Tag Archives: Springside

On Walls

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? 

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Gone. Not Forgotten

Sometime back in the ‘60s or early ‘70s (which, as everyone knows, was still the ‘60s), a bunch of people got together in a theater to perform a piece of conceptual art. What they did in that theater, up onstage, was to live in it. They just went about their daily lives, 24 hours a day, and, all the while, audience members came and went, watching the “actors” simply live their lives, or as close to that as one can do when one is being observed. Those onstage pretended not to be on view; those watching pretended not to be voyeurs. It was a perfect exemplification of the theatrical fourth wall.

But, more, what this conceptual piece did – besides acting as a precursor of the classic PBS series, “An American Family,” as well as just about every reality-TV show to come, especially “Real World” – was to elevate (if that was the direction) the act of everyday living to a functional definition of art. And, by default, turning each one of those who were living onstage into artists. Art did not imitate life, nor vice versa – they were one and the same.

To extend the argument, aren’t we all, then, practitioners of the art of living? And aren’t the “stages” upon which we “perform” places of art: in design, accoutrement and action? And, therefore, do not each of these places, to one degree or another, have a placeness and, for our purposes here, are discussable in terms of placeness as art?

And, what we have thought about for some time, and which has been brought to bear more intensely recently, is that perhaps the most palpable sense of placeness, and placeness as art, is resident in those places where those who lived there live there no longer, where the overwhelming power of placeness is shaped by the absence of what had once been there and by our memory or imaginings of the people and creatures and objects that once were.

All this, as disputatious prelude, to get us around to the point: that in the past few weeks we have experienced the death of a mother – the last of our parents – and a cat, the last of a litter that was born on our kitchen floor, beginning a mutually loving relationship between four felines and two humans that lasted nearly 19 years.

Their loss has renewed our feeling that among those places most redolent of placeness are those where ones who lived there are gone; that a room we visited – one that once had furniture we sat on and touched, and living beings we communed with and kissed, and smells and sounds and other things we took for granted – now, vacant, seemed somehow more filled with all of that, and with deeper feeling and meaning, importance and urgency: not inhabited by ghosts, but filled with echoes, not seen with a measured eye but apprehended by recollection or by some sixth or seventh sense we have yet to divine.

In our mother’s small apartment, there was a point when she was no longer there but her belongings were, and, truthfully, there was, besides the fact of her physical absence, so little emotion there – just a bunch of dead wood and bought scraps. But, now, those meager items have been removed and, suddenly, somehow, everything is there and, out of the corner of our mind’s eye, so is she – in an odd way, maybe even more insistently so even than when she was really there. (Which begs the question, “What is real?” which will not be answered here, nor any attempt made to do so.)

In our house, in the kitchen, we surrounded the table with cat beds, raised to the level of the tabletop, so that when we ate, our cats ate with us; when we watched TV there, they watched with us – one family, together. Soon, that spot became a central place in our home: no matter where the cats might spend their days, they would find their way to the beds, and us, to be fed, to be rubbed, to nap, each to his or her own favorite bed, or the one that the pecking order assigned each to. When the four became three, there was some shuffling of spots, but mainly it remained the same. When three became two, there was more of a freedom for the survivors to select any bed they wanted, within the parameters of cat power politics. When two became one, every bed was our last cat’s, and she used all of them.

But now, four have become none, and yet … there they all are again, we can see them, in their prime, where they belong, waiting for us: Spike and Luna and J.R. and Chub, in their spots. When there had been even just one cat, it had been a circle of empty beds used by her; with none, they are all occupied by their rightful residents. Strange about placeness: sometimes a complete absence is necessary to experience a complete presence. We felt it and, perhaps, noted it first when we visited the affecting and spectral Springside, in the Hudson Valley. Now, in a parent’s apartment, around our kitchen table, we feel it again. Like an empty stage that still resonates with the energy of the actors that once performed there – all of us, actors on our own stages, in a grand conceptual piece from which the art that then-ness and now-ness and placeness derives and remains.

Where we have been will be, to those who loved us, someplace we will always be, in a way they wish us to be always.

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