December 11, 2008

George Tanner meets Jim Tolstrup

There are still more adventures to unfold for you here, but the truth is I've been back in Fremantle for a couple of weeks now and the intensity of re-adjustment has my writing temporarily stymied. I can feel myself slowly catching up to myself - so, I'll return to the story soon, I promise.

Part of catching-up has entailed re-reading a number of emails that arrived during my travels. With often dodgy internet connection, I was only able to give many of them the most cursory glance (and no follow-up) - including one that came from Jim in early September. He sent a copy of the song lyrics he wrote for our great-great-great grandfather, George Tanner. They're really quite wonderful. This is the very song Jim sang for me, for his new Irish friends (and for our ancestors) on Tara Hill. Here they are:

George Tanner’s Lament
Oh my name is George Tanner from Ireland I come
Escaping from hunger with my wife and my young sons
With one inspiration in our hearts and our minds
The hope of a good life leaving sorrows behind

Well we lived for a while way up in Portland Maine
But after a while long we were moving again
We come down to East Boston with one thought in mind
To look for a good life leaving sorrows behind

Now Boston’s a fine town and they call it “The Hub”
But it’s “No Dogs or Irish” in all of the pubs
And an Irishman’s wages are meager you’ll find
When you look for a good life leaving sorrows behind

Young George, James and William fought in the Civil War
For a country that’ll take us is worth fighting for
Homeless and hungry and what did we find?
America’s sorrows leaving sorrow behind

Then we wandered so long we forgot whence we came
We forgot our green country, forgot our own name
Though we’re no longer hungry we lost ties that bind
us to good life leaving sorrows behind

I would ask my grandmother but she’s many years gone
But I feel she’s still near when I’m singing this song
And her memory’s imprinted on my heart and mind
She’s gone to a good life leaving sorrows behind
After many long years I’m returning once more
To taste all the joys and the grief our folks bore
To feed their hungry spirits and for my own to find
I come looking for a good life leaving sorrows behind

But now the Earth’s changing, the water and air
Old grievances don’t matter if there’s no future there
When we care for all beings and learn to be kind
Then we’ll find a good life and leave sorrow behind

December 1, 2008

What to say and how to say it. Who to ask and what to ask them.

Intuition is one thing, but right from the start I’ve known that this work was too important to leave to the whims of my intuition. Without my own cultural traditions to fall back on, I’d combed the anthropological literature for resonant beliefs and practices. Through my travels, I sought counsel from others who recognised that working with the ancestors meant calling on forces that can have powerful influence on both the spiritual and physical well-being of the living; forces my culture barely recognises as real and seems not to fully understand. Along the way, much of what I’d come to intuitively had been fortified: countless others – like me – have felt inspired to leave messages in stone for their ancestors; countless others have spoken, or sung invitations, acknowledgements and apologies to their ancestors to establish a habit of interaction and attention (and to make amends for past neglect); countless others celebrate their relationship to their ancestors via a ceremony or feast.

Creating a feast, seemed the right thing to do. Jim and I decided, that once the stone was in place we would dedicate it with a feast held for our ancestors. The timing seemed auspicious: I would finished carving the petroglyph just a week before Samhain/All Souls/Day of the Dead. The night of Oct 31st figures largely in many traditions, so we decided it felt right for us, too. I set about planning the event – though felt something was missing: I wanted to speak to my ancestors, but I didn’t know what to say...or how to say it. While I’ve felt a deeply driven longing to connect with the spirits of my ancestors, I have also felt a degree of fear about unleashing forces or mis-managing forces I don’t completely undertand. I wanted to speak to my ancestors, but unclear about what I should say...or how I should say it. Much of what I’d heard or read about talking with the ancestors had to do with placating them – so as not to arouse their capricious anger - or asking them for help in the day to day affairs of the living. Neither resonated with me. I hadn’t felt victimised by ancestral pranks, nor was there anything I wanted from my ancestors, I wanted only to say, “Here I am. I am your descendant and this is my son. I’m sorry I haven’t properly acknowledged you before now. I promise to do better.” I just didn’t know how. I’d also come to consider whether there was a proper way to draw the ancestors to me... and as well, to lead them away again.

