Intuitively developed art that follows its own internal logic free of other rules.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

After Sky Shadows / A View of Nature / Explorations of Stone

After Sky Shadows and Remembering José Donoso:

I became a teacher. I should have been a painter, I should have worked in clay. I did. I was working through the mediums: words, paint, glass, pastel, plant, gardens, erosion dams, construction, propagating natives, planting a large field of lavender, children, words.
 In the American Grain, Austin: 1968-1980

Farmers pile glacial stone in upper New York state into walls to separate pastures, but leave plenty for rock work. That was the same stone Bishop Andrew Mack invented a stonepuller to pull from Berks County pastures. Texas Hill Country limestone revealed by the erosion and sheep grazing from 1880 forward century beckoned for gardens to be built upon the sides of the erosion to stop it. These wash gardens and stones were near Indian middens where tribes gathered from as far away as the Midwest to trade (understood by the colors of the flint left behind). They gathered there because it was the only consistent water near the pass. There tribes met to throw rocks in the fire to contain the heat, trade the mescal bean and the Mexican buckeye. The charred black middens of these areas are saturated with flint chips, which in a way is what the attempt of Native Texans began to be about, scarred flint chips of botany. At the time I lived on Spicewood Springs Rd outside Austin where the stones escarped with lots of rock made gardens. Even if the soil was a foot deep it grew pumpkins, zucchini, hokkaidos, squash. The rock was so plentiful I began to rock the house, had a cement mixer on a platform in the pasture among the sheep, mixed the mortar black to put between the stones and rocked the walls before the eyes of the houses came over the hillside and down its nose. I lay on the roof there and heard the world’s cry  far off in Austin in the throes of night. 

The fixation on America in nature began from this. The melons, the corn that grew in the six inch deep soil, getting deeper all the time (!) preceded by the March death of the old year St. Branden getting in his curragh to sail into the light. In  the poems he says, "I come from a land in the far away...where all the ages I have been waiting to be Amerycan." It was all wrapped up in these children being born and flying around, "what do they do at the tops of mountains, children lifting pretty heads from pillowed beds?" Had I stayed with those fantasies I'd never have been corrected by the real thing as I have. Before long it involved Erik the Red and his quest for fire, the red gold ring of the North where "the red man dances in the sun" where the field of battle was wet with blood, "from the hour of dawn and the shining sun." These poems were a lyric narrative of Ameryca. Those hills were a haven for red birds. Erik the Red was flying around in the evergreen cedar, the red bird not a symbol, more a bandage of the wound of life. You can mimic its call if you like, not as offensive as calling elk to kill. Nobody thinks you're going to shoot the redbird, unless they're twelve. What's for dinner tonight dear, did you get any cardinals? Instead the houses come over the hill and down its nose, trunks are snorted, or shorted, if you are literal. How will you mourn the loss, the aching loss of skies and brown furze when nobody is prepared to mourn without  deprecating the hill the way in England the natives stand and mock the standing stones. In Texas they buried them. That was part of the America vision too, the last six months of that year, September to February, 1950 to 2000. After 2000 media advertise they found bodies in the north, bodies on the beach, but no bees. In William Carlos Williams' American Grain Raleigh and Eric the Red both lose their sons. It is early propitiation for the sins of seeking the Edda gold  and the monatomic, blood and war of the primitive state that confronts the mind of the foreign, the call of the to the blood to be changed, all from the frightened Puritans to the Comanche who rode the hills. Artistic the primitive attraction. 

I never gave thought to these questions before, but in four or five years they indeed made a vision of America out of the natural, since it is after all a vision of nature, of birds and earth and fruit. It was then I fixated on the wood grain surface of planed boards, considered them as photographs, wood cuts of the tree itself, pictures of the risen dead who lived inside the wood.  I began to see these things in the wood of office doors, anywhere the grain was preserved, the cuts booked side by side. They were like the heads of faeries. Not to take too fine a point, I began to paint them to illustrate, going too far maybe into nature, but as support the only visit I ever made to a psychologist, on behalf of another person, when he had finished asking his pet dilemmas said of my answer, you may be the most healthy person I ever interviewed. Pataphysical health enough? The beings, the elfs, the faeries are literal ways the wood photosynthesized the sun and metabolized the water. Little peaks and valleys arrayed in their growth. Surely we are doing the same except we aren't going to be sold as ranch furniture, the last industry of exhausted nature.

  As a solution to a problem of the wood grain, countertops, doors, it's good we don't use real wood any more and can avoid this confrontation. Melamine is so speechless. Nature is always saying what we don't want to hear. Talk it says, talk, like I used to say to my sons on our tennis trips in order to stay awake. Talk, or really it is, breathe To hear the sound of helicopters and planes in "the wounds of that symbol the rose... gliding to the lump of a beating heart." Refineries and factories paving a way of our own preparing, this future needs to consider that even in poetry you never thought existed, but even if they say it is upon us we would  not know. Ruben Dario called it Alexander-Nebuchadnezzer, but as it says in Calendar, Ophelia is silent about it. It makes you wonder who we can talk to. 

These ideas were formed  years before their  expression in Restorations of the Golden Age, which says yes and no as to precedence. They grew together with the gardens while thinking about Purchas and Hakluyt, the Guiana reports, the Spanish letters, the trials, the propagandas, Andrew Marvell, the Elysian Fields, Fortunate Isle, little lamb. I guess the poems became what is technically a dissertation, one of the shortest though, 120 pages of real text, but long for a lyric meditation. Even though it was called Restorations of the Golden Age in New World Discoveries it knew not the Golden Age now revealed, though Boas, Levin and the primitives try to speak. This failing  has been partly redressed.

It was really poetic research, finding the gold tree as a mine in the earth after Italian renaissance speculations, like the metaphor in the last chapter of Donne's image of Virginia of a new man as corn who grows in the new earth. You can refer this kind of science to Steve McCaffery, the Canadian Pataphysicist, but I did not know him at the time. My introduction to the pataphysical was through Roger Shattuck's and William. Arrowsmith's students and books, who were much offended at the coinage of the term King Ubu instead of Ubu Roi. How they puffed. It may be patapuffery. Whether they were real pataphysicians or not, one was the priest at a catholic church that followed Bishop Ledbetter. These fellows would put marijuana in the monstrance during mass to increase its potency and smoke it after. This is not to speak of antics at Texas cloverleafs when prickly poppies bloomed and the acolytes were out in the moonlight slitting the sides of the poppy blossoms to get the dope. This is solid Jarry stuff, like their disappearing rituals performed in the Texas capitol rotunda, where they said they created astral batteries to heighten their power to identify what particular angel surrounded a customer. The angel never gave any opinion about them to me. What would Yeats have traded for that? Do you think there are three or just one archangel? Whose bidding does it? The superior of these acolytes and friends, ex-military, his wife a psychic, gave services which ordinary people also attended.  She asked me once,  it being early August, what an eclipse meant. There was one due later that month.  I regret saying, "death," for her husband died two weeks later after celebrating mass, still gowned in his robes in a meeting with the altar boys.

A better version of the Golden Age came out in 2007 and other parts stew, but the whole idea of America as a golden age seems superseded by eco-feminist criticism that  the masculine take on the feminine is war and not at all innocent, which aspect of the post modern is pretty welcome if you want to account a sense of justice to events, justice being the true realization of the golden age.

I left all this to be a gardener of herbs and native plants, graduated to see them in the social context of the waves of immigration, the degradation of the land and the plants themselves as a kind of ultimate revenge of the datura, mescal bean, mushroom culture these children reaped as new, but fake. Since then it has been traded for banks and electronics. Many of these people never escaped Austin. I got out but once held the keys of five different university buildings: Parlin Hall, Experimental Science, Drug Garden, Pharmacy, and another one they tore down I can't remember.


 I explored wood, both from splitting it with an ax but also for the grain the boards hid, painted to show as a message to all that things are not as they suppose. Earlier I had sculptured these beings out of the wood with a butane torch and a wire brush. They are everywhere crouched in nature not unlike ourselves if silent. As said, the stones cry out.
I don’t know that this is much different from working in glass as a medium. Not believing in imposing my image of glass on itself, I wanted it to self identify, so took to taking large window panes and breaking them with stress to see the fracture lines, put them on the ground and dropped something on them to break out a pattern and then replaced parts of the break with stained glass. This at least showed the force of impact and gravity as well as the power of glass to break. I learned to control the break, to call it that, that if you hit a thing too hard it will shatter in a thousand pieces.
Paint, Children, Books
I worked in paint the same way, pouring acrylic out of the can onto plywood sheets or canvas, or making a line by squeezing it out raw. Never knowing what the figure was, eventually they settled into faces, houses and plants. These came more naturally at the time than words, which did not really begin to develop until I had worked through the ultimate medium, I mean children. That is the true sculpture, one that has a mind of its own but still you think it can be influenced. Children preoccupied me as they will to bake the vanity and the hubris of the artist out as less and less and more and more his own humanity gets thrown back in his face. In these years of sculpting flesh I took to learning rare books from Bonita Porter, at the end of the 20th century to see what could be found before. I didn’t know everything would change as it did when the internet made markets available to all.
By the time I was finished with rare books I had begun finish construction, latent in all the other activities, begun maybe in tearing off the rotten roof off a house in the 80’s if not the rock work of the 60’s, replacing decking, putting gardens and stone walls to prevent runoff, taking out walls of garages and replacing them with windows for a studio. I was involved with raw cedar and natural wood, demoing to a shell, redesigning interiors to create flow, roofs, floors, windows, French doors, city permits, from which there is so much benefit.
Coincident with the children I took to driving to the desert two or three times a week early in summer to sketch and explore every back road from Phoenix north. I once dug the car with the two small children out of the Salt River flats with my barehands after it had gotten stuck in sink, found a piece of chicken wire used as a barbacue to get traction. This cured a back problem. Another time we came on two car loads of Pimas standing in the road after a wreck, one bleeding from the nose split like a plum. I drove him out to the highway while he bled, later pastel sketched this al fresco. I sketched the Mogollon and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon since my wife worked weekends there and the two children and I hiked the trails many times. I sketched with Clark Reidy in a Tempe foundry with a few others. I sketched with Ed Mell and a couple dozen advertising artists in a Phoenix house for two years, combined to hire live models and share the cost, all pastels, but I first began in Tempe to model clay from sittings, but the others didn’t want to hold the pose for an hour.
This is not to speak of athletic outings, softball, volleyball, little league, basketball, tennis, golf. Tennis became its own thing, a story in itself. The point about sculpting flesh got resonant as I began research in the Pennsylvania German backgrounds that completely envelop my father’s family. This led to all the blogs from 2005 and on. It seems that my view of environmentalism, that came from teaching in the 60’s, much influenced this idea of sculpture, the idea that to teach you must take forces and create obstacles to force choices for learning. It was the basis for all my assignments which other teachers found sometimes disturbing. Heredity and environment when known represent these forces. So I wrestled with this heritage and these children. Even if you can’t see them genes are forces. There is no tabla rasa.
There is no end to talk of working in flesh and mind, from my ancestors, aunts, parents, to my own children. Of course I’d not have been involved in any of the flesh without the wife provided to explore these venues. When the children had gone, or nearly, she was the one who brought me finally to work in clay. The Lord made me a nut whose shell contains and it amuses him as an environmentalist, to take forces and create obstacles to force choice. So on the one hand I was given amazing experiences, energies, ancestral backgrounds and education but on the other was completely occluded in the expression so that the body of work was much compressed. I decided to be a writer, but had less talent for it than these other things, including athletics, but I never wanted to be an athlete for its own sake. I was a sculptor however and after all was said and done and I had been full time in the studio for a year it felt like many. “I was sculptor before Egypt, but not with Ra,” Taliesin might say. “I was sculpting in eternity,” says Wisdom, “who is like me?” So rock up and and see.
Teaching is a kind of sculpting though and learning. Being on both sides is instructive. If the ends are the same the means are opposite. Much of learning as a student comes from the impact of the teacher’s spirit, Jim Fallon’s enthusiasm, Rhodes Dunlap’s punctiliousness, Donald Justice’ perfectionism, Tom Cranfill’s savior- faire. As a teacher though the specific events mean more. I used to take heavy impasto portraits to composition classes to teach descriptive writing. They were sculptural, coming off the canvas, portraits where one part of the face was especially exaggerated, the eyes, the ears, the lips, the forehead. One of these, Cowboy, eagerly appearing at his girl’s door, hair slicked, bandanna around neck had prominent extended lips, to picture his naivete of himself. After class a young woman in this all black student body came up to the picture as it hung on the wall. She said, "I guess he’s a black man," went up to the painting and kissed him on the lips!
Somewhat before that, at UT Austin, saddled with teaching technical writing for engineers because I had a degree from a technical school and after that technical writing for foreign students, like teaching trees in a wood, which might not be too bad, I wanted some imagination to get the trees thinking. One assignment for writing process had the student describe the step by step action of picking up a loaded .45 from the desk, putting it to their head and pulling the trigger. A number of them died in the exercise, a couple fired into the air. Nobody put in earplugs. A little extreme for today, the point was to engage more than reason in writing.
Describing these events in a studio recently, citing Peter Callas as someone whose work transcended form, the local expert said he knew Callas and didn’t like some of his work, even though Callas is many worlds beyond this speaker. My response was, and continues to be as it applies to teaching and learning, that beauty must be judged with generosity not severity and that the best thing of a poet or artist is the measure, not the least. Translator of Kafka, the poet Edwin Muir makes the point. In the Preface to Muir’s Collected Poems Eliot singles out “The Horses.”as an outstanding statement summarizing the conditions of Glasglow, London, Prague, industrialism and atomic war all in one great poem. If only for that poem alone Muir must be admired and respected. This spirit of generosity, not criticism, brings close the embrace of  wisdom.

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