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August 22, 2003

Postcards from L.A.: Clouds

Dear Michael:

Do you like clouds? I hardly remember noticing them as a separate aesthetic phenomenon until I moved back to L.A. in my early 30’s. I had just spent three years under far cloudier skies in Europe and on the East Coast, so it’s possible that in Southern California they became conspicuous by their absence. After all, unlike the perpetually overcast skies of my youth in the Midwest, in Los Angeles the sky’s “default option” looks like pretty much like this (with or without a helping of smog):

F. Von Blowhard, Default Option L.A. Sky, 2003

Anyway, I started to notice clouds when the local weather pattern would dish them up. I know my children have long thought dad’s gone round the bend when I gesture out the window of the car and say, “Hey, will you look at that sky! Isn’t that amazing?” But the fear of being found eccentric seems to have gradually worn off over the years, and I drive around happily gazing at views like these:

F. Von Blowhard, L.A. Cloudscape, 2003

Part of my fascination with clouds lies in the fact that there’s always a visual logic at work in a cloudscape, but in a good one it’s also too complex to be grasped consciously. I also love the way that cloudscapes seem to make sense at any scale. They’re infinitely detailed, with one dramatic piece of cloud-“terrain” emptying onto to another and yet another back into the fuzzy distance. They make the concept of infinity visible. I also get an amazing visual rush from the way figure-ground relationships continuously flip back and forth in clouds, dark against light, light against dark in a game of unmatchable subtlety.

F. Von Blowhard, Enlarged Detail from L.A. Cloudscape, 2003

Finally, I think I love clouds because they seem to symbolize the translation of our human passions into a more rarified, empyrean realm. I sometimes think that after we pass on, the little vortexes we’ll leave behind us in the world will mount up to the heavens and be visible for a while as noble clouds glimpsed at sunset.

Okay, okay, so it’s a goofy little idea; but I find it satisfying. Do you feel any personal connection to some particular part of the natural world?



posted by Friedrich at August 22, 2003


Hey, I'm a Manhattanite. We take note of the natural world about once a month, at least if the apartment's roaches are under control.

So my relationship with the natural world is largely a nostalgic or wistful one. I have all kinds of feelings when I smell new-mown grass, or the kind of vegetation I grew up around. When I'm someplace that's very unlike my background (say, California), I tend to be so stunned by the natural pageantry that I find myself thinking, With all this, who needs art?

How would you say living in such natural splendor has affected your thinking about art?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 22, 2003 11:33 AM

Incidentally, thrilled to see you not going on about what the clouds look like. "Hey, it's a boat!" "Doesn't that look like your Aunt Irma?" "And what do you see in the clouds?" That kind of thing always made me feel miserable as a kid. I looked at clouds and saw (and enjoyed) clouds. They didn't have to look like anything else. I wonder if grownups (and other kids) are still persecuting kids by asking them what they see in the clouds.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 22, 2003 11:38 AM

Michael's comment makes me think of a "Peanuts" cartoon, when Linus is going on and on about how the clouds look like the coronation of the Emperor of China, or something, and Charlie Brown thinks to himself, "I was going to say they looked like a doggie and a horsey, but I guess I won't..."

Being recently returned to the midwest from living in a part of the country where clouds are nonexistent 6 months of the year, and as a result it is 100 degrees there all the time, I must shout: I LOVE CLOUDS!! I LOVE CLOUDY DAYS!! I LOVE RAINDROPS!!! (Like the song, "I'm only happy when it rains...") But for me, nothing beats a waterfall. The sound, the freshness, the beauty---I love it. In the city, I therefore love fountains.

Posted by: annette on August 22, 2003 01:31 PM

Michael: My reaction to living in L.A. has been, over time, a deepening suspicion that everything you could want out of art may in fact be available through landscape painting.

Annette: I think I would have a hard time moving back to the Upper Midwest, my old stomping grounds, on account of it being so consistently overcast and greyed out, even in summer. But, yeah, on overcast days here in the San Fernando Valley I notice my spirits do perk up a bit. Blue skies and 90-100 degree heat for months on end can in their own way be as depressing as a never-ending blanket of snow.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 22, 2003 01:41 PM

When I was eight or so some busybody adult neighbor caught me staring at a cloud and asked me what I thought it looked like. I said, "Like a boy holding a gun." She backed away slowly...

