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For the Love of Steel

Like most metal workers, I have a love-hate relationship with steel. It is heavy, dirty and loud to work with. Welding involves all kinds of hazards and assaults to the body: burns, cuts, and metal slivers, the fumes of welding and the dust from the resin-bonded grinding disc. I have tinnitus from years of grinding metal and a piece of titanium in my wrist, surgically implanted after a drilling accident. In the winter, my shop is freezing and it’s a constant battle between turning the fan on or conserving what heat there is.

 

Oh, yes, I wear safety gear—when I can stand it: safety glasses, ear protectors, welding helmet, face shield, respirator and an assortment of gloves. It’s a constant on-off-on-off and not everything is compatible; hearing protectors don’t fit under a welding helmet, respirators fog up the safety glasses, and gloves make certain fine task impossible. None of it is comfortable.

So, at times, I hate what I love. Like yesterday when my task was to clean the mill scale off of a 1,000 pounds of mild steel for a new sculpture in my Landforms series. Mill scale is a hard, black crust on the steel that comes from the heating and cooling of the production process. It actually protects it for a while but is a poor surface to paint over and, thus has to be removed. It is so hard that it resists sanding and it has to be sand blasted or removed with acid. I don’t have a blasting set-up so I am stuck the latter.

 

Steel is a poorly understood material. Everyone knows it is hard and strong but what they probably don’t know is that its strength comes from its malleability. It bends before it breaks and it can easily be persuaded to take on new forms. The most misunderstood aspect is the oxidation process. Oxidation, like combustion, is the combination of oxygen with the fuel material, in this case iron. Usually it is slow, but with enough heat and a jet of oxygen, the steel actually burns—which is how torch cutting works. So, while steel is strong and versatile, it also has this transient quality; when metal work leaves the shop, the goal is to have some permanent coating on it so that it doesn’t rust away, but, left alone, it will go through an organic transformation with moments of beauty so fleeting that few of us get to fully appreciate it.

One of my Landforms sculpture groupings with a slowly rusting waxed surface.

The black is mill scale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To remove the mill scale I wash it with acid (a process that involves a kiddy-pool). In doing so I expose the soft underbelly of the plates and get to witness this instant transformation of the patina. There are subtle greens, magentas and yellows, like a color-field painting. Once I rinse the metal, it instantly starts to burn with soft orange haze of rust. It is hard to describe and harder to photograph. It is at this point that I wish I could hold it, but I can’t. Sometimes I try by using a wax finish, but for outdoor works in public display, a slowly rusting finish just doesn’t fly. People want control and permanence. They expect steel to hold fast against the elements and for surface to be predictable. They will never see the soft, delicate, fleeting surface of the steel that I love.

 

a 3×4 foot plate fresh from the acid bath

Subtle colors on the rapidly changing surface

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An orange haze of rust

This makes me think of painting

The Moods of the Lake

cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16Hour after hour, day after day, I have been sitting and watching the lake as it cycles through its endless moods. The light constantly changes, the wind shifts, and the waves rise and fall. My observations start before sunrise, when an orange thread first appears over the hills to east, and go into darkness, when all of the man-made lights compete with the lights in the night sky. When the wind is still and the lake is mirror-smooth, the town of Aurora, three and a half miles across, looks like a dollhouse collection set on the hills. When the wind kicks up white caps and the waves pound the shore, the lake becomes an ominous beast. The waves are not huge by ocean standards, but, in contrast to the scale of the landscape, they have a power that demands respect. Boats caught in the white caps struggle against the irregular rhythm and can be heard surging through the churning water. Swimming or canoeing becomes out of the question.

 

The direction of the waves works with the sun to create infinite patterns of color and light. Shifting currents can make the water a pea soup, so opaque one day that I can’t see my hands when I swim, and, then, clear as a cup of green tea the next, revealing a forest of weeds and fish before the bottom drops away to milky-bluish depths. From where I sit, the lake is over three hundred feet deep in the center—modest by ocean standards but deep enough to hold it’s mysteries.

cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16

During my stay at the lake house, I took hundreds of photos of the lake, trying to record every mood, every nuance. A moment frozen in time cannot capture the noisy energy of waves; videos and painting seem better suited. I am trying to figure out the visual pattern that allows us to read them as waves. There are layers of color, light, shadow and reflection. The pattern repeats but is never the same. Quick, expressive marks capture the energy but gloss over the intricate lace-like reflections that a more careful study will reveal. I suspect that any one approach will fail and that the only way to know the lake is to study it thru a multiplicity of experiences and to employ equally diverse means of expression. Perhaps I will need poetry and dance to fully explain all that I come to learn.

