Archive for March, 2007

Life Drawing… the nude.

March 31, 2007

In my High School here in suburbia, back in the early 60s, kids from grade 9 to grade 12 had the incredible fortune to be taught Art classes by a wonderful teacher. Prior to World War II, he had studied at the local art school and during the War he served as an Official War Artist for several years. On his return to civilian life he attended Normal School in order to be able to follow a career as a teacher.  He was a fine painter, and he had solid drawing skills, but as well a high regard for Modernist art principles and also experimentation.

Starting in Grade 10, we did regular study of anatomy from a skeleton he kept in the classroom and who he affectionately called Herkimer. He allowed us to dress Herkimer in scarves, gloves, shoes, jackets and pants, and then he’d demonstrate  just how the material might drape from a bent elbow or knee, where it stretched over the points of turn over adjoining forms and where it bunched and gathered on the inside of the bend. Herkimer was prominent whenever we did draped life studies of each other, so that we could make a connection between the live forms seen and the underlying structures. We did life drawing every two weeks, until looking and seeing while drawing, or being scrutinized closely as model, became a familiar and comfortable activity. I loved to draw and learned to appreciate the wonderful beauty of bone forms, and the complex interconnections that permitted human beings to be upright, move with purpose and expression.

It was while in grade 10 art classes that I began to permit myself to wonder about continuing to learn art after graduation. Formulating the plan to do so, I began to ask our Art teacher about what kinds of things one did learn in Art School and how it might be possible to undertake such learning. I began to discuss what I found out about this with my parents who were singularly unimpressed and dismissive about such a possibility.  Undaunted, I pursued my interests in art in my spare time at home with books borrowed from the Library, and drew constantly, from things observed and also from illustrations in art books. And I began to visit galleries downtown, on my own, fairly regularly, while ostensibly on shopping trips.  Meanwhile, the rest of required studies at school remained at the forefront of my young scholastic activities.

My parents thought that it was acceptable for a young woman to be interested in art as an uplifting hobby, or something a well educated woman might be casually engaged in on an amateur level.  However, they maintained and emphasized a convicted belief that a life in the arts (visual and performing) led to excesses of immoral behavior and hence the life of a social outcast, a demi-mondaine.  Mother cleverly illustrated her objections by reminding me of the tale of La Boheme, wherein the life of artists living in unheated garrets led to misery, excessive drinking of alcohol, illicit sexual conduct and Mimi’s untimely death due to consumption. Father, completely oblivious to my lack of interest in Chemistry, ignoring the fact that Chemistry classes were the bane of my young life, insisted that a career as a Pharmacist was one I must pursue.

In an effort to dissuade me from my hope to go to art school, they roped in a painter lady friend to take me to a life-drawing studio regularly held in the basement of the big art gallery downtown – The Businessmen’s Drawing Sessions. I believe my parents hoped that I would be embarrassed in such a setting.

I loaded myself up with a drawing board made up of a flat piece of a cardboard box, some sheets of newsprint, pencils.  Father drove me to the art gallery to meet up with the painter lady there, and left to visit a friend downtown. The lady and I descended into the basement of the art gallery and found the meeting room where the life-drawing session was held.  We were slightly late arriving, and the session was in full swing. We sat ourselves at the back of the room and began to work.

The model, a young woman of reasonable proportions and very naked, sat lounging in an armchair at one end of the room. Seated in school desks lined up in rows, as if for a drill in Latin declensions, were middle-aged men in business suits and ties drawing on little pads of paper. I began to notice that many of the men didn’t draw a whole lot.  While I understood that drawing from observation involved a lot of looking before making marks to approximate what was observed, it seemed to me that many of these men just gazed at the young woman and seemed to be making little progress on their drawings. The lady and I  worked away filling up several sheets of paper.  The model kept the same pose throughout the session.

The lady painter, the model and I were the only women in the room. This felt truly odd, and even more so, the arrangement of the model and the drawers was very awkward,  those drawing arrayed in tight rows, rather than gathered around and having varied points of view.  I was there to draw, so did, and forgot my feelings of discomfort in such a situation, and did the best I could in the circumstance. All the draped drawing we had done in school, plus the prior sessions of making studies of Herkimer, had provided me with a base from which drawing the nude figure wasn’t a particularly problematic extension.

