Dirt & Stars
Talk delivered at Hendrix College
January 28, 2010
The starless, velvet-black night sky behind the sublimely beautiful cathedral in Piazza del Duomo in Orvieto, Italy.
The sun, moon, and stars seemingly all out of place in a land marked by social extremes, ancient custom, and a religion older than most recorded history – in Ahmednagar, India.
The weak sun rising out of a fog bank seven miles long, lifting slowly off of the San Juan Islands in Puget sound, looking north toward Vancouver, seen from Orcas Island a half-mile above sea-level.
Running at 5 a.m. toward Lake Mead (Nevada) along a straight road, thinking I should be there by now, but seemingly no closer to the lake than when I began twenty minutes ago…space and time elastic and deceptive like a desert mirage.
The moonscape of eroded, scorched, charcoal-smoldering land of Haiti seen from the air, headed from the Dominican Republic toward the capital Port-au-Prince.
All these experiences and many more, as I have traveled around the world, are exotic in comparison with my everyday life in New England, about forty minutes north of Boston, along the Atlantic Coast. But what I want to speak about this evening is not the exotic, the sublime (in the usual sense), or the extraordinary – but rather, I want to discuss with you the everyday, the apparently humdrum average day-in-my-life in Gloucester, Massachusetts and its effect on me as an artist.
I have lived in Gloucester for close to forty years now – having left home from Atlanta at the age of 17 to explore the world and “find myself” on the road. (I visited Gloucester in 1972, two years from when I left home, thinking it would only be one of a thousand stops on my odyssey. As a little kid growing up with a salesman father working his way up the corporate ladder in suburbia, I had lived in several cities in four different states–New York, Virginia, Ohio, and Georgia–and had attended three different grade schools and three different high schools before finally hitting the road on my own in 1970.
I meant only to visit Gloucester and then search out an art school in Boston, after which I had no idea where I’d live. I meant only to see the world and accumulate experiences. But when I arrived in this small seaport I discovered a human and natural ecosystem unlike anything I had known before. A strong Portuguese and Italian fishing culture existed comfortably alongside the traditional New England lobstermen, and the granite coastline and raw beauty of the sea and sky there completely undid my desire to travel. I felt that I had finally come home – home to a place I had never been to before.
Cape Ann (which comprises the towns of Gloucester and Rockport) is a peninsula on the northern-eastern coast of Massachusetts, and is subject to the famous storms called N’oreasters. (You’ve heard about the “perfect storm”–winter 1991–the subject of a book by Sebastian Junger which was also made into a movie of the same title.) Just such a storm hit Cape Ann in 1972 on the evening of the day I first arrived, and I ended up staying there to clean up a friend’s property from the storm damage.
I stayed in Gloucester initially for two weeks, thinking I’d help out with the clean up and move on. Little did I know that thirty-eight years later I’d be standing here describing the only place on earth I’d ever called home. Cape Ann has truly been the birthplace and home of my marriage, my children, and my art–and it has taken me this long to feel that I can evoke something of its mystery and beauty in word and image. Ironically, for me a figurative painter, this has come out in abstraction–in line and texture and color and near-geometric formal arrangement rather than in lyrical narrative imagery like that of Winslow Homer and Fitz Hugh Lane (two famous American landscapists who lived and painted on Cape Ann).
A word about my description “near-geometric arrangement”: for what it’s worth, my intention in stopping short of complete geometric abstraction is twofold–one, I could never bring myself to declare a Mondrian or an Elsworth Kelly to be a nature painting, nor could I ever see myself completely abandoning representation– and two, my whole view of the human/natural equation involves a certain reticence, a stepping back from control, from “geometry”. The patterns I see in nature, and more particularly on the land and sea and sky where I live, are never purely abstracted nor perfectly predictable like man-made patterning: hence the reticence. But I do think the human architectural and artistic influence on our environment is significant. Just as the bee or beaver or bird works to make a beautiful and functional environment to raise their young, we humans leave a mark that is part of the ecosystem, and we attempt to make things that both house and enhance our life on earth.
