A Personal Reflection
By Karen Kenyon
Yesterday I heard the news about the planets, and later in the day the news that artist Ernest Silva died. Both startling and hard to believe – a great discovery, a great loss.
Ernie (as those who knew him called him) had been a Professor in the Visual Arts Department at UCSD since 1979 — and was an internationally known visual artist.
I only knew him because I was fortunate enough to interview him on two occasions, and then because I live near UCSD, I experienced the synchronicity of running into him several times — at Trader Joe’s, at Whole Foods, at the campus credit union, at Peet’s…..
But I had not run into him for about two months, and wondered why.
My first encounter with him was actually not with him, but with one of his artworks, many years ago. It was at the old Children’s Museum in downtown San Diego. I’d gone there to write about another art installation for a local parent’s magazine.
But while there I saw “Cora’s Rain House.” The curator explained that the artist’s wife had died of cancer, and she loved rain. And so this marvelous little wooden house with a tin roof (where sprinklers provided rain) was his homage to her, as well as being a wonderful space where children could enter and paint or draw or play. My own husband had died at a young age not too many years before that and I suppose that is one reason why this touched me so. And I love rain. It was so whimsical, so tender. I did not know the artist’s name at that time.
Years passed and then I was writing a feature for The Christian Science Monitor about the New Children’s Museum in downtown San Diego, just before it opened. I was on a press tour in the museum just days before opening, and there it was – the rain house — or a current version of it. I left the tour, and walked over to the man I saw working on it.
“Are you the artist?” I asked. I had not known or remembered his name.
He told me he was, and I mumbled something about how I’d seen the previous incarnation of what was now being called the “Rain House.”
I then asked for his card, and said I could include something about him and this installation in the feature I was writing. But he said he didn’t have any cards. This impressed me — he was not on the ready with his PR. He was an artist, doing his work.
I did write down his contact information at the University, and set up an interview, to discuss the “Rain House” installation for the feature on the museum.
The interview took place in a few days at his studio on the campus at UCSD. It was then that I saw so much of his work — and was overwhelmed and drawn to the innocence and depth, the color, the way the past seemed to peek through the paint, and always with a sense of danger. Things were never so innocent, so sweet — thus the image of the mother and child sitting together on the floor of a cozy cottage, but why is the fire not only in the fireplace, but also in the middle of the room?
And the deer, in the middle of the lake, on a raft — his or her eyes meeting the viewers. Did the deer need help from us? His paintings and drawings encountered me, as they encountered all who saw them. You couldn’t look away. They drew you with their sweet sadness, their humor, their attention.
He once referred to his art as visual storytelling. “The images draw you in, you playfully consider them, and then something far from innocent takes hold of you.”
Once I took a two day workshop which he offered at The Athenaeum — it opened me to art in a way I hadn’t experienced before. He was a magician — softly, quietly, conducting those two days — and we all created and came upon amazing ideas — ideas for our own installations! Something I actually never carried forward — but who would think I could even concoct one or two in my mind? — The red room in Paris where the French Revolution stormed outside — The link back to childhood and to the Earth and Nature itself, with the line that came in my mind (because of the exercise he put us through) — “Remember when you were little and your mother was so pretty.” He pushed and opened all our minds, and expanded our awareness.
On another occasion I wrote about his exhibit at Double Break Gallery on 5th Avenue, San Diego — owned by two of Ernie’s former students, Louis Schmidt and Matt Coors. I spoke with him at the opening as he narrated and talked to me about a few of his paintings. He was soft spoken, gentle, humorous, a sweet man, with a fascinating mind.
He explained the various references he used in his work – water, the moon, lanterns, a scarecrow, a deer,…
“They are like characters,” he said, “in an episodic drama that keeps unfolding. And they can be taken as real or as metaphors.”
The last exhibit I saw was last summer at Oceanside Museum of Art — a retrospective of his work. His slide lecture was informative and fun — but I sensed it was a strain.
I did run into him numerous times in the usual places since then– the markets, the coffee shop. His friendliness, his fun manner, his smile, were always there.
Lately, I’d wondered why I hadn’t seen him around.
And then the news came yesterday.
Today it’s raining, and Diane Gage, a San Diego Visual Artist and Poet, said, “Maybe it’s Ernie’s rain house.”
The news has reminded me so much of Frank O’Hara’s great poem, “The Day Lady Died,” about Billie Holiday’s death. O’Hara describes walking down the street after just hearing the news, and everything is the same.
But then, not really the same at all anymore.
My condolences to his wife, family, and friends.
Rest in peace and art.
A memorial service will be held on Tuesday, March 4 at 4pm at the Faculty Club on the UCSD campus.
Update 3/3/14: The Athenaeum has assembled some of Ernie Silva’s work, photos and letters as a special memorial in the East Reading Room.
For more about Ernest Silva, visit Art Seen: Painter Ernest Silva.
Karen Kenyon has been published in The Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, British Heritage, Westways, and The Christian Science Monitor. She also has two books Sunshower (Putnam, NY) and The Bronte Family (Lerner Publications, Minnesota) She teaches at MiraCosta College and UCSD-X.