Thursday, July 31, 2008

Love at Nite

Yesterday the splendid rain began. In the afternoon the thunder boys rolled their stone wheel out of the northwest and a bank of violet grey clouds came rushing over the hill, dumping gushets and ricochets of hail. Dusty paths became the origins of rivers, and the trees, plants and vines in dandyland took on the rainforest look.

In the night was the best. I woke up in the deep dark to hear the rumblings of thunder near and far in the darkness, the steady drumming of a downpour on the roof. No matter how dry August may be now, there's enough water in the earth to see us through. I rolled over, luxuriously, in bed, and let my lulled descent back into sleep sweeten with sound of renewal, thinking very pleasant thoughts of that Riverman I mentioned in my last post.

There's a story that I like about rain. It seems that in times past humans lost sight of the fact that they are small parts in a bigger picture and became not only selfish but proud of it. The Orisa, personified forces of nature, as imagined by humans, were by this same distortion at odds with each other, and the world became disharmonious and full of nothing but strife and cruelty. No single mind can encompass the vast distances or content of the universe, and yet it is possible to imagine wholeness without limit, and this also has a name in Yoruba stories - Oludumare. It is understood that the realm of Oludumare is rather distant from the compartively microscopic one of earthly affairs. There is a great gulf between here and there.

I think it is rather wrongheaded to say that Oludumare, imagined as sustaining all things, was so petty as to levee drought as a punishment for the ignorance and lack of respect displayed by these people of the past ~ to follow the story at this point, we need only understand that the drought was a result of their bad behavior. Actions have consequences - Oludumare IS.
In time the drought became severe and humankind, on the verge of perishing, neglected to even imagine the Orisa, much less give them sustanance, until the entire system was in danger of complete collapse.

So the Orisa gathered in council to save the world. Everyone thought of themselves as being powerful, but when it came right down to it, none of the boasters had the nearly infinite power required to reach the far-off realm of Oludumare, whose all-encompassing existence, forgotten in self-absorbtion, they remembered when they got in trouble.

It was then that a strange and colorful bird volunteered to make the journey to Oludumare and beg for help. This was greeted with scepticism, which quickly ripened into outright scorn. How absurd! A mere bird! The Orisa are the Obas and Queens of the natural world! But as no one had a better idea, the bird took off, upward, flying into the infinity of space.

As this bird neared the outlandish glory of Oludumare's realm, the fabulous fires of the cosmos scorched the feathers of the bird until they were blackened and ragged. And even worse, the feathers on her head were burnt off entirely and the skin itself was blistered and scarred into a visage only a mother could love, and that not without effort.

And so it was that this bird landed in Oludumare's yard and begged for help for her children, by which she meant all living things, and of course she was right, we're all in this together. Oludumare saw that she was in rough shape, in fact her head looked horrible, and her entire aspect was pathetic in the extreme. But knowing all things, Oludumare also recognized that this being, who had taken the form of a bird, was herself a great Orisa, Oshun, the personification of Love itself, and this message, delivered as it was by a pure heart, alone had the power to cross the great gulf and move the heart of mighty Oludumare. Oludumare let Oshun return to the earth in the form of sweet water, falling as rain to renew and refresh her children. The hardened hearts were softened and harmony was restored, albeit in an ever precarious balance dependent on the real respect born of love.

The form of the bird remains as a reminder. It is the vulture, despised and reviled by ignorance ~ because its part of the meal of life is an humble portion, and because its looks may not appeal to those whose ideals of beauty are standardized. Love may take the form of a beautiful woman, or a beautiful man, blessing our nights with luxury and sensual delight. And Love may be imagined as sweet pure water, pouring forth to sustain and renew us. But it may also be concealed in a creature who finds life and love where others see only ugliness, despair, death, and decay.

The vulture flying in negative space in The Keeper video (see earlier post) is intended to evoke this story.

Love at Nite:

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


I got home from the recording studio a little after one last night. My part of the work is done. I started this set of pieces last year, at the same time that I began work with Dr. Vibes on The Faun CD, and the recording I finished up last night is part of The Faun, heard from a different angle. I've decided to call it Nimbus, with a tag "for The Faun; ambients and alternatives."

I think Cathy's going to be pleased with at least one thing on it - I finally recorded the guitar/old timey version of Riverman.