 

When something presents a seemingly simple surface, but under scrutiny reveals an intriguing depth and complexity, I get drawn in. Like swimmer on a hot summer’s day, I am ready for the plunge.

cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16cayuga-lake-091416_0539cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16cayuga-lake-091416_0554cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16lake-painting_3lake-painting

 

The Lake

cayuga-lake-091616_0631For longer than I can remember, the lake has been central to my life. To any one local to the area “the lake” refers to Cayuga, that beautiful long glacial trough filled with glistening blue-green water. Although we rarely speak it’s full name in direct reference, every local business, event, and organization possible borrows the moniker. The name originates in the people who made this area home for centuries before they were brutally unseated by Sullivan. His charge, from General Washington, was to make way for settlement by the revolutionary soldiers who would later come and establish themselves in the neat one-mile-square boxes that were imposed upon the rolling terrain.

 

In the view from space, the Finger Lakes are easy to discern; Cayuga, the longest, would be the index finger. By referencing the adjacent lakes, towns are easy to find but hard to get to since one must travel around each finger to travel east and west. Ferries, which at one time were deemed essential, haven’t plied these waters in a century. Roads, which often follow the grid that Simeon DeWitt, the Surveyor General of New York, devised as a means to divide and distribute the land, have names that give a hint to the ancestry of those early settlers: McCulloch, MacDougall, Allen, Skinner, Yarnell, Swick, and so on. The townships themselves, in a quirk of history, were given classical Greek and Roman names by Robert Harpur, a clerk in DeWitt’s office who preferred the poetic to the pragmatic simplicity of numbers: Ovid, Romulus, Ulysses…There are eleven or twelve Finger Lakes in all, depending on who is counting. It is fitting that the names of seven of the lakes pay homage to the original inhabitants: Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, Canandaigua, Owasco, and Otisco. Ignoring all of the lake houses, docks and other incursions on the shore, the long bodies of water are the landscape features that would be most recognizable to a Haudenosaunee from five centuries ago. The lakes are the most dominant feature and, more than anything else, define the region and its inhabitants.

 

As I ponder these thoughts about the lake, I am sitting on a lake-house deck overlooking the water. The soft crashing of the waves on the worn flat stones is the sound track to my ruminations. Some people around here own lake houses; everyone else who grew up here, in the land between the lakes, has dreamed about them: either renting one for a week or two, owning a little summer cottage, or having a full blown year-round house on the water. Until now, I have never realized this dream. Through fortunate circumstance, I have two weeks to spend idly staring at the water and forgetting about work and a heap of other obligations.

 

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My mother grew up connected to the water on the North Shore of Long Island. She instilled in us a love for the water, taking us to the lake when we were younger. She always dreamed about getting back into sailing, which she did with great proficiency in her youth. In 1965, my parents bought 10 acres, not on the water, but across the highway from it. The modernist house my father designed would have sweeping views up the lake from the third floor balcony. My father lost his job, the first of many layoffs, and the dream deflated like a kid’s party balloon left lingering on the living room ceiling until it simply fell back to the floor, where it was left unnoticed, unmentioned, forgotten.

 

I have never lost the dream and have kept my eye on lakefront properties, but, as the region has boomed in popularity, lakefront prices have swelled to the point of impossibility. Cottages used to be simple, unadorned, summer havens owned by locals, but, they are now becoming the exclusive retreats of wealthy imports. Locals would offset their tax burden by renting weekly during the warm season (most cottages were not winterized), but the new arrivals mostly keep their newly restored lake “cottages” to themselves. Thus, access to the lake for the common working folk, aside from a few parks, is becoming harder and harder. To finally spend two solid weeks, without interruption, at the lake, after 55 years of contemplation, is a dream come true for me.

cayuga lake-photos from poplar beach stay 9/11-9/24/16

Affording to be an Artist

When I was a little kid I was told I was going to be an artist. Paintbrushes, pencils and drawing pads were thrust my way. By the time I was in grade school I was known as the class artist. I drew Snoopy for other kids and, at home, drew copies of nude women from art books. The embers of my father’s burning desire to be an artist, something he too felt as a child, were reignited in the possibility that I would pursue the career he sidetracked to become an architect, a more practical choice.