I thought again about Sal and Flo Yepa and felt – more than ever – a need for their wise and practiced counsel. Sal and Flo are two of the gentlest, most generous and most graceful people I’ve ever met. Their understanding of the sacred nature of the world springs directly from their Puebloan culture and is honed through daily practice and attendance to the spirits in everything around them. I called them and Jim and I headed off to visit them in New Mexico.

When we arrived, Sal was alone. Flo had gone to Albuquerque for an appointment she'd had to keep. We sat down in their kitchen and Sal offered us breakfast –coffee, fresh tortillas and fried eggs with the most delicious chile I’ve ever eaten. We chatted while he cooked, then he sat down and asked me what I’d been doing. I told him briefly about my research and my questions: How should I talk with the ancestors, what should I say? Sal’s cousin came in and our talk flowed naturally to other things – daily life, struggles, gratitude, evolution - what changes and what doesn’t.

After his cousin left, Sal said that he wanted to take us somewhere. We drove up along the side of a steep canyon and Sal pointed to a mountain where his ancestors had lived thousands of years ago until they’d been driven out by an enemy tribe. Sal then pointed to another mountain that had been their next tribal home - one that had lasted until the Spanish came. Sal told us that there were still the remains of structures and numerous artifacts scattered across the mountain top. I was struck by the power of living in a place where the landscape around you was one that illustrated your ancestral story: how different my experience of place – and of home – that is. We came to a waterfall and Sal told us to stop. He said that this place was very special to him. It was the place where he and Flo had fallen in love and where they'd often come when they were troubled and felt the need for guidance. It was a beautiful place of deeply cut red rock and powerful, rushing water: a sound that always quiets me. Jim scrambled down to the river's edge and Sal sat down on a large boulder overhanging the canyon. He motioned me to sit next to him and helped me over the rocks. We quietly sat for a moment and then he simply turned to me and said, “Just talk to your ancestors the way you talk to me. Tell them what’s in your heart. It will be right” I was struck by how simple and matter-of-fact his answer was. I asked him how I should call the ancestors to come to me and he said that when it’s time for their annual ancestor feast, he and Flo travel to the highest point in the Pueblo at dawn with offerings of corn seed and pollen (traditional sacred offerings in Puebloan culture) and simply invite their ancestors to follow them home. Once home again, the ancestors are invited to sit at a special table Flo has prepared for them and are served the first portions of favourite foods. I told Sal I was concerned about calling the spirits to me without knowing what I should do after that and he nodded his head in approval. He told me that the feast table is left overnight, but the next morning all foods are removed and that the table and settings are stored away. A mixture of cornmeal and honey is then prepared and used to lead the ancestors away and back up the mountain again where they are thanked and bid farewell. Sal’s advice made me feel calm. That my questions had clear and practical answers, let me know that they were the right questions to ask and that my intuition was still serving me well – both in regards to what I should ask and where I should go to find the answers.
On our way back to Ft. Collins, we stopped at a quite amazing place - The Garden of the Gods (in southern Colorado near Colorado Springs).

November 4, 2008

The Globaloness Project

Jim put me on to this organisation and website and I’m incredibly grateful for it (you can find the link in my 'Favourite Websites' list on the right of this page). I spent a day (when I’d meant to be writing) caught up in watching one video after another. Each one a little miracle along the way towards my understanding of how the Sacred exists next to us; how we experience and express it; how simple it can be; how it connects all things.

I highly recommend listening to Max Duramunmun Harrison, Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Rose Peri and Bob Randall. The piece that struck the deepest chord in me however was one in which poet and social justice activist Drew Dillinger reads his poem Ancestors and Angels. I, too, pray to become a conduit.

