The first of my friends to respond to my invitation to collaborate arrived late last Sunday night, in the middle of a snow storm. James Eck Rippie is a sound artist who, in addition to his independent creative work, works as a sound mixer and designer on film and tv projects in New Orleans. He had driven the 1200 miles from Louisiana without incident, only to get stuck at the bottom of a steep hill a mile from my house. My boyfriend Erik and I picked him up in Lake Ann, and managed to get his Volkswagen up the icy climb and into the lot at the Parsons center.
The plan was: James would work on some sound pieces that he hadn’t been able to because he has been so busy with work, and I would share the most recent cut of a piece I am working on about my psychic filmmaker friend in Maine, and we would give one another feedback. I hoped that James might want to collaborate on my piece and contribute music. The first two days we tried to adhere to a strict schedule. Oatmeal in the morning by 9 am, then work hours, then lunch, a walk, then 4-5 more hours of work, a break for dinner, and “salon” in the evening; sharing our work from the day and also films, books,the work of others that is influencing or inspiring us. But half way into the second day, the schedule went out the window. James had spent hours trying to fix a software glitch on his computer, and then realized he had brought the wrong hard drive, and I hit a wall with my footage- and realized I had to re-transcode hours of clips. We could either spend our time fixing technical glitches, or we could embark on something totally new. We decided to start from scratch. But we were faced with a challenge: where to start? We have drastically different approaches to working. James believes that his art has nothing to do with his own life. I believe that all art is a self portrait. He believes in transcendence from reality into the world of abstraction, I believe in terrestrial bric-a-brac that is at once recognizable and slightly magical, but always attached to a narrative about human experience. He needs a lot of space and alone time to work, I am more productive when I collaborate. We appreciate these things in one another, but where could we find common ground; a place to start a project together? Two things happened, that shaped the rest of our time together; we decided to raid the closet of our absentee host, and James asserted that he would like an interview of himself to exist in the world.
The closet is just behind me as I type. Its full of a random assortment of the personal effects of Jean Noble Parsons. Above the boxes in the closet there is a hand written sign on yellow legal tablet paper that reads: “TO KEEP. EASTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY.” There a few items that still have price tags on them from the estate sale had here after Jean’s death, and then there are some very precious, fragile things: what appears to be a family bible, at least 100 years old, a dictionary of the same vintage, rolled up life drawings, her artist’s portfolio from when she studied to be a medical illustrator, a packet of letters from mentors, former students, friends, a file with her will, with maps of the property, architectural drawings of the ceramics studio she built here… When I knew Ms. Parsons, she was the Chair of the Art Department at Interlochen Center for the Arts. She was in her late sixties. She was small and spry, always wearing work boots and tucked in flannel or denim shirt. She had a bird like profile- a small face and a long, distinct nose. Her hair was short and parted on one side and she wore a pair of 1960′s Malcolm X glasses. In the framed portrait of her we found the closet, she looks very different. The same bird like profile is framed by carefully placed pin curls, and a ribbon collared dress. She’s wearing lipstick, and has an innocent, slightly goofy glamour about her.
We unrolled her drawings one by one and weighted them on the corners so that they would lay flat on the linoleum floor. A nude woman with a bun, looking over her left shoulder drawn in charcoal, a male figure, drawn with bolder lines, with a foreshortened leg and giant foot- an exercise in perspective. The drawings were pleasant enough – in each one a figure could be identified within competent, evenly keeled strokes. But they lacked the flickers of expression that often show through in quick, loose drawings. It was hard to identify any personality in the artist. The lines seemed politely drawn within the edges, and neither obsessively neat nor passionately messy. James asked me if I liked Ms. Parsons when I was her student.
A: “I liked her. Or respected her. She scared me. I don’t think she liked me.”
J: “Why, because you seemed like somebody that might come to her house and go through all her personal belongings after she was dead?
I love biographical details. In art and in life. And, in both, I can demand a level of intimacy that feels invasive to some. Ms. Parsons struck me as a private person, who valued clarity, discipline and order. At 15 years old, I was the physical manifestation of the opposite of all of those things. I imagine I offended her sensibilities, but that she thought she might be able to help me. She chided me once, while walking past my studio “If you spent as much time working as you did decorating your studio you’d be somewhere by now!” And, later, she added that I needed to practice making my bed every morning and eating my oatmeal as a kind of test to myself. When I returned from winter break with a portfolio of pastel drawings that had more depth and skill than she had ever witnessed out of me she didn’t believe they were mine. She thought my mother, an artist, had drawn them for me.
