July 1st, 2013
Last night as I drove home, the sky turned from gray to pink and the fireflies came out. I zoomed along the dusky curves of the country roads, and watched with a knot in my throat as I saw them multiply, lighting and lighting, a low, hovering starry sky over the soybean fields. Prone to hyperbole my thought was this: how could anything be more beautiful?
This place is a broken record. But it's a repetition of the things I love, and I consider that a worthy litany. Baseball. Fireflies. Corn-on-the-cob. All of the things I missed from my youth and now have present in my every day.
There are even things I can't remember from growing up here that hold a special new reality for me in my life. In particular: the tigerlillies. At the end of June and beginning of July, they line the highways, their orange heads bobbing in the wind of passing semis. They burst forth near every mailbox, telephone pole, in the roadside drainage ditches.
I don't particularly remember them from when I grew up here, though Mom swears they were always a part of the landscape. Why would I blot them out? Why weren't they as important to my eye then as they are now?
Every litany needs a break in the refrain. Every song needs a bridge.
Last night I ask Dad to relate to me some of his favorite memories of the place where he grew up. He told me about preparing the barn for winter; he told me about the Lutheran church bells that would chime at 5pm to let them know their work day was done and it was time to go home. "You could hear them from pretty much anywhere in the valley. On some days, when the air was right, they'd smack you in the face they were so clear."
These things that we hold on to from our childhood, the things that smack us in the face when the air is right: this is why I still come here and start typing. It's got to mean something.
© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.
It is the Artist's desire to permeate existence
He does so by the power of his presence
And by will alone he breathes a work into art.
As pumping air into a balloon, that when let go,
permeates the sky. - Patti Smith
How does one dress for an art opening? I threw on blousey rayon pants, a men's linen vest over a tank top, and -- an afterthought -- my Land Camera, and started to head out the door. I looked in the mirror, and put my hair into a ponytail. "So I don't look like a Patti Smith impersonator," I said to J.
The Coral Sea exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center was sparse, but appropriate. More than twenty years ago, this same museum was taken to court over indecency charges for its Mapplethorpe exhibit. In The Coral Sea, there was nothing hinting at what some might call lewd, more at what they'd recognize as saintly: religious artifacts of Patti's remembrances of Robert Mapplethorpe's life. It was a strong message: THIS is how I remember him. We all can remember everyone in different ways: here was my saint. Two hospital beds with drab blankets; a photograph of an angel statue with a note from Patti to Robert inscribed on it. He was her angel. A display case of Mapplethorpe artifacts, including the Jean Genet book of poetry she read to him before bed: Le Condamné à mort, A Man Sentenced To Death.
On one wall, framed pages of drafts of her poem for Robert. I walked along and read each one, jotting down, for some reason, the words crossed out on each page: "and considered lying down for awhile," "upon a raft," "he was drawn," "who had he," "spirit," "remembering," "swinging arms," "motioning organ," "perfectly," "suddenly," "and blood pumping madly." I liked the idea of picking up Patti Smith's discarded words somehow. Old scraps that might make up a quilt. The thoughts she dropped along the way.
On the other end of the gallery was a curtained space; inside, two screens showing black and white film images of a restless sea, over which Patti read the text of her poem. There were too many people chatting to hear it properly; I sat for only a moment before deciding it would be better to come back another day to hear it properly.
I had told two friends who were volunteering (hi Kate!) that I'd meet them inside when they were done strapping wristbands to people's wrists, and so headed back downstairs to meet them. I could tell by the buzz in the room that Patti had returned from dinner (as Kate had promised when I arrived). I came down the staircase, but didn't want to go too close; she was being swarmed. I hate swarms. Then suddenly the room shifted, and she was headed in my direction.
She stood next to me surrounded by a posse of people; everyone else stared at her with goofy smiles. I was suddenly dry-mouthed and nervous; I turned my head and ordered a glass of red wine from the bartender. She got into the elevator with her posse, along with a few bold stragglers, and ascended.
