Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category
By: Stephen Mead
Why should an empty aquarium in a dusty cellar pick up enough sun from the sooty windows to switch on a light bulb in my brain? Why is it I think not just of fish; angel, tetra, neon, clown, but of a display case instead? Why should that second thought become a compulsion and take precedence over the first? Is this how hoarders start? Filled with adrenalin to collect, and even have some organized system to the stockpiling which, to others, just seems like disarray? Those who take up athletics may collect objects of the sport, be it pigskin or baseballs the way a choir master hunts for particular choral sheets or cooks, spices. I think of a main character from Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping”, how she enjoyed scrubbing labels off of tin cans and stacking them, watching their aquamarine silver shimmer. Whatever gets you through the night, John Lennon might sing.
Washing off the ten gallon fish tank in my paint-stained porcelain kitchen sink I don’t give too much thought to who else in the building might have owned it, or owns it still. Soaping, rinsing, swooshing the grit down the drain, I do have a thief’s excitement but also an archeologist’s sense of an unveiling. It feels fitting to me that I found a use for this tank, a use which has the memory of water even while I plan on leaving it dry. A heavy vase of cut crystal fits the center perfectly. Its height calls for marbles, blue, green, mottled, an aggie variety from childhood to fill the whole and reflect its facets. Next starfish and shells go around the vase: ammonite, conch, turitella, even clam, the whorls and spirals arranged to suggest wavy treasures, what forms were housed, crept over sand and left behind beach mysteries. Lastly an art project which fell apart completes the tableau and I can breathe a sort of catharsis that I’ve found an outlet for being so covertly covetous, vicarious even, engaged with lives which were borrowed for awhile but not really mine.
I feel relief in finding a home for that broken art project too, chunks of it kept for years in an old plastic shopping bag, under shoes at the back of a small closet. The origins of that project went from thought
to clay, the concept of taking impressions of various textures and creating a means of tying them all into one. “Metamorphosis” was the name of the finished piece and it was fitting since so many shapes and grooves took on life by being placed beside others, a sort of rounded organic jigsaw in-the-making as shapes were moved around while attempting to form a pattern of cohesion.
Every city, town, room, has so many details that clay can take an impression from the way paper and charcoal can be used for a grave rubbing. There architectural embellishments are everywhere: cornices around doors, carved faces in pillars, iron ivy in staircases, or just something more minimal, like the scallop curves found in heating vents. Aside from the writing on a manhole cover and the top of a water main’s knob, I don’t really recall all the different impressions I took which went into that bas relief art piece, nor do I remember the steps involved to take it from clay to plaster. I remember the pouring and casting of the plaster though, the thick creamy whiteness settling around details and how I used a broom to whisk more lines at the bottom and top of the piece, creating a beach comber frieze. I also can’t remember if it was black paint or ink which I used to make certain lines stand out though in retrospect I wish I’d either left the entire thing milky or found a way to create the effect of moss, in particular fronds of sphagnum.
In the end, adhered to thick wood, “Metamorphosis” was quite heavy and also bit of a millstone to cart around from one apartment to another as I continued to get older and move about. Still, I know of a local artist who does her paintings on slate and she must be like a female hybrid of Moses and Hercules hauling the testaments of her art around from gallery to gallery. Still, there’s been a little bit of pain, a sort of inner wince felt every time parts of “Metamorphosis” have broken off. After awhile however I realized I enjoyed removing the other pieces and that sculpture as an art form was too heavy for my spirit anyway. As a matter of fact plaster and I never quite got on from the start.
Before doing “Metamorphosis”, the first project of working with clay and plaster involved taking a piece of the kind of Styrofoam used in couch cushions. By the cunning use of durable rubber bands the class instructor twisted this thick foam into a shape that was sensual on the right hand and somewhat comical on the left. I mean I found it comical. Though others found the shape vaginal I found it hemorrhoidal and kept picturing the talking buttock typewriters out of Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch”. At one point I even put large space alien veins on the piece but wound up removing them before inflicting my inane view on the art instructor’s more sensible one. It wasn’t his fault I was so grouchy about wanting to do some sort of art that would have earth shattering meaning.
Most likely it was my attitude which got me into trouble with the whole plaster thing. I still have no idea what exactly I did wrong. Like many in the class I added food coloring, baby blue and girl pink, into the liquid plaster mix spread upon the initial white layer that went over the clay. I believe we did this to somehow know what plaster strata held the shape of the clay that was the actual sculpture when it came time for the clay to be removed. For some reason though my blue and pink plaster never quite set and I wound up peeling it off like chunks of melting Slushies into a garbage bag while the teacher advised me to go out and get drunk. Instead, bad nerves and all, sans the food coloring, I stated over the next morning, even receiving an “A” in the end, but at that point the teacher had profound pity for me and my sufferings for art.
It’s amazing what a nervous wreck I was about the whole damn thing but I was often this way when it came time to being around other people in general. The teacher, despite his steely penetrating turquoise eyes, was an incredibly gentle and good man, and seemed to have extra patience with me when it came to using a blow torch and put the finishing touches on the project. Blow torch? When I was a kid I witnessed a wagon house on our farm burn down but I’m fairly certain I wasn’t consciously thinking about that when worried about conflagration in the art shop. No, like sentinels from some futuristic terrain, with twisted pieces of welded metal standing upright all around, pyromaniac fears loomed. Would the flame of yellowish indigo hypnotize me to some point beyond sanity? Not to worry. Breathe deep. Hold ground. Through foggy goggles I watched as fire sparked over the sculpture’s lunar turf, letting certain scratches in the surface bleed beyond the char.
I called this art piece “The Survivor” but others joked about it being more of a burnt turkey. Its weight again was also bowling-ball substantial. My lesbian roommate at the time saw its sensuous folds and rolling inward protuberances as having the character of a feminist deity, something fun to put out, as if for worship, when she had her womyn’s circle meetings. Still, for several years, “The Survivor” lived up to its name, its char rubbing off on my hands or clothes as it followed the bouncing balls of my apartment moves. Eventually however, when my parent’s farm was being sold I decided to give the relic a final resting place. A creek ran by that property, one which my sister had dug clay from for some of her own early art projects, so I found burial at creek bed a fitting demise. Down, down, down, “The Survivor” looked as if lightning was playing tag over it as white tipped black waves of the creek’s cold current took it on home. Sometimes I wonder if there was anything left of the sculpture when the water receded. I wonder if erosion obliterated it completely or if pieces were scattered to shores further on. I imagine them catching the eye of someone wandering along or being caught in a fisherman’s twine. The mud and eely algae greens slough off and the remains startle with the sheen of whale bone.
In the nooks and crannies of my brain’s landscape, where images and memories play peek-a-boo over the hills and valleys at any unexpected time, I can see that sculpture rising, smooth here, porous there, and ready for the empty ephemera of a clean aquarium display case that too will be dismantled when parting is nigh.