Six Wooden Blocks

In the summer of 2005, Sally McNall mailed me a batch of new poems, among them “Six Wooden Blocks”:

-named revenge, remorse
repentance, regret
remembrance, release

You might spend
a whole morning
stacking them
in one order
then another

You might work
chronologically
theologically
or attempt magic

Each is stained
a different color,
shades of indigo and violet
none pale

They are fashioned
of heartwood,
oiled, heavy,
never softening
to the touch

The poem sent a little shock through me, the kind you get when you realize you’ve walked too close to the cliff’s edge, but it did not instantly catalyze a new idea for a picture. In fact, my first active response to it had nothing to do with my own work. Scott Eggert, my life-partner, happened to be in the throes of fretting about a trio he planned to write the following summer - had in fact committed himself to it. The violinist Karen Bentley-Pollick was eager to play a part in its premiere; Suzanne Arnold had suggested including a clarinet, a notion Scott found immediately appealing; there was already talk about an all-Eggert concert at some future unveiling of a solo show of my work. Scott had not yet arrived at an overall structure for this unborn trio, no thematic springboard, not even a working title. But the six words opening Sally’s poem, all beginning with the letter “R”, suggested both a structure and a springboard. “What do you think of this,” I asked him, handing him the poem, “ as step one for a piece of music?” He read the poem, nodding, taking it in, and it looked to me, from the outside, as if his own “Six Wooden Blocks” began then and there composing itself on some inaccessible, pre-conscious level of his imagination. He handed the poem back, countering with, “And what about you?”

It seems odd, on the one hand, that it took several months for Sally’s 21 lines to begin germinating into a picture on some inaccessible, pre-conscious level of my own imagination. Her “Six Wooden Blocks” is, after all, a description of a kind of still-life, color and value relationships hinted at (“Each is stained/ a different color . . . none pale”), some specific colors pinpointed (“indigo and violet”), even the sense of touch, one of still-life painting’s traditional cross-references, highlighted in the poem’s finish (“. . . heavy, never softening/to the touch”). On the other hand, I tend not to use - at least I haven’t for the past thirty years - any text as a precipitate for a visual idea. My imagery, which always emerges first in the mind’s eye, in one piece, out of the blue, often attracts and absorbs a bit of text as a title or even as a primary visual element, and sometimes a text will ultimately determine my choice of secondary visual elements as I refine or add density to a composition (“loading the work”, as Leo Mazow puts it). I don’t mean to imply that illustration is a no-no in my vocabulary. Some of my favorite works of art - by Caravaggio, Durer, Rubens, Alma-Tadema, David, the list goes on - are fundamentally illustrations of scenes from the Bible, Ovid, written history. But I’ve never felt comfortable with a process in which A is the word, B is the image. Never (to be honest with myself) been good at it. So it isn’t atypical that my first ideas in the fall of ’05 were weak translations of my own earlier work, wooden blocks of one kind or another substituting for other kinds of objects in already familiar arrangements. “Blah”, I wrote in the margin of one thumbnail. And then, “What kind of blocks “R” these?”

Scanning tables strewn with detritus at a local flea market I casually - casually? - picked up the answer to that question, a child’s cube-shaped alphabet block with a capital “R” on one side, painted a (now spotty) indigo. Sally’s blocks are not identified as children’s toys, though the colors she mentions, even the stacking of them, at least point in that direction. They certainly pointed me. Suddenly, the world of antiques and collectibles, a world I love to ramble about in, seemed to be rich with stackable blocks, printers blocks among them, many of them sporting the letter “R” on them, and in all colors. Over the next half year or so two bowls in my studio filled up with them, waiting for the image I hoped would eventually take me by surprise.

Meanwhile, on a separate track, short stacks of other kinds of things were rising up into a square field of black in the pictures that were being realized on the easel. While working on “Cairn” in the summer of ’06 - the summer Scott plunged into and completed his “Six Wooden Blocks”, a suite of six dances, each dance a response to the emotional core of one of Sally’s ”R” words - I roughed out another unsatisfactory idea in my journal. A third sketch followed in January, a short heap of wooden blocks, like the cairns in “Cairn” and “Tau”. Too like, I thought. A few days later, a more modestly scaled image appeared, a tall narrow stack, a little spire of cut stones and bottles, carefully balanced, risky in its height, but unrelated to Sally’s poem. And immediately after that, the first successful version of what would become my own “6WB” coalesced: a very, very tall pinnacle of things, almost breathlessly high. “More teetery?” I asked myself in the margin, though at this point I wasn’t even close to resolving the final choice of objects and their relationships. But I had found the basic structure that would perfectly embrace my collection of wooden blocks and evoke a favorite childhood game, an absorbing challenge, an elusive goal I aimed at again and again: the highest tower I could raise out of that heap of building blocks in the family toy chest. It was the kind of task the child I was instinctively loved - assembling a new and unique structure out of a discrete set of predetermined elements - and whether I’m designing pictures or writing poems it still satisfies the bricoleur in me, as Levi-Strauss defines him: “His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’”.

When in late March I made my last detailed thumbnail sketch - the one that would serve as the template for the full-scale preliminary drawing - I knew that I wanted to include another visual link to childhood, a 3 1⁄2”- high push-button puppet of Pinocchio, also a stack of bits of painted wood, with taut threads holding them tightly together, which I’ve owned for almost three decades. Push the button on the bottom of it, it collapses; release the button, it re-forms again, but in a slightly different gesture. The painted sections of this particular Pinocchio, which I’ve owned and treasured for almost three decades, cover the full spectrum of all the primary and secondary colors, including black and white, with two exceptions: blue and purple, aka Sally’s indigo and violet. A lovely accident. But it is the character of Pinocchio - the boy who suffers from the lies he tells - that connects the image more intimately to Sally’s poem, or at least to my own take on it. Perhaps Sally’s “6WB” points toward a universal inevitability. For me, it suggests at least a universal possibility: the ways in which we often choose not to live through, patiently and truthfully, our experience of pain and its aftermath; the ways in which we tell lies - to ourselves and others - about our experience, repressing its complexities, crafting stories about ourselves we tell over and over, “in one order/then another”, stories that can’t change, or change us, can’t soften to the touch and provide us with anything like release. Blocks indeed: obstacles to our emotional progress. They form the substance, the building blocks of our conversations - again with self and other - and the carefully poised sequences we construct out of them rise and fall, innumerable times, all our lives. There are other models for interacting with our own experience that can increase, rather than merely solidify, self-knowledge, but there is no hint of that in Sally’s “6WB”. In mine, only the blue-tipped matchstick next to Pinocchio obliquely suggests itself as a means for “softening” wood, a way of re-igniting the past and providing heat and illumination.

All the other individual objects are familiar players in my studio repertory company: old bottles, cut stones, prune plum, crabapple, olive, and - near the top - a railroad (RR) conductor’s brass key, the key to the picture’s date (a tiny “7” inscribed on its zero-shaped handle) just to the right of a cube of brick with my own mark carved on it. The star block is a clue to my last addition to the image, the constellation of the Lyre (pronounced “liar”) picked out in pock marks on the stone near the bottom, above the abbreviated printer’s “M” block. Apollo’s lyre, the classical attribute of Erato, muse of lyric poetry, and sometimes of Terpsichore, muse of dance: a nod across disciplines both to Sally and Scott, my muses personified.

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