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Friday, June 5, 2015

Flying Skulls and Dead Bodies, improving Protestant art through neurosis

The medieval Catholic church of Europe has been criticized for its repressiveness so repeatedly throughout the centuries that the word "medieval" has become shorthand for (among other equally disparaging things) narrow-minded and brutal repression.

While tricky to argue stridently against this characterization, it is only fair to remember other aspects of medieval Catholic culture which temper - or at least problematize - the popular image of the age as especially violent, intellectually backward and culturally static.1 The visual art produced in medieval Europe, often by the hands of church representatives, stands among the most clear and observable examples of the sensitivity and complexity of which medieval culture was capable.

I've been so enamored with the intricate and expressive beauty of medieval art for so long that I admittedly regard the Protestant Reformation as a woeful artistic cataclysm. Not only was the literal destruction of religious art en vogue in Reformation countries, but the religious aesthetics2 that subsequently emerged in them I find, if elegant, cold. Not only simple, but frequently dull. And very evocative of the emotional asceticism I generally dislike and distrust about Protestantism. (Physical asceticism is another matter...)

Living well after the Catholic church's western dominance, which directly precipitated the Reformation, I have the luxury of finding medieval Catholic art verdant, ornate and warm instead of decadent.
A page from the 14th-century de Lisle Psalter depicting scenes from the early life of Christ.

Its strange otherworldliness is evocative rather than lurid.
A page from the 15th-century Hours of Catherine of Cleves, depicting a hellmouth.

I am not expressly a deist, or at least not a monotheist, and so I don't emotionally identify with the concerns of the reformers who feared idolatry and, therefore, took issue with Catholic imagery. I intellectually appreciate these concerns, but can't share them. I'm all for idols.

I am rather more sympathetic with the reformers' disdain for the hypocrisy of a wealthy church. But plenty of medieval Catholics were ambivalent about money itself, let alone the church's accumulation of it. I don't see this as uniquely Protestant. The apostolic "revival" of the 13th century, typified by the mendicant orders, saw plenty of popular movements reacting against the church's wealth. Granted the papacy had a lot to do with keeping these movements Catholic and not forcing them into a position of external protest.

In any event, this is all to observe that the Reformation, at the safe distance of all these centuries, has little emotional resonance for me, whereas the Middle Ages possesses much. My interest in European art and culture drops markedly following the 15th century. And the here-relevant offshoot of that is that I tend not to get very excited about early Protestant religious art or architecture.

Living in Massachusetts, one sees some of the dourest examples of this stuff all the time. Red brick churches, white steeples or, if you're lucky maybe some gray stone. House-like with a bell tower that may or may not be crowned by a steeple. Almost completely unadorned interiors, white walls, pale wood. They are well-made and not unattractive, but they are almost uniformly blank and bland. (You may find a little ornamental glass if you are very, very lucky...or if the church dates to the 19th century or later.)

Christ Church, an Episcopal church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, built in 1760-1.

King's Chapel (built 1749-54) in downtown Boston, with its strange crouching, somewhat brooding and blockish shape, has a slightly weirder exterior than the churches I'm thinking of...

...but its interior is one of the most flavorless.

The aesthetic bleakness seems to punish me for wanting something colorful or decorative, as if this desire represented a moral failing. I feel, every time I look at it and fail to feel something transcendent or even piquing, that the early Protestant aesthetic has judged me and found me depraved.

This is probably why the Puritan cemeteries of New England - charmingly and forthrightly called "burying grounds" - surprised and beguiled me so completely when I first saw one. Below, a view of King's Chapel Burying Ground.

And of Copp's Hill Burying Ground in Boston's North End, dating to 1659.
Photo by Nicholas Paskert.

The burying grounds themselves are usually grassy but not ornately landscaped, crowded with markers tilting at  angles, some of which have been moved over the centuries. They are quite small by Victorian and modern cemetery standards. The real draw is the markers.

And the contrast between the host of boring churches up here3 and these early Puritan gravestones is utterly delightful and persistently weird. [The following gravestone photos all care of Nicholas Paskert.] The ubiquitous flying skull...

Strange garland-toting babies flanking an hourglass...

A skeleton snuffing a candle and a figure I take to be father time, holding another hourglass...

Another version of this theme...

And, a particular favorite, death-as-scythe-wielding-skeleton riding a disembodied skull with hourglass. Yeah...

These gravestones are so image-laden, so strange and otherworldly. They look so damned medieval, but they are specifically not Catholic. One could even call them anti-Catholic as they sprang precisely from a culture that, back home in England, exercised rampant iconoclasm, found Anglicanism far too Catholic, and used "popery" and "papist" as terms of abuse. Where on earth then did this horde of flying skulls come from?

I did a minor amount of scholarly (and non-scholarly but well-considered) reading to try and answer this question.

The most intriguing treatment I found was by David Stannard in The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture and Social Change. It's an older work - 1979 - so I tried to read it with some healthy skepticism. But a number of Stannard's observations seem sound to my historically semi-trained mind. I think I mostly alit on his work because of the persistent and sometimes compellingly problematic way he uses the Middle Ages as a foil for 16th-to-18th-century Puritan culture in New England.

Medieval Catholic Europe in a fairly linear and causal way (as historical antecedents go) spawned the reform movements, including Puritanism, that would cleave the European Catholic church and eventually find unique expression in North America.

As mentioned above, these reform movements were a reaction against the corruption and perceived decadence of the Catholic church and, especially for the Puritans later, the Anglican church. Protestants crafted their identity as reformers up against the identity and practices of the Catholic church which, until the Reformation, could reasonably have been called "the church" at least in Europe (though it was neither the only nor oldest Christian church by a long shot).

So it makes a certain amount of chronological and relational sense to consider Puritan funerary art alongside medieval art. However, an explanation for their resemblance to one another must be sought, because a presupposition of dissimilarity makes more intuitive sense.

Religious and funerary art comprised a defining rift line between the two cultures. One might suspect medieval religious art could be viewed as a parent-in-negative to Puritan art rather than as some sort of weird cousin. To belabor this familial metaphor, if the Puritans were rebellious children, wouldn't their art look profoundly different from that of the "parent" they were rebelling against? For most Protestants, as I bemoaned at the beginning of this essay, this was true. The staidness and non-decoration of their art is a pretty obvious consequence of the floridity of Catholic art. If the Puritans were also austere iconoclasts who rejected Catholic imagery, why on earth did they - almost immediately upon arrival in the New World - begin adorning their tombs with skulls, skeletons, hourglasses and other memento mori normally associated with medieval art?

It may be helpful first to consider these themes as they occurred in medieval art.

Memento mori motifs and their focus on bodily suffering enjoyed famous popularity in late medieval devotion, literature and visual arts. Depictions of the Man of Sorrows (Jesus in his passion, suffering in a very human way), became more popular in contrast to the Pantocrator imagery of a wide-eyed and almighty Christ, which proliferated in the early Middle Ages and in Byzantium, but fell out of style in the later Middle Ages.

Below, the 15th-century Vir Dolorum (Man of Sorrows) by Master Francke, followed by the 12th-century Christ Pantocrator by the Master of Cefalù.

The cult of the saints had flourished since late antiquity but its preoccupation with relics, including bodies and bones, experienced a sort of boom period in the high and late Middle Ages. A 13th-century reliquary designed to hold an arm bone, below.

Transi tombs, while never the "norm" of elite burial, came into fashion in the late Middle Ages along with stories like the legend of the three living and the three dead. Corpse sculpture from the transi (or "cadaver") tomb of Jean, Cardinal de la Grange, and a de Lisle Psalter illustration of the legend of the three living and three dead, below.