 

So, I went to art school. First, to New Paltz State, and then, after dismissing the lack of seriousness in my partying classmates, on to a real art school: The Maine College of Art. My parents were legally bankrupt; I paid for school entirely myself by working summers as a billboard painter. After getting my BFA, I went to Cornell for my MFA, working as teaching assistant and a house painter to pay the bills. Although some of my classmates and friends came from incredibly wealthy families, none of that rubbed off on me. In fact, I usually paid the bar tab. After school I continued to work in the trades doing blue collar work: ornamental plaster, house painting and carpentry, until I got a part time teaching gig at Ithaca College. But that didn’t pay very much either. After 12 years, my position was dissolved in an acidic dispute over equality and pay, so, I went back to the trades where I still work today.

 

During this entire period I have kept up my studio practice: I’ve had shows, won awards and residencies and been invited to speak. I am continuously making new work that explores how art is essential to sifting out meaning in this complex and chaotic world. Now, more than ever I feel my work is on the verge of something, that my sifting is producing more nuggets of gold and less dross. Although my practice has dramatically shifted, I am getting to the core of what I have been searching for my whole life. It’s not drawing Snoopy, but, then again, I’m sure Charles Schultz was an early influence .

 

I’m writing this as I should be writing yet another statement of intent for yet another grant application. This, at a time when I should be heading towards bed to be rested for yet another day of hard work. It goes on like this, month after month , year after year, trying to get recognition, a few crumbs of funding, or a foot in the door so that maybe, one day, I won’t have to lift my hammer to pay the bills. So that I won’t have juggle art and survival.

 

I keep track of who wins grants, or gets major shows or opportunities and increasingly I’ve become wearily aware that most are people with the means to be an artist- people with money, support and connections. Artist who don’t have to work full time to survive, who have the time and money to not only make art, but to go places, see things, and meet the right people. I start to wonder: “can I afford to be an artist? or, should I just throw in the towel?”

 

Unfortunately, this digression will not meet the requirements for the letter of intent I need to write tonight. Nor, is it 2500 characters or less. If do I get this $3,000 grant, it may buy me a few weeks of blissful creativity- but, not if I don’t apply.

“What Are You Doing?”

 

 

flow project

“What are you doing?”

 

That’s a typical question I get from bystanders when I am out in the woods trying to make my art. Today, an acquaintance asked about the long rope I had over my shoulder as I headed out to a favorite isolated creek. “I don’t know,” I told her. “Really?” she insisted. “really, no clue”.

 

I typically work alone so I can avoid questions like this. Making art is a rather private affair, and I feel stifled when I know someone is looking over my shoulder. It’s hard, in ten words or less, to explain my entire process.

 

The truth is, when I am being truly creative, I don’t want to know what I am doing. I want to be open the situation at hand, listen to the site and follow my gut. It’s almost the opposite of when I show up at a job site, where each stage of construction is carefully planned and the outcome is established long before we start. Sure, I’m going to bring some tools and materials- such as the last minute decision to grab that rope; the same rope that I salvaged from Nova Scotia while making art there; the rope, that when wet, as it would be by the end of the day, stinks like the bottom of the ocean. What I take is only a guess as to what I’ll use. Planning, while essential for some aspects of my practice, is the death knell of creative genesis.

 

When I was a kid, loner that I was, I’d sneak off and head to the creek behind our ten acres on the edge of town. There, I’d engage in all kinds of projects: making damns, diverting water, catching crayfish and taking an inventory of aquatic life. It was my world. Like most kids, my world was distinct from the world of my parents. My typical response to queries about what I had been doing: “nuthin”. It was not so much that I was trying to be secretive, I just knew that there was no way in hell they’d understand the importance of what I was doing. I guess that way of working, of exploring and playing in the woods and creeks, hasn’t really changed. For me, making art is all about getting back to that kid mind.

