaller than we realize and that any two people can be connected through as few as four others? Well, my variation on this is about how the thoughts we have are not necessarily as random as they might at first seem, but are connected one to the other with their own logic. Since I had a stream of mind-wandering this evening that started with the house (in a roundabout way), I thought I would share it with you as my “six degrees” moment…

I chanced upon a reissued copy of one of my favorite books today called “Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn.” Oddly enough, this book about the history and evolution of New England farmsteads was an early influence on our house design, specifically its massing and arrangement on the site with the main house facing the road; a kitchen “ell” off the main house; then Mom’s cottage (akin to the back house); and finally the garage (or the barn in the case of the farmstead); and the whole lot snuggled well into the land with optimal orientations to the sun and away from the wind.

Garth Williams illustration
 Looking at this book reminded me of all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books I read as a girl and how they filled me with images of early American log houses and sod houses and prairie houses and the life that went with them. I guess I have always been thinking about houses in one way or another. Life seemed hard but also very appealing in the Wilder books. Romanticized even. I loved those illustrations by Garth Williams!

Dorothea Lange "Tractored Out" 1938

But how different from the reality of farm life. I’m teaching Miss K’s Girl Scout troop about photography right now and have checked out a pile of books on famous photographers, including Dorothea Lange. I hadn’t looked at her photos in years and had forgotten how beautiful and haunting they are. Romantic farm life indeed.

Seeing Dorothea Lange’s photos got me wondering more about her as a person so I picked up a biography entitled “Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits.” What an amazing woman! She was one of the original bohemians living in San Francisco with a successful business as a portrait photographer at a time when few women had careers of their own. She socialized with artists and writers and ended up marrying one of the most prominent California artists of the day, Maynard Dixon.

Dorothea Lange "Migrant Mother" 1936
When the Depression hit she was moved to photograph the people in the street standing in bread lines and looking for work. Her social conscience developed during this time and, fortuitously, she was hired by the Works Progress Administration as a photographer. The rest is history: she put a human face on the suffering of hardworking people during the Depression; people who lost everything—mostly farmers. Alas, career and family were (and still are) a hard act to balance and their marriage ultimately failed. Reading about it made me want to know more about Dixon whom I had only briefly heard of before.

Dorothea Lange photo of Maynard Dixon with their son.
Dixon painted and illustrated initially in the style of the California plein air Impressionist painters and became known for his portrayals of the American West. He was fascinated by the landscape and would often take off for weeks hiking in the wilderness (leaving Dorothea alone with their two children plus his daughter from a first marriage…).

Maynard Dixon "Home of the Desert Rat" 1945

Over time he moved away from Impressionism into a more modern and simplified style. The landscape is clearly the main character in his work as shown in this painting where the hills and sky rise up and dwarf the tiny house that sits, alone, barely noticeable in the Arizona desert.

What a contrast to the New England farmstead that seems to be in an intimate, and more equal, relationship with the land around it. The New England style appeals to the part of me that loves the idea of family and community and connectedness. But the Western landscape is really more my home turf.

So there you are—from Eastern house to Western house (and landscape). From community to solitude. Maybe the house we’re building is just right for where we are in life now. But who’s to say there won’t be another house sometime in the future for another stage in our lives…?? Six degrees.

Top photo: New England landscape, Ronald C. Saari