One commonly-floated explanation for this medieval leaning toward the macabre is specifically attributed to the Great Famine and Black Death, which together decimated the population of 14th-century Europe and caused such economic and demographic shifts that they fundamentally challenged centuries-old class relationships. There's no question these events had enormous ramifications.

As with any catastrophe, it's inadvisable to underestimate the effects of the "calamitous 14th century", but it is correspondingly easy to overestimate them. I am utterly unprepared to speak at length about the cultural/aesthetic consequences of comparative large-scale disasters, but it does intrigue me that no other event or set of events in western history are famously characterized as having caused morbidity.

To take a comparable event, the 6th-century Plague of Justinian - while it unarguably had massive and long-term affects on the eastern Mediterranean world - did not signal a new macabre-ness in Byzantine art or culture.

In a more tenuous, but I think still on-point comparison, artists coping with the fact of and fall-out from the Holocaust produced some disturbing and dark works of art 4, but the collective cultural response to that horror is not considered peculiarly morbid. My impression is that it is considered appropriately macabre; in other words, not unusual or to be explained, but self-evident.

This is not the case with medieval morbidity, which often gets spoken about in that weren't-they-so-very-weird-and-superstitious tone which flattens the humanity of medieval people and renders them caricatures of qualities we moderns deride and of which we claim ourselves to be devoid.

A kind of pop-culture "common sense" explanation for morbidity in medieval is sometimes propounded by more general reference to the violence, disease and short life expectancy germane to the Middle Ages. But again, why didn't these factors (common in most pre-modern and many modern civilizations) turn countless other cultures into decay-obsessed death ponderers?

I hope it's clear by now that I do not buy these simplistic explanations of any medieval (so-called) preoccupation with death. I am also not sold on the idea that, if their art was morbid (i.e., concerned with disease and death), the Middle Ages were especially death-obsessed. I believe instead we are reading their images according to our own standards, and thereby misunderstanding their emphases and intent.

While a medieval person probably felt a frisson of revulsion when regarding an image like Matthias Grünewald's "Dead Lovers", (c. 1470, Strasbourg, Musee de l'Oeuvre de Notre Dame, France), I think to equate their regard to something like we feel watching a horror movie is off base.

A medieval person would have been considerably more familiar with the sight (and smell) of decaying animals, including people. I wouldn't argue exposure led them to be desensitized to the grotesqueness of rotting flesh or the sadness of death...though perhaps more tolerant and expectant of it.

However, I would argue that we in the West today are so insulated from bodily death by our own institutions and customs that (barring wartime scenarios, from which most of us are also well-insulated) the site of an actual dead body would be, first and nearly to the exclusion of other responses, shocking. We have replaced an actual relationship with our actual dead, with...nothing really. We primarily experience death in hyperbolic film and gaming landscapes built expressly for entertainment. Moreover, those deaths are usually murder; justified in the case of action-adventure movies and video games, played for the scare in the case of horror films. Death's attendant decay we seldom experience at all, unless we are particular fans of zombie movies.

I feel safe assuming a medieval person would have looked at Grünewald's picture without this layer of unfamiliarity and also lacking the entertainment "noise" with which we have trained our responses. This is not an image of lurid horror, but perhaps one of instructional horror. Art in the Catholic Middle Ages was frequently a focus for meditation. And death was seen as a precursor to an afterlife; a crucial liminal moment for the human soul, worth meditating upon.

This is where Stannard's assessments seem most compelling to me. By his reading, medieval culture was not obsessed with death so much as it was obsessed with life after death. And the medieval proclivity for showing bodies in decay pertained in part to the idea of resurrection and concern for the state of one's body after death. All of those decaying bodies and memento moris do, to a certain extent, represent fear of death and fear for one's soul, but equally they express a recognition of the unavoidable end to all human life on earth, regardless of status while on earth.

These images also concertedly relate to the concept of contemptus mundi - or contempt for the world; a motif and idea popular during the Middle Ages which saw life on earth as a pale and corrupt imitation of the beatitude of the hereafter. Flesh rots, but the soul lives forever.

It seems sound then to regard medieval artworks that depict death as reminders of the flimsiness of life, but also as expressions of that flimsiness with a view to celebrating what is more enduring and important (according to Catholic theology): one's eternal soul.

Stannard actually describes the medieval attitude toward death as optimistic, asserting that this intense focus on the afterlife and cultural disdain for worldly things was its "principal weapon against the fear of death" (19). The increased medieval focus on the afterlife and resurrection, he argues, is what led to the rise in preoccupation with depicting the dead.

Considering these hypotheses and observations about medieval morbid art, what then do they mean to Puritan funerary art in the New World? Did 17th-century Puritans in New England think about life, death and afterlife in a similar fashion when they commissioned a deathshead for their loved one's grave? And how did they reconcile that depiction with their faith's traditional rejection of figural art in religious settings?

The Puritans of New England and the Catholics of medieval Europe did share harsh physical realities that made death omnipresent. Stannard makes quite a lot of these realities and their effects on Puritans from very young ages by studying journals, letters and didactic works for children. They also shared the distrust of worldly things and a focus on the afterlife. For him, the big divergence between Puritan and medieval theology, at least insofar as it relates to practices of death and burial, concerns specific beliefs regarding both the afterlife and the here and now.

Per Stannard, belief in predestination rendered the afterlife a stressful and emotionally fraught topic for Puritans. He observes, "At the heart of the Puritan's introspective experience - and few other experiences were so important to him - was the matter of the attainment and recognition of saving grace." (72) Stannard describes a culture of individuals who regularly racked their consciences and minutely scrutinized their thoughts and behavior to look for signs that they had been saved or, alternatively, that they were destined for Hell. He continues, "...the devout Puritan constantly examined himself and assailed all evidence of impurity, filling journals and diaries with interminable exhortation on the depravity of all men, but most importantly himself...The Puritan faith...was...marked by a never-ending, excruciating uncertainty." (75)

In contrast to this, it's small wonder that Stannard called medieval theology "optimistic". So the afterlife for Puritans was a source of individualized and internalized fear. But they apparently still retained some of the "traditional Christian rhetoric of viewing death as a release and relief for the earthbound soul." (79) He identifies this ambivalent duality in "virtually every Puritan funeral sermon or other discourse on the subject." (77) As one example, he cites a work by Cotton Mather entitled, Death Made Easie and Happy, which sounds pretty optimistic but is apparently still full of dread. As Mather writes, "Let us look upon everything as a sort of Death's-Head set before us, with a Memento mori written upon it."

Compared to the probable medieval responses to death in art that I've hypothesized above, Mather's view contains a shrinking horror of death; one possibly closer to our own. So in regard to the afterlife, even while some of the death imagery looks the same, medieval and Puritan art was likely generated by different concerns and received with different emotions.

In addition to varying relationships to the afterlife, Stannard identifies a more worldly and here-and-now set of concerns that differentiated medieval and Puritan attitudes regarding death. Essentially, the Puritans were idealists, embarked on a social and spiritual project of great ambition. The New World Puritans most especially were attempting to create a society that lived and functioned according to God's law (however they interpreted that). They used education, harsh punishments and emotional asceticism to do it.

This somewhat radical re-envisioning of society was not a component of medieval thought. Stannard calls the Middle Ages "bereft of both formal social criticism and utopian dreaming" (39). He is primarily speaking about the medieval habit of looking to precedent and tradition for solutions, which is fair enough. But he underestimates the potency of thinkers and nonconformists in the period who may have looked to the past for lessons, but who nevertheless acted and thought in quite novel ways. I think of the Cathars, the mendicant orders, of Christine de Pizan and Peter Abelard. While none of these are precisely revolutionary or utopian, they are radical and idealistic.

