I had two memorable Biology teachers as I danced around the idea of majoring in the subject in college to seek a career as maybe a Marine Biologist, or a Doctor. I gave it up when I was swept off my feet by the idea of adding my spit to the stream as an Artist. I really had the feeling early on, I could offer something to the world. I had many memorable Art teacher’s who guided me along that path. But, in the biological sciences, it was Giusto Patenella, and Sam Munson. Patenella was the summer-school instructor for a six-week course in stream ecology. No-one had ever heard of Ecology in those days, though a concept first coined by the quintessential biological illustrator, Ernst Haekel in the 19th Century. Our task that summer was to examine a stream-bed for relationships of creatures, a concept just coming into focus, collecting as many various plants and creatures we could. Ecosystem was brand-new to the jargon of Biology. It was Summer, hot humid, midwest Summer where we plied the stream and its banks on an abandoned farm, free of pesticides and caustic fertilizers, for as many creatures as we could find using a process of elimination key for identity. It was the Summer of 1959, and we were excited when the U of Illinois accepted our findings to expand the knowledge of what was where.
Patanella was a charming and attractive soul, an easy-to-like paisan with a big grin, who’s natural charm had landed him featured in a TV ad for the “you’re in good hands with Allstate”; bearing witness to a fortuitous insurance settlement when he had a house fire. He was cool in the face of adolescent foolery. On the first day of class he brought in a little record player and played Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter’s tune Let’s Fall in Love…Birds do it, bees do it…even little Pekinese do it, lets do it, lets fall in love... A skillful way of disarming icky feelings youngsters might have when talking about sex. Patanella told us how sexual reproduction has given us the wide variety of species that made our little waterway such a fascinating place for study. It was the frontispiece for the whole class, an indelible lesson with that musical accompaniment. He would go on to be the superintendent of schools for Kankakee County, if I remember correctly, he hired the first African-American to teach there. (pre-MLK). One of those guys you just liked being around. The Cole Porter tune became a lite-motif all summer. “Birds do it, Bees do it…”
On to 1966 freshman biology 101, in a packed Lisner auditorium at George Washington U. 300 maybe 400 all filling in their dance cards for the science requirement. Biology was a good choice for Humanities students with little or no Maths required and mostly a lot of memorization—the complications of the DNA revolution were studied, but Bio-chemistry was still waiting in the wings to confuse the Humanities folks. Dr. Sam Munson was the featured lecturer—Mississippi-born with a strong drawl. I was able to get acquainted with Munson when breaking out of the lecture hall into labs where we had the hands-on delight of dissecting a fetal pig. We were instructed to find the foramen ovale in the little piggy, the structure that exists in the fetus to direct blood flow directly from the right to the left atrium, bypassing the pulmonary circulation to oxygenate the blood from the umbilical/placenta apparatus before the little critter takes it’s first breath of air. That foramen ovale normally snaps shut at the first breath. Four years down the road I would see this in action at the birth of my son Noah as he took his first breath and I could see him flush red with that first gasping wail. It makes me well-up with emotion as I write to think about that moment so many years ago. Did I think about Bio 101 lab, and that little piggy heart? You bet.
I’m taking a break from the lab and come across Dr. Munson who stops me in the hall and says, “Boyah, I believe y’all haive Da-win’s poinn.” (I’ll dispense with the attempt at accented dialogue, suffice it to say…it was thick un-mollified by his time up North). He meant Darwin’s Point, and takes me into his office to drag out an ancient book from the 1870’s when proof of Darwin’s ideas went far afield. Pretty much nonsense as far as that goes, but it got me into the inner sanctum of cockroach city.
His office was filled with terrariums crawling with roaches, the passage of time has them grown to Sci-Fi monsters in my mind, but they were huge as insects go, long as your finger, tied to a thread to have a walk down the hallways with Dr. Sam on the lead. A little humor can be a line drive toward hormone addled adolescents paying attention. The roaches were bred for his experiments with DDT at the time when DDT was still a miracle of insect pest control, malaria mosquitos coming first up, boll weevils, Dutch Elm disease, etc etc. 1962 saw the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Munson’s experiments were made to see how little DDT could be used and be effective. Turned out, no amount of DDT was beneficial to Planet Earth, banned in the US in 1974, and now we have Eagles and Peregrines again. Munson was the first to record the heartbeat of a roach; his claim to fame. In the office he showed me how he did it, tearing the carapace off and you could see the black line of pump pump pump. Even the cockroach has a heart—awwwww. His desk was piled with crumpled torn open packs of Chesterfield Straights, having a hard time getting the cigs out because of a hand injury he’d gotten as a member of the US Olympic Fencing Team, 1932. I was glad for a brush with this bright eccentric up close.
