Shell Hunt

When, in the early 80’s, I began to work full-time in my studio, I labored like a hermit, closing the door to any outside involvement in my creative process. There was a reason for this I understood even then. I had spent the previous four years working in a very public studio cubicle as an MFA candidate at the University of Kansas, where everything on my easel - from failed preliminary drawings to tentatively completed paintings - could be scrutinized and evaluated by any passing prof or fellow student. I needed all the help I could get, then. But when I set up my own shop in 1983 in Annville, PA, I decided that it was time to learn hard lessons in solitary self-reliance. As a result, my studio - that monastic cell where ideas emerged and developed, as I liked to think of it - was off-limits to everyone else, and stayed off-limits for over twenty years. The three galleries I eventually worked with - Rosenfeld, Tatistcheff, and Forum - kept their distance, waiting patiently (most of the time) for finished work to appear and never (no exaggeration) offering suggestions for changes in form or content. And even Scott, my life-partner, with his usual tact and unstinting faith in me, left me to my own devices.

Three decades later, I’ve eased up a bit.

In 2010, Suzanne Arnold saw and fell in love with my just completed (and already sold) “Letters from Home”, and she spontaneously asked me if I could make “another picture with that jar in it, full of . . . something.” In 1990, I would have said “No”, politely, firmly. Because in 1990 I always said “No”, politely, firmly. But twenty years later, I said, “I don’t know. Let me think about it” - which was not an evasion. I wasn’t confident that I could solve the problem she presented me with and satisfy my own internal demands (hence the “I don’t know”), and I really did want to think about it. Perhaps I was already thinking about it, on some level of my mind, while I answered her question. I tend to make pictures in pairs, two variations on the same theme or formal structure, so the notion of “another picture with that jar in it” had a familiar appeal, and I was already aware that the train of thought about my father’s life and recent death, which ran through “Letters from Home”, needed another station stop. At any rate, within a month the first thumbnail sketch for “Shell Hunt” appeared in my journal, and I was on my way.

In that first sketch, the edge of the vertical mass of the wall on the left divided the picture exactly in half. In the second sketch (on the same day), the wall moved a little to the left, the darkness widened, and the shelf extended all the way across the bottom. “Nope”, I wrote in the margin, an arrow pointing at the enlarged shelf, and then I moved “Shell Hunt” (already its provisional title) off to a back-burner, where it sat and simmered for four months. When the image reappeared in my journal in February, 2011, it had shifted closer to final form, and by April most of its parts were in place, including all of its key formal elements: the uneven line that divides the light from the dark, the overlap of the bowl and the narrow bottle in front of it, the echo of the line of that bottle in the rifle shell near the left edge, and a huddle of ripe fruit close to the shelf’s broken corner.

I briefly toyed with the notion of calling it “Ocean Edge”, the name of a glaze effect developed by Toshiko Takaezu, my lifelong teacher/mentor/friend. Because Toshiko had died a few months before, and because the bowl in front of the jar of shells came from her hands, I thought about layering into the image more references to her life and work. But that would have to wait, I quickly realized, for another picture. This picture seemed to cast a wider net, and its two kinds of shells - empty, spent - had everything to do with my first title, “Shell Hunt.”

Not exactly my title. In the mid 1980’s, Sally McNall sent me a poem from New Zealand, which I then tacked to my studio wall, where it still waits for me, every workday morning:

“Shell Hunt” - for Dan

You know how it

takes ahold of you,

the whole day sometimes.

And the false peace

of sun, seasound, air

so you don't notice

that you can't stop.

One more. The right

one more.

I thought of you

through thousands of miles.

A pink one. A speckled one.

See how these

fit together. Broken. Whole.

So how could I not pilfer her title? The shells in the jar - some of them gifts from Suzanne, some from another friend, that inveterate collector of seaside detritus, Phyllis Norton - are the result of the kind of hunt Sally describes in her poem, time-consuming, narcotically peaceful, just as the shells in the picture are the result of my own search for one tiny mark after another - “One more. The right one more” - in the false peace of the studio. They have a kind of beauty, these wave-worn shells, faintly rose and ivory, their curving walls and cavities suggesting the internal organs of the “body” of the jar. But they are, after all, skeletons of the dead, and they constitute for me a metaphor for all the people I’ve loved or lost, otherworldly behind that scrim of corroded glass, hard to see clearly, impossible to touch - the memory of things, looming up behind the sensual sharp-focused apples, the ripe “Now” poised on its tiny shelf of the present moment, in bright fugitive light.

As the picture neared completion, I returned to the rifle shell and suppressed its vibrancy, darkening its overall tonality, pushing it back into the shadow cast by the jar so that my Ideal Viewer would have to hunt for it. I was thinking about my father again, that driven hard-working man who fantasized living like a beachcomber, hunting for seashells: “A pink one. A speckled one.” But as it turned out, he spent his entire life in landlocked Oklahoma, and the ocean edge he remembered most vividly was the Normandy Invasion beachhead where he was the hunted, dodging bullets and wading through bloody water to a temporary safety. At the end, in a kind of postscript, I added a delicate crack to the front of the shelf, just under the apples: a map of the Normandy shoreline where my father survived that other kind of shell hunt. P.S. (it seems to whisper) I haven’t forgotten.

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