Monday, May 18, 2009

A Pilgrimage of Arts & Letters

Trikaya, by Frederick Franck, at Pacem In Terris, Warwick, NY

When I set out on this last, most recent roadtrip, what I thought I had set out to do was not what happened. I thought I was going to drive East to visit the Atlantic Ocean at its northernmost continental US locales, in Maine, and make photographs of that place. I did accomplish that. But it turned out that was not the real purpose of the journey.

Very soon it became clear that this last, most recent roadtrip was to be a pilgrimage of arts and letters. That that was its true purpose.

It began and ended with visits to significant locales involving the contemporary art-glass movement. I also visited the home and final resting place of May Sarton in Nelson, New Hampshire; and Robert Frost's first home in New Hampshire, at Derry, where he failed as a farmer while writing the poems for his first books, later first published after the family had moved to England. I visited the locales in Maine and Pennsylvania where the family of painters named Wyeth spent much of their time and did much of their work. I visited Walt Whitman's final home in Camden, New Jersey; although it was closed at the time, and I didn't get to take the tour. Whitman had been with me for much this journey, nonetheless, much in my thoughts and aspirations. I paused at Lake George, New York, where Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe spent a great deal of time, together and separately, making paintings and photos. I spent a luminous afternoon at Pacem In Terris, Fredrick Franck's home in rural New York, a palce surrounded by the art he occasionally felt compelled to make; by the peace of a place dedicated to peace, to reminding us that peace is better than strife; that becoming truly, fully human means transcending the worst aspects of our selves and becoming our best. That visit was so important to me, that I can barely articulate what I experienced, even now. I will attempt it, nonetheless, a bit later.

This journey, to see and feel for myself the locales important and inspirational to several artists and writers who I deeply respect, was the roadtrip's true purpose, not revealed to me till I had already embarked. I wasted some frustration and angst on my intended plans going astray, till I realized what was really going on. After that, the travel was much clearer, if not always easier.

I thought I had set out to make more photographic and video images in natural settings, to discover the wilder places of New England, to visit the Ocean again. I thought I was going to have time to touch the northernmost point where the US touches the Atlantic Ocean, having touched the southernmost tip less than a year ago, at Key West, in Florida.

Well, I didn't make it all the way to the top of Maine. Perhaps another roadtrip. But I had never been to Maine before, and visiting that state was one of my main goals, achieved in the end by spending some time in and around Acadia National Park. And a very beautiful place Maine is. I encountered some friendly people during my visit, all of whom told me a similar story of how they had come to Maine to visit, and never left. I now understand the appeal. It's a beautiful land, if occasionally a harsh one, easy to plant roots in, easy to feel connected to. All the people I met in Maine were open and friendly to a wandering stranger; which is memorable, since not all places are so welcoming.

I thought I had set out to make photographs and video for my own ongoing artwork, my projects involving our series of ambient DVD videos, and for my own personal artistic work. I thought I might have a few quick visits to places along the way that were special, unique, beautiful. I thought I might write a few short poetic pieces about my travels, as usual. And I thought I would return home with a few golden nuggets of beauty in my memory, and in my cameras.

I was wrong on all counts. And that was the best gift of all.

For the trip was richer by far than anything I could have expected or imagined when I set out. There are still stone bells ringing in me, struck by surf, wind, and storm, still echoing inside, whose music I have barely begun to hear correctly, as music rather than noise, as melody rather than mere conversation.

This roadtrip became a necessary immersion in the art and writing that feeds my soul, that I need as much as breathing, that I have needed to reconnect with, to be more immersed in than ever before. The roadtrip became a pilgrimage to places almost sacred in their importance to my life and well-being and art-making. Places I needed to see, needed to be, needed to feel, to take in, to make part of my own memory. To make my own bonds and connections and links to the land law of those places important and sacred to those other artists and writers.

Is sacred too strong a word? No, I don't think so: it's a word necessary to understand the connection to place that some artists must have in order continue their lives. This is a lesson I am still thinking about, that requires more time to take in, outside as it is my usual semi-nomadic idea of myself. It's not that I am going to stop traveling: it's that the places I go to are to be places where I must make even stronger bonds, to their land law, their power, their inherent worth and beauty and trust.

