The Call

Mt. Shasta, from the Tule Lake NWR, California

Mt. Shasta, from the Tule Lake NWR, California

Being in nature being with nature, followed by the cliché of  Pollock’s I AM nature. But nature  really is out there. And it really is in here, in this body made of nature—processes invisible and theorized and absolutely actual in our churning minds and our churning guts. Thought and meat, thought made of meat. And art is made from our meat, the molecules of our meat. I’m trying  to tell you our meat is thought, our meat is philosophy, our meat is Social Studies, our meat is on the C Chicago Board of trade beautiful. To say that has been my life’s ambition, to say that in the voice of the “Big” me  the one connected to the history of art, the history as if art were part of our very genome (which it is). This has been my life’s ambition to share this idea since these thoughts came to me on a visit to Tule Lake in the fall of 1980. These thoughts erupted in my chest like the explosion of 10000 snow geese erupting all at once, bursting aloft in a primordial volcanic landscape at the Tule Lake WL refuge witnessed in that November of 1979.

A fairy tale feels different when you are present in the landscape where the story originates. The volcanic area around Mt Shasta is full to the brim with stories of alien saucer sightings, people visiting from the fourth dimension, a whole civilization of refugees from the Atlantan Deluge living inside the mountain. Fairytales. But all these stories seem credible not via their veracity, but that the stories are placed in a landscape like the Shasta watershed and the surrounding cascade mountains, where the vistas themselves seem mythic, capable of holding fantastical tales, made true and believable in a landscape generated by eons of eruptions. Just up the road is clear evidence of the Mt. St Helens ka-blooey that blew 1370 feet off the top of that mountain. 

On our way up to Tule Lake we stopped off at Lavabeds National Monument where you can explore miles of lava tube caves formed when molten lava flows under a hardened crust leaving behind a hollow of dendritic webwork like a circulatory system. The tubes are around ten feet high or so and pitch black trails of a maze crisscrossing in a homogeneous disorientation. They give you a good flashlight at the Park entrance but that doesn’t do much to dispel the vertiginous panic that can set in. Didn’t we just pass that big rock 10 minutes ago? This mythic landscape brings to the front of the mind Theseus’ journey to fight the Minotaur. “Where did you leave Ariadne’s ball of twine”? Aw Geeze I dropped it a while back. 

snow-geese-stable

A person steps into a life’s work. Leaving behind a rubble of false starts, then it arrives. Before that, the disappointment festered, trying to elbow your way to a position as a player. While it seemed the sometimes snarky, sometimes “smart” world of conceptual art was the only game in town,  and it was a fun game, (the version I played was mostly mental).  To actually play at being a phony. Like pretending to be a phony was a move on the chess board of art. Learning to live on very little was another move (a life-long pursuit) Afraid of being discovered a phony; you became a phony…how Meta. Art could be played as a game, a complicated game, a fun game to watch; to follow the stats, to know all about the players, to keep a box score-card as you watched, but you really, you wanted to be a player on the field, to feel you’ve been dealt in. That fall it felt like being on the inside of something special to be an artist working away in a studio, I had developed a routine of working most days at it—snatching time from house-holding for my work as a teacher and routine practice in the studio. 

And, as a student I wanted to play the game as it was laid out,…a lot of indirection was coming from the glossy art mags, playing end-game moves, now that we were at Art Degree Zero—all the pruning of modernism was finished. Shaving the log of meaning down to a toothpick…ole’ Duchamp and, Picasso duking it out in my mind, Giacometti playing off by himself in a corner, but there was something sub-rosa. Some hidden call to talk about spirit and soul. The filament inside the bulb. To bring all your on-the-job training to shoulder the wheel of ART along, well, it felt like being in a WPA mural of heroic workers… working your way out of some cul-de-sac caves hunting the “big truth” of art. And, in real life we had felt the panic set in while exploring the pitch black lava tubes criss crossing the underground maze of Shasta mountain. So easy to loose your way. Where was Ariadne’s thread? The one in your mind and the one really searching for the way out! Everything feels mythic in a landscape like that. 

I am a living person. YES, I’m sure. because I feel some strange attraction to this Landscape, like I’ve seen it before maybe in a book, maybe in a dream, maybe on TV for pity sake. But, that feeling of ALIVE, seemed essential setting out on a career in the arts. Feeling alive…and… connected to love. Love means embrace and you never get enough of that as long as you live. You like to eat, don’t you? Well your soul needs to eat as well. Let’s show ‘em some pictures of love.

If you were an artist you were preparing yourself to head down into some unknown glen. Being an artist can make you feel as if you lived in rarefied land separate from the world. My connection with the living world had always been that thread, a source for following that thread to inner connections. Growing up in a small town with a slow river and a wild-ish woods nearby.,.. the fungus smell unearthed with every step. I was ready to rekindle my lamp—kindled way back when. ”Lets head out”, I said…ready for a change in scenery, “I’ve heard Tule Lake on the Oregon/Cali border is full of birds. Especially in the fall.” I like looking at birds and had already embarked on painting ducks at the local pond. 

