Welcome to my blog Upstate Girl, (a.k.a Follow Your Bliss Part II), I am an independently published author. This blog is all about writing and the stuff that inspires me to write, the joys and obstacles that come along with the writer's life, and my fascination with the psychology of people and what makes them tick...the human condition, as is...and my love for words, playing with them and making sense of them...and I throw in a few photos from my acre of the world just to make things pretty...sometimes there are things I have no words for, only pictures will do.

Friday, August 7, 2015

My thoughts regarding "Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee

There are a handful of books that I hold close to my heart...To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of them...and now a new arrival has slipped in to join that little party...

Go Set a Watchman made me laugh and it made me cry, it broke my heart and then pieced it together again. It was an intense read—it is a human document containing all the ugliness and beauty of the human experience. Bittersweet—that’s the word I’m looking for— it is bittersweet—to learn after years of believing there was only one book—that Nelle wrote the one and stopped there—so, learning about the existence of Go Set a Watchman was a heady joy only to have the ratty controversies and negativity disrupt what should be happy news. The cynical part of me crawled out from where it hides and sparked, “No duh, that’s a no brainer—upon such a discovery, the publisher would ram it though doing the least amount of effort possible as this is clearly a bestseller—just add a book cover with Harper Lee’s name on it, it will sell itself…even if it isn’t any good people will buy it because a second book by Harper Lee is the biggest literary event this century.”

Is that cynical or what? It happens to the best of us. I’ve gotten to a point in my life when I’ve seen and heard much too much—it’s enough to make me drop an F-bomb before 8AM on a daily basis—I’ve become “well-seasoned” by life, so I come by it honestly.

The money grubbing mentality that is implied on the part of the lawyer, the agent, the publisher—the varied enthusiasm and outrage about Nelle’s ability to make a decision without her sister at her elbow advising is uncomfortable and messy. Then, finally, the book is out, and so began the spoilers on headlines the first day after its release—Oh! Oh! Oh! Me-first-me-first, let me tell all before everybody else gets a chance to read it! Since I knew this sort of thing would happen, I steered clear of the news and reviews until I read it—and still, there are people fussing—a variety of fuss—pick your poison. Honestly, it makes me want to spit the bad taste out of my mouth—my Fred said, “Just read the book.”

…and so now that I’ve gotten that shaken out, I can talk about this beautiful thing—a book by Harper Lee. It took me a long time to decide to enter the fray with my thoughts—I wanted to do it right. Long awaited? No, longed for—because I always felt that she had more to say. Unexpected? Well, yes, in the way that it was wished for, but I never expected the wish to come true. I was good with that, though  I’ve always felt cheated that she didn’t continue to write more—but yet, I completely understood why not—the expectations of others, the pressure to perform—the judgmental critics making their noises—sometimes praise can sound just as derisive as scorn. It’s a feat of bravery for a writer to stick their neck out and be read—and after the overwhelming success of To Kill a Mockingbird it’s easy to imagine her not wanting to deal with the nonsense, the celebrity worship weirdness that drives our popular culture.  After witnessing the three-ring circus fuss since February—I can’t say that I blame her. Tho’ it does sadden me that she may have cheated herself of fulfilling those things within her that she never let out.

I have to wonder what Nelle thought when the first copy of Watchman was placed into her hands, I imagined she’d say—“Well, hello old friend, long time no see.” It had to be a reunion of sorts, after so many years. It doesn’t surprise me that Go Set a Watchman came first, that it is the “parent” of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was a more mature, thoroughly composed book. Second books usually are because the writer has learned from the first one—the metaphor having to do with the raising of children comes to mind—the second child gets a different experience than the first. There’s something special about the first fully realized manuscript—the “first born”. For me, personally, there is an emotional attachment to the first manuscript of a completed work—it is raw and full of the passion of a first love, and it’s sentimental. This sort of feeling does not belong to one of those false starts scribbled down and fretted over in the heat of the moment—those are ephemeral and disjointed fragments with very little traction to develop into something larger—I’m talking about the first completed manuscript with a beginning and an end and threads of related shit happening in the middle. This is something that took a great deal of time to accomplish, months, years—who knows. There’s investment—I don’t even like that word, because of the financial implication because it’s more than that. Of course, when one sets out to be a writer, part of that is to want success, to be self-supporting, but then there’s that other thing writers and all artists have—the desire to do. Do it all. Make it so. Write it because it has to be written. If you don’t you’ll regret it later. Go Set a Watchman contains Nelle’s endeavor to write about something that matters. From that first manuscript came To Kill a Mockingbird —she had what so few editors/ publishers do anymore, investment in the individual writer to nurture talent. Mockingbird may have never come into being if she didn’t get that extra push to turn her attention to Scout’s past and the deeper story that she had lingering in between the events in Go Set a Watchman. It gives me the chills thinking—to now read the first page or two of Mockingbird, I get the feeling that this version of Scout is even older than the one in Watchman, and Atticus is gone.