So I don't appreciate the way he dismisses the transformative social and intellectual currents of the Middle Ages, but his point as it pertains to Puritans is well taken. They were trying to model purity and "right" behavior on an individual and communal level and with no small amount of literal-mindedness. And they were doing this in a way that diverged from the Protestants back in Europe.

The fathers of Reformation thought, Desiderius Erasmus and John Calvin, both took issue with (among other things) contemptus mundi and the value Catholic thought placed on withdrawal from the world. Early Protestants viewed the world as God's handiwork, something to be lived in and appreciated, not withdrawn from. (25-26) But Puritans, a reform movement within a reform movement, took a dimmer view of the world based on their focus on humanity's fall from grace.

They developed a bleak vision of human history which, according to Stannard, they saw as "one long descent into ever-deepening depravity ever since the betrayal of Adam and Eve." (39-40) With that cheery regard for humankind and its world, they drifted back toward medieval contemptus mundi, but without the afterlife optimism. They denigrated the idea of Purgatory, which was gaining ground back in Europe even among Protestants, and clung more firmly to their doctrine of torment (or, charmingly, the doctrine of endless punishment) and predestination; that is, to the ideas that a person is either saved or not saved, there's nothing to be done on earth about it, and if you're not saved, you are going straight to Hell where your soul will consciously suffer torture eternally.

These healthy, life affirming beliefs obviated the need for elaborate funeral ritual. As Stannard explains it, "[T]o the Puritan the soul of the dead person had flown to its appointed fate, and the corpse that remained behind was but a meaningless husk." (100)

In England, and initially in the New World, Puritans eschewed all funerary ritual, paid very little attention to the body in death, and discouraged open displays of grief. While this accorded with the Puritan theological view of the primacy of spiritual over worldly things, in practice it proved hard to take and of little comfort to the living. Stannard asserts persuasively that the introduction of grave art (winged skulls, skeletons with scythes, et al.) constituted a kind of backlash against the meanness of Puritan burial practices.

For reasons relating to their isolation, only the New World Puritans began livening up their funeral practices. English Puritans remained anti-ritual and anti-image. While in the New World carvings on headstones, of the kind under consideration here, became popular in the 1650s. By the early 18th century, Puritan funerals had grown much more elaborate. As Stannard observes:
In virtually every respect - in the care and handling of the dead, the nature and expense of funeral and burial procedures, the timing and content of the funeral sermon, the intrusion of death into the religious sphere of their lives, and the symbolic and iconographic marking of the individual's mortal remains - the New England Puritans ritualized death as only the most non-Puritan of pre-Restoration Englishmen would have dared do. (117)
He explains this change by reference to the theories of archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, who observed that the least stable societies possess the most elaborate burial practices. And Puritan New England was indeed unstable. In 1689, British Parliament passed the Toleration Act, which allowed dissenters from the Anglican church their own places of worship in England. This fundamentally changed the dynamic of the religious struggles that had sent Puritans packing to the New World in the first place. Again, Stannard says it well, "New England became...not the vanguard of Protestantism, but an isolated remnant." (124)

This increasing irrelevance had a significant impact on a culture that was, as noted, utopian and future-focused in nature and at inception. And they were not only growing irrelevant in the context of the religious wars back "home" in England. In New England as well, Puritanism of a dogmatic and idealistic sort lost ground throughout the 18th century to mercantile interests, a disturbingly worldly concern if you were a traditionalist.

Stannard believes these destabilizing changes, challenging to traditional Puritan ways of life and thought, caused the proliferation of both grave art and funerary ritual in New England. And, as I've laid out, he argued that Puritan theological beliefs and anxieties determined the forms the art took. They surely must have influenced it, but I think a few things worth noting here.

First, is that in pondering the interiority of a medieval or Puritan person (or a living modern person, for that matter), one cannot equate elucidated, "official" belief with people's every day emotional realities or behaviors. William Gilson, author of a thoughtful piece about Puritan funerary art in the New England Review, observed:
[T]o see [Puritans] as doom-crazed extremists of predestination and intolerance - as they have often been seen - is to make caricatures. The best of their writings are rich with thoughtful probings, extended reasonings, fresh metaphoric flights, eccentric perspectives, richly original language. (87)
It's tricky, but worth the effort, to avoid making caricatures of past people based on a discrete set of artifacts: their official stated religious beliefs, their art, their writings.

Second, is that art is both a cultural and an economic activity; just as it can be seen as "representative" of a group of people, but is ultimately created by individuals. A lot of attention has been paid in this essay to the religious and broad cultural influences that might have influenced Puritan funerary art. But some regional scholarly work has also been done to identify specific stone carvers and how Puritan grave art spread around New England as an example of a commissioned commodity. Both the craftspeople and the buyers contributed to this funeral economy.

According to Gilson, the earliest identified maker of these gravestones is known as the "Charlestown Carver". He was the first professional stone carver in the Boston area (active in the late 1600s) and "seems to have been the person who transferred the basic gravestone form, as it had existed in England, to New England...He established much of the basic visual vocabulary," (94) including the skulls, creeping foliage, humanoid faces, etc. He also seems to have taught at least 3 of the region's subsequent carvers whose names are known.

There's a certain amount of idiosyncratic aesthetics and craftsmanship, as well as market demand, that would have influenced what the Charlestown Carver brought with him from England, what he might have created or innovated once here, what his customers were willing to pay for and what his apprentices carried forward from his practice.

In short, I am skeptical to what extent any of the foregoing considerations "explain" the appearance of medieval-resembling art in Puritan burial grounds, or explain the frank portrayal of the dead and dying in art of any culture.

Modes of artistic expression fit poorly into causal explanations that treat them like components of an equation:

hard physical lives + afterlife-based theology + social instability = depictions of death in art

Which is not to say these components do not have some relationship with and affect on each other, but mathematics has not devised symbols capable of discussing those relationships and affects. For that matter, language hasn't developed the vocabulary either. That's one of the "problems" with visual art; it is created in a nonverbal mode to discuss things nonverbally; and the only mathematics that play a part relate to how the artist's hand makes a form or what a viewer perceives of the form, not why the artist makes it or how the viewer feels about it.

And so I dance around these topics, I guess. Using Stannard's observations about Puritans and the Middle Ages to help explain the Puritan art of New England, while acknowledging that nothing can wholly explain the art of Puritan New England (or any other place).

I'm mostly left with my gut aesthetic response to Puritan and medieval art, which is love and fascination. I also can't escape from meditating upon the wild ease and comfort of my modern western educated middle-class lifestyle...and from being grateful that I was not raised to believe that humans and the world are inherently sinful and that, likely as not, I'll end up in a place of eternal suffering. So thanks for that, Mom. I'm pretty sure that has saved me some severe neuroses, but did not prohibit me from creating morbid art of my own.

Citations from:
Stannard, David E. The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Gilson, William. "Stone Faces." New England Review, 30:4 (2009-2010): 79-101.