Jody's studio is such a hermetically sealed space. There's even an antechamber, with thick doors, before entering the room where he records my singing. When we're working, and that is late at night so that there aren't as many road sounds seeping in, the room is kept dim, almost dark.

To me, the closest other activity to singing in the recording studio is diving at night. With the headphones on, and a very powerful microphone almost touching my lips, I feel as though I've stepped up to a dark mirror that reveals exactly who I am at that moment, and the moment of beginning to sing being just ahead, the only thing to do is to take a breath, say "I'm ready", and plunge.

I can always do the track over - but in art, just as in life, there's a certain limit to opportunities, a point where fresh and revealing becomes stale and concealing, a point where you're diving and hitting a rock.

My music is constructed, carefully I hope, usually over fairly long periods of time. I'm working on a song now that I started when I was 16 and it seems even more mysterious and elusive today. There may be a discrete event that sets the composing process in motion, but the songs that work best for me are not tethered to one moment in time, their meaning responds to the changes of life, and as a result of that, they aren't always available to me, and there's no way to know which one will be responsive next. So my work has been to fill a toolbox with songs that have potential ~ it is a bit like the Ifa divination I mentioned in a previous post, picking a song to sing is like picking a path. Even the most familiar path may take you somewhere unexpected on a given day. I've felt the awful thud of hitting a rabbit that ran out in front of the car, and the regret and pity that followed, but what I didn't know is whether the rabbit had just lept away from the jaws of a snake that would have slowly swallowed it alive. If I could grasp both at once, I might be able to sing the song about Empedocles leaping into the volcano that I'm working on.

Yesterday was problematic, emotionally, anyway - starting with the funeral of one of my dad's cousins, Ralph, a sweet old bachelor farmer who was born in the same week that Cebah was. So I walked that strange path, holding my mother's arm to support her as she approached the wax effigy that had been Ralph. (She wasn't impressed and admired the flowers instead.) Surely Cebah, who's sharp as a tack, extrapolated the same conclusion, as did everyone in the room, from the fact that she and Ralph were born within days of each other. And she knew that he had suffered terribly in the past 7 weeks. But what's to do ~ we step up to the mic, breathe once, and plunge.

Riverman, if not about a discrete moment in time, does have an origin story. My artist friend and fellow cosmonaut Lucy B., was visiting from her home in Mexico a couple of years ago, and we went on a hike into the big woods southeast of our hometown. I wanted to show Lucy a gorgeous waterfall I'd found, deep in one of the wilderness areas there, a part of the Boone Forest new to me. Our walk took us not only deep into the forest, but as always with Lucy, it took us deep into the mythic time that our art has in common. I wonder if anyone else would recognize the forest that Lucy and I went into.

The waterfall, shooting down from the rim of a cliff about 80 ft above, cascaded in a curtain of rushing crystalline beads onto the front edge of a huge boulder. We sat down on the back of boulder and watched it. The early afternoon sun, streaming through the thick canopy of trees on the eastern side of the deep holler we were in, was focused into shifting beams by the gaps between the leaves, which appeared and dissappeared at the whim of a luscious breeze that caused a continual whispering rustle as it flowed through the treetops. We didn't know it yet, but a summer thunderstorm with a tornado in it was on the way.

The ever-moving beams of light hit the speeding globbets of water at the exact angle to break the white light prismatically into starspiked sparkles of red, yellow, violet, orange, blue, and because the beads of water changed their shape as they plummeted down to explode like waterfireworks on the surface of the stone, the refracted colors were constantly changing, but because the relative speeds of wind and waterflow and gravity's pull were stable, there was a pattern, or something like a pattern - a rythmn - a tempo. We sat, truly mesmerized, and silently watched this for over an hour, and very soon the sense of ordinary time had slipped away from us, since neither Lucy or I bothered to keep it, and as far as I could tell it was eternity, and the water, revealing something about its nature in the pattern of rainbow sparks, spoke to me in its own language.

What it said was comforting, but in a way that cannot be translated in so many words. Water, like the other elements, can have, as they say, a dark side, and the night water appears in several of my songs. I'm drawn to it, like all those who think of lashing themselves to the mast and foregoing the wax earstoppers when they near Siren island. This time the water showed its ravishing beauty in the light, and I was beyond grateful to witness it.