But Ms. Parsons is no longer here, and what is left of hers, by choice and chance, can’t embarrass her. Nor should it. They are fragments of a life lived thoughtfully; a life lived with conscious and persistent morality. Will these items ever make it into an archive? What of hers was sold or thrown out? Who decided what and why? She had no partner as far as I can tell, and no children. The students that were so effected by her are flung far and wide, and many of them weren’t even aware of her passing (in the year 2000) until long after the fact. We rifled through and wondered. The prize items: A vivid medical illustration of a white rat with a grotesque skin carcinoma (made doubly eerie by the fact that Ms. Parsons succumbed to cancer.) and an epic, 10 page letter to young Ms. Parsons from a (seemingly married) older man in which he philosophizes about pottery, “eastern thought”, the Scandinavian work ethic, and shares a sensual dream that he had about her. Lastly, a large manila envelope with photographic prints from her days working for the Wanamaker label in New York City. Many of them featured the same woman; a long legged socialite with wholesome, Patty Duke like facial features, in “casual” poses on the streets of New York City. Each were stamped on the back with the name of the photographer.
We googled the artist and discovered that he was the same photographer who took the controversial jacket photo for Truman Capote’s first book. We thought this was a funny coincidence, as one of the 3 books that James had brought with him to share with me was Truman Capote: Conversations. James brought the book because he’s a Capote fan, but also because he has been thinking about documentary narratives, and curious about structures of interviews and conversations in both practice and presentation. The book’s format is somewhat unusual, as the conversations are largely unedited, and have a raw, stream of consciousness structure.
So, somewhere between sifting through Ms. Parsons past, and making something to eat, James decided that he would like an interview of himself to exist, and that I should be the one to make it. I had touted my own interview skills, and he wanted to see them in action. That, and I think our review of the artifacts in Ms. Parsons closet might have stirred in him some ideas about legacy, and presentation of one’s life and work. This, you must know, is highly out of character for James. In the past, he has gone out of his way to avoid interviews. He got a taste of fame in his early twenties, when an experimental album he recorded received some critical acclaim, and he found the scrutiny uncomfortable. In press photos, he was always turned away from the camera. He didn’t understand why anyone needed to know anything about him in order to appreciate his music.
Though I didn’t intend to document him, it suddenly seemed like a great way for us to collaborate. We decided I would do the video, and he would do a sound track to it using field recordings from his stay here.
The interviews were rich, spontaneous, funny. He even looked at the camera a few times. One notices, within moments of talking to James, that he is equal parts nihilistic and tender. He told me some intense stories about rough times he had as a kid, and it struck me how resilient he was, and how it made sense that in his work, he would want to transcend this plain of existence, for one where people and their dramas didn’t clutter up the picture. Here he was, this southern boy, who had never really seen snow, standing on a frozen lake in a pair of snowshoes, telling me about his crazy childhood in Memphis. It occurred to me that there might be a comfort in the contrast for him. That this landscape, this cold, pristine blanket of white, as different as it was, might be somewhat transcendant for him. It had been snowing since he had arrived, so much so that we didn’t even attempt to leave the house unless we had on multiple layers of clothes and a pair of snowshoes. It was James first time seeing that much snow and spending any time in the cold. Until proven otherwise, to James, Michigan is a place where at least 5 inches of fresh, fluffy white snow, falls every day, and the roads are rarely passable. “Is this where they filmed Northern Exposure?” He asked on his first day here.
On his final day here, we were discussing the last shots that we needed to make the portrait complete, and I suggested that James could record the sound of fire in the fireplace. I thought it might be interesting in conjunction with all the snow covered landscapes we’d been shooting in. James thought it would be more interesting to record the sound of a fire burning on a frozen lake. Erik was with us. He is a sculptor who works primarily with wood. He loved the idea, and he immediately went out on the lake and built a beautiful, blazing fire just off the dock. James recorded the fire with his equipment, and I recorded him. At one point he said he could hear the low sound of the ice giving way under the fire. We waited for the fire to break through, but it never did.
Most striking to me, during our interviews, was the driving force behind James’ work as an artist. He wants to live a life in which everyone is more highly aware of their surroundings, and he wants to make work that demands that level of awareness from others. His work is a call to come “Back to Your Senses” in a very literal way; asking the receiver be fully present in the moment, and experience the nuances of their own perception.
So, if you couldn’t see it coming, this portrait of James is going to be a mini-episode for Back to Your Senses. I was delightfully caught off guard by this process. I’ve struggled with how to represent the philosophical aspects of the idea of “Back to Your Senses” and this piece will allow me to express those in a way that doesn’t feel forced.
As for the objects of Ms. Parsons; they have been lovingly placed back in the closet, so that other artists who stay here might find them and appreciate them in their own way. I intend to notify the University of the potential significance of the photos and inquire about the archival possibilities for the rest of the items.
James is on the road home now. Thanks to magic of the interwebs, we’ll be collaborating on the video portrait over the next week or two and I’ll be posting it here when it’s finished.