I was content with that: just to be in the same room as Patti Smith.
* * *
Why does this weird thing happen with people who do great things? Why do we get all nervous and dumb around them, or why do we feel the need to have the experience of their physical presence? What did being in the same room as Patti Smith give me? I've been thinking a lot about the idea of "celebrity" lately. How ridiculous it is to get worked up over someone because their picture is in magazines, their image moving across a television set. Even just those who deign themselves too important to reply to someone who starts a conversation on Twitter (yes, I've been burned by this once or twice before, which I realize is ridiculous, but still weird). I've decided that I want to use the word "celeb" for those I want to celebrate: not just artists, but people doing good things, people being people.
* * *
My friends appeared and we sat near the entrance, people watching. I noted how much I enjoy the art of fashion, how some people really have a feel for expressing themselves through their clothes. I noted how here, people dance at art museums, even when no one else was on the floor. I don't know that I ever saw that in New York. I told them everything I'd wanted to say to Patti if I had the chance to speak to her, my millions of gratitudes I carried inside. "But I guess this is not the time or the place." Millions were there with their millions of gratitudes. What made mine any more needed to be heard?
My friends were headed to Northside; I decided to stay behind for a bit and sober up before driving, and chose to go back up to the exhibit for one last look. When I reached the floor, I saw Patti standing there, her daughter and another posse member at her side, just looking around, not talking.
I straightened my vest and took a deep breath and walked straight up to her and said HI.
And then I spilled my millions of gratitudes.
I started by saying she was the reason I'm here in Cincinnati, her whole thing about getting out of New York and finding a different place for creative output. I told her that her show at Castle Clinton in the Battery was the perfect goodbye to New York. I asked if she was still there, and she said yeah, and talked about how there are some great things still there, but that it's lost its grit. She said it's like a big shopping mall now. I said yes: like a walled city for the rich. She nodded and asked my name, I said "Zan" and she said "that's a cool name." I realized at this point that we were having a conversation, that we'd moved beyond the part where I explode my thoughts at her and run away. I had expected to say my piece and be on my way, but here we were talking. She asked how it was working out here in Cincinnati, and I told her it was the best decision I ever made. That I was so happy. She said this place has a lot of great things going for it, and that she's sure I'll do great things here. I was suddenly self-conscious of the camera slung over my shoulder, and noted her glancing at it as we talked, so pushed it further behind my back lest she think I was a sad imitator. Though I don't even think she would judge me for that. I thanked her for bringing the exhibit to our city, told her it was beautiful, and thanked her for helping bring ME to the city. "I'm sure you would have ended up here anyway." "You're probably right."
And then I walked away with legs like jelly, kneecaps like canastas. I took to my phone, suddenly grateful for the giggly circle of gal friends and guy friends on Twitter who were cheering me on.
It was a brief encounter, but it was enough to learn that Patti Smith is my ideal celeb. She is an artist I admire and respect, and yet she is still people being people. Later on when I was relating the story to a friend, she told me she'd met her once at some schmancy event and that she was the most down-to-earth person in the room: Just Patti. She lives on earth, while her art lives in the sky, permeates all around. She felt the same way about Robert: “I don’t need another artist of my life. I have Robert. The belief that we had in each other is a belief that goes on after death. I’ve always felt it, and I feel it every day.”
I want to celebrate that.
After my encounter, I wandered up to the sixth floor of the museum, to an area called the Unmuseum. The room contains interactive pieces: a wavy carpeted floor that forces you to walk stumblingly across it, aware of your body's pitch, a camping trailer you can sit in and rock back and forth. There were small groups of stragglers up there, rocking trailers, scaling the carpeted waves, exhibit visitors who had had wine and danced and needed a break from the party below. In the back corner of the space, I found solace in a little house with dark rooms, a table and a chair, an empty, tiny doll house for adult-sized people. I wandered inside, into the quiet, then around the back, where there was a half-storey window that overlooked the city. There was a ballgame on the giant screen looming over Fountain Square. A few houses scaling the hillside of Mt. Adams were lit up in the damp night, over the river spreading out south and west, the Carew Tower solid in the middle, permeating the sky. The puddles of the earlier rains gathered in dips of the museum roof, reflecting the lights and the towers and the ballgame on the television screen. It took my breath away. And I was happy to celebrate that.
