Monday, May 31, 2010

After the first performance ~

It's a little soon for me to comment on the first performance of You'll Always Come Back, but I wanted to post a little something. The event, our first convergence as a company, was amazing. Just being in the wonderful building that contains Bromwell's Gallery, Evan & Alison's studio space, and Jeff & Tracey's lovely apartment, with 30 some of the most creative people I know was enough to blow anyone's mind. We learned a lot, and we found out what we need to know to go forward with YACB.

This amazing photo of Idrissa and The Lathe of Heaven will have to do for now. After I rest up and assimilate, I'll be back!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Horse ~

Still of Barron as the young Ancestress, from a video for You'll Always Come Back.

The Primary Colors ~

Primary Colors ~ this is an old painting of mine, from back in the 80s, but the subject, the 3 primary colors personified, has come back in You'll Always Come Back (of course!) courtesy of the owner, Charlie Carr

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cobaltamania ~

Thanks to the generosity of Meg & John, we have yet another way to coat things with cobalt. Today Shane finally got to use the spray painter, on the portal, & the owl woman mannequin for the Dressrack Assemblage.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Wrap for The Ancestress ~

So much is going on here in dandyland that it is hard to keep up with it all! This past week the fabulous fashion designer Rebekah Trigg and cellist Vaughn were here. Rebekah and I worked on a wrap for The Ancestress, long bands of stretch fabric with embedded oak splint spines. I got two blisters making the spines, trying to keep up with Rebekah's flying sewing machine! Two of these pix show Kim trying out the dress; the dark psychedelic one is of Rebekah trying it out, after we finished at 3 am.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

About You'll Always Come Back ~ history and cosmology

According to our family stories, my Great Grandmother, Lucy Jane Browning, and Great Grandfather, Daniel Dutton, met at the Kentucky State Fair, and married in 1844. Lucy’s family left Kentucky after her mother died in the cholera epidemic, settling in Sweet Springs Missouri. The household, before her marriage, consisted of Lucy, her mother’s mother, her widowed father, and a female slave.

After their marriage, Lucy and Daniel visited Dutton Hill, as the homestead came to be known. His parents, David and Mary, were German speaking farmers who came from a Pennsylvania German community in Wythe County Virginia. They started buying land in 1810, and built a cabin in a little hollow beside one of the branches feeding into Pitman Creek. David and Mary Dutting (as the name was spelled on the first deed), brought with them not only farm tools and household goods – they also brought a belief, part of what is called “Hexen” in their Germanic culture, that the seventh son of the seventh son inherits power; power, at the very least, to heal humans and animals. Anyone who has studied magic knows that the inverse power is also implied. My Great Grandfather Daniel was just such a son, and his parents turned over ownership of the farm to him. He and Lucy built a house beside a giant white oak tree, hundreds of years old.

Lucy remained on the farm for the rest of her life. Daniel (the first) rode a horse back to Sweet Springs and returned with two slaves, Charles and Pete, ages 6 and 8.

Pete Dutton set his (probably bare) foot on Dutton Hill in 1845 and remained there all but the last few years of his life. He built a small cabin just above a spring - Pete’s Spring, as it is still called, eventually married Jennie, and raised ten children. Pete’s Spring has a legend attached; if you take a drink there, you will always come back for another.

In 1863, when Pete was 26 and still a single man, Southern soldiers came into Kentucky to raid cattle and provisions. They made their way as far North as the Kentucky River before the Northern forces countered their advance. They turned back, driving some hundreds of cattle and horses before them, down Crab Orchard Road (now known as Hwy 39), a route that would bring them directly to Dutton Hill.

Our stories tell that Pete took the horses and mules and hid them in a cave on Pitman Creek. Before he left, Granny Dutton, (Lucy Jane) told him “Pete, if they ask you for those horses, you give them to them.” Pete replied, “They’ll get them horses when Pete’s dead.” After hiding the animals, Pete came back to the house to get something to eat. While there, he and Lucy (Daniel was away, selling timber in Cincinnati.) looked out the window and saw “a soldier for every blade of grass in the yard.” He went to the door and the soldiers demanded provisions – “Nigger, we want corn for a hundred horses.” “We haven’t got that much” Pete replied. “We’ll take what you’ve got then” Was the response, and the soldiers began tearing up the house and barn to see what could be taken.

