I recently discovered the above painting by American artist Richard Schmid—he died in 1925—while researching another topic. I was quite taken by the scene so sent a copy to my friend, painter David Raven, in St. Paul. We spent a good hour of our sometimes-weekly phone conversation discussing various aspects of the work. Some points were technical, such as the seemingly distorted size of the building caused by the perspective of what appears to be very long wall on the left, and the color of the apparently large tree “rearing its head” above the barn roof. But over all, we agreed that Schmid had captured in freeze-frame a slice-of-life of the three fellows haying—loading up the cut hay for storage in the barn. The two on the ground would pitchfork the hay up to the man atop the wagon who would then evenly distribute the load.
The scene obviously predates the industrialization of agriculture created by mechanical cutters, and mowers, and bailers of the sort I worked with when I visited my own uncle’s diary farm in Northeast Iowa back in my early adolescent years. The shear physicality of the scene creates a sense of movement. I found myself sensing the movements of the other two of the trio as I focused on the third.
The shadows indicate it’s approaching the high noon, which means the men will likely soon head back to the barn to unload before breaking for lunch. Based on my own youthful experiences, I could literally feel the growing heat of the day, the smell the newly cut hay, the horses, the barn, even my own sweat, and feel the grit of the dirt on teeth as I imagined myself preparing to skewer another pitchfork of hay.
The painter was telling story by showing us one slice of it—like one frame from a movie reel. Where a writer might start with sound of a rooster’s sunrise crowing, a hearty breakfast, plans being laid for the day, Schmid captures in a single frame all those efforts that preceded and will follow the action presented. He delivers a single scene from which we can imagine a movie. Depending on the viewer’s individual experience, he or she might even hear the horses’ whinnies as they pulled the creaking, loaded wagon to the barn to be offloaded into the haymow, a process likely to be repeated several times during the day. The details presented motivates the viewer to supply additional information—the aromas, the buzz of summer flies, the yell of the man on top challenging the person below to toss his last load up before heading to the barn.
David and I talked about how some painters render a scene in infinite detail, virtually down to the blades of grass. Others, as Schmid does in this one, present just the amount of detail necessary to prime the viewer’s imagination to fill in the brush strokes of reality. One role of the viewer of a painting is to complete missing detail, but in ways to their own liking, contrary to limited freedom of imagination offered by a photograph. The painting, as do photographs, lets the viewer speculate as to what lies beyond the borders. The differences between the two levels of observation—one fed by details, the other by their absence—may be nuanced but they are important. The former requires use of imaginative thinking, the latter a call upon experience blended with imagination to complete the picture. That is in part, perhaps, what makes photography so enticingly mysterious—the knowledge that just beyond the confines of the photograph’s edge lies a range of invisible yet knowable activities that continue to change, unaltered by the power of the shutter to freeze time and place.
Hemmingway and Fitzgerald were of course masters not just of detail, but what to put in and what to leave out. That’s the beauty of a wordless painting and written words left out—the level of conjecture it leaves to the viewer/reader. The painter invites you to engage in the imaginative effort to create and fill in missing details. Read some Hemmingway and you can see how he did the same thing with words—let them take the reader to a point and let the reader find the rest of the way on his or her own. The reader thus becomes a participant in the writing process rather than a member of a passive audience.
If this sounds esoteric it’s because it is. Simply said, the writer and the painter both tell story, but in different ways. Certainly, the writer can choose to paint a scene in light detail and let the reader’s imagination work a little bit harder to do the rest, and the painter’s efforts can be sufficiently cryptic to leave much to the viewer’s imagination. From both, however, is created a sense of a beginning, middle, and end to the scene—sometimes in details and other times through visual hints and suggestions. To people standing in front of this painting, they might sense the action captured and imagine what has taken place previously and what will happen next. To the visually-engaged writer the dialogue might come to life, too:
As Uncle Ned neatened up the load, I pushed my pitchfork into the cut hay and wiggled the tongs to capture as much as I could and still have the strength to toss it up up him.
“Looks like you’re tirin’ there a bit, boy,” Uncle Ned yelled down at me. “Best make this the last wee bit before we head back to the barn and unload, elsewise you’ll have to hand the next load up one stem at a time.”
The comment tickled himself so much his guffaw echoed across the field, and so busy was he enjoying his own humor he didn’t see that I increased my load and used all my strength to send it hurling off the end of my pitchfork. It arrived just as he opened his mouth to make another comment and sent him dancing as he flailed his arms to retain his balance and spit and cough the result of my bull’s-eyed hit from his mouth and shake it out of his hair.
“Did ya see that, Tom,” he yelled down to my father, once he regained the ability to speak. “That boy of yours tried to knock me the hell off my perch!”
I wondered if he’d be mad at me. My defense would be that he asked for it, or maybe an innocent exclamation that I had underestimated my own strength. I started my defense with: “Sorry. Didn’t see you weren’t ready.”
The fun of looking at a painting or photograph is conjecturing, or better yet, imagining, what just happened and what might happen next. For the writer, the decision has to be made where to end the writing and how much to leave for the reader’s imagination to complete the paragraph of a story. You don’t want to leave the reader hanging or drop her off a cliff. You want the reality of what you’ve written to flow into images that your writing generates in the reader’s mind.
How to do that specifically? Ah, therein lies the challenge because I’m not sure I know, or if I did whether I could wrap it in words. You are trying to find the balanced boundary between the written and the unwritten and there are no maps for that. Just know that to get to where you want to go takes experimentation and practice. You’ll know when you get there because it will sound and feel right.
In studying the painting, I realized how closely related the pen and the brush can be. The painter has a bit of an edge. If he wants to paint purple, he opens a tube. If a writer wants to write purple, he faces the limitations of language.
Something for the writer to keep in mind.