At the end of the session, we packed up and met Father at the gallery entrance.  The lady painter told him that I had worked well and produced a number of reasonably acceptable studies, and then saying her goodbyes left us to continue our journey home.

On the way home, Father quizzed me about my impressions of this experience. I told him that it felt really odd that there were only the three of us women in a sea of suited middle-aged men, and that these men didn’t seem terribly serious about the whole drawing activity. Further, I ventured the opinion that our sessions of drawing the figure in our high-school art class had been more useful, because most of us there were engaged and working in a truer sense. And I announced that I would not waste my time with going back to this Businessmen’s Drawing group, but would carry on with drawing on my own and in school, and then, after graduation continue on to art school for further studies.

Somehow, Father didn’t seem pleased with this outcome. Rather than dissuade me from a goal of which he did not approve, the opposite happened.  He did say to me that at 15 I was far too young and inexperienced to be so firm in my decision to persist, and that as I became older and wiser I was sure to change my mind.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, I have grown older, but not necessarily wiser and have maintained my love of learning about and making art. I still attend life drawing sessions, to me it is an activity similar to that of a dancer warming up at the barre. I do not live in a garret, or on the margins of society and have not yet died of consumption!

Envy…

March 26, 2007

“Prissy German Tourist” phoned Saturday morning, early, not his habit, as he tends to sleep till 10am on weekends. “You awake, SW?” he asks, cheerful. “Awhm, now I am.  What’s up?” I grumble. “Grab yourself a cup of coffee, then call me back.” he suggests.

I grope for my housecoat.  Behind me, “Rumpole” groans from the bed, “Wha… who?” Turns over in a flurry and buries himself under the duvet. “Shhh,… it’s only PGT,…go back to sleep…” I soothe. “Deal with it!” orders “Rumpole”, his radio-announcer’s baritone muffled.

Out in the kitchen, I fill the coffepot, meanwhile peering through the window to note rain pouring from the sky. What’s going on at PGT’s that he would call so unchracteristically early? Is Obsessive/Compulsive Shopaholic all right?  Their boys? As I wait for the coffee to drip through the machine, I entertain myself with visions of PGT sipping his own coffee while patiently sharing bits of lemon-poppyseed muffin with his odd cat, Buzzinsky. OCS is most likely sitting on their deck surveying their post-card inlet landscape, plotting and planning her excursions of the day. Surely, everything is okay, there will be no unpleasant reports?

Coffee ready, I prepare a cup and call back. PGT picks up at his end and says, excited “OK, SW, sit down!  Wait till you hear this!” So I sit, completely curious now.

The gist of his report is that he is flying to Los Angeles the third week of April. There he will stay with a painter friend and her husband.  He will be able to share her well-equipped digital studio, explore galleries and museums, move about to take hundreds of pictures and meet all kinds of fascinating characters – artists, dealers, curators, actors, musicians and writers.

“And, get this!” he adds. “Ruth and Barry have tickets to  the Tristan Project on the 24th.  Yippee! And just how cool is that?” PGT admires Bill Viola’s work, and is thrilled to be able to go to an interdisciplinary opera performance where Viola has collaborated with other artists to help bring a production to fruition. I agree with PGT.  This is a wonderful opportunity! Only problem is, that green monster of envy stirs in my mind agitating for release. “Damn it,” I groan, “is there no way you can ship me down there in a crate, or something?” He laughs…”no can do, kiddo, but you know I do share, eventually!”

I hear OCS call out in the background, “Are you torturing SW, again? And you won’t take me either! Stop it, already!!!”

“Give the phone to OCS,” I demand, “we need to kvetch together.”  “Hee” crows PGT “sees ya!” and hands off the phone.

