Issue No. 1, Summer 2012

 Steps Ascending
Stephen Mead

Machu Picchu has over 3,000 steps spread over its five square miles, some of these steps made from a single stone.  It is fortunate that these steps are spread out rather than in a single column since that would be perfect conditions for potential cardiac arrest.

Walking home from my hospital night shift, especially in the spring, I recall thinking about Machu Picchu, that sacred, unfinished, historical Aztec site.  The neighborhoods I wandered through were not so grand with breathtaking vistas, hidden niches, elaborate sanctuaries, temples, fountains, gardens, bridges carved right out of gigantic trees, or houses with thatched roofs,  but there was enough dew-wet greenery from the overhead leaves and postage stamp lawns lining both sides of the streets, to create a circumstance for wonder.  The fact that I was somewhat bleary-eyed and ready for sleep also helped.

The Aztecs supposedly chose the geography for Machu Picchu due to key astronomical events whereas I’m not quite sure if there are any significant ley lines formed at the corners of crossing streets I meet except for the occasional Mom and Pop Shop or Laundromat.  Furthermore there is the Peruvian mystery as to why Machu Picchu was left unfinished.  Did the builders, resenting the grandiose vision of the rulers, finally just go on strike, saying “Eh, excuse me, but take off your fine robes and go do some of this back breaking work your own damn selves.”?  I don’t see such rebellious strike signs being raised in the residential neighborhoods I pass, but I do find an affinity with the knowledge that these places are in-process and, like housekeeping, like Machu Picchu, perhaps never to be finished.  Lawns must be mowed, sidewalks shoveled, windows caulked, and roofs be replaced whether any of us find a thing sacred about it or not.

I think it is a work of art to walk home from work each day creating patterns of the cosmos in the broken asphalt.  I came up with the preceding statement for a poetry magazine which asked authors for unusual one-liners as part of the magazine’s submission process.  I don’t recall whether my work was accepted, (I think not), yet I still find patterns of the cosmos in the broken asphalt.  In fact, as part of a project I was working on I went so far as to photograph a blue glass heart in the midst of such cracking bits of street.  The blue glass heart was personally symbolic, representing not only myself but any person’s journey through the world, while the shine of splintered mica and layered lightning-shaped cracks of concrete did create the impression of a cosmic event.  Either that or I was just bleary-eyed again, hoping no one would call the Mental Health Crisis Unit while seeing me set down the glass heart and take out my camera.

If there was any ley line of energy made where the heart was placed its origins were dubious and obscure at best, though walking from work to home, roughly a two mile jaunt, occurred mainly in a straight line and I found something resembling kismet in that.  It’s not as if I could see my apartment from the hospital or visa versa, (though I did occasionally imagine both and my stick figure walking to and fro from a geometric aerial view between point A to point B), but as I got closer to one or the other, a sort of internal frisson occurred, like seeing a long-destined island through a nautical spyglass.  Having one’s distant destination in sight through a whiter opening between trees, one could breathe easier with the knowledge that there was not much farther to go.  Mainly upon coming home heart and spirit lifted a bit knowing I had only five more steps to reach the porch to my apartment building, and then just maybe a couple dozen more to reach my bed, fall in and snooze.

Picture the rising five steps to the front porch, gray scuffed steps sagging slightly in the middle, steps without railings but made more vibrant by holly bushes on each side, holly bushes great to sneak clippings from for holiday decoration.  Yes, picture those steps and then the porch itself, a dusty, flaking, paint-peeling grey seeming to lurch, as if sea sick, a little from the house.

Red high heels, got the sways and reels, heading home…

Sometimes those lyrics from the Jane Siberry song “Red High Heels” plays through my system as I climb up, onto and over the porch for the slope does promote a slightly drunk vertiginous sense.  I also think of Anne Sexton and her lines:  “The sea is the face of Mary…grown rough and wrinkled/with incurable age.”  It is the chipping battleship gray paint of the porch which conjures those lines, the not entirely symmetrical, jigsaw boards of wood which are wave-like with the gray paint bubbling up to lighter shades.  In theory if not in refurbishment, I rather like paint-peeling wood, the grooves and texture of it, especially when the wood has different colors of paints from different time periods.  One can almost hear the voices of conflicting historical viewpoints, the dialogues of spirits squabbling over what paint color was best and what on earth could the prior painters have been thinking.