1. It also does us good to question our image of our current age as some sort of medieval diametric opposite: i.e., especially non-violent, intellectually progressive or culturally dynamic. In the U.S. especially, the latter two comprise a purported national identity I think it would be wise not to take for granted. And to imagine we are especially non-violent is outright laughable.
2. I here regard religious aesthetics as separate from secular aesthetics, which is a somewhat erroneous distinction even with regard to Protestant cultures, which Westerners now regard so commonly as somehow more "secular" than other religious cultures. I intend mostly to omit the works of the Flemish Renaissance from my consideration. In this essay I am speaking primarily and broadly about religious architecture and religiously-determined (e.g., funerary) art.
3. I know, I know. Their non-adornment is intended to turn the worshiper's attention inward. They are meant to be dignified and neat, unpretentious and thereby graceful. I guess I can even agree that they are. But Boston's Old North Church, par exemple? Bo-ring
[image of Old North Church].
4. The poem "Todesfuge" by Paul Celan and Jerzy Kosinski's novel The Painted Bird both jump out to me as examples here, each containing grisly and hauntingly morbid imagery, dealing in bodily ways with themes of genocidally-motivated murder.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

More careful, more powerful than any guardian

I spent four years studying medieval history at Tulane University in the early 2000s. I spent the next seven years, also in New Orleans, making all kinds of art but mostly painting and trying to pinpoint and develop my own visual "voice". Unsurprisingly, what emerged was a style highly influenced by medieval illumination and by the lush vegetation all around me.

The observation that what an artist sees comes out through her work is quotidian in the extreme, but if you are someone who paints or makes stuff you may identify with the jolt I felt when I first really saw this in my own work, when I recognized the influence of my surroundings in my painting. 

It hit me with a jolt because painting a picture, at least for me, does not feel like this highly structured task, where every decision is an overtly conscious one. So many of the decisions I make when working on a picture amount to a gut feeling; a curve, a perspective, a color juxtaposition just looks right, or feels right (or occasionally looks wrong and feels wrong). For every detail of a painting that I have concertedly chosen, there are 3 that just happen...or at least that is how I experience them: unplanned, organic, almost possessed of a life of their own.

Which is why the realization that these things often come from pretty obvious external sources felt novel and a little thrilling.1 I began to consider my affection for medieval art in general. I grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border where vividly colored Mexican and Native American patterns, often floral, adorn civic buildings, houses, restaurants, and can be found in retail stores of all kinds and on "high" and "low" art everywhere (I hate those distinctions, but you get the drift: gallery or market art v. tourist shop tchotchkes). Catholic art is also extremely common; icons, statuary, mosaics. 

Mexican Catholic iconography has obvious precursors in medieval art and, in general, the bright colors, stylized shapes and repeating patterns of Mexican (as well as southwest Indian) art resonate with medieval illumination. It is obviously unprovable, but I strongly suspect that I took the shine to medieval art that I did, in part because it echoes the art of the American southwest that I had spent so much time looking at and admiring as I grew up.

When I moved to Massachusetts, the very first thing I painted, in retrospect, was clearly a product of the intense homesickness I was feeling for Louisiana. ["Swampsquatch of St. Malo" below]
From there I completed a number of paintings on subjects ranging from Iron Age bog people...to hellmouths,..to Janelle Monáe. I continued to have a rough time settling into Cambridge, and then my father died.

Exploring and figuring out ways to live with my grief, I found myself overwhelmed with a new homesickness I hadn't felt in decades: homesickness for the southwest. And so I painted a picture attempting to capture a place from my childhood: my paternal grandparents' home in southern New Mexico.

Something about researching for and executing this painting was utterly palate cleansing for me. Making it was an act that helped me express grief, longing, fondness and nostalgia.

I continue to yearn for warm places, where life moves slower, the people are (generally) less affluent but more pleasant, where they work long hours if they have to or they love what they do, but not because being busy to the point of distraction (doing something...anything!) is considered a virtue in itself.

I am obviously in no danger of developing any deep affection for urban New England, but something about completing this desert picture allowed me to begin embracing the things here I could like.

I live down the road from Mount Auburn Cemetery, the oldest "rural" cemetery in the United States. Dedicated in 1831, Mount Auburn is big enough and landscaped enough it still feels fairly removed when you're inside of it, but it's definitely no longer rural. It does, nevertheless, contain acres and acres of hills, gullies, surprising vistas...

hidden nooks, ponds, critters...

...and, of course, graves.

Mount Auburn Cemetery is hands down my favorite place in Cambridge. I enjoy it in each of the four seasons, even my nemesis, winter. And being in it can help me forget for short stretches the suffocating population density up here. It also introduced me to my second favorite tree.

One of the sorest non-human losses I felt in leaving New Orleans was for its ubiquitous live oaks. Their roots bubble up from any attempted confinement (by concrete or brick, for instance) like something viscous. [Image care of Claudia Brooke]

Their branches curve and duck and stretch far away from trunks that can grow to astounding girths. Their waxy dark green leaves do not fade and die in the mild Louisiana winters. Everything about them conveys age, grandness, lushness and sturdiness. The live oak is definitely my favorite tree.
But now, thanks to my time in Mount Auburn Cemetery, I also have come to know the weeping beech. It shares with the live oak the appearance of molten-ness despite its extreme hardness. They are both the kind of tree that would grow around and engulf anything foolish enough to remain near them for too long - a sign nailed to the bark or maybe a fence post planted too close - and the trunks would look liquid, as though they had oozed around the object, but would be rough and hard to the touch. They are both old man trees, ents, embodying wisdom and perseverance.

But their differences are also charming. The weeping beech has pale bark that grows back from damage slightly darker. So the hearts and initials and other graffiti from decades and decades can still be read on the trunks of the weeping beeches of Mount Auburn in bubbly gray relief against the white surface, like propeller scars on the smooth skin of a sea mammal.


Their large branches depart from the trunk, twisting and dipping and winding and when they reach a certain altitude or stage of growth, they send shoots cascading straight back down toward the ground.
Photo by Nicholas Paskert

When replete with emerald green leaves, these slender "weeping" branches sheath the main trunk and the largest branches, hiding them like skin hides a skeleton.
Photo by Nicholas Paskert

And if you brush through the branches and enter the secret canopy they create, you find yourself in what looks like a cathedral, vaulted with light filtering in as though the leaves were stained glass.
Photo by Nicholas Paskert

You could hide inside a weeping beech and a passer-by would never know you were there.

And so I have great awe and affection for these trees. And I feel gratitude to Mount Auburn for introducing them to me.

Another thing I've come to like about New England, I have also found in cemeteries...although in cemeteries much older and smaller and weirder than Mount Auburn. In downtown Boston, in its North End, near Cambridge common, in Salem and in other spots around the region, I have become acquainted with the 17th- and 18th-century graves of those austere reformers, the Puritans.

Protestant art and architecture are so well known for their bareness, simplicity and unadornèdness, that the grave art of early North American Puritans - those most protestful of protestants - is quite bizarre in its frank and busy moroseness. Plumes of plants and other strange vaguely organic shapes creep along the edges of the tombstones, which are crowned with winged skulls, whole skeletons, seraphim and other flying baby-like figures, hourglasses, candles snuffed out, a whole arsenal of symbols for life cut short and the invincible march of time.



Photos by Nicholas Paskert

The figural proportions can be off, the faces crude (even though I usually loathe that word in reference to art, it seems to fit some of the blunt expressionless faces).
Photo by Nicholas Paskert

The words are abbreviated with floating superscript and a "y" is used to represent thorn (þ) 
(as in "ye"), as well as in lieu of "i" (as in "lyes").

Photo by Nicholas Paskert

The names of the departed sound both homey and exotic:Thankful Lutwych, Mercy Jones, Jabez and Lydia Sweet. The markers often speak of loss and grief in poetic but disarmingly direct terms: [epitaph below from the grave of the Sweet children]
Stay gentle reader, view this spot of Earth,
Sacred to virtue, innocence and worth.
Four infant roses, budding in the morn
Shed their sweet fragrance in life's early dawn,
Entwin'd their parent stems so fond caress'd,
Each gave one smile to glad the pensive breast,
Then dropt their odours, left the parent rose,
And dropp'd and wither'd, died. Here seek repose
Till Christ transplant them in the graves above
To bloom immortal in the joys of love.
I've had occasion before to feel ill at ease in my own culture, because really straightforward talk about death and emotional loss comforts me. I don't see why paying attention to the dead, their passing, their memorials, their affects on the living, equals morbidity when death is the indivisible corollary to life. And so I find Puritan funerary art affecting and lovely. And strange, for sure, but lovely.

