October 2007

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I’ve always thought of myself as a Clydesdale artist–the kind that applies sheer will and fortitude to obstacles. It must be my pioneer heritage (a epigenomic proclivity?) that programs me to just keep walking no matter what. I have ancestors who did that as they made their way across the North American plains in the mid-19th century.

For the first time in my life that hefty, heads down approach isn’t working. It’s only been a month since my mother passed away, but I’m still not ready to return to the studio. I’m trying to be gentle with this state of mind, but it is peculiar territory for me. It has its own lessons to offer, but what those are is not yet clear.

A dear friend, Kathryn Kimball, knew exactly what poem to send to me from her safe haven stone cottage in the Lake District. The simple physicality of the image has given me a source of light in these ongoing hours without power.

Not Writing

A wasp rises to its papery
nest under the eaves
where it daubs

at the gray shape,
but seems unable
to enter its own house.

Jane Kenyon

Lifelong friend Liz Razovich sent me a list of words culled from a book that I ordered for myself: The Meaning of Tingo, by Adam Jacot de Boinod.

Here’s a sample:

Tingo: A Pascuense language word from Easter Island that means borrowing items from a pal’s house, one by one, until there is nothing left.

Kummerspeck: a German word that literally means “grief bacon” but refers to the excess weight gained from emotion-related overeating.

Bakku-shan: Japanese for a woman who “seems pretty when seen from behind but not from the front.”

Ulykkesbilen: Danish for an “ill-fated car.”

Nakkele: From Tulu, India, this describes a man who licks whatever the food has been served on.

Drachenfutter: A German word that is “dragon fodder” when translated literally, but means the peace offerings made by guilty husbands to their wives.

Backpfeifengesicht: German for a face that cries out for a fist in it.

Jacot de Boinod perused over 280 dictionaries and trawled 140 websites to prepare the book. “What I’m really trying to do is celebrate the joy of foreign words (in a totally nonjudgmental way) and say that while English is a great language, one shouldn’t be surprised there are many others having, as they do, words with no English equivalent,” he says.

Some of the reviews of the book on Amazon are a bit harsh, accusing him of a “casual” approach to the translations and research. But Jacot de Boinod hasn’t lost any time creating an entire franchise around this one idea. Hey, all the more power to him. The book is fun, and I’m always on the look out for that.

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I was intrigued by an article in the Summer 2007 issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review titled Discovering “Unk-Unks”, by John W. Mullins.

“Unk-Unks” is an engineering term that means unknown-unknowns.* Mullins, a professor at London Business School, focuses his article on entrepreneurs since he contends that the Unk Unks are the mostly likely obstacle to a startup long term success.

But it is also a concept I can use in my line of work. How does as artist go about making a list of what you can’t see and don’t yet understand? Market research conducted in the imaginal zone?

I’d rather think of the Unk Unks as a playful invitation to dance, to float freely in the nonlinear realms, to prognosticate with abandon, to envision at will, to give way to reverie, lollygagging and daydreaming.

Besides, I can’t employ a word that playful to describe portentious doom or demise. It’s the squeeze sound of a child’s stuffed animal, not a sad fate or a villain lurking just around the next corner.

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* This cheery and essentially upbeat term should not be confounded with the now infamous passage from that former Dark Lord Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, spoken with a straight face at a press conference during the early days of the Iraq nightmare: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

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It isn’t often you get to be in a show with other artists who are both friends and talented makers. I am having that chance now with Riki Moss and Keith Maddy. The artist reception on Friday night was pure joy, and the people that came seemed particularly warm and receptive. Maybe they sensed the mutual respect.

Having an evening like that should be de rigeur but it isn’t. There is so much baggage attached to so much of this venture–art, art making, artists, galleries, art merchandising, the cognoscenti vs. the great unwashed, elitism, hardening of the categories, and a surprising unwillingness to just be open and to truly “see”–so a night that felt very free from any of that is a gift.

Keith’s work is fantastical, full of whimsy but also skillfully crafted and imagined. His images seem kinetic, delighted to be squirming and squiggling their way across the painting plane. Riki, a woman of many expressions, has transformed a wall in the gallery into a celebration of vesselness. Her ethereal lantern-like biomorphs seem to be breathing on their own. This is such fine company for me and my work to keep.

If you live in the Boston/Cambridge area, I hope you can stop by. The gallery space is like no other, and curators Kate Fleming and Nancy Hoffmeier are experts at creating a flow from one piece to the next, from one artist to another.