Lucy got the worst case of chiggers I've ever seen that day. That was her sacrifice. I think mine was in the recording studio - not necessarily made easier by being spread over a longer period of time. Last night I completed it and passed the gift on.
Jody, who likes to remain invisible in the recording space, and who never makes aesthetic assessments when I'm working there, made a rare exception to that. When I asked him if there had been any technical problems with my first take of Riverman, he replied no - "it was lovely." I had him play it back for me once so that I could confirm that everything was in place, then I moved on.

Riverman is the only one of the songs from The Faun which is somewhat easily playable on the guitar (I composed it with a digital keyboard.) - and as a result, it's the only one that I've sung often since I finished the recording made for the dance performances. I knew that it would be a mistake to play and sing it as I have at campfires, porches and kitchens in the past year. The plunge can't be like that ~ for me it's not a matter of bringing what you know to the event of the recording, it's about preventing what you think you know from obscuring what can be. So yesterday morning, before the funeral, I made some quick experiments with capoing the guitar high up on the neck, pitching the song in a key unfamiliar to me, so that the melody would have to be altered on the fly, so that I would have to find my way over the bluff in a fresh plummet that would, hopefully, expose colors in my voice that I never knew were there. If I want to sing as I fall, the fall has to be real.

The words to Riverman are a stream of images. I had no way of knowing when I wrote it that I would find myself, some years later, sweet on a man who fits the description, and although I've been determined to keep that slowly growing emotion, which may become love in time, seperate from the crucible that I work in, (after all, no one can really step up to the dark mirror with you, or hold your hand when you make the dive) my voice, when it came time to shape the word riverman, brought this embryonic affection to the sound, and the tenderness I'm feeling for him rushed out and splintered into the sparks of love and longing - red, yellow, violet, orange, blue.

The Cherokee call rivers and streams "the long person" - Yunwi Gunahi'ta ("person who is long' - Cherokee doesn't indicate the gender, but in stories the long person is male). His head is in the mountains, his feet are in the sea.

Sunday, July 27, 2008


Outside of baking bread I didn't have a lot to do today. So little that in the late afternoon I had time to lay on my back in the middle of the yard, lolling around with the latest dandyland inhabitant, an elfin hound.

After spending a minimal amount of time puzzling as to what his name might be, I let myself slacken into the natural slowing of time and joined him in his houndly relaxation. He has a bit of the refined melancholia of a foxhound, but so far junebugs and impertinent songbirds are the only things I've seen him give chase to. There was a breeze today, but really it was too hot to chase anything. Better to lay still and listen to the jarflies grate their rasperators in the treetops. Ah summertime!

Which in dandyland is slowing down as it nears its end. We don't go for the Gregorian calendar around here. There used to be a wirey little old widow, sheathed in black, with a pillbox hat, who would invite herself to sunday dinner at our house, regularly. The only thing I remember about Sally Smiley was an expression that she used, often, to show that she was completely unimpressed by preposterous inanities - pssht! That could well be applied to the Gregorian calendar and its ridiculous and arbitrary quartering of the year into seasons that do not match reality on the ground.

One doesn't have to be a pagan, and dance naked round a pole, (not that that mightn't be fun) to realize that midsummer night's eve should be situated in the middle of summer, not at the beginning. This was all cooked up by people who don't go outside.

Anyway ~ I'm sure the calendar makers will eventually recant their folly - or perhaps the seasons will change so radically that we won't recognize them. In the meantime, who cares. To really feel time slowing down you need to let such trivialities slowly roast out of your mind, so that's there's a nice vacant space for the billowed up clouds to slowly graze across, like great celestial sheep, cropping their way across the infinite blue pasture of heaven. Cloudgazing- now that's a religious holiday.

On the old slow round, July becomes so hot and muggy that time is trapped in its density like a wastrel fly in molasses. Then the surge of summer growth slows into stillness, leave droop, & if you watch, you'll see a few early gold ones fall off. Dust, on the cowpaths, is trod powder fine, and puffs up between your toes. August is the real beginning of autumn - the plants are finishing up what's left to do - they take their time building up to the glories of October.