Here it is.
video

November 3, 2008

Messages come from the most unexpected places

I spent the several days in Ft Collins, stuck in a sense of aimlessness – perhaps because so much had happened and I desperately needed the rest (not to mention some time to synthesise something of what I’d gathered, learned and experienced on the journey thus far), but from the outset my plan had been to carve a 2nd petroglyph here – for Jim – knowing that of all my family he is the one most likely to get what I'm trying to do and to take my efforts - and the task of attending to the ancestors - seriously. I’d gained some valuable knowledge and skills from my work on the 1st petroglyph and knew that I needed to give careful consideration to the design and layout of the images I would carve into the stone. I wanted to rework the design – not only for clarity’s sake but also to add to the depth of its meaning. In working the first petroglyph, I’d realised that overlapping the different graphic images (the crows and sun symbol overlapping the boat) made them difficult to read. I also realised that I wanted to add representations of both my living family and our ancestors to the glyph.

I spent a few days playing with some new designs and also practiced carving them on some red sandstone Jim and Kathy had left over from a patio they’d built. Though the sandstone carved easily and beautifully, none of the pieces were big enough to have real impact when set into the landscape of the yard (not that there are rules about the dimensions of such things) and it seemed clear that Jim wanted a stone with a bit more heft and presence. We searched through a number of landscaping stone yards until we found the perfect stone. It had a beautifully flat and even surface on one side (perfect for carving) and was craggy, beautifully mottled & covered with lichen on the other. I spent the evening plotting the scale and layout of the glyphs and began carving it the next day. I’d mistakenly thought the stone to be some sort of reddish sandstone, but it turned out to be something much harder – ironstone, I think. The hardness of the stone meant that the progress of the work was very slow, but this allowed for the ‘occupied monkey-mind’ reflection time that seems to be the key factor in all the artwork I choose to do. The hardness (and texture) of the stone also meant that though the lines took a fair amount of effort to inscribe, they held a very clean, crisp and clear edge.

My efforts were a bit tentative at first, but I quickly developed a feel for the stone. I settled in to the work with a sense of confidence and a steady rhythm that allowed space for me to think deeply about my reasons for doing this work and to imagine ancient others - perhaps even my own ancestors - who had engaged in this very activity: somehow, I’d assumed that the images the ancients had chosen to inscribe in stone must have reflected the ‘big’ concepts of their cultures, but as I worked, I had time to reflect and felt like I was coming closer to understanding what it might have been like for the ancients to do this sort of work – the whys and hows suddenly seemed much less mysterious/much more accessible. Perhaps they, like me, carved their glyphs as simple messages, simple prayers – for connection, belonging, in gratitude and in hope. As I worked, I felt like I was (almost) one of them..

For the next two days, I carved from morning until evening. Jim had been away at a conference and when he came home he was surprised at the progress. He sat with me as I worked and asked me about the meaning of the symbols I’d carved: On the upper right were two human figures – one right-side-up and the other upside-down (representing the living and the dead, us and the ancestors). On the ancestor figure there were 5 lines inscribed for our five preceding generations. In the upper left, I’d carved a sun/circle symbol – with 3 incised lines creating (as Jim pointed out) 5 sections. Though we're no longer clear on its precise meaning, the sun symbol seemed to represent renewal & regeneration and had held significance for both our ancient Norse and Irish ancestors while, for me, the circle held the significance I'd learned (and felt moved by) at the Kearsarge Indian Museum. It is what binds and connects all things: once we know our place in the circle, we know where we belong. Lastly, I’d also begun carving the first of 2 boats: one to represent the physical journey of our ancestors from their homelands to America, as well as our own journey to to search for and reclaim them. The other to represent the metaphysical journey of their souls to the afterworld; to return to us; and to return to their homelands. As I was finishing up the day’s work, Jim and I also talked about a number of specific ancestors, including my mother, and we both agreed that it felt like she was with us as we talked. It occurred to me that a significant piece of this work might occur in it's potential to shift my relationships with the ancestors - specifically, those ancestors with whom I had a living relationship and who have passed away during my lifetime - from operating on a predominantly practical/profane plane to one that is something more spiritual/sacred. It occurred to me that this was an avenue well worth exploration in terms of how this same idea might be addressed and manifested in other cultures.

