I had the good fortune to get to know Lowell Brams and his son Sufjan in the mid 90s when…
I was booking bands for a little music venue in Grand Rapids Michigan. Lowell’s son was playing in a popular local band called Marzuki at that time. Lowell came to the shows and we would sometimes fall into conversation. As fate and a lot of hard work would have it his son would grow into the mega indie star Sufjan Stevens with a current net worth of four million dollars and the Asthmatic Kitty record label with a stable of 33 bands and solo artists making some of the most creative forward thinking music out there. I recently reached out to Lowell asking him what it’s been like, this adventure of growing a record label from a little side project hobby into a full fledged record label in a post-record label, free music era. And this is what he said:
1. If you were to start over, would there be anything at all that you might do differently?
Not much, except establishing stricter budgets for artist’s projects.
2. Are there times (and I’m guessing there are) when you wanna just chuck the whole thing and do something else and if so what keeps you slugging away?
I’m retiring, for the reasons most people retire, but as long as I had the energy, I wanted to keep going.
3. At what point in your journey with Asthmatic Kitty did you realize it was turning into something really big?
That was when Pitchfork magazine ran a second review of Sufjan Steven’s “Michigan,” and sales, along with interest, really started to pick up. That was the third Sufjan album we released, and the first two had received only limited attention.
4. Lots of people complain about the difficulty of making a living being a working musician in a world where so much free music is readily available. What are your thoughts regarding this issue?
I’m afraid that many artists will have to make music just as a hobby.
6. Lowell, what would you say (if anything) in your life, pre-music biz, prepared you for the role you now have with AK?
Previous work in retails and, especially, wholesale bookselling taught me how do work with customers and anticipate future sales (not that I didn’t make mistakes). Also, my father started and ran a business manufacturing and selling his own products, and I learned some things from that.
7. What would be an example of a something really cool that has resulted from your work with AK, something that you could bring to mind for example to help pull you through the tedium of daily responsibilities when you might begin to tumble into doubt?
Receiving our first copies of new releases was always exciting.
Let me know what music you have been listening to that you love lately. Have you ever considered starting a record label or a band? We wanna hear from you.
Making a paintings is a mystical practice. We are the ancients searching for the way to turn lead into gold. When we make a painting we are once again those early people scratching pictures onto the walls of their caves depicting the glories of their favorite hunt. Applying colored pigments to a stretched canvas is to make a doorway into another world. And tho the artist by default evolves into a modern shaman, her audience can sometimes seem nonexistent. In fact, she may feel like a stranded motorist sending up flares on the side of an empty road in the middle of the desert. I have a Wilson basketball in my studio and there are times when I feel more than a little like Tom Hanks in his famous movie Cast Away.
So because isolation can some time seem to be the preset of our dominant culture, I am constantly inviting people to come over to my studio to visit. I love to have a friend stop by and to make them lunch. Afterwards I can share what I have been working on and see how they respond. There is a way that the artwork comes alive in special way when it is shared with another person. It is as if when there are a new pair of eyes an electric current to the soul is completed. Could it be that when we are before a powerful artwork that even a sort of spiritual download takes place? I am almost positive this has happened to me on several occasions.
As artists we spend our entire lives learning to see. This vision we develop is not limited to the physical world. what happens when a person spends years learning to draw they are at the same time learning how to be still. I believe that developing the ability to be still and receptive is putting yourself in position to be handed the key to the universe. If we can learn to be still we just may find ourselves with a plug in connection to the spiritual realm, hard wired into all that is eternal. It has been said if you can find a way to truly connect with any one thing, like Walt Whitman’s blade of grass, you at once connecting with everything.
I am curious what your experiences have been like if you are an artist. Do you ever feel isolated and if so what do you do to break this spell and find connection with others? Have you had powerful encounters with a work of art that felt like downloading updated spiritual software? I would love to know your stories and strategies.
I will be going back to Germany for three weeks January 18th. I am making a special offer this time around by giving you a chance to purchase art that I will be creating while I am there. I have five different price points from $25-$225 which should put receiving original art with in everyones budget. This also keeps me from putting my plane fare on a credit card. And in a way this lets me take you along with me. Lets face it, our lives become richer for the relationships that we foster. I would love to be in the position of creating a special work of art for you. Check out the new page on my site and think about what sound good to you.
Spending three months in Bavaria last year really expanded my world. As soon as I got back home I began to plot my return. Being in a different country with a different language and culture had me wide eyed almost like a child because I was seeing everything for the first time. As an artist we simply need to keep exploring new territory in order to keep growing and at this time in my life Germany is providing that adventure for me.
