Moving Toward The Center Of Life

We cannot be mere spectators to art and life --
rather we coexist with both

One of the articles in Art And Ceremony In Sustainable Culture (IC#5)
Originally published in Spring 1984 on page 6
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute


Alan Gussow describes himself as an artist and french-intensive gardener. He is also president of Friends Of The Earth Foundation, author of
A Sense of Place: The Artist and the American Land, and originator/implementor of the National Parks "artists-in-residence" program. He lives in Congers, New York.

WHEN I WAS A BOY I never thought much about art. My father and mother had some framed reproductions around the house, though the only ones I remember were three paintings by Van Gogh – one, a neat, squared off series of farms and fields, another of a sailboat on a rolling sea, and one of some big, dry looking flowers in a vase. I was encouraged to draw and paint when I was very young; exactly why this was the case, I’m not sure. I still have paintings which were made when I was nine, and among others was a copy of a Van Gogh portrait. In the beginning I painted to show off and to win approval.

Later, as a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, I learned at least two things about art. First, that art was magical. How I or any person could mix a little water with some paint and then make marks and shapes which look like parts of the world still remains a source of wonder. I do not understand how an impulse which flows into my eyes, through my body, and down and out through my hand is converted into something seen. The other thing I learned about art in college was that in order to make it, I had a wonderful excuse to be out of doors and not at my desk. Taking an art class at Middlebury in a Vermont autumn required walking along glowing, leaf-strewn corridors, looking out at nubby, speckled hills and sitting along slow flowing streams. The pictures I made might not have been wonders; the walks, however, were memorable.

At Cooper Union in New York where I studied for one year after Middlebury, I learned that art was a form of energy. New York was a heady scene for a young artist in the early 1 950s as Jackson Pollack, Willem deKooning and Franz Kline were all at the height of their powers. To be an artist then demanded acceptance of a doctrine of self-indulgent risk. We all threw paint at the canvas, struggling to bend, twist and bind up marks which would embody our own, unique nature. The emphasis in action painting was always on the action; the painting itself was simply the result. It never occurred to me that painting could be or should be about something. If it was about anything, then it was release, abandonment, flow and energy. The only search was for one’s own special kind of visual signature, something intrinsic to a work which would instantly signify that it was a deKooning or a Rothko, or if I was lucky, a Gussow.

While I was still a freshman at Cooper Union, I won a Prix de Rome in painting and went off to live in Italy for what turned out to be two years. The art I made in Rome was of little consequence; most of the works were burned in a huge bonfire before returning home, a purging which even at this distance in time still feels right. What was important about those years in Italy was that I learned to love art, other people’s art. I still recall stumbling into the Uffizi Gallery in Florence after a twisting and uncomfortable ride north from Rome and seeing Botticelli’s Primavera for the first time. It is not an exaggeration to say I swooned, literally falling to the ground, so beautiful, so seductive was that woman with garlands of flowers encircling her, flowing from her lips. Until that moment, I do not think I had ever been truly moved by art. It was only the beginning. Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ in the Ducal Palace in Urbino, the recumbent Etruscan couple from Tarquinia, the mosaics of Ravenna, the ritualizing maidens in the Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii, Donatello’s David – each of these artworks engaged me at a visceral and physical level.

If I were asked in Rome at that time what I thought was the function of art, my answer probably would have circled around the notion that art was a way of embodying and localizing feelings. I was struck by the great paintings of the passion of Christ, paintings which were always located in the hills and valleys of Italy, not in a distant Palestine. What della Francesca and Giotto and Sassetta did was to place the moving episodes of a great religious story into the local and familiar landscape, however crudely the scene might be depicted.

Art, then, was a way of making this great story both visible and emotionally accessible. In addition to my pleasure in seeing painting and sculpture, I was also profoundly moved by the archaic sites, places where Greeks and Romans and Etruscans built their cities and their temples. The distinction between works of art and works of nature was softened when I walked the excavated streets of Herculaneum or strolled through the sunny temples of Paestum. I had seen pictures of reconstructions and heard classicists speak of what these sublime and exposed places looked like when they were new, that they were often painted for example, yet I was moved not by what I knew but by what I saw and felt. The dry winds of the Mediterranean, the scrub and cactus, the lizards, the worn stones, the overwhelming sense of cadence I experienced while walking among these old columns remain with me. I probably did not understand then what I think to be true now, that art is not separate from life, that we cannot ever be mere spectators to art and life but rather we coexist with both. These ruins, softened by age, were not cities or objects in a landscape. They had in fact become the landscape of which I, as participant, was also a part.

When I returned from Rome I began painting landscapes and continued to do so for almost twenty years. The work was good, if undistinguished, marked by active brushwork and a seductive sense of color. Critics often likened them to Monet and Sisley, though my intentions had very little to do with the local light of impressionism. Again, if asked, I would have stated that art had to do with making pictures of what I had seen and liked.

Slowly, imperceptibly, I began to make fewer pictures of what I saw and more paintings of what I did, particularly paintings prompted by gardening – digging, composting, tasting, touching and listening. If I had once thought the function of art was to make vivid what I had seen, I now began to define a function related to a whole person – all the things I did. Art was a way of giving visible form to sense responses.

The act of making art is also an act of definition. Each artist decides when a work is finished. Bound as we are by culture and by convention, we retain the ability to decide what goes into our work and what is to be excluded, when it is done and what, in fact, constitutes being finished. If art making is a process, moreover, so is the act of defining its function.

In May of 1980, I traveled with my wife to Australia and confronted aboriginal art for the first time. The result of that confrontation was a profound questioning about what art did and why it was made. The aboriginal peoples have no communities, they live without permanent structures, have few possessions, no houses, gardens, flocks, herds, no temples and no markets. Yet art is an inescapable part of their lives. The Australian anthropologist A.P. Elkin once wrote that, "the role of the artist in aboriginal life. . . is to re-present myth and belief in order to preserve continuity . . . to make the unseen cause and context of life and action in some way tangible and visible." Seeing aboriginal art and learning about aboriginal practice led me to question the art I had been making, to ask who needed it and what did they need it for.

Looking back, I can see this as a turning point in my life. If one particular moment was pivotal, then surely the experience of discovering an extraordinary collection of aboriginal pointing sticks in the dimly lit dusty basement galleries of the natural history museum in Adelaide was that moment. Here were a group of toas – painted, carved and often decorated small wooden sticks (none were over 18 inches in height) – each representing or serving as an indicator or sign post to some particular location.

The toas were made on site by an individual aboriginal as a way of indicating the locality to which he was going. The imagery of each stick (shape, color, pattern or appendage) embodied collective knowledge of the destination – either by depicting some geographical feature of the place or by representing some event which occurred there. The other members of the group, seeing the stick, would know precisely where their fellow clansman had gone. For example, some of the toas pointed to the tracks of the whirlwind in the sand, or to where they cracked the mussels or to where the white cockatoo sits.

The trip to Australia had several immediate effects. I severed my connection with my New York gallery, principally because I no longer wished to think of my art as a commodity. I needed time to explore new reasons for making art and new ways of offering it. Secondly, I ceased to paint pictures only and began to make crude pieces of sculpture. Paintings are illusions, metaphors of experience. Sculpture, however crude, was physical, something one could bump into, a fact. The satisfactions which came from making these simple pieces came not from their "objectness" but from the way they existed in space. They embodied feelings as the paintings had always done but they also went further; they assumed their place in the landscape. If paintings are windows through which we see the world, these sculptures were, in some strange way, a part of the world itself. For all their allusion, their evocation, they were also real in a way paintings never were.

My first sculptures were a series of twelve toas, each made from red-dyed snow fence lath, each "pointing" to a particular location in Australia where my wife and I had been profoundly moved. Some pointed to where we saw the Milky Way, to where we saw the sun rise under clouds, to where Joan walked with emu (ostrich- like birds), to where I had climbed a mountain in darkness or to where I had seen green parrots fly. The sticks were crudely carved with a swiss army knife. The limitations imposed by the lath were extreme, yet each embodied such deeply felt emotion that the collection as a whole took on a power that astounded me.