The word pentimento comes to mind, a word introduced to me by the author Lillian Hellman and used as a title for one of her autobiographies.  Pentimento refers to an alteration to a painting while the painting is in progress, an alteration not necessarily revealed by the finished piece but which nevertheless exists in the under-drawing where the artist took a different route from the original intention.  An x ray may show this or the change might be discovered by an art preservationist coming across a patch where, for example, a figure was painted over, changed into part of the background.

I also think of a passage in a Nabokov novel where he relates the origins of a pencil he is writing with.  If I remember correctly Nabokov contemplates the journey of the pencil to its beginnings as part of a tree, the cutting, the manufacturing, the factory worker adding the lead, the yellow paint along the pencil’s sides, the packaging, the travelling to a shop where the pencil was purchased, the many twists and hands along the way before the pencil made its way to Nabokov’s fingers.  I imagine such a storyline for the porch of my own apartment building, especially where the paint has been so worn that actual beige strips of Pine wood are visible, the knots even which once were branches.

How many thousands of grains in a board of wood compose what could be considered beauty?

Perhaps Druids were on the right track when honoring trees and nature, giving gratitude to that which offers sustenance, shelter, and does so mainly in peace.  Fibrous roots sunk yards into the earth may put up a persistent struggle against being yanked, but trees are not exactly an aggressive life form.  They do not become Tolkien’s Ents even when provoked, and who could really blame them if they did?  This is why talk about distressed wood being fashionable cracks me up.  If the wood isn’t being used in an experiment and shown “The Perils of Pauline” on a regular basis it must come to us already distressed enough.

I slowly run a hand over the sun-warm barky surface of this porch floor and a pentimento of memory occurs for other porches, other times.  There is an oily latex scent in the air and I am back washing windows with newspaper and vinegar on my grandparent’s enclosed front verandah.  It wasn’t that big in size but maybe veranda was the word used then in the vernacular of city porches just as the rocking sofa on that porch was called a davenport even though I don’t think it opened into a bed.  That porch, like the one I presently sit on, also had a gray floor, but was of such shine and polish as to almost glare with the sun reflected upon it.  Summer nights were the best time to be out there though, streetlamps giving a yellowish pink glow to the interior while the air carried the sounds of those shooting hoops in the park across the street.

The night soundtrack of my grandparent’s porch, which held an occasional siren too, was a big contrast to the crickets and cicadas we heard from the porch of my parent’s farm, the insect nightlife actually more gregarious and louder.  Also, what was it with battleship gray?  Was there just a surplus of cheap cans to be gotten after WW II?  Once again the floor of my parent’s porch had that color, but this time it was painted over concrete.  My parent’s porch was another enclosed one though this had not always been the case.  I’ve seen photos dating back to the early 1900s when the porch was wooden and open to the air.  Not being an expert on carpentry, (I barely passed Shop), I’m not sure how the outside porch was converted to an enclosed one but I do have a couple good memories of it.

I remember how the clothes dryer vented out onto that porch, and how, whatever the season, even when a hose was connected to the vent and run out the front door, the porch windows would steam up.  The air had that of a mild sauna, a warm comforting moisture, and squeaky doodles could be made on the tall porch windows with one’s finger.  My siblings and I were often told not to do this however as the finger marks left a residue when the windows dried and returned to being clear.  Frost also created incredibly detailed patterns on those windows in the winter, thick feathery wisps and swirls.  I photographed them one time at sunset with a 110 camera, compelled by the stained glass effect of oranges and reds on the icy panes.  Another thing I photographed was an old wooden step ladder that had been left on the porch.  I climbed up it so the lens could frame the steps further down, how each one was covered with blotches from different painting projects, a multi-colored Pollock impasto.

Layers being built up, layers peeling away, the motion of years, and how many storylines occur on the fairly simple structure of an ordinary porch?

