A Brutal Place

It was hot when I visited Richard Silva. About 105 degrees that day. I had to go to him because there was something I needed to know.
               I caught him in the middle of dismantling a wood sculpture. “It wasn’t working,” he said.
               He never seems to be satisfied, a thing that goes all the way back to childhood. “I was a little kid who irritated people because I always asked why. And adults then got upset and they just told me, ‘Don’t ask why just do it.’”
               At school his mind wandered and often got him in trouble. His teachers sent notes home complaining about his lack of interest when really he was just dreaming—sailing off to China or riding through the plains as a cowboy. “You know my mind couldn’t contain all that fantasy and stuff I had going on [in my mind].
               Imagine this boy in the public school system. “They said, ‘That little boy, we gotta straighten him out. We gotta fix him’. They told me, ‘You stop drawing on your binders!’” Silva then whacks his hand to illustrate the consequence of being different. “They told me ‘You gotta shut up and you’re gonna do this’ but then in my mind I said ‘No, I won’t budge … no matter what.’”
               Needless to say, this unflinching determination evident early on has been sustaining Silva throughout his 40-year career as a painter—most notably in Fresno.
               I’ve often wondered what it is about this area that has produced and attracted artists such as Adolf Odorfer, Stan Bitters, Rollin Pickford, Clement Renzi, not to mention writers such as current US poet Laureate Philip Levine, C.G. Hanzlicek, Larry Levis, and Gary Soto and a host of others that have come from this little place in between San Francisco and Los Angeles.  
               Let’s not forget William Saroyan. It is Saroyan, in fact who Silva referenced when I asked for reason behind the bumper crop of artists and writers who have called Fresno home.
               “Fresno is a brutal place,” he said. William Saroyan said so. He said it’s flat. There are no hills.  It’s hot. You’ll roast to death here and nobody will care.”
               And what better place to be a writer or an artist, Silva said. In these conditions, only the toughest people, the most determined people will survive.
               Silva believes that Fresno offers no illusions. “If you’re in New York,” he explained, “you can have illusions because that’s where you can make it big [as an artist]. But if you’re in Fresno, you have no illusions … you’re in Fresno! Therefore you say to yourself I know where I am and I accept the conditions and I’ll deal with it. It may be hard but you know I will make art. And I will write poetry. And I will do it, you know. That’s what Saroyan was talking about. These people in Fresno they make art. And they write. Because they know the conditions and they are under no illusions.”
               It was Saroyan, too, according to Silva who said the weak ones are those who seek praise and attention. They desperately need people telling them “You’re wonderful, you’re a wonderful so and so’. They don’t get that here so of course they just give up. They just fade away. But the other ones, the Ogatas, the Silvas, the Dixie Salazars, nothing will stop them. Not the economic conditions. Nothing.”
               These harsh conditions that we have in Fresno test you as an artist. They test your mettle. “Yeah. They test you, see what you’re made of,” he said. “And if you’re not made of anything you’ll crumble quickly. So I have no illusions. I come down here and deal with reality. And if I don’t have money and I can’t buy canvas then I go find wood. I go out and I salvage stuff. And I bring it in here and I drag it in here and I start making sculptures and do something.”
               There are no excuses. “No, you have none.”
sculpture by Richard Silva
               Silva wiped sweat from his forehead. “So yeah. I hate anybody that whines. I can’t stand that.”
               Then he reminisced about his granddaughter. “When she was with us she used to complain all the time about the heat. And I would say to her that the same heat is on my body. Now how come I don’t complain? You have to make up your mind to overcome the obstacles that are put in front of you. We have to overcome. Or we’ll disintegrate. That’s how people have persevered—by overcoming these obstacles. But my granddaughter now understands—because she has grown up—that there are worse things than heat.”

Richard Silva, Fresno Artist

The first painting I noticed in Richard Silva’s studio on Van Ness I asked about the title.
               “Uh … the Head of a Man? Portrait of a Man?”
               He seemed unconvinced himself. “Generally I just don’t have titles,” he reasoned. “I don’t have titles; I have stories.”
               So what’s the story behind it, I asked.
               “This one has none,” he said.
               Not wanting to let a good conversation slip away I turned to a different painting. What about this one, I asked him. What’s the story behind this:

               “That started out as a still life with fish. And I put a cat in there. There is a face of a cat up here,” he said, pointing to a corner in the painting. “And then the cat became … well I don’t know if it’s still a cat. If this story reveals anything at all about Silva’s artistic process, then so be it. But this isn’t the point.
               “I got a lot of cats at home. I rescue cats. Somebody dumps them out, you know, then they come to my house and I feed them and my wife gets upset. She says, ‘You’ve got like a motel in here with all these cats.’ Well what am I gonna do? They’re all here starving to death, you know? So I give them something to eat. And next thing you know they stay and say ‘I like that old man … he took me in’.
               The choice of subject is always personal. Painters choose their subjects because they can freely evocate through them. Some kind of connection is present. When Silva said he takes care of strays because “people just throw them away,” I know this is less about identification and more about salvation. It is the other layer in the story about cats.
               Silva believes we practically throw away everything in our society. But he goes against the tide. “I salvage everything,” he said.
               The contemporary portrait artist Chuck Close suffers from prospopagnosia. He is unable to recognize faces. By painting portraits, he is able to remember faces. Fact is, art is about salvaging—an image, an expression, a memory—that may be lost if not for the artist who in a moment of inspiration deems it worthy of his keeping.   

Down at the depot

I don’t like to romanticize my subjects. I find no reason to. I believe it to be a kind of bullshitting, although nicer. Which is why when a friend lent me a copy of Down at the Santa Fe Depot: 20 Fresno Poets (Giligia Press, Fresno: 1970), I realized that I found what for me best describes this place. In the bio that precedes his poems, C.G. Hanzlicek says that “[Fresno] is such a dull, dull town …”  
               A Larry Levis poem (“Mountain”) in the anthology seems apt—
Things want to burst here—
like the slash of the roadside
glaring with shred tires and car sickness,
broken glass and the ripped tongue of shoes.

Even the rocks are troubled
               by a deep itching inside them.

               But I might be accused of taking Chuck Hanzlicek out of context. In spite of Fresno being what he says it is, this place has afforded him what many writers always desire more than anything. Fresno, he says, is “such a dull, dull town that I’ve had time to write.” 

Down at the Santa Fe Depot includes poems by James Baloian, B.H. Boston, William Childress, Michael Clifton, Glover Davis, Peter Everwine, C.G. Hanzlicek, Lawson Inada, Gary Johnson, Robert L. Jones, David Kheridian, Philip Levine, Larry Levis, Robert Mezey, Khatchik Minasian, DeWayne Rail, Dennis Saleh, Luis Omar Salinas, Herbert Scott and Roberta Spear

To begin with

Cultural analysts believe that in order to understand the meaning of something in society, look at its representation in the media. While this may be valid, I’m also inclined to believe that the media caters to the lowest common denominator. It panders to ratings and advertising. Media has no soul. And yet we're too busy to bother.

So let’s rework this: In order to understand the meaning of something in society, look at its representation in art and literature.  Can we do that? 

To understand this place, turn to artists and writers. There are a lot of them here.