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The Shadow Knows

We tend to design our living spaces with light in mind. It’s only natural: We need to see our environment – and through windows, the outside – to know things like time of day, where that object you don’t want to trip over is, whether that’s a brown shoe or a black, and so on. Light helps. That’s why so many brains have set themselves to the task of creating the best sources of light, natural and artificial. Control of light is a marker of civilization and – even if you hate compact fluorescents – progress.

We think about darkness, too, and not just in ways we can obliterate it with light. During sleep hours, in a movie theater, in moments of middle-of-the-night contemplation, for star-gazing – for most of us, the darker the better.

window well

But, lately, it’s shadows I’ve been considering. Not the necessary and mood-enhancing umbral pools at rooms’ edges, in places where table and task lighting pay no attention. No, it’s now that Spring is in the air, and the sun is higher in the sky and in spots that the  winter sun could only aspire to … it’s now that the light is hitting objects we’ve placed in windows and on doors, and reflecting off things sitting on tables and sills, and so creating designs and patterns, splashes of color and amorphous mandalas all over the walls and floors of lucky rooms. And these shadows, like Plato’s, reveal the world and the shape of structures in it that direct observation never shows us; in fact, the shadows uncover shapes and elements and physical relationships that we are totally unaware of without their assistance.

blinds

Today I have seen the sun behind tilted venetian blinds – bars and taut lines in slashes across the floor; the golden reflected light from a teapot jiggling on the wall; window grates leaving fade-in/fade-out hash marks across plant leaves. And there are some intricate weavings and playful squiggles the origins of which I still can’t determine: the light is coming from somewhere, hitting something, and projecting beauty.

glass

This is art of an improvised nature: light, as if conscious, as if sentient, playing off solids like a percussionist utilizing alleyway trash receptacles as a drum kit. Or like water, finding its way around and through even the smallest cracks and flaws, pouring in.

windowsill

We design our places for light. Perhaps we should just as purposely and consciously design our spaces for the shadows that can be thrown like ideas, sketched like gesture drawings on the canvasses of our rooms … and, just as ethereally, vanish, to return the next time, only different, a new work, a surprising bit of art.

x marks the spot

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Harvesting a Home

fitting d into omEveryone makes moves in their lives, and, in a mobile society, changes in their living accommodations. There was, at one point, a period in my life when I made a series of seven moves in eight years – relocations that made me a citizen of four different states, and they weren’t all contiguous. Ultimately, I ended up buying a house in one of them. Well, not really a house – yet.

It was originally a house (built in 1873) turned into an office building nearly a hundred years later, and then turned back into a house once more – by me. Not your typical house, though. Rather, a strange hybrid of a house and an art piece. Arslocii, indeed. As it stood, it was contained space and not much more. Everything that makes it a house of note now is a result of my direct response to its houselessness and the denuded nature of is office-ness: beige walls, beige floors, fluorescent tubes and stark, detail-less spaces. It was so nondescript that I felt a mandate, an imperative, to take it as far from blandness as was possible. Far over to the other side.

Twenty-seven years later, it is as unique and one-off as the nest of an Australian Bowerbird: an assemblage of found objects meant to attract the eye … in his case, of a mate. My mission was to embellish the place to find its soul, or to restore it. In many respects, it was like building a stage set about houseness, or my dream version of what it could be, put into a tangible form – and on the cheap. It progressed naturally, building one project upon another, and finding my own place in the creation of the form. Whatever complex layering resulted, it reflected the multidimensional layerings of me as an artist and a human being. My house and I are one, difficult to separate. But separate we must.

For, after years of unrest and unsettling neighborhood events, a culmination of disillusionment and dissociation, it became clear that this house is not in a good place – not for me anyway. And that there is another location that can potentially create placeness for now and for the future. And it is hundreds of miles from this house. I have found another house there, in this new place, and it is nothing like the one I helped to create here. Nothing at all.

My dilemma now is in trying to salvage what I worked half a lifetime to build, and to attempt to fit it into and onto another house that is so completely different from this one: sort of made from scratch and customized into an artistic assemblage. The only thing the two might have in common is that the new one, although not stripped of detail, has such indistinct or poorly rendered detail that it, too, is open to interpretation. Plus, this second one is much smaller. In the new structure, the struggle will be one of physical matter more so than conceptual matter; bringing forth a challenge of material limitations rather than cognitive ones.