I've written before about the essentially pagan nature of environmentalism, which comes out of deep reverence for the land, out of feeling, not merely intellectual awareness that it's the right thing to do. It's difficult to summon the necessary will to protect something you don't love so deeply. So, for myself, each place I go to visit, even those I now know well from previous travels, it will important to deepen my own bonds with them: to see even more clearly and deeply, to wait a long time to hear the stones sing, before I even pick up the cameras, or put pen to paper. It will take more time.

I thought I had lost this. This connection to the land. I thought I had lost all of it in the flurry of human and personal and family drama that has dominated my life for the past few years: all the drama of my parents' passing, and my own illness, and moving house and home: endings and beginnings. I can barely speak of how it feels to know that I haven't lost my connection to the land, after all. That, rather than being lost, it has deepened, and changed, and become something even more powerful and wonderful and darkly beautiful than once it was. What I once thought was lost has, rather, changed, becoming yet more rich and strange, more vivid and colorful; sometimes shot through with darkness, but with moments of brightness all the more vivid for being outlined in black.

There were other places important to some artists and writers whose work I know well, that I thought to visit on this roadtrip, which did not come to pass, because of constraints on time, travel, and health. They will be visited on other journeys; and there will be other journeys to see those places, as well as to revisit the places I built bonds with on this last, most recent roadtrip. There will be more.

So what I once thought lost has been rediscovered. What I thought I had set out to do was nothing but pretense, a delusion, yet a good delusion because it got me where I needed to be. Now that I'm home again, I can see that I've never been more glad to be wrong about what my purpose was, to have my intentions so consistently derailed, to have suffered through the dark days in order to find the bright days, to be so utterly changed by touching places so many drive right on by never even knowing they're there. I give my infinite gratitude to those forces that waylay us from what we think we're supposed to be doing in order to direct us towards what we are actually supposed to be doing, to find our true purpose revealed.

To be so wrong about what I thought I knew, what I thought I was supposed to discover, and to have been given enough strong hints that even I, blind and dumb and slow-brained and stubborn, could eventually catch on—this too was the best gift of all.

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Blogger Dave King said...

That was a deeply moving post. I think I can understand this essential reverence which some artists feel for the land, for a particular landscape, even though I do not feel it myself. Not to that degree, at least. There are landscapes I feel in sympathy with, that correspond to my inner landscape, that I feel I would be less of a person if I was permanently deprived of them, but I do not think they influence my art or writing to any great extent. The piece of landscape art you feature I was much taken with. Thanks for the post. I think I must come back to it ere long.

4:40 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

'Sacred' is one of those words, like 'inspiration', that people allow themselves to get all fuddled over. My understanding of it has always been a fairly simple and straightforward one - set aside for a special purpose, as opposed to something for everyday use. I think this can apply to these places you have visited on your trips because they have become special to you, you have designated them as special, significant to you in a way they would not be to someone else.

8:21 AM  
Blogger Mark Kerstetter said...

I love that photo. The greenery, the stones and especially that beautiful fence seem to be an integral part of the work. It reminds me that Tony Smith said the ideal way to see his work was at dusk or dawn in a natural setting.

I want to go to Marfa and see Judd's work against the Texas desert (like the monolith in 2001).

12:01 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the comments.

Dave, whether the landscape's inner or outer, I think it matters. In the case of Wyeth, he deliberately chose to limit his outer landscape choices, in terms of working in only two locations, precisely so his inner landscape could expand.

Jim, that's all true, of course. There are some places, though, that have become sacred, one way or another, to many people, not to just to me, or to one artist. Sometimes of course that's a cumulative process. A person might notice a place, then make art about it, after which others go there to see what they find, too.

Mark, thanks. You're right, the setting IS part of the work, really.

I've been to Marfa and seen Judd's work there. Now that I know more about him, I'd like to visit there again. A musician friend's family lives there now, too, so I have another reason to drop in. There are also some Judds in the Milwaukee Art Museum that I visit every time I go to the Museum, a couple of times a year, usually.

Something very interesting about what Judd accomplished.

As for Pacem In Terris, my afternoon there is one of the bright moments of this recent roadtrip. I'll have a lot to say about it, when I get to writing about that part of the trip. It might take more than one post to get at it. It's still with me, and makes me want to go back as soon as I can. I'm told that's a not uncommon response.

9:13 PM  

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