Filling In The Blanks

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I may be in the minority here, but I’ve always preferred the novel to the movie.

If a skillful novelist provides me with enough information while keeping all my senses engaged and moving through a scene describing, say, a dual at sunset in a dusty saloon town between brave young Sam Dooright and scar-faced murderer, Black Pete, my imagination will outstrip anything Hollywood could splash on the big screen. My bad guys will be nastier, my good guys’ will be more handsome, and my warm summer evenings will be more perfectly humid, languorous, and calm, simply because they’re mine.

I know what those elements look, smell, taste, sound, and feel like in my own reality. I need enough information to build an image in my mind, but not so much that it robs me of the opportunity to participate in the telling of it. A movie, on the other hand, hands the story over wholesale, with all the characters, sounds, colors, scenery–the entire reality of it–already intact and not open for further input. I either enjoy it or I don’t, but I don’t get to play in the creation of it the way I do a well-crafted novel.

I thought about this as I watched Scott start this amazing painting on Saturday.

It’s incomplete, of course, and the photo doesn’t do justice to what’s there even now. But I’ll ask you to trust me that he had made enough headway on it that standing there in person, I could already feel the weight of the air, the warmth of the summer evening, and how refreshingly cool it is in the shadows of those trees. Before he cleaned his brushes for the day, he even managed to add a few well-fed cows and the roof of the barn in the distant middle ground that I was convinced they would be meandering back to in an hour or so.

He didn’t say it was a barn. I just took the information he gave me and filled in that part of the story for myself. And, may I add, a mighty fine barn it is. Sturdy, clean but not fussy… It’s going to need a coat of paint next year, but it’s a handsome, working barn that keeps those sleek animals protected at night and warm in the winter. It smells like the barn my Dutch friend Rita’s dad kept his dairy herd in, only it isn’t quite as fastidiously spotless.

It was a nice moment, thinking about Rita and visiting her family’s farm in northern Alberta, but when the reverie passed, I was curious to see how Scott had managed to so accurately conjure up that particular barn, as if just for me. I moved in on it.

Here are the cows, and their shadows in the warm evening light, and their barn in the distance.

Meet Scott, the novelist: He gave enough information for me to fill in the blanks, but not so much that it shut me out of the creation of the visual story the painting suggests. And here’s the fascinating thing: my cows aren’t your cows, and my barns aren’t your barns, but by skillfully handling these details in the abstract as he does, we can stand side-by-side at a distance and both thoroughly resonate with and understand the scene, each in our own rich and unique moment that the artist helped us create.

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