Sorry I’m not bowing there’s really something wrong with me.
It hit me in Japan. I was limping very hard and could not keep up with my sponsors, who were easily ten years my senior. At the tea ceremony I sat kneeling, holding back the searing pain in my leg. Trying to be respectful, I asked for another tea. I was completing the first leg of my research leave goals, acting as an ODU representative of the Virginia Chapter of Empty Bowls. When I returned to the states I had an MRI and it was discovered that I had a herniated disc from an injury almost a year before. This was no way to start my research leave; my plans clearly were put on hold when I began to drag myself across the floor of my house–crying and dragging my forty two-year old mass to try to make lunch or use the bathroom. I e-mailed and called my administrators at ODU to tell them my research leave was off for a while. My residency at Red Lodge Clay Center in Montana would have to wait over the next few months as I would lie in bed like Brian Wilson, and a few friends could visit to bring food and encouragement. Between popping pain killers, searing pain, and my new baby boy, my life had ceased to exist. My research leave and teaching after almost nine years of working at ODU had hit the skids and seemed as empty and unfulfilled as my pee jar lying beside the bed next to me. I never seen you looking so bad my funky one. Over the next few months David Hiltner at Red Lodge assured me that I could complete my residency at Red Lodge Clay Center when the doctor cleared me to go. This future goal and the desire to be able to hold my child, Ollie, again encouraged me to get back on my feet. After several tries, one day I was able to scrape myself off the floor and pour myself into a wheelchair so that I could be ambulated out the door and to the doctor’s office for a shot through a hole in my pelvis. welcomed this intrusion into my body and thanked the doctor and the four people that lifted me to the table. A month or so later I began to walk again. My left leg had atrophied so much I could not hold myself on it. After a few more months of physical therapy and encouragement from family and friends I began to regain my strength and my leg and back pain began to recede. I began to gear up to complete my research leave and accomplish my goals that my body denied me for seven months.
Driving and Crying
Spring was early this year and quite colorful. Chris and Ollie helped me pack my truck fitted with a $35 Craigslist 1970’s cap. We loaded in a box of my sketchbooks, tools, reference images, paints, enough clothing and some food for two months. I had one more checkup. The doctor, sticking needles in my legs to check for nerve damage, told me it looked like I was good enough to go. One last word from the doctor – no more pain pills – unless you really need them. Montana is a four-day drive from here. I plotted out the map. Four days! I did not think my body could handle even one day of driving. I left early in the morning. The passenger seat was empty, something I’m not used to on a trip. After getting through the tunnel and heading to Richmond tears began to fill my prescription sunglasses. The loud thoughts filled my mind,“How could I leave my child? This is so pointless!” “Art is not worth separating family”, I thought to myself. As these thoughts and tears filled my head and eyes, I missed my exit and had to turn around past Richmond and head up towards Chillicothe, Ohio, where I rested after the first day of travel. I think it took me five days with another one of my night’s stays at Sturgis and a short hike around Devil’s Tower. I drove up through South Dakota to Billings then headed to the Red Lodge Clay Center. I arrived on a sunny spring day around 5:00pm. The snow started the next day and continued for two weeks.
Get Up Get Down!
Thrown back into bachelorhood I began to shop for one, cook for one and sleep for one. It was hard to imagine the distance between Chris, Ollie and I. We would Skype and I would be happy just to watch him in our backyard, walking and playing. I would cry every day. My empty apartment would make me cry, songs would make me cry. I found a pacifier in one of my boxes that he dropped in there; I put it in the pocket of my jacket. What made me cry the worst was shopping at the grocery store. Every child looked like Ollie. I made sure I would shop when the moms and the kids were not there for the rest of the two months. Every day I woke up and drank my coffee, looking out at the mountain range in my apartment above the downtown Red Lodge Gallery, and then hopped in my truck for the 6-mile drive to the studio for the day. It has been 12 years since graduate school. Returning to a quiet empty studio and all the time in the world to make artwork is like looking at blank pages. I hung up my references, unpacked my tools and blocked up my tables so I would not have to bend over. I began with what I knew best, a few paintings and some sketches. My goal was to make twenty new works. This may not sound like much work for two months but to make twenty “new works” that I actually like I need to make at least 100. Most of them will not make it to my satisfaction. With the new limitations of my old body I began discover new ways of working and with this, new ideas from my new environment merged. The gears began to turn. I soon met the other studio inhabitants, the long-term residents, including Andrew Gilliatt, a native of Virginia Beach. He went to Vermont for graphic design then switched to ceramics for grad school. He has been long gone from Virginia and we shared quite a few friends. I also met residents Undine Brod, Katie Coughlin, and Andy Moon and later I shared the studio with Courtney Murphy. It was a fantastic ceramics studio. They had all the clay and glazes I needed and I had plenty of time.