Before I set out on my journey, I always keep in mind that every book is different—the same writer, different book. Watchman being the foundation to Mockingbird is what it is—the first book, the ground zero of things to come.  I enjoyed every page—savoring it—I spent a good part reading on the front porch (too hot to do anything else by noon) and other times, I read it before going to sleep at night. There were surprises (in spite of the unsurprising spoiler headlines that I mostly ignored.) It was kind of funny that I was reading Harper Lee and Joyce Carol Oates (Mudwoman) during the same week—both books are intense in their own way—both authors have been the inspiration for me to become a writer. I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened, and then I started to read my own book Dusty Waters on the Nook for something to read on my lunch hour at work. (I know, how narcissistic can you get, right? Reading your own shit and loving it—what the fuck.) It seemed appropriate in a way to compare and contrast and to be caught up in a conjunction of words and inspirations, and holy shit—I thought my head was going to pop off my body because it was a little too intense some of the time…

Is it Mockingbird revisited? In a sense, sort of—but it stands on its own well enough—I had to forget Mockingbird because when this book was written, there was no To Kill a Mockingbird, and I could see that right away. First in line is Atticus. Gregory Peck will forever be the iconic, beloved figure of Atticus Finch, there’s no escaping that stunning Hollywood image—so pitch perfect. It hurt my heart to imagine that he’s going to be found out—and I had to ask myself, how is Scout going to come back from this? I reread Mockingbird during the wait for Watchman to come, and I watched the movie (twice) and after such immersion I knew how Watchman was going to go down—because every child learns eventually that their parents are not gods—they are people—humans. Suddenly we wake up and realize they are not perfect (tho’ some learn that early—every household is different.) Atticus, oh Atticus—you couldn’t remain this wise, thoughtful man—flawless in every way? No. Scout—well, Jean Louise—she was bound to find out that you are what you are—a man named Atticus Finch, a human being—still wise and thoughtful, only with human flaws. He is not a god, and it is terrible to go through life believing in someone only to have them disappoint you—your dream of them is not their reality.

Change—part of growing up is accepting change. That small town called home changes the moment you leave it—the comfort zone is now uncomfortable—so much of our innocence is lost the moment we depart the nest. I grew up in a small town, an old Erie Canal town, another tired old town that had its day once upon a time, and now its struggling to remain relevant in the contemporary world where everything changes with the latest gadget in hand. All that is left is sentimentality for the sounds and smells of home—but you can’t go home and expect it to be the same. Parents grow old and die. Buildings get knocked down, new ones are raised in their place. Life goes on—if you do go home, it’s to bring something with you to build upon the foundation left behind—one lesson learned, nothing is static.

“Bigot,” she read. “Noun. One obstinately or intolerably devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion.” (page 267)

Regarding the disagreeable subject of bigotry—it’s not just about Atticus being a bigot, it’s about Scout’s being her own version of a bigot, and then going a step further, looking at the big picture, ours—like it or not, we’re all bigots—human nature has this natural suspicion of “the other”. We come up against someone we don’t agree with, someone we feel threatened by, we don’t give ground, we will not bend to compromise, and what’s worse, we won’t listen—then we do everything we can to try to get it out of our sight and stamp it out of existence. (Our way or the highway!) What I’m saying is this—no matter how self-righteous, exclusive, or squeaky-clean you think you are—you’re still a bigot (perhaps a “turnip-sized bigot”) when it comes to protecting your own from the other that is “not like me.” I’m sorry, is there someone different from you threatening your ideas—your ideals of how things should be in the world of you? Get over it. Our country is getting way too fucked up by this shit—if there’s any lesson to learn in the treasure of Watchman—that’s a big one just to start. Scout had to learn it. We all do. If we don’t learn to get on with one another, acknowledge our differences without shaming or censoring or going to war over perceived insults, then to put it bluntly—we are fucked.

