Friday, November 27, 2009

You'll Always Come Back: Dance Workshop at Skull Alley

November 14th, Louisville, Kentucky
Battle of Dutton Hill through the veil of time.

This fruitless endeavor.

The battle is engaged.

The horror as soldiers fall.

Dance Workshop at 21C

November 15th, Louisville, Kentucky
Carrying the stones.

Music and dance.

Choose your head wisely.

Movement in waves.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The First Recording Made By An African-American:

... from George Johnson had to perform EACH copy of each record individually. It was said that he performed this song 56 times in one day. The lyrics, predictably, are offensive, typical of the time. More on this subject anon.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The West End School Workshop:

Among the many wonderful things that happened in Louisville last weekend, courtesy of The Kentucky School of Art, was a visit with the students of the West End School. These amazing young gentlemen agreed to help me figure out how best to stage a dance version of The Battle of Dutton Hill. Their idea, precise, to the point, and perfectly dramatic, was a revelation, and their dancing, superb. I had been told that they were extraordinary students, but nothing could have prepared me for what turned out to be the best school workshop I've ever conducted. My hat, if I had a hat, would be off to all of the West End School students, and their teachers. I am very grateful to them for helping me solve a problem that, quite frankly, had me stumped. This school should be a model for education in Kentucky.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Eshu = Voice X:

On a recent trip to Louisville, I talked with some middle school students about the Yoruba art objects in the Speed Art Museum. A number of those objects had to do with the orisa Eshu, and much to do with You'll Always Come Back. Last night I woke up in the deep dark thinking about those connections. While the images are fresh in mind, I thought I'd share them. (The illustrations, and the assemblage, are my own.)

It is my understanding that Yoruba cosmology divides the phenomena of the universe into the realms of the seen, or material world, and the unseen world of the ancestral dead, the unborn, and the orisa ~ that unseen world is made manifest in our world, the world of the living, through imagination and performance.

The ancestors and the unborn, in this view, are in a cyclic continuum. The orisa are the realities of natural forces and physical dynamics personified by, and for the benefit of, human understanding. We can only conceive of variations on what we already know, and since the only thing we know are our own human perceptions, the orisa of necessity reflect particular aspects of our nature, described in the terms of our culture and environment. The orisa are original to the Yoruba, their land and culture; the experiential knowledge that they embody is universal - in the sense that certain of the dynamics made explicit in their characters occur wherever and whenever humans live.

The orisa provide a way to understand, and talk about, real phenomena in the terms of human experience - hence they are described as having human characteristics, even when they are observed in non-human phenomena, as in the case of lightning, a manifestation of the orisa Sango.

The orisa Eshu is the embodiment of "the crossroads" - the intersection of boundaries, the meeting, parting, and convergence place of paths, vectors, and experiences. Eshu is (at least) a binary being, a contradiction, a dynamic state of flux; change personified. This convergence point, situated in a state of being, is, for at least an instant of perception, at once a unity of phenomena and a recognition of differences, even irreconcilable differences - a moment when there is certainty of uncertainty. Eshu is the agent of transfer, transformation, and transcendence. Eshu is his own complimentary and opposite twin ~ paradox incarnate, but wait - also not incarnate.

Eshu is sometimes depicted in Yoruba art with what appear to be two, or three horns. These cone shapes represent Eshu's "ori" - head(s) - and destiny(ies) - dual or multiple characters present at once. Eshu's ori are in two worlds. Two worlds, moreover, that may be in binary opposition. In life there is good, bad, and the totality that contains them ~ Eshu is present in, and signifies the interdependence of extremes.

Gaston Bachelard proposed a concept of time, or duration, composed of discrete instants separated by "epistemological breaks." The experience of continuity, or in his terms, the imagination of continuity, occurs when the rhythmic sense of the organism connects these instants (let's call them dots, representing beats...) into a quality of duration; a tempo, a riff, the cellular units of perception, assembled by the will and imagination of the being into the song of life. In terms of time, Eshu then is both the division of duration into rhythmic beats, and the connective line that makes it possible to arrange an recognize them as a coherent pattern.

In YACB Eshu is titled "Voice X", and has the function not only of connecting the disparate frames of perception required by narrative art (dialogue implies at least two), but also a vocal signifier of the movement between levels of self-awareness - from, for instance, sensual immediacy to ironic detachment. This is accomplished with the devices of mimicry, allusion, metaphor, observation/description, recounting, distorting, and sampling - the production of copied content re-situated in context to create new meanings via references and relationships, pointing up the presence of layers controlled by creative activity. These layers reveal Eshu, in performance, in the vertical concept of cogito multiplied. The cogito ~ "I think therefore I am." (cogito1)

Cogito2 then, would be "I think that I think that I am." ~ implying not only the awareness of being, but a second being observing the activity of the first, with some degree of perspective. This perspective is, in essence, a different mode of duration. The effect of an operation is always realized on a different layer of duration from the one on which it is enacted.