 

The interesting thing about my little exchange in the parking lot was, that I learned that the preserve was in the process of expanding it’s boundaries and that surveyors had just been there, flagging trees to mark the invisible boundaries. This ties into recent work I have doing which explores how boundary lines and the parceling of the landscape have helped define our relationship to the land.

 

The only difference between what I do now and what I did as kid, is that, now, I try to weave meaning into my actions. I take into account the history, geography and ecology of a place and try to make sense out of how human activity intersects with the natural. I come home and write about it and pour over my documentary photographs and try to make an exhibition. I try to figure out what the hell I really am doing. And then (and only then), I share it with the world.

 

Flow

A few months ago I had a crisis of heart. My EKG was reading “acute ischemia,” which, in lay terms, means: a heart attack was likely. It turned out that there is nothing wrong with my heart, that I just have a wonky EKG, but the doctors had me scared for a few days. I actually left the hospital against their advice (that death was imminent!).To ease my anxiety over the situation I went to a favorite spot in the woods, near the headwaters of Six Mile Creek, to take some photos.

Usually, when I venture out, camera in hand, I try not to have an agenda. I like to see what possibilities are presented to me and then explore them. On this day, in which darkness was rapidly approaching, I found myself standing in the middle of the creek, with my expensive camera and tripod perched on slippery rocks. As the light faded away I had to shoot longer and longer exposures; the flowing water began to look more and more ethereal, especially when contrasted with the few static objects in the view.

While I was in the hospital I had a series of tests done, which included imaging of the heart using dyes or nuclear material injected into my blood, and an echocardiogram. Like an expectant mother watching a sonogram, being able to see the innards of my ticker working away in a live view fascinated me; it was almost worth having to endure the whole ordeal. Whenever I have x-rays, or MRIs done, (I’ve had way too many!) I like to get copies so I can study and even draw from them. This time was no exception. In art school we studied anatomy as a part of figure drawing; I love learning about the body and understanding what we look like under our skin.

The water flowing in the creek felt like the blood in my arteries, in its movement was life. I needed a way to show it. I began to pick up red leaves and throw them in the water as my camera clicked off 2-second exposures. The red blur captured the motion; the fuzzy details and contrast of the waterfalls were like the images from the hospital. Later, I came back with red surveyor’s tape and let it run out in the creek for a few hundred feet. As I traced it with my camera, each image became more exciting.

It is moments like these when I am sure of my vision. Without forethought, I have woven a perfect thread through my work. You may recall an earlier series I did on the heart: a study of the origins of the ubiquitous valentine in contrast with the actual, anatomical organ. This was a perfect recap of that, but with the angle that the crucial flow of blood circulating through our hearts and bodies is like the flow of water through the creeks and rivers. We are all dependent on the flow of life giving fluid.

I plan to keep working on this series, playing in the creek and documenting my process. I’ve included a few here for your enjoyment.

flow project

 

 

flow project

 

cardiac cath image 2

 

park preserve water patterns

 

park preserve water patterns

 

 

echo copy copy

 

 

 

 

 

Billboards

In so much that an artist does, past work experiences becomes a source for new art. I think about how my past jobs inform and relate to current themes in my work. I’ve had a lot of different jobs-ornamental plasterer, carpenter, welder, house painter, sauna builder, college professor, and art preparator. The first steady job I had was painting billboards during my summers off from college.

Each May, I would leave school as soon as possible and head back to the foothills of the Adirondacks where I had a job with Coe Advertising in Barneveld, NY. I suffered through living with my parents while I worked 40-60 hour weeks, until I earned enough cash to pay off the bursar when I returned to school in September.