I would liked to have continued to work at a similar pace, but by the end of the second day, I could barely lift my arms or close my fingers around the chisel. I didn't really mind, I felt a glorious kind of tired.

I rested few days then worked again. The third day’s work consisted of finishing the boats and plotting where I might carve a few crow figures. I scratched the faint outlines of two crows into the rock surface, but felt a degree of hesitation about proceeding any further – I wasn’t sure if it was because I lacked confidence that I could carve them well (the crows I carved in the Malden granite had not come out as well as I’d hoped) or felt somehow that there was something unresolved about their inclusion, but suspected (knowing my process) that it was the latter. I knew I had to think it through before proceeding, to determine not only what the crows represent, but how many there should be: 3 might represent past, present, future; 5 might relate to 5 generations; 2 (as there were presently scratched into the surface) might represent the living and the dead, or the physical/metaphysical. One day, Jim told me about a young Native American man he’d met at the conference who'd told a story about a time when he was unclear about what he was meant to do and whether he was following the right path. He went to the mountains to ask his ancestors for a sign – and said to them that if he was on the right path he wanted them to show him a green arrow (!). He said he'd been praying hard for an hour or so when suddenly the clouds parted and the (green) northern lights appeared over a mountain across the water, gathered themselves into an arrow shape and flew across the water towards him. (Nice to get clear signs!) As I listened to the story, it occurred to me that I not only have no idea how to pray, but absolutely no idea who to pray to. I also felt astonished to realise that in asking (or praying) for a sign, it would never have occurred to me to specify what I wanted the sign to look like (which, on reflection seems entirely practical. If you ask for a green arrrow and a green arrow shows up, you don't have to wonder if you've imgined anything). There seemed a lovely kind of familiarity and trust inherent in the story and it left a kind of Aesop's fables impression on me: something along the lines of "clear signs come from knowing who to pray to (and how to do it)". I realised that I’ve never felt any clarity about how or why I might pray, but felt somehow that in my current frame of mind (and heart) any prayer I might engage in would quite naturally be directed towards my ancestors (who else would care to listen?). I felt inspired to explore the hows, whys and to whoms of prayer with the people I know who already seem to have a clear sense of their ancestors and a habit of attending to them: Sal, Flo, Sam and Wanda. This train of thought felt good, it felt like a breakthrough – I finally knew another piece I needed to learn and had a fair idea where to begin. I felt happy.

I carved the first crow and the second, then a couple of cold, wet & windy autumn days passed giving me plenty of time (and the perfect excuse) to consider the ‘crow question’. One evening, I mentioned to Jim that I was wrestling with whether I should carve a third crow into the stone. A little while later, he called me outside, pointed to the sky and said ‘look’. I looked up in the tree above us, saw two crows and said aloud, “Okay, I get it. Two.”Jim asked, “Why two?” and I answered, “Because there are two crows.” To which he said, “No, look, there are three.” When I looked again, the third crow rose up, and flapped his wings and I said, “Okay, Three”at which point they all started cawing loudly and flapping their wings at me. I laughed and said, "Okay. Okay. I get it now. I’ll get back to it as soon as the weather clears!” They scolded me some more and then all three flew away. I spent a final day carving the third crow and every now and then would look up to see whether my crows were sitting in the tree, watching. I even called to them, inviting them to come and take a look. But no one came (at least not while I was working.) I could here them though – not far away – calling to each other. They did come back, however...one more time and in the most impressive display yet. Jim and I had planned an ancestor feast for Halloween night and while Kathy and I were out buying what we needed to make the dinner, Jim erected the finished petroglyph in their front yard. Just before dusk, Jim said, “Come outside and see this.” I walked outside and a half dozen or more crows were swooping low over the house and yard while dozens more cawed from the nearby trees. I was transfixed and realised that I’d come to see the crows as ancestors.- or at least as their messengers. I asked one after the other, “Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?”and even listed several names, “Are you Ed? Are you Marge? Are you Harriet? Are you Magnus?” It didn’t matter whether there was an answer. I’m overwhelmed by the thought that it’s ancestors come to tell me that this is right and that they’re here.