Eshu's gear-shifting of consciousness powers extend beyond the immediate powers of human imagination. "He" (you may have guessed by now that any designation of gender applied to Eshu is also temporary and provisional) is active not only in the cogito to the first power, but in the second, the third, at once upward and downward in the verticality of being, to the nth power, infinity; the audacity of (and the fear evoked by) anything and everything beyond.

With these observations in mind, it is easy to grasp the significance of two common examples of Eshu iconography in Yoruba art. Eshu's face typically appears on the carved wooden rim, or boundary, that frames the opun ifa, or divining board, site of the ifa oracle. The opun ifa bridges, in the diviner's performance, the seen world of the consultant and the unseen world of the orisa and Oludumare "the owner of the universe" and source of ase, the animating power of life and wisdom.

It is on the sawdust powdered surface of the opun ifa that the newborn infant first sets its foot upon the earth, having arrived from the unseen world of the unborn on the other side of the board. Thus the divining board is a material object equivalent to a portal or passage between worlds. Eshu, of course, appears as an image shaping the substance of the portal's frame.

For similar reasons, a common household image of Eshu, a shrine in effect, is sometimes an unshaped lump or mound of clay, the potential of form in relative formlessness, situated by a doorway to mark the fluctuating and ambiguous boundary between inside and outside.

The orisa originate in Yoruba land, but have traveled, in the diaspora, and more recently via that most Eshu-like of mediums, the internet, throughout the world.

In the US, one early manifestation of Eshu is found in the legend of the Blues Guitarist (Robert Johnson is one reputed example) who meets the Devil at the Crossroads, precisely at the instant of Midnight, to exchange his soul for the power of superlative musicianship. The conflation of Eshu with "the Devil" does not, of course, originate with the Yoruba. But in one way the moral message is retained, albeit somewhat obscured in a culture where the rewards of individual recognition are often pursued at any cost.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Grandma's Roses:

In a spare moment away from the hospital, I thought I'd post something related to You'll Always Come Back. This painting. about 10" x 24", is oil on wood. The wood looks like it had been part of a box. On the back, in black letters ~ Painted by Sarah Belle (Cundiff) Dutton around 1900. I think that my aunt Gladys tried to restore the faded color of the petals by repainting them, but she had a rather rough hand compared with my grandmother. & the pink she used faded too, as, I suppose, all painted petals must in time. Still, it's a lovely image.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

You have his body:

Both my mom & dad told me at various times when I was growing up that I had "Uncle Billy Cundiff's body." I assumed that meant that he was tall and gangly. I didn't know that Uncle Billy died the year before I was born, and I had no idea what he looked like. During the research for You'll Always Come Back I gradually figured out who was who in some of the hundreds of photographs that came from The Old House. One of those was Uncle Billy, when he was young, and quite dashing. I don't know about the rest, but I have hair and a nose like his.

Ever since finding that photo I've been obsessed with it. He's a very unusual looking man, with a face that seems hyper-sensitive. If I were to pick an ancestor to be, I'd certainly pick him, even though I know very little about his life.
If I'd only asked my dad, I'm sure he could have told me a lot about his uncle, but alas, like so many other questions I have about his family, it's unlikely that I'll ever know anything more about him than I do now. I asked my mom this evening if she remembered Uncle Billy, and to my surprise she did remember him visiting with my grandmother at her sister's house in Somerset. What was he like? I asked. "A statue." That was all I got.

When I first got the idea of reconstructing the bodies of my ancestors I had a moment of shock at the thought, as though just by thinking it I had broken a taboo. Should the body of an ancestor be imagined as erotic? And how to imagine a shared ancestral body?

For some reason this image is a little less shocking to me as a negative. Without the period clothing there's nothing to place the body in time ~ fashion has changed, but the body has changed little in millions of years.

Uncle Billy Cundiff, in blue and gold:

A mannerist drawing of my great uncle Billy Cundiff, 1878 - 1958, blue positive and gold negative images ~

Gold Old House:

"The great function of poetry is to give us back the situations of our dreams. The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams. Each one of its nooks and corners was a resting-place for daydreaming. (...)

... There are children who will leave a game to go and be bored in the corner of the garret. How often I have wished for the attic of my boredom when the complications of life made me lose the very germ of all freedom!
And so, beyond all the positive values of protection, the house we were born in becomes imbued with dream values which remain after the house is gone. Centers of boredom, centers of solitude, centers of daydream group together to constitute the oneiric house which is more lasting than the scattered memories of our birthplace. (...)
And we should not forget that these dream values communicate poetically from soul to soul. To read poetry is essentially to daydream."

The Poetics of Space ~ Gaston Bachelard

"The Old House," as we called my father's homeplace, is the subject of the third quarter of You'll Always Come Back. More exactly it is the "oneiric house" (the term is one of Bachelard's neologisms ~ meaning " the dreamed house of dreams."). An oneiric house can hardly be diagramed. Intimate, and mysterious, sites cannot be blueprinted ~ that's why I made this image gold.

