Artist writes down what he said about his wordless short stories

Adapted from my [June 3rd Artist's Talk at the Lawrence Arts Center][1] On one of the first warm evenings this spring I was sitting outside the [Bourgeois Pig][2] when a friend asked me "Dave, so why do you stay in Lawrence?" Before I could redirect his question, out of nowhere a red fox came cruising down 9th street. He looked over at us as he casually trotted by and I could swear I saw him shake his pointy snout in a knowing way as if to say "Hey, you. Yeah you. You lookin' at me?" We glanced back and wondered aloud why a fox was ambling down this busy street. Was he lost? On a hunt? Did he live near by? Was it something to do with global warming? Or what ? Truth was that we probably were all out just enjoying the nice evening and checking out the scene - people or fox watching as it goes..We do this all the time. Overlooking into other's lives and trying to make some sense of them. You know, like when you're at a restaurant or bar and there's a couple across the way and you speculate: First date? Married? Breaking up? Just friends? Co-workers? or whoops (when you finally catch a bit of conversation) Father and daughter. Without being able to hear what they're saying, the nature of the couple's relationship is left open to our wandering imaginations, and our interpretations probably say as much about us as they do about them, like in the Hitchcock movie "[Rear Window][3]" where overlooking across an apartment courtyard - what is seen and what is imagined - drives the plot and draws out Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly's characters. We measure our own actions and lives against those we see from afar, taking cues at a distance about what it is to be a human or a pigeon or a fox.There are few words in this show where maybe they'd be expected (Where are the omniscient narrators and the dialogue bubbles?), but words and writers are at the heart of them in many ways.A few years ago, I was commissioned to create a big mural in downtown Hutchinson. (The photo used to identify this blog shows a tiny me in front of the wall in Hutchinson before we started painting.) The theme for the mural was the night sky. My take on this, after meeting with locals, included an astronomer, a poet, and a parent and child looking at a sky full of imagined constellations. The astronomer viewed the stars through the lens of science, the poet saw the sky as an inspiration for art, while the child on his parent's shoulders was still able to grab a hold of one of the constellations with absolute belief. The poet in this group is actually based on the great Kansas poet [William Stafford][4], who I was introduced to while doing research for the project. Reading through a book of Stafford's I was so struck by one of his poems titled "Keepsakes" that I put him in the mural beginning to write it. Here is the poem.
Keepsakes by William StaffordStar Guides: Any star is enough if you know what star it is. Kids: They dance before they learn there is anything that isn't music. The Limbs of the Pin Oak Tree: "Gravity what's that?" An Argument Against the Empirical Method: Some haystacks don't even have any needle. Comfort: We think it is calm here, or that our storm is the right size.The poem is a bracelet of small jewels. I especially like the bit about kids.In fact, kids draw, sculpt, paint, sing, and act before they learn there is anything that isn't art. And then something happens, usually. Maybe it was this line that got me thinking about how in the hell I am still making art, and since has developed into an as yet unfinished piece I've been calling The Geography of the Art World. Here's a little preview:Geography of the Art World(Imagine a darkend classroom with a geography teacher standing at an overhead projector)When I was a kid like four or five, it seemed like everybody I knew was an artist, and everywhere was an opportunity for art. My dinner plate, the sand box, my leg, the bathtub, and any and every wall. (I guess that hasn't changed.)My mom was an artist. My dad. My uncles and aunts. My babysitters. The waitress at the B&G diner. Even my little bother Tim.We all made art and usually together, each of us contributing his or her ideas into paintings, sculpture, performance - very interdisciplinary stuff that might be called 'new media' today. There were few limits. (Mom said we weren't allowed to burn things after me and my best friend DV sent a lighter fluid soaked teddy bear down a zip line from my bedroom window. It was beautiful.) Some times we worked with crayons, other times play dough, but our preference was working with stuff outside - mud, sticks, trash, snow, and the like. So my geography of the Art World looked sort of like an art [Pangea][6], you know with all the continents fused together into a giant land mass without borders, a contiguous landscape of creative expression without critics, dealers, or professionals. It was fun. We were kids.In school things started to shift, and by the time I got to high school art was divided into categories, mostly we had to work alone, and there were always competitions. Working together was frowned upon or called cheating. Only at recess could we make stuff from mud, sticks, insect parts, and broken glass. We thought we were making important things out there. Our teacher called it play. We were both right.At home I felt a change, too. When I would copy cartoons out of magazines or try to make my pictures look 3-D, some grown-ups would give me complements saying "Maybe you'll be an artist :when you grow up." And "I could get never get past stick figures." Then usually they would end with something like, "At least you're not going to be one of those abstract artists like Jackson Pollock. That's a joke. My dog could do better." With this new knowledge, my geography of the Art World was modified. The new map showed three separate continents: 1) Maybe someday artists, 2) Stick figure makers, and 3) Abstract / worse than dog artists.Going to college and then grad school (twice) should have helped clear up my questions about abstract art, stick figures, and what it meant to be an artist (when I grow up), but instead I just got more confused. What had been an Art World made up of three continents was breaking into ever smaller pieces, each with highly fortified borders constructed of elaborate and scholarly sounding talk. And so my map had to be revised again. Now added to the stick figure makers, worse than dog painters, and someday artists were:- The union of hyphenated artists which took up much of the land in the northern hemisphere.- The great American Art Desert, a disputed territory fought over by outsider and naÃive artists.- Sunday painters living in autonomous districts, who were continually lobbying their leaders for federal art recognition status.- Folk artlands mainly in the southern hemisphere.- The republic of MFA's and their shadow partners - exiled colonies for delinquent graduate school debtors.- Professional artist gated communities entered into only with proper pedigree and forfeit of 45-60% of sales.- Strange rag-tag renegade clusters of artistamp makers, stencilers, cairn builders, and yart devotees. - And the ever increasing number of lands and people deemed artless.The whole business was disheartening. I couldn't figure out where my place was. At the time I was torn between being a 'landscape painter' and being a 'political artist.' It felt like I had to choose when I really wanted to do both. Instead, I chose none, and got a job at the co-op managing fruits and vegetables. I wasn't sure if I'd ever make art again. When I finally did, I did it without the old map. Without all those artificial classifications, my work took to new forms - gardens, murals, street art, writing:wordless short stories, and slowly I've been able to feel a new alignment in the geography of the Art World. The borders are less distinct, travel between artlands with different philosophies is no longer forbidden, (stick figure makers and outsider artists have been seen drinking coffee together) collaboration and sharing are encouraged, and the art continents are moving into new positions. The future looks promising... Lights please.Okay, I want to go back to Stafford's poem and the first lines that read:Star Guides: Any Star is Enough if you know what star it is.This is the line that Stafford is writing in his notebook in the Hutchinson mural. Things connect in the minds of artists I guess, because this line from Stafford immediately felt like dejà vu when I first read it. But it wasn't dejà vu. I actually had known that line my whole life, except it had sounded like this, "If someone loves a flower of which just one example exists among all the millions and millions of stars, that's enough to make him happy when he looks at the stars" (spoken by the Little Prince to the pilot).Do you know the story of "[The Little Prince][7]" by Antoine De Saint-Exupery? If you don't, I hope my references to it below pique your interest. It is as important to me as few things are, coffee and cast shadows among them. I began this by talking about a chance encounter with a fox. Well, as you probably remember, if you know "The Little Prince", that there is a wise and curious fox in that story, too. In it, the fox and the Little Prince meet by chance in the African desert.![][8]The Little Prince, feeling homesick, asks the fox to play, but the fox says he can't unless the Little Prince tames (create ties with, or captivates, as my friend Julie understood the fox when she read the book in Portuguese) him. The Little Prince says he doesn't have time because he has ":friends to find and so many things to learn." The fox replies, "The only things you learn are the things you tame. People haven't time to learn anything. They buy things ready-made in stores. But since there are no stores where you can buy friends, people no longer have friends. If you want a friend, tame me!" And after receiving some pointers on the nature of taming (or captivating), the Little Prince tames the fox.But the Little Prince is still sad about the ordinary rose that he left behind on his asteroid. He feels it doesn't compare with the many flowers he's discovered in a rose garden on earth. (The grass, like Portland or New York for Lawrence artist-types, is greener always at the horizon.) The fox suggests, now that he understands the idea of taming, that the Little Prince look at the rose garden again and he would discover that his rose was the only one in the world for him. Because as the fox says, "It's the time you spent on your rose that makes it so important." And then the Little Prince realizes that his rose has tamed him, and that the many other flowers in the rose garden were just flowers empty an unnamed. And so his flower is the star he knows, like Stafford said, "Any star is enough if you know what star it is." There is much more to this story but I need to get back to the question my friend asked before we were distracted by the first fox: "Dave, so why do you stay in Lawrence?"I didn't have to answer then. I'll give it a try now.The drawings in [this show][9]. That's my answer, and probably a better one then I could ever write. Lawrence. This neighborhood. This is the place I've spent time on. Lawrence is a star I know, and here in this place is the flower I care for, the baobabs I weed, and the volcanoes I rake out (even the extinct one) because as the Little Prince reminds us, " never know." [1]: [2]: [3]: [4]: [5]: [6]: [7]: [8]: [9]:


aschwegler 9 years, 3 months ago

thanks for writing this down, Dave. It's great to be able to revisit it and I could almost hear you saying it!

midnight340 9 years, 3 months ago

Thanks, Dave, for pointing to the line "Any star is enough if you know what star it is"... a hard one to accept when you are young and there are so many stars out there. Maybe it takes all the hard traveling to check out other stars before, finally, you come home to your own star... maybe you can't really explain it to anyone else.... but you know. Thanks again.The fox was looking for you.

justthefacts 9 years, 2 months ago

I loved the little prince ...long ago when I was newer and read it for the first dozen times. Thanks for reminding me, and others, that sometimes working to stay in one place, and be happy, is the best way to stay in one place and be happy. It takes time to do a lot of things right. But working towards the goals of "being tamed" or "taming" are often worth the effort and the time that it takes.

byhwdybeth 7 years, 2 months ago

I love this writing! So many things made me want to comment. By the way, I've met you at the Newton mural meetings and found this blog via the facebook page.
We live by a cemetery and creek in Newton and have had foxes in our neighborhood quite often. One day this spring we were sitting outside and one of them walked by and stopped and stared our way. I waved at it and one of my daughter said with disbelief "ummm, mom, did you just wave at a fox?"
I have to admit I was unfamiliar with William Stafford but I will definitely look at his work. And I loved your geography of art. As an art teacher, I feel really strongly about helping kids to not lose the idea that they are all artists as they grow up. There are many forces working against that, but it's my goal.

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