I was landlocked. Never in my wildest imagination had I ever thought that I would end up in a small rural town situated in the piedmonts of the Application mountains. Northern Georgia was at once frightening but it was at the same time, romantic. The notion would never leave me and instead a restless energy precluded every decision I could muster. It’s perhaps the very reasons why in my new rural solitude I started painting visionary images of the sea.
In Baltimore I acquired a 1968 Islander. It was a derelict and I was foolish. But in my squalid situation the thought of the sail up and full of wind (it was a lot of sheet—so I was told, 325 square feet of sail, but it was rolled up in a blue tarp like a the torpedo of Claes Oldenburg.). And her keel was tall as I (It was a full keel and seaworthy—she had beautiful lines, so I was also told also but I never had to be told of her lines, I knew she was beautiful.). Like tail of a great whale and I had stripped it to the pure lead, primed and painted and dreamed of living in its 30ft stretch on the open sea. Nonesuch thing would ever happen.
A good time before Islander and splitting my knuckles under the Hanover Street Bridge I had been reading Melville, loosing myself through the arcane colloquialisms and the swarming nautical jargon. I wasn’t really thinking about boats specifically. The relentless listing and descriptions, of stuff, it did occur to me, however, that this comforted me.
My evenings in Baltimore, after slipping on my already-tied old Nikes, were spent running the dirty harbor round, gleeful at me feet; to whichever dock and whatever tipping boat and past the crab shacks, making miles along any waterways I could find. When I wasn’t confronting the sometimes stagnancy and awful flotsam, the down sun always made extravagance when I had none.
Sometimes I meandered Stony Run, trailing under the tall bridges and crossing the manic streets. I was running against the river taking me North from the city, even up as far as the dams. But the river was another lead keel that consistently brought me back into Bolton Hill, the gregarious lights of the B Restaurant and the warm evening windows of upper middle class family life, more golden nuggets of extravagance that I was allowed.
The reason I mention it is because I had been touching water for the past fifteen years. I moved a life from the coast of the Northwest. From a warehouse in Seattle with a spectacular view of the King Dome, before they brought it to a crumbling dusty pollen that sadly shrouded all the parked cars one Sunday, March 26, 2000 (It was the first domed stadium in the country to ever be imploded—remember that Foo Fighters song, “New Way Home,” I think it was on the album The Color and Shape, circa late nineties, maybe 1997?). From there I ran to the bluffs of Tacoma, looking out at Vashon Island. I was in another warehouse on the tideflats with the trains riding by all night long but that’s another magical story for a different time. What I want to say is that I started by the water and in extreme poverty, a sinking ship say, but because derelict ships can be raised—stuff gets built and the unknown is the most frightening, I made something of myself out there and left it to become, of all things, a painter.
Which brings me to Maryland. I lost a lot in Baltimore. Consequently, (and partly because I can never get rid of anything), I gained the heart of this dear, hard-edged town. But just like that beautiful lead keel, life was weighting me, taking me south and I managed to escape peril.
(Maryland) A Documentary of Blank Tongue; a deliberate resolution
The sky was black and felt as though it would fall right beside me on the highway as I drove home from Virginia. I was painting a house in Virginia, out of desperation, and grateful for it, a very dear friend of mine from grad school. My concentration was waning, I was smelly from painting and this ominous reckoning reminded me that somehow I had lost everything.
Platting above me, the impending darkness was a dark stomp and, while looking in the rearview mirror with its relentless vibrations, the storm felt as though it was chomping at my behind. How easy for me and my little mustard 1969 Volvo P1800E to be snagged and then chewed from I-95, I asked myself. And in the constant high octave of my muffler—it was almost falling off (actually the muffler had been truncated and then twisted on fairly well by a clothes hanger); in that mummifying drone I abruptly recalled one day at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
It was a Vuillard, a petite oil painting, on cardboard, somewhere in the early nineteen hundreds, I think (possibly entitled, the Meal; maybe)—a domestic scene that was barely noticeable and ensconced in a small ever-darkening room to save its ephemera from disintegration (but I had to ask myself, what was Vuillard saving?). Its discovery, although a slight work, was wondrously charged and the emotions welled up inside me. In an instant everything changed…
I was eighteen at the time, a bit naïve and stronger willed, or at least I imagined I was then. As the shingled vignette materialized in my head I looked into the (ever-vibrating) lozenge-shaped rearview and it was as if the mirror was that very canvas (or cardboard in the case of this Vuillard—and it really bothered me that it was cardboard because in the darkening storm, may I have been falling apart slowly?), I found myself staring ferociously as if it were a fast-moving looking-glass where I might muster up that epiphany once again from that day. Instead my discovery was a miniature stuttering world of crystal clear doom. What reflected back at me was the most unnerving scene I could never anticipate and, in a strange way, I got my wish.