My boss, Ralph Coe, knew I was his golden boy the day I showed up for an interview for a job he hadn’t posted. I was compensated well: by the second summer my weekly paycheck equaled my father’s-who was not only an architect, but ironically had once painted signs himself and taught me how to letter. In 1972, when I was 11,  we painted the banner “ We Love the Blue Raiders,” which swung over Main Street during the Trumansburg homecoming parade. Painting signs was not without its personal conflict: although I didn’t care for football and the charade of the homecoming pageant, I loved making that banner. I hated billboards in general, especially the ones which interrupted the roadside view as you drove towards the wilderness, but I loved the job. If you drove to Old Forge and beyond at any time between 1980 and 1985, you saw my artwork. My moral justification was: if  those signs were going to be there, they should finance my art career. Now, I look back on many of them with a nostalgic fondness; they were the last of an era, soon to be replaced by digital avatars pasted up by hard hat crews with no artistic training.
ok corral_1
The last remaining sign that I painted: a back-lit plexiglass light box sign for the OK Corral, in Remsen, was still in place last year, even though the diner was boarded up. Besides being a functional beacon to highway travelers, it became a local cultural icon whose irony was probably most obvious to me. The crude painting of a cowboy on a bucking bronco announced a place only imagined to most travelers in those parts. It did, however, capture the boom and bust spirit of the lower Adirondacks, a region where starting a business was  as risky as picking a bar fight in Tombstone, Arizona; home of the original OK Corral. I called it the “culture of failure”. I painted signs for many places that were struggling. As we said in the sign business, a good sign will only get the customer through the door-the first time.

blue spuce motel

pioneer inn

I painted billboards and signs for all sorts of businesses up and down Route 12 and 28. Places with endearing cornball touristy names such as: The Buffalo Head Inn, Deer Meadows Motel, and The Rendezvous. Most of these were one-of-a-kind signs, painted in place, with me balanced on a twelve-inch wide plank, juggling cans of paint, brushes, and spray paint. Sometimes I got lucky and did the panels in the shop, which we would put up later. They ranged in size from twenty-four to forty feet long. My layout tools were simple and  “old school”: a wooden yardstick, tape measure, grease pencil, a string compass and chalk line. Sometimes I’d make a pattern in the shop, using a tracing wheel to poke holes in the paper and then use a chalk bag to dust it onto the billboard, but usually I’d just sketch things out in place. I’d work from a postcard sized design–usually completely out of proportion to the actual sign-that Ralph would hand to me as he sent me on my way. After that, I’d be my own for two to three days. People were happy with my work and despite my long hair, which drew comments straight out of a Bob Seger song, I was a celebrity at many a diner—where we ate for free since they owed Ralph so much money.
whitesboro spring     tough case
I liked  painting cars and machinery and animals: my airbrushed (spray painted) version of the famous “Buffalo Head” was never surpassed and I did  a pretty good moose for the Big Moose Inn,  but I was terrible at people. Lettering was pretty straightforward, but it was the spacing that was critical. When you kern in Illustrator, you can tweak the whole line but with paint it was one letter at a time. A “turp” soaked rag was my eraser and stepping back to view the work was never an easy option when on a plank twenty feet in the air. Counter to intuition, serifs made lettering easier; the little flags created flow and compensated for awkward spacing. Focusing on one letter at a time and working forwards and backwards from the center made it pretty easy to misspell words. I can’t tell you how many times I looked up from the front seat of the truck during lunch and was horror-stricken by what I had written. Maybe that’s why cars always honked at me. Some days I’d get so absorbed in my work I’d forget lunch altogether.

one scaffolding rig I used

one scaffolding rig I used

Now I think about my billboard experience as an introduction to a scale that was larger than anything possible in a studio. The works were literally interventions in the landscape, interrupters of the view and with a boldness that could compensate for the velocity of the viewer. Likewise, In the world of art galleries, works have to compete with an increasingly  distracted audience in a hurry to go nowhere. Art has become big, bold, and splashy. In the past, art demanded at least a moment of contemplation. Perhaps billboards can used  to recapture the attention of a world zooming by. In my head I have a project to (temporarily) reclaim some of those billboards and paint images from a past era when traveling included activities such looking out the car window and marveling at the world passing by. These images, showing scenes from my own history, will simultaneously engage and confuse viewers, much like the simplistic logos of so many failed diners: “fine food, complete menu,” leaving them with the question: “Is this art?”