At this point, gunshots were heard on the Northern side of the hill, and the rebel forces left off looting and raced to the top of the hill to barricade for “The Battle of Dutton Hill.” My Grandfather, Daniel II, also the seventh son, was two years old then. Pete carried him, and Granny led the other children to David and Mary’s cabin, more concealed and further from the battlefield. They hunkered down there for the duration. But Pete made his way back up to the hilltop and concealed himself up in a cedar tree where he could watch the battle unfold. He told this story, which matches the military account precisely, to my Dad, Joseph Dutton, the seventh son of Daniel II, and he passed the story on to me.

The Shakers at Pleasant Hill noted that there was a killing frost on the date of the battle, and that their peach trees, in full bloom, lost their crop. The morning after the battle was April Fool’s day. Eighteen of the dead Southern soldiers were gathered, most likely by Pete, and buried at the top of Dutton Hill, head to head, in a mass grave. After the war, the father of one of the young men killed there came up from Alabama and had a limestone obelisk erected on hill, with this inscription;

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

As the seventh son, and barely sixteen, Daniel II was emancipated by his father so that he would inherit the land, along with the Hexen power. There is a story that neighbors brought their horses to him to be healed, a procedure that involved pouring spring water over the afflicted animal.

Daniel II’s first wife, Nannie, would die as a result of the birth of a son. The second wife, my Grandmother Sarah Belle, was an accountant, a schoolteacher, an herbalist, and an artist. Like his forebears, Daniel II was both a farmer and a woodworker. He set his sights on becoming a finish carpenter and learned to operate a lathe. He was a handsome man, and something of a mystery. Of him I have heard that “He drank.” “He was a ladies man,” “He was a perfectionist,” the hexen story, that he almost lost the farm through debt, and little more, besides the fact that he was committed, as a lunatic, to the Old Kentucky State Mental Hospital. Exactly why, beyond the generic term - “nervous breakdown,” I have yet to discover. He recovered, or was changed enough to be released and return to the hill for the remainder of his days.

In the last few years of his life, Pete lived with his daughter in Danville. My father was sixteen in 1931, when, as he told it, an old colored man who looked like he was ready for the grave himself came to the Old House and said that they had brought Pete’s body back to bury. My Grandfather sent my dad to dig the grave in our family cemetery. It was August, and the red clay dirt on the hill was baked hard. Pete’s family stood around the grave, waiting and watching while my dad dug the grave.

The headstone reads “Pete Dutton and wife Jennie ~ born in slavery, died free.”

As a work of art, You’ll Always Come Back, attempts to keep simultaneous anchors in three kinds of time; the artifacts of history I’ve outlined here, including the orally transmitted stories; the experiences and responses of the performers, including myself, who present the work; and the two cosmologies, one Germanic and one African, that meet on Dutton Hill and converge in the lives of my ancestors, and hence, in my own.

The particular African cosmology in this case is Yoruban, a culture centered in Ile Ife, an ancient town in Nigeria. It is here that Oludumare, the owner of the universe, sent down the orisa, personified forces of nature, an act that would establish human culture on earth. One of these orisa is Orunmila, who instituted a system of knowledge concerning the relationship of categories that is known as the oracle of Ifa. A considerable portion of slaves in the diaspora were Yoruba, due in part to their expertise in working with indigo, but the power of Ifa that came with them exceeded their numbers in potency, and grew wherever it traveled. Today, with an estimated adherence of over 5 million people, Ifa and the Yoruba cosmology, known by various names in the countries of the Western Hemisphere, constitute one of the fastest growing belief systems on the planet. Not the least reason for this being that the binary based code of categories in Ifa happens to work very well with computer-based technologies of communication like the internet.