But that's ahead. There's still a few timeless days to savor summer in.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Banana Pudding

(Dear readers, Today has been a bit hectic & as I haven't had time to write a post worth reading, I'm posting a chunk from Cebah's Kitchen, a book of stories I'm working on, of or related to food. I chose this one because the color yellow has been on my mind lately. And that's the reason I've included a photo of an assemblage of wave-worn spindles that I picked up on the Olympic Penn. I wanted the ones that were as big around as myself, but the sack bulging full of these small ones, lugged home on the plane, brought stares enough. I loved them so much that I painted them cadmium yellow light. The drawing is from an old sketch book - a lotus from a friend's pond & two bananas, just beginning to get their spots. Ready to become a pudding. )

Banana Pudding:

Bananas are the only inherently humorous fruit. In the world of comedy they are a fetish food for monkeys – which, by the law of simultaneous inversion, are not our ancestors, but what we become as a result of eating bananas. I don’t think I need to say anything about the banana’s shape.
The peels, when cast carelessly on the path of life, bring down verticals destined for a fall. Such is comic justice.
A banana, in a bowl of mixed fruit, repels serious still-life painters. The unique and absurd shade of yellow required for a resemblance makes a mockery of art.

With all this in mind, the wise cook is cautious around bananas. Banana pudding is a dessert fit for clowns, and, unsurprisingly then, said to originate in Kentucky.

Start by making the vanilla wafers, and no, do not use some from a box.

Vanilla Wafers:

Cream ½ cup of butter with a cup of sugar and mix in an egg and a tab of vanilla.
Combine 1 1/3 up of flour with ¾ tsp baking powder & ¼ tsp salt. Mix the dry into the wet, make into heaping tsp-sized balls, space 2 inches apart on an un-greased baking sheet, and bake in a 350 degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. Remove to a plate and cool.

There are more cautious ways of making custards and pastry creams, but I eventually agreed with Cebah that the cautions “Are not necessary”. What is necessary is constant whisking.

Heat 2 cups of milk in a saucepan. While the milk is heating, whisk together 3 egg yolks, 3 tabs of cornstarch, and ¼ cup of sugar in a second saucepan. Cook this over high heat, whisking constantly, until it begins to thicken. Raise the pan from the heat and quickly pour in the hot milk. Return the pan to the heat and whisk constantly, making sure that you are covering all of the bottom of the pan with vigorous motion. Continue cooking and whisking until the custard thickens, then (still whisking) place the pan in a cold water bath and whisk until the custard begins to cool. Lastly, whisk in the “3 flowers” – a tsp of vanilla, a dash of angostura bitters, and a half tsp of rose water.

Line the bottom of an oven proof dish with vanilla wafers, broken in half. Spread half of the custard over the wafers. Slice two ripe bananas into ½ inch slices and arrange them over the custard. Spread on the rest, and make the meringue.

Put 4 or 5 egg whites in a mixing bowl. Hit them a bit with your mixer until they are foamy and sprinkle on a pinch of cream of tartar. Beat at high speed until the whites begin to form soft peaks, then lightly sprinkle on 1/3 cup of sugar, a bit at a time, beating all the while. Meringues weep if the sugar is mishandled, so do it right. When the sugar is incorporated, season the meringue with a half tsp of vanilla, a dash of angostura, and a ¼ tsp of rosewater. Continue beating until the meringue is shiny and stiff enough to form firm peaks when the beaters are lifted.

Pile this on the assembled pudding, lifting the spatula up from the surface to make an array of brown-able peaks. Bake the meringue for about 7 minutes, until the peaks are lightly browned.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

You'll Always Come Back

You’ll Always Come Back:

“In the matter of seeing ghosts I suspect water is important too…” Sylvia Townsend Warner

When my dad died, Mrs. Johnson, mother of my friend Elaine, sent me a card. Inside she had written an expression of sympathy, and placed a one dollar bill.
No one had ever sent me a card with one dollar in it. I was touched by the gesture and it stuck in my mind. At the time I wondered if it might be an African American custom, but years later when I mentioned it to Elaine she said, “Oh that’s just something that mother does. Just before Paul died (Elaine’s husband) mother sent him a card with a dollar in it.” I told Elaine that her mother is one of the few people I’ve known, like my dad, who could change money into love.