The Shasta watershed is centered on the mountain, of course, but surrounding the mountain is a low-lying sedge -land gently sloping up, perfect for rice farming with ample water and also perfect for ducks, geese, and swans. It’s as though Darwin were at work creating a proof of landscape giving rise to speciation. This landscape with the tall peak flowing away on all sides, is  dominated by a two peak volcano. Shasta and Shastina rise purply blue to 9600 feet above the valley floor. A mountain’s mountain. An unusual stark vertical rise of a 9600 feet but typical of the Cascade range— Mt Hood, Mt Rainer all with distinct shapes easy to lock into the mind as a  picture. At Tule Lake the view of the mountain is to the south and looking into a late-day sky; starting in early November, you can watch skeins of ducks weave back and forth across the sheer of light; the dimming sky dipping  into rosy sunset. The purple mountain, a woodblock. Then, standing braced against the wind, at the edge of the water, 10,000 birds burst up all at once, filling your chest with a thrum. Rising up the front of your neck comes a sob, a chortle, some sound you’ve never  heard yourself make. This is it, the only thing to talk about is this. And it’s been so all of my life since, striding to meet that leafy green heart of beauty, the sunlight going to white on a damp leaf. The laws of nature are compatible with the laws of love.The laws of nature are compatible with the laws of love.

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I was ready to step into a new work flow

I’d already gotten the call to do this, been called to this, to paint pictures, Its what excited me. I had already passed through the gate of wondering if I was on the right path, but I needed a refresher. The gospel song says TAKE ME BACK TO THE PLACE I FIRST RECEIVED YOU. The shape of the call wears thin after a lot of head-down work in the studio and classroom. I’d worn a groove in the pathway. “I’m a watercolor painter,” I had declared. But I wanted a refresher “A lot of work can be churned out, then shoved aside like a broken-down carnival parade stuck in a ditch, once you accomplish a bit o mastery. So, Papa wanted a brand new bag. Leanin’ into a groove. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing…I was at a standoff with myself. So listen, my “call” to paint pictures started as a DADA joke. Senior year in college in my NEW MEDIA seminar class we were tasked with challenging the given—Make a proposal (for that’s what we called our ideas typed out and presented for group discussion. I wrote, for my senior seminar art class (this is 1970) I propose to move to Cape Cod and learn the art of touristic best seller watercolors and exhibit those Kitchy watercolors at a fashion-centric, trend-setting gallery in NYC..” It would be as a poke in the eye to the high priests guarding the holy sepulcher. Testing the notion of high art/low art. And, bringing  the question of art and high-finance to the front of discussion. I wanted to ask the question raised by this “action” as we called conceptual projects. Projects which would ask and answer questions of value and quality; questions high on the conceptual agenda. So I proposed —“

 Is it worth the effort? Start with hardest to fathom—sure you KNOW its good (maybe because the fancy people say it is) The sly smile of being in the know through increasingly the sales and marketing department had taken over the tower of curated quality. Don’t get me wrong, I truly love the part of the mind/body that can turn art into philosophy, But in the studio it felt like a brick chamber, the walls sweating with damp, trapping the urge to make stuff, locked away in a hot vault, of cool,  I know better. We were at the end of history, weren’t we? The Zero Point. What was there left to say? TV and movies was all the visual information you needed. Painting was silly as Barnet Newman pointed out with his Voice of Fire… You go, “What the…” Mere presence was the point,  painting pictures like the Voice of Fire pointed. The existential moment captured, there is only this, this presence of color. OK, fun to think about and work out the puzzle of: what is this, this “my child could do this”, this so-called painting, is so revered, and it’s latest auction price hovering in the $40 million range. This is confusing for all of us, but fun for the mind engaged in thinking about art to figure out, as  I had started on a course of fighting even the notion of painting itself—a dead language, I assumed, with the prevailing language of minimalism ruling the roost, minimalism and conceptual art ready in the wings. So I said in 1970 for my senior in college, last class of my undergrad career: “I will move to Cape Cod and learn to paint touristy watercolor paintings.

“Is this any good at all?” Then 3 years later in grad school seminar I found my advisor had done something similar. Researching the top sellers at the Gump’s Art gallery, Steve Kaltenbach, tried to formulate a top selling painting using their database of what had sold. It was a funny art-world inside joke. But me, I just liked fooling around with stuff, and here were thought experiments, that actually BECAME stuff.  Telling stories was just not done. Narrative was out, outrez,  and, I want to do it in watercolor, the medium itself as cheesy and disdained as it gets. Fusty, a has-been medium, an old lady medium, a disdained lavender, queer-world medium.  At least in my mind, the  carnival barker, critic trading on his will to be heard, shouts in the glossy art mags, that art was not about stuff. Maybe Art was lifestyle, maybe art was an idea like say—have your name changed every month for a year, and have it registered legally in the courts as my instructor and advisor Ed Mc Gowin had done, in whose very class I had proposed my vacation watercolor project.  Like McGowin, printing up the court documents and mounting  them on a wall in his gallery, have Betty Parsons sell them,  I would show framed advertisements, and the review in ArtForum. Hey,! whats the big idea? Exactly.  Questions? Yes indeed. Identity and value on the docket at the “Critical Dialogue” court of what’s authentic.

ham head. word

So, there!!!  I abandoned work on my project, my project with a watercolor, —to be an artist in quotes, actually painting while living on Cape Cod where I discovered painting was a kind of thinking, wholly satisfying. But, by 1980 I needed a refresher and found it on the shore of Tule Lake. Several years maybe 5 or 6, I’ve waded through all this working… stuff as thought  and still, my message and my mantra remained the same: The laws of nature are compatible with the laws of love. The laws of nature are compatible with the laws of love.

At Tule Lake I stepped into that new world of love and life, stepping out of the damp brick room of trying to think my way to a free-er mind. Once again learning the lesson that wisdom comes first from the meat of our being.

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