I wasn't born in The Old House, and really, I was only there on certain interminable Sunday afternoons, when the mantle clock effectively slowed time down until it was in a state of absolute stasis. The clock was assisted by the ancient floor and its carpets. Once time ceased its movement, the floorboards, polished by generations of passage, and the carpets, with their obscure and dark designs, released an invisible powder of hypnotic ether that had the power to permeate and fossilize every living being. Even the sunbeams, filtered by gauze curtains, were merely pathways for the dust of ages to travel on. The light roads always returned to the forest of carpet fiber, an infinitely tiny grey and gold snow that brought absolute silence as the weakened sun sank and the horizons faded. The Old House was where I first experienced eternity.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


When I was a little girl, long before Dan arrived, I was told the story about the devil flying over... Sitting at my Grandma's knee, (Sarah Belle) would say, " the devil's apron was so full he couldn't make another mile, so he dumped his whole apron on this hill." Grandma had gentle hands. Her long, slender fingers moved constantly, doing "lapwork", as seamstress work was commonly called in the old days. Grandma sat in a rocking chair, near the window facing west. It was always dim in the room unless the sun was tossing its last glow... The light passed through the starched, white, southern curtains that hung over wavy glass windows. Under the window sill was a three tiered shelf built by my daddy. Grandma would tell me, " Sally, your daddy built this little sewing shelf for me." The top of the shelf had her three prized possessions, African violets...two dark purple and one, pink. Grandma would tell me not to touch the violets as the petals bruise easily and the foliage would recoil from my little fingers.
She would seat me by her, so close I could smell the lye soap from her gingham dress...As
I sat there, admiring the violets,sensing a special moment that was to come, Grandma would allow a quiet and contemplative moment or two to pass. As a precocious child, impatient to explore, move or have something happening all the time, I somehow sensed a greater good would come from being still.
Grandma made stools from old Donald Duck orange juice cans bound together and covered in her hook rug patterns. On one of these, I would sit silently at her knee, listening to the old mantel clock ticking away. I watched those slender fingers as they parted the burlap covering the bottom two shelves...she removed a small cardboard box. She opened it carefully, bringing out one piece of candy. Her gentle hands would break the solid white candy stick in two pieces. "The striped candy is for Phyllis, Ruth Ann and Bobby, but you like this one don't you, Sally?" A child can only concentrate on the gift and not the it goes. Somehow, even as a child, I knew, Grandma was giving me a very special moment.
I'm not sure how this ritual began or why some 58 years later it still makes me pause to remember the gifts of a loving grandmother, patient father and hell-bent -for- leather mother.
The lessons from Dutton Hill are still unraveling... go to the quiet spot near the spring and listen, our ancestors left us space to hear the gift and time to remember the givers.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Where the rocks come from:

In an earlier post I repeated a story that my dad told me, when I was a child, concerning the origin of the rocks on Dutton Hill. "The Devil was flying over with an apron load of rocks and his apron strings broke."

In my 20s I discovered that the story was Welsh. (My dad's mother, my grandmother Sarah Belle, was a Cundiff, a family with Welsh roots.) In Wales the Devil was a Hag - the load of rocks was called "the dribble." I suppose it makes a bit more sense for a Hag to be flying overhead carrying apron loads of rocks, but a child's ear supersedes later reason. It is definitely the Devil.

Not that I had much of an idea as to what "The Devil" looked like. The only familiar image I knew of then was the rathe suave-looking devil on the Red Devil Lighter Fluid can. My parents, thank goodness, did not believe in Biblical-style devils. The only function of The Devil in our household, was to be a comical character, or a metaphor, most often sarcastic.

This little painting is my third version of this image. All three images, years apart in the making, are basically the same. I think that in the 2nd one ( a drawing), the Devil is flying the other direction. Once I began studying the history of art, I saw how the artists of the past envisioned the Devil, and eventually I zoomed in to survey the evolution of the image. In the earliest paintings, the Devil is most often a hybrid of insect and animal parts. Having a face for a crotch is really common. The Pan-style Devil, with ("cloven") goat feet and horns, etc. didn't become popular until the 19th century. The earliest devils were green, black or brown. Red, in those days, was reserved for painting the robes of the clergy.

As I was working on this, I realized that my Devil, the flying one with the faulty apron load of rocks, has certain features that must be present in order for me to approve of it. The eyes are crossed, and the tongue, pointy, is stuck out, in annoyance. The body is humanesque, but with reptilian claws, and scales. The tail is dragon-style, with an arrowhead-type tip. The wings are battish, but with moth or butterfly spots. All in all, the thing is ridiculous, but, and I realized this as I lavished care on painting the tiny scales, very precious. The sky he flies across, the world he has accidents in, is both miniature and vast. Once he's played his part, my hand, or rather the hand of my child, picks him up like a delicate toy and carefully stores him away in the box where things too wonderful to risk losing are kept.

Monday, November 2, 2009


One of the great things that my parents showed to me ~ the full moon. If the weather was nice, we would find a good place in the yard, or out in the field by the house, to sit and watch the full moon rise. I thought everyone did that until a high school girlfriend happened to be at our house on the night of the full moon and told me how strange it was. It's still an event here on the hill, strange or no, and it is particularly beautiful tonight.