Letters From Home

One moment during a boyhood vacation in the Ozarks sticks firmly in my memory: my best friend, David Durham, and I were ambling down a long rocky slope on the edge of a noisy rivulet that suddenly . . . . . well, stopped, vanished. Streams can run underground, David’s father explained. They fall into sinkholes, crevices, caverns; join with other streams; and then eventually reemerge, enlarged. Ideas, too. At least, on occasion, my own.

I can’t recall the first time I pondered and thumbnail-sketched my earliest take on the overall composition of “Letters from Home”, but I made my initial full-scale preliminary drawing of it in 1998. The structure of it excited me, its austerity, its almost hypnotic symmetry, the way the slight off-centeredness of the tall canning jar played against the perfectly centered niche. But there was something lacking, and I tried again. In the second drawing, the sides of the niche became steps, and a much smaller bottle lying on its side appeared at the foot of the jar. But a ward in the golden key was missing, as Walter de la Mare puts it in his essay on Chardin, and the lock would not open. And I put the drawings away.

Over the next twelve years, I revisited the drawings now and then, or toyed with the basic structure of the idea in my mind’s eye, but the key did not begin to turn until last February when - in a new full- scale preliminary - the image began to enlarge, in scale, content, resonance. I expanded the square of black above the wall; lowered the wall’s height a bit; tightened the 1 to 1.618 . . . ratios in all the obvious or implied rectangles; added the bug-bitten apple and the dented oil can, the latter’s dark spout brightly backgrounded by the long burning track of reflected North light down the bottle’s right side: and then I felt - it felt - almost there. A few days later, as I wrote in my journal, “. . . . . in that sweet solitary risk-free exploratory state I love, I started dropping the brightly painted letters I’d used in “All Fall Down” into the belly of the jar, where they piled up in a kind of fog, solid but barely recognizable forms behind the scrim of the iridescent corrosion on both sides of the glass . . . . . and I could see and feel the rightness of it, the richly detailed hard-focused apple in front of the jar and its ghostly contents an inevitable part of it.” I could see and feel, but not yet explicate. It would take me four months of work both to realize this image, this recurring dream, and to interpret it.

At first I thought of the jar packed with letters only as a potent metaphor for the human mind, the womb of the imagination. And the letters themselves reminded me of the building blocks I played with as a child, my boxes of crayons and colored pencils, heaps of jigsaw puzzle pieces, piano keys, white strewn with black: discrete elements that are in themselves sensually provocative, mysterious, mute, but which can also be made to speak, take meaningful forms, were in fact made in order to take meaningful forms. But by the end of April, the entire contents of the niche roughed in, I began to think that I was coming up with - among other possibilities - another aniconic self-portrait, this one pointing indirectly toward my relationships with my father and his father: my patrimony. From that vantage point, the choice of the oil can seemed far from arbitrary, or merely formal: my father, George Kamees Massad, spent most of his adult work life in the oil business, and it was his decision to introduce me to my first art museum, the National Gallery of Art, that inspired the eager little ten- year-old I was to begin instruction in painting in oil from the still-life painter, Richard V. Goetz. The daily life of my grandfather, Massad Kamees Massad, was anchored in his abundant garden, its fruits and vegetables the raw materials for my grandmother’s traditional Lebanese fare. A pear tree presided over his backyard the way an apple tree presides over mine: the apple in “Letters from Home”, its sensuous heart, did not fall far from that tree. The seashell, an abandoned “home”, is a kind of personal pictograph for my grandparents’ 1908 emigration, from Lebanon to Oklahoma, and it also reminds me that my father, a passionate workaholic, once startled me with the confession that he wished he could have led the life of a beachcomber, scanning the shore’s edge for things left behind by the tides - an occupation that would become central to the creative process of his artist-son.

The last element added to the niche is a rifle shell, barely visible in the apple’s shadow, a nod to my father’s two and a half years in the Eastern Theater of Operation during World War II and the traumatizing memories of his participation in that war - the Normandy Invasion, capture and escape, near-death, Buchenwald - he managed to bury for almost four decades. Even the jar of letters, the niche’s first element, the image’s dominant player, also recalls one of my earliest memories. I used to sit next to my father at the end of his work day, his arm crooked around me while he read the paper, all those tiny black shapes a meaningless blur in my eyes. It was my hunger to make sense out of those shapes, to understand them as he understood them, to follow the track of his mind, that made me perch on the edge of my chair at school, all eyes, all ears, when my first grade teacher chalked on the blackboard the first word I ever learned to read: “s-e-e”.

And the title? Perhaps I’ve never waited so long for a title. By pure chance (if there is such a thing), while working on “Letters from Home” I was also - during my breaks from the easel - organizing all the handwritten letters I’ve saved, four overstuffed boxes of them dating back to 1954 when my homesick sister wrote me a note from summer camp. Among them: packets of letters from my father and grandfather, from George K. to G. Daniel, from M.K. to Danny, beginning in 1965 when I left home for college, left Oklahoma for New Jersey, where - at Princeton, a university without an art studio major - I wrote my own homesick letters. The contents of the niche nearing completion, I added a part of my father’s gorgeous loopy signature as a worn bit of territorializing graffiti on the right side of the wall, a part of my own on the left slightly overlapping his, and Massad in Arabic (in my grandfather’s hand: I know no Arabic) in the center. When cracks in the stone evolved into partial outlines of Oklahoma on the left, PA/NJ on the right, and Lebanon beneath the seashell, I discovered (no conscious planning here) that my name begins in Oklahoma and ends in Pennsylvania, Massad in Arabic begins in Lebanon and ends in Oklahoma. My father’s name did not land to the right of the niche because oil was first discovered in Pennsylvania, or because he was a dedicated supporter of the Republican Party since my teens: I simply needed it there, for formal balance. For the same reason, I mapped the constellations associated with my and my father’s signs, Sagittarius and Leo, on reverse sides of the niche, his on the left, mine on the right. But the “K” etched in the stone - a copy of the sturdy both-feet-on-the-ground “K” in my grandfather’s signature - overlaps the unrecognizable “K” in my father’s signature, and sits just to the right of my own more deeply etched “M” mark. All of his life, at least his life in America, his adopted home, my grandfather was known as MK.

I also found among my epistolary hoard, an empty envelope on the back of which my father had hurriedly scrawled a note: “Gone to Pancake House - follow me.” I thought about adding the last two words to the stone, again in his hand. I fretted over it, and even roughed it in. But it brought up too keenly the decade - from my mid-teens to my mid-20’s - when my father and I fought hard over the direction my life would take, a part of my own history that this particular image does not in any other way evoke. Of course, despite all the efforts of my younger rebellious self, I, too, have not fallen far from the tree: I learned from my father’s precepts, absorbed many of his traits, followed him as far as I could - even, presumably, to the Pancake House. But it was Toshiko Takaezu - my lifelong mentor, whom I met at Princeton in 1967 - who was able to show me what he could not show me: a pattern for an artist’s life, and a map for getting there. A tiny etched star locates on the partial map of New Jersey her house and studio, which has been my Polaris, my True North, since I left home.

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