Hands

 

 

In my last post I showed a selfie photo that had me holding my hand in front of my face as if I was trying to hide my identity. My friend Chris responded with a familiar image of cave art: the outline of the artist hand, stenciled as he (she) sprayed ocher or some other earth pigment over it. It reminded me of finding such a hand print on cliff wall, off trail, in the Gila wilderness in New Mexico. Rarely has such a simple human expression impacted me like that. Not just the image, but the randomness of finding it, without the usual signs and well worn path. It was as if we were the first to see the lasting expression of someone dead for millennia.

Remembering this moment makes me think about the significance of hands, especially regarding identity. We all know that our fingerprints are unique, but what is more unique and interesting is what we do with our hands. Arguably, more so than even our oversized brains, it is our ability to manipulate material that sets us apart from other species. The moment of the first human turning a wet lump of clay into a Venus or dragging charcoal across a cave wall to elucidate his feelings about the hunt is the moment that art took center stage in the history of human development.

My hands play heavily into who I am. If there is one aspect of my life that reigns, it is my ability to make. I’ll admit, I’m not good at a lot of things: playing music befuddles me and  typing is a pain in the ass, but put any tool in my hand and I will make that tool speak.  I will make materials submit to my whim and I can make marks as subtle as feather’s tickle or as bold as a jackhammer’s blast. I submit my hands to incredible abuse and, yet, when I ask them to perform surgeon’s tasks, they comply. In the past week I have blasted holes through concrete, extracted rotten woodwork, drew delicate lines on paper, wove metal into metal with a 5000 degree flame (inches from my bare fingers) and coaxed cement into a perfectly sloped floor. I can’t text worth a damn, but these fingers can weave rope and pull a line as steady as a CNC machine. Without these hands, I am speechless, without identity and lost. If my life can be defined as one existential crisis after another, then it is my hands and their ability to leave a solid mark on the world that resolves each crises and saves me from myself.

I taught welding for many years; after watching many students struggle with the delicate weave of the molten puddle,  I began to realize that a steady hand cannot be taught. I inherited steadiness from my father. He was an architect back when CAD was an insult; the detail and clarity of his drawings blow away anything a computer could ever do. These days, it’s a rare skill to be able to use your hands for anything other than kissing a keyboard. When I shake hands, I instinctively judge a man by his callouses: the rougher the better. (a bit of ochre on the backside isn’t bad either). Despite all of our technology, the world is still a gritty place that needs real fixes.

This past Spring I had major hand surgery: In 2012, I tore the ligament that stabilizes the  connection between the ulna and radius and the carpals in my right (i.e., dominant) hand. For two years I limped along, unable to do what I do, and only able to do anything with the endurance of pain. (For those of you who follow my work: thus, the photos) After several meetings with my Dr., I entrusted her to cut my ulna in two, shorten it, put it back together with a metal  plate and repair the torn ligament. When the wraps came off two weeks after surgery, I almost passed out; with my hand shriveled to a useless appendage I felt reduced to uselessness.  But six months later,  the surgery has worked and I am back to work. It was her hands, with their gifted steadiness, that have made it possible for my hands to regain their voice, to manipulate material, to become my identity once again.

These hands of mine may feel heavy and sluggish or they may ache at times, you may meet me with indistinguishable goo stuck to them, or I may be sitting on them in the dance hall, but they are who I am. Give me a blank cave wall and the possibility of eternity and I will eagerly put these dukes up as a signifier of who I am.

 

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Heavy Hands 1

The Selfie

Making art is a profoundly private gesture, yet, as an artist I want to share my expressions with the world. In the moment, a singular action may seem crazy, but in the context of the artist’s oeuvre, it fits into the pattern of one’s life like a single strand of red wool fits into the greens of a tartan plaid.  We don’t need an audience to cheer us at every move, rather, we need validation through some record of the work having been made— even a bad review will do. Paying a therapist to quietly nod and mumble a few choice banalities will somehow validate all of your concerns; whereas talking to yourself is simply craziness. We simply need a witness.

Like a tree that falls in the forest, many of my artistic actions go unseen. I prefer to work in complete privacy yet my proclivity is to photo-document my actions when possible— and by proclivity, I do mean weakness. To be both documentor and documentee is a contradiction. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, usually applied to science, works here: by turning the camera on one’s self, one can never capture the true nature of one’s self. Selfies are all a lie. So, my work is purest when I don’t care about the outcome or the audience or even documentation. The Zen secret to being an artist is to work like you don’t care,  but to do everything with great care. And be ready for the perfect storm.

When it finally comes to presenting the work—printing it, matting and framing it and then sipping (guzzling) cheap wine while the audience ponders—I have to become a stranger to it. The work is long over, the opening is more a wake than a party, and I am the undertaker. My mind is always on the next moment and, somewhere, I find inspiration for the next work.

One Good Rope

Besides all of the tangled masses of long rope that I have been finding caught in the rocks, I’ve been collecting short bits that appear in the mats of flotsam on the beach. The range of colors is amazing: blue, green, yellow, orange and several pastel shades. Looking at my collection in a pile, you’d think there had been a celebration, but, thinking about the extension cords that often snake around my feet in my studio, different colors make it easier to keep the mess untangled; or, like the mass of wires in the guts of a car’s fuse box, the colors make it possible to trace one line from what would otherwise be a mess of monochromatic spaghetti. On a fishing boat, it must be hard enough just to stay on your feet, much less keep track of which rope goes to what. Hopefully, not many fishermen are color blind.

Many of the pieces have these wonderful splices in them, which look like the braids of a rag rug, either to join two or sections or to make a loop or an end. The pieces range from one to several feet in length are about one-half to three-quarters of an inch thick. All rope is made the same way: three distinct strands formed from fine fibers twist around each other in a counter-clockwise direction. The strands themselves are tightly wound in a clockwise direction so that the twisting actions work against each other and hold it all together. The more stress applied, the more the rope binds on itself. A rope can be made as long as needed regardless of the length of the fine fibers, which can be jute, hemp, cotton, nylon or, as in the case most beach rope, polypropylene, which floats and doesn’t biodegrade. A splice simply weaves the strands of two ends together, or in the case of a loop, an end back into itself. I’ve decided to take all of these cast off pieces and make one long rope.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate rope. As a Boy Scout, I learned how to tie knots and lash together sticks to make lean-tos and towers. Later, as a house painter, the antiquated scaffold hoist that I used relied on ropes to take me up and down the side of a house so I could work half a day without touching the ground. I inspected my ropes regularly; like a rock climber, I knew my life depended on them. Years later, working on the Cayuga Lake Triathlon, I had to come up a system to create a half-mile long string of buoys that would define the swim course. We used one length of yellow polypropylene, splicing in loops for buoy clips and anchors so that it could be rapidly deployed. Looking at old race day photos, I know, this experience informed later projects, like the 1500 foot line of stones I created in the Oregon high desert. A line in the landscape can imply an almost infinite scale; physically manifest as fence or road or a rope, it is the perfect marriage of the abstract to the tangible. Like a yellow police tape, a line can be seemingly insignificant and, yet, can impose unmistakeable consequences. Rope is also pretty handy stuff; it is one of those things, like the wheel, that defines civilization, yet, unlike other technology, it is pretty much unchanged and it is certainly less glamorized. Its perfection lies in its simplicity and the way it utilizes the natural tendency of things to twist and bind on them selves. Pulled taut into a straight line, it is perfectly stable; left to the forces of nature, it will eventually curl into itself and form a useless tangle.

As I work and teach myself the splicing process, I find that the easiest way to work is to start a foot back from one end. After the strands of the second rope are weaved into the first, the extra rope is trimmed off. The floor of my work space is soon covered with all of these little ends and I begin think about all the short bits of plastic rope that litter the beaches. I realize that much of it is probably not lost, but simply discarded. Suddenly, reconstituting all of these bits into a new rope becomes an indictment of those who live off of the sea.

My spliced rope is almost 100 feet long now and made of twenty or so pieces. Much of the rope is worn and frayed but the splices look pretty good (but not as good as the fishermen’s), so I know they will hold under stress. The project would be meaningless if the rope wasn’t strong, so I test it by tying one end to my car and the other to a tree. As I release my clutch, the rope binds on itself and the engine bucks and stalls. That is one good rope.

IMG_2249     work shot at Baie St Marie, Nova Scotia      work shot at Baie St Marie, Nova Scotia    IMG_2714   IMG_2726