I'm sure I would have ended up here anyway.
* * *
This is the not the first time I've pushed myself to be bold enough to go up to one of my musical heroes and say hello. The first time? When I saw Kevin Shields in the Virgin Megastore in London. He also turned out to be a great guy, and he also collaborated with Patti on the music for The Coral Sea Room.
The Coral Sea is on display at the Contemporary Arts Center until November 2013.
© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.
Saturday morning, pastries spread on a table, nametags inscribed and stuck to breasts. Thea, Jane, Chris. Nice to meet you. We hold cups of chain coffee and discuss the things we know we have in common: architecture, modern houses, art.
Our host counts heads. He tells us we're heading through his yard, past makeshift fountains made from water pumps and barrels holding overflow from last night's rainstorm, into the neighboring driveway to Charley's house out back. Everyone here knows Charley by just one name: Madonna, Cher, Charley. To our host, he was a good friend; he wishes they'd had more time together, before. Before? Well. Our feet squish in the grass. I skirt a dead garter snake on the driveway and warn the woman behind me (her nametag reads "Meg") of its presence: "Dead snake..." She hops over it nimbly. We're all so excited. Nimble. Dead snakes are nothing. There are no bad omens in dead snakes. ("Watch where you walk.")
We're heading to Charley's house.
Charley and Edie
"Charley Harper (1922 – 2007) was a Cincinnati-based American Modernist artist. He was best known for his highly stylized wildlife prints, posters and book illustrations. While at the [Art Academy of Cincinnati], Charley met fellow artist Edie Mckee (1922 - 2010), whom he would marry shortly after graduation in 1947." (Wikipedia)
"With Charley’s scholarship and Edie’s car, the newly-married couple spent six months on an extended honeymoon. They painted, sketched and photographed throughout the West and South. They even met Edward Weston and his cats in California. The trip inspired both of them throughout their careers." ("Charlie and Edie," Codex 99)
"'We took four months, camping often to make the money last, absorbing the feel of the vast landscapes of the plains, the Rockies, the desert. I had begun to lose interest in realism after several years of preoccupation with it. I felt fettered by the laws of perspective and shading and decided that the constant attempt to create the illusion of three dimensions on the two-dimensional plane was limiting.'" (Charley's Story)
"In 1958 the Harpers built a mid-century modern home in the middle of the woods in Finneytown. Cutting edge by the day’s standards, lean and spare like his artwork, the home was a laboratory in nature, the perfect setting for Charley’s observations and research." (Nina Kieffer, House Trends)
"'I'm the world's worst bird watcher. That's my dirty little secret.'" (Charley Harper interview with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
"The house tells the story of their relationship and the decades that followed: honeymoon mementos; Edie’s studio downstairs; a giant image of one of Charley’s famous ladybugs. One of the house’s most striking features is the giant glass window set that offers an uninhibited view of the wilderness beyond." (Zachary Petit, A-line Magazine)
Two year ago, almost to the day, I picked up a book of Charley Harper's illustrations at The Strand in New York. Charley Harper had long been a presence in my life; the cardinals in the background, hung on people's walls, adorning their bookshelves and their coffee mugs. I'd been eyeing the book for months if not years, but hadn't been able to afford it until that moment. That very moment.
In that book, between colorful shapes and lines and circles representing the entire animal kingdom, I spotted a picture of Charley standing next to a wooden fence in paint smeared pants, green hostas and buckeyes and maples at his back. His hand is to his eyes, he's looking up, as if the photographer instructed the self-described world's worst birdwatcher to pretend he'd spotted a bird.