If my current work is about anything, it is about leaving our mark–but also about stepping back and letting things be as well–a kind of dance between creating and cooperating, acting and listening. My four decades on Cape Ann have taught me to listen and look and let down my guard a little, accepting the lessons of the natural world. The slow-growing lichens that cover the granite ledge and boulders strewn throughout our woods; the tidal action of the estuary at the end of our street; the storms and sudden clearings of the sky over the north Atlantic; the varied life-forms and flora that grow in New England. All these have lessons to teach people who sit at computer terminals all day or who watch the TV and get their news from the radio or newspapers.
There is also “news” along the ancient Great Ledge–a massive granite outcropping at the back of our property. My dogs and I explore and “read” this news every day no matter what the weather or season. For the dogs it is all about the other animals and their scent–for me it is all about the subtle change of color, of texture, and about the passage of time. Glacial time, oceanic time, geologic time–not just calendar time. So what exactly is my point this evening? Are computers bad and walks in the woods good? That is certainly not my intention – yet it’s true that I am not particularly inspired by computer generated imagery or digital effects. If I enjoyed the new film Avatar it is because it echoes the beauty and intricacy and awesome grandeur of our own verdant planet with its surprising salamanders, platypus ducks, giraffes, and rhinos. Our world is at least as strange and wonderful as that of the N’avi. The digital art that most moves me is that which points us back to paint, to stone, to wood and better yet, back to the garden planet we’ve been given to tend and care for.
And that’s why there is an “Adam” figure in my installation in your gallery. The male nude that stands as witness of the pattern and play of pigment and texture on the other panels is made from the same stuff as they. He is part of the “garden” of my abstracted world. I deliberate fashioned him from the same color and pigments and texture as the abstractions surrounding him. Incidentally, the name Adam is from the Hebrew adamah – literally meaning earth or dirt. In chapter two of Genesis in the Bible the creation of the human is described like this:
7Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
The Hebrew uses a play on the word adamah – indicating both “man” and “dust”– which is both a theological and poetical idea. We are part of this world, made from the very most basic elements of it, and “from dust you were made and unto dust you shall return” as the verse so often spoken at funerals goes. The air and moisture we breathe–ruach elohim in Hebrew (literally breath of God)–is the gift of life that cannot be manufactured in test tubes or Petri dishes. It can only be given. (But more about the figurative and implied narrative element in the work in a few moments.)
The dust, the earth, the adamah of Cape Ann is what is behind my current thinking and making of these images. The Cape is a complex ecosystem–both in human terms and in terms of the natural environment. The land of Gloucester is technically known as a glacial moraine: fields and hills scoured by the retreat of the Laurentide Glaciers twenty thousand years ago (more than twice as long as recorded history, but a drop in the bucket of geological time). There were humans in Europe during that period, and they left magnificent murals on the walls of the caves in southern France and northern Spain. (You have undoubtedly heard of the famous wall paintings of Lascaux and Altamira.) But there is no evidence of human markings in New England during that time. This place is marked only by the majestic forces of earth, air, fire and water–the four fundamental elements sung about in medieval poetry and art.
T.S. Eliot, in his masterpiece The Four Quartets describes Cape Ann (a place where he spent many summers) in poem number three, The Dry Salvages (rhymes w/ assuages):
The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land's edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale's backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men.
The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.
The salt is on the briar rose,
The fog is in the fir trees.
The sea howl And the sea yelp, are different voices
Often together heard: the whine in the rigging,
The menace and caress of wave that breaks on water,
The distant rote in the granite teeth,
And the wailing warning from the approaching headland
Are all sea voices, and the heaving groaner
Rounded homewards, and the seagull:
And under the oppression of the silent fog
The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future,
Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch
When time stops and time is never ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
In this poetic evocation of the place I call home, Eliot has captured the raw natural beauty of Gloucester and its sublime and even fearsome aspect in the sea’s capacity to wreck and wash our lives. This beauty is not a tame thing–its reality far surpasses our ability to describe and chart it. Human measures of beauty are often prosaic and predictable–particularly when tied to fashion or the passing show of athletic bodies and youth. But the grandeur of the ocean, of the weather, of the Great Ledge, the Dry Salvages (a rock formation off the coast of Cape Ann)–these things sport a beauty that both inspires and terrifies and is anything but predictable. The mirroring on the shore of the sky overhead, with the waves and wind patterning the sand and clouds–the forces at play are the same as those which formed the Eagle Nebula and the star-fields.