I saw my face; a pale oaky moon surrounded by the bawling-up of the storm, (there was a wanting light just screeching the surrounding horizon as if the storm was bread that which was squished down in a hunger and that wanting light pulled at your eyes and became the intense mayonnaise (I was also very and constantly hungry those days, as will soon come up.). In the mirror I was saying something to myself; a few mumbles really, but they were mutterings about predicament and my paint-speckled skin, my stubble peppered mouth were water-chopped and repeating, white-capped through two chapped lips and a forced underbite (because, though it waned, my remarkably iron optimism was my steadfast and my irreverent quietude). But here’s when I realized with genuine horrific dread that my tongue had turned a most fitful shade of black!
Everything was sudden then. I ducked my head and swerved sharply into traffic, to the hankering pass of what was dark and appeared to be a wooden ship sailing north on I-95. Hellishly it moaned by. I fell in behind, followed for a hardly a moment—(was it really a wooden boat that I was following? I even have to ask myself this now.). But as it turned out it really was and she was not so mysterious passing like a ghost. Instead she—(magnificently landlocked I should note here), she was speedily sailing by in tow behind the rusted veer of a hulking old flat-black Ford F100 (circa, the early seventies). I sweeply searched the porthole row starboard, looked up to the creeping sky, a slow pass in recovery. When I returned to my reverberating looking glass; my squinting so hard for the truth, my seemingly so determined at the miraculous; I took my fingers and steadied the stutters like a seashell that owned not the ocean but a maelstrom, and there it was, my tongue, black as the pressing sky.
Maybe I thought the whole thing had been conspired by the drastic charging weather system (or against me and the things I had done) but the sharp pining silvered along the horizon; to westward, like a heated lamp and said otherwise, I was sure of it. The sky ripened—it was that forbidding, and my tongue (even more so a hue akin to plum, really, or closer, the remnants of a painful charliehorse bruise) the circumstances were awfully disconcerting.
How impeccably my words, my actions and my emotions had become so well illustrated (I was telling myself too many self-satisfied lies, I rationalized). And, while that darkened room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art had oddly come back to me; as that tiny Vuillard emerged from a conservators darkness (were they really trying to obfuscate this heroic work?) once again my current situation became my Giant. Because the epiphany was startled out of me like a guttural frightened yelp. Right then, in that volatile and immediate circumstance I knew exactly what I needed to do. I was going to make a documentary.
Strange that it never did rain as the menacing sky chased me the whole way back to Baltimore. But the epiphany lingered with the storm and after I got home I ate some stale corn chips, fell asleep on the sagging chaise lounge and woke up in the dark, hungry and scheming. I called Steph; it was around ten, to see if she would meet up with me at the pub.
All of the components of that indelible sequence I had collected, it was making me want to make something wonderful. I went over the entire sequence: my tongue in the rearview mirror, the swerve into traffic, the wooden ship, all of this made perfect sense because each part was collected under such urgent and precise duress. In reconstructing, I was thinking, from an onlooker, a sudden focus and sincere confusion mounting my brow in a deep knit across the moon of my face, it was the horror of the discovery. My black tongue in the mirror, I brought it back again to memory, and then the passing ghost of a wooden boat; the horns that dash by are a sort of hinging at a rage. Because the rain—I want the rain to come down hard. Knitting this scene together I pictured myself saying something smart about the rain and the connections would be irrevocable.
I don’t know why it meant so much to me, to save everything. When I try to understand it, I like to think; hey, I am a painter and I collect viscera: images, memories, objects that are, mostly useless but interesting and almost sculpture. As I was thinking about an old ironing board I had passed the other day and forgot to pick up in the Volvo, I thought how I wasn’t sure what Steph would think about the project. I needed to hold on to this for a while. It really was like painting to me (not painting—house painting but painting—Painting, and it felt genuinely rich to have this almost tangible thing.
The night was dark and sweet and my secret burned me. I was animated (not like me) to the point where I could tell Steph was curious. Johnny Cash blared the lonely red room of the Charles Pub as I secured a booth and Steph got us the first round. On the way over—(Steph picked me up because I think she was frightened of my cacophonous old Volvo) out of the blue she asked if I had sold a painting. I assured her that I had not though we both silently knew selling some work would have solved many problems.