On the first day of Bio 101, he announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Biology the study of life. As such we will talk about sex. I will use words like sperm and anus. If these words are an offense to your sensibilities, may I suggest you take up a drier science like Physics for your science requirement.” Most people laughed, a couple walked out. We were at the verge of the sexual revolution (1966), extreme mini skirts, bras were burned, the PILL for pity’s sake. Women were feeling their sexual power after the repressive fifties, forties, thirties, etc etc. Out in California, we got pictures in Time Magazine of nude hot tubbing at a place called Esalen.
These days, we get the fetishized version of sex in advertising, in the criminal gross-out shenanigans of Jeffery Epstein, Harvey Weiner, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump…thrown in our faces. It’s a defilement of the Temple and a real trouble for the easy and frank way we should consider sex. At our Art Mind Park we have 2 exhibits dedicated to the Idea of sex that harken back to those two inspiring teachers. The Gates to the Throne-room is pointed at the idea of sex as speciation machine. For the first 2.5 Billion years of life on planet earth, life was mostly a green slime of algae breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen. When the atmosphere became the saturated, oxygenated air we swim around in today, around 1 billion years ago; the oxidizing affect of oxygen, was a killing force to many of the living systems. Funny to think of oxygen as caustic, but it is. (Our family has a meme when walking in a greeny woods—we call it the Green Fire.) The microscopic living things strategized a way to keep alive in that oxygen holocaust—go live inside another that has adapted to the caustic damage of elemental oxygen—the symbiotic planet was born. The sexual world was born, and speciation exploded in the Cambriun fluorescence of 600,000,000 years ago. This is the kid’s book version and would make a great night-time story, but that is the essence of The Gates to the Throneroom—where the Queen and King retire to join forces to make our beautiful living Planet Earth by mingling genes.
The Shrine to Amaterasu with it’s inner structure of The Kundalini Elevator is in homage to the rational conceptions of the body as it metabolizes food to become thought and action; the original Shrine, on which ours is based, in Japan has a rice field planted to honor just this very thought. The inner structure represents the imaginal life of how we experience ourselves as we navigate realms of experience; 1)transcendence, 2)thought, 3)the will to vocation, 4)filial piety 5) personal power, 6)sexuality, and 7)the base of being—or maybe reverse the order in a breathe in, breathe out meditation. It is meant to be an aid to imagine the different realms of experience to create awareness. The point of Art I believe. One point, anyway.
I owe a lot to those two early teachers who took me on this journey to make these Artworks. When we take the idea of sexuality and turn it into a thing it is what we call the reification rhumba; reification is the error of treating something that is not concrete, such as an idea, or activity as a concrete thing. Thingifying. Marxists used the term to talk about the preciousness of human labor turned into a commodity. Think of the Golden Calf Moses’ Hebrews worshiped instead of one’s relationship to spirit and soul. And, we get into the super-trouble of taking a miracle like sex, reifying it, and we are rolling into what gave rise to the “Hysteria” of the psychological revolutions of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Repressed sex got THAT ball kicked down the road. It is our belief Artworks can open the world and be helpful.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t add one more Bio. teacher to the story, Jim Schenk. Sophomore high school Biology. He was a bit dim, I think the first adult I noticed as a dim-wit, but he had our respect because he was a body builder, quick and strong. He could do several one-armed chin ups, which he demonstrated whenever there was a bar handy. Raised in the racist South of the 50’s, he spread some of that filth to us, for example, carefully drawing on the blackboard the insertion of the Achilles tendon into the heel in the “Negro and White”. It was flatter in the Negro, he said so they were more “fleet of foot” (trying to sound erudite). Sheeesh!
One day he brought in a live cock Pheasant he’d caught in a cage, a ravishing thing he kept by his desk all morning. At the end of the period he brought it out, holding it by its feet, with his other hand he grabbed the head and, YANK!, snapped the neck. The wings fell open, a few feathers drifting to the floor. “Boys, this is my supper tonight, this is true Biology—life eats life.”