Combining some of these motifs with the image of a weeping beech - especially once I'd decided it should also appear leafless and skeletal - seemed very natural. An autumnal palate also struck me as pretty obvious. I wanted to convey the melancholy of fall, of waning life, of a decomposing body returning to the earth; but also show how life persists in the tree itself, and in the burrow of a small rodent.


The Latin adage: Custode et cura natura potentior omni (roughly, Nature is more careful, more powerful than any guardian; or In guardianship and care, nature is more powerful than all) is taken from Juvenal's tenth satire, which critiques praying after vain things.

I like to think of this saying as a kind of memento mori; we will all go back where we came from and death is necessary for life, which doesn't mean it isn't sad but can reveal optimism and beauty in the life-death cycle. Isn't it good and comforting that humans participate in that cycle, like any other animal, like a leaf or a flower? We wither, we die and we decay, but something very like us grows again in our place, young and fresh and ready to do it all over again.

1. It is likely another offshoot of my sympathy with the medieval period that I find this idea thrilling and not disturbing. I think of the popular medieval conceit of reading as eating: ideas are taken in with the eyes, as food is taken in through the mouth; the process of digestion occurs which breaks down the material; metaphorical belching, gas and indigestion could occur because assimilation is never easy; and eventually the idea is absorbed by the mind as nutrients are absorbed by the body. This extremely visceral metaphor accentuates the medieval idea that one is what one reads, and the medieval reader's awareness that one has taken in the ideas of others, which in turn precludes one from feeling especially original or novel and from over-valuing or over-trusting the appearance of the new. In a sense, I guess that's how I am envisioning my surroundings: components I take in, assimilate into myself, and then express in my art. Original to me, but not in an absolute or existential sense.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Adrift on the sea of linguistic ambiguity

Last year I posted an entry about a then-new painting I'd finished and some accompanying meditations on entropy.

A friend pointed me toward a call for artworks for an online zine with the theme: Sailors, Sirens and Sea Monsters. I did not hesitate to submit my extremely aquatic painting. Sailors? Check! Sirens? Well, a mermaid anyway. Check! Sea Monsters? Check!

After some months I received the zine link and was startled to realize that when some other folks hear that theme, instead of visions of marine critters, a whole world of homoeroticism is conjured. Somehow email taglines from the zine's editor - like, "Hey, Sailor!" - had not proposed this possibility to me before.

I can't say I particularly mind, because a lot of the work is appealing to me in technique, but it did make me feel kind of childlike and naive that when I hear "sea monster" I think of a mythological creature, rather than a euphemistic male appendage.

Ultimately I'm happy to be included in a collection that is not so overly curated or conceptually predetermined as to exclude either fantastical creatures or blow jobs. Check it out.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

My Confession by Samuel E. Chamberlain






[Samuel Chamberlain's painting depicting a scene near Linares, Mexico.] 

That Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confession inspired the novel Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, is the least interesting thing about this strange autobiography. I mention it early, so I don’t have to bring it up again.

Chamberlain hand-wrote and illustrated the tale of his experiences between about 1844, when he was an unruly 16-year-old leaving his family home in Boston, to 1849 and his defection from the Glanton gang, a band of mercenary scalp hunters who roved the borderlands of the Southwest in the wake of the Mexican-American War. In between these bookend events, he bummed around Illinois and New Orleans, eventually joined the First United States Dragoons and fought in a number of battles and skirmishes of the Mexican-American War, philandering with as many ladies as possible all along the way. He peppers his autobiographical account with healthy doses of myth and hearsay and even includes one heck of a good ghost story.

Chamberlain apparently wrote his Confession (subtitled The Recollections of a Rogue) sometime after about 1850 when he had returned to Massachusetts, but before the onset of the Civil War, in which he would again fight and earn the rank of brevet brigadier general. He eventually would serve as a warden of state prisons in Massachusetts and Connecticut where, I’ve read, he was a conscientious and sympathetic advocate for inmates, particularly veterans. He died at age 78 in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1908.

I am not familiar enough with 19th-century literary tropes to assert this with more specificity, but it seems fairly obvious that Chamberlain penned his account concertedly in the mode of adventure tales of his day. Clearly he sees himself as a rather likable anti-hero (a rogue, indeed), who had many adventures, many loves, faced many foes and lived to tell the tales. He was frequently in the guardhouse for some transgression or other during the war. He was a hothead (not to mention a teenager) and could never resist getting into a fight if the opportunity presented itself. He narrates most episodes in his tale with a cheeky bravado and often a tone of humor as if he’s winking at his reader.

For all his swagger, Sam comes across as a fairly sensitive individual. The more upsetting events receive a kind of matter-of-fact gravity: rapes and mutilations of local women; the murder of a Mexican priest by a drunken U.S. soldier; what he calls the “massacre of the cave”, where Arkansas volunteer soldiers slew men, women and children in a cave near Saltillo. As Sam says: “The direct cause of the massacre was the barbarous murder of a young man belonging to the Arkansas Regiment. But this murder was undoubtedly committed in retaliation for the outrages committed on the women of the Agua Nueva ranch by the volunteers on Christmas Day.” (88)

Chamberlain was not unresponsive to the terrible human cost of war on both sides. His untrained but expressive, altogether fascinating paintings also demonstrate a good amount of emotional receptivity.

And yet the narrative overall tends toward this buoyant, devil-may-care tone. I attribute it some to Chamberlain’s youth; he was 16-21 during the events of the narrative and in certain harrowing situations acknowledged himself as “nothing but a boy”. (294) But he was no longer a boy when he wrote the account. And so I tend to attribute the tone – which seems weirder and weirder as the tale progresses and the events become distinctly less heroic and more upsetting – to the conventions of the genre Chamberlain imagined himself to be writing within.

The narrative takes a concerted swerve toward the desperate and brutal when Sam’s lover, Carmeleita, is kidnapped by a villain known as El Tuerto1; a man she was coerced into marrying before she gladly ran off with Sam, and one with whom Sam had previously had a knife fight. Chamberlain attempts to track them down, but then hears of her terrible fate: “El Tuerto had carried Carmeleita to a lone ranch where she was outraged by Canales’ whole gang of demons and then cut to pieces!” (216) 2

Pretty much from this moment on in the text, bravado starts to sound forced and hollow as Sam’s circumstances worsen and worsen. The war ends, and he joins a wagon train to California as a ranger but, likely deep in a depression from Carmeleita’s savage end, he acts belligerent and unsoldierly enough that he is eventually strung up by his thumbs. Mercifully one night a mysterious lone rider, who has been following the train, cuts him down; a fellow known as Crying Tom Hitchcock, a truly intriguing character who speaks a mishmash of languages, mimics an array of animal calls and, as his nickname implies, frequently cries copious and unexplained tears.

And so Sam deserts the army and follows Tom, who turns out to be a recruiter for John Glanton. Glanton’s rather terrifying group of desperados were officially employed by the Mexican government to kill “hostile” Apaches3, but in practice they killed (and scalped) pretty much anybody they could get something from. Chamberlain had the good sense to be wary of Glanton’s unscrupulous, often drunken decision-making. And he was appropriately distrustful of Glanton’s sociopathic second-in-command, Judge Holden, who, Chamberlain says, he “hated…at first sight”. (272)

Nevertheless he tagged along with this highly suspect crew for, even he seemed to feel, longer than was good for him. You get the impression he didn’t know what else to do with himself and that, before witnessing some of their depravity firsthand, he found Glanton’s ruthless reputation somewhat romantic.

