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
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 to become 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 siphoning
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
Although a flood light could free may hands and
illuminate a work space, I would invariably 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
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.