Funeral Crasher…

March 25, 2007

“Who is this older man in the tweed jacket with patched elbows?  He comes in late after all  mourners are seated, just before the service starts.  He sits by himself in the pew at the back, on the aisle seat.  While the minister drones the Psalm..”yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death…”he wipes his eye with his sleeve. During the Eulogy, he nods in silent agreement.  Solemn, subdued, at the end of the service, he files out to the lobby with the rest and takes his place at the end of the condolence line. Once face to face with the widow, he grasps her hand in both of his and murmurs, “Harry was a great golf and tennis partner.  I will miss his many comments and observations on sports and life.  My condolences.”  The bereaved woman is surprised to learn her husband – he who had been a paraplegic for the past twelve years after that awful car accident -had been so skilled on the links and the grass courts! The condolence line moves on and with it the man in tweed.  With the milling, jostling crowd he shuffles toward the refreshments table.  Here are platters of stuffed eggs, tuna sandwiches, brownies, tea and coffee. Here he takes up station and works through the offerings.  Many may wonder about his connection to Harry, the deceased, but are really too occupied to pay any mind to him. He eats a sampling of food from the table, then leaves saying his courtly goodbyes to those he passes. Unnoticed, he pushes out into the rainy afternoon.”

One evening, “Rumpole” and I were dinner guests at a small party our son, “Renaissance Man” and his wife had organized for a group of their closest friends. “RM” is a funeral director, as was one of the men attending this soiree. Each of these young men manage funeral homes in close walking distance from each other. “RM” asked his friend during dinner, “Was the crasher at your service yesterday afternoon?” So that question led to a spirited, yet thoughtful dicussion about the many reasons why people, including complete strangers, might attend funeral services.  They noted this old man at many funeral services, and concluded he was lonely and hungry!

Itching powder…

March 24, 2007

The pictures of  Lenin, Stalin and Malenkov, the Holy Trinity of Communism, projected their benign paternal smiles from their place high on the back of our classroom wall. This was 1954. It was our Russian hour. We were learning to sing “Volga”(Volga, Volga, matyradnaya, Volga, Ruszka, yareka…Nyevigyela tu pudarka, koddanszkova Kazaka…. is my bad Hungarian translated memory of this song). It was a lovely tune, full of love and longing, on the same level of feeling as “Isten Elti a Magyart” our Hungarian national anthem. I was 8 years old, one of the many faceless kids in our form. My neighbour and playmate, Tibor (Tibi) was seated quite far away from me, because we were conspiratorial and got into a lot of trouble over all kinds of stuff.

Our teacher was a drab lady, intensely serious, earnest – a real drill sergeant, I now realize trying to remember her. She didn’t demonstrate one flash of humour, ever, although she was basically kind and didn’t make extreme comparisons about our performance, to our faces, at least. However, our parents had an inside line into the classroom, it appeared, for the slightest falling down on our job as student mysteriously greeted us as a “What did you do! Why must you get singled out for blame?” on our return to home.

During recess our group tended to go absolutely wild and manic.  We badly needed to let off steam! We gossiped, plotted, teased, bucked up each other in little sub-groups. We ran around yelling and laughing.

One of the trouble-makers in class, a clever and inquisitive boy, drifted around from group to group in the schoolyard. He quietly whispered, sotto voce, and groups would grow around him. He said he had concocted some “itching powder” guaranteed to drive even the most self-controlled and calm one of us wild. Loudly we deliberated and argued as how there was no such thing, and where did he find this stuff?  He produced an envelope. It contained a mysterious white powder, which he assured us would have us all convulsing with fits of scratching if we but put a little pinch down the back of our shirts. He proposed to pass it around to all of us to try, once we were back inside the classroom. He promised the reaction of our teacher would be quite hilarious to see.

In orderly line-up, we marched back into the classroom, quietly excited that the next hour would provide some relief from the constant and repetitive drilling we had to endure while at school. Lenin, Stalin and Malenkov looked really pleased about something. Our teacher resumed teaching us fragments of the Volga song. She wrote the phrases in Cyrillic on the blackboard, then the translation in Hungarian. We copied these down as she kept repeating the correct pronounciation over and over again.  Every time she turned her back on the class to write a new phrase on the board, the envelope was passed from hand to hand, surreptitiously, the powder disributed among us all. Many kids tucked the powder down the back of their neck, while the more serious and “good” ones just passed on the envelope without taking a pinch.