Grateful we are here

A lot has come clear in the last few weeks. I’ve wrestled with certain questions about what I am doing. Not the least of which amongst those was ‘How do I do this so that it has meaning?’ I guess part of my hesitation comes from the fact that I have – I have been taught - no process by which I am confident that I can/will feel the presence of the ancestors in my day-to-day life; to establish an easy relationship with the sacred. I know that I have experienced certain moments in my life that seemed to exist outside of profane space and time, but still I have lacked the confidence to embrace my own perceptions and experience of the sacred. I live within a culture that (largely) distrusts the very word and have found it interesting (sometimes ironically amusing, sometimes sad) that my culture doesn’t know how to coexist easily with the word...or the concept. It says a lot about us.

So, in looking for what is sacred, I have also been looking for a way to establish an easy relationship with how the sacred has/might manifest in my own life. I want not to feel like an outsider to – not simply and observer of - my own sacred experiences.
In case this all sounds hesitant and sad, this search has been anything but that. It’s been filled with a growing sense of clarity, connection and belonging. My journey has been – as it had to be – motivated and guided entirely by intuition: I don’t even know where most of it has come from. I do know that most of it has been clarified, solidified, verified along the way. That’s pretty astounding when I think of it.

So here it is. I left Fremantle to look for the trail of my ancestors hoping that along the way, I’d find out where I belong. Lately this quest has felt akin to Dorothy’s search in The Wizard of Oz: the search for something I’ve always had, but never knew – or learned - to recognise; to honour; to appreciate or to cherish. I know now. What’s left is to create a daily context of interaction/attendance to what I have acknowledged, discovered and gathered over the last few months. I have established and re-established relationships with a number of the scattered living members of my tribe and have forged new relationships with many who have passed. I’ve followed my instincts and asked advice from the people I’ve met whose traditions recognise the power of ancestors not only in defining our place and solidifying our sense of belonging, but more as a reminder to be grateful that we are here, as ourselves – the unique and perfect amalgamation of all in our lineage who have come before us – and to be thankful.

I can do this.

October 11, 2008

3 Amazing Days with Suzi

It's been 13 years since I last saw my sister Suzi and I’m so glad I decided to visit her as part of this journey: we both needed it.

From the moment she met me at Fayetteville Airport on Friday evening until she dropped me back there again on Monday, we didn't stop talking. We had a lifetime worth of stories to remember and years worth of news, thoughts and feelings to catch up on.

I think we both came away with revised perspectives of each other. I’d guess that she is more aware of my vulnerabilities and fears than before. I see her as stronger and more willful than ever before (In fact she told me that her strategy has always been to seem to agree with what she was told, but then to go ahead and do what she wants anyway). She's also more joyful than I've ever seen her: she told me she's always loved to play and (particularly) now that she’s passed the age where she has to be responsible for others, she’s free to indulge in her own childlike joy. She plays with her grandchildren (and always has) and they love her for it. They all have rich stories to tell of spending time with her.

On Sunday Suzi had planned a lovely family reunion-supper and I had a wonderful afternoon getting re-acquainted with 3 of her 4 children: Amy, Eric and Wendy (Sarah and her family live in Texas and couldn't come), as well as Eric's (lovely) fiancé, Melissa, his bright and fabulous daughter, Sammy and Wendy's extraordinary husband Tony and their fantastic daughters Brittney and Brooke. I particularly enjoyed getting to know 9-yr-old Brooke who is bright, curious and intrigued by her (exotic) Australian relatives. We promised to write. It's a promise I intend to keep.