Steph and I had been studio neighbors at the painting program in grad school. She was from Texas, had a beautiful full head of curly hair and a steady late night champion for cheap pitchers of Pennsylvanian beer and art talk—or misery talk (which is how it had been lately). And with that impending dooming thought, Steph set the two beers on the table. She was talking about the gallery where she was working at and because I had been all day long on the tippy-top of ladders, with my only substance being the fruit and coffee Margaret Bowen put out on the kitchen table for me in Virginia (I am forever grateful for her), it didn’t take long for me to feel myself a little tippy-toppy. Which is probably why it was inevitable that I let out a little something I saved; a different secret nonetheless, though it was really no secret to Steph.
“I’m lost,” I say to Steph, like a song whale at sea it comes blithely. Lost wasn’t it only, augmenting the ever-familiar rhetoric. Which easily rushed and easily lapsed as we took to our lovingly brother and sister repertoire.
“R,” she sates firmly but quickly pauses to soften her approach, a head tilts, “You need to be alone for a while, dear—couldn’t you just let it rest for a while?” Saying it, she means it really because squeezes her shoulders and then they sink like two wings grabbing the dirty closed air, indefinitely and ruffleless and also, her eyes are pretty, and she makes them softly shut together with the wings as if she were still telling me. The eyes are veiled justly.
With all the self-importance I could muster I say, “Let what rest—I’m an artist—” My attempt at tricking her into agreeing is fruitless. I was aware of this only after the fact. Steph, good friend she is, whips it all to nullification with just the roll of her then opened eyes—is why I need her. Sincerity runs rampant.
“Two months and a half is certainly long enough to be alone,” is my righteous justification because I sit upright and say it as if this would have made all the difference, as if that was just enough to make some philosophical arrest (the beers were tiring my usually sharpened rhetoric into an unconvincing wine—not really like me).
Steph let out an emphatic, “Huh,” then looked over three boys who had just entered the red urging walls of the pub. From busting Charles Street it was like a flushing urge and I noticed that Steph was a little dressed up. She looked good. The movies had let out across the street and the tall walls steadily glowered.
“Have you ever been alone in your entire life, Jay?” Steph’s question holds deep pause under the surge of the drink orders near the door palpitations, “For any extended period of time?” she says and it seems to raise her dark eyebrows, “At all, I mean?” she punctuates because she already knows the answer, and eyebrows even higher.
Inward I turn to a series of long-term relationships. In my head we are all in a row one coast to the other and back again, a slinky down a spiral stairs.
“You didn’t answer the question,” Steph says, her dark, middle-eastern eyebrows reprised.
I begin stern in questioning her response, to display some truth. However it rumples away in a half-laugh and Steph, always raised in a sure poise, deflates to my promises, rests her head on the red wall mural (a mural I keep forgetting about but cannot for the life of me ever forget—) a rising angel, or actually it’s a burning phoenix, or could it be Icarus—I like the idea of Icarus because I like people who build stuff—and fail, especially such a grand end for such majestic intentions, like real life and I had been contemplating real life.
“You never answer the questions, Jay. Just answer this one question, please.” And when she pleases she draws her please such outwardly dramatic. It’s obvious she’s pleading for humankind so that I have to comply, but can’t let it go. I say yes I had (a little white lie, which was so completely awful because I was well aware my lies, even the whites ones, were making my tongue black) and then I retracted my answer my answer.
“No,” I said it again the right way. I said it firmly. I said, “this darkness here, that we are both looking at, this two-months and a half—this is it,” And then My Morning Jacket came on the jukebox and confirmed the melancholy and the regret.
Steph put her hand up as if to make a pointed argument but none came, she was being sympathetic, she turned up and ordered us a few more beers at the bar where the boys gangling around. I was left alone in the dark red light, bathing me and Icarus.
I really didn’t know how to be alone, I felt like saying. The thought made me feel foolish. But I had to say something and when Steph came back and set the beers between us I told her about my black tongue. This is where Steph gasped. This is where it caused me the worry that flattened out my great secret idea.
“What are you going to do?” she asks me and then says “Oh my god,” into her open hand. She makes me show it to her again and I stick it out as far as I can and just shrug.
“Oh dear, really, Jay? What are you going to do about it?”
“What am I going to do about it?” I say, sip off my beer.
“Yes, really dear. Really?” Steph deflates against the wall, “Are you all right, Jay?”
“I’ll tell you what I am going to do about it,” I say, “I’m going to make art out of it—”
That night I went to sleep feeling my tongue on the roof of my mouth. The dry texture grossly resembled Styrofoam or better, a mountainous range who’s vegetation, for lack of proper rainfall, went completely barren (that’s what it like, honestly, that was the right metaphor). The life from that wetted muscle had fallen off asleep like a leg, or an arm, like bad meat, the way my arms were draining then as I read Melville above my head, worrying over my tongue until my eyes closed by themselves. I saw that slinky line crossing from coast to coast. My mind; rightfully, was trying to push out all I was collecting and my resisting turned everything into a sludge. The oily substance of fast dreams inked my mind to a blanked-out sleep. Which was far better than the misery I could have displayed to myself.
The next morning I couldn’t get my eyes to open all the way and what followed was a day that emerged into existence in eternity. Fuzzy and bright and so early the radio came on to This American Life and Ira Glass mumbled his sprightly grave concern. Melville laid split on the floor next to my bed where it had dropped to my slipped away dreams. For the most part I could never remember my dreams but I did have just the vaguest recollection of the sea. It was a dark sea, I think. I think it bellied through my inky mind. And perhaps what I thought was emptiness was in reality a vast motif companioning some wriggling rope of chance. Only what came to mind was Géricault’s, Raft of Medusa (fitting for me on many levels). Within the perils of my own life raft, I thought, would be me and Apple and all my collections, bucking aghast the harsh slant of an ominous sky, my boxes of stuff are spilling the sides—for some reason I don’t mind loosing stuff this way, in desperation.
I carried Melville through the studio and set him on the kitchen table in an upside-down sailboat. Sunlight fanned across my eyes as I opened the cabinets to the only trio of cans left inside—a can of split pea soup, a can of stewed tomatoes and a can of coconut milk. This interior was, of course, dire, but something intently took me, as it often does, and I reached for it:
A simple illustration of a cut-in-half coconut shell. This tin vessel in my hand was an offering, the label displaying the coconut with its sallow hole, of clay-white against a flagging yellowed background. I say so because, maybe it was the combination of color, local and warm, set to the abstract—just a few geometric shapes, that to me seemed the perfected depiction of hunger; of depredation—a pining less in the stomach and more gauzzed up in the head. I said to myself that I might have to soon eat this can of coconut milk. The thought stifled me. I remembered my black tongue then, made a few clucking sounds that brought Apple into the kitchen. The documentary instantaneously replayed in my head and I told my idea to Apple who listened to the whole thing with captivated delight. I fed her a half-cup of kibble because she too was rationing.
It wasn’t only the can of coconut milk but the trinity of cans that intently held significance to me and I played the whole scene over in my head. Me envisioning the discovery of three made me reenact it more sweetly, more, what was it, more dramatically. I turned all the cans so that they faced out, to get it right, to get its perfection, it’s significance. I reached into the cold cabinet again and thought, yes. I turned a side view and had the sun split from the cabinet doors again, right I thought.
The hollow insides of the cabinets, three lonely cans half in darkness. I framed them with my hands in an almost dove bird, framing them the way I have seen countless times directors portrayed in movies. Then I pictured my eyes, sad eyes as they study the coconut label. I pictured them in a close-up, then, yes—the eyes are more complex at this range, weary and distraught, which would make a cut-away to the hands next so important. My hands, there was still paint in the wrinkles of the knuckles. Were my hands getting older? Where they shaking? Maybe they tremble in the film just like this, to entice a better sense of realism. My hands, my thin nimble fingers turn the can to it’s simple illustration—was a coconut the symbol for the ideal, what was it? Though abstracted, the coconut definitely had an obvious fertile, motherly symbolic gesture. Inside the coconut crested an interior that was a lifesaving treasure to so many castaways.
I had the peeling desire to dig out the video recorder. I was getting the sequence down in my head. I imagined me opening up the can, the oily can opener, a twisting that spills the sides with milk. There should be a cut right here. To me hovering over the stove, my pensive stance comes across as eager, waiting for the temperature to slowly rise to a boil. In order to show the actuality, the how-pathetic yet how-accurate the situation was—after all this was a documentary and this was as genuine as it can get—the take would have be left a little longer. In this manner I would come across as so alone; I was lonely, so much that when the scene then cuts to me eating in the sunshine it is with a finality—that is, the condition captured contains an absolute quiet dignity and slowly, resourcefully, spoonful by spoonful, we become stewed in the pathos.
I found myself saying this out loud and Apple was waiting for the punch line in the kitchen sun on the rag carpet. I told her the there was no anecdote