Finishing the writing portion of our exercise, the teacher had us place our hands behind the small of our backs, sit up straight and begin following the written phrases on the board to sing the song. Over and over again we did this, until we really sounded quite good, I thought.  “Sing with emotion”, the teacher would exhort. We did! “Really feel the song and what it means!,she said. We tried to do this, really getting into the spirit of things.

Soon, kids sitting in front of me began to move one hand or another up their back, scratching. Others would squirm. Some pressed back into the chair and writhed about subtly. A few gave up the pretence that they were all right and began to scratch with vigour, quite noticeable. Tibi, sitting  a few rows in front of me cast back a quick grin. One girl beside me started to giggle and just couldn’t stop. Teacher looked  about the classroom and demanded to know, “What’s got into you all?” More wriggling, scraching, chuckling and giggling. The instigator piped up and said “There must be something wrong here, I feel awful and very itchy… can I please go home?” Teacher walked over and looked at the back of his neck, then proceeded to the next scratcher and did the same. She began to look concerned, worried even. Then she left the classroom and brought back the Principal. He looked over several kids’ necks, scratched his head with a “My God” kind of expression as he thought and debated about what to do with us all.  Finally, he announced that we had to leave the school and walk home quickly. “Don’t linger on the way! And stay away from people on the street”, he said.

Sure, I itched, but this was a huge bonus – freedom for the rest of the school day.  Tibi and I skipped home, singing!

Mother was drinking ersatz coffee with Tibi’s Mother.  We ran in and reported what happened.  We gave clear details and the complete truth. Our mothers checked down the backs of our shirts and discussed the red rash they noticed there. Tibi’s Mother dragged him off home. My mother was furious and ordered me to bed, no talking, no reading, no singing, no playing. So much for freedom, I thought!

As I lay grumbling in bed it occurred to me that maybe Lenin, Stalin and Malenkov really had something to smile about, up there on the back wall of our classroom.

I am still chukling about this situation, even after so long a time. And I wonder if Tibi still does too!

Aphasia…

March 23, 2007

I know what I want to say.

You look at me, befuddled, while

I repeat over and over again

that which I want to acknowledge,

understand.

I am telling you I am afraid

of this gradual numbness

up my right side where my skin prickles,

a half of me faded away.

My tongue, a fat slug in side my mouth,

writhes,  to form the words

crowding my mind.

I repeat over and over again

all that I want to say!

I am panicked at

the look of bewilderment and concern which

registers on your face.

Clearly, you don’t hear

what I struggle to tell you!

I repeat over and over again.

Please hear me…

This is a sketch I wrote a couple of years ago in the poetry workshop given by my young poet friend, and as in drawn sketches  have erased and substituted a word here and there to clarify things a little for myself.  This is a germ of an idea based on a memory of a TIA(Transient Ischemic Attack) I experienced 14 years ago and which so frightened me.

I have posted this sketch for Jade Park  (http://jadepark.wordpress.com) who is a woman writer describing her feelings about her stroke (at a young age) and her journey of recovery.  We are not alone!

A gift gone wrong…

March 22, 2007

Back in 1996 Mother was in her late seventies, and had recuperated from a major operation on the frontal lobe of her brain. She was fortunate. The lesion found in her brain was benign.  She could still read, which she loved to do and continued to do. And she had cause to celebrate her continuing in this life.  Her youngest daughter, the one born here in Canada, was pregnant and about to present her with a gift – her first real grand-child (Mother didn’t consider “Renaissance Man”, my son then 26 years old, a proper grand-child. I had had him out of wedlock. He was “illegitimate”, a “bastard” and had arrived on this earth in the wrong manner, and he reflected badly on the family and particularly was a public reminder of bad parenting – hers mostly?)

I was happy for her eager anticipation of this new grand-child.  She had revered her own Grand-mother who I also had been fortunate to know for a few years as a growing child and had found great delight in. Here was my Mother about to embark on an experience of yet another stage in her life, as a loving and loved elder.  This was something to celebrate!

Her birthday was coming up and I racked my brains trying to come up with a really good gift. Clothing items were out. Perfume, which she sprayed about her and on her she had more than a few years supply of, especially her favourite “4711” which was becoming more and more difficult to find. Aha, books were called for!

