Imagine yourself on a mountain top or in the middle of a field of grass. It is night time. There are no city lights and won’t be for another fifty thousand years. As you tilt your face upward you gaze upon an infinite sea of bright tiny specks. Your outstretched hand cannot touch these points of light held high in the firmament. No stone you hurl will shatter their rest, in the way your rock disturbs a calm pool of water and sends ripples outward. Yet you can own these sparks that flicker out of reach with your eye and mind. These specks beg to be named, put into order and relations revealed.
A wolf may tip its head upward to howl at the moon and stars. But this wolf will not look at the clusters of lights overhead and impose a world of images: bears, lions, ibex, snakes, birds, or hunters. The act of naming and imposing or exposing structure is advanced and sacred knowledge. The vault of the night sky is a sacred canopy, a light bespeckled cloak of utter darkness.
Now imagine utter darkness, devoid of sparkling embers, where you might reach up and actually touch the canopy with your fingers. A ceiling of stone. Wall of rock. Floor as solid as wall and ceiling. You are deep inside Mother Earth, where the firmament is indeed firm. There is no deeper darkness no more silent silence than inside a gallery of stone.
You have a sacred task in the hallowed hollow of this cave. You travel on your belly, slither and crawl, carrying a small hand held flame, to a place far, far, far from daily life. Your journey leads you to a place where food is not consumed and everyday activities do not exist. Fasting, the exhaustion brought on by your arduous trek, and the disorientation that comes from a loss of daily reference points all serve to heighten your inner, spiritual focus. Here, deep in the cave there is no day. And while the lack of light evokes a night-like illusion, the moon and stars will never emerge. In this primordial sanctum sanctorum you search the canopy for patterns to reveal themselves. Here, your bears, lions, and ibex may be captured on the rock. In a sense, they beckon you to “draw” them out of the womb of Mother Earth. Your flickering flame helps you locate them, casting shadows to illuminate shape and form. Other mysterious forms and shapes are exposed and recorded by your scratching and marking. The knowledge revealed is sacred as is the method.
My brother, Tom, asked me to help him pick colors for his house, which he was about to enlarge and remodel. The original core of my brother’s house was a one-room shack, built early in the twentieth century on the outskirts of town. The seed shack was constructed from salvaged materials. Piled Stones from the stream served as a foundation. The framework was hobbled together from scrounged lumber, mostly scraps from the nearby freight yard. There had been no plumbing and no electricity. Over the years the one-room shack sprouted additional rooms. It grew like a slow cancer, but in ways that seem conventional, at least when viewed from the street. An eight foot deep hole was dug to house a furnace and water heater. Over the hole a bathroom and kitchen were abutted to the existing structure. Everything was done on the cheap, in keeping with the low value of the property. By the time Tom purchased the land and building, the structure had grown into a ten-room modified shack, with a double wide, pre fabricated, living room/ bed room mounted on an actual poured foundation. But at its core it was still a shack. Shack as in RAMSHACKLE.
Tom asked me to help select paint colors for his home, but my involvement evolved into something more. I agreed to assist only with the colors.
The shack really needed to be swept away and the slate cleaned. An entirely new house needed to be erected. It wasn’t the Taj Mahal being renovated and the shack bore no rustic charm. Bulldozing was called for, at least in my opinion.
The shack’s floor wasn’t level or consistent in any manner. It bowed up in one place and sunk in another; changing as one walked about the room. It actually flexed, as if the flooring thinly disguised a trampoline. I measured the variation, which could range as much as two inches when the flooring buckled or bowed. The cause for this was that some of the rocks which had supported the various sized hunks of wood pretending to be floor joist, had shifted. To make it more interesting, there was no real crawl space below the floor. It was elevated off the dirt by perhaps a foot. The lack of plumbing and electricity in the original shack made a crawl space unnecessary.
Tom wanted to keep the core and shore it up, incorporating the shack into the new design, swallowing it in a cocoon of stucco .
Brothers will do lots of things for their brothers. But there must be a limit to brotherly love. Sure, Tom had slithered through my attic, on his belly, looking for an electrical fault. I owed him, but not as much as he was now asking for. He wanted me to stabilize the shed. Tom was wanting his color consultant became Mister Sure-I’ll-Crawl- Around-In- The-Dark. He sweetened the pie by offering to compensate me with minimum wage for my time. I countered by drawing ten dollars out of my wallet to compensate him for his fifteen minutes in my attic. Let’s just call it even, ok? He upped the ante and I folded. Afterward I thought about it and had a little talk with myself.
“What on earth have you done? You’re agreeing to do what exactly? Aren’t you afraid of dark, tight, smelly places? Don’t you suffer from claustrophobia? What about spiders and snakes? There are probably oodles of slimy, crawly critters, alive and deal under there.”
