The Black Petals

The Black Petals

There is a lovely flower store across the street from my studio called Larkspur.  My friend, Beth Barnett, owns it.  Sometimes when it is gray and shitty in Chicago, which is about eight months a year, I go over there and marvel at the color and smell of her daily inventory of flowers and plants . . . it is one of those pleasures that I live for.  She has things other stores don’t–anemones, Vanda orchids, Calathea plants–the stuff nobody else much cares about.  This store is a revelation; it always cheers me up.  I bought a Calathea plant there last week because I wanted to draw its black and purplish leaves.  It is from Brazil and is often a mourning plant, a plant given at times of death, much like the Irish giving lilies.  I thought it perfect for the mournful and autumnal life of Crazy Horse.  Black petals as deep and rich as crude oil, or night in the Badlands.  Calathea does not grow within 2,000 miles of the Black Hills, yet somehow, it is fitting.

I was in New Orleans last week where everything grows and overgrows; flora and fauna incessantly trying to reclaim the place.  I was there for these panels sponsored by Louisiana Artworks, speaking to young (and some not so young) artists about how to enter the world as artists.  I became acquainted with some wonderful emerging talent that really deserves a bigger audience.  I was touched at how, in the middle of the shittiest art-economy I can remember, these kids were full of optimism, energy and desire, how they evince an undefeated kind of spirit in the face of no small amount of adversity.

I came back to a Chicago in the full thrall of autumn with the trees and bushes changing colors; gorgeous fiery yellows and russet reds, burnt ochres and umbers and oranges.  This city is never more beautiful than in the fall.  Soon it will be time to turn the clock back and it will be dark at 4:30 in the afternoon, which will bum me out.  I don’t get Daylight Savings.  What the fuck are we saving it for?  Autumn is sad in the same way finishing a good book is, you don’t want it to end.  Winter is cruel in Chicago and at times it is easy to believe that cruelty is the true nature of this city’s heart . . . it can be a heartless motherfucker.

Published in: on October 28, 2009 at 9:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Snake Planets

The Snake PlanetsI love snakes.  As a kid, I had many boas, corn snakes, fox snakes, and once a speckled king snake that was as beautiful and lithe as yellow-dotted fine silk.  It was truly lovely.  I love drawing snakes as they are kind of one fluid line that curls and loops, never achieving an actual angle. Snake lines just kind of walk around on the picture-plane.

I worked in a pet shop in high school that dealt largely in exotic reptiles.  The guys who ran this place were also collectors of reptiles and falconers.  They were fascinating guys who knew a lot about nature and natural history.  They were especially adept at getting rare, barely-legal kinds of reptiles, including rear-fanged poisonous snakes and odd specimens like the Spilotes snake, which was a gorgeous black, yellow and white, and crazy-fast.  He was also a very big (six feet) and ill-tempered motherfucker.  This pet store was a wonder to me.  We got ferocious monitor lizards, as well as gentle chuckwallas and iguanas, one of which grew to be five feet long.  For me, though, the snakes were the treat.  KWI Pets got everything from reticulated pythons, Burmese pythons and rosy boa constrictors to shimmering black Indigo snakes that moved like liquid poetry.  It was a great place to work.

There is much lore surrounding snakes in Native American culture.  They are harbingers of storms, earthquakes and floods, as well as an ominous symbol of the near proximity of enemies.  It is a bad foreshadowing of things to come if one senses that the snakes are angry.  The lowly snake is able to feel the earth with its belly and is, therefore, a powerful spirit.  Horses are scared shitless of them . . . the snake is a powerful talisman.

Years ago I traveled the West and came upon a diner in Wyoming that had a tank full of prairie rattlers outside of it; big heavy-bodied, sons-of-bitches who love-you-not.  I thought they were SO boss, this glass box full of godless, undulating, death writhing in red dirt.

Ever since Christianity put the stink on snakes, they’ve been a symbol of the outlaw, the sexual, the other.  What I always loved about them as a kid was that they scared the shit out of everyone.  I used to taunt little girls with garter snakes that I’d caught.  One day I found a girl who was not the least bit scared of snakes–Kim Florence.  We were in fifth grade and she had more snakes than I did.  Naturally, I fell madly in fifth grade love with her; she was my first girlfriend.  She later kissed me off for a boy with dirty hair and a guitar, but my love for snakes and their dangerous kind of cool went unabated.

