Editor's note: The following essay was published on August 24, 2004 in Resource Library with permission of the author.
Raised on Art
by Kristian Davies
When I was 7 years old I thought Albert Bierstadt was a close friend of my father. My older brother and I would sit at the dinner table as my parents talked about people with strange names like Milne Ramsey and Childe Hassam, some with initials like A. T. Britcher and W. T. Richards, some with three names like William Lester Stevens and the most exotic of all -- Carducius Plantagenet Ream. The mystery of their names lent them a certain gravity in my mind, and I assumed they were my father's work colleagues or distinguished neighbors.
Still too young to join in, my brother and I mostly listened. My father would talk about these Bierstadts, Cropseys, Herzogs and the Hudson River School; I imagined them entering a building with the actual words "Hudson River School" written above the entrance. One day I finally asked my father who these people were and learned they had painted the pictures that were hanging throughout our house. For me it was a peculiar moment of enlightenment to connect names I had been hearing with paintings I had come to know quite well.
At that time, my father was already 20 years into a picture-buying passion that approached addiction. His focus was American art of the 19th and early 20th centuries, from the Hudson River School to the Tonalists and Impressionists, with a particular affection for the artists who worked on Cape Ann, Massachusetts. This obsession had turned our house into a veritable permanent exhibit equal to many museums I have visited.
My brother spent his childhood with an enormous N.C. Wyeth painting hanging above his bed. At the time we did not ponder the differences between strict illustration and fine art; it was just a picture. Its infinite mystery and almost Gothic stature made us wonder if this Nordic-looking man was somehow a Viking relative of my Danish-born mother. To kids, few things are truly "cool," yet I remember staring up at that epic image of ancient majesty and being silent. In the words of Albert Camus, "Perfection seals our lips." I often wondered why my brother got to have the Wyeth in his room.
Our whole house was like this -- paintings everywhere. I gradually understood that my father lived a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence, coming home from work, off with the tie, out with the art books. Now retired, he is just Mr. Hyde.
One of my earliest memories is Emil Carlsen's "Brass and Copper Pots." More than any other, this picture reigned over my childhood, holding hostage my idea of perception. I didn't understand what I was seeing. What were pots and pans doing on the ground and why under such strange lighting? And where in the world was the painting from? I had never seen such a setting -- so dim, so subdued, so deeply mysterious. Who had painted it or when was of no concern to me. I never even considered that someone painted it; it had been with me since the beginning. It just was.
Surrounded by paintings all of our waking hours, my brother and I were unaware that these images were seeping into our consciousness, especially in our toddler years. The mind of a child can drift into a trance as he stares at a Painting. Then he reemerges when supper is called, unaware of the imprint that has just been made on his imagination.
Paintings came alive for me when I began meeting the creators of the contemporary pictures on our walls. My father discovered the Cape Ann region in the mid-1960s and immediately fell in love with the thriving artist colony. There, he befriended painters like Tom Nicholas, John Terelack, Paul Strisik and even Aldro T. Hibbard during the last years of his life. Thirty-five years later, many remain his friends, and Tom Nicholas is my godfather. I remember visiting his studio, seeing unframed canvases everywhere, the smell of oil paints filling the room. In time I grasped that this man painted these pictures. Here were the hands that had created captivating images that had indoctrinated my mind to the visual world.
At five or six years old, I had no preconceived set of values with which to critique a work of art. Nothing could have killed my open mind quicker than to have been cynically asked, "Who would want to paint a bunch. of pots and pans?" Most importantly. I had. no prior reference from which to judge what I was looking at. This is the child's perishable gift: to see things and only see them, not to judge and compare, or criticize and disregard something due to an entrenched set of values.
If you are a parent of young children, bombard their senses, expose them to everything -- paintings, books, beautiful music -- while their infant minds are still open like floodgates. Let beauty work its magic before MTV takes over.
About the author:
Born in Hong Kong and raised in New England, Kristian Davies grew up spending summers on Cape Ann exposed to the art and history of the region. He received his degree from Northwestern University and has also studied at the Paris III Sorbonne and New York University. He has traveled extensively throughout Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Art history has always been of great interest to him.
Artists of Cape Ann: A 150 Year Tradition, an exhibition featuring some of the paintings in Mr. Davies' illustrated 2001 book  Artists of Cape Ann: A 150 Year Tradition, ISBN 1-885435-18-5,, but also several not included in he book, was held in 2003 at the Lyme Art Association. Kristian Davies later wrote an article for the exhibition which was published in American Art Review, Volume XV, Number 1 January-February 2003. Art & Antiques published an essay by Kristian Davies titled "Raised on Art" in its Summer 2002 issue and another titled "Family Tradition" in the June 2003 issue. Thomas Davies, Kristian Davies' father, recalls that according to Art & Antiques the 2002 article had the highest reader response of any article published in the magazine up to that point in time.
A new book by Mr. Davies titled The Orientalists: Western Artists in Arabia, the Sahara, Persia and India will be published in January of 2005.
1. Copies of the book may be obtained (as of August 2004) by forwarding $29.95 plus a $4.50 mail and handling fee to Thomas Davies, 58 Beacon Hill Lane, New Canaan, CT 06480.
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