Germanic myth looms large in any survey of art history, in part because of the perversion of the ancient sun-symbol, now known as the swastika, by failed artist cum fascist dictator - Adolf Hitler, and the terrible crimes he committed. The Nazi party cloaked itself in occult symbolism, appropriating images and legends from Germanic myths. It was this diabolical usage of deep-rooted culture, and the concept of “blood” as the ultimate group signifier, that helped the Nazi party rise to power, just as it had provided the rationale for slavery in the United States.

The time line of You’ll Always Come Back is centered in Pete Dutton’s life on the hill, 1845 to 1931, before the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and the war that ensued, and before another phenomena which would have a great impact on our family and the land. This was the rise of what has been called agri-business, replacing the small farmer with the factory farm, a planned and systematic destruction of a holistic and sustainable approach to food production, to be replaced with methods that inflict unimaginable cruelties on chickens, cattle, and swine. The German immigrant farmers in the US were far ahead of their time in the wise use of sustainable farming methods, such as the collection and use of manure as fertilizer, and this is shown clearly by their relative prosperity, as well as in the design of their barns and farms. My father considered factory farming to be morally wrong, and ultimately, impractical, and I’ve seen the wisdom of that assessment.

Considered together, there are a lot of categories to keep track of in You’ll Always Come Back. One friend suggested that this performance is like the creek that borders Dutton Hill; you can dip your boat into at any point, know something of its nature, walk away from and return to it, always aware that it is both constant and ever-changing, flowing through and enlivening the past, the present, and the future. The performers – musicians, artists, makers and thinkers who have contributed to the realization of this work are my family, just as surely as any genetic relative could be. We are united by our shared imagination, and love, both powers greater than race and mortality.

Monday, May 10, 2010

2nd Head, in Headcase (unfinished)

Just 14 more to go!

(The heads are of clay from the hill, formed around sedgegrass cores. I still have to do the faux woodgrain.)

Today I had help. Jake, Josh, Shane & I cut out some wide shingles. Jake & Josh made oak splints for The Ancestress' spine-wrap, Shane gathered sedgegrass and pugged clay. It was a lot of fun, and I'm feeling a little better about how much is done at this point.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Headcase - (heads sold separately)~

Today I made the first of the 16 heads. The clay from here on the hill is plastic, but relatively soft. It's difficult to make large objects quickly with it. So I decided to speed things up by making a core of sedgegrass. And I decided that it would help me learn about Ifa to think about each of the first 16 odu (paths) of the Ifa oracle while I made the 16 heads. The first odu is Ejiogbe. the father of the rest. It represents light, and the right path ~ "The hands belong to the body. The feet belong to the body." These first 16 of the 256 odus are twins, because the 8 marks that present the oracle are paired, like matched butterfly wings. In a binary code there are 16 possible pairs of 4, and 240 other combinations.

Ifa reminds me of the I Ching - but the I Ching uses 3s rather than 4s. The first hexagramgram of the I Ching is "Ch'ien" "The Creative." "These unbroken lines stand for the primal power, which is light-giving, active, strong and of the spirit. This hexagram is consistently strong in power. Its image is Heaven."

The Headcase isn't finished. I still have to put the darker blue bogus woodgrain lines on it. Tomorrow I'll start on the next head, Oyekumeji, which is, predictably, "Darkness."

The woodwork on the case is by Jake Shackleford.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Ancestress & Summer Girl~

Back in the 80s I did a painting that I titled "Summer Girl." It developed in a series of drawings of stylized male and female faces, influenced by some of the early 20th century Navajo painters. The colors were close in chroma and muted, almost pastel - the forms were flat. William has the painting - maybe he'll share a photo of it. Summer Girl's body had a design, as though she were wearing body paint, of undulating lines that curved around the jaw in a certain way, and up each side of the torso. When it came time to paint Kim for the role of the Ancestress in YACB, it seemed natural to use the stylized makeup from Summer Girl - the idea of that was simply to signal "I am female." Another link was the butterflies. Summer Girl was standing in a field of stylized flowers and surrounded by butterflies - The flowers were Ruella, a summer wildflower here on the hill with an odd link to art - for some strange reason they were the subject of one of Andy Warhol's early silk screens. He probably just happened to see a photo of them and copied it. I think that was the only time Andy did flowers. Ruella opens for a single day.