I liken it to building a first prototype of a robot – a kind of manufactured living thing – an endeavor that is successful, but nearly three decades later, it is sadly stuck in its time and limited by its creation date. In other words, stuck in its place. The urge is to make it again, an updated version using some of the same parts and more hindsight. As a second generation, it will have recognizable traits, but it will move beyond the original exercise, becoming a more integrated whole. That is the hope, anyway, for this experimental house-innards transplant process. As I harvest the very seeds that I planted a generation ago, will both patients survive? Will I? Who will end up the monster, the creator or the created?

The doors, the lighting, some walls and even floors are going to find their way to this new home. It is an organ harvest, house to house; taking the essence away from the original and re-creating a revised version. The staging is terrifying, the removal and replacement are difficult to imagine, let alone orchestrate. I think about it every day, this square peg fitting into a smaller hole. Can a cathedral be scaled down to fit within a parish chapel? I have three or four notebooks filled with measurements, ideas, lists and questions. Can placeness result; that is, true placeness? The best of one combined with a better place could achieve the desired end. Wish me luck.

in the box

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A Step Up

When it comes to most houses, the front steps are usually shown the servants’ entrance. Next to what real-estate agents like to call “curb appeal” – the fetching come-hither look of a property that makes you want to stop your car and see more of the place – the most important first-impression portion of any house is its front step … and, yet, it is, in arslocii terms, one of the most terribly overlooked, in all senses of the word.

Money is spent on the front yard, on the path to the front door, on the plantings bordering the front step … but, then, those few flat rises to the door are usually just … flat. After what should be an orchestrated, even ceremonial transition from public space to private, the visitor ends up walking onto and standing around waiting on beige or brown or gray, poured or sliced or milled rectangular solids of no consequence.

What a wasted opportunity to create a place for art, a place that, even before the front door opens, tells the visitor something about the personality of the house and the people who dwell in it. It’s an unfortunate dead zone instead of what could be not only one of the best and first greetings to a home but also an unexpected place for creativity and even wonder – an opportunity to create placeness.

All that most people do is cover the top step with one of a slew of same-old, same-old cookie-cuttered, mass-produced mats – rubber or cocoa fiber or some synthetic approximation of one or the other of them – with pre-fab designs or T-shirty/bumper-sticker-ish verbiage that can be found by the truckloadsful (and the shiploadsful, coming from Taiwan or Sri Lanka): “Welcome” mats that coyly say “Keep Out,” mats with flowery or geometric patterns, mats with representations of the kind of animal one will encounter and surrender his pants cuffs to upon entering the house, or the sort of weapon the householder keeps at hand, or the politics that might explain the weapon, mats that stake a claim to the turf by having owners’ names imprinted on them … this stuff, available in stacks in big-box superstores everywhere is, apparently, what goes for “personalization” these days, as well as a signal of current American standards.

But there is nothing personal about them; in fact, just the opposite: they trumpet conformity, the safety in numbers, the lack of introspection, the absence of a certain kind of pride. More thought goes into the selection of the brass-or-brushed-chrome doorbell and “custom” house numbers than this precious portal plot.

We don’t say that making something of your front step won’t take some effort – it will, if done right. But, you may ask, why do it, if it’s not easy, and so few people will see it? Because, besides creating a special, hip and hidden spot, when done it will not only be something that is by you but also something that is you, something of you that extends beyond the doorjamb to envelop your guests – something that, conceivably, will live on after you, or just until the next owner puts her imprint on the space.

Take the example, just below. Once, unadorned cement steps projected directly out from the front door to the sidewalk. The homeowners, while using privacy and separation from the street as the incentive, reoriented the steps to rise alongside the house. At that point, a simple brick or block wall to enclose those steps would have been the easy, rote thing to do. But with a bit of artistry and vision and a desire to express the individual likes and tastes of the owners, an Art Deco-inspired wall, complete with porthole, aluminum stripes and Streamline tapering became a landmark on the street, a unique, unmatched statement.

 

And then, even more: On a lower landing and on the top front step, on the spot where a typical mat might have been slapped down, there are owner-designed and -installed mosaics – a greeting and a tease of what (and who) await the new arrival. A blending of art and place, of pure function and pure imagination. Arslocii.

Is it asking too much to hope that homeowners will see this “bonus room” as an opportunity for self-expression, even self-revelation, and that they will take a step in the right direction?