It is possible Chamberlain was called away from the task of writing his narrative by the Civil War. Given that he lived a relatively long life and never picked the task back up, I could also easily be persuaded that he abandoned the project out of disaffection. As the events become more dire and less heroic, the adventurous tone of the narrative attenuates and grows brittle.

Writing this narrative was an act of memory for Chamberlain. Remembering war exploits is one thing; war is violent and horrifying but it is also societally-sanctioned and there is a long history of literature valorizing appalling deeds, and the people who committed them, when done in the name of war. However much I find lionizing depictions of war (along with war itself) juvenile at best, immoral at worst, the practice is not without many literary precedents.

But a different game altogether is recalling the mutilation of a lover, personal sorrow and humiliation, and a stint with mercenaries notorious for their sadism and wanton cruelty. Perhaps it’s my own reading and a modern psychological sensibility, but I felt like I could detect the disparity between Sam’s adopted authorial voice and how he really felt about these latter events. I imagine him getting to the point in his story when Carmeleita is murdered and then realizing the “fun” part of his tale is over. But he has to keep writing because this is the task he’s set himself and of course everybody wants to hear about his exploits with the infamous Glanton gang. And so he continues. But it just gets worse and worse. Until finally he realizes his story is not a glorious adventure at all, he doesn’t particularly want to relive it anymore, and so he simply stops. The final pages of his Confession end with a definite whimper as Sam flees the Yuma’s massacre of Glanton’s boys, drags himself alone through the desert and nearly dies of thirst.

All in all, this is an absorbing primary source that really cries out for a fully annotated version; one that, to the extent it’s possible, corroborates or refutes some of Sam’s depictions, separates his fact from his fiction, and fleshes out much of the historical context he glances over. I found Sam, as a figure, both sympathetic and repellent, which definitely kept me reading. This source deserves to be much better known outside of enthusiasts of military history. And Sam’s paintings alone are worth picking up this book; for his renderings of battle, sure, but also simply for the northeast Mexican landscape and architecture, a milieu he handles visually with fine detail and one he seems to have admired.

1. Who was indeed one-eyed. 
2. For information about the military leader, Antonio Canales Rosillo, this article provides a good overview. 
3. “Hostile” in this context vis-à-vis the Mexican government, with whom the Apaches had been waging war since about the 1820s. The governments of several north Mexican states offered bounties for Apache warriors, which eventually meant payment for any scalps that could plausibly be passed off as Apache.

For more more reviews, visit Goodreads.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Look at the birdie!

By personality, proclivity, attitude and constitution, I was not made to live in or particularly like New England. Finding myself in Massachusetts for a temporary, but nevertheless extended time, I have eagerly sought out and cultivated a mild affection for its aspects that do appeal to me: autumnal deciduous leaves, clam chowder, pre-20th-century architecture, naval history and, as it turns out, Puritan cemeteries.

This last item is funny to me because of the special scorn with which I regard this set of New England's earliest permanent white folks; a scorn I reserve for very few groups of people: e.g., the Victorians, Christian missionaries and others whose universalist arrogance and collective self-confidence verges on the maniacal.1 Like the Victorians and Christian missionaries, the early American Puritans ended up doing a few things that were incidentally cool.2 

Despite their visually ascetic and iconoclastic history in England, when the Puritans arrived in North America they soon began burying their dead with gravestones full of images; often disturbing and surreal images. To wit (photo by Nick Paskert):


I plan a future essay that will get into the history of gravestones like these and Puritan attitudes toward death that helped create them. But for right now I wanted to share a small series of paintings these headstones inspired.

I begin with the domestic deathshead (Caput funeris domesticum), which makes a lovely pet. They are quiet, clever and sometimes affectionate, but keep a keen eye open if you let them out of their cage. They are skilled escape artists:


Here is the feral deathshead (Caput funeris ferum), derived from domestic deathsheads but whose ancestors escaped captivity. They now make their homes in urban parks and find their meals among the human refuse of cities. They may be distinguished from domestic deathsheads by their more flamboyant coloring and shy behavior:


And here is a rare glimpse of feral deathshead chicks still in the nest. Deathsheads are devoted parents and care for their young for many months until the hatchlings are ready to take wing:


New England is home to thousands of feral and deathsheads. Whether in rural Rhode Island or downtown Boston, stay alert for a glimpse of these fascinating creatures.
___________
1. For all I know some of my own ancestors may have been New England Puritans. Some may have been Victorians. And I've personally met Christian missionaries who seemed polite and friendly. This makes absolutely no difference to my finding their governing worldviews repellent. I'm sure they would say the same about me. While I'm on the topic, I find that the American federal government's foreign policy, a system in which I and all fellow citizens are deeply implicated, shares the criteria I've laid out (universalist arrogance and collective self-confidence verging on the maniacal). So upon further consideration, perhaps I reserve this special scorn precisely for groups, systems and people which are somehow close to me, benefactors of my own privilege, which I feel justified in criticizing but helpless to affect, and which I nevertheless can feel a weird vague affection for because I am not on the receiving end of their worst affronts. Certainly the scorn comes also from recognizing interesting qualities and potentialities in the midst of such offensively exclusionary worldviews. It's also important to recognize none of these "groups" I've identified or their "worldviews" are as cohesive or monolithic as my casual usage them out to be. But discarding categories altogether makes it virtually impossible to say anything about anything.

2. I think, for instance, of the whole Victorian medievalist bent which spawned Gothic Revival architecture, a slew of awesome horror fiction and pre-Raphaelite art; or the fact that Christian missionaries have sometimes (not unproblematically) brought medical aid and educational opportunities that populations actually wanted, along with the religion they might not have.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Rio Grande Idyll

I spent my early childhood in Canutillo, Texas, a town of a few thousand people at the edge of El Paso and along the Rio Grande.
This capture from Google Maps shows Canutillo in the upper left quadrant. You can make out the river and all the state and national borders in the region.

For all its imperfections, I have missed this area mildly but persistently, since I moved away to Montana at age 11. I left Montana after college and knocked around in a couple of disparate places. Living in New Orleans for a little over a decade helped ease the longing I felt for the southwest. Louisiana shares the qualities of, if not the kinds of, heat (lots of it), food (good), pace (humane) and people (relaxed). But it also has humidity, lush foliage and visible age; things of which I am very fond.

Moving to New England a couple of years ago – a place I am poorly-equipped to like - reignited my nostalgia. My dad, who grew up in south New Mexico very near Canutillo, passed away last year and my mental and emotional preoccupation with the area grew into a proper longing. Since leaving, I have intermittently visited west Texas and southern New Mexico, and it is always a welcome sojourn, but experience of place is so tied to circumstance that, by now, the place I long for, in certain unreproducible particulars, exists exclusively in my mind. In that way, I have come to understand this longing, which is impossible to satiate, as a kind of grief.

Painting, being fantastic therapy, seemed a natural way to indulge this highly specific yearning and begin to address, if never fill, the hole left by my father, but also by my removal from latitudes whose physical and figurative climates I find much more amenable to the life I care to lead.

Considering what, and how to paint it, I began thinking of the river that characterizes the place of my early youth. As the first river I ever knew, the Rio Grande remains somewhat of a paradigm for me. It tempers, but is also subject to, the severity of the desert surrounding. It absolutely determined the landscape and cultural atmosphere I first knew, which sounds obvious but I think is not.

