On a spring morning heading for San Francisco from Dulles Airport I learned that Ansel Adams was one of the few first class passengers. Ansel Adams. His name was on the manifest and he sat alone at the lounge table. I'd admired him and his work since college art classes at William and Mary. His photography of natural places were world famous. His pictures of mountains, rivers, and sky graced calendars, coffee table books, museums and art galleries. And now here he was, just a few feet away from me as I attended to my galley duties, setting up carts and trays, preparing meals so I could avoid traveling down the aisles and interacting with people.
But I had to talk to him. My fear of conversation hid confidently beneath my need to reach out to the lifeline his beautiful photographs offered me and my generation, to share with him my love of the soulfulness he found within the black and white ripples of stone and water, to let him know of my brother's ability to find nobility in the faces of war-tired peasants through his Japanese camera. Somehow, as I felt compelled to approach this man, the dark struggle of Vietnam, my own struggle, and the shadowy photos of canyons and cliffs intertwined in a way that made all seem relevant.
"So nice to see you Mr. Adams. I'm a fan of yours and a low level painter who'd like to get better. Any suggestions?" My boldness startled me but I didn't retreat. He looked up, smiled, and asked me to sit with him. I remember thinking he's like Dr. Lebensohn, dignified, old fashioned, someone who knows how to make people feel comfortable. And so I accepted his invitation and a conversation began. He told me he loved to fly, loved to look out over the earth below and to take in the forms and textures. He mentioned paintings by Georgia O'Keefe he admired with just clouds and blue sky, the artist looking down from a plane. I told him I'd seen one like that and loved it as well.
We moved to the large window across the aisle and he talked more about his photography and how he saw landscapes. He asked me about my paintings and what I enjoyed looking at. I told him I loved bold colors, tended to work in two dimensions, and mostly painted people. He listened, asked questions, and shared with me the necessity of concentration, of seeking out the beauty in things no matter what, of being humble and focused in the presence of subjects, large and small.
It was time to return to my duties and the next service. I thanked him for his time, his good advice and, with difficulty, moved back to the galley. I had been touched by a great man I thought. So few moments yet their largeness were inescapable.
To be continued ...