Northern Michigan Musicians Billy Strings and Don Julin take the leap into gigging full time. Don, a seasoned musician who has learned how to juggle multiple musical talents in order to make a living, and young, virtuosic Billy, whose musical career is just beginning, find one another at just the right time.
I know the trails here now by heart. Now I don’t look up as much on my daily walks. Trying to see things anew. Here is a series of photos made from a combination of fun iphone apps from snapshots taken during recent weeks. All close to the Parsons Center.
The first 60 days were about gathering, making, and sharing. Now, I’m deep in editing mode. I’ve done winter. It’s still out there, but in a less glorious form; melting and freezing and melting again. Snowshoes slip on the ice crusted surface of the snow that left, and the ice on the lake has lost a layer of thickness and seems unsafe to walk on. I’m editing multiple projects. There are at least 3 sequences open on my computer at any given time. I’m in front of the computer by 9AM. I eat my oatmeal, but I’ve stopped making my bed. I edit for four hours, take a lunch break, a walk, and then back to work. Sometimes I eat dinner, sometimes I don’t. I work again at night. The days and nights and press pots full of coffee start to run together. One of the things that’s frustrating with this medium is that until there is a comprehensible chunk of edited video to share, there is nothing to show for your work. Progress is measurable only by you, and whatever editing experience you have to compare it to. Transcoding files, slogging through footage, logging it, organizing and reorganizing based on changes in concept or hard drive failures. I miss painting, and having paint all over my hands and clothes (and face and hair) and drawing, in that they are physically engaging during the editing process, and there is a clear measure of your progress right in front of you, whether or not you choose to share it. I also miss having awesome, multi colored paint and charcoal marks all over my work clothes. There is a physical engagement with the world when one is gathering footage for film and video, but, unless you are cutting film stock manually, there isn’t with the post production process.
In the meantime, two mini-residency sessions have come and gone. My childhood friend Genna and her partner Jesse, who took a week before their cross country band tour to hunker down and record, write and play, and my dear friend Aric, who took time from his demanding schedule as a professor at the University of Michigan and director of the New England Literature Program to work on his writing, walk and cook with (for) me. Aric likes schedules. We made one together:
Pictured below is one of his famous “health bowl” dinners; a mod-podge of things to put in a bowl and cover with tahini dressing:
I did some shooting with Genna and Jesse, and one of the sequences that I am working on is a very short piece about one of their songs. A micro-micro episode. They played a house concert here at Parsons center, and some of that footage, as well as a concert for the trees (and me) that they did out on the frozen lake, will be part of that piece.
Evan, my dear friend from childhood, with whom I climbed to my first rooftops to read beat poetry aloud when we were twelve and thirteen years old in Ann Arbor, Michigan, came to the Parsons Center to do a mini-residency last week. We’ve barely spoken since a humid day in New Orleans seven years ago when he was still living on his boat in a back channel somewhere on the edges of the city. I climbed over an old dam wall, and he picked me up in his dinghy. Me: “I feel like you don’t respect me. Like you doubt my decision making.” Evan: “I do doubt you.” Words like a stone. Words that I’ve worn, for too long, around my neck.
My houseboat, the Satsuma, in St.Louis.
In 2004, I went down the Mississippi River in a 32 foot long, fifty year old houseboat. I was joining Evan and his buddy Dave, who had become sort of sub-cultural icons. A few years prior, they had built a raft and taken it down the Missouri river. It sank, and they nearly did as well, but that water got into their veins. They wanted to live on the river. Their next craft was an actual houseboat named the Tsunozzy, and that boat, along with Evan, Dave, their dogs, and crew of constantly shifting travelers (and their dogs), came and went. Their lifestyle was written about in zines around the country, and the ancient idea of living free on the river resurfaced in the hearts of a new generation.
Evan piloting the Tsunozzy.
At the end of the Tsunozzy’s first adventure, I went to join Evan and Dave and company and lived on the boat, and attached raft, as they followed the Tombigbee River into the Intracoastal Waterway in the Gulf of Mexico. I got the bug too. A year later, they would embark on another river odyssey. This time it would be a whole group of them, with multiple homemade boats, and they would travel the length of the great Mississippi. I’d follow, and make a film.
Just before I was to start my misadventure, I was living in Portland, Maine, walking down Congress street on a blustery March day with a good friend. I stopped to marvel at a dusty storefront with a stenciled unicorn head painted on the window. There was no name on the window, just a small OPEN sign hanging on the door. We went in. From behind beaded curtains came a large, Samoan-looking man wearing an Asian robe. “Can I help you?”, he asked in a bellowing voice. We declined and started to leave, but he stopped me. “You.” He was talking to me. “You’re going on a trip. You’re going to be okay. But if you want them to take you seriously, you have to take yourself more seriously.” And, later, once he had my full attention: “You are going to have a daughter someday. But, promise me this: don’t let your lack of confidence hang around your daughter’s neck like a stone.”