The Mississippi, trafficked with trade, runs through New Orleans and clearly and singularly shapes that city despite its physical removal from most citizens. I.e., the working docks and warehouses largely cut the Mississippi off from the populace, but its related industries - including tourism - supply a lot of area jobs, draw people from all over the world and continue to be one of the main reasons, as a port city, New Orleans exists at all. On the other hand, the Charles where it runs through Cambridge/Boston, while very accessible, is fundamentally recreational and, therefore, not intimately tied to the area's industries. While not irrelevant it is much more incidental to the current economic life of the city.

The Rio Grande runs from the San Juan Mountains in Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, almost 2,000 miles. It is not a shipping river, but along most of it lay farmland which it irrigates. And even in south New Mexico - west of the Pecos, where it runs through the Chihuahuan Desert and sometimes appears dry as an arroyo - the waters of the Rio Grande help foment agriculture.

Below the "big river" at a particularly low moment a/k/a drought near Canutillo, taken on one of my last visits.


The photo above, courtesy of a democratic Wikipedia user, was taken near Van Horn, Texas some 2 hours east of El Paso, and provides a good image of the Chihuahuan Desert itself and its exemplar plants: creosote, mesquite, yucca, prickly pear. There are usually not this many clouds in a desert sky.

My dad grew up on a farm in just this area; one that was impossibly coaxed from the surrounding desert by irrigation. Pondering this at a distance for the first time, I was struck by how oasis-like and relatively unusual my first experiences of landscape really were. I began to wonder how far back went irrigation farming smack dab in the middle of a desert.

Fortunately for me, in 1998 the USDA, Forest Service, and the Rocky Mountain Research Station, in conjunction with a gentleman and scholar named Frank Wozniak, published Irrigation in the Rio Grande Valley, New Mexico: A Study and Annotated Bibliography of the Development of Irrigation Systems. Although this study focuses more on central and northern New Mexico, with a title that sexy you know it’s full of juicy details. Those fleshed out with healthy doses of Google and I learned the following.

Pre-Columbian Mogollon people in the region had used many forms of water conservation, although they used water diversion less frequently. When a Conquistador-douche extraordinaire, Juan de Oñate, forded the Rio Grande near present-day Juárez-El Paso in 1598, the Suma people (descendants of the Mogollon) were living as hunter-gatherers. It was really the arrival of Spanish colonialists – and the economic hardships they inflicted on local populations - that marked the beginning of irrigation as a regular practice along the Rio Grande in west Texas and New Mexico.

Below, the ludicrously large and controversial statue of Oñate, commissioned by the City of El Paso, which now stands at its airport, because nothing welcomes guests to your fair city like the goliath lionization of a murdering bastard. For a measured take on this controversy, don't listen to me. Instead read this.
Spanish colonist-marauders like Oñate initially relied on the food stores of local people to sustain them; an exploitatively greedy practice known as encomienda, which directly precipitated an event so heinous that King Phillip II of Spain banished Oñate from New Mexico. To abbreviate this shameful story:

In 1599, some of Oñate’s boys met with the people of Acoma Pueblo and demanded food stores the Indians – living in a desert as they did - could scarcely spare. (The Pueblo today, picture courtesy of the Acoma Sky City website.)

When denied, the Spanish started hassling some Acoma women which, unsurprisingly, was neither welcome nor appreciated by the Pueblo. In the ensuing skirmish 11 of Oñate’s men were killed, including his nephew. Oñate’s response was to haul a cannon onto the mesa where the settlement stood and open fire. The buildings were demolished, about 800 men, women and children from the Pueblo were killed, about 500 prisoners taken and – because what’s mass murder without a little wanton atrocity - Oñate ordered one foot from every man over 25 years old amputated. Apologists like to observe that “only” 24 men actually had limbs hacked off. Most of the surviving males between 12 and 25 years old were enslaved.

And all of this, essentially, because of the relative scarcity of food in a desert...augmented of course by the entitled rapaciousness of Spain’s early colonial policy and the unchecked retributive spirit of one magnificent asshole. (For a better account of the Acoma massacre, see here.)

The onerousness on local people of encomienda, along with religious persecution and Spanish unwillingness or inability to protect Puebloans from Apache incursions, also led to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Following the uprising, the Spanish actually abandoned New Mexico for 12 years before reconquering the area.

After said “Reconquista”, Spain altered its colonial philosophy from flat-out plundering resources to establishing colonial communities. Encomienda was replaced by mercedes, a form of community land grant that encouraged more self-sufficient Spanish settlers to move to the region…although they still periodically relied upon native food stores. And locals, by then native and imported, had become accustomed to using irrigation as the only viable means of producing enough food to support themselves and their dick overlords. The agricultural practice completely subsumed previous native practices with regard to agricultural land and water management. And irrigation has occurred in this area ever since.

Water management in the Juárez-El Paso region remains a fraught topic, not only because drought conditions are not uncommon and water is generally scarce, but because of the liminal nature of the entire area. It is Spanish- and English-speaking, influenced culturally and politically by Mexico and the United States. It is home to the area’s largest cities and its agricultural districts, which means it constitutes an urban/rural divide culturally, but also that it physically blends the flora and fauna of the desert with that of a wetter region. The state governments of both Texas and New Mexico have a huge stake in how and how much of the water is used and by whom, whether from aquifers or the river. Unsurprisingly, water continues to preoccupy a place that has very little of it.

As a kid, the profound difference between the desert away from, and alongside the river was so obvious as to seem un-noteworthy. I completely naturalized the juxtapositions of the relative lushness of the river valley with the sere of the desert. I was always enamored with the river valley, but through contrasts I also developed a deep affection for the surrounding desert and the plants and animals who managed to live there.

In a purely anecdotal sense, fewer folks seem to like the desert than to fear, misunderstand or, at best, feel vaguely unsettled by it. I assume this is because of the desert's extremity, it's lack of water. And yet, particularly in Massachusetts, I have met plenty of folks who are de facto annoyed by rain. Whether this is because they take it for granted, or because they like having things to be annoyed about remains obscure to me. My experience of New England so far makes either seem plausible.

I equally and utterly disidentify with the ubiquitous truism that dry heat is preferable to humid heat. Very vivid still to me are cloudless arid 110ºF+ days where the intensity of the sun can warp plastic (I lost more than one cassette tape this way), leave the metal parts of seatbelts so hot they raise welts, and render wavering mirages at the end of every long stretch of road. Even after years in wet climates (and this is one way New England appeals to me), the utter luxuriousness of abundant water, in the rivers and the oceans and falling from the sky, does not cease to thrill me.

It thrills me precisely because I do love, and have a healthy respect for, the desert. And this love is in fact what gave me a corresponding sensitivity to growing things and to the utter fecund magic of water. The contrast between life in the desert city of El Paso and life in the adjacent agricultural valley - which, not incidentally, is also desert in every tiny spot where water is not actively pumped with much regularity - really underlined these tendencies and affections.

So I knew I had to paint the area in a way that captured the desert and the valley, the dry and the wet. I think I ended up doing it some justice. I focused on a specific location I knew well from childhood (more on that below) but tried to convey the feeling of the whole valley. I feel like I got the colors right.
Looking at it now, I'm realizing I should have thrown in a tractor driving down the road, a cotton picker in a field, or some other piece of farm machinery somewhere. It also occurs to me that most of my memories from my life in Canutillo are actually memories of this place I've painted, which is not Canutillo at all...though it is close.

Canutillo lies a few miles west of El Paso, a few miles north of Ciudad Juárez, and right along the Rio Grande reasonably close to where Oñate must have forded it. Irrigation ditches stretch west away from the river and into what locals simply call “the valley”. Dozens of small towns and unincorporated areas occupy this region, some in Texas, some in New Mexico.