After I read the last page, I wished for more—because Nelle clearly had so much more going on—so much more. Rumors of a third book make me squirm on an uncomfortable fence with anticipation—more fuss, more controversy, more dredging up negativity, and of course, the implied third-party greed.  If a third book does emerge—I’ll read it like I read this one, and I will grow from the experience.

I want you to read it—love it or hate it on your own terms.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Now reading...

A hot summer day and a spot reserved on my front porch, perfect day to read a good book...

Sunday, July 12, 2015

My thoughts regarding E. L. Doctorow, "Homer and Langley"

The circumstances of the Collyer Brothers is a study in human behavior—it is stunning. I’ve wanted to read this one since it first came out, and found a copy at a used book store back in May, so I adopted it as the pile of books in my arms kept growing. I’m slowly making my way through this pile of books…

The one thing that made my brain itch was Doctorow’s breaking from the known facts of the Collyer Brothers—it is understood that writers are allowed liberties while writing about historical events, but when writing about real people—even in a fictionalized retelling—can be a bit touchy if the facts are tweaked off kilter. (Of course, I did research on the Collyer Brothers to satisfy my curiosity about the real them. The photographs of the Collyer house on 5th Avenue are very haunting.) The thing about people like them, there’s the “legend” or the mythology associated with their story—in every legend there’s a  grain of truth—in a good portion of fiction, there are always grains of truth that have been harvested, but there is also the bending of truth—anything from the names have been changed to protect the innocent sort of stuff to extravagant exaggeration.  With that said, it wasn’t a deal breaker for it was written from a fascinating point of view, so my brain itch got over itself and I enjoyed the reading journey as it prattled on at a decent clip, the immersion was complete and seductive. The story as Doctorow tells it is creepy and yet tender—an odd sensation—sensational, yet respectful, sympathetic.

The plethora of hoarding stories, such as crazy cat ladies and rat infested homes piled to the ceiling with bales of old newspapers, a maze through stacks of things like books or Cool Whip containers, and the assorted junk that might be useful in some way yet to be thought of has become a media fascination. There’s always that one eccentric in the town, the neighbor on the street, or the one person in the family that does that “something outside of normal” that causes everyone to perk up and take notice. The one’s who try to intervene often hit a brick wall of indignant noncompliance with a resolute “fuck off, it’s my house, my life.” For some of them it’s a lifestyle that’s gone awry or life just becoming overwhelming after a crisis of loss or the decline of health—there are many reasons why things like this happen, the psychology is interesting—what went wrong to have things get so far out of hand? We are all fragile in that way—it really doesn’t take much to topple the most normal of us—the us who should “know better”—and then there are people who just don’t “know better” and behave according to their experience. The Collyer’s knew better—then things changed.

For years, I’ve passed by a house on my way to work and have noticed the changes that have taken place there—the garage door that is left open just enough to allow the family cat to come and go seems to have a great deal of clutter formed just inside that opening. I’ve seen the cat sitting in the driveway, contemplating the gap as if it is 1) listening for a mouse; or 2) Kitty is thinking, “I can’t find my food dish, this place sucks.”

There are other stories that I can tell, but I will save them for another time…

The “how come” part is puzzling at best, but yet understandable as one accumulates things during one’s lifetime and then must find a “home” for these things after a trip to the bookstore or the antique shop or the beach if one enjoys collecting pretty stones. I am a collector of things. Lately, I feel sad when going into antique shops and used bookstores—looking over the former contents of other people’s homes—I have felt the urge to call my acquisitions “adoptions” as I empathize with the history of an object—thinking of the person who once, received it, held it in their hands, dusted it, and revered it. One will especially understand this after clearing out the home of deceased parents, now that I’m absorbing the heirlooms and family related ephemera that should be kept in the family, I am personally feeling overwhelmed by things and the associated memories of those things and then the creation of new meanings for those things. Incorporating these things into my own accumulation has been challenging—I’m contemplating new storage options and the eventual renovation of our attic space to take on the overflow of dimensional memories. I light-heartedly joke with our son—“Someday all of this will be yours—the pretty stones, just throw them out into the garden. Beyond that, you’re going to have one hell of an auction someday.” 