Surreptitiously, I browsed her bookshelves. There were many books of classic contemporary literature.  Many had been on her shelf for numerous years and she kept adding to them.  The only trouble was that they showed little or no sign of having been read.  Whenever I asked her to tell me what she found with “book x”, she would say “It was all right, but not one of my favourites.” And she’d change the subject and pull out the latest Brother Cadfael mystery and express how much she had enjoyed it. So, I waited for the next book in the series to be published and bought it as one of her upcoming birthday presents.

While browsing in Chapters to see what else I could unearth by way of another book for her, it ocurred to me that she may have some fun with reading some current children’s literature, that she may find it amusing and interesting to read some fun books that are also instructive as well and which she may enjoy sharing with her anticipated grandchild. Aha! I thought – Shel Silverstein – a writer of inspired goofiness and someone who celebrated the individuality and quirkyness of children. I looked at the titles on the edge of the books filed on the S shelf. One entitled “Falling up” caught my eye and I pulled it out to look it over.  Found it absolutely engaging and thought about how much “Renaissance Man”  would have enjoyed being read to from it as a 5 year old. “Perfect! Mother will get a huge kick from this, I think! (There were some fun and silly poems that she could use to engage this new  family arrival as he or she grew and started to converse)” I bought it for her!

On her bithday, I travelled loaded down with the two books and a flowering potted plant to have  a visit and tea with Mother. She was like a little child at Christmas – just couldn’t wait to open up her presents. The plant she could readily see, and admiring its pretty blooms swiftly set it aside to get to the fun part of uncovering the wrapped package. The “Brother Cadfael” hard cover was lying on top of “Falling Up”. Her eyes lit up with pleasure, then she took it to her bookshelf to check the novel was not one she already had read and possessed. Satisfied, she came back and pecked me on the cheek.

She then picked up the Shel Silverstein book and asked “Why did you buy me this?” So I went through the whole song and dance of why I thought she might find the book amusing and fun to read to and with her new grandchild. She looked at me with suspicion. Then I said, she may find it a useful gift for someone else’s child, and that it just might give pleasure if not to her, then to whoever she chose to give this book. “Propel it forward.” I suggested.

The “Brother Cadfael” mystery took its place in the growing line-up on her bookshelf. “Falling Up” simply disappeared, never to be seen again, never discussed. I hope that she at least read some of this book before she made it disappear, and perhaps got a glimpse of illicit pleasure from it even if it may have embarrassed her to put in on her shelf for anyone to see.

I think that I will go to the local old book store where two weeks ago I unearthed a Hunter S. Thopson book now out of print, for which”Renaissance Man” expressed  great surprised pleasure as I pressed it in his hand on one of his drop-in visits with us.  The lady there will probably find me a copy of Shel Siverstein’s “Falling Up”. It can come home and sit in pride of place, waiting for my new grandaughter and for me to discover it together, one day soon.

WORD BOWL…

March 20, 2007

Ahhh…morning

he knows a curious fact about

the half-melted sun, and yet

his fortune is to find

the bloom teasing inside the flame

which sheds light on young

pine trees at whose feet recline

boulders with grace.

This is a resulting sketch from an exercise in a poetry workshop given by my young poet friend. We were to choose at random from a bowl 10 slips of paper, each bearing a different word. Then we were to use all of the words to generate a sketch. There were amazing, varied sketches written by everybody there.  I think it might be a good way to encourage writing in children, and wonder if there are teachers in intermediate and secondary grades who use this, or a similar method, as a way to play intentionally with language and encourage kids to generate their own imagery and statements.

An Opera blooper…

March 18, 2007

Memory – It’s a Dreary November evening in 1965. I had performed my duty as Usherette at the local theatre/opera house, the jewel of our city, and had taken up station in the dark vestibule of the Lower Orchestra entrance.  There was a great close view,of the stage set, the orchestra in the pit and the singers, to be had from there. I reveled in the fact that not only was I making money for my upcoming European Adventure, but I loved the opera “Faust”. ( My mother, a keen lover of opera, a wonderful clear soprano, had for the most of my child-hood gone about singing “Ah, je ris… (Marguerite’s Jewel Song)” whenever she was sliding around with felt pads attached to her stocking feet and polishing the wood floors in our apartment in Hungary.  This was also her signature tune summoned up by her whenever she was annoyed with any of us in the family, and by which she indicated she could care less for our feelings about her incessant admonishments, corrections and demands. She played her recording of Faust often, but never shared the details of the story, which we had to ferret out ourselves by listening to the variations in the music, and by sneaking looks at the libretto folded inside the record cover jacket.) But, I digress…

Act l – Faust (a portly middle-aged man, who I then considered rather unattractive and uninteresting) is in his study, bemoaning his life and the failure of Science and Faith, and asks for infernal guidance and aid. He does this with okay acting, in a marvellous tenor voice. Bingo -bango…enters the Devil singing in a melodious insidious baritone ( I perked up! He is really an attractive man – tall, dark and handsome, with really fine legs, altogether yummy!) He goes through his temptation  routine, like a really oily, yet attractive, used-car salesman, and conjures up a vision of Marguerite spinning wool inside her chamber.

This vision appears. We, the audience, know it is supposed to be an imaginary scene, because  mauvish lights go on at stage right and reveal, muted by a scrim, a tall tower-like structure with stairs leading up the front to an open doorway. There, beavering away in a faded fashion, is an attractive darkish-haired young woman, in simple costume, the heroine seated at her spinning-wheel. ( She was an operatic “hottie”, a nice foil for Faust, who seems to be experiencing Mid-Life Crisis)

Suddenly, while Mephistopheles and Faust are doing their melodic negotiations, the tall tower falls down toward the front of the stage, puffs up the scrim, and leaves Marguerite at the top of the stairs exposed to the full glare of stage reality. Oops! Startled, out of character, she stops spinning and looks toward the audience with a kind of “Now what..”look on her face. The tower just misses flattening Faust, who carries on singing, as does Mephistopheles, while the maroon front curtain slowly closes.  The orchestra doesn’t miss a beat, but it soon becomes obvious that the two male singers are trying to hear the accompaniment and, muffled, are slightly out of rhythm with it.

Manfully and professionally, the musicians and singers carry on for the rest of the act (a longish time).  Unseen by all of us out front, the property guys and techs add to the musical atmosphere with noises they make as they scurry around behind the closed curtain to remove the fallen set panel.

Act l ends; the house lights remain dark; the orchestra segues into the  instrumental intermezzo before the next act, leaving those of us in the audience to sort out how we feel about all this.  Audiences at opera here in Canada at that time were very proper and polite. No loud guffaws, or catcalling. No excesses of enthusiasm, either. (We are very sedate people!)

Being just past my teens, at the time, I have less self-control and burst into a fit of giggling which I try to muffle and not being successful with this, have to push my way out to the lobby through the Lower Orchestra entrance door.

Later, at home, I am recounting this to Mother with great glee. Her indignant reaction was to say somewhat irritably, “Well, what do you expect? People here cannot put on a production to equal those back home!” She failed to see the humour in this unexpected happening.

Today, this memory reminds me not to take too much, too seriously, and  that I have personally made some doozers of bloopers during the performance of many tasks in my various “jobs”. Flaws sometimes add great interest.

An apology…

March 18, 2007

Being an ESL person, even after 50 odd years of practice I am still the Queen of the Misplaced Modifier. These scribblings of mine are merely sketches, with all the directness and flaws resulting from quick notation. I apologize to all who must exercise patience in reading these ramblings.

A gift of blue corn…

March 17, 2007

Some gifts are memorable. While we were courting, “Rumpole” and I had a favourite dating destination, junk stores. We pored over the most unlikely stuff from hardware and household tools to unidentifiable and mysterious objects whose possible purposes we guessed at and debated over. Junk stores are really museums, but without all the glitz, hoopla and intellectualizations associated with “proper” museums. We seldom bought anything, being young, poor and somewhat itinerant in manner of living.

