A story about a kitten and a painter

As Told by Daniel Janoff

There was an evening about a year ago when I walked out to my backyard and found Randall Stoltzfus investigating a strange sound emanating from the fence. The sound was coming from a recently birthed and abandoned kitten, maybe a week or so old. Taking its first meager steps, it had somehow managed to fall down a deep hole in the cement between my fence and the neighbor’s fence. As it was night, and dark, it was hard to see anything in the space between the two fences, certainly not a tiny kitten. But it was there, starved and soaked from last night’s rain, whimpering the distress signals of an animal that is dying. It seemed to me that there was little we could do. Even if we ripped apart the fence, there was no way we’d be able to reach all the way down a four-foot-deep hole that was barely wider than a fist. I pulled out my cellphone and called animal services, who chuckled at our situation before telling me to call back in the morning.

I related the call to Randy, but he didn’t seem to mind the brush off. He’d already devised a plan to save the kitten, a plan that required rope. Fortunately, Randy had some rope on him — not because he’d just bought some rope, or had recently been involved in a project that required rope. He just had it on him. He made a kitty-sized loop at one end of the rope and threw it over the fence. That was his plan — to lower the rope down six feet of fence and four feet of hole to a terrified kitten that would somehow realize that its only hope for survival was to climb into this loop and then let itself be raised ten feet straight up without falling out of the loop, into our waiting arms. I suggested to Randy that this was an unlikely scenario. And this is what Randy said to me: “You never know. The will to live, it’s strong in nature.” Which, at the time, struck me as an odd thing to say while standing in a cement backyard in Brooklyn. Five minutes later, however, Randy slid the rope out of the hole, over the fence, and lowered a dirty, wet, little brown kitten into my waiting arms.

Faith, craft, nature — three pretty good touch points when discussing Randy and his work. The faith part comes up often in discussions of Randy’s paintings. In 1971, he was born into a Mennonite Household in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. His grandfather was an Amish deacon. And although Randy refrains from overt spiritual imagery, spirituality is seeded deep in his work. It’s in the swatches of light that cut through otherwise dark landscapes. It’s in his mysterious, calm patternscapes that evoke contemplation of the human spirit’s pre-life and afterlife.

Craft. Any old chestnut you’ve heard about the handy, diligent nature of Mennonites or the Amish is confirmed, vigorously, in this work. Randy doesn’t paint a painting. He builds it. When you look at one of his landscapes, you may be seeing 10 landscapes, each complete, each layered on top of the last. Yet they are all showing through to yield the total experience of the view he’s working, and working, to depict. How else could you hope to convey the memory of a view from a childhood spent without television, without movie theaters, in a community where nature is the best show going?

Nature. Most people gaze out at a starry night and say, “wow.” Looking at Randy’s paintings, you get the sense that when he finds himself under a starry sky, he gazes out at it and says, “Hello friend. Nice to see you again.” The rolling, floating dots of white that fill his paintings “Pale,” “Rapt,” and “Flock,” are snow, clouds, and cotton — they are the natural world stripped of mortal form, showing its soul.

Randy was right. In nature, the will to live is strong. Even in Brooklyn. Even in a painting. Randall Stoltzfus is an unlikely man — a pastoralist living in the biggest city in the world, a devotee of nature whose devotion compels him to take nature apart and rebuild it, so that we might see its spirit.

Daniel Janoff, 7/2007

"Rapt" by Randall Stoltzfus, 2004, oil on linen, 54 by 58 inches
“Rapt” by Randall Stoltzfus, 2004, oil on linen, 54 by 58 inches