My introduction to the Diaspora flowed out of a crevice in a rock. The spring in the holler just above my parent’s first house was called Pete’s Spring, after Pete Dutton, once a slave on my father’s home-place. His cabin had stood just above the spring - the edge of a field in my childhood, a housing development now. My dad told me about digging Pete’s grave in our family graveyard when he was a teenager. Pete’s family arrived with the coffin before he could finish digging into the August baked red-clay. The family stood and watched him dig.

The family story was that Pete and Charles, then 7 and 9, were given to my great-grandparents, Daniel and Lucy, as a wedding gift from Lucy’s father. Daniel went to Missouri and rode back with them on a mule. After the emancipation, Pete stayed on the farm. My dad recalled that he could not be persuaded to eat at the table with his family. Of Charles, the only mention was “He left.”

Pete’s spring was the best one around - reliable, cold, clear, and good-tasting. And like so many of the storied places on the farm, it had a saying attached to it; If you tasted from Pete’s Spring, you would come back for another drink. I don’t know who made that up, perhaps it was Pete himself.

It was such a pretty spot then. The holler cut back into the hill like a sudden arrow-head shaped groove, the water tumbling out of the point over willy-nilly limestone slabs greened with moss and liverwort. Wherever stones slowed the freshet into little pools, baby crawdads and tiny black mudpuppies with frond-like gills stalked the sun-dappled pebble bottoms. The steep slopes had the mottled tri-foils of lemon oil-scented toad trilliums, patches of snake-root spurge, delicate crow’s foot, anemones, and hepaticas, clumps of ferns, doll’s eyes. Even a few ginseng, more likely found in deeper hollers, grew on the south facing slope. If you lay on your back on the immense slab nearest to the spring, as I often did, looking up at the stars, the giant hickories and maples that rimmed the slopes appeared as a ring of trunks and branches that reached out into deep space, like a tunnel into the milky way. The clucking voice of the spring, strengthened by the stone so that it spoke inside my head, was a mysterious comfort. When my mind had traveled as far as it could go, I would return to take a drink from the spring. I always came back.

Once Elaine’s son, Jonathon, and I were looking up at the night sky. I asked him what he thought about when he looked at the stars and he surprised me by saying “I think I’m trapped here on this rock.”

The family story told that after the emancipation Pete and his wife Jenny stayed on the Dutton farm, content perhaps, or resigned, to linger near the spring. Their tombstone, situated in the space between the ancient cedar that shades (and no doubt penetrates!) the “family” graves, and the corner that once was a gate, is inscribed “Pete Dutton, born 1836 in MO., died 1931 in KY. Born in Slavery. Died Free.”

Jonathon, just returned from the war in Afghanistan, modeled for my painting of “John Henry”, the steel-driving man. When the painting was displayed in a museum hotel, one morning before the public opening I happened to overhear one of the hotel staff explaining the story of John Henry to a impromptu huddle of his co-workers, all with African ancestors. He spoke of how John Henry, a prisoner and a former slave, was a symbol of endurance, how the bluebird he looks up at represents freedom.
After the group dispersed I introduced myself and told him how moved I had been by what he said. The frame of the painting alludes to Yoruba stories of Ogun, the Orisa of Iron, stories that traveled in iron shackles from Nigeria to an unfamiliar and hostile world of enslavement here - stories I know only as things imagined. The arrogance of portraying such things, considering my family history, seemed shameful, a transgression of a boundary of heritage. His reply was that it is the fear of sharing our stories that keeps us apart.

Ogun is present in iron, so you could say that he is the intent embodied in metal-smithing; tool-making, or more exactly, in the “survival of that which asserts its own will to make a place for itself in the world.” (Awo Fa’lokun Fatunmbi) Progress; the knife cuts both ways.

My dad told about an old-timer who fox-hunted with him, Pony Sears, declaring on a cloudless night that rain was coming. “How do you know that Pony?” “Because the trains are running!” was his reply. It’s true. The pressure change in advance of rainy weather carries the sound of the train whistles out to the knob-tops as though the tracks cut close. It’s a haunting sound.

The field above Pete’s Spring was the site of a Civil War battle. Cebah had a shoe box of bullets she picked up in the turned up earth of the cornfields. An obelisk marks the site with this inscription;

“Here off duty until the last reveille, lie the Southern soldiers, in numbers who were slain in this county during the war of the secession. They fell among strangers, unknown and unfriended. Yet not unhonored; for stranger’s hands have gathered their ashes here, and placed this shaft above them, that constancy and valor, though displayed in a fruitless enterprise, may not be unremembered.”