One fine Spring Saturday afternoon, while driving at the posted 50 MPH down the main drag of a small Interior town 3 blocks long, we spotted a really disreputable-looking junk store and decided we just had to stop to see inside. We rummaged around the dusty,  disorganized jumbles, pulling  out and exposing numerous strange and wonderful objects with the PATINA (highly desirable) associated with old age and long use. “Rumpole” found his treasure – a WW II rubber and glass gas mask that we took turns modelling for each other. I spied what looked like a man’s formal suit jacket, tugged at it, and to my surprise found  a hand hanging below the left sleeve’s cuff. On closer inspection of this odd combination it became apparent the hand was carefully crafted of wood and covered with a skin coloured smooth painted enamel. The fingernails were beautifully detailed and, curiously, its thumb could be moved toward the forefinger in a pinching gesture. Further examination revealed that there was a string that could be pulled to repeat this motion, and the end of this string was hidden on the inside left front panel of the jacket.  I put the jacket on and found that I could easily, but awkwardly, pick up some objects lying about. And I absolutely and irrationally had to have this for my own. “Rumpole” tried it on and said ” I wanna hold your haaaand” (as in the Beatles song!) as he activated this prosthetic hand to grab mine.  Then he went and paid for it with what little cash he had.

This quirky gift was a forecast of “Rumpole’s” lifelong support of my idiosyncracies and my off-beat and not always “normal” and approved way of doing things.

In 1989, right after my remission from AML, he asked where I would like to go on holidays to celebrate – Hawaii, somewhere in the States or maybe Europe? I thought it would be rather fun to do a road trip of about a month to the 4 Corners area of the US and explore the Navajo and Hopi Reservations. I craved the wide vistas, the big skies and austere and elemental richness of that landscape. So we loaded up our little old trailer and off we went in September.

Having read quite a number of books on the Tewa and Hopi cultures – cosmogony, religious ceremonials and artefacts, I was most curious to see the places where these people still lived. There is quite a trade in the art(ifact)s of indigenous peoples in the United States.  The Tewa People are famous for their pottery (i.e. Maria Martinez of the San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico); the Hopi people’s Kachinas are highly prized and sought by collectors.

We approached the Hopi lands from the east, through Keams Canyon and arrived at First Mesa where the oldest settlement, Walpi, seemed to huddle on the flat top of the mesa. At first, the settlement was difficult to identify – it was so well integrated into its setting – and as we drove up the gravel road around the West and North face of the mesa the village gradually formed in our sight.  We parked at a low stone structure whose sign announced it was the Village Office. Inside, a young woman wearing a fawn-coloured uniform told us that we’d have to wait a couple of hours until she took us on a tour of the village, and also (waving her hand in a sweeping motion) said that we could not enter anywhere in the Town Plaza.

So, there we were, in a village that seemed abandoned, the only outsiders.  We paced and looked about us and noted the details. There were no electric service poles, except near the Village Office. Over the flat rooftops of the low stone buildings were several old-fashioned TV antennas; over the soughing of the wind we heard the unmistakeable sounds of a gasoline-powered generator. An older man, his hair blunt-cut to his shoulders, came out of an alley, unhurriedly walked to an area of the Town Plaza, and disappeared into the ground as if on an invisible elevator. Obviously, there was some kind of meeting in the underground chambers, which would be off limits to visitors. A young boy of 10 years of age approached us and asked if we wanted to see a Kachina he had made.  Sure, we said, and he produced a Mudhead, very rudimentary and not of high aesthetic appeal, but nevertheless very much a mudhead, with an awkwardly shaped brown felt girdle glued around its hips and rattles made out of dried beans stuck onto short twig handles in its upraised fists. It had a certain charm, an earnest and unselfconscious quality.  He wanted $5 for it, so I bargained, “How about $5 and some cookies?” We had a deal! He skipped off, very satisfied, it seemed! I tucked the Mudhead onto the top of the dashboard.

We strolled around  some more, sipping coffee from our thermos lid. I suggested to “Rumpole” that I would just go a little further and explore around the back of the Village Office, and see what could be back there.  Would he keep a lookout for me? So I disappeared into an alley and saw there was just a short distance through it to the edge of the mesa.  Went back and motioned to “Rumpole” to come to where I was lurking, and he joined me looking a bit guilty. Pointed out to him that we were not in the Plaza, where we were not supposed to go. (I felt like a kid who was getting away with something!) We made our way through the alley to the edge of the mesa, and turning West could see the North face of the stone pueblo,with doors set into it at small intervals. The pueblo was set back from the edge of the mesa drop-off by about 20 yards. This was the patio area. This was real estate to put to shame the most desirable and unaffordable one. It had a view to die for. Toward the North Horizon were numerous mesas and plateaus diminishing in clarity. Moving cloud masses alternately cast shadows and projected patches of light onto the irregularly corrugated landscape.  Toward the horizon, a swath of cloud the colour wet bluejeans lowered a scrim of rain. We were mesmerized!

As we stood there, besotted with the view, a woman’s voice lightly called out, “Come in,would you?” A tiny little older lady stood at her open door and beckoned  at us urgently. She ushered us into a low ceilinged room that served as a kitchen and eating area and asked where we had arrived from and where we lived. We told her where, and that it was not as beautiful a place to live as where she did, but that we had every comfort known to man and that was the price we paid for those comforts, the lack of beauty. She said she would have been able to make us a cup of tea, but her husband had not yet returned from the bottom of the mesa where they had to haul their water from each day. She opened the door into a tiny sitting and sleeping area where two very young girls were watching a children’s program on a little black and white TV, introduced them as her grand-daughters who she was looking after while their parents were down in the fields doing some harvesting. Scurrying back into the kitchen she took a bundle of newspapers and extracted a blue rolled packet for each of us and suggested “Try this, we eat this every day.” The taste was delicate, the texture cruchy like very fine cereal and leafy like puff pastry. ” Made of blue corn,” she said, ” we grow it, and I grind it, mix it with wood ash and water into a mush and dry it.”  We had never seen blue corn before,  so she took a handful of dried kernels from a pail and showed us. I noticed she had some clay pots in various stages of drying on the top of her very old and tiny refrigerator and asked if she had any “finished” that we could look at.  Modest, she said she had just recently started to make pots, by hand, and was not too sure they were any good. I told her that I was an amateur potter and would love to see what she was doing herself. She brought out two small burnished bowls decorated with an intricate geometric pattern with clay slip. On one, the decoration didn’t quite fit the girth of the bowl… there was a gap of an inch, as if suddenly the clay form had grown wider while she had been so carefully applying the design.  I rather liked this bowl and asked if she might sell it to me. She tried to talk me out of it, explaining why the other one was a better choice, being more perfect. “Oh, just let me have my way, please, this is the one for me” I insisted. She then tried to tempt me by mentioning a lower price for the one she considered better, and stubbornly, I stood my ground.  “Rumpole” then asked where she fired her pots. She shepherded us out to the edge of the mesa where her rudimentary kiln sat, right next to a large flat stone which she explained was used to dry the corn rolls (PIKI). We discussed heat source (scrub branches and dung from down below) and kiln accidents and failures of firing.  I told her to raise her prices given the complexity of her decoration and the scarcity of fuel. She’d think about that, but maybe when she considered herself a better potter, she explained.

By this time, “Rumpole” kept glancing at his watch nervously. I explained to this woman that we had sneaked back here, and that perhaps we should leave. “Wait before you go” she said and ducked back inside her kitchen. She emerged with a newspaper package, thrust it into my hands, “it’s a gift for you. Try it with some melons. Some of my Piki bread”. Parting from her with thanks, we casually sauntered back through the alley to our truck. The uniformed young woman was waiting for us. “You were not supposed to go back there! You are only allowed to visit with a guide!” she declared, accusing and officious. Spying the newspaper bundle in my hand she demanded, “What have you got there?” I explained that we were just trying to look at the landscape from the mesa rim, and that an older lady had come out to talk with us, we bought a small bowl from her and she had given us some piki bread. Angry, this young woman announced that she would not give us a tour and that we should leave. So, we left!

Thinking back on this now, I realize that I have been a recipient of numerous gifts from “Rumpole”. His patience with my interests and obsessions he may not necessarily share and also with my tendency to wander about doing things “out of regular order”. The travel in the 4 Corners area was a gift that yielded so much satisfaction. Without this trip, I never would have recieved the gift of blue corn piki from the lady at Walpi.