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Where There’s a Will

If you happen to love the place you live in – truly love it, not simply appreciate its benefits and features – then there is no place in the world that has more placeness, no convergence of dimensions that is more “you”: it defines you, you define it; you change it, it changes you; you know it, it “knows” you. This place – your home – is more than just a comfy spot, or a cozy space, but an external expression of you, the oversized physical manifestation of your wants and wishes, your past and present – it is the shell for which you are the seed. It is the strands of your own double helix unraveled then knitted around you, for warmth, and protection, and identity. It is the thing we humans most want – that place that, when you go there, it not only has to take you in, it can think of no lovelier thing to do.

This musing about the placeness that resonates in the places we live in is no stranger to arslocii discussions – it is also the core pondering point of a book we are fitfully working on about our own house. But it all, so to speak, comes home to roost because of two things: one, that we are working on our wills, and, two, because of a movie that we just saw.

Writing a will is no easy thing: it is that activity in which profundity and pettiness butt heads in the biggest, ugliest scrum ever fielded. Who should get that lamp, that sculpture? How much money should we leave to that relative, that friend, that organization? And, who not to? Who should be rewarded – and who screwed? And to what degree? (It is, or can be, a tawdry exercise, but concentrating on the details of Mammon can help to take your eye off the ball that is whizzing straight for your noggin: that this is all about the end of you, and that portion of existence that follows in which you have been written out of the script.)

And, then, there’s the house. Sell it? Bequeath it? If you love it, if you truly love it, if it is for you the greatest repository of placeness – that is, that place that echoes in you, and is the echo of you – then, what is best? And if you have taken it from nothing, and, over the years, turned it into something special and personal and expressive of you – then what? And this is where profundity and pettiness are joined onstage by grandiosity. The alterations made in the house, the furniture and collectibles placed just so, the art both purchased and made by the inhabitants (one of them, anyway) and which have provided the foundation for what you consider to be the best possible home for you – well, you begin to believe that nothing must happen to this Camelot of the mind and spirit and sensibilities. You begin to believe that it must be retained, in its totality, in its current form, no hair out of place, and preserved, because the world would be diminished by its passing (as much or more as by yours). As you ponder the power and finality of the will you are writing, you might even wonder, momentarily, grandiosely, if there might not be a way to save it, to keep it as is, in amber – say, create a foundation to fund its existence in perpetuity, or donate it to a museum or arts organization with the proviso that it live on in current form, or maybe, somehow, in the remaining time left to you on this Earth you will in some way become so famous or do something so momentous that society will honor you by taking the place that is imbued with your placeness and deem it a national treasure. Across such fields of folly do thoughts scamper when one loves, truly loves, one’s place of personal placeness – the home that defines.

Such thoughts cross minds, especially when dovetailed with the shivery fear that everything that we have done here that matters, once we step away, will be undone, that the Goths will storm our (custom-made) gates laden with granite countertops, stainless-steel appliances and framed “art” bought to complement the upholstery. Are we being disgustingly snobbish? Absolutely. But this is, after all, our sine qua non place, where the ghosts that matter to us reside and, for us, always will.

And, then, during a break in our will-writing, we watched “Summer Hours” (“L’heure d’été”), a beautiful, insightful, breathtakingly understated French film by Olivier Assayas about the dismantling of a place and, in the act of it, the dismantling of the lies and secrets of a life, the tensions and distances of a family, and the understanding of the value of possessions. It was serendipitous that we watched this. It was important that we did.

In the movie, a family has come together – a not-common event for them – in a luminous and lushly gardened French country estate to celebrate the 75th birthday of the matriarch. It is a place not only of elegance and serenity, but also one of palpable placeness, the site of much of the family’s history, and the repository of not just memories but of a fabulous art collection. It was here that a much-loved (in all ways, we are to learn) uncle, himself a renowned artist, lived and worked and surrounded himself with works by famed creators – Josef Hoffmann, Corot, Redon, Degas, Louis Majorelle – that are now worth bushelsful of Euros.

