A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth.
– John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
(Sojourner Truth from Pinterest)
We hope that artists pre-dating photography were really good at their art and had some sense of historic integrity—that Gilbert Stuart caught Dolley Madison’s early 19thcentury likeness and Washington’s army really did get horses onto those small boats crossing the Delaware as Emanuel Leutze suggests. We have to believe that Leonardo was pretty accurate with the Mona Lisa, right? Many of us find those images dear, fascinating—close to time travel.
Then came photography—arguably developed (ugh) between 1826 and 1839 and we get to see brief moments in the lives of Sojourner Truth, William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid and Frederick Douglass, prophet of freedom.
So, why images stashed in shoe boxes beneath our beds? Albums filled with first birthdays, grade school concerts, Nana’s picnic, Tyrone’s first car, Uncle Viv in Aunt Bobbi’s bra—some snapshots in duplicate and triplicate? The more organized among us have dated and neatly stashed albums covering (typically) three or four generations’ mostly mundane, rarely profound meanderings (“For future generations.”).
Then came Instagram! Whoo-boy, and look what I’m having for lunch!
“Tonight you’re mine, completely You give your love so sweetly Tonight the light of love is in your eyes But will you love me tomorrow?”
Imagine two sisters from the same parents: one sister brunette, the other blond. They arrive on the West Coast and one settles in The North, the other in The South. One is surrounded by Redwoods, fern grottos and flannel-wrapped nomads, the other strolls barefoot in the mornings’ cool sands shaded by date palms along an endless surf. Independent of the other, each chooses two-and-three-dimensional visual art as the language of her soul, and this evening we admire the similarities as well as the differences in their expressions. These representative pieces reflect past work—lasting, timeless and created under a different sky.
The morning has come, and each artist has moved on to something new.
“Ooo, the stove, the stove and the water. Boil the water, boil the water, and the paper—somebody get the paper. Up-down, up-down, sit, sit, sit, up-down and the stove, the stove and the water. Boil the water, and the…” When she was awake, she was talking. In the psych ward, in her bed, and when she was awake, Lottie was always talking.
“Honest to God, Brennan, if she sits up and starts talking I’m outta here. Elevator takes for-goddam-ever. You been down here before?”
“Three… two… one…”
The doors opened and Bob backed out at the head of the gurney. “You got the brakes? I’m gonna swing my end around and we gotta point this mother down the tunnel. You got the brakes, right?”
The narrow tunnel was lit by caged incandescent bulbs every twenty feet and connected the main building with the heating plant, laundry, the new annex and the morgue. Insulated steam pipes and electrical conduit ran the length of the low ceiling. Bob was in emotional overload—I was, too, and the ringing in my ears and my scalp itched and the air was hot and dry and it sucked your face. Bob’s hands inches from Lottie’s head, mine at her feet, and why the hell didn’t they have signs at the intersections? “Which way, Brennan?”
Marco Cochrane is the sculptor behind the forty-foot Bliss Dance, which was originally built for Burning Man before it was relocated to SF’s Treasure Island. Born to American artists in Venice and raised in Berkeley, Cochrane has crowd-funded and completed another sculpture. Like the sculpture I saw on Treasure Island, it depicts the same woman, Bay Area-based singer and dancer Deja Solis.
Long day on my feet, I dropped into a corner pub on the walk home. Tommy was there.
“Hey, Brennan. Been a while.”
“Tommy.” We shook. His hands are swollen and soft—always—since he’s been working at the car wash. The bartender sat a welcome IPA in front of me.
“What you been doin? You ain’t been here for a while,” Tommy said.
“Been around—busy, I guess.”
“Busy. Huh. But not, like car wash busy. Am I right?”
“Right.” I parked an elbow on the bar and took a swig.
“So, like today. What you been doin today—like, before now.”
“I dunno. The tourist thing.”
“Yeah, like seeing the sights. Went to Treasure Island and saw a sculpture. Big woman dancing.”
“Woman dancer. And, like she was naked?”
“Well, yeah, but a forty-foot steel sculpture. Art.”
“Ooo, art, and excuse me, Brennan, if I stick out my little pinky here with my tea.”
“Go to hell, Tommy. Today, yesterday and always.”
“Drink up. Relax. I got the next one.”
It’s a huge two-door Chrysler Cordoba, creamy white and a matching vinyl top.
Intimidating parked next to any of the current satellite-tracked and climate-controlled livery, it floats there like The Enterprise next to the mailbox where Kev parked it. Pointed uphill, its rear end lifted in a slight California slant on bead-blasted mags, it sits level. When Kev leaves tonight, the pie-plate headlights will come on slowly, like they take time to warm up. In new, stock condition, it would have been a knockout on a showroom floor in 1975. Low, block-long and jeweled opulence rivaling the Caddies, Lincolns and Monte Carlos of the day—its hood-to-trunk ratio is three-to-one. Monster V-eight, dual exhaust, race-proven torque-flight transmission, door-post carriage lights and a trunk that could hold three disagreeable guys from New Jersey. Ricardo Montalban (“The plane, the plane!”) gave television voice to the Cordoba experience pointing out one unique feature: “…soft Corinthian leather.”
Little Walter. Paints a picture, doesn’t it? How’d you see it, just then? Maybe a snorting Pug chewing up and snotting all over a living room pillow? The checkout guy at Trader Joe’s? Your goldfish?
Little Walter? How about this? A guy smaller than most and a giant among stars—Marion Walter Jacobs, a blues artist from Marksville, Louisiana.
The bridge from Blues to Rock & Roll was crossed in 1945 when Little Walter, frustrated by his harmonica being drowned out by amplified guitars, employed a small palm mic with which he could stand toe-to-toe with the other instruments. And, he took it one step further pushing the amp to eleven and creating a sound never-before heard. Little Walter invented the harmonic distortion fuzz that went on to serve the greats who followed including Jimi Hendrix. In 2008, Little Walter was posthumously inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and he would have looked great at the ceremony in his suit and two-toned shoes.
You might have guessed life wasn’t easy for a guy named Little Walter. Hitch-hiking, trains, busses, dive bars, river fronts, police run-ins, booze and women. Between sets, some of the ladies couldn’t keep their hands off him. “He’s so cute!” Their men—their large men—didn’t like that.
The last physicality Walter paid for love wasn’t that bad. “Just a slappin and a pokin,” compared to the police beatings and the big guy a couple months ago. He retired to his girl’s house—Lois’s house—that early morning and thought maybe he’d lay down for a minute. Just sleep a while. Oh, yeah, there ya go. That’s good. The dark, the quiet, the black door closing on all the noise. The dark’s good—so good. A little nap before the next set.
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but someday the piecing together of disassociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
– H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)
And if Howard Phillip Lovecraft could only see us now. Just eighty-some years later – the Mars rover, Hubble images, full-color portraits of black holes, stem cells, 23andMe. He’d probably ask, “Interesting, but show me that little telephone again?”
Regarding the state of man living, “…on a placid island of ignorance,” he’d likely not be surprised by today’s reportage from Fox News and The Guardian having seen what happened in Russia during his life. Wars, disease, famine, the uprising of the impoverished congregating at the walls of the entitled whose nattily-dressed congressional servants propose to charge the peasants camping fees. Perhaps most astonishing would be the news regarding Barack Obama. “What?!” he’d say. “There was a black president? Of the United States?”
Tics are where lines intersect and the current time shows up. Between the tics are tocs. Tocs are messier – hoarders among other things – and represent elapsed time. In the tics, opinions and observations are expressed as read/write functions like, “Keep Tina, dump Ike.” In the tocs, operations happen, like “Rollin, rollin, rollin on the river.”
Danville, CA, 8:00 AM some day in January, 2019. We climbed a few hundred feet above the fog, Lucy the intrepid mutt and I, and shot this with an iPhone 6.
I opened the door – “Up Lucy” – and she thought she’d drive. “Back, Lucy, get in the back.” Outta the house, into the van, on the road, and it was just getting light. Away from manicured softscapes, diagonally-parked cars and the goddam vigilant home owners’ association, we had a clear lane leading to the outback with on-coming traffic slowly grinding toward the city. We were a couple miles up the road and looking for the trailhead. “This has gotta be it, girl. Probably not legal to park here, right? Probably no dogs allowed, eh Lucy? C’mon.”