I traded my Subaru for a houseboat in Winona, Minnesota, and waited for the armada of punk boaters from Minneapolis to float by on the river. I joined them at Latch Island, and entered the stream of the most difficult, and harrowingly beautiful year of my life. By December 24th of that year, 6 months later, I was alone, in a sinking houseboat dusted with snow, tied up to a public dock in the old pirate town of Morgan City, Louisiana. The boat had almost been swallowed by the river, with me on it, a number of times. At the beginning of the trip, I had invited a more experienced filmmaker, 15 years my senior, who had made a stunning film about train-riding hoboes to co-direct the movie with me. I thought he could be my mentor. He moved onto the boat with me, and within days I was wishing he would hit his head hard and fall right off of it. I made a mistake that I continue to learn from: I doubted my ability to do it myself. The tension between the Satsuma and the rest of the fleet, was clear from the beginning; we were not one of them. My heavy, lumbering houseboat, with it’s bickering inhabitants and a constantly failing engine, spun out of control in the main channel of the river, while the small, homemade punk boats floated gently down the stream. Evan was a kind of big brother, whom I was running to catch up with, but for whom my lack of self-sufficiency, and bumbling ways, were ultimately an embarrassment. My boat had become the stone around their necks.
Sitting on that sinking boat in Morgan City, at the end of my river, huddled under the blankets with my dog and a stray kitten I had picked up along the way, I just wanted a hot shower and a dry bed. The river had been a thousand rivers. I had barely made it.
Dave drives his boat down the Upper Mississippi.
There were sweet times: Sleeping on the sandy islands of the upper Mississippi, keeping our dogs close at hand while a pack of coyotes, just feet from the boat, howled at the piercingly bright stars. Finding gem-like clam shells with perfectly punched holes piled up along the banks- the waste from old shell button factories. Catching catfish from the roof of the boat, and frying them up for dinner. Finding tucked-away spots to anchor for the night. Walking through tangled brush on forgotten parts of the river bank into veritable ghost towns. Being the stranger in those places, unwashed and wild. Small town libraries, with our bikes and gas cans piled up outside. Dumpster diving at dollar stores. Making hearty meals from our spoils. Drunks, and fishermen, and off duty cops, who came to marvel at us. Whose dreams we were living. On land we got dirty looks; we were trouble. On the water we were something to be envied. The river offers a powerful shift in perspective. The heart of the country, turned inside out, and inside, and out again.
Here is an unedited piece that I filmed with my old Bolex Super 8 camera of Evan cleaning a catfish (turning it inside and out) on the upper Mississippi. Real Super 8, shot off the wall.
In Iowa, Evan had to talk a disgruntled postal worker out of joining us. He had three months to go at his job before a generous pension kicked in, but wanted to give it up to buy a rowboat and follow us down the river. Evan was gentle but firm: the river will be here after you get your pension. That same guy had a brother-in-law who ran a small zoo. The kind where the animals have glazed-over eyes and live in cages that are too small. The guy gave us a ride to town to get gas and on the way stopped at a donut shop to get a bag of day-olds. We stopped at his brother’s zoo on the way back, and he walked into the bear cage. He fed the bear donuts and showed us how the bear liked to wrestle when he’s all hopped up on sugar.
There was more. Memories that bob and surface like that behemoth refrigerator that I saw being sucked under and popped out in the main channel of the lower Mississippi, just outside of Memphis. The power of those currents shook me. How could this boat-sized piece of detritus disappear and reappear so forcefully: first up river, then down, then up again. Didn’t the river flow one way? There was a whirlpool it seemed, moving at torpedo speed, just below the surface.
The river didn’t swallow us. Or if it did, it was only me it swallowed, metaphorically, and spit back up, like that giant old fridge. And now, nearly eight years later, here I am, in the frozen woods of Northern Michigan, with a dry bed and a hot shower.
Evan and his girlfriend Courtney drove up from Pittsburgh, narrowly missing a colossal snow storm. It was immediately great to see Evan, and I fell in love with Courtney right away.
Evan and Courtney
I had feared that the weight I had learned to carry on the river, a kind of self-hatred for not being wilder, stronger, and more self-sufficient, would find its way back around my neck. But years have passed. And, in ways I couldn’t have imagined at twenty-six years old, I’m wilder, stronger, and more self-sufficient. I like getting older. My experience in my thirties has been that the stakes become higher; everything is more infused with purpose, and the bullshit falls away. Friendships, especially the ones that have held on over decades, are rich markers of time. I’m tempted to make some frozen lake analogy here – something about the freezing layers and the rich marine life under the ice, but it wouldn’t do. The kind of friendship I am talking about is the kind that goes through hundreds of seasons, and needs an analogy that spans a larger swath of space and time. I think of the spiral drawn in red pen on a note that Evan passed to me in 7th grade. He explained that our lives were more like spirals than straight lines. He circled a place about a fourth of the way through the spiral “We’re about here.” I don’t remember whether he said we move inwards or outwards, but I do remember that there wasn’t a discernable end.
My ice hole on Bellows Lake.
We revisited that New Orleans boat moment on the ice at Bellows Lake. Evan had given me his auger so that I could drill my own hole. The auger had a dull blade, and months of video editing hasn’t put me in the best shape for powering through a foot of ice with a manual drill. Evan was fishing through his ice hole fifteen feet away, aware that I was struggling. I was determined to do it myself, and didn’t want to ask for help. Fifteen minutes passed, then a half an hour, turning the huge blue spiral of the auger this way and that. In the 10 degree cold I was sweating, taking off my coat and hat. I yelled at the auger a few times, and finally asked Evan to check the depth.“You’re almost there.” he assured me.
Evan and Courtney on Bellows Lake
Sometime between 30 and 45 minutes into my drilling, my arms numb, I broke the proverbial ice. “I want to talk about stuff, but I also am enjoying your company without talking about stuff.” (We had both mentioned in passing that there was “stuff” to talk about, the misadventure that was the river, and the long silence after.) Evan said he didn’t know if there was anything really to say. I agreed but then added that I had felt so judged by him, and so alone during some hard times on the river. “Yes,” he said, “I bet it was hard.” He thought about it for a while, “I have impossible standards.”
Right about then Courtney and my boyfriend Erik arrived, and just as they did, my drill finally broke through the last layer of ice.
Evan with what we *think* was a small muskie.
Evan caught a muskie, and Erik caught a small perch, both of which we threw back. The next fish Evan was determined to keep, even though it was a small one. I got a few good nibbles, lost a wax worm and then, when I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes anymore, called it quits. That night, like every night Evan and Courtney were here, we ate and drank very well.
In the morning, Evan and Courtney were packing up and Evan had a confession to make. He had kept that small fish, determined to cook it and eat it, but they had run out of time. He’d left it in the bait bucket with the minnows. He felt awful. He felt wasteful. He had killed the fish for no reason. What should he do with it? Should he throw it in the woods? Put it back in the lake? I told him that, as penance, he should wear it around his neck all day. We laughed. He decided he would find a spot on the lake and throw it back in. He picked up the bait bucket and something thrashed inside. The fish, it turned out, was still very much alive. We all cheered. Courtney and Evan walked it down to the river, and let it go. It didn’t even hesitate. It swam off fast and strong.
Other highlights of the week: grinding rye grains, hearing Courtney make soap in the room next door while I edited video, Evan and Erik trading tools and stories about woodworking, boat building and basket making.
Watching “Dead River Rough Cut“, one of my favorite documentaries, and seeing Evan and Courtney love it too, drinking homemade ciders from gathered city apples, all different recipes, and keeping a tasting chart to give to the brewer.
Brought to you by good apples.
And the food, oh my god the food. Courtney’s pancakes made from fresh ground wheat and buttermilk, Evan’s potatoes and eggs, some ridiculously good mustard glazed chicken, quinoa and kale that even Erik liked. And, on my birthday, a lemon cream cheese cake with toasted almonds on top.
Thanks, Evan and Courtney, for the cake, for your company, for making the trip in the first place, and being here so fully. It was wonderful to spend time with you both. My arms are still sore from that damn auger, but it’s a good kind of sore. Tomorrow I’m going back out on the ice, with hopes to catch something big to eat. If I catch your little fish, I’ll be sure to let it go. (Damn, I wish there was still some of that lemon cake around. Oh, and Courtney, you know what I was thinking? LEMON CAKE ALMOND SOAP. Amiright? Almonds add a little exfoliant.)
Courtney’s soap curing in the writing room.
As for the words of my psychic friend, in Portland, Maine, seven years ago: I don’t have a daughter. Not yet. But, when she comes, putting that stone around her neck will be hard to do. Because half of it will be lying at the bottom of the Mississippi River, covered in ten feet of silt and the other half, will be in the belly of a little fish, swimming under the ice in Bellows Lake.