Where is our place in a universe patterned by titanic forces–forces outside our control? We seem puny and insignificant, and as many current-day thinkers seem to indicate our lives are largely random and meaningless. Or are they? My thinking runs at skew angles to these voices of meaninglessness, and I throw my lot in with the poets and painters and composers of the last five hundred or more years: this is not a random world, nor is it meaningless. The very patterns and forces and laws I see etched on the granite and flowing in the tides are the ones that gave us life and a mandate to care for our garden home. Sadly, we are indeed capable of reducing our lives and our planet to rubble, to ash, to randomness and witless misery. That is one thing we do not share with the beaver or the bee–our capacity for planetary annihilation and destruction. But this very fact–that we can be gardeners or destroyers–is the thing that lends potential meaning to our lives.
I think that is what Genesis is saying by describing our creation as human beings being taken from the ground itself. We are nature–just as Jackson Pollock once said when asked why he didn’t
“paint nature”. “I am nature,” he replied, and it was thought an arrogant statement at the time. But whether he intended it or not, it was actually a simple truth: we are nature, we are dirt, earth, the ground from which we were formed. This is one of the great insights of the first peoples who inhabited North America–our interdependence with our environment. Living as caretakers rather than as opportunists would change our experience of this place, our garden home.
The Creator described by the Bible is the same Great Spirit acknowledged by the first peoples of this land–and the instructions for the use and maintenance of this planet are contained in that book. (Not to mention the instructions for how we are to treat one another!) And that is the other dimension to my work over the past thirty years–the narrative of Scripture. My fascination with the Bible goes back to my childhood when I first heard the strange and wonderful stories of the Jews being set free from Egyptian slavery and crossing the great rivers as on dry land. Lore about the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Nile, the Jordan and the land of Israel–these stories gripped my childhood imagination like nothing else.
And the human narratives about Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers but later saving them all by his acquired power and authority in Egypt–extending true forgiveness and charity and love to his persecutors. That theme resounds throughout the Bible, alongside the call to care for our world and its weaker inhabitants. The Torah (the Jewish bible) had very strict laws about land use and treatment of strangers and visitors to the Promised Land. Compassion, hospitality, and freedom from greed were enjoined on the people, and strict penalties were meted out for failure to obey.
And those penalties are still among us, as are all the blessings of this world of wonders. If we fail to share with the indigent and the needy, and if we refuse to act as wise stewards of this planet, we will “reap the whirlwind” as Scripture says. So am I here to preach? No–I’m just a painter, not a preacher. But I am here to bear witness to the majesty and beauty and mystery of my little bit of home turf–Cape Ann– and to suggest that Arkansas and Dakota and Illinois and Michigan and Upstate New York are all similarly amazing places. The trick is to slow down enough to notice. The trick is to stay somewhere a while–say, forty years or more; stay somewhere to see it for the first time.
Maybe at this slower pace we can see something locally–not in the exotic National Geographic photos, but here, under our feet in the dirt; open our eyes and witness the mystery and beauty and then sense the tug on our imagination and our conscience. There have been messages left for us everywhere in the rock, in the air, in the fire and ice and in the dirt. In that famous bible passage where the woman is caught in adultery and instead of condemning, Jesus bends down to write in the dust (the only evidence that he wrote anything!), I like to think he was writing out names; names of us all. We are all implicated in the problems that beset us–named in both the problem and its solution. Adam came out of the ground and goes back to it–but he is also invited to participate in something very big, something timeless and eternal, and that is the story of redemption; the story of a world gone wrong by human choice but set to rights again by and with the Creator.
Adam is called to participate in nothing less than the building of the city of God–a garden city–that was meant from the beginning. And the God that calls Adam calls us as well–calls us to be collaborators in this reclamation project on this beautiful green planet; a reclamation project that involves beating our swords into ploughs, our tanks and rocket-launchers into combines and spinning wheels; making art that hints at a better way–not propagandistic art, but art that digs at the clues in the dirt beneath our feet.
My desire is that my art plays a small role in pointing toward hope for a well-tended garden/city in which there is plenty for everybody and where we can slow down enough to gain not only sight, but insight.
I’ll end with a brief reading from Shakespeare’s Tempest.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.