We’re having a yard sale! Early June. I asked my nearest (human) neighbors about it and they’re up for a multi-family, corner extravaganza. Our why-do-I-still-have-this-thing-I-haven’t-used-in-years trash will soon, hopefully, become another neighbor’s treasure. We’ll have more space, and less waiting for the potential use of stuff.
Stuff I moved into my cottage 13 years ago (some of which, after 15 years of their potential use in my old condo). Art supplies, crafty stuff. Dozens, maybe hundreds of interesting articles I read with wonder or meant to read from the title, to inspire short-stories or novels or screenplays I would someday write.
Whole books I’ve meant to read, or loved and want to reread. For-your-consideration DVDs I couldn’t quite sit down to watch before voting. More than one set of kitchen canisters, when I just pull cups of flour straight out of the package, but thought I’d use those canisters to store other small items.
Like? Coins from countries I may never visit again, or paper money from countries before they became Euro-ed. Some kid will like the money of it, right? That, I’ll put in the “Free” for when that kid shows up. Much, I’ll probably give away. Even much of the organizing paraphernalia – small wire shelves, clear plastic totes -- for organizing all this stuff, back when I got 40% off at The Container Store for unloading trucks at 5:00 a.m.
So much someday stuff. The somedays ahead of me are now fewer than behind me, so the unnecessary stuff feels even heavier.
Meanwhile and in clear contradiction … since I was young, I’ve felt intrigued by the question of how much could be subtracted, or missing, and still be clear, full, complete, meaningful. I’m better at this with nature and art, than with stuff (or with words, as you’re probably aware).
An example: when I shared an apartment with two law-students in Charlottesville in the ‘80s, my roommate Dave (called PJ, for no reason, he said) ‘commissioned’ me to make a drawing for him. I had sold some artwork at hospital exhibits and he said he wanted some of my art, made for him. He let me choose the subject matter. “Colored pencils okay?” “Sure.” (30-some years later we still haven’t worked out payment, but that part just makes me grin, now. I’m not good at that part of the art, even ‘commissioned’ art. I like knowing he paid me, really, by asking for it in the first place.)
I suggested incorporating his hat collection somehow, since he was known for that. He was fine with that, and headed to Northern Virginia for the summer. Dave (PJ) also liked to play poker, so I thought of staging a game, with the players wearing a few of his hats.
As I’d walk to work to my Children’s Rehab Center down Route 250, I would think about this scene.
And I started removing parts of it.
What if I got rid of the players’ faces, just drew their hats, bodies, the cards and table?
Then, what if I got rid of the table, too?
And, their bodies? Only hands. And no cards, either. Just hats, and hands.
Could I convey, only by their positions, an understanding of: Whose hands held the best hand (of invisible cards); Who was winning at that point in the night; Who was worried; maybe Who was playing poker for the second time ever.
Welp, worth a try. He’d given me artistic freedom. I used a mirror on my posed left hand to draw all the right hands, since I needed my right hand to draw.
This pic here of the work? Of primitive quality, taken with my old Kodak Pocket Camera, circa 1980s. (This would be like trying to write a blog-post tonight on an old KayPro computer, before built-in dial-up modems, then printing it out on perf-ed pin-fed rivers of paper.) (I realize many of you have no idea what those words look or sound like.) (Just looked it up – you can still buy pin-fed printer paper on eBay.) (If you still happen to have a pin-fed printer.)
Hopefully, the original “Card Game” drawing is hanging in Dave (PJ)’s house somewhere in Northern Virginia, today. (I friended his nephew a while back on Facebook, after recognizing the unusual German surname; this nephew is an actor, like other younger friends. It’s a joy to see him mature, become a father, just before the pandemic.)
Years ago, when Dave (PJ) got back to Charlottesville at the end of the summer, we went together to get it matted and framed. That protection of the work was more important to me than working out a fee for the work itself.
Even if conceptually, it will always be one of my favorite made-things. When I’d ask a few visitors, drawing in-progress, Who do you think is winning right now? They’d usually guess who’d I’d meant to be winning.
We need so much less than we think we do, understanding cave-artist smears, cuneiform shapes, line-drawings.
The painter Paul Klee said, “A line is a dot that went for a walk.” And what is less-stuff than a dot? And oh how much we can ‘see’ with only some dots and lines.
I’ve always liked the optical illusions where your brain ‘fills in’ the missing shapes. (Like the famous Kanizsa triangle – seeing by the contours of what something is not. Or the negative space of a vase or human profiles, as they shift in your brain’s eye.) How just by saying – or thinking – words, entire images can emerge in your brain’s eye. (Whatever you do, don’t think about pink elephants.)
And with words, there might be nothing at all to see -- sound is enough. Just. Even as a kid I loved this kind of stuff.
Anyway, soon after we framed the very local masterpiece of hats and hands, I left Charlottesville. I took my guitar (Clarence) across the pond to London, then Paris, where we played and sang for flying change. Then I left him with the desk clerk at the UNESCO hostel to explore towns I hadn’t walked before, like Kӧln (Cologne) in northern Germany.
A couple of millennia ago, the Romans founded “Colonia” there. The eau de toilette called 4711 – a street address! -- loomed on the side of a building I walked past. OH. I hadn’t made that connection. The very word Cologne, in French, came from this town, where they made that scented water.