This week, in addition to editing the “James” piece, making my bed and eating my oatmeal every morning (ok, at least twice this week), I’ve been thinking about narrative structure and post production work-flows, and so I’ve been dipping into the book that functions as my documentary production bible: Michael Rabiger’s Directing the Documentary. Its designed to be an academic text book, and its full of useful technical information, but Rabiger is dyed-in-the-wool documentary director, and reflects upon his personal experience through out the text in brilliant, boldly titled little chunks of wisdom. It’s one of those books you can open to any page and take away some morsel; like this one in Chapter 30, under the heading BELIEVING IN YOUR AUTHORITY:
It takes no mystical powers to see which way a person leans, only careful observation… If you elect to play a role-that of investigating and making a record-you must expand enough to become assertive and politely demanding in a way that people in regular life (wrongly, I think) might deem invasive. The more stoic and repressive of feeling a person (or culture) is, the more extreme are the pressures they hold behind the mask and the more your function as a catalyst can matter.
Here Rabiger is reminding us to trust our impulses to inquire. It’s an important sentiment, in part because it’s so contradictory to all of the rules of social behavior we have been trained to adhere to. Every day, we go to great lengths to avoid conflict. But conflict is the main ingredient in every story worth telling. I worry that my work avoids conflict. Or allows it to rest below the surface, and maybe too much below. Is this an aesthetic choice, or am I being a wimp? Is politeness outweighing my commitment to the content? Does there always have to be some kind of battle structuring the arc of a story, or can the battle be something thats more abstract? Or implicit in the approach of the filmmaker? I find myself thinking about the moody, abstract, sonically sumptuous “take-away” shows of Vincent Moon in which there is no explicit external conflict shaping the arc of the individual pieces, rather, it’s an implicit conflict inherent in the expression of music (each piece lasts the duration of at least one song) which always has its origin political or personal upheaval, as well as the surprising intimacy of his lens. Instead of searching for explicit conflict, Vincent Moon crosses boundaries that others would politely avoid in order to gather unmasked, improvisational “performances”- musicians singing and playing without a dedicated audience in their homes or in the streets. He gets closer with his camera than most would, and focuses on the features and textures of the subject with an almost romantic intimacy; whether its an old aboriginal man making a traditional instrument, or a young beautiful woman singing in the streets of her hometown. I am moved by his work, and though I can’t identify a story arc outside of the structure of a song, I remain engaged for the entirety of each piece.
A different approach, and one I am equally engaged by, is the socially motivated work of Andrew James. In his forthcoming film, Streetfighting Man, James takes on the staggering social issue of three men facing the daily struggle of living in poverty in Detroit.
Similar to Moon, he employs a poetic eye in his cinematography, and has clearly established trust and intimacy with the subjects of the film. But in James’ work, each scene emphasizes the battle each character faces in their daily life. The dramatic external conflict of each character structures the film. Though they aren’t diametrically opposed in approach (both filmmakers employ a verite style with an attention to poetic visual detail) these filmmakers offer two different ways to engage a subject and, believing in their own authority, to move into formerly hidden, revelatory territory. Moon’s films are meditative and more akin to a poem. James’ films are nuanced and visually stunning statements about injustice- and they shake the audience into lucidity about a particular cultural issue. Their literary equivalent is long form non-fiction. Both filmmakers invite us to become more aware of our surroundings- literally more alert in our senses- and discover something new. Both filmmakers assert their authority in order to get closer to their subjects than other people would. There is a confidence in the intimacy of their lens and a boldness in the way they edit what they have recorded. There is no question what they value when you watch their work. Because of their clarity, their subjects have integrity. Because of their lack of apology, we trust their eye.
Michael Rabiger continues:
In your role as a director you sometimes probe on behalf of the audience, on behalf of history, or even on behalf of humanity. This is both frightening and exhilarating… To the participant, your attention, your invitation to make a record, confirms that he or she exists and matters… The camera is a little engine of history and a magnet to confession. Those who use it often get treated like priests or doctors.
With this authority comes a huge responsibility, to be sure. If I’ve made it to the stage of producing a video, if I’ve required a commitment of time and resources from myself and others in order to pursue an idea, the idea is probably worth the weight. As I get older, this weight is what I look for; it’s an indication that I care deeply about the situation at hand and that there is something important at stake. Rabiger uses the similes above to indicate how charged the relationship is when someone trusts you with their personal narrative: you become privy to the prayers, pains and predilections of the people you bear witness to. And sometimes, just because you have had the privilege of viewing, you see things that more clearly than others do. Like Rabiger says- it’s not mystical. It’s a product of observation. As a director, what is your responsibility to the subject when you have this knowledge? You aren’t a doctor or a priest. It’s up to others, not you, to use your work as a prayer or a poultice.
Going forward, I want to be less of a wimp. My questions need to match my passion for being present. My inquiry needs to meet my depth of feeling for the subject at hand. I have to believe in my authority, not as an exercise in ego, but as a commitment to the subject matter. Politeness is a bad excuse. Kindness and compassion can be executed without it.
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 EckRippie 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.
A young Ms. Parsons.
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?
Drawings from the closet.
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.
Portrait in progress.
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.
Fire on the ice. Bellows Lake.
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.