The only time I can remember being punished as a kid (I was one of those goody-goody children who didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, especially my parents’, or, god forbid, disappoint them) was, at around the age of 4 or 5, when I took my set of crayons and drew on the wall along the staircase leading to the second floor of our house. I can understand my mother’s fury – it was, after all, a fairly new house with a nice new paint job, and my materials of choice didn’t seem like they could be removed easily (they couldn’t) – and I can accept my father’s meting out the proper penalty (it might’ve been a spanking, but even just chastising me harshly could reduce me to a puddle of forgiveness-begging). But, to this day, what I have never been able to fathom is why I drew on the wall in the first place. There was, in the house, no shortage of loose sheets of paper, and tablets. So – why the wall? And why there, in a less conspicuous place than, say, the living-room wall, or the kitchen?
I bring this incident up not because, after these many decades, I can’t shake the guilt or dissipate the trauma – frankly, it’s been almost since that time that I’ve thought about it; and, as far as I can tell, I have no residual psychological scar that makes me currently Crayola-averse, nor do I manifest any facial tick when confronted with upright planar surfaces.
What’s brought this incident to mind is a sudden convergence of moments and memories that got me to thinking about the act of wall-writing, and the why of it, as viewed through an arslocii filter.
Jumpstarting the thinking was a lazy afternoon spent watching Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld,” an adventure-epic-polemic about a post-”Inconvenient Truth” apocalypse in which the Earth has been overrun by its oceans, and is populated, for the most part, by survivalists who stay afloat by whatever means, hoping someday to spy the fabled, perhaps nonexistent Eden known as “dry land.” The key to finding this unwatery spot lies with a strange little girl, who has a habit of drawing (with crayons!) on any surface – but it is what she has drawn on a wall that seals the deal: she, who should not know anything but water life, draws trees and animals … in other words, she draws “dry land.” And that propels the action and the film’s resolution. (No spoiler alert here, but you can probably guess; let’s also add, at the risk of losing the cool cred we’ve acquired over the years, at least in our own mind, that it might be time to reassess “Waterworld,” a film that was savaged on its release, likely because critics were gunning for Costner after his “Dances with Wolves” success, and also because the film is a bit bloated – but trim it, cut out a lot of the anachronistic and over-the-top Dennis Hopper scenes, and you have a compelling actioner, with a message. Give it a try.)
Then, also parked in front of a home-based screen flickering with moving images (pass the chips, honey) I found myself bumping into a number of good-for-you PBS documentaries, all having to do with, to one extent or another, the inscribing of things on walls: painted images and incised petroglyphs on rocks in the U.S. Southwest, similar marks on stones and surfaces in the Stonehenge area, the artwork in subterranean tombs to give the mummified pharaohs something to read on the commute to eternity (the New Yorker being out of the picture for the next 3,000 years).
Finally, after a conversation in which the famed cave paintings at Lascaux came up (yes, we do have such conversations in the land of arslocii), we read a review of Werner Herzog’s latest film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”: a look, in 3-D no less, at the 32,000-year-old artwork in the depths at Chauvet.
On stones, on walls, in caves, on the surfaces in movies, in my family’s home – what did all this writing mean?
The most famous images, as in Lascaux, seem to act as journal entries, or diaries, or a recording for history’s sake – if such a concept existed at a time when all of known human history had occurred in, like, just the past few weeks. There are depictions of hunters and hunted, and of life and lives being contemporaneously lived. Were these journalistic, poetic … fictional? Were they, as the markings in England are supposed to be, of a pagan or religious or ritualistic source? Were they an early version of Powerpoint? But why was the little girl in “Waterworld” compelled to draw on the walls? Why was I?
It is because it creates place. It makes nowhere not only somewhere, but our somewhere. The scribblings and carvings and massively skilled renderings say: This is a place of note, and of importance. By doing this, my creations not only tell what I am seeing and thinking and feeling, but has made this out-of-the-way place someplace special. I imbue it with my visions, and it imbues my visions with its permanence. The most haunting of all surface images can be found, ubiquitously and apparently independently, wherever surface images have been found: The painted outline of the artist’s hand. A signature. A sense of time beyond the present. I was here, the ghostly outline says; I will be here. When you see this, if anyone sees this, this mark makes this a place – my place.
It goes to the heart of many, if not most, of the arslocii locations that we have discussed, both here in this blog and on our website at www.arslocii.com: that placeness has fundamentally to do with the personal. Harvey Fite took an abandoned quarry and, with Opus 40, gave it placeness. The unknown artist who created scenes of a mythical Black Forest on the walls of a Cincinnati rathskeller turned a residential basement into a magical kingdom with a lifelong impact on those who dwelled in it. Even Springside, hemmed in by housing development and bare of all but the ebb and flow of its land masses, retains the spiritual, personal magic of A.J. Downing. The personal force of the creator, even if that creator is nature itself, intersecting with the creation’s impact on the internal personal of the perceiver/experiencer/viewer, and creating a special relationship that exceeds mere observation and appreciation: that is placeness as art.
We live, so many of us, so divorced from our surroundings, so untouched by our dwellings, so out of sync with the various cocoons we slip in and out of during each day’s worth of life (place indifference, I’ve heard it called). We reside in houses or apartments but so many of us have no feeling for them, no feeling in them. They are shelters, with white walls. The caves were shelters, too, but those “primitives” back then knew enough to put their lives on the walls, so that they knew where they were, and made where they were what they were, and what they valued. We, some of us, will “personalize” our whitewashed domains with things – posters, sports paraphernalia, framed off-the-rack sofa-color-matching “artwork” – that are made on assembly lines, that attract our most superficial needs and compress us into a conformity that appeals to us because we have no true idea who we really are. One reason that the kitchen is usually the most happy place to be – beyond the usual animal desire to congregate near hearth and sustenance – is that that is the most personalized place in the dwelling, with kids’ school artwork, doodles, handwritten notes and more magnet-ed on the fridge, scattered on the counter, pinned to the walls.
What our caves need are paintings – our paintings. Why not paint murals of what is important to you in your bedroom or den, truly personalize it and create the life’s breath of placeness? Even choose a wall color that really says “you” – and paint it on the walls yourself. (But, certainly, I have learned my lesson: we must be wary to personalize someone else’s place, but we must personalize ours.) It may not be Chauvet, or the pharaoh’s tomb, but it will be you and yours. A life without placeness is no place at all, and lifeless. They knew that 32,000 years ago. I understood it 50-some years ago. We all sense it, if only in our dysfunction from being separated from it. How did we forget that dream?