In Texas every year, a bunch of fucking Neanderthals get together and kill rattlesnakes by the thousands, even though they are among the most useful of creatures eating mice, rats, gophers and even other snakes.

Many Native American tribes have “Snake-Dances” that celebrate the power and mystery of these amazing creatures.

Published in: on October 22, 2009 at 10:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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Winter Crosses

Winter Crosses

Winter in the Badlands is, to say the least, formidable. The wind, hail, snow and freezing-sideways-rain can create a whiteout in seconds.  It is one of those landscapes where nature truly has the ass over you.  When he was alive, Crazy Horse used the unpredictability of nature and the vagaries of landscape to his advantage in warfare and hunting.  He knew where his enemy and his prey would be in any given weather because he knew what the land knew.  Winter made hunting easier because the deer, antelope and buffalo had nowhere to hide and had to move constantly to forage for food.  Winter was also very hard on the tribes of Native Americans.  Water would freeze, fires would have to be kept perpetually burning in order to stay alive, which would in turn alert enemies as to their location.  It was a perilous time of year for man and animal.

The cross motif present in much Native American art is not Christian, it represents the four directions, or the four winds, as my friend Mark Turcotte told me.  Mark is the great Chippewa poet I’ve known for years who has been a huge help in directing me toward what to read and look for when making these offerings.  I’d been perplexed by the presence of so many crosses and had thought that maybe this element had been introduced by missionaries before they aided in the systematic attempted genocide of the American Indian tribes.  As far as we know, Crazy Horse’s deities were rooted in nature.  Like many Native American tribes, he regarded the sun as the Almighty.

In battle Crazy Horse adorned his forehead with three hailstones and red lightning bolts on each cheek.  He also carried a small pebble or hailstone behind his ear.  These images were powerful talismans in his life and visions.  When it would hail, the Native American believed it was raining stone and, depending which text you read, this was alternately ominous and hopeful at the same time.

Natural phenomenon is almost always present in Native American art and textiles; weavings and blankets and rugs and bold patterns that reflect the temperaments and shapes of landscape and seasonal shifts.

The last time I was in the Badlands, I was aware of nature as a presence, as an entity.  It is a powerful place charged with our most shameful histories, those sad resolutions of tribal fates that have forever etched regret into our American psyche.

Published in: on October 20, 2009 at 11:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Deer Music

The Deer Music

In Larry McMurtry‘s splendid Crazy Horse, the author does something really smart, he measures what Crazy Horse means to his people and to us as Americans.  Little is known about Crazy Horse, despite the iconic presence he is.  McMurtry does not indulge any speculative history; rather than this, he carefully crafts an enigmatic and towering definition of who Crazy Horse became in history’s wider lens.  Instead of perpetuating the myth-writ-large, McMurtry, with the skill of a surgeon, explains our complicated history with the legacy of this odd man.  I’ve always admired McMurtry’s writing and while I was never much interested in Western things before or Texas so much, Lonesome Dove changed all of that for me and I became a rabid fan of Mr. McMurtry’s novels.

One of my aims in making these meditations on Crazy Horse is not to convince you I know a lot about Native American History or Native Americans.  I don’t.  I am a white guy who is fascinated by the problematic history and wanderings of one iconic Native American, Crazy Horse.  He was an odd man who was not very comfortable as a leader, or a member of a tribe, or even as a man.  He was a seeker of spirits, of nature, which are pretty much the same thing in this particular body of work.  Do I feel a kinship with him?  Not really.  He was at heart a loner, happy out wandering in nature, hunting deer, elk and buffalo, sleeping in caves and under the stars.  I am an admirer of his courage and otherworldliness.  I feel greatly for those who will only be like themselves.

Published in: on October 17, 2009 at 11:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Spider Music

The Spider MusicWhen my daughter Gaby was small, I used to read her my favorite children’s book, Charlotte’s Web. it was a gorgeous allegory about right and wrong by E. B. White.  It gently explained the mystery of the life-cycle without all of the punitive religious horse-shit.  Charlotte’s legacy were a hundred little parachutes with her babies tethered to the end of them with silken threads.  Charlotte is alive through her children and the kind lessons she bestowed upon her friends in the barn-yard.