It was wonderful to flesh out the family stories from their perspective: Amy told me that she and Dad used to debate about things: he’d challenge her and she’d go study up on whatever the subject and come back with fresh and informed arguments. They once debated the Communist Manifesto (sounds remarkably similar to my own debates with him over nuclear proliferation). I told her that when I'd made a particularly well-constructed argument that Dad couldn't find holes in (but still didn't agree with) He'd say (smiling mischievously), "That's just dumb-ass, Sandy!" Suzi's kids also told stories about how Mum used to roller skate with them in the driveway.

Suzi and I got quite deep into it on Saturday night and talked late into the night about our childhood memories. We were both quite open about our experiences and feelings growing up. She seemed to feel a little discomfort with the depth of our discussion the next day and I understood that the concern might be based on her uncertainty about how I might use the information I gather on this journey (perhaps because of this blog or how all of this will figure into my thesis). I tried to reassure her that I realise that my perceptions are just that - my perceptions and that I know that my truths are not necessarily everyone's or THE truth. Suzi told me that just as we were falling off to sleep, angels (or something similar) came to her and though their energy seemed a bit confused (or confusing), she felt they were saying that we need to be careful about the stories we pass on: that it’s okay for the two of us to share our mutual stories, but that we need to take care that we don’t colour what others might think of our ancestors by perpetrating our own perceptions. I told Suzi that I was quite sure something did come to her to tell her that: it was very much the message that I got from Nana my last night in Malden. I told Suzi about my own similar experience and what I had taken from it. And we both realised that the only real difference was that what she perceived as angels, I perceived as ancestors. But, I also told her that I thought there may have been more to their message than just a warning: I think they had also come to say that the fact that we were together– with NO barriers between us – honouring, enjoying and deeply connecting with each other again - is a blessed thing, a sacred thing.

And finally, here's a really tasty piece of genealogical intrigue: As we looked through old photos, Suzi talked to me about a family reunion we'd attended as children (mainly, I think, of the Ruggles side of the family) to celebrate Aunt Gus (Ruggles) and Uncle Walter's 75th wedding anniversary. Sometime during the event, Nana Tolstrup pointed out some particular relatives to Sue and said that they'd come all the way from Australia. So...I want to know...who were they, where are they and can I find them? Only time will tell, but wouldn't it be a kick if they lived nearby?

October 9, 2008

It’s not a Just Situation: Though We Just Can’t Keep Crying About It (For the Hip Hop Nation That Brings Us Such Exciting Art)

by Nikki Giovanni

You don’t
Just wake up and brush your teeth and make up your bed
and put on your favorite pair of blue jeans

You don’t
on other evenings
Just sneak away from your sleeping lover
Just to grab a bite of Quik Stop
Just to hop a train

You don’t
Just visit the 24 hour superstore
Just to get a few cans
of spray paint
And
Just happen to have a case to put them in

You are not
Just out of yellow
So you’ll
Just shadow with grey this time
And
Just shy of metallic blue you will
Just fill in with electric orange

You are not
just bored
Or hungry or silly or
Just crying for attention

You are
Just, if there is a
Just
trying to be an artist

You are
Just
If there is any
Justice
Trying to find a way of not
Just surviving but living

You are just
trying to show the beautiful soul of your people
You are just
trying to say, “I’m alive”
You are just
determined to be more
than what the powers who
Just hate the idea of you want you to be

You are just
trying to discover the route
of the neo underground railroad
so that your kids can
Just be free

You are just
being a man
you are just
realizing your womanhood
you are just singing and smiling
because you
Just don’t want to cry anymore

You are just
falling in love
because hatred is too hard to bear

You are just
determined
to be the very best you and
You just guess
you better not let anyone take that away

You are just
a person
with a big heart and wonderful talent
That you just
think should be shared