I took this picture this summer in downtown Cleveland on Memorial Day. Two hours after shooting this image I was on Johnny Cash’s tour bus which was parked in front of the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame. Goose Bumps!
I am very excited to make myself available to work one on one with those of you who have found that their creative journey somehow got off track. There are so many things that call for our attention every day that calls us away from writing our next song. The house needs cleaning. There are bills that need to be paid. Someone’s birthday is coming up and we need to figure out what we are going to get them before it’s too late.
We are all creative even if we would not call ourselves an artist and that creative part of us needs to be nurtured. If it isn’t and we let those practices fall away the color begins to drain out of our lives and it happens gradually so we often don’t really notice because we get just adjust to life as a creative anemic.
Here’s the deal, the world needs the full color version of you and so do you! If life came along and knocked your flag down to half mast let me help you run that flunky flag of yours back up the pole.
Are you wondering what this would actually look like? We begin with a free phone call where we take a look at where you’ve been, where you are now and where you would like to be. If you live nearby we can meet face to face. If you are far away then we do phone calls and video chats.
Give me a call and let’s take a look at how we can get you going again 616-325-0200.
I met and fell in love with a girl who I met one Friday night in the Spring of 1985 at the bar. We had fun dancing that night and tho she didn’t say much she definitely hooked me and I came out of the bar with her name and phone number. We went out the next night for and the longest romance of my life was kicked off with cheap Mexican food. Brenda and I were married for 30 years. We had six children together and countless adventures. I am not going to even begin to try to sum up three decades of life together except to say I learned innumerable life lessons yoked together with this girl and for each of these hard won lessons I remain thankful. Two years ago we restructured the relationship. Our legal marriage contract dissolved left us both free to begin the discovery of what it would mean to rebuild new lives living in different physical locations.
I really enjoyed my married life (at least about 28 years of it anyway) and now I love being single. I think that you would agree that there are different seasons in a person’s life. I have come to believe that knowing the life season you are in is really important because otherwise you can not totally embrace what makes sense now. Being single after so many years of married life has often felt like I’m going through adolescence all over again. The last two years has been a time of both disorientation and discovery. I know this is a transitional period for me and that is bringing up issues of independence and self-identity that can make me feel out of sorts and confused.
The first year out of my marriage I was working on these large oil painting portraits that came about through a process of painting and then scraping down what I had carefully built up only to build it up again. This process of building up and tearing down to build up again has become a very helpful metaphor for challenging times in my life. Leaving my wife of 30 years was like dragging the drywall knife through my wet painting and now I am rebuilding my life again to be a life that I am fully engaged in, a life that I love.
There is a comment opportunity here so if you have ever experienced a life up-hevel that left you feeling like a clumsy adolescent for awhile please share something with us here about what that was like for you. Who knows, your thoughts may just what we need to help us have the courage to take the next step of faith into the life that we want to begin living with full velocity.
I met Claudia on the edge of the Black Forest in the tiny village of Vilsheim Bavaria about 40 Kilometers from Munich. I was painting Plein Air, she was out for a jog. We had a brief exchange but long enough for me to scrawl her phone number in oil paint on the back of my canvas.
I would come to find out that Claudia worked in a clinic as a special healer who not only attended to the physical issues of her patients but also was adept at helping reveal the heart break and emotional trauma that cause the illness to manifest.
I believe that the artist has the potential to heal herself through her art making practice. I also believe that this healing power can sometimes be tapped into by the awakened viewer of her art.
Claudia has just returned to Munich after a one week stay in Grand Rapids Michigan. Claudia and I have spent hours and hours talking, laughing and singing our way to a partnership. She has gone home with a carefully selected inventory of art from studiobeerhorst that she intends to place in the homes and work places of her native Germany.
We are very excited to add Claudia to the studiobeerhorst team and are excited to see the way she extends her healing work with our artwork as we extend our reach among her people.
Etsy was launched in 2005 which is the year Brenda and I moved our family from Grand Rapids Michigan to Brooklyn New York. Because Brenda is a trend setter and trend spotter she found them that year and made a purchase. I opened my shop two years later which means I have had my store now for 11 years. During that time I have sold $17,667.00 of my art all over the world. My average purchase is $64. 15,186.
It is vital that an artist finds a way to share their work. Back in the days when we loaded rolls of film into our cameras, that roll of film was worthless until the shutter opened and let in the light. That’s how I think of art that sits in the flat file. It’s in the darkness, patiently waiting for the day eyes will see it and it will come to life.
There are many ways to share your art and Etsy is just one of those ways.
I remember meeting Matt Stinchcomb when he came to Grand Rapids. He told me how his college buddies put Etsy together and how he was one of their very first official employes. (They now employ nearly 800 people with an annual income around 195 million.)
Etsy contacted me in 2010 asking if we would be open to be the subject of one of their mini Etsy documentaries they were doing at the time. They came to Grand Rapids and and pretty much moved in for almost a week shooting hours and hours of video that got edited down to exactly 3 minutes and 40 seconds. It’s a brilliant piece and I watch it every once in a while and touch down into that time of our families life.
i have been traveling for months. First I was down in Virginia for an artist residency there for two full months and shortly after that I took advantage of an offer to come and work in Bavaria for three months. I have been back home just a little over a week and just re-opened my online store. I am really excited for stepping up my commitment to make my studiobeerhorst Etsy shop the best it can be. I invite you to contact me with your ideas. What do you want to see that isn’t in the shop? What special project do you want to talk to me about working on with you? I would really love to hear from you.
I’m writing this blog one day before I fly back to the United States after a three month long painting and drawing exploration of Bavaria Germany. I’m afraid that I have completely fallen in love with this country; it’s people and it’s culture. I’m deeply conflicted because as much as I miss my own bed, being able to spend time with my children and doing things with my dear friends back home, leaving Germany is gonna be tough. The cobble stone streets filled with pedestrians and people on bicycles, hearty Bavarian food offered up at cozy old restaurants for half the price of what I would pay in the US, buildings everywhere dating back to before Columbus was even out of his dippers….it’s hard to think of going home and leaving all this behind.
So what I would like to do is go back to Michigan and regroup. I wanna finish the paintings I began here that aren’t yet quite done. I will make woodblock prints from some of my favorite drawings in my Germany sketchbook. I will work with the studiobeerhorst team to carefully plan my return to Germany for next year so I can begin the next chapter well prepared. Does anyone know of a good German language tutor?
This painting above was done in the beautiful city of Passau. It is one of Germany's oldest cities and is actually a peninsula surrounded by three rivers. While I was working on the piece above over the course of a long afternoon, a young woman who works with her mother in the family restaurant just down the street from where ai was painting brought me a free drink. Later she took me inside the ancient building that housed their restaurant and showed me around the very cozy space filled with the work of local artists. I was very touched by her hospitality to a complete to me, a complete stranger. I experience these frequent kind gestures almost every time I venture out to make art in the city. These generous people are helping me to feel welcomed in a strange place, a very long way from home.
The above painting was painted in Landshut which, like Passau, is a city from the Middle Ages. There are still portions of the old city wall standing that once surrounded and protected the city. There are buildings in this city still in use that were already over 100 years old when Columbus was putting together the finances for his voyage to discover a shorter trade route to India. I love to walk through its narrow cobble stone streets looking for places to draw. This painting includes a portion of the castle built on the highest possible spot above the city. It is stunning how this castle stands high above Landshut like a faithful sentinel keeping watch. A young reporter working for the local paper spotted me on the street while I was working on this painting. She did an interview there on the spot while we waited for the photographer to come with his camera.
In the very center of Landshut stands the beautiful old St Martins Church. It is said that this is the tallest brick tower in the whole world. I have starred at this tower now for hours doing drawings and painting. What fascinates me about this particular tower is not necessarily how tall it is, but in time how it has become something like a great giant tree trunk to me. It has so many variations of windows, ledges, and different sections that it seems to me that this mighty tower was not so much built but rather that it grew there. My painting of St Martin’s church measures one meter by two meters and just barely fits in my studio clearing the ceiling by just a couple centimeters.
I spent three days exploring Munich. Each day I would begin in Merianplatz which is the city center and is always filled with people. I found my favorite spot to draw which was sitting on a low knee wall that surrounds the entrance to the U2 subway station. Interestingly this very spot seemed to be a magnet for Americans because while I would be drawing more often then not, at some point, I would here my mother tongue being spoken. Sometimes I would start up a conversation hungry for a little o’l USA fellowship. Other times I would just listen in like once, when a stocky middle aged guy in cargo shorts was explaining how much better the building I was drawing (the Neues Rathaus) would look after a good power washing.
I have several paintings in process as well as a large sketchbook that will come back to the America with me. I’m thinking that I would like to continue working with this material I’ve recorded in my sketch book when I’m home. Eventually I would love to do an exhibition with this work perhaps in Germany. And while I’m saying what I want, I would also like to find a way to return to Germany and continue this project further.