I think of debutantes waiting in their shadowy wings amid jasmine and honeysuckle.  What suitor will appear?  Will he be a decent one or a scoundrel?  I think of rocking chairs on porches and elders speaking of “olden days”.  I picture glowing gold and burgundy Japanese lanterns, globes of festivity, of ritual and tradition.  I think too, unfortunately, of gang activity and drive-by shootings.

The porch to my apartment building I live in hasn’t, to my knowledge, seen too much in the way of a storyline while I’ve lived here, at least not a story line where a singular event occurred and changed the destinies of all players involved.  The events have all been more along the lines of small moments lending detail to landscapes existing unconsciously, like rooms in dreams.

On one occasion my sister helped me carry down onto these porch steps shadowboxed pieces of art.  I wanted them to be photographed in natural light, and since they were earth-based, housing painted hands shaped from clay, along with moss, feathers, twigs, I was struck by the affinity they suddenly had with the porch.  Those pieces were like small rectangular time capsules in their barn wood frames, as my sister and I were also in some sort of larger ephemeral diorama time itself formed.

On another occasion an accident occurred in front of the apartment building but since I had been inside I was unaware of it until I was leaving.  It was puzzling to me to find all these strangers both in the yard and on the porch, some having set up chairs.  I had a sudden impulsive feeling that I should sell tickets or hot dogs.  I could tell the accident was nothing bad, just a typical fender bender and, unless I can help, I have this perverse streak in my nature which goes against stopping and staring.

I have had this streak ever since witnessing the remnants of what appeared to be a fairly serious traffic accident when I was a pre-teen. It was mid-winter, the sun already down, and I was riding with my parents and siblings on the way to my mother’s parents.  We had just crossed a small bridge which ran high above rocky rushing waters when we came upon the blue and red flashing lights, the crumpled smoking metal,  the stretchers and uniforms, the shouts and foreboding urgency.  In the darkness I could not make out if what I saw was pooling fuels or blood but I know I was gripped by an inexplicable empathy and fear for whomever the trauma was happening to.  I remember starting to moan and my sister saying “It’s alright.  No one was hurt bad.”   To this day I think she said this just to calm me down and I am still grateful.

As far as the accident which occurred in front of my apartment building goes, I remember asking one of the women sitting on the porch if she lived in my building.  “Oh no,” she laughed.  “I live a couple streets over.”  I’m not sure if I rolled my eyes but I do know the woman and I looked at each other trying to decide which one of us might be crazier.

For the most part, especially now that I am middle-aged, I try not to court unnecessary drama, and though that may seem boring to some I find my nerves are the better for it.  My nerves are more interested in the contours of feelings regardless whatever storyline or landscape may be shaping them, though nature is an experience which shapes feelings too.

Besides the enclosed front porch of the house where I grew up, there were two different stone steps which were great for stretching out on.  One set was situated at the original front door of the house, a couple of great slate slabs which must have been hauled by strong horses, ropes, farmhands, and positioned just right on top of smaller square slate.  A Machu Picchu in miniature, there were many dark crevices under the largest slab, a place where garter snakes nested and bees concealed hives.  Inexperienced in maternal instinct, once one of our cats decided to have her first litter of kittens under this dark dry place and was stung repeatedly upon deciding to move them to a better situated locale.  My sister and I were impressed with this cat’s valiant devotion and kept applying ice in lunch baggies to her swelling bumps.  Oddly enough she continued to purr.

While listening to humming birds in the trumpet vine which grew along them, I did some of my first writing and painting on these slate steps so often flecked with heat by the sun, yet it was on the cooler gravel and concrete back steps where some of my more vivid daydreams took place.  We lived surrounded by fields, the green and yellow hay resembling waves for prairie schooners.  It was easy to imagine the house as being pulled along in their wake, easy even to imagine the waves of hay as being waves of water and the house a galleon.  Where I came up with the idea that the house could also be a sort of spaceship and the field, drifting pieces of land far below, I have no clue.  Perhaps because our property was not surrounded by neighbors and the sky was so huge and endless is why I would stand on those back steps, picturing them somehow as a deck from which I too would lift and soar.