For more information:

38 Cameron Gallery

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Installation by Riki Moss

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Painting by Keith Maddy

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Losing a Language

A breath leaves the sentences and does not come back
yet the old still remember something that they could say

but they know now that such things are no longer believed
and the young have fewer words

many of the things the words were about
no longer exist

the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree
the verb for I

the children will not repeat
the phrases their parents speak

somebody has persuaded them
that it is better to say everything differently

so that they can be admired somewhere
farther and farther away

where nothing that is here is known
we have little to say to each other

we are wrong and dark
in the eyes of the new owners

the radio is incomprehensible
the day is glass

when there is a voice at the door it is foreign
everywhere instead of a name there is a lie

nobody has seen it happening
nobody remembers

this is what the words were made
to prophesy

here are the extinct feathers
here is the rain we saw

W. S. Merwin

A powerful melancholy pervades my life right now, and Merwin’s music soundtracks my emotional life.

Thank you to Melissa Heckler for sending this poem to me earlier this week.

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Alice Notley, poet

I don’t know much of the poetry of Alice Notley, but the Sunday New York Times review of her latest volume, In the Pines, piqued my curiosity. Here are a few paragraphs from Joel Brouwer’s lively review:

Over the course of Alice Notley’s long and prolific career — she’s written more than 25 books since 1971 — readers have assigned her any number of identities: native of the American West, Parisian expatriate, feminist, experimentalist, political poet, Language poet, widow of the poets Ted Berrigan and Douglas Oliver, mother of the poets Anselm and Edmund Berrigan and member of the New York School’s second generation, to name a few. Each of these labels sheds a little light on Notley’s work, but it’s the fact of their sheer number that’s most illuminating: this is a poet who persistently exceeds, or eludes, the sum of her associations.

“I’ve been trying to train myself for 30 or 40 years not to believe anything anyone tells me,” Notley has written, and anyone coming to her work for the first time would be wise to follow that example, scraping away the barnacles of received wisdom that cling to her poems, and also casting aside any assumptions about where poetry comes from, or what it should sound like, look like and concern itself with. To write vital poems, Notley has said, “it’s necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against … everything.” To read such poems requires a similar discipline…

Notley is, in the best sense, a primitive, more interested in conveying raw thought than purveying the aesthetically cooked. The New York School poets of the mid-20th century fronted a puckish anti-literary offhandedness, but this was a bit of an act. They were quite serious in their desire “to put together a tradition to build on,” as John Ashbery described O’Hara’s ambitions. Notley’s ambition is different; she seeks to establish or continue no tradition except one that literally can’t exist — the celebration of the singular thought sung at a particular instant in a unique voice — and it seems she’s getting closer to it all the time. As she writes in this collection:

Who do you serve? Do you serve somebody?
I serve the poem, no one.

It may be that I will be less compelled by her work than by the fierce defiance of her process. But that distinction is not an uncommon one for me. There are visual artists with whom I share a similar “come from” but our final outcomes are miles from each other. But what a hearty lift I get from reading her words–”I’ve been trying to train myself for 30 or 40 years not to believe anything anyone tells me”–and the transigent wisdom of “it’s necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against … everything.” My kind of gal.

Elizabeth Bishop. I’ve written about her and her poetry many times before on this blog. But her effect on my interior landscape is like frost heaves, pushing up vertically through the thickest pavement and foundation stone.

It is not just her final poetic product that captivates me, but also the way in which she went about creating her work. As described by Dan Chiasson, “the placid surface of her poems conceals a severe and variegated subaqueous terrain…the facts about Bishop’s life, though well known, are by and large absent from her work, which set beside Lowell’s or Anne Sexton’s or John Berryman’s, seems reserved and cryptic, even self protective…hers is an art of relation, of perceptual nuance, of points of view, rather than an art of factual substantiation.” Chiasson goes on to describe how Bishop’s approach of “seeing things freshly depends on seeing them rigorously, as the events that make up the activity called ‘sight’ are slowed down, isolated and identified.”

Visual artists talk a lot about the difference between looking and seeing, of how malleable sight actually is. Part of my attraction to aboriginal art is the ability to view—and portray–a landscape from so many dimensions at once. Seeing in that manner is not part of our cultural inheritance; the Western bias leans towards that which can be analyzed and measured. Like Bishop’s approach to poetry, my art making has been my way of acquiring a compound eye.

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Is there some trace of the land’s past still resident? Although songlines are not part of our Western cultural history, the concept of stories preserved in a particular landscape has a powerful appeal. Here in New England we often joke about the tenacity of our Puritan ancestors whose energy still seems to linger in spite of our embrace of 21st century cosmopolitanism. We try to smooth out our tablecloth, but the bubbles of Cotton Mather and the Salem witch trials don’t disappear, they just move down a plank or two.

I have slept on the ground from Bolivia to Bhutan, and every landscape offers up its own dream images and energies. But in all the years I lived in Manhattan, I never did spend a night sleeping and dreaming on its bare bosom. If I ever did, the images might reflect the Manhattan being assembled by the Wildlife Conservation Society as part of their Mannahatta Project (the Lenape tribe’s name for the island.) The WCS is meticulously analyzing every historical document in order to reconstruct the primordial landscape that existed before Henry Hudson and his crew first saw the island in 1609.