Put a button on it
people

‘Cause suspenders
Just
won’t
do

Fear Not

The real purpose of my DC adventure was art: I'd come here to visit some specific Museums and see some specific (long-time favourite) artworks. What unfolded was a glorious 5 day orgy of art. Better and more than I'd expected. I was excited - at long last - to be able to visit the Smithsonians and as soon as I'd checked in to my hotel, I headed straight out again for the NMAI (National Museum of the American Indian). I was (hoping for and) expecting a lot and was not disappointed – I found the entire museum, its layout, displays, organisation, placement, construction, details and vision breathtakingly beautiful and inspiring: The building itself is powerfully evocative of the landscape – of mesas and desert, mountains, water and sky. I watched the recommended introductory film and was quite moved: the voices of narrators from many nations wove together to tell the stories, beliefs, hopes and dreams of their people and I was touched at the beauty and potential of such an undertaking as this. It was powerful. The museum is laid out in a number of sections: Our Universe; Our Peoples; Our Lives; and Return To a Native Place. Each a huge amalgamation of artifacts and information from numerous tribes. By the time I arrived at the Museum it was already mid-afternoon, and I didn't want to rush through the exhibits, so I decided to return on another day to explore them at leisure. However, my return visit did not measure up to the promise of the first: I found the organisation of the exhibits confusing and the manner in which objects were displayed – behind thick panes of reflective glass and often only dimly lit - to have a frustrating and alienating, rather than engaging effect. The highlight of this visit (apart from the cafeteria which offered a stunning array of exquisite native foods) to be an outdoor installation work entitled Always Becoming by Tewa artist Nora Naranjo-Morse. This work, made of sticks, fibres and clay is meant to erode over time. Bright and early on the 2nd day, I headed to the Renfrew Gallery to see James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly. This work has long been a favourite of mine – though I’d never before had the opportunity to see it in the real. I was startled to realise that the route I took went right past the White House. I didn't bother to stop: one has priorities. I entered the Renfrew only to find that James Hampton’s Throne was no longer housed there, but now resided several blocks away at the National Gallery of American Art. I decided to walk through the Renfrew Collections and was intrigued by a number of wonderful works.Couldn’t help myself though, I was soon on my way again in search of James Hampton. This work was one of the main reasons for my visit to DC. Something about the work has always spoken to me: James Hampton did not consider himself – nor was he referred to by others as – an artist. Yet, the work he was driven to produce is glorious and visionary: it was his elaborate, majestic, raw and profound vision of heaven. Made of the lowliest of materials – bits of foil, cans, jars, paper, mirrors and other found ‘detritus’, and constructed mostly in his spare time and at night, the work is none-the-less monumental: it inspires awe and speaks a visionary language that even from afar made my heart pound. The work is now housed in it’s own purpose-built niche and the experience of standing in its presence – in the presence of unique and compelling vision - was extraordinarily moving.A sign over the central Throne reads “Fear Not”. I’ll take that as a personal message not to fear the visionary in myself. James Hampton set the tone for what was to follow: 3 more days of glorious works from Georgia O’keefe to Andy Goldsworthy; Jean Dubuffet to Henry Moore; Contemporary Kinetic African Sculpture; A room full of Matisse Cut-outs; the unexpected pleasures of Paul Manship bronzes (including a crow!) Stunning assemblage and other found-object works;and an exhibition of exquisite Indian Paintings by George de Forest Brush.
(sorry, no photos were allowed at this one, but if you want to check it out for yourself, go here: http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/brushinfo.shtm).
Another highpoint was a room within an exhibition of Hip Hop portraiture and art at the National Portrait Gallery. The room featured installations by Hip Hop artists along with a stunning poem written by Nikki Giovanni. The poem was written on the wall, but had also been recorded by the poet to play as a kind of continuous narration. It was powerful and I found it so moving that I came back to the room several times to hear it again. Before leaving the museum, I felt compelled to copy it down. You'll find it in its entirety in the next post.
I spent the week falling in love again with art and remembering why I had long ago decided to become an artist: I felt the flush of that initial impetus to create beauty; to make things that have the power to move others; to communicate a raw and personal vision. I may never achieve the heights of the works I saw in DC, but I remember now that the goal is a worthy one.
FEAR NOT