The porch of the building where I currently live with its gray paint, gray like the sea, like the face of Mary, obviously has the capacity to transport me on a voyage also or why would I be sitting here thinking about the words of Anne Sexton? Those words are from Anne’s poem “Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound”, and surely this tilting porch with its knobby, none-too-secure banisters, and its half-shadowed wood beneath rustling leaves, could easily be unmoored.  I think that and am set adrift as I was when deciding to make a painting of that poem years ago.  At that point though, if I was a cast sail, I had no real compass for the direction in which I was heading.  Furthermore, I was without canvas and thus improvised as Chagall used to, by using a bed sheet instead.

Beginning a painting is like deciding to write or compose.  At the start, despite what images and colors one has carried inside, there is always nothing but stark blankness to face.  A person can only procrastinate for so long before taking the plunge or giving up entirely and I find it makes me grumpy to give up so I work myself up to doing the larger work by starting small.

Just doing the ground for the painting can be a big help; getting some gesso and covering the surface to be painted on so it at least is slightly different to sight and touch.  The next part can be harder.  Should I lay out a pencil sketch first or jump right in and draw with paint?  In the case with the Anne Sexton inspired piece I worked in stages and pretty much have with every other piece I’ve done ever since.  By this I mean I use drawings to map out the larger, deciding where I want things to go.  Sometimes I transfer these drawings to tracing paper and then using either pencil or chalk, I stencil the drawing onto the canvas.  Other times it is a mixture of the tracing paper route combined with taking my pencil and going in full throttle.  In cases like that I find the eraser is my greatest tool.

“Good News” was the title ultimately given to the Anne Sexton inspired piece, the concluding two words of her poem, and I think it was good news that I  finally managed to do that painting instead of surrendering to all the voices in my head which say my painting is a heaping selfish waste of time.  I realize such thinking is fairly stereotypical of the tortured artist myth just as I know of creative types who have no qualms about “following their bliss” anyway they choose, but if I’m going to be honest about the process of a painting I might as well be honest about how much of my own war with bad nerves is part and parcel too.  If this sounds like nonsensical arduous self-pressure that’s because it is, and I haven’t even mentioned the laborious task of figuring out colors or brush strokes.  Actually I feel it best not to elaborate much on that since it almost sounds like testing a superstition, and I am certainly grateful for those breathing spaces where colors and brushes seamlessly mix, flowing as if chosen by a force quite apart from me.

I learned a lot while experimenting with different mediums while working on “Good News”, learned the risk of allowing pastel-based watercolors and markers form the waves of Long Island Sound while using oils to create a surrounding arch-shape, that arch the shape both of a canoe and a church window.  Also,  luckily, (well, maybe not for me or for Anne), the protagonist of the poem, Anne herself, is not having the happiest of trips while crossing Long Island Sound, yet in her mind she has no choice but to go on.  True, she could jump overboard and ruin her mascara, but at this point in Anne’s life she didn’t feel like it, and if Anne didn’t feel like it, why should I?

There were some key details in the poem which became integral to the painting:  Anne holding her wallet, her cigarettes, her car keys, and the life preserver with its orange letters which spell ORIENT.  Also in the poem Anne comes across a symbol she seems to consider fortuitous:  four nuns who sit like a bridge club.  It is out of gratitude to Anne and these four nuns that I wanted to do a decent job of painting “Good News”.  It is not because I ever met Anne or these four nuns, but because through Anne’s poems I feel that I have met her while also sharing in her sense of sadness.  Still, it is not only her desperate sadness, but her willingness, her want or need if you will, to still try and have hope, which ultimately moves me since, by the end of her poem, Anne has surrealistically let a miracle happen; she allows her nuns to fly, calling back to us good news, good news. 

Here on this rickety porch with not much else going on for a storyline but a couple of passing chipmunks, how I would love to see Anne Sexton’s nuns appear and then suddenly take flight as they did in my painting and in Anne’s crossing of Long Island Sound.  That to me would be a truly wondrous, wonderful, sight to behold.

A resident of NY, Stephen Mead is a published artist, writer and maker of short collage-films. His latest project, a collaboration with Kevin MacLeod, is entitled “Whispers of Arias,” a two volume CD set of narrative poems set to music. His latest Amazon release, “31 Kisses,” a poetry-art hybrid, is a celebration of romance for lovers everywhere regardless sexual orientation.