To which I replied, “Hey, shut up. He’s going to pay me. That’s more money than I’ll be getting from any of my art dealers”. Until a few years ago Tom wouldn’t have been able to get much time or attention from me, his oldest brother. My art dealers managed to sell enough of my work to keep me in the studio, my focus on the next exhibition. But the art world changes, dealers close, and times get hard. So, what did I have to loose? I could use the cash.
Tom would have been miles ahead to tear the shack down, but it was too late once the drawings were approved and building permit issued. So, my adventure began and Tom’s money commenced syphoning into my pocket. I won’t go into the gory details of how an improperly built structure is stabilized.
When I first squeezed myself under the house to plan a course of action, I immediately identified with the Wicked Witch of the East. I could feel Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s house settling on me, and Dorothy and Toto taking my shoes. There were moments when my brother could have taken photos of my legs protruding from under the house. A passerby might have thought I was a lost car mechanic trying to change the oil.
I had to dig a pit and an access tunnel so I could squirm through the dirt into the crawl space. Some of the moves I made under the house, especially adjusting supports and shimming jacks or relieving pressure, had true potential for realizing the fantasy of a Wizard of Oz post tornado house landing.
I spent days either face up or face down with a small flashlight sticking out of my mouth. There was no room to roll over and change sides. Face up or face down was a choice made upon entering. Every action, every move under the house required preparation. A flashlight sometimes provided sufficient light. A flood light meant both hands were free and my mouth ready to supply articulate and unencumbered curses. Although a flood light could free may hands and illuminate a work space, I would unvariably move my arm or leg, and block the light. I marked measurements, such as for how far a beam needed to be elevated, directly upon the old lumber with a stick of chalk. Pencil and magic marker became invisible as soon as I made a mark. When I made a scratch on the ancient wood with chalk, I didn’t worry about blinking my eyes and losing the mark. Oh, and have you ever fried your arm on a lamp? Imagine doing it in a space so tight that you end up breaking the bulb! Fortunately the flashlight was in my shirt pocket. Each little setback fed my frustration. Burning my forearm was the straw that broke this camel’s back. I dragged myself out, wanting to tell Tom to go finish the job himself, but in a more colorful words. Unfortunately he wouldn’t have known where I had left off. I found Tom’s first aid kit. He was out of burn ointment. No flashlight was in my mouth block to expletives. I went home, showered and cooled down.
The next morning I was still upset with myself for accepting Tom’s challenge. I vowed to finish the project today. Today had to be the last day. I was sick of it. I really pushed myself. I became filthy and exhausted in no time at all. One small thing after another went wrong. As if to test my level of frustration, an extension cord became tangled around my foot. I attempted to free myself. The extension cord was plugged into an outlet fifty feet outside the hole. Yes, I freed my foot from the cord, successfully unplugging the light. I was cast into total darkness. This time when I reached into my shirt pocket for the flashlight, all my fingers could feel were broken pieces of chalk. No flashlight. I was in cavelike blackness. Should I panic? I could have yelled but no one would have heard me. I was in deep darkness and a silent silence filled my ears. I traveled here on my belly, slithered and crawled, carrying a small flashlight, to a place far, far, far from daily life. But now my flashlight was missing.
I calmed myself, resting my head on the dirt, almost falling asleep. Just a few minutes rest. I knew which direction I had come from, so started undulating toward my tunnel. Frustration and exhaustion were overwhelming. I tried to move faster, to get out of the dirt, out of the darkness. Instead I smacked my forehead on a floor joist. Instinctively I grabbed my forehead with my dirty hand. No blood. It was a very hard and sudden whack, the type that causes one to see stars. But all I saw was blackness, utter blackness. I rested my head back in the dirt, only to have my skull land on a hard object. I reached behind my head to move the rock or whatever it was, when my hand recognized the friendly, half buried flashlight. It still worked. The beam of light illuminated a small space between the floor joists as I gazed up. Light and shadow bounced off a constellation of ancient nail points erupting through the rough hewn floor boards. I was lost in time as I studied this new fractal of the cosmos. Still transfixed, I remembered what was in my shirt pocket.
The exhaustion brought on by your arduous trek, and the disorientation that comes from a loss of daily reference points all serve to heighten your inner, spiritual focus. Here, deep in the cave there is no day. And while the lack of light evokes a night-like illusion, the moon and stars will never emerge. Your flickering flame helps you locate them, casting shadows to illuminate shape and form. Other mysterious forms and shapes are exposed and recorded by your scratching and marking. I was transported out from under a dilapidated and worthless shelter; to a different focus, far from any human audience.
Screw my dealers, I’m back in the studio doing what I was meant to do.
April 16, 2004