The King of July

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable  rhythms;
But I know,too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.  — Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

The King of July

It always amazes me  that I keep coming back to this poem, and these birds. The first thing I ever drew were red-winged blackbirds and yellow birds; my grandmother had canaries.  This poem was the one I read as a 14 year old and didn’t quite understand and,  at the age of 50, I still don’t all the way have a definition for it  completely.  I come back to it and, in turn, it keeps asking of me.  This poem is the  great lesson to me that really great art keeps beginning.

A lot of academics have spilled a lot of ink writing that “13 Ways” is Stevens’ meditation on suicide; whether to go on or not ; and I only sometimes half believe this.  I also believe it is about learning to see. . .learning to see all things–or whole things–I’m never quite sure.  I just know that I find great comfort in this poem when life is at its shakiest and most tenuous.

Blackbirds are loaded with definitions from almost every culture.  They are one of the most successful species on earth, being found virtually everywhere in the world.  They are our constant companions and represent much symbolism from culture to culture.  One of my favorite blackbird tales is that of Saint Benedict, of whom the backbirds song entreated thoughts of erotic nature.  Instead of finding a local trollop and getting his freak on, he removed his clothing and hurled himself into a thorn bush.  One cannot help but think  a little slap and tickle may have done this chap a world of good.  A blackbird nesting near one’s home is seen as a harbinger of good fortune.  While many cultures believe backbirds are a bad omen, the sight of two sitting together is said to be a sign of harmony.  When you read through the volumes of blackbird folklore, many contradictory stories emerge.  My favorite  blackbirds are yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds, both common to Illinois and in Chicago; the hedge in Lincoln Park is lousy with them.  I always think of them as a symbol of being home.

Published in: on June 23, 2009 at 2:48 pm  Comments (1)  

The June Queen

“Mom–Look at the Boid!”
“It’s not a ‘boid,’ son, it’s a BIRD.”
“But Ma…it choips like a boid!”– Overheard in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

The June QueenHey–

My pal, Tony Judge, is an avid birder; a bird watcher.  He is serious.  He has traveled to Iceland to see birds the rest of us will never see.  He recently bunked at my place for a while and nailed up a bird-feeder to my back porch. I will forever be grateful for this.  Every morning, the congregation of  starlings, cardinals, purple house finches, and all varieties of sparrows adds color and light and music to my day.  I often tell people that my version of retirement will be  making bird pictures–birds and naked women. Probably mostly birds since they’re less trouble.  I’ll let the pointy-heads and the MFA’s worry about being “relevant.”  The theory geeks  can wait tables, wear trucker-hats, drink shitty beer and think great thoughts.  I’ll draw birds and naked brunettes and be happy doing so.

I did go to an opening last night that I liked; a group show at Zolla-Leiberman Gallery that was unexpected in its humor and ferocity.  A good bunch of young artists put on a show  worth seeing.  I bought a couple of things by young artists I’d never heard of and was really happy to see a rebellious, funny and fierce show in this town.

I also recently got another piece by Duncan Robert Anderson–who is not a kid–he is in his early 40’s and has been making art for a long time.  His work is informed by funny, other-worldly, sci-fi touches and found objects as well as hand-made things that I really like.  They are poignant, absurd, human, and geeky in the best way.  Duncan loves Star Wars and King Arthur-type stuff I find unfathomable but it is his lingua-franca and in his work it really works.  He is an odd creature for Chicago.  He is from east Tennessee, and is a for real, no-shit, Southern gentleman.  It’s not an act.  He refers to my house keeper as “Miss Claire,” even though she is half his age.  He is unfailingly polite and a genuinely good guy.  He works at the MCA and the next piece he installs there ought to be one of his own.  I have two of his things and can’t wait to get another.  He is the goods.  What is exciting in Chicago right now is that right around the periphery there are a bunch of wonderful artists.  I’ve bought 30 pieces by young Chicago artists in the last year and I feel like I’ve scored.  I don’t have a lot of money and for what I’ve spent, I feel really fortunate.

My pal, Ton hy came in my studio one day really amped.  I thought he’d won the lotto.  He told me, “At the feeder, we got purple house finches.  I just saw’em. . .purple house finches.”   Every day since then Ive been grateful for that feeder.  I sit there in the morning, wearing my nicotine patch, gnawing on my tooth-picks and drinking my coffee and I watch them and listen to them. . .

Published in: on June 20, 2009 at 2:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

The November Queen

“Hope is the thing with feathers.” –Emily Dickinson

The November Queen


In almost every text about hobos I’ve read they’ve mentioned the sounds of birds.  For many of them it was the only music left for them.  I have a special place in my heart for birds because they’re the first things I ever drew.   I started making drawings as a little kid and I only drew two things at first; birds and naked women.  Birds were easier to realize, because I’d not seen any real naked women yet, but I’d seen plenty of birds.

When I was a kid, my father had a heart-attack.  It was a serious episode and it nearly killed him.  For 6 or 7 weeks, my Grandmother Mae stayed with us, while my Mom worked and took care of my father.  It was a huge job.  There are 8 kids in our family and it exhausted our mother.  Every morning my grandmother, Mamie, would toast a couple of pieces of bread and tear them into pieces (sometimes she’d put jelly on them) and she’d throw them off the back stoop to the birds and then she’d watch them through the window.  I would always watch and be surprised by this.  In our house it was a cardinal sin to waste food. We were by no means poor, but both of my parents were children of The Depression and those lessons stayed with them their whole lives. I asked my Grand mother why she was giving our bread to the birds and she quietly told me that, “For a piece of bread I could hear God sing.”  Birds were music for poor people.

I am a rock -ribbed, non-believer, but I always believed my grandmother’s faith was of great comfort to her; as much as my lack thereof is to me.

It was then that I first started drawing birds and reading about them.  The starling is an immigrant.  They came over from Europe a couple hundred years ago and took over.  They were never welcome in the new world, so they had to muscle their way in. They bred in great numbers and stole nests and got their share of the food supply and let other birds know they wouldn’t be fucked out of their new world.  Like every other immigrant group, the European starling had to fight for its piece of this country.

Their song isn’t as beautiful, they are a little more crude of behavior, and there are a lot of them– but if you’ve ever seen one in the sunlight and seen all of the hidden purples, greens and golds, then you are glad they are here.

Published in: on June 15, 2009 at 12:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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