I’d finished realizing a grandiose dream of making a public sculpture. I (along with four others) had been contest winners, awarded the $’s for materials and a stipend to create a sculpture garden on the shore of Lake Mendota in Madison. Wow! I was about to have a career in the arts! I built the thing from brand-fresh aluminum. My brief, the idea that had gotten me into school, was to make gateways. A worthy idea for Sculpture, right? My big idea was to make an impenetrable gate only passable by the resolution of the contradictions. A few years later, the idea of this resolution would be brilliantly explored in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence (haven’t read it in a while?…why wait…)
In my sculptural thinking at the time I was fascinated by space, not grandiose interstellar space or Grand Canyon space, but the spaces imagined by the physical sciences—tiny, molecular, cellular spaces like the surface tension of water or the cambium layer of woody plants. (One of my jobs in the interstices of school and grad school was working on a tree nursery where the “tell” of a plant’s viability on a bare winter twig, looking dead, was to scratch the thin bark; green meant alive). The cambium layer gave me endless fodder for the living metaphors I was nurturing. Surface tension would (in 1979-1984) become the springboard for the thought experiments of my first four lithographs.
In the well-equipped sculpture labs at Madison, I mastered TIG welding to join my thinish 1/8″ aluminum pieces using a focused flow of inert gas (argon) to keep the weld free from contaminating oxygen. Wow! Lookit me, master of fine arts techniques! The problem that kept me tossing, restless at 3 AM, was at this moment, the nascent “eco” movement. I’d stood in the fresh spring DC air of the National Mall at 1970’s very first Earth Day celebration. I listened, taking note of the coming apocalypse, the speakers, Gaylord Nelson, Ceaser Chavez, etc. touted a new religion of care for the planet. What did I think I was doing adding more stuff to an already groaning planet?
So MFA thesis time— I’d made a conceptual game to make work with only what I could glean from scraps found in the other art studios. Canvas, wood, paper, and metal. This was not to be an exercise in bricolage—finding hidden meanings in objects like Picasso’s famous bicycle seat-handlebar bull head. All of the scraps I used were re-shaped, glued, laminated and made new but always using old stuff. A friend had a great pile of black walnut fire-wood. The highly prized and expensive Black Walnut! I re-milled the cordwood into useable planks. In another conceptual rule of my game, each piece would be made in one session in the studio. My intention was to fill my gallery space with objects. My antecedent to this action was from Giacometti’s surrealest period; making objects that would hang in space like his Palace at 4 AM.
In my exploration of the liminal state, the passage through a gate, I wanted to express what it felt like to be inside the passage, Stanley Kubrick had given us the cinematic light-show in his 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) expressing the passage into the infinitely small, infinitely huge, as our space cowboy experiences contact with an alien mind.
I had been collecting scraps of things, things that caught my eye and even started the process of manufacturing things as they occurred to me. That Black Walnut firewood became these hand-held mounts for watercolors. I mean, painting a watercolor! How transgressive!
It was time for the MFA “defense”; mounting an exhibit and being questioned by a committee. I had spent months making objects to make my Palace at 4 AM and filled a room.
All of this to what end? To get my MFA with the vague chance of getting a teaching job at University, gain tenure and teach others so they in turn, could get their very own MFA to, in turn, keep the system churning. Like I said, to what end? Art was my Pole Star, my guiding light. Art happened, if it was true, happened out at the periphery. To hook up with an institution seemed like soul death. I wanted out, when 2 1/2 years before all I wanted was to be in. I wanted to get on with something that felt true. Problem was, I was barely fledged, if that, but I wanted to get on with it. With what? The jacket I’m wearing in the above picture was a kind of peer review awarded by fellow grad students to someone they felt had something going on. I wore it with a hubristic pride and then giving up the art impulse to pursue my dream of a DIY Valhalla.
Between College and Grad School I had a few jobs, my fav was as a laborer on a tree nursery. We planted out the burgeoning slumber-towns surrounding the Nation’s Capital. In those days Tyson’s corner was just that, a crossroad with a little store for beer and cigs. and gas. Today, it is town homes, high-rise office blocks & shoping centers far as the eye can see. Our job was to plant each yard with foundation plants. We’d go into the woods and dig up a nice Dogwood or Red-bud tree to plant on a corner. It gave me a taste for working in the soil. On my nightstand was Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life and Hand-built Homes. Nearing had been tossed out of academia for being a certain brand of socialist and a pacifist. The fascination of growing food and making shelter lead me away from my “calling” just as I was getting to know myself as an artist, I pulled the rip-chord on art studies to get on with a revolutionary DIY life.
Being at a “Land-Grant” university in a state with a robust farming economy, the Ag department of the university was vital and well-funded. Grad students in art were encouraged to branch out to a “Minor” in other departments. Most took up a foreign language, lit or some brand of history. I enrolled in the Ag school. Soil Chemistry, Vegetable Production and Horticulture. I found a lasting pleasure in growing things. When I was awarded my MFA, I was ready to hit the road and begin my “real ” life. Art was an artificial stand-in for living “off the fat of the land” C’mon Lennie let’s get to pettin’ them rabbits.
Yes, I was interested in growing things like the Nearings, becoming self-sufficient as well as building shelter. Why spend precious time and craft making gee-gaws for the elite when you could build your own home? I’d met builder Dennis Bradley on a family vacation to Cape Cod who was building structures based on 18th-century techniques—now, that was sculpture worthy of the time and materials. I wanted to work with him to learn. The truth was, I had lost my faith in Art. I had fallen from the church, an alienated self who abandons a vision. I left Madison, excited to begin my new life and while on Cape Cod, I could pursue my alienated conceptual project of learning “Cape Cod Watercolors”. That’d show ’em, just who was the smart guy around here. Little did I know I was shaping a couple of years of disappointment and loss of precious time. You really can make a wrong turn.