I'm beginning my sixth year of work on the same project, a long painting of the city of San Francisco. It took some time to find the right view to paint. I found it on the island of Alcatraz, near the summer solstice, in the evening. Only during this time of year does the north face of the city light up.
Even though I live here, I conduct a long-distance romance with my subject. Since about 2009, I only see her one night a year. I feel like the young man in The Night Visiting Song, a traditional folksong from Scotland, sung here by Kate Rusby.
Walking around the crowds waiting to enter the prison, I climb the steep hill with my equipment, my knees protesting every step. When I stagger to the top, panting away, there she is, stretched out on the opposite shore. I say, "Hi, Honey. Did you have a good year? Just let me look at you. I do believe you're more beautiful tonight than the day we met."
My time on the island is not comfortable. The weather is always cold. Gale force winds charge angrily through the Golden Gate. The name Alcatraz means "pelican" or "strange bird." In summer, clouds of sea birds use the rock for hatching babies, and as a giant toilet. Surely some of the prisoners did not deserve this level of smell and noise! The video below gives a sample of the atmosphere.
The light does not cooperate this time. The sun hides in clouds and fog, and only shines on the city for a few minutes. I reluctantly pack up to return on the early boat, instead of freezing in the dark. One last look. "Sorry, my Love. It has to end some day, and I'm afraid that day has arrived."
On my way back, a sunset breaks through the fog.
Each minute, the colors in the sky burn brighter than the minute before. My heart races. "Where will it climax? Now? Or now? Or now? Has is already happened?" Edmund White wrote about being in love. It makes us aware of every passing minute, and how precious they are.
The commotion of happiness ringing in my head was so loud I could scarcely hear what was happening. Such moments in a whole long life are neither as rare as one fears nor as frequent as one hopes.
—Edmund White, The Beautiful Room Is Empty