|A Rememberance of Jim Gahagan in Three Scenes -
We are in an art studio. There are a dozen, or more, students working on paintings. We are all here for our first painting class with Jim Gahagan. Jim is methodically working his way around the room talking with each student about their painting. Jim is taking a lot of time with each person. The conversation with each student is fascinating. Eves dropping, I am intrigued that he finds so many prfound things to say about the paintings of my classmates. I am impatient to be next to receive his critque, but as he works his way closer and I overhear more, I become terrified that I will not be up to the intensity and level of intellectual insight that Jim is investing in these conversations. This is new territory for me; I've never heard anything like this before.
My heart is pounding as Jim begins to talk to me about my painting. I suddenly feel that my own painting is fraught with problems and is only barely thought out. I am struggling for words. Jim helps me by asking a series of gentle but probing questions. I awkwardly stammer through half-formed ideas about what I am doing in the painting. When I am done with my own account, Jim tells me what he sees in my painting. I am humbled. He explores the ways that the shapes and colors on my canvas actually do create ideas and feelings in him. I breathe deeply This is getting better. He explores the ways I could intensify and sharpen these visual effects. He is using big ideas now. I can barely hang on as he takes me on a roller coaster ride through new concepts and vocabulary. But he makes everything seem so clear and logical. I think to my self "maybe I could actually do what this guy thinks I can do".
By looking at my painting Jim seems to see deep inside me, further he is able to talk about what he sees in ways that I have never even thought possible before this moment. He seems to be reading my mind. But he is finding words for things I could never have articulated without him, and he is making these things seem like they are actually part of my painting. Jim has somehow probed my painting and found something wonderfully real about 'me', and he has expressed this for me so clearly, that it as if he is giving 'my own self' back to me as a present. I am floored When Jim is done talking with me about my work, I am encouraged beyond my wildest hopes.
This was my first encounter with Jim Gahagan.
We are at the Gahagan dinner table. It is late evening. Jim is sitting in his customary place at the head of the table; he has a cup of coffee and he has just lit a cigarette. I am there with a personal life crisis of some kind. Like many of you, I bring Jim the hard ones. I am sitting at the table presenting what seems to me to be a totally intractable personal dilemma. I feel desperate and stuck. Jim is asking careful probing questions about my problem. He asks me how I feel about various aspects of the problem. He asks me how I think the other involved parties feel about the situation. He empathizes deeply with my predicament. We digress into similar experiences he has had. I begin to feel like I am not the first person to have this problem. We look at the facts. We look at the implications. In the course of this process we literally take my 'intractable' personal problem apart like it was a broken watch. Jim astonishes me with his clarity. We take a lot of time with each detail of my situation. He smokes many cigarettes. I'm not always happy with the direction this process is taking, but gradually I come to a place where things seem clearer. I do not have a solution yet, instead I have a sharply focuses sense of my own responsibility. I realize finally that Jim is not going to tell me what to do. And that is OK. Because I now think I am going to be able to go on from here on my own. I am grateful to Jim for his help. I get up from the table and start to leave. Jim gazes calmly out the window and says "Look at the color of the mist on the pond, isn't it an incredible morning"? I realize that we have been talking all night.
Over the years I came to rely heavily on Jim for this kind of help.
We are in the mountains of New Hampshire, it is a fantastically beautiful autumn day with foliage in its full glory. Jim and I have come here to race in an overland motorcycle race - an Enduro. The course is a grueling 100 miles long and will take us through some of the most difficult terrain in the White Mountains and will last 5-6 hours if we finish at all; we are hopeful. This will be the adventure we have been looking forward to for many weeks. Jim has brought his new motorcycle, a magnificent blue Bultaco, designed for exactly this kind of race. I am riding Jim's old motorcycle. My own machine developed a mechanical problem the day before, and Jim in his customary generosity has insisted that I ride his spare motorcycle - the Wombat - Jim knows that I will very possibly break this perfectly good motorcycle trying to win the race. This prospect does not phase Jim in the least. We are up for an adventure and can let nothing stand in our way.
The race begins with us leaving the starting line in groups of four, each group separated by two minutes. Jim's starting group leaves before my own. I stand by to cheer him as he leaves the starting line. He is grinning, a cigarette gripped between his teeth, his blue motorcycle tearing up the soil. He is a grand sight.
My own starting group eventually sets off and I become engrossed with the task ahead. The race is a monster, and we are all humbled; it is frantic and wild and hard. Faster riders are screaming by me; I am passing other riders; it is pure bedlam. This goes on for many miles until the traffic thins out a bit and we settle down to the grueling task of covering a very long distance over a very rugged landscape. In my determination, I rarely look up; I am going as hard as I dare. It is muddy and steep and I fall down several times. I wonder how Jim is doing up ahead.
About 40 miles into the course, I crest a rise after a particularly arduous climb, and I find Jim's motorcycle parked at the side of the trail. And there, calmly sitting on a big rock, smoking a cigarette, is Jim himself. He is covered with mud. I skid to a stop and anxiously inquire about his situation. "Are you all right? Are you having mechanical problems?" No he says "I'm just fine. Will you look at this view. Isn't this the most stunningly beautiful scene you have ever seen." I look up from the muddy trail, remove my goggles, and observe what Jim is talking about. Indeed, we are overlooking, what now stands out in my memory as, one of the most outrageously grand and beautiful vistas I have ever encountered. In the heat of the race I had almost missed it.
I look again at Jim, and I see that as he gazes off across this incredible mountain landscape he is admiring the color of his blue motorcycle against the deep blue of the sky and the foliage, and I know that he is probably thinking about a painting. Jim, always concerned about my chances, says "You better get going, you could win a trophy today if you finish". We both get back to racing, and I soon leave him behind but now I am watching the view as well as the course and I am strangely relaxed and in harmony with the trail. The race has suddenly become much more fun.
At the end of the day neither of us, in fact, manages to finish the course, it is just too long and too hard. Along with many other competitors on this day Jim and I each finally succumb to equipment failures and are forced to drop out of the race. But somehow it really never matters. We had a great race. As we make our way home we are totally satisfied with our adventure. We talk about this event for many years. We talk about the difficulty of the course, and our harrowing escapes from disaster, and the precise color of the sky, and the extravagant foliage strewn vistas, and we hardly ever talk about of the fact that we didn't finish the race. We don't care the day was fantastic! Once again Jim has shown me how many ways there are to 'win'.
And this is the scene that I want to leave you with today. I want to leave you with Jim, there on that hillside in the mountains smoking a cigarette and admiring the color of the sky and the trees, and the exquisite blue of his favorite motorcycle.
In so very many ways Jim helped me to look deeply into the world around me, and into my self and so often he helped me to see what was right in front of my eyes.
And I will always love him for this.
Dave Zahn 7/10/99