From pages 207-208:

There are moments when I cannot bear this unremitting consciousness. It knows only itself. The images of things are not the things in themselves. Awake, I am in a continuum with my dreams…My memories are pale I prevail upon them again and again. They become more and more ghostly. I fear nothing so much as losing them altogether and having only my blank endless mind to live in. If I could go crazy, if I could will that on myself, I might not know how badly off I am, how awful is this awareness that is irremediably aware of itself. With only the touch of my brother’s hand to know that I am not alone.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

My thoughts regarding "In the Memorial Room" by Janet Frame

Simply, In the Memorial Room is a story about a writer, Harry Gill, and how he became disassembled because he won the Watercress Armstrong Fellowship—but it’s not that simple.

…I believe a writer is not ‘known’ until his grocer and barber have read his works without astonishment… (From p. 21)

I found this fragment highly hysterical at the time—‘without astonishment’ in particular. It’s such a peculiar sensation when ones writing is read—to have it read ‘without astonishment’ is honestly a relief.  Writing is just so…so…oh, dang damn—what am I trying to say here? Well, writing is incredibly personal and can cause huge misunderstandings, emotional dust-ups, senseless jealousies, wary paranoia, and a collection of troubles that can send a writer into an oppressed oblivion and spiraling into depression. Something like that.

As I read the book, I often felt this one was not quite as polished or as fully realized as her other books—there are several sparkles of gems and plenty of potential complexities that were not fully developed, and I immediately thought perhaps it is troubled by its personal nature. Sometimes when one attempts to “veil the truth” that’s when a writer stumbles and stubs their toes. (Ouch.) When I say “It’s not my favorite Janet Frame book” doesn’t mean that I’m foaming at the mouth raving that I want the hours spent reading it back, or that I’m disappointed in some way—not at all. I come to every book with the knowledge that each one will be different—expectations bedevil experiences every time—I enjoy the reading experience too much to spoil it with expectations. In fact, I have gone back through it so many times since, noting all the dog-eared pages of interest, I’m loving it more—that’s part of the magic of Janet Frame, it’s hard to put down the book after you’re done reading it. I always catch myself starting over again…

Funny thing, sometimes a creative person’s undoing is caused by being recognized. Now that I’ve done well for myself, what if I can’t do it anymore?  (A frightening thought.) Suddenly the joy is sucked right out of the act of writing, writer’s block sets in, and then the writer starts drinking and…ugh. Between you, me, and the computer screen, I know I’ve turned into an “Aw shucks, it’s just what I do,” shrinking violet as soon as someone turns their praise in my direction. Sometimes I’m so embarrassed, I become almost combative, say “tsk” or “shit” and roll my eyes with the expressed “What’s the big deal? It’s not like I just pulled a rabbit out of my ass, I wrote a book, so what?”  (Of course, only moments before I was lurking around Goodreads agonizing that no one has added my book to their To-Read list. Boo fucking hoo.) It’s a see-saw of emotions to be sure. I think Doris Lessing’s initial response when she was told that she won the Nobel  Prize was—“Oh Christ”—that sums it up in a teacup. (That’s great, go away, leave me alone.)

—You display, he said, the incipient signs of intentional invisibility.
—You mean I want to be blind?
—No, no. No, no. You are trying to make yourself invisible, on the childlike theory that if you can’t see, then you can’t be seen. Like a child who shuts his eyes and thinks no one can see him.
—I don’t believe it, I said, indignantly. —I’m not neurotic, hysterical, or whatever you call it. I’m a matter-of-fact person, my feet on the earth.
pied-à-terre only? He smiled. —Monsieur Gill, this disease is real. One would scarcely call it a disease, though. It is what is known as a collaborative condition. (from page60-61)

—Monsieur Gill, I know nothing of your life but what you have told me. I can do nothing for you. You are not ill, you are not going blind, you are a sane man, I believe. But through a combination of circumstances, through being in a certain place – which must be here, this city, at a certain time, and in the company of certain people, you are on the point of vanishing. (From page 63)

Going blind; going deaf; becoming invisible. Vanishing.