During the party, the object of the celebration pulls aside her eldest son – and the only one who still lives in France – and begins to list for him all the things that need to be taken care of, including the disposition and dispersal of the paintings and sculpture, as well as the house and the property itself, when she dies. He, wanting to avoid the conversation entirely while also seeing himself (or having been nurtured to see himself) as the person responsible for the perpetuation of the family legacy, argues that everything, as is must remain, intact, even if the house is to be used only a few times a year; it must be not just a monument but an unchanging conduit to the family’s heritage, a place that will pass on to the present generation’s children, and to theirs, and on. To which his mother replies that his children and future generations will have “better things to do than deal with bric-a-brac from another era” – the “residue,” she calls it. “It’s sad,” she goes on, “but that’s life. … A lot of things will be leaving with me. Memories, secrets, stories that interest no one anymore.” She tells her son that there is “no need to become keepers of the tomb.” And she says, “After me, it’s another story.”

Yes, exactly. As we write our wills, and look around us, and feel so at one with the home we love, truly love, we realize that some spots have a placeness that is so inherent to them that time does not dilute it, while others are founded in the hearts and minds of those that dwell in them now. This house of ours has placeness … for us, and, perhaps, for a few of those who know and love us and have been here to experience it. But we, and they, and this will pass. As we have seen in the writing of the book about our house, it is not ours, really – we are merely the current tenants in a blink in the continuum, clutching the baton passed to us and necessarily, if reluctantly, moving our arms forward to pass it on. The next person will change the house to suit her, as we have done to suit us. And, soon enough, there will be little left of what we did, and were. It will be somebody else’s place, somebody else’s time – after us, another story. And what we did here, ultimately, was to keep it going, with the hope that love, like cooking aromas, might permeate the walls, and remain.

It’s sad, but that’s life.

 

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Thunk. Ping. Click.

Do you hear it? The creak of wood, the pinging of heating pipes, the west wind rattling a downspout on the north side, a whirring refrigerator motor, buzzing transformers in the basement. Every house has its own sounds, sounds that you grow up with, sounds that you tolerate and sounds that comfort you. Some people are spooked by sounds that houses make, thinking that there is someone else making those noises. To me they only confirm that you are residing in a living, breathing thing, and each has its own peculiarities. Of course, every house has electrical and mechanical systems, but even the same kinds of systems sound different in different houses. There is a special resonance to every abode depending on the materials that define them, as well as the age of the structure.

Some places have audible settlement sounds, generally in the same vicinity repeatedly. Most are more alive in winter time because of moving water, expansion and contraction, wind knocking against windows and whistling through the tiniest of openings. A low tick, tick, tick of metal, a sudden low crackle of wood as the sounds ricochet, encircling as a kind of surround-sound. There can be a repetitive pattern if you listen for it, first on the left, then in the hallway on the opposite side – traveling sounds. Then, as an accent, a clock chimes in and it becomes an interesting orchestrated piece: behind you the tympanum, downstairs the triangle.

This house we occupy doesn’t have much in the way of settlement sounds because it is built like a bunker: twelve inch-thick walls. And it sits atop a hill that is mostly rock. It has been this way for 138 years, so whatever settling it might have done may have been before our time. Or maybe its solidity just prevents us from hearing those sounds. It has seen many renovations and various uses and reuses, but based on the lack of settling noises, nothing has fazed its structure. It has even lived through a hurricane untouched, despite the house across the street having its roof peeled off. Most of its sounds are of internal systems and materials, added and changed over the years.

I wonder whether there are more house noises at night or whether it just seems like it because there are generally fewer other noises. Or do houses come alive at night? Contracting after a sun-soaked day, warmth breathing cold through the stone walls, the heat pipes ramping up to try to accommodate the change in temperature. Thunk, ping, click. The rhythm of the sounds dances around the rooms, mostly on the floors, sometimes on the walls, like Mr. Astaire.

When I am alone in the house I find the sounds to be soothing, friendly, familiar, predictable, companionable. Sometimes I think that if the house were dead silent it would feel strange. It wouldn’t commune with me. It breathes, it hums, it burps. We have recently lost the sounds of long-time cats – if you think cats are quiet, you have never lived with any. There is now a void where their sounds had been. If the house fell quiet it would seem alien. As we know, learning the sounds of a new dwelling can be strange.

Sound does create place just as places create sound. After twenty-five years in the same house, it would take me a while to adjust to what comes with a new place. I can close my eyes, and listen, and know where I am. I hear these sounds when I sleep and they are a lullaby; without them I would likely wake up. Although I have inhabited many places in my life, there are only two that I have such intimate connection with in knowing their sounds: my parents‘ home and, now, mine. It is one of the features of homeness, the placeness of sound.

 

 

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Home Place

Arslocii writes a lot about place, especially other places, sometimes far-reaching places. But there is another place, the most significant one really, and that is the place we call home. Home can be as difficult to find as those other special places are, or it can be easy. It is not easy for us. Maybe that is why we seek placeness in all locales, although we know the difference between placeness of the soul and placeness of the heart. Our quest for a sense of place may be a direct result of feeling like misfits most of the time. Our strongest sense of place is inside us – we are trying to find it externally as well. Our guess is that many people derive a sense of place from external factors: being in a family, being a part of a community, living in a neighborhood, structuring their lives around what is meaningful to them – their world reflecting back at them what their place in it is. Building from the outside in, like a house.

What about those of us who build from the inside out? Maybe we are not the norm but there is no manual for life that says it can’t work that way. There is more struggle with this approach, more effort required but, perhaps we hope, more reward. We begin with a strong sense of who we are and try to maneuver our way through an unyielding maze of conformity. Or maybe we build that internal sense through trying to negotiate the maze – it’s a chicken/egg thing. The attempt is to find one’s own way, creatively, uniquely.

We have found house, but have we found home? We love our abode. We should, we made it, in a sense. Starting with the original 1873 manse built by a stone mason/builder for himself to live in, a place that from certain accounts had indoor plumbing and an orchard on its grounds. Fast forward nearly a hundred years, and watch while the late 19th century and most of the 20th reveal the up- and down-side of the economy reflected in this one building: As house became a local bottler’s retail outlet (with the plant built behind – goodbye orchard), then an empty prohibition casualty, later a series of taverns, take-outs, a boarding house and finally, (drum roll) offices for a plumbing and heating contractor (with warehouse behind). And, as is often the case, as the usefulness of a structure wanes, so does the viability of the surrounding neighborhood. When we rolled in it was no longer recognizable as a house, let alone a home. And, too, the neighborhood had been on a downward spiral along with it.

Following our twenty-plus years of sweat production and hard decisions, we have, like a tugboat, escorted this large ship into the 21st century as a house once more. And we think it is wonderful. Most likely unrecognizable to the guy who constructed and designed it, we like to think he would be pleased that it has returned to its original purpose. We honor his memory and his ability to build the most solid house we have ever known by making his work whole again and living in it. Happily living in it.

As we have actively improved our house, we have watched as the immediate area – the community – has changed from a mostly working-but-not getting ahead-class to a mostly non-working-and-selling-drugs-but-not-getting-ahead-class to, now, an influx of student-renters who are being funded by their suburban middle class parents to make them into useful citizens somehow in between their prolonged periods of inebriation. Sometimes I believe we are living in 1970s Russia. Speaking of which, there are coincidentally, Russians buying up empty lots in the area and building mega-houses for the new crop of young professionals pouring out of all these colleges, once they have sobered up and become “citizens.” Or maybe not.

But such an in-flux, together with a vying-for-space mishmash of people does not build stability. In a sense, you could call us pioneers, since we were among the artist wave of early adopters of funky old buildings that nobody else saw value in, other than the generations that were stuck in history-repeating cycles. We had community at the start since we all were outsiders and we could pick each other out of the line-up of houses based on the non-traditional touches we applied to our residences. We all knew each other, some of us visited each others studios and some of us became friends and socialized. There was a smattering of us, not too concentrated, maybe one house per block which made it fun to seek out our other partners-in-crime. So our inner selves got to be expressed, in a small but significant way, in our external interactions. For a while.

Only, just like our house and its changes, many of the artists grew up or grew apart or outgrew the neighborhood and moved on. We might be the last ones standing. And as twenty-plus years went skating by, here we are, still in place but not experiencing a sense of place any longer. In our house, yes, but not so much here in the neighborhood. Although the neighborhood is still changing and trying to figure out what it is now – it is currently a cluster of mini-neighborhoods: the old, the brand new, the temporary, those not-too-thrilled about change, those desperately clinging to what they have known in the face of a disappearing way of life, those looking to a brighter horizon or a beginning.

Where are we in all of this? A little lost. In a place but not of it. We are, surprising to us, looking for a kind of place to call home. A place that speaks to us on a number of levels, or maybe different levels from what we desired oh so many years ago. We are seeking arslocii as a place to live. It takes both the house and the site to create the synthesis. Maybe we will find it again. In the meantime, we have one of the two.

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