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on August 22, 2003 04:53 PM

I've been really in to clouds lately. (Here's one of my cloud pics.) I think it was the long drought that made me appreciate them so much more when they returned. I had a childhood friend that would return from family vacations with nothing other than cloud pictures. I thought that was a little weird. And maybe it is, but now I am a fan of clouds and their infinite forms - to somewhat a lesser extent than my friend.

Posted by: Dixon on August 22, 2003 04:59 PM

Wow, Austin clouds are as beautiful as L.A. clouds.

"Like a boy holding a gun" -- excellent! May I steal it? Hmm, I wonder if there are good ways adults can make use of that line ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 22, 2003 05:08 PM

Stars. Nothing beats a crisp fall night on a country road far away from city lights, when the Milky Way lights up like a bright highway traversing the black, domed sky. When I lived on the east coast and would come home to Kansas for a holiday, about two hours from home I'd stop, get out of the car and look up. All the constellations that disappear in a city would be there, as if welcoming me back home. Eventually they helped bring me back for good.

I also love prairie fires. Most of those are controlled burns now so may not qualify as "nature," even though they are designed to mimic nature pre-agriculture. There was a great PBS documentary about the tallgrass prairie that used fire effectively for aesthetic and metaphorical purposes ("Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie," 2001). Fire is good and natural on the prairie; it reinvigorates the ecosystem much like challenges and change can reinvigorate a life. Plus, it smells great.

Posted by: Kari on August 22, 2003 05:10 PM

I second Kari's vote for stars. I certainly don't get to see them as much as I'd like to. When I was a kid, summer camp was just 30 or 40 minutes outside Austin, and the night sky was a riot of stars. Not anymore. You'd have to go 30 or 40 minutes straight up to get that view anymore. But out in New Mexico a couple of years ago, in the desert, I saw again that absolutely intoxicating panorama of stars, stars, and more stars.

Posted by: Dixon on August 22, 2003 05:20 PM

Everyone should check out Dixon's cloud photo (see link in his comment above), because it's a heck of a lot better than mine.

(Geeze, Dixon, did you really have to show me up so clearly on my own blog? Mutter, mutter, grumble, grumble.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 22, 2003 06:46 PM

Excellent post. Now I'm inspired. I think I get some of the best cloud formations in creation here at the ranch. I regularly fish the camera out of my bag and snap them through the windshield when I'm driving. It's good to know that I'm not crazy all by myself. I'm gonna try to capture some of our better ones with my crappy digital camera.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on August 22, 2003 06:56 PM

I just remember driving down the famous rt.1 in Californa and being amazed at the sky. Its HUGE! and ALL OF IT! JUST EVERYWHERE! Living in Manhattan does make you think of sky as something that gets in the way of buildings. It was huge shock to be in San Fransico and see sky all above and around me. Like the people of Terminus City in the Foundation books. Amazed by the infinate.


Posted by: JLeavitt on August 22, 2003 10:33 PM

The Northern Lights are pretty spectacular. A couple years ago, we spent a three hours on a cold night staring up at the light show. It's hard to describe what they look like, too. There isnt anything else like them.

And when I was pregnant with my second baby, my husband kindly made me a lounge chair in the snow so I could watch them in comfort, bundled up in a heavy coat, mittens, hat and blankets.

Posted by: Deb on August 22, 2003 11:13 PM

We're been having the best clouds I can remember this monsoon season in Tucson. I was wishing for a decent camera to snap a few shots of some yesterday, their were some amazing figure-ground illusions going on before last nights storm hit (beautiful puffy white clouds and dark foreboding one's mixed together weirdly, so that the darker one's were the foreground in one part of the sky, but look over just a bit and they were the background to some puffy white ones).

Damn, need to get more film...

Posted by: David Mercer on August 24, 2003 01:07 PM

Kari - We not to stop telling people we like fire. That's way worse than "a boy holding a gun." Especially if you tell them it's "interesting" to walk through the fire site afterwards and look at how the animals died.

Montana was on fire while I was there. (Still is.)Natives claim "I can smell it" but I couldn't. Even at night, I couldn't see it, either. They are waiting for snow to end the fires.

Posted by: j.c. on August 24, 2003 03:20 PM

Point taken. I will qualify it: I love prairie fires that are under control, don't burn down houses, destroy crops, or kill bunnies. That's the kind we get in these parts, and they do smell great.

Posted by: Kari on August 26, 2003 03:13 PM

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