It is a book about being a writer—the discomfort of being a writer and the baggage of being noticed. The status or stature of a writer—what a writer “looks like” (a young Hemingway, of course!)—and the pressure to “perform” as a duty or fulfillment. Being recognized and under the scrutiny of even the most well-meaning person or institution can cause just as much anxiety as remaining undiscovered. The invisibility and uncertainty of belonging is familiar (not quite fitting in.) Then being treated like an object on exhibition, and the plague of expectations that others have for you. These ‘outside others’ who want to possess you and your time in a game of tug o’ war amongst themselves, and then  your efforts are scrutinized nearly to the point of being censored as more expectations are imposed “Is it about….?”  Then there’s that one person who has to say “I don’t like the name you picked for my character…” (Huh? Who said it was about you? Seriously.) Really, people get weird around writers—

“You should put that in your book.”

“You could write a book about that.”

I know it’s harmless banter, but sorry, when I hear that shit start, I cringe.

Have you sensed the nothingness of my nature, that I am as empty as the carriages of the trains that pass, dusty, used, in the morning sun? A novelist must be that way, I think, and not complain of it, otherwise how shall the characters accommodate themselves in his mind? To this you reply that it is he who must enter the minds of his characters? Certainly, but where shall he house them while he enters their minds, but in those empty used trains that pass and pass forever before his gaze?
(Page 116)

The Memorial Room itself is a tomb—the cult of the dead writer—the worship culture that society has cultivated is ridiculous at best—there are those of us who create and those who worship the creators, and then bring their baggage of expectations. Meeting someone you admire can be horribly disappointing—what is it that they say?  Meeting your favorite author is like wanting to meet a goose because you love pâté…

With that said—Janet Frame’s sly sense of humor is deadpan dry—goodness knows if you take her seriously, you will find yourself scratching your head and thinking  “Huh?” She always has such an interesting way of looking at everything, each of her books have a twist that sends the reader down the rabbit hole in a manner of speaking. Thankfully, I still have more, older works by Janet Frame to read; I’m slowly building my library collection and will be happy to journey through them all.

6/20/2015 Laura J. W. Ryan

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

My thoughts regarding the book "Benchere in Wonderland" by Steven Gillis

Gillis, Steven Benchere in Wonderland (Digital Review Copy from Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts)

Every now and then I get ahold of a book that makes the reading experience just a little bit more special—more than the pleasure of reading the story—it’s what I think about while I’m reading it and the churning of thoughts after I’ve set it aside. When I started writing this—this, whatever it is, my review in a sense, but not a review in another sense, my musing or my study, my pondering. I done dragged out a trunk load of notions, harvested quotes from the book and mined from art history by the bushel, and have spent days cutting, pasting, rearranging, setting aside, and leaving out to finally get this—this is what I want to say about Benchere in Wonderland.  This is my first reading of a Steven Gillis novel, he’s been on my “to read” radar for quite a long time, I’m so happy to have become acquainted (at last). It’s taken me longer to write this than to read the book. Throughout my journey, I bookmarked dozens of pages—if it were an actual paper copy, it would be riddled with dog-ears at both top and bottom corners and yes, underlined with notes in the margins. I read it on my laptop and read it on my phone of all things! (I never thought I’d ever go to that tiny screen—so you see, it made my brain itch enough that I had to read it wherever, whenever, with whatever.) So, let me spell out my general sentiments, as if you haven’t already guessed—I loved the book. (I will definitely want to acquire a hard copy for my library so I can have the tactile experience of dog-earing it properly.)  

Let me tell you about my experience with Benchere in Wonderland—I wandered into the Kalahari Desert, observed Benchere working on his sculpture, and indulged in the complex theories having to do with “What is art? And the apt proclamation, “Art for art’s sake!” The core of Benchere in Wonderland is ideas and ideals, art and the man, and the human nature brew of shit happening, whether instigated or not, but sometimes it’s our actions that start the landslide. With that said—while I read the book, I brought my art school baggage, art historical knowledge, and my experiences as an artist for the excursion. As a reader with this artsy background, I appreciated the emotive howls of Michael Benchere when he felt set upon, misunderstood—irritated—or simply full of himself.