I am still kind of a pussy about spiders, but I don’t immediately kill them like I used to.  Now I sweep them out of whatever place I am inhabiting, but I don’t stomp on the poor fuckers like I used to.  Spiders are among the most useful of creatures; eating flies, mosquitoes, nits, centipedes and other harmful bugs.  Still, they give me the willies; especially the big fuckers–they still spook me.

In Japan, of course, spiders are looked on with favor, as useful makers of silk-like thread and as nature’s artists. Much Japanese art references the glistening geometry of spider-webs.  It appeals to the Japanese sense of elegant order.  All through the wood-cuts and etchings of Hiroshige and Hokusai there are hints of spiders and their webs as benevolent elements.  In haiku, Issa, Buson and Basho all write of spiders and the rigorous mathematical poetry of their webs.

My friend, Steve Earle, told me a couple of years ago that after reading a lot of haiku that he didn’t want to kill things anymore.  He used to hunt deer and fish for trout for eating.  Now he is content to merely humiliate the cutthroat trout he catches and lets them go.  After visiting Japan and reading a lot of Japanese poetry, the reverence for life is something I share.  I don’t want to kill anything either.  In New Orleans recently I let a cockroach saunter by me without stomping his ass.  He was a big motherfucker and he walked by with no urgency.  It was if he were daring me, like, “Hey….Want some of this?”   In New Orleans, they want to pretend cockroaches are something else, so they call them pretty names like “palmetto bugs” or the banal “waterbug.”  Bullshit.  They are cockroaches. Granted, they are the size of a Buick and they fly, but they are still fucking ROACHES.

And I still have no desire to kill them anymore.

And this is something.

Published in: on October 13, 2009 at 9:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Yellow River

The Yellow River

Do you not see the waters of the Yellow River
Come flowing from the sky?
The swift stream pours into the sea and returns never-more?
– Li Po,  An Exhortation

Li Po liked to get hammered on wine and write poems.  His “Exhortations” (there were many) find their modern counterpart in poems like Baudelaire’s Get Drunk, in which the poets celebrate life’s rich bounty of wine, words and love.  Li Po was not adverse to what he called “reckless revelry,” which is not to say he was not serious about anything.  He was very devoted to  nature and would tear up at the sight of the constellations.  He was a sensualist and spent many days and years by rivers and under the stars.  He was in awe of all of it.  In his poems, he would state, “We never grow tired of each other, the stars and I.”

I’ve not spent a lot of time in nature and lately I’ve had a desire to be by the river or the lake.  I like watching birds and in Tokyo, I really loved watching the whir of carp and koi and goldfish in the ponds in the public parks.  Tokyo still  looms large in my thoughts and day-dreams.  I want to go back.  I miss it; much the way I miss New Orleans when I’m not there.  It is a dream-city full of color and blinding imagery and light.  It is an urban reliquary as much of the imagination as it is a city  of order and clock-like efficiency.  I love the way the Japanese blend images and words  and architecture and light.

There is a stretch of subterranean business district called “Piss Alley” (named so because at one time they all shared the same restroom) filled with bars, restaurants, clip-joints and bazaar-like shops that is so dizzying in its claustrophobic stalls and stores, it feels like an above ground river of human excess and activity.  It is hypnotic.  Like the rest of Tokyo, it is dreamy and exotic in its otherness. The kind of place I’m very comfortable.

I love places that challenge what I  know.  Places where I shut up and look and listen and let it teach me their rhythms and sounds and colors. Tokyo is a quiet city for one as large as it is; hell, for any city.  It is odd and wonderful to me, and I want badly to go back.

I like its quiet kindness and inescapable poetry.  It has connected me with an instinct to seek a kind of peace with myself.

Published in: on October 9, 2009 at 8:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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Koi for Li-Po

Koif or Li-PoLi Po has been the best known Chinese poet in  Asia for about the last thousand years.  He was a huge influence on the haiku poets — and is credited with being the seminal influence in the language of Tanka and Haiku.  He was one of those wandering, searching poets who worshipped nature. He was so great a poet that there are volumes of poems by other poets proclaiming their devotion to him:

Today I laid bare before you
all things stored in my heart.

are the final lines from an anonymous poet in a verse dedicated to Li Po.  His poems are like an electrified arcing kite-string connecting him and Basho to modernist poets like Ezra Pound who was profoundly influenced by  the writings of the Chinese poets of the 6th and 7th centuries, but in particular, Li Po.

One must remember that Li Po was a poet of what was considered the cultural age of enlightenment in China; the 300 years or so that constituted the Tang Dynasty.  The greatist artistic attainments of this age were poetry.  There were no plawrights or novelists; only poets; and  there were poets up the wazoo.  As the quote goes, “If there was a man, he was a poet.” The Chinese  held poetry in very high regard, and Li Po was the best of the best back then. When one reads Basho, one cannot help but realize the restraint and acuity of Li-Po hovering over the totality of Basho’s output.  That one was Japanese and one Chinese and separated by a thousand years does not deter the idea of these two spirits being distant mirrors of the other.

My friend Beth Keegan taught Chinese for years at the Latin School and she is forever correcting me on the pronunciation of Li Po’s name.  She pronounces it “Li BOUGH” and ennunciates the second syllable as if it were two.  Those who revere Chinese writing are very protective of it. After reading Li Po, I  get it.  It is a cultural treasure; one largely forgotten and one that, regrettably, nobody gives a fuck about anymore.  It’s a shame.  There is such joy and earthy gratitude in Li Po’s, “To Tung Tsao-Chiu:”

And comlier still are the green eyebrows when the new
moon shines.
The  beautiful girls sing anew and dance in robes of thin silk.

Li Po liked a good time.  After writing a letter in which this verse appears, he “sends it a thousand miles, and years, remembering.”  It is lines like this that make me feel alive.

Published in: on October 3, 2009 at 10:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Hungry Ghost

The Hungry Ghost

When you look into the ponds found in many Japanese parks and shrines there are always koi and carp.  From time to time you’ll spot an almost translucent white carp, an albino of sorts, gliding like an aquatic white ghost.  Japan and Asia, for that matter, are fairly lousy with ghosts.  One of the most haunting spook stories is that of “The Hungry Ghost.”  It pops up in Thai, Chinese and Japanese folk-tales and ghost stories.  It goes that if one has led an unscrupulous life, he, or she, is doomed in the after-life to roam the world as a hungry ghost for 800 years.  The Ghost is said to have a mouth so small that no food can fit in it.  I’ve heard this story, or variants of it, many times.  To wander, hungry, is thought to be the worst of fates.  Perhaps this is because, all over Asia, starvation is a very real-world problem.  In all of these folk-tales and parables, hunger is akin to madness.

Tokyo has made an impression on me.  It is another world that lingers in the imagination long after one returns home.  The ease with which I was able to navigate Tokyo was a surprise to me, as well as the feeling of comfort while wandering that city.  It is good to get away from one’s landscape.  To experience new sights and sounds and ways of living is a great blessing.  I spent years making work about the wonder of my own city and now it is time to let the rest of the world into my work.  I’ve thought long and hard about just what it is I want, and the simple truth of it is, I don’t want much of anything.  I pretty much have what I want.  What I’d like now is to spend my  money and time on experiences rather than “stuff’.”  I want to see more of the world and get out of  my land-locked existence as an American.  We often just see the world through our own myopic scrim and when we view ourselves from another country, our whole picture becomes exponentially more visible.  We wonder why other countries fear and distrust us, but when you view the U.S. from Asia or the U.K., we look awfully big and reckless.  I’m always  curious to know what America means to the rest of the world and very often, we are an enigma to foreigners in their countries.

I’ve never been treated with anything other than kindness when I’ve traveled to other countries.  People are curious about us.  They do tend to think we’re all rich, which is kind of funny, but by and large, most of the people I meet are surprised that Americans are as nice as we are.  Given what they see of our government’s policies, I understand this.

Published in: on October 1, 2009 at 1:24 am  Leave a Comment  
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