I had always thought of art as a statement, a climax of sorts, a conclusion. I now began to think that art was less a product than a visible point in a process, an offering which invoked ritual and ceremony. I had never seriously engaged with primitive art before except possibly as a source for formal ideas. As a student I had seen how Picasso used African masks and how he and Braque had borrowed the architecture of primitivism for cubist constructions. What I had never done was ask myself what the function of art was among so-called primitive peoples – in Africa, among the Inuit, the aborigines, the oceanic tribes, the American Indians. As I read and thought it became clear to me that primitive art was rarely made for admiration. Rather such works were always in the service of spirits and the culture. Art among these peoples plays a pivotal role in insuring continuity of the group, the birth of new members, the teaching of the young, the transfer of power from one generation to another and the peaceful departure of the souls of the dead.

The dilemma I faced was critical. There is a difference between literature and journalism; art is not mere propaganda. I had no desire to make shrill, polemical, argumentative art. Yet I found myself dissatisfied with most western art, my own no less than that of the masters, dissatisfied with what I took to be its intentions as well as its outcome. I wanted to make art which functioned at the center of human life, not at its edges.

The problem, of course, was that I was not a primitive man, living within a community which shared a common sensibility and culture, a community which had common ways of describing and interpreting shared experiences. In a radio talk in 1954, J. Robert Oppenheimer said, "Often the artist has the aching sense of great loneliness, for the community which he addresses is largely not there; the traditions and the culture, the symbols and the history, the myths and the common experience which it is his function to illuminate, to harmonize and to portray, have been dissolved in a changing world." What was true in 1954 remains true today.

Of the many ways to respond to this condition, the least satisfying is to trivialize art, to accept for art less than art is capable of being, to descend into permutations of style, to argue for the unique mark, even at the expense of content. We need not pretend we are other than whom we are; we should not simply mimic the forms of primitive art. Moreover, we should not content ourselves by expropriating the images of Indians and aborigines. What we should consider, however, is locating the forces which animate their reality and to identify with their belief that art belongs at the center of life, all life, not at its fringes. Peter Mattheissen once wrote about American Indians that "since an art as something apart from daily existence is not recognized . . . (art) . . . is high or poor in quality according to the amount of power it can bring about." The true test of art by this standard, then, is in the amount of power it gathers and releases.

On our return we learned that Alan Chadwick, the English horticulturist who pioneered the french intensive/bio-dynamic method of gardening which we followed, had died. I set out to carve a series of large wooden poles in his memory, leaning heavily on the aboriginal pukamani tradition whereby, after the death of a tribesman, the Tiwi people carve huge wooden, ceremonial poles (only non-related persons are invited to do so) which two to six months later are assembled for a setting-to-rest ceremony of singing and dancing.

Prompted by this ceremony and using Chadwick’s organic gardening methods as a source of imagery, I carved what turned out to be twelve oak and cedar poles. Some celebrated planting by moon cycles, others depicted refining the earth, the fruiting of plants, the migration of monarch butterflies, thunder and rain, and the organic life of soil. One pole was made as a protector. Very early on it became clear to me that I wanted these poles to be planted in Chadwick’s original garden on the campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz. I offered the poles as a gift. The University accepted my offer and in June of 1981, one year after the project was initiated, my wife and I flew to California for a ritual installation attended by over one hundred and fifty people. Offerings of soil, seed, bruised leaves and wreaths were made. The group surrounded the garden, held hands and gave praise.

For an artist who, until 1980, had only made paintings this experience was deeply moving. If the true test of art was to be found in the power gathered and released by objects, these rough-cut poles were art beyond anything I had ever made. I would never be the same. Moreover, I had discovered the peculiar power of works which were given away, offered as a gift, as contrasted with my earlier mode of making and selling paintings.

In the period since completing the Pukamani for Chadwick, my work has followed three parallel courses:

  • I have continued to make what I term my personal offerings – carved, painted, cut, sewn pieces;
  • I have been organizing a series of art and anti- nuclear actions based on two ideas – The LifeYard Projects which celebrate our attachments to life by pouring feelings into designated and bounded locations, and by The Shadow Projects which commemorate the bombing of Hiroshima by recreating on city streets the appearance of human "shadows," the last "remains" of vaporized people that were imprinted near ground zero in that Japanese city;
  • I have been orchestrating site-related ceremonial projects prompted by seasons and places.

The common theme in all of the work is a ritual concentration, a gathering and release of spirit through symbol and event.