Close to the edge
It took me a few weeks to get my groove on. My first firing came out great and I started scratching the surface of the new ideas I had dreamed up over my long bed stay. I researched several new glazes and tested them, mixed up batches of white slip and glazes and began constructing work. My goal was to create a series of salt cellars. As I child , one of the first images I was amazed by was the Cellini Salt Cellar. The Cellini Salt Cellar is a seated nude man and women, facing each other with a small-lidded vessel in between them. The saltcellar is meant to symbolize the earth and the sea, and THE ETERNAL EMBRACE of these two entities and the product is life, or preservation of life in the form of salt. I had quite a few problems; my platters cracked and my glazes ran. I remember grinding a shelf and then cracking it. The next day I was hurting. I began to see some results and my new body of work began to emerge out of the dust.
The mountains change the clouds, the clouds change the mountains
At any time you could look outside the studio window, past the snowfields and the horses and see the mountains. They were beyond my comprehension. Over the mountain range was Yellowstone. The clouds would seem to shift the mountains farther away, then nearer. The mountain range would grow and sometimes disappear completely by the clouds. At times I would look up and catch my breath at how close they were and how small I felt in their presence. Around me I would see vague references to the mountain range in town in the way people would stack wood or a pile of bricks. I saw the mountains everywhere and everybody had a vision of them somehow in their yard or stacked beside their garage. After the long days in the studio I would go for walks in the evening with my studio mate, Courtney. It was early spring in Montana, the snow melted and the wild turkeys were wildly mating and roosting in the trees on the edge of Red Lodge. We would walk by deer sleeping in clover in backyards and magpies filled the air. I began to notice a familiar presence I have not experienced for years– I could not put my finger on it. As I was biking around town I came across the old cabin of “Liver Eating Johnson,” the most famous Red Lodge resident. Around the cabin were the flowering lilacs. I was flooded with memories of Rochester, New York, again. As a child growing up in Upstate New York we marked spring by the Lilac Festival and the short but sweet blossoms that would mark the beginning of summer for us. It was a welcome memory. Another pleasant surprise was a visit from my colleague, David Johnson, from ODU. We spent a day in Yellowstone amazed at the otherworldly early spring landscape of Buffalo and steam jets and a night at Chico Hot Springs in a pool fed by thermal hot springs open to the stars. As my friendships began to grow with the young artists at the residency and my work developed, I began to understand the importance of research leave. I needed to be shocked out of my academic bubble. I needed to leave my teaching title behind and start over again. I needed to understand how I failed and succeeded at art making again and to again connect with colleagues in my field. This research leave fulfilled its purpose. It was more than hiding in a room and navel gazing. It was a way for me to connect to myself again as an artist and as a human. A familiar man emerged in my life that was welcomed. The mountains would change the clouds in my mind. The clouds would move the mountains and reveal something new about myself I had forgotten and misplaced over time. These movements returned my strength of vision, a forgotten belief in myself and a renewed understanding of the strength of friendships of my colleagues. I developed a new sense of wonder about our amazing, unfathomable existence. I was reminded of the stanza of my favorite poet, Theodore Roethke: The Waking This shaking keeps me steady. I should know. What falls away is always. And is near. I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I learn by going where I have to go.
Crying all the way to Billings
My father told my wife, “when he returns he will want to move there.” My father knows me very well. It was almost criminal to begin to pack up and clean out my belongings. It was harder to count the days down and know I had to say goodbye to the friends and colleagues and the nature I desired so much. I was leaving. This was the end. I could not stop by the studio on the way out. I put on my shades and hopped in my truck with my $35 Craigslist cap, weighed down with two months of finished sculpture and pottery, and headed towards Billings again. Tears filled my prescription sunglasses as I drove the seven miles east towards the studio only slowing to photograph the road to the studio. I pointed my truck east and sobbed like a child. The sun began to set in my rear view mirror in South Dakota as the Black Hills receded and the earth began to flatten out as the light grew dim. I heard some noise beside me and I looked to the passenger seat. To my surprise I saw myself looking out the window. As I reached out to see if what was there was real, my familiar passenger looked at me with squinting eyes behind thick glasses, smiled at me and then changed the tunes on the radio. For more on Red Lodge, click here. For the author’s Red Lodge page, click here. For more of the author’s art and thoughts, click here. for more art writing in AltDaily, try these: