A woman dancing with Toledo; the sky at Ohio…
There is a song by Gillian Welch called Look at Miss Ohio, and it is full of the heartbreak and yearning of the Midwest, as well as the Ohio of the Civil War. Every time I drive through this state and look up at the stars, I think of this song and how perfectly grounded and suited it is to this most American of states; how the longing in one woman’s heart can, at that moment, seem like one we all share. It is a brilliant bit of songwriting that makes kin of us all.
This piece is about that lovely song.
Among the cultures of the American Indian tribes there are a myriad of beliefs about the owl. An owl on a rock near a lake or a river, signified a particular tribe’s ownership of that place for fishing and trapping. the Iroquois believed this, as well as the owl being a protector from water monsters and devils, which would drown those who wandered too close to the water at night.
The Apache believed that a dream of an owl was a harbinger of the nearness of one’s death. Cherokee medicine men and shaman thought screech owls had the power to bring on illnesses as punishment. The Cree believed the small owls could summon the spirits with their other-worldly whistles and cackles.
A great many tribes thought owls could travel between the worlds of the living and the dead. The Dakota Sioux believed the burrowing owl held sway in the underneath–the world below the ground, and also acted as a protector for brave warriors, whereas, the Hopi believed this same owl to be a god of the dead and a guardian of fire and keeper of all things under ground, even seeds. They called the bird Ko’ko which means “watcher of the dark.”
The Nez Pierce believed that owls were both the deceased person and their newly released soul, and the Mojave peoples believed that after death, one would become an owl as an interim stage, before becoming a water beetle and then, ultimately, pure air. The Navajo were sure that listening to the owl, a man could hear his future.
I’ve loved owls since I was kid. In high school, I had a screech owl I’d found for a few years before bringing it to Willowbrook wildlife haven and having him repatriated to the wild.
I worked part time at a pet store, which helped me feed Oliver the mice he ate every day. e had a big wooden box as a cage with a few perches in it, and from time to time, I’d let him fly freely around the basement. There were NO mice in our basement.
The sense most acute in owls is their HEARING. Everyone thinks it’s eyesight. Not really. Owls hunt by stealth. Their wings are billowed and silent and their sense of hearing is astonishing.
There is an owl that I see in Ukrainian Village once in a while. It’s a short-eared owl, and I wonder what the fuck he is doing here. I’ve only ever seen them around open fields before. I guess, like us, they go where the food is.
I’ve seen a lot of great horned owls in the city. Logan Square, with its bounty of old-growth trees, is lousy with them, and it is a good environment for them–all of the rodents they can eat.
The truth is, once you look for them, you begin to notice them, mostly at dusk and dawn, when they hunt. Our night watchmen.
There is really no such thing as an American polecat. It is a colorful bit of slang that has been used to describe skunks, weasels, minks, and ferret–anything that smells bad and resembles a weasel or an art dealer. It is also a bit of urban slang used to describe a “pole dancer” in a particularly low-end strip joint.
There is something wholly American about this bit of slang. During the political season, I heard an older resident of Akron, Ohio comment on cable news that, “Every four years these polecats come to Ohio shilling for the Democrats or Republicans and try to scare everyone into voting for their party’s slimy imbecile. What a load of horse shit.”
This piece is for that guy who knew a skunk when he saw one.
It happens all of the time with people–especially males–this appraisal, a mutual measuring-up; a silent visual calculus to see who is: stronger, wealthier, better-looking, or cooler. It’s right out of nature, this seeking of primacy in ones species. Women do it as well, but it isn’t nearly as comical as when men do it.
A few years ago, I was flying to New York and sitting in first class; it was a really hot day and I took my long-sleeved shirt off and was just wearing a fancy T-shirt. I have a bunch of tattoos and while, lately, you see more tattoos in first class than you used to, or some folks it is still a surprise.
The guy sitting across the aisle from me kept looking over, and then shaking his head. Every ten or so minutes, like clockwork. Look over, shake his head; and toward the end of the flight add a perplexed-sounding exhalation. I ignored it. I learned a long time ago that what people who don’t know me think of me is none of my business. I honestly, no shit, don’t give a fuck.
The guy was roughly my age and looked like they all look. He was a guy wearing a tie. Beyond this, I couldn’t tell you another thing about him except at the beginning of the flight he asked the flight attendant if there were another first-class seat available “a little further away from the Illustrated man.” He said it loud enough so that I’d hear it–for my benefit. At this point I put my headphones on and cranked up my iPod.
At a certain, point the flight attendant apologized to me and I told him it wasn’t his fault and then I drifted off to sleep.