I saw that picture and said to J: I want to live in Charley Harper's house.
That Saturday we found a house for sale down the hill from the Harpers' house in Cincinnati, a house with windows overlooking the wildnerness behind it (the email I sent to my mom with a link to the house is titled "THE HOUSE OF OUR DREAMS"); by the following Wednesday we'd put an offer on it. That August we moved into our new home. I looked at the cardinals frolicking in the wilderness outside our giant windows and remarked that they might be relatives of the cardinals Charley once drew.
The house of our dreams.
And Then We Met the Architect
Rudy Hermes was dressed in khakis, perched on a chair in Charley's studio, waiting for our questions. On the table before him was a placard showing the house he'd designed for an architecture competition that won him a trip around the world, as well as a case displaying the Ford Times illustrations he worked on with Charley.
"'Keep it simple,'" Charley had instructed Rudy when he'd asked him to design their house on a lot in these steep forested hills. Rudy tapped one of the illustrations in the case: "That's the one I originally did for Charley, but we never did a budget to see if it would work."
"Did anyone ever ask you to do one of these after this came out?"
"Well I'll take one." I asked him if he was still working, but he tapped his knee and explained that since its replacement he hadn't really been able to work the way he wanted to.
And so I thanked him for the work he had done. Told him that if he hadn't built this house for Charley, and if we hadn't seen a picture of it in that book, we wouldn't be where we are now. "And we're so happy," I concluded, "so thank you for making that possible."
A List of Things I Meant Note in Charley and Edie Harper's House (But Didn't)
- What radio station the little boombox was tuned to in Charley's studio.
- What books had bookmarks in them and where. And why.
- What they kept on their bedside tables.
- What the ceilings were made of. How they cleaned the tops of their windows.
- Where Edie preferred to sit: outside or in; upstairs or down.
A List of Things I Did Note
- The bits of shell and rock and wood collected in a planter near the doorway.
- The rubber waders and fishing net, empty and unused, leaned up against the rear of the house.
- The plants and tools resting on a wooden shelf out back, tools for poking in the dirt, excavating.
- The look on Edie's face in her portrait hung next to Charley's in the downstairs gallery: knowing, confident, appreciating, discerning.
- The glass ornaments strung from every window: ladybugs, birds.
- The lids to ice cream pots used by Charley for paint palettes.
- The sketches of cardinals on tracing paper pinned to the underside of his shelves.
- The cushioned bench next to the window within arm's reach of the desk in the studio; how easy the window looked to open and let the breeze in.
- The low branches visible just outside, good for watching how birds flew, and perched, and landed.
- The framed reminder above the stairs to his studio basement: "Be Sloppy." (It was J who pointed out the one below it, the one we presumed was Edie's reminder: "You Are.")
Is Cleanliness Next to Charleyness?
I came home and started to clean my house, suddenly aware of how it might look to other people if I were to suddenly die.
"I wonder if he left his studio that night saying 'you know, I should really clean up this desk tomorrow.' And then never got the chance."
Then I remembered the framed reminder: "Be Sloppy." And considered for a moment putting everything back the way it was.
I know he wasn't talking about housekeeping, but rather about being loose and free with your art. I know he wasn't talking about chores, but process. But there's something in the mantra of "Be Sloppy" that can be extended to other moments of life: the moments when you judge yourself too harshly, when you're stuck, when you're afraid that you'll make mistakes or not do something properly, so you don't do it at all. When you've found yourself suddenly too rigid, too "fettered by the laws of perspective," too bound by expectations that you never venture to veer off the path, outside of the lines. When you're too busy subsisting, toeing the line, obeying laws of shading to realize you'd rather be elsewhere. Doing other things. When you are so busy looking at the road ahead that you nearly step on the dead snake right there under foot. Be Sloppy.
© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.