The butterflies were Pipevine Swallowtails, a large, nearly black swallowtail with iridescent green or blue back wings. There used to be alot of them around here, sadly now they are rarely seen. I've seen one in the past five years.

In my vision of The Ancestress painting, the butterflies are the yellow ones, the color favored by the orisa Osun, and those would be Tiger Swallowtails, Cloudless Sulphers, Dog-faced Sulphers, Alfalfa Butterflies...

I made this photograph of Kim, with The Ancestress body paint, out in the hay field, as a step toward the painting.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Noh when least expected ~

Yesterday Shane worked on the two pieces in YACB that speak directly about Pete Dutton's story. In every case in YACB, a work intended to make the process of imagining the past more articulate, the challenge is to find real and powerful connections between the artifacts, the characters and events in the story, and lived experiences. The goal is to expand the lived experience of time by a seamless, dreamed fusion with the time of legends, connecting the moment of performance with the ever expanding world of "once upon a time."

As I tried to help him find that entrance into the dance - perhaps "a legendary state of being" would describe it - I found myself remembering the time that I spent with my Noh teacher, Oe Nobuyuki, a master of that ancient form of Japanese performance.
Specifically I recall his firm insistence that the patterns in the dance of the Shark God that he was teaching me had nothing to do with representations, or mimicry, of the movements of actual sharks. In my interpretation of sensai Nobuyuki-san's instruction, the formula for the connection went more like this: dancer's body conforms to enactment of formal pattern; formal pattern conforms to the quality of "kami" - the animating force of the universe, which can "descend" from the otherworld to imbue images, forms and movements with transformative power - in a manner correspondent to the same descent of that power into the shark. The connection is formal, via an intermediary dynamic. It isn't RE-presentation, it is a presentation, in pattern, of the original force that animates a pair of images in two worlds; the artificial world of the fairytale and the referential world of nature it describes.

Shane's connection has been an identification with Pete. As we shared and invented the projected character of Pete, based on the handful of artifacts (stories mainly) associated with him, Pete began to represent the being that Shane wanted to become, a catalyst for self-transformation. In a way it is only by imagining an OTHER being that we can begin to shake off the fetters of habitual patterns and replace them with a new, and hopefully, more vital state of being. The prefix "trans" comes into play in language about this process - transformation, transferral, transcendent - linked by the act of boundary crossing.

Most Noh plays are ghost stories, and YACB conforms to that pattern. In the classic Noh tale, some being, a ghost typically, is stuck in a repeating pattern (the haunting) - until an act by a witness (a wandering monk, usually) liberates the ghost and releases the tension, a lack of harmony, and replaces it with an enlightened state - the truth becomes known and someone is set free. This seems especially potent in the story of a former slave.

In "Dubliners" James Joyce has a story titled "Clay" in which a parlor game of touching substances becomes a form of divination. The main character, a young woman, touches clay, and in the valorized state of game-play, the clay becomes an omen of death, the corpse and the grave. Clay is such an evocative substance - the it-could-become-anything substance of pre-being, post-being, and thereby the substance of otherness. That's why an unformed lump of laterite (native clay) can be the substance site of Esu, the orisa of the crossroads, the intersection of worlds, and the process of transformation.

Shane says he likes being painted with clay, and it seems to fit his young, relatively unformed state of being. In this case, rather than being a sign (redundant) of death, clay, streaked on the body by fingertips, signifies the possibility of transformation and growth.

The question becomes whether a witness (the audience) will recognize it ~ will the formal qualities that we are articulating present the essentially unsee-able reality that animates both the legend and the performer? Time will tell.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Work in progress ~ Idrissa

Here's the whole painting of Idrissa - still in progress. It's a difficult painting to photograph, made even trickier by a dark overcast day. When it's completed I'll post a clearer image.