Photos of Ralph in Yosemite by Douglas Hamm.
“I stand back amd travel and reach where I belong...” Summer photography students, instructors,good friends and colleagues. He was a small man but sturdy, infectious grin, dark eyes, balding, and a wild gray mustache. He wore a black knit watch cap, blue work shirt and dungarees. Hiking across Colorado's Cripple Creek Mining District he looked every bit the part of a Greek fisherman. He wouldn't have seemed so out of place in his California home town of Half Moon Bay.
I imagine him a Renaissance man, a truly universal well rounded man. He is a painter, photographer, writer, lecturer, mechanic, scientist and farmer. Well read in the classics and fluent in more than one language. He had a passion for fast cars and it was rumored that at one time he had worked as a mechanic on the MG racing team. There was a period when he became intensely interested in studying succulents which lead to earning a degree in Biology. His PH.D's are in Education and Psychology.
He was a wonderful teacher. Two lessons I learned well, came from a workshop at the Sunset Cultural Center. He asked us why we visited museums. There were many high flown eloquent responses. He listened and finally responded; first “say it in cowboy English so we'll all understand” and next “the reason we go to museums is to steal.” I recall a young man sitting next to me who had been especially eloquent whose jaw dropped about a foot. He went on reassuring us not to worry about stealing from another artist's work because in the end our own artistic inflection would show through. However he did have one word of caution, “only steal from the best.”
During a lull in a Victor School workshop, I mentioned to him that I was reading a poetry book I liked very much, The Country of Marriage, by Wendell Berry. He asked me to read something for him. I picked Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. After I finished reading he asked to see the book and began to read the next poem aloud: A Marriage An Elegy-“They lived long, and were faithful / to the good in each other. / They suffered as their faith required. / Now their union is consummate / in earth, and the eath / is their communion. They enter / the serene gravity of the rain, /the hill's passage to the sea. /After long striving, perfect ease.”
Tears streaming down his face, pausing, he simply said, “that's beautiful.” I could only sit in silence.
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February 25, 2008