The personal work includes a series of large, unstretched hangings, works which suggest shaman’s robes. One evokes a winter beach by recording rolling surf, the tossing of beach pebbles into the ocean, the flight of sea birds and footprints in brittle, snow-covered sand. Another is dedicated to the double-digging of earth in preparation for planting. One, Runner’s Morning Cloak, looks like an animal hide covered with feathers and suggests American Indian sources. Still another, The Mud Kitchen, commemorates my participation in the digging out process after mud slides in California filled houses with heavy silt. In another piece, l held a bird’s nest in my hand and mentally disassembled it, cutting analogs for each element out of raw linen and then sewed these pieces at random on to a large swath of cotton duck, creating what became a visible parts list for a nest.

The LifeYard Project evolved from my realization that after a nuclear war there would be no Guernicas (Picasso’s painting commemorating the bombing of that city during the Spanish Civil War), that there would be no opportunity to make monuments of any kind. Clearly the time for monuments was before rather than after such a holocaust. It occurred to me, however, that it was inappropriate to create any monuments to an event which had not happened and which, moreover, we did not wish to happen. What we did require was a celebration of something which was occurring and which we profoundly desired to continue, namely, life itself.

The first LifeYard was installed in the lower Hudson Valley in a state park in April 1982 as 35 artists took recycled wooden highway barrier poles and converted them into icons, totems and signs signifying those aspects of life which they personally valued and which would be lost if a nuclear war occurred. Poles were converted into trees, into dovecotes, bridal wreaths, grasping hands, orbiting earth and even into a nuclear family. One artist covered her pole with a series of mirrors and wrote, "What you see here is reason enough to wage peace." Over 4,500 people visited the outdoor installation in the one month the project was on view. Since that first installation, there have been LifeYards dedicated in a city park in Santa Cruz, California (two-foot cubes, ornamented by individual artists were stacked on high poles), in a church in San Francisco (over 75 banners celebrating life), on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, in a downtown site in Portland, Oregon and in an empty lot in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Individuals from around the nation have inquired about how they might organize a LifeYard in their community.

The Shadow Project was first achieved in New York City in August 1982 as 150 people worked through the night placing over 2,500 "shadows" in streets, on curbs and sidewalks at five sites designated as imagined centers of nuclear detonation, including Wall Street, Lincoln Center, Grand Central Terminal, Columbia University and the 59th Street Plaza. Our work received extensive media coverage including brief notice on Japanese television via satellite. l felt what we accomplished was to take an event – the possibility of nuclear holocaust – and discover a language of form accessible to all. Each participant was free to use his or her skills to the fullest and to work as part of a community within a framework of shared understandings. For one brief morning, art in New York functioned as it does among the so-called primitive peoples of the world.

In August 1983, under the direction of Oregon artist Donna Grund Slepack, more than 200 volunteers replicated the New York project by placing thousands of shadows in downtown Portland, setting off a chain reaction of letters, editorials, commentary and debate. Plans are underway for a world-wide Shadow Project commemoration in 1984.

The third aspect of my work in recent years has been orchestrating site-related ceremonial projects: In a frozen woods in Waterville, Maine, students from Colby College constructed two rings of found branches over which an arch of logs permitted entry into a sacred center where the first signs of spring growth were discovered. A series of seasonal curtains were created in a deserted filbert grove in Eugene, Oregon. On another occasion, the return of migrating salmon to their spawning places was mimicked along the Willamette River. This past summer I orchestrated the Sea Strand Project along 1,000 feet of Long Island shoreline as a group of Queens College students ornamented their own traced body outlines at the edge of low tide, then sat quietly as the tide rose and claimed their images, thereby permitting each of us to make an offering of our own bodies to the saline sources from which we have evolved. In each of these efforts there was an agreement on intentions and a sharing of sensibilities. The results were always more than one person could have accomplished on his or her own.

It may be that art is incapable of creating a community where no community exists. Yet, by providing a touchstone for ritual and celebration, art can assist unfocused communities to identify themselves and become visible. The function of art in our culture had always been to add to the inner freedom of each person. What is unique about this current moment, however, is that more than ever, inner freedom depends upon collective action.

All art need not be made in collaboration. It should, however, provide a means whereby we are given a sense of belonging, a sense of community and a sense that we are not alone. In the end the function of art in this nuclear age is to make vivid our common destiny, releasing our inherent power to transform both the world and ourselves.

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