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Looking south from Soho. Fresh water marshes, Collect Pond and forests of poplars and pines. (Rendering by Markley Boyer for the Wildlife Conservation Society.)

At the core of the Mannahatta Project is Eric Sanderson, a landscape ecologist. He heads up a WCS project called the Human Footprint which traces the human race’s impact on the earth. “It’s hard to think of any place in the world with as heavy a footprint, in so short a time, as New York,” he said. “It’s probably the fastest, biggest land coverage swing in history.” In addition to future websites and a book, “Sanderson hopes to create a 3D computer map which would allow you to fly above the island, land wherever you want, and look around. Eventually, Sanderson would like to put up plaques around town calling attention to vanished landmarks.” (The New Yorker)

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Looking to the northwest from Foley Square. Marshes existed where Canal Street is today.

My future techno fantasy: The i-Travel, a hand held for time travel. Key in a year, and the landscape is transmogrified for you, on the spot. Who knows, the Mannahatta Project may be an early prototype.

Thank you to so many of you who have shared your condolences for the passing of my mother. The gathering of her large family and many friends this past weekend did bring a sense of completion. A woman of strong opinions right to the end, she had requested that all seven of her children speak at her service, which we did. I was proud to be part of her unruly gaggle of grown children who will never run out of endearing anecdotes to share about her and who she was in her life.

I spent one day alone with the Great Salt Lake. This enormous salten sea west of Salt Lake City has no outlet, so the salt content is eight times that of sea water. It is an ecosystem like no other I know. Every section of its edges–which can fluctuate dramatically year to year–has a different tonality and feel.

The remains of Saltair, a once elegant 19th century resort, are on the dry, sandy southern shore. The Bonneville Salt Flats are barren and endless.

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Saltair resort, built in 1893

Along the eastern side, the Nature Conservancy has built Shoreline, with boardwalks that venture deep into the grasses of the wetland habitat that is home for millions of migratory birds.

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Grasses along the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake

Also on the east is Antelope Island, a landscape more moon-like than earthy.

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Antelope Island looking west

To the north, at the end of a very long and very potholed dirt road, is one of the icons of earth art, the infamous Spiral Jetty built by Robert Smithson in 1970. The northern shore of the lake near the jetty is rocky and the color of the water is decidedly pink. On a visit a few years ago, I found the rocks of the jetty encrusted with dazzlingly white crystallized salt. The jetty had disappeared below high lake water for 20 years, and its reemergence was big art world news. But like everything in this complex ecosystem, nothing stays the same. The naked rock has its own boldness set in that field of pink water. Who knows what I will find on my next trip out there.

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Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty

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Pink water

Most Utahns wax rhapsodic about hiking and skiing in the mountains, or venturing down into the sandstone of Southern Utah and Lake Powell.

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Wasatch Mountains dusted in snow in October(!)

The beauty of the lake is austere and unconventional. It is rarely mentioned by people as a geographic treasure in a state full of many beautiful landscapes.

For me, the attraction has always been strong. My grandfather had a farm near the eastern shore, and I remember how reverentially he watched the shorebirds come and go every year. I camped in the original Saltair ruins before it was torched by a fire in November of 1970. And my pilgrimages out to the Spiral Jetty, complete with a stop off at a roadside hot spring, have become my touchstone for connection with the earth that made my mother, and therefore the earth that made me. Perhaps the Lake is now a sanctuary stand in for my now deceased mother, a thought that brings me deep peace.

My mother passed away on Thursday afternoon. It happened while I was in Los Angeles with my son Bryce. The morning had been spent on the phone with my siblings who were with her in Utah, and it was clear she was spiraling down rapidly. I left my phone vigil to have a late lunch with Bryce’s friend Rio and his mother, artist extraordinaire Susan Kaiser Vogel. Seated in the unexpected beauty of their post industrial/deconstructed garden patio, Rio made a heartfelt toast to mothers and mothering as we broke bread over a hearty artisanal meal. It was a crystalline moment; an intoxication of sumptuous food, captivating companions and the ineffable joy of being with one’s own child, full grown and compellingly complex.

I didn’t hear the phone ring, pinioned in my bag in a back room, so I didn’t get the news that she had gone until after our en plein air repast was over. But that gap was a gift. My memory of my mother’s final hour is permanently nested in the soft nap of a velveted afternoon spent celebrating life in unadorned, simple sensuousness.

Her wake is Thursday, her funeral on Friday. I’ll be back in Boston on October 10th and will post again here at that time.

Thank you to all of you who have walked with me during these last few months of suffering. Her final lap completed, I can return to celebrating a woman of extraordinary vitality, strength and selflessness.

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Elizabeth Call Barlow, 1922-2007