In the 80s my dad’s brother forced the sale of their family farm. A housing development covers the site of the cabin, and Pete’s spring is spoiled for drinking. The plants and creatures that lived there in my childhood are gone. Visiting it is trespassing, but I decided to make the trip one last time, accustomed to crossing boundaries. I drank the legendary water, unsure as to what power it might have beyond nostalgia. I lay on the rock and looked up at the sky, but I didn’t go anywhere.

“A ghost can’t hurt you, but it can cause you to hurt yourself.”; That’s what my dad used to say.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Little Prickle

A while back Cebah made a hollyhock doll for a little girl who was visiting. She uses an unopened bud for the head, stuck with a little twig onto the calyx of the opened flower, which makes the body and gorgeous dress. Da Vinci advised artists, with the same lack of self-aware humor that makes his work so tedious to look at, that if they would throw an ink-soaked sponge against a wall they might discover in the splat ideas for fantastic landscapes. Cebah, a more complete artist, just sees them.

She picked up this little stick on a walk across the hayfield and brought it back to join some of the treasures she keeps in the window by the kitchen table. It is "perfect", according to her, because it looks exactly like a person.

This ability, to see resemblances, and show them to others, is something she instilled in me at an early age. "Look at that knot in that tree there, can you see the face?" And unlike some heavy-handed imaginers, she never spoiled the magic by loading on a lot of tenously connected pseudo meanings - the faces didn't signify anything else, they were interesting in their own right.

From flowerbuds made into heads to flowers that have personalities is a short hop. There's a big thistle, called a "bull thistle" that grows on the farm. It's considered a weed when it invades a pasture; but in a fencerow, a thing of beauty, beloved by goldfinches. This thistle became a dandyland character - "Little Prickle" - a star in the first Secret Commonwealth opera. Things with stickers are fascinating. They appeal to a child's love of weapons and armor. Little people want protection. I know that I thought cactus were the greatest when I was 5. No one messed with them.

My friend (and hero!) Jonathon danced the role of Little Prickle, contributing his martial arts skills to the choreography.

Here are the lyrics to Little Prickle's song:

I rode the thistle down
in the darkness, sowing seed - let it grow!
up to the sky!
food for a butterfly!

Milky light flows down into my bower of briars,
the wind
blows through my cradle of thorns...
I fell on a stone,
and so I made my home among -

thistles, thorns, and briars - called the witch's weeds.

Little Prickle is my name -
There is a game that I like to play...
on ankles and shins
I stick my little pins, and draw
burning skin!
I rub the stinging nettles in!
And when the dainties feel the pain -
how they scratch and complain about...

thistles, thorns, and briars - called the witch's weeds.

All the gnawing, trampling herd
bawl for a world soft enough
to chew in peace.
And what they can't eat, they call weeds,
and a waste of space.
There is no place for an unprotected soul ~ so
I grow my little claws,
and live inside these hard sharp walls of

thistles, thorns, and briars - called the witch's weeds.

(From Part I of The Secret Commonwealth; The Changeling & the Bear)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Cowboy Dan's Poem

William called for a poem, and Cowboy Dan started scratching. Here's what he came up with. He says it's his own take on Johnny Keats "La Belle Dame sans Merci" - (I guess Johnny put that in French cause everyone knows they're more fairy-fied, which, in my opinion, is a good thing.) Anyways, C.D. says that there's always one cow that is the trouble starter in a herd, ain't that the truth, and they always get the best of you. That's why he titled his CD "The Best of Cowboy Dan", cause the best had already been gotten of him. I always wondered what that bulge in his saddlebag was. Turns out it's a copy of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Who knew. But Cowboy Dan says, just like my dad did, usually about a pie, that, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."

As to William's 3rd request, about piracy, Cowboy Dan said, "I take a bath once ever 6 months whether I need it or not, and that's the closest I'm going to the water." (Six months can't come too soon if you're bunking with him.) I put this in the comments first, cause he wasn't sure if it was worth posting up front, but here is...