I am Benchere, fickle and firm and quick to howl, I want, followed by, I will.
I will, I say, I will, again. (From page 13, Prologue)

Benchere is very human (and he loves his dog, Jazz.) His fumbling courtship with Marti in the beginning is sweet, just as his grieving for her is emotionally palpable in ways that are relatable. He’s back to fumbling when he’s faced with Deyna and feels the natural confusion of feelings, loyalty to memory, and longing to fill the hole in his life—something he never imagined, thus, his hesitation and reluctance is as expected for a man who recently lost his wife. His memories of Marti blend with the present—with her, Benchere went from an unknown sculptor fresh out of college to an unlikely, yet very successful architect, then after his achievements, he quit to follow his bliss—being a sculptor, which in turn garnered success because he is “Benchere”. The public figure—a brand name—the art and the man who makes it—and then the peanut gallery that sits on the sidelines with expectations and their opinions about what it means—this. THIS. THIS!

What is “this”—what is art? (In my experience, everybody has an opinion on this question—some are relatively strong opinions, not necessarily agreed upon by all who are listening—they’re just that, opinions—not the answer, right or wrong.) It’s always funny to me how everyone seems to have their own idea about what art should be—and persist to shout each other down about their point of view—abstract or realism, right or left, Coke or Pepsi, literary fiction or commercial fiction, chocolate or peanut butter. The artist’s intent and the viewer’s experience of the art is a crapshoot. Same goes for books—I connected with this book in a personal level, which books do for everyone who reads them, and so, like art, books can be read and interpreted based on personal experience—revered by one, reviled by another.

Art for art’s sake!

It is what it is—it’s the artist getting in the studio to dirty their hands making something out of nothing. The artist is compelled to do this act of self-expression—not everyone is so “blessed”—a good many lament “I can’t draw a straight line to save my life.” Well, shoot—neither can I, that’s why I use a ruler, even then I can fuck it up if the ruler moves, but who cares? It never stopped me from drawing a horse when I was seven years old—granted, it looked more like a dog, but whatever, I made it—it was mine—it was beautiful.

Does art have to be about something—does it have to “make a statement” for it to be acceptable or exceptional?  Whistler said it with eloquent flair so typical of him (which I happily found quoted on page 153 in the midst of an intense discussion between Benchere and Deyna):

"Art should be independent of all claptrap – should stand alone [...] and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like."

Benchere believes art is meant to inspire the human soul, not issue dictates or dogma. “My art is no roiled fist. I am not some poster maker. My sculptures aren’t done up as a stomping boot or raised middle finger to be monopolized and propagandized for any faction, right or left.” (P 34)

An artist makes art with the materials of choice—some plan out their studio endeavors with set parameters in mind, while others wing it for the joy of getting their hands dirty—they immerse themselves into the meditation of creativity—the flow of pencil to paper, paint to canvas, hand to clay, hammer to metal, flame to weld. It’s a beautiful state of mind to be in, the struggle both frustrating and passionate, questions and epiphanies, or just the general ramble of thoughts and knots of personal problems outside the sacred realm of the studio, the things that make you grumble to yourself and cause you look up and pause to ask, “What do I want to have for dinner?” Answered with a shrug and “ah, fuck it,” and then back to work. The natural stopping point happens with a sigh, the artist steps away, it’s like waking from a dream—you’ve been gone a long while, time slipped away because last you knew you ate breakfast, the coffee you brought with you has gone cold, you’re starving because you missed lunch, and dinner is late. That is a good day. Goodness knows being an artist isn’t easy—it’s quite terrifying because there’s no money in it unless you’re very fortunate and slip through the keyhole of circumstances that put you with the right people who will support you—not just nurture your talent, but believe in you. Benchere is one of the lucky ones, he’s achieved the artist’s dream of following one’s bliss—for the moment, his is intending to construct a 300-foot sculpture in the Kalahari Desert. (How fucking cool is that?)

Benchere and his marriage to Marti reminded me of the numerous husband/wife creative duos of art history, and the notion of going to a location to create a work of art reminded me most of all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Once upon a time, I had the pleasure of experiencing The Gates. Like many people, I have wrestled with the purpose of their work, and because they mystify so many people with their desire to wrap or drape the landscape, buildings, bridges (or whatever tickles their fancy) with fabric, they are probably one of our most controversial contemporary artists. They create work of visually impressive scale (and pay for it themselves without using public funds.) They insist that their projects do not contain any deeper meaning than their “being there”. Their purpose is simple—they want to create works of art for joy and beauty, to create new ways of seeing familiar landscapes. The Gates on a sunny day in February was indeed very beautiful—ideal, very whimsical.

