Thursday, December 20, 2012

Into the Woods

When I was a graduate student in the mid-90s, I took a performance art class with Gagik Aroutiunian called Experimental Directions. I was drawn to performance through the intense monolouges of Karen Finley and Holly Hughes, but was intimidated by the theatrical focus of their works. I was shy and totally inept in the art of the stage (I had never even been in a school play). Gagik opened an entirely new realm of possibility to me when he introduced the Body-Object-Ritual project. The assignment had a simple premise; interact with an object in an unexpected way.

My body was shaking the day I presented my first performance to our small class. I sat down in a wooden chair and began stitching small black "hairs" onto the palm of a white cloth glove. I pushed the needle through the stiff cotton and brought it to my mouth where I held it between my lips as I cut each thread. I became calmer with each stitch and fell into the pure rhythm of process. That year I made a series of performance works derived from silent, intimate and repetitive gestures.

Through working with Gagik, I came to recognize the deep relationship between my performances and the tactile, process based works I had been exploring in the studio. I knew my art practice related to my Mother and Grandmother's incessant domestic production of garments and toys made through sewing, knitting and crochet. But, it wasn't until I found performance that I started to realize a connection to my Father and his love of hunting.

As a kid, I was always mortified when I arrived home from school to find a deer hanging in the garage slowly leaking blood onto the cement floor. I felt sad and I couldn't understand how an avid animal lover could hurt an innocent creature. When I started performing, I began to see hunting as a ritual; as a primitive process between man, nature and death. My Dad was a serious and ethical hunter who knew how to deal a fatal blow with swiftness to spare the animal undue suffering. He spent hours crouched in a tree stand waiting and listening. As is the case with all ritual, the body, space and time are authentic and present. My Father spent his life hunting a small radius of land between his birthplace and the house he had built with his own hands. Those woods were his sanctuary and he held a deep and intimate knowledge of that place.
In some mysterious way woods have never seemed to me to be static things. In physical terms, I move through them; yet in metaphysical ones, they seem to move through me.        --John Fowles                                                                                            
It was in graduate school that I also met Ron Cubbison who was my advisor. He confided that the graduate review committee thought my work was too political. He fought to get me in the program and became a steadfast champion of my work. I often thought of him as my "art Dad" because of his attentive and unconditional support. Like my own Father, Ron spent his life growing and making within nature.

Ron's art practice grew from his traditional training as a painter and he made works that captured beautiful and sensitive views of the natural world. He despised the sentimental and placid vistas found in conventional landscape painting. Ron's landscapes vibrated with the sensual violence of nature and the ever present process of death and decay. After he retired from teaching, Ron returned fully to his work and began making a series of intimate pencil drawings. I remember his eagerness to show me the new work which he felt was a breakthrough in his efforts to capture nature. The drawings were comprised of layers of gyrating marks like a tangled forrest floor breathing on the page. There was a metaphysical resonance and a purity to the gesture as if the image had been channeled directly through his body onto the surface of the paper. 

That series proved to be Ron's last as he fell ill and passed away in the fall of 2008. I was shocked by his death, as I had always imagined him at age 100, walking the woods and climbing foreign mountains. He was an avid traveler and he arranged an exhibition that would award five travel grants to his former students after his death. I admire that Ron wanted his legacy to remain in the realm of teaching and that he gifted his students with the opportunity to experience the world through travel. Ron had a profound impact on my life as a teacher and an artist and I hold his memory close to my heart.

Last week I lost my Father. He had been fighting cancer for two years, but the end still came more quickly than expected. It was difficult to watch him suffer and return to a state of dependance not unlike infancy. We moved him from the hospital to a serene hospice room with doors that opened into the woods. My family took solace that he was in the woods, the place where he felt most at home. My Father was a laborer, a man who worked hard, who took pride in what he could do with his hands. He was outdoors everyday until the past year when he was often too tired to head to the barn to take up some new project. I will remember a man who rescued abandoned opossums and raccoons, who fed strays and wouldn't sleep until all his cats were indoors at night. I will remember a man who in his 70s still chopped wood, climbed trees in need of trimming, and tended his large garden. I will remember a man who understood silence and the solemn poetry of deer prints on a newly fallen snow.

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