O what ails you, Cowboy,
alone on the trail loafing?
The sage has withered on your knoll
and no coyote sings.

O again I say, what ails you, Dan
so haggard and woebegone?
The prarie dog has stuffed his cheeks
and the cattle drive is done.

I see lily on your brow
and anguished sweat like burnt off dew,
your cheek's not as rosy as your nose
and that's dried up too.

I met a Cow on the range,
as pretty as a fairy calf,
her switch was long, her loins were lean,
and her eyes were glassed.

I threw a lasso at her head,
tried for a foot, got it too,
she looked at me as I roped her down
and mooed.

I tied her lead to my trusty stead
and saw nothing else the whole day thru
but her sidelong glance, as she led me on
with that low and erie moo.

Till all that mooing lulled me so
Asleep I fell and down did go
out of the saddle to Cowboy Hell
and this is the sorry story I tell

I saw all the Cowboys that ever were
as pale as ghosts and and cussed as curs
and all as one they raised a yell
"That damned cow has led you straight to Hell!"

I saw their gloomy mugs for whiskey cry
their eyes were red, their throats were dry,
and when I waked, twas on the dirt,
horse and cow both gone, and I was hurt.

And that is why I'm loafing here,
rubbing Parker's salve on my butt that stings,
tho the sage is withered on the plain,
and no coyote sings.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Controversial Fox

In comments on the last post Happier noted that we eat each other. That can be a bummer, especially if your # is next up on the menu. But there's no way round it, and take it from a long-time gardener, being a vegetarian only gets you past the things that have big faces. Everything is pretty much alive in dandyland, and nobody exactly wants to be eaten, at least not now. Truth is that whether it's big ones or little ones, whether you think everyone (plants and fungi included) are sentient or not, we all kill to live. Or hire it out.

It's a curiousity to me that in a life-time of making images only two have had official complaints lodged against them, and both involved foxes.

My dad was a foxhunter, and that is the beginning of so many stories! He loved foxes and wouldn't have dreamed of killing one. He was in it for the music of the chase. Unlike British foxhunting, where there's a lot of fol-de-rol about blood, night-hunting here in the knobs was strictly a listening sport. What the hunters listened to was the noble, but hopeless, pursuit of the wily fox by the inevitably fooled hounds, who marked their progress with vocalizations ranging from "chops" to "squalls".
My dad told me that the fox could lose the hounds whenever it pleased, and that it enjoyed leading the hounds on a wild goose chase as much as the hunters enjoyed lying about who's dog was in the lead.

One of the treasures that my dad gave me, albeit inadvertantly, was a very old ballad that he sang called "The Fox"...

"Oh the fox went out one starry night, he prayed for the moon to give him light,
for he'd many a mile to go that night, before he reached the town-o!"

Back in the early 80s I made a bunch of wooden illustrations of scenes from fairytales and songs, about 60 in all, I think, and I sold almost all of them in Cincinnati. I had a show of them in a gallery there, and while the show was up, the gallery owner called to tell me that someone had made a complaint that one of the images was too violent and inappropriate for children to see. It was not the one of Punch beating the baby, or the Witch luring Hansel and Gretel inside the candy cottage, it was The Fox. I'd never thought of it. There's not even any blood.

So after thinking about it for awhile, I decided to try one with blood, to see what that was like. I made a watercolor sketch & filed it away.

When 21C Museum commissioned me to complete a set of twelve large oil paintings of ballads, The Fox made the cut and I had room to paint the landscape described in the story the ballad tells.

Sure enough, a mega-corporation, whom I suppose should go unnamed, but lets just say they've been the end of more chickens than the fox ever was, wanted to have a banquet in the atrium where the ballad paintings were hanging, but they didn't want to have it with one of those. It wasn't the pair of naked corpses with thorny plants growing out of them, it wasn't the psycho killer with the naked victim in a shallow grave, it wasn't the same-sex interacial couple, not even Hell imagined as an amusement park - again, it was The Fox.

The numbers are in; this my most controversial image. (So far - I'm still trying,)

In The Ballads of the Barefoot Mind book I tell a story about meeting two people who intimated they were were-wolves, implausibly it seemed to me, since they were both too mousy. And there's a story there about asking a helpful policeman for directions to St. Chapelle who didn't have to intimate anything about being a were-vulpine of some sort. The memory of his shining and utterly charming teeth can still raise the hackles on my neck.