"I am an artist, and I have to have courage ... Do you know that I don't have any artworks that exist? They all go away when they're finished. Only the preparatory drawings and collages are left, giving my works an almost legendary character. I think it takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain." – Christo

Sadly, Christo is now without Jeanne-Claude—yet he soldiers on with plans for new projects. Throughout the process of making the sculpture, Benchere thought of Marti, and keenly felt her presence (absence.) When he climbed to the top of the sculpture to install Marti’s wind chime it was incredibly touching.

Art is—if anything—very personal for the artist.

“It takes an inflated sense of self to build such a thing.” (P. 34) Any self-respecting artist is a bit of a narcissist—some of us don’t like to admit it because it’s frowned upon to be selfish and self-centered, but it goes with the immersion thing that happens in the studio. And therefore, Benchere howls.

The brief interludes with the characters, Rose and Stern, were mysterious and yet, highly amusing. At times, I saw them as the infamous art critics Hilton Kramer and Clement Greenberg sitting back, kibitzing over why Benchere is creating a sculpture in the Kalahari Desert. Then I saw them as the Muppet Show hecklers, Statler and Waldorf, musing aloud to one another from their perch about the state of affairs unfolding in the growing community of Benchere’s followers in the desert below them. This may not be the intention for them, but this is my point of view—my experience of them.

It’s only natural that Benchere’s intentions are suspect, he is a political person, known for civil disobedience and all the water stirring dissention that goes along with that sort of agitation—he has drawn attention to himself in this way as well, which causes questions about his reason for being in the Kalahari erecting a 300-foot sculpture. When it comes to his art—he becomes cagey and sidesteps the questions that people put to him regarding what it means. Everyone seems to have an idea about what it is he’s up to when he sets out to build this 300-foot sculpture in the Kalahari Desert—some political statement to incite the people to do—what? Something—but he says not. He’s building a sculpture. Simple. You think? (Chuckle.) Unfortunately, being a public personality doesn’t allow for anonymity—someone that big cannot fart and not have someone wonder what he meant by that emancipation of gas. The technology of our time makes news of events travel with instant persistence, so that anyone who wants to know about what Benchere is doing and the consequences of his sculpture can watch it unfold—almost like being there, the cast of characters that build up around him is impressive and yet absurd. He refuses to take responsibility for other people’s actions or the connection they’ve made to him, his art, and his politics. As the project commences, the camp is a magnet for followers of Benchere to congregate—some want to exploit while others want to be part of the experience and they declare, “We have shown up solely because you are here.” (P. 118) As the camp population continues to grow, human nature and it’s penchant to meddle, muddle, and attempt to create organization in chaos is a disaster waiting to happen as factions and factors make fractals less mind-boggling—it is a distraction that Benchere was not counting on when he set out for Africa.

When people in areas of political tension start building sculptures at demonstrations and chant “Ben-chere, Ben-chere!” as they run away—the police or military destroy these inspired maquettes—so everyone watching says “Hmmmmmm….” Benchere throws up his hands and says, Art is open to interpretation, but that interpretation is personal. People are free to interpret my art any way they like. But people can’t use my art to assert their own shit and pretend that their assertion comes from me. You can’t hoof-tie art and drag it around in a gunnysack, yanking it out in order to tell people what to think or not think.” (p. 149)

The anthropologist, Deyna—the anomaly that pokes at Benchere—continually challenges him during their discussions—

“Nothing occurs in a vacuum,” Deyna says. “The moment you place something in the world, there is consequence.” (p. 110)

“I’m only interested in making my sculpture. What comes of it comes of it.” (P.110)

Then in making the comparison anthropological exploration to art Deyna says “You’re searching as you create, never completely sure what you’re going to find and yet knowing, if all goes well, you’ll discover something amazing in your work.” (p. 111)

And then a few pages later:

“My personal politics are just that. My beliefs are mine and my art is something different.” (p.152)

“And what is that thing?”
“This,” Benchere says and slaps his chest then throws out his arms with such force as to surprise himself.
(p. 154)

The debate goes on—Benchere goes on from there.

What is art…

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way - things I had no words for.—Georgia O’Keeffe


6/17/2015            Laura J. W. Ryan