The Magazine

Night Vision

Claudia Winkler, free associator.

Jan 27, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 19 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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IN 1983, when my sisters and I were divvying up our parents' possessions after our mother had died, I put dibs on a favorite block print of Dunedin harbor at night. Mom and Dad had bought it in the late 1950s; it had appealed to them because it looked so much like another New Zealand seaport--Wellington--where Dad was working at the American embassy. I loved the picture, for its own sake, and for its evocation of New Zealand. But it mysteriously failed to turn up among the books and furniture shipped out to me in Cincinnati, where I was living then. And its absence rankled.

I used to think of it at night, driving home to Mt. Adams, the hilltop neighborhood of Cincinnati where we lived. We'd take a road called Columbia Parkway out of downtown to the east, along the Ohio River. The first exit was ours, a right-hand off-ramp that seemed to jut out high over the Ohio, before turning sharply left, across the parkway and up the steep hill. I wasn't a seasoned driver back then, and that ramp never failed to give me an instant's terror that the car would go flying out into the darkness and down into the water. That thrilling instant used to remind me of Mom and Dad's print.

Then in the mid-1990s when one of my sisters moved, the clutter in her garage yielded up my picture of Dunedin. I saw at once why the Mt. Adams exit had brought it to mind.

The picture, which is almost square, consists of three horizontal bands--sky, land, water--each essentially black, but spattered with white and yellow light. A crescent moon casts a wavy luminescence across the sky. On the black hills, there are lights indicating roads and buildings, and at the foot of the hills, brighter lights and bigger buildings, some with towers and steeples. Just where the land and water meet are two big ships, brilliantly lit, and the harbor in the foreground is a dazzling swirl of undulating reflections.

The moon and all the city lights and the lights on the ships have halos, multi-tiered and intricately hatched, and these too are reflected on the water of the harbor. The whole effect is animated, in a manner reminiscent of Charles Burchfield's ecstatic renderings of nature, or even--I've always thought, though it's a bit of a stretch--of my childhood favorite, Van Gogh's "Starry Night."

Anyway, near the middle of the picture is a wide road, brightly lit, going up the hill. Halfway up, it takes a hairpin turn to the left--a lot like the turn in the ramp over Columbia Parkway to Mt. Adams. Once when we were on that ramp at night, and my heart skipped the habitual beat, I commented without thinking, "This exit always reminds me of New Zealand." The remark annoyed the friend who was driving, who apparently took it as an unprovoked display of geographic one-upmanship. My friend lives on another continent now, but his annoyance has taken its place among the picture's permanent associations.

So I dusted off the print, its glass cracked and frame broken during its long neglect in the garage, and took it to the framer. My daughter, who was with me, made an inspired choice of frame: not gold, but silver, and ornamented so as to catch the light and echo subtly all those finely hatched halos.

That was right about the time I moved into this office, where my Dunedin print hangs on the wall and I can see it while I'm working. As I've studied it these seven years, I've been intrigued by the dainty signature--"Rona Dyer 1958"--and tried and failed to find out anything much about the artist from the Internet. I've also noticed some details I'd previously missed.

Some of the steeples are uncannily like the cluster of steeples and turrets on the corner of Eighth and Plum in Cincinnati, where City Hall, St. Peter's Cathedral, and the Plum Street Temple all stand, and which I used to watch for at the end of Eighth Street as I'd walk downtown from my office along Main.

Then on the horizon, breaking the smooth silhouette of the hills, is a single grove of trees. It is, indelibly, Chanctonbury Ring, the ancient druid grove on the Sussex downs, still in its glory during my stay in Sussex, long before the great storm of 1987 destroyed many of its trees, back when my late mother-in-law was living on the campus of the University of Sussex. Her apartment made a perfect base for our downs walks. Years later, she acquired a necklacethat . . . but it's a complicated story.

Very occasionally a visitor to my office comments on my harbor scene. Just once, someone seemed genuinely taken with it. "What a stunning picture!" he exclaimed.

And I said, "Yes, isn't it!"

--Claudia Winkler