After the flight, I was getting my overhead stuff down and asshole with the tie could no longer help himself. With a smug, humorless smile, he asked me, “What’s with all the ink? What does THAT mean?”
I stepped in front of him on my way off the plane and told him, “It means I’m nothing like you, Fuckhead.”
I kept moving and the flight attendant was laughing and wished me the nicest of days.
I met my friend, Nick Bubash, around 1991. I’d known of him for years. In the tattoo world he was a legend, a for-real fine artist who was also one of tattooing’s leading lights. He came out of the lineage of Thom Paul DaVita, Ed Hardy, and Mike Malone, who’d apprenticed with Sailor Jerry. He was one of the old-school guys who tattooed in Pittsburgh and New York City when it was illegal (which it was for a very long time). In fact, it only became legal about 10 years ago.
Bubash and I became instant friends. We had the same sense of humor, the same view of the world and the same love of etching and collecting old books with real printmaking in them. Nick was an expert. He’d go into the Strand Bookstore in New York, that legendary mile of books at 13th and Broadway, and buy five or six hundred bucks worth of old books that in all actuality worth far more than that because they were filled with actual etchings and lithographs from the last two hundred years. You name it, Nick could find it.
One time, I lamented not being able to find a rare Lynd Ward book of woodcuts of New York. By noon, Nick had found two of them; one, in mint condition, about a mile from my house, with Ed Ripp, another great rare book guy.
Over the last 20 years Nick and I have done a bunch of shows and prints together. We always get the same reaction when we stop for coffee or a restaurant. Two big motherfuckers with a lot of tattoos. People look at us like we’re going to rob the place. It’s funny. Nick’s tattoos are genuinely frightening–skulls, snakes, birds. . . Mine, not so much.
One art dealer described us as, “Two big apes who look like walking comic-books.” He isn’t wrong.
It’s fair to say I’ve learned more from Nick than I have from any other artist I know. He is closer to me a thousand miles away than people who’ve known me my whole life. There are those moments in life when you meet your natural confederates; like those whistles only dogs can hear. . .when you make a friend you know you will be tight with for the rest of your life. I have five or six friends like this. They all know each other and we are a pretty close bunch no matter where we are in the world. Nick is one of those guys I’d take a bullet for.
Every once in a while, we’ll be on the phone and Nick will describe another guy he knows and he’ll say, “He’s a good guy. Y’know, a good Joe–one of us. Just a regular slob. . .y’know what I mean?”
This always destroys me with laughter– partly because Nick has a thick Pittsburgh accent and the word “slob”‘” sounds like “slaawwwbb.” It fucking kills me.
I’ve been checking in with Nick a bit more lately. A couple of weeks ago, his best friend from first grade on, Bill Gomez, died of cancer. He was diagnosed and three weeks later he died. It shook my friend up and no matter how many well-worn platitudes one issues or attempts to console with, there is nothing for it, except picking up the phone and holding out a hand.
At our age, the end is no longer an abstraction. It’s not in the periphery it is right in front of us–and has definable features. All roads lead to the big adios. So I check in with my friend who, like me, knows that we got these tattoos because it is a perilously short time we get here– and this is part of how we remember this journey. In the end, what we remember is what we really have. Me and my friend Nick know this. So I call him regularly, so that we remember. That we not forget.
There is a lot of grace in the exchanging of gratitude. I always wonder whom to thank for the birds, the stars, the sound of my kids laughing, the tree on my street. . .one that every autumn, without fail, turns into this luminous yellow fire, leaf by leaf and for the cool collection of ’70s funk and slow jams on my iPod.
I try not to measure this world by what I don’t have and be grateful for what I do have. Sometimes people will ask me where I want to “take my career” next. The truth is, right here is fine. If you’d have told me 30 years ago that on this day I would have six of my etchings hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago in the same show with David Hockney and Robert Rauschenberg, Alex Katz, and Picasso, I wouldn’t have believed you. It didn’t seem possible. But I got here.
And here is just fine.
A lot of you helped me along the way, and I hope I thanked you. And if I didn’t, then I’m doing it now.
The show is called, “The Artist and the Poet.”
I haven’t gone to see it yet, truth be told I never thought I’d get to hang in this amazing institution in my lifetime–or deathtime for that matter.
Chances are when I roll up on my pieces, I don’t know what will happen. There is a good chance I will bitch-up and start crying. There is also the very good chance I’ll find my effort wanting. Whatever happens, I want to be ready for it.
But for over 30 years I’ve been doing this for a life.
It isn’t a “living,” it’s a life. And if you’re reading this, chances are, in some way, you helped me get here. Thank you for walking the miles with me.