The Franks took out one of the o’s and made it Kӧln. But you can still feel the Roman of it. Some ancient stone structures still stand, in spite of heavy bombardment during World War II. Espresso stands -- with baristas straight out of a fresco or vulcanized mosaic – cheered me to no end, as I wandered around that old town full of modern, stylized structures. My eye could fill in the Mediterranean light and sepia of old Roma, in spaces between rebuilt glass and metal, even concrete Brutalism.
I stayed at a youth hostel whose kitchen held a curved banquette. The turret jutted out into a stand of trees in the back of the old building. Eating breakfast felt like living in a tree-house. I remember thinking, if I can ever build a house with the features of my dreams, it will include such a curved, breakfast turret, that lets you sit outside inside your in-house tree-house. I still think about that breakfast nook, 30-some years later. I’ve built it in my dreams, and that may be enough.
At breakfast my first morning there, someone had left a newspaper like “Time Out” on this banquette. I looked through things-to-do while I drank strong, dark coffee and let the Laughing Cow wedge melt on my tongue. This edition included a ‘don’t miss’ art exhibit by a Canadian painter named Alex Colville.
I’d never heard of him, but I took the post at its word, and found the museum.
Alex Colville! Blew my eye-brain-perspective’s mind. Not exactly for the subtraction of elements, like my cards or poker-players’ bodies. But, for his aligned, yet ingenious, point of view.
Here were realistic paintings of an ice-skater from directly behind that skater, first the skate, then leg, heading away from us observers. No face, no expression, no matter. We followed her active moment.
The back side of a cow in a field, with moon above.
A priest in black and a black dog, with the priest’s face entirely blocked from view by that dog. YES.
The basic parts of any typical portrait painting? Whether ancient or modern-and-stylized?
Out of sight, missing, not so important to see. A view of life and the living from an altogether different vantage point. The views of, well, more like actual life and living. For me, at least. We only have so much to go on, to see and know another, to see and know ourselves.
I stayed until they kicked me out.
Only the gift shop was still open, with one or two other customers. This special exhibit had a section of its own, as usual. But the only book of the exhibit, heavy and hard-backed and full of these magnificent perspectives and visions? Only in German. And at the cost of an entire week of hostel beds and meals.
Still, I asked the tired clerk if they had that book in English, since I didn’t “sprechen me deutsch.” I actually said that, subtracting the sie, since I wasn’t going to ask this German man if he spoke German, but I didn’t know how to say I didn’t speak German. (I could only say, as taught to me two years earlier by young Italians making carbonara in a youth-hostel kitchen in Belgium, “entschuldigen sie bitte.” Excuse me, please, to be polite to any Germans before I asked a question (in English). Also, danke, and German numbers from 1-10 and, for some reason, brot und milch.) I could only hope the clerk would understand my partial phrase.
He understood. They were sold out of the English-language version of the book of Canadian artist Alex Colville’s marvels, as exhibited in late-20th-century Colonia.
Equally crushed and relieved, I was. I wouldn’t have known how to afford it, or get past that problem, fundamentally, spiritually, facing the Colville of it all, having only just met him.
Soon after the Colville of it all, I retrieved Clarence in Paris, and headed back to the eastern coast of my country of origin. My friend Jim’s cousin Terry needed help with their small ‘document-retrieval’ company in Arlington (thank you again). Soon I saw an ad in the Washington Post for lead singer of a band – an artsy goal after college – auditioned, and joined them. We signed with an agent and toured around the East Coast, including Watertown, NY, which stood across the St. Lawrence from Canada. Anyway we made some noise.
A few years later, I took a job at a not-for-profit and found a rent-controlled studio apartment where I needed little – my living room was also my bedroom and masters-degree study – across from a fire-station, whose skilled professionals led me down 6 flights of hook-and-ladder before my hypnotist neighbor next-door (and his client who had been ‘under’) climbed down, but I digress.
What I mean to say is that I’ve had plenty of practice with less-is-more, and less-is-often-actually-preferable, and less-is-certainly-not-less.
I’m just a slow learner. And this year, I’m sometimes spewing what’s actually part of my grieving process for a parent who died, just before our pandemicoping. (Thanks for that space and forbearance, gentle readers.) About some things, I need to keep living through their lessons, again and again.
Breathing. Learning, if slowly. One thing I will not put out for the multi-family yard sale on my corner in a couple of weeks?
The hard-backed, English-language version of a book of painter Alex Colville’s work, by David Burnett, which I found online several years ago. The book’s shipping cost was higher than the beautiful book itself. I felt rather sad about that. Mr. Colville had died in 2013, far less-known than I want him to be. But one never knows, do one?
Years from now, someone may pick up this same book and wonder why so much art needs so much stuff in it.
And if I’m still walking the planet then, I will raise another espresso, and hours later, maybe, a plate of pasta carbonara, toward the moon above an invisible cow. And I’ll be so grateful to sit at a curved banquette in a breakfast nook that feels like a treehouse, if only in my dreams, which will be plenty.
Thanks for adventuring with me, and for living with less, however you do, and however poignantly you do.
Sometimes the ‘less’ we’re living with? Means people we loved. And if I’ve drawn a picture here that seems to minimize those losses and lesses, I don’t mean to do that at all. Relationships are a whole ‘nother thing than stuff out in the yard on a Saturday morning. Or any priest’s face blocked by a black dog, on a wall or in a book. For your losses of people, I hope you can feel my embrace, my arms’ warmth, my articulated hands, trying to catch a hand of invisible cards dealt, flown across an invisible table -- life itself, ready or not.
Sending a hug for everything that turns out to mean more, that has its own currency, and holds its value.
Thanks for reading,
On problem-solving through subtraction: