I ask, "Where did you go in San Diego?" "Mostly Balboa Park. It's a nice old park. I think it's one of the more successful parks around." Speaking is a man I'll call Charles Dyson. He's talking about a field trip he took with R. Burton Litton Jr. in 1956.
Litton was a landscape architect and University of California professor. He was also a consultant for the Tennessee Valley Authority, California Department of Parks and Recreation, National Parks Service, and a principal investigator for the National Water Commission and...you get the idea.
I haven't seen Litton's landscape work, not that it would matter, I couldn't tell good landscape work from bad. I've never met him, haven't read any of the books or papers he wrote or co-authored. The tiny part of his life that touched mine are his watercolors.
I met them at an exhibition on Monday. Room 108, Wurster Hall, on the Berkeley campus. Seen from a traveler's eyes, this is the sum of his life, or as much of his life as I'm going to know. Mounted on four walls are 100 scanned images of his watercolors. Charles scanned them from his sketch books. They hang in an empty room, above a dirty linoleum floor, alongside dirty windows, underneath black and white PVC pipes. The room's door is open and no one is around. Litton was scheduled to speak at the reception, but died three days before the exhibition began. The show will run 12 days. One thinks, "Not much for 89 years of life."
On the other hand, maybe you have to have three marriages, join the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor, father three kids, teach 40 years, be chairman of his department, invent a new field of study, and live a long life in order to get even this.
The thing is, I was taken by his watercolors. I'll try to explain.
I'll pick one of the 100, a watercolor of Mendocino, California. I lived in Mendocino. I knew that town. Stand close to his sketch and all you'll see is a few lines and a few colors. Could be any street, if what you see actually represents a street. But, when I stand back, I not only see a rendering of Mendocino, but the soul of it. Nothing needs to be added or subtracted.
Charles says, "The thing that Burt really knows are the things that he leaves out. He's very good at drawing his sketch with a pencil. The paint is just putting a tinge in the areas created by his sketches. Then, suddenly, you realize all of those blobs of paint are separated by white paper. It's the shape of the pigments along the edge of white that gives meaning."
I'll think on that.
Charles continues, "For 18 years he taught a class about the landscape provinces of California (Northeast Volcanic, Klamath-Siskiyou, Redwood, Coastal Strip, Sierra Foothill and Coastal Mountains, Sierra Nevada, Great Valley, Desert and Desert Mountain, Southwest Mountain, and Valley). He took 15 students per year and visited three of the provinces. He always did watercolors with his students. The idea being that they should learn by doing, and that the effort to see whatever it was they had to paint would teach them much, much more than simply looking at a scene, snapping a picture, and then walking away with barely an interruption in their conversation.
"It's an old-school idea," Charles says. "You have to look at the way the mountains meet the sky, the valleys meet the mountains. You have to look at the patterns of vegetation and understand its related to slopes, orientation, soil, and soil depth. It's a very intense thing."
Litton would tell his students to look at a landscape for one minute, then turn around and paint it from memory. Or, have his students paint a landscape in five minutes using only five lines. Make them see. Make them focus.
"He was a very gentle man, very sweet," Charles says. "He was a man with great sympathy, and it extended to loving women. He had three wives. After his third wife died I thought, 'Good grief, there's probably a woman waiting in the wings, thinking, 'Now's my chance. I'll marry Burt.'"
I come close to the one photograph of Litton in the exhibit. He's sitting in one of those fold-up camp chairs, brown and green grasses shoot up around him. The land is flat. It's late afternoon, near sunset. All the shadows are long and everything is aglow. Litton is wearing a black woolen cap, blue jacket, and hunter's pants, A small sketch pad sits on his left thigh, paints in his right hand, pencil in his left. What is that quote I saw on a panel a while back? Ah, here it is: "...taught for the joy of being wholly present in the environment."
It must have been fun. Sweet dreams, Burt.