In my memory of driving home from El Paso, where we’d inevitably go on some errand or other, my favorite approach to Canutillo was via N. Mesa Street to Doniphan Road (as opposed to via the highway or from up over the mountain). Slowly you would move from strip malls, residential tracts and tarmac with landscaping of desert plants, sand and rock, and into the threshold space of Canutillo, still arid, but with increasing foliage and decreasing building density, a church, schools, some restaurants, several dive bars, but also a feed store and, at least during my childhood, a couple of farm equipment supply and repair shops. Today I think there's an art gallery and a tanning salon (because that's necessary in the desert).

I lived in a house two lots away from the river on Farm Road 259, also known as La Union Avenue according to Google, but we just called it Farm Road. Our house used to belong to the foreman of a farmer-owned co-op gin. By the time my memory kicks in, around 1980, the vacant building that housed the gin was cleared away, but my brother – 3 years older than I - remembers it standing. Dad bought the house cheap when the gin closed because he’d known the foreman for years. My grandfather had been part of the co-op and Dad, from the time he was little, would ride along helping bring their cotton in to be ginned. We had no sidewalks in Canutillo and used to burn our garbage in a metal drum at the side of our house. Our neighbors had a yard full of chickens. I add these details to demonstrate how semi-rural Canutillo was at that time.
The above photo, from a Border Interfaith Internship online report concerning an El Paso-Canutillo water project, was taken along Farm Road facing east (toward El Paso) over the Rio Grande. It shows the Franklin Mountains in the distance and illustrates its small-towniness. Our house was about a hundred feet behind, and to the left of the photographer. This is what it looks like today:

Continuing along Farm Road away from the river, you soon (a) leave Texas and enter New Mexico, and (b) enter the farming valley proper. In general, the valley of my memory was an economically diverse area, with small amounts of extreme wealth and poverty (but not that small) and lots of in-betweens.

Progressing into the valley, homes stand here and there, usually set back from the road and slightly obscured by some trees or, if it's rich folks - which it seems increasingly to be - a wall. Some houses are decaying and old, some palatially large and mcmansion-y, the majority somewhere in the middle in terms of both age and size. They are clustered together or spread apart by hundreds of yards of fields, orchards or patches of desert, depending upon the area. The fields and orchards contain mostly cotton, chiles, pistachios and pecans, and are bounded regularly by irrigation ditches of various widths; the narrowest ones lined with concrete, the widest with mud banks, all of them controlled by valves and ducts.

The lushest, most magical place I knew as a child was my grandparents’ property, Dad’s boyhood home, out in the valley on Gardner Road.

According to Google Maps the address is in Anthony, New Mexico but I grew up thinking it was in Santa Teresa. My extended family all refer to it as “the farm”. My grandparents owned, originally, almost 60 acres. By the time I came along, most of it had been sold off and about 6 acres, and the irrigation ditches, remained. The ditches only carried water during certain times and I primarily remember the narrower ones empty or mostly empty, an irresistible play space for children. I also remember eating crawdads my brother and cousin caught out of the largest ditch that ran along the western edge of the property.

According to the story I heard, the farm had been a plant nursery once upon a time. At some point some indeterminate somebody just planted the potted things where they stood. To my adult mind that seems far-fetched, but my kid mind accepted it with perfect ease. The trees on my grandparents' property did seem to grow in homogeneous groups; a copse of aspens here, a line of mulberries there. There was a pomegranate tree as I recall, many pecans, a giant juniper bush, a hundred other trees and shrubs I can’t name, and thickets of ground-creeping ivy-ish something in which more than one snake had been spotted. My grandma had many grandchildren, including myself, and great-grandchildren who were frequently about the place, and we uniformly described this massively outsize privacy hedge as “the forest”.

The farm and the forest were surrounded by fields, most growing cotton, but some growing chile. The smell of New Mexican green chile being harvested is second in olfactory perfection only to New Mexican green chile being roasted. There is nothing in this beautiful world that smells so good as a roasting New Mexican green chile. I say this intending no hyperbole whatsoever.

After selling off most of their acreage, or perhaps right before doing so, my grandpa started a business raising and selling trichogramma, tiny predatory wasps that eat the eggs of moths whose larvae will destroy certain kinds of crops, including cotton.

He raised the tricho in an outbuilding on the property, which really was just another small house, known as "the bug house", a family operation that put out sheets and sheets of pin-sized eggs glued to black cards.

My age-appropriate job at around 7 years old was to tear the cards apart along the supplied perforation and to gently bend (not fold!) the little egg-laden slips, inserting them into plastic vials so they could be tossed into a cotton field (another age-appropriate job for my brother, older cousins and boys hired from the area) when the wasps started hatching. I neglected to include the bug house in my rendering because I lacked the space. It would have stood at the far left of the painting, right where one arm of the ocotillo reaches into the picture plain. But if you look carefully at the right bottom corner, you'll see boys trucking through a field depositing the vials; hot and exhausting work it was. My brother always rocked a wicked farmer's tan during bug season and usually many scratches from wading through those plants. My "job" was way easier.

I remember that Grandma had a tiny television she kept in a cabinet. The only show I ever recall her watching on this apparatus was Lawrence Welk, so television comprised zero percent of her grandchildren’s entertainment at the farm. But this was no problem because in addition to the ditches, the forest and bug house, there was the main house itself.

It was a blocky rambly pale pink stuccoed thing. A real estate website claims it was built in 1900, which I can believe. It contained a small number of unreasonably large rooms; only two bedrooms, for instance, but each held two beds with plenty of room to spare. The single living room sprawled. It contained floor-to-ceiling bookshelves along a part of one wall, three picture windows and, at one point in my childhood, two upright pianos, four couches, half a dozen arm chairs and countless end tables.

I think most of the furniture and knick-knacks in the house were antiques from Grandpa’s aunt and uncle, who were the first folks in our family to own the place. All the living room chairs and couches were dainty, with wooden legs and medallion backs and things. But at the same time the floor to that giant, overly furnished room was concrete covered by a thin, very old and slightly ragged carpet. Paint peeled here and there. I think the basement flooded periodically. The roof leaked.

It was fancy (especially compared to our house in Canutillo), but slightly shabby in a loved way. It was also highly idiosyncratic as a space, having been built onto in successive agglomerative waves, so that you found strange things like windows, entirely interior, that opened between rooms. Time spent in this somewhat worn, weird and wonderful house possibly prefigured my deep preference for secondhand things.

The house itself from the south side, the forest behind, courtesy of a cousin.


Painting is a form of meditation. It requires non-verbal focus for long periods and you know you're doing it right when you feel like you've been working for 30 minutes and it's been 2 hours. While creating this painting I had loads of time to turn over my memories in my head, to think back to the whole south New Mexico-west Texas area and my time there - the city, the valley, everything. The farm in Santa Teresa (or Anthony?) unquestionably comprises the soft chewy center of my nostalgia, despite my very fond memories of our little house in Canutillo.

I found I had no pictures of the thing, just very vivid recollections. So I polled my relatives on Facebook. Not only were the old photographs forthcoming (as seen above), but enthusiasm for my project was evident, from family spanning generations and representing many different relationships with respect to the farm. But all of us knew this place, continue to love this place; even now when it is no longer in the family, has not been for years and years, and when, so I've heard, the "new" owners have let it fall to shambles. I bet they don't call it "the farm" either. Probably, before very long, someone will just tear down the whole thing and start over. It might become a mcmansion. They might uproot the forest for all I know and build a big wall to keep the poor people out, as rich people are wont to do.

But the valley is still hot and dry and verdant. Century plants still grow across the street from cotton plants. It still has economic and political problems, cultural tensions, great food. And the fields are still there and the orchards and the ditches, with desert all around a great big rio running through it.