Tuesday, October 14, 2014

dreams and death chants, part two

I’m sure I missed some beautiful country, driving through those hours when coyotes and criminals feel safer with the dark, though I passed a dead coyote along the rim of the San Luis Reservoir.

I arrived in San Jose to find that the gallery exhibiting Barron Storey’s work opened at 10, which left me time to be restless. 10 came and went and the gallery remained closed, so I lunched at a Thai place, returned to the gallery, and still it was closed. I called them, left a message. I emailed them, said I was right outside their door. I had come all this way, for art’s sake! Around noon they emailed back and said they had opened. By then I’d received a $40 parking ticket while straying along the streets twelve minutes too long, not paying attention.

It was worth the wait, and the ticket, too.

I bet most of you have seen at least one illustration of Storey’s, if you don’t have it on your bookshelf. The particular piece I’m referring to is the paperback cover of Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Here is the back cover art, minus the typography.

Barron is the most incredible draftsman ever. Yes, ever. Here is one of the earliest works I kept of his. 


He drew this cover in a Time magazine office based on a witness’ description of Howard Hughes over the phone, the night Hughes died. An amazing portrait considering there were no photos of the reclusive Hughes that were less than 20 years off date.

I walked into the gallery, Anno Domini.

Just as there are some aspects of life we have difficulty facing, so it was with the subject of this exhibition, titled Suicide. I viewed it as a fellow of humanity and as an artist, both perspectives impacting me. As with most art, a reproduction conveys little about the original. Seeing Barron’s art up close and intimately, you see through layers, literally and figuratively, trying to comprehend where it all comes from and how deep it goes. He opens his soul to you; you glimpse his torments. And, if you can look beyond the subject, you are fascinated by his intricacies and you see how they fascinate him.

I learned that this particular subject was his torment of torments. The first piece was one he drew from life. Death, rather: it was of his mother lying in a hospital bed after she swallowed rat poison. Enough rat poison, the doctor told him, to kill an army. Barron was 23. 

For this collection of … I will call it work for the purpose of simplicity, though it involved not only sweat, but blood and tears … Barron had already been immersed in the subject for years: besides his mother, his uncle, Barron’s ex-wife, and a close friend took their own lives. There were over 70 works. Artistically, there was so much to learn by studying them I perused the exhibit three times.

Barron divided the art into clusters. Alongside each cluster he wrote in pencil or pen directly on the wall, defining a particular phase or sub-theme of the work. The cluster he numbered 5 reads What Good Am I? Cluster 7 represents work he did involving interviews he’d had with those who knew suicide victims. The cluster of work in 8 conveyed how the project itself affected him. I sensed it was near catastrophic. 

 The brochure for the exhibit reproduced Barron's remarks:

"Started asking people: Did you know anyone who committed suicide? So many did. Made drawings about each one. They piled up. Show them? Ugly ... Ugly subject. Ugly feelings. What have I done? OK. The question is: What did they do? And why? Pages and pages of journal drawings ... Lord, let it be over."

To be cont.

for dreams and death chants, part one, click here

Sunday, October 5, 2014

dreams and death chants, part one

I never did tell you about my California adventure. Not that I had only one—I was born and raised in California and my adventures were many, like the time a bear stole my backpack high in the Sierras, or when the hood (the bonnet, in Britspeak) flew off my ’59 Jag on the Pasadena freeway, or when I nearly died from a bee sting …

But on a more recent occasion, while visiting family and friends, I was headed to the Central Valley from Long Beach, and had become so sick with a respiratory flu I wanted to clear my head and body in the wilds. I wanted clean air and uncluttered space.

It happened fortuitously. I missed the right fork in the freeway, literally, which put me on the 5, still heading north but a bit closer to the coast. On this stretch the country is wide open, dusty, and uninviting. Deciding to postpone my stay with my octogenarian mother (not wishing to compromise her health), I proceeded.

I saw that Pacheco State Park was a couple of hours away. I imagined trekking through dry grasses, over hills studded with oaks, sketchbook-ready, inspired. A picture formed in my mind of a lone live oak on a hill, spreading like a Rorschach test over the barrenness. I knew how I’d render the leaves; I knew how I’d render the grass.

My fever rose so high at times I felt the fringes of delirium.

As I drove further north and west, I recalled a Robin Williamson song.

Purple clouds turn scarlet in the setting sun

Where sagebrush turns to live oak and the white-tail run

The air is cool as music when the day is done

And God paints the sky above Pacheco

Driving all day up the San Joaquin

Turn west again, up through Pacheco

Through the blue hills back of Santa Cruz we're rolling fine

Where red-tailed hawks go circling like the waves of time

Lovers and friends will meet again around red Sonoma wine

When God calls the night above Pacheco

I drove all day and into the evening, arriving at a place I thought was near Los Gatos—The Cats (named after the mountain lions and bobcats indigenous to the region)—where John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath and violinist Yehudi Menuhin lived as a boy. But, getting sicker by the mile, I pulled into a KOA and sat for a moment. It was early evening and I was in Los Banos—The Baths. I hoped to rest a few hours, shower, and get back on the road to somewhere more scenic, expecting to be well enough to draw my dreamscape.

My fever dropped, my appetite returned, and I found a Panda Express near a truck stop. To get to the door I had to wade through a whine of feral cats, begging with their hungry tongues and their hollow eyes. They were all the same dirty beige. As I ate I watched them watching me, with a picture window between us. I could eat only part of my meal, and cracked open the fortune cookie, which prophesied:

You will meet an old friend.  

Feeling worse again, I returned to the KOA, registered at the desk, and pulled into a spot to sleep. More cats surrounded a dumpster in the distance—surreal, ghost-colored cats, all the same dirty beige. My fever went up again and I sat there in a sweat. I decided to take a shower. On the way to the showers I passed the community room, a large windowed porch off the main office. Under cold, harsh lights people not much older than I shared a potluck meal, camaraderie, and card games. What a ghastly way to spend your life. But each of us must find his own happiness. They all seemed happy. In the mens room I saw a phantom in the mirror that looked too sick to shower, so I went back to the car. Perhaps in the morning I’d feel better. My fever would not quit. The night was a continuous John Fahey death chant. I sat and gazed at the dumpster. All the cats were gone but one, a sentry, perched on the lid, watching for rats. I shared my misery with it.

Around 4 am my fever broke. I was ready to get back on the road. I headed for the showers again but the door was locked. After retrieving the code from my car, I still could not get in. I lose patience with such things. The code had been hastily jotted down by the woman behind the desk, and after I realized the 8 was actually a 3, it was too late. By the time I had finished punching numbers I’m sure I’d re-programed the lock. I ended up in a posh outhouse, washing my head in the sink and taking what the locals back where I live call a sponge bath (from an earlier time when wells went dry and you had to conserve), avoiding the black widows all the while.

Enough. I was ready to see the sun, see the sea. Though my fever had dropped, I coughed like a dog. Changing my plans, I headed for San Jose. There was a gallery that displayed the works of an instructor I’d had during my Art Center days in Pasadena. Barron Storey.
He’s in his seventies now. I had to see what he was up to.

for dreams and death chants, part two, click here

cover art from a John Fahey album