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October 29, 2012

It’s been a long time since I left Oregon in April and I apologize for leaving readers hanging. I’ve been back here in the greenery of the Finger Lakes for 6 months and only now do I feel like I have the time and focus to digest all that transpired in the high desert and to translate those feelings into new work.

The trip home was not as pleasant as the trip west. I booked it back in five days so I could deal with the impending uncertainties awaiting me; I had nowhere to live, a relationship had unraveled, I needed to make money and my hand was still injured and possibly needing surgery. 12 hour days of over-caffeinated road vibration coupled with the magnetic allure of the open plains had me clinging to the steering wheel at times as if the car was literally sliding off of the road. It was like the landscape was trying to swallow me and could consume me with out a trace. I felt like Harry Dean Stanton’s character in Wim Wender’s Paris Texas, wandering out of the desert without any memory of who he was before. Relieving myself by the side of the road, staring into an endless expanse of sagebrush, it seemed like I could piss my entire existence out right there onto the gravel, leaving nothing but a stain that would soon evaporate. Save for the mysteriously abandoned car, no one would know I ever existed. As an artist, I think this is the sort of anxiety we carry with us throughout our careers; the thought that we will most likely remain unknown and that for all the work that we do, our mark on the world may become nothing more than a stain on a sidewalk, noticeable perhaps in the moment of it’s making, but otherwise quietly stepped over and avoided.

Standing on top of the ridge above Paisley caves, one of America’s oldest established sites of human habitation, on my last full day at Playa, I scoured the eastern horizon with my eyes. Nothing but sagebrush for hundreds of miles. The sight of a wild horse, the embodiment of the notion of western freedom, would have elated me, but instead I was left with a gripping tightness in my gut, a fear of the complete emptiness. 14,000 years ago someone probably stood in the exact spot and took in the same view. What were they thinking? Did they fear the open space or see it as a vast resource? Were the rock paintings they left behind simply a calling card, like a modern graffiti tag, to say “I was here”, or, are they a more complex response to the wide open landscape, perhaps probing un-namable feelings of existential isolation as the solitary artist trekked from camp to camp?

Once home I found a great apartment in the little hamlet of Brooktondale. There’s a little store down the street with the perfect combination of creaking wooden floors and wifi. A community center hosts a Saturday farmer’s market and has community gardens. My apartment hovers over a creek with wonderful waterfall and swim hole. I go to sleep at night soothed by the rushing gurgle of the water. On really hot days this summer, cars would line the street as the swim hole was filled with bathers from every walk of life. I love the simple purity of it, the mix of kids and adults, the egalitarian camaraderie. Now that summer is over I go there just to sit or photograph the water. I’ve always been drawn to creeks as a place to become absorbed in nature and step away from life. The sound of the water drowns out worries and the tight little gorge takes you below the level of life above, into a place of quiet reflection. It is similar to but sort of antithetical to being in the wide open desert. It has become my daily cure for the stresses of returning to normal life.

One day while enjoying a beer by the water my neighbor stopped me and decided to enforce her authority over the creek she claims the rights to. I politely engaged her and we talked about the difficult situation of legally owning a swim hole that had been in public use for generations. We acknowledged the problem of accumulating trash and noisy late night parties and the improbability of enforcing her frequently defaced no trespassing signs. I quietly thought it absurd to even claim ownership to something as ephemeral as moving water but I also know that property lines can be tied to archaic agreements, and certainly, the history of the hole as a former mill site meant that there was, at one time, commercial value tied to the control of the water. I thought about this quite a lot over the summer, especially in relation the way lines are drawn even in the vast open of the spaces of the west. Out there, barbed wire fences extend hundreds of miles through seemingly barren sage brush plains, across ravines and up the sides of mesas. Sometimes they denote ownership, sometimes they just keep cattle from wandering too far on public land. Our entire country is built upon ideas of private ownership and the right to protection against encroachment. What is good for the individual is paramount over the good of the community; sharing is an afterthought, limited by contractual agreements and terms of liability. Mistrust is the default.

I looked up the tax map for the swim hole and discovered that it is indeed crisscrossed by a series of boundary lines as complex as the history suggested by the brick, concrete and steel remnants of the former mill structures that cling to the rock faces. One neighbor owns one side of the creek, another, the waterfall itself and the town owns a good chunk of the rest. I decided I had to make another piece, another intervention in the landscape, that addresses this improbability of ownership, this unnatural division. A simple line of stones marking an invisible boundary, a line of tension.

It emulates the first work I did at Playa: a straight line of stones, set by laser, extending hundreds of feet. But the context, among the artificial lines of man-made structures and the underlying geometry of the faulted shale, is completely different. Here, everything is compressed and layered upon something else that existed before. Meaning is derived from this complexity of relationships and nothing or nobody, can be taken as an isolated event. This connection to place, to others and to events that took place before is what feeds the themes in my work; memory, longing, and the search for personal meaning. For me, the wide open vistas of the west are a seductive siren call to letting go of the past, dissolving connections and reinventing oneself; a romantic but failed idea like the Harry Dean Stanton character. For now, I prefer to remember where I came from, who my connections are and be true to who I am.

Creekline: a line of stones set in the creek bed, Six mile creek, Brooktondale, NY

View of Creekline from an overhead bridge


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One Comment
  1. I love it, Rob. Thank you.

    I wrote more but lost it. I do everything backwards; I went east. I have long flat ripply smooth stones from North of the burg, a spot on the lake where there were many of these, my ‘finger rocks’. I water my rocks on my windowsill when I water my plants. It doesn’t seem right not to. I have rocks under my bed. In my car. I’ll tell you about the bricks another time.
    -Dawn S

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