Were-foxes, called Kitsune, are so common in Japan that you can buy their masks in department stores, like this one that I bought in Kyoto. A fox mask seemed like such a good idea that I made one of my own out of beech leaves. (My studio stands by a giant beech.)

William has this version of the were-fox in his house.

And then there's this version, one of the paint-one-ballad-a-day with-sepia ink-and-watercolor-for-36-days mini-project that was a subset of Ballads of the Barefoot Mind. It reminds me of Nosferatu. And Reynardine, a faked ballad made up by a "folk" scholar, is called a vampire ballad, because blood sucking just goes with those sharp teeth somehow and makes the whole thing extra creepy. (Cue creepy music)

But the fox itself, secretive and rarely seen, is a beautiful animal who uses his cunning and teeth to make a living. We can't fault him for that, and we shouldn't fault ourselves either.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Cowboy Dan's Photographs

Crack and knotholes


Yellow Wheel














Saturday, July 19, 2008

Cowboy Up

When I read The Three Faces of Eve, and Sybil, as a teenager, and discovered that other people had multiple personalities, I was elated. I wanted one. Not one brought on by dismal circumstance, something I knew nothing about, but one having, if possible, as much fun as I was - a double with a difference.

The secret, I discovered, was a rule: When you put on the cowboy clothes, you are a cowboy, and you stay a cowboy until the clothes come off. I was well prepared to have a cowboy persona - my dad had a herd of cattle, polled Herfords, and I had done time as I voluntary were-stock dog since I was a kid. I liked to run, and I considered myself savvy with animals, cows included. I like cows. "A cowboy is a boy who herds the cows." And I had a horse.

At 16 I got a car, mostly because I thought you were supposed to. If you've been paying attention, gentle readers, you can probably guess what it was- a gremlin. I drove it for the period of my learner's permit and when that ran out I traded it for a horse. I liked walking better.

The horse was beautiful. A palamino stallion with a mischevious personality. We were on each other's wavelength, as they say.
The stories concerning that horse are worth their own blog, for now what matters is that I knew how to ride.

My friend Polly found the boots, fairly standard decorative cowboy boots. They had some reptile skin on them, from an alligator I think. I found the shirt in a used & vintage clothing store called "The Attic" - H bar C ranchwear white antique rayon with white crown stripes, pearl snaps, and tiny black indian mountain embroidery where piping usual is. Jeans and a hat - that did it.

There were some internal rules too; the Cowboy Dan was nicer than me, always; more polite, more laid back, happy go lucky, slower talking. He talked less and sang more. My friends thought he was a hoot. No one ever tried to undercut his identity by noticing it was a performance, instead everyone played along because he was so pleasant and amusing to watch. Free theater.

It recently came to my attention that he painted. If I had known that I had forgotten about it. Even looking at the two existent paintings reveals nothing of their history to me. I can see that they were done from photographs, but the drawings are stylized and not bad. There's something oddly Oriental about the bronc rider, but that could be because it is black ink and brush on paper. I think the sleeping cowboy is from National Geographic. They are signed, in cursive, Cowboy Dan 1978, so I, he, we, were 19 at the time.

Cowboy Dan did not appear much in the 80s & 90s ~ then unexpectedly reappeared and recorded a CD of campfire-ish songs. The main problem was that the boots sort-of came apart. Alligator skin doesn't really hold up under real cowboy usage. There was a brief Cyber-Cowboy Dan, just long enough for him to fall for a Texas rodeo champ, but without boots it wasn't the same.

I found a pair of boots in Portland, at an old "outdoor clothing" store. They didn't have the shirt, and the boots are plain black with square toes, not exactly cowboy boots in the standard sense, but workable boots that could be used for herding cows. They do have some transformative power. Now if I can only find a shirt. The white one is coming apart at the seams.

I'm really having a painting block these days, since January - that's 6 months & that's 5 months and a week longer than I've ever known. My friends assure me that it will pass, but it isn't passed as of now. On the other hand I've always felt that any medium, even blogging, is just as likely to spur creativity as another. So it's alright. I don't think that I CAN paint right now, but I'm beginning to wonder if maybe Cowboy Dan can. Probably - he doesn't overthink this stuff.