Don't remember where I heard it, but the conversation wasn't directed at me exactly. I must have been sitting somewhere among a whole group of people when I overheard a mom telling someone else about her son, how he was really into his own music, how he was in three or four bands and had already created and produced his own CDs, how he was going to make music his career, wanted to be a singer/songwriter.
Sure, I thought.
"That's all he lives for these days," she was saying, or something to that effect, and her tone of voice made it clear she'd fashioned her own dreams for her son out of the stuff of his--either that or she was faking it. More than likely, she had to. She was proud of him, or so it seemed, and I couldn't help but shake my head.
In a thousand years worth of teaching--seemingly--I've seen dozens like him, young men and women, kids driven to act, to sing, to write music or poetry, to make great films. Really, hundreds. And I spent just about all of my teaching life at a little, liberal arts college in Iowa. Just think of how many thousands upon thousands of kids there are who follow dreams that are mirage-like. Happens so often we make reality shows out of 'em, shows so popular that millions more watch slavishly.
I'm being cynical, but I couldn't help shake my head at that overheard conversation because I've dealt with students who are death-defyingly, soul-deep in just those kinds of seductions. You're going to be a singer/songwriter? Sure. Hey, hang on to your day job.
And then, just yesterday, for 99 cents I picked up an old, old book by George Catlin, who was just such a dreamer, a lawyer who found himself passing time in court sketching the judge and witnesses. Enough, Catlin told himself, so he ripped off his lawyer's collar, sold his law books, picked up an easel he could travel with, loaded up with paints, and, in good American fashion, circa 1830, lit out for the territories, where for six years among Natives and trappers, he painted over 300 portraits, landscapes, and still lifes on what white people might still call "the American frontier."
Catlin followed his dream.
And as a result, we've got all kinds of images from a quest that was no mirage at all.
Catlin was a huckster, a salesman with a three-ring circus of his own creation, a Buffalo Bill-grade showman who, later on, toured Europe with his paintings and took along a gang of Ojibwas who reenacted battles and even scalpings for Parisians. He was Barnum and Bailey with a paintbrush. Mark Twain would have loved him, made him a buffoon if he hadn't been one himself.
And it's not hard to read exploitation into his work. He doesn't seem to have felt any of the odd shame one can feel when pointing cameras at people you don't know. If he did, whatever he felt didn't stop him. I'm sure I'd look at his painting today--175 years later--differently, if I were Native.
On the other hand, we've got 'em. He documented something no one else did, and the paintings are there--look at 'em.
He died a pauper, really, not a showboat, but today you'll find his collection in the Smithsonian. He followed his dream.
Elders of the Sioux in the region told him he shouldn't, but way back in 1836 George Catlin, painting furiously, spent 360 miles on horseback just to find a red-stone quarry in what is today southwest Minnesota, a place where Native folks went to find the soft stone they used for their sacred pipes, stuff called today "Catlinite." That's right--he came here.
"Man feels the thrilling sensation, the force of illimitable freedom," Catlin wrote about the region. Right there at the monument he carved his name in the rock--I'm serious, he did. "There is poetry," he wrote, "in the very air of this place."
He's talking about Siouxland, for pity sake--my home. How could I not like him?
This morning's thanks are for an old vaudevillian extraordinaire, a grade B artist maybe, who followed his dreams, silly as they may have seemed, way back when.