I have now been in Germany one month. I am drawing and painting on the street as a way to connect with the German people and their culture. I am meeting so many cool people this way. A lot of people sneak a peek as they walk by. Because I am usually sitting either on my fold up travel stool or right on the paving stones I'm eye level with the small children and it's often the children who tug their mothers in for a closer look. Sometimes a conversation ensues this way but more often it's usually just a soft "Schön" (nice) after a brief pause to look and they are on their way.
Today I had a young Turk named GökAy ( pronounced "Gek A") who kept me company for something like two or three hours while I drew the giant tower of St Martin's Church (said to be the largest brick tower in the world). At one point he excused himself only to come back a little later with two warm and creamy lattes for us to share. Off and on GökAy explained some of his personal spiritual beliefs which included reading a poem off his phone that he had written that morning. From time to time he would shift to speaking in low soft tones in a not Deutsch foreign language. I'm not sure if he was praying or making comments under his breath about the German girls passing us by. It was really cool to have his company while I was on the street today and also helpful because he took on the role of my interpreter when people stopped to talk (including two Muslim women with a child in a stroller). One of the women was asking if I would be will to do her portrait. I with out the help of my new friend I would have never known what this woman was trying to say.
Drawing what I see helps me to see because it causes me to pause. When I am paused to draw I begin to see what is really there (on a much deeper level) then would otherwise be possible had I just captured the image on my phone. Sometimes while I am drawing a particular view, I see a tourist pull out there phone and take a few pictures and then quickly move on. It only takes them an instant to capture the image that may take me three to four hours to draw. For me the drawing is the doorway into making a painting. The drawings and the paintings become a way for me to begin to build a relationship with a place which intern makes my life richer as well as it gives me something valuable to share, as well.
I have been in Germany now for about a week and a half. I am very slowly adjusting to life in a foreign country 4,391 miles away from my home (according to my GPS). I am staying here with a local sculptor named Martina Kreitmeier who I met at an artist residency in Virginia earlier this year. Tina lives in the small farming village of Vilsheim 44 miles south west of Munich. Driving is so different here. When ever we go somewhere we travel on narrow country roads that weave through the beautiful Bavarian countryside connecting village to village. If we do end up on a highway it won't be the big interstate highways I am used to in the US, these highways are usually just two lanes of opposing traffic with no speed limit.
Thankfully I have yet to see any of the strip mall sprawl that is so common back home. Everything here I see looks very well built, solid and classic. I have not seen one home with asphalt shingles. Every home, out building, barn and store in Germany has a clay tile roof. This is a roofing system you would only see on the most expensive of homes in the USA. The stores are tucked into the quant village centers sporting very modest signs. I went into our local pharmacy and every thing was lined up on wooden shelves like I see in the old movies that date back to before the 1950s. Here the cities often have the old city center with buildings dating back to the middle ages and then on the outskirts you will find the modern architecture, but again, these are usually very nicely built when compared to American building standards. Many of the larger German cities like Munich and Dresden where completely destroyed during WWII and needed to be rebuilt. I have not witnessed these cities yet.
This is Tina's sister Conny Kreitmeier and her band Stimmuligsbüro Kreitmeier to give you a little taste of rock'n roll Bavarian style
Last night I was at a beer garden for a free local music festival. Let me paint this picture, imagine forty to fifty long wooden tables with benches neatly positioned under six towering ancient chestnut trees. Every table is completely full of people eating Pommes frites (French fries) with mayonnaise and sausages. Everyone of course has a tall beer in giant liter size glass mugs. Up at the front is a "rock band" of youngish looking guys playing a very Bavarian version the Ghost Busters song complete with accordion, stand up bass, classical guitar and a small drum kit. Oh yeh, and their wearing lederhosen which, in case you don't know, are long cut leather shorts that look like they would last a lifetime and seldom need washing. (dry clean only?) They lace up the side and are sometimes beautifully embellished with floral patterns both tooled into the leather and or embroidered.
I'm a talker and left my crippling fear of people back in high school but being here in Deutschland only knowing a smattering of German words is presenting a real challenge to my ability to connect. Most of my conversations begin with a timid, "Do you speak English?" which usually quickly leads right into a brisk talk with an occasional "Oh, ah...how do you say..?" complete with wrinkled forehead and finger tapping to the temple, but otherwise faultless English where at some point they almost always apologize for their poor language skills. And then I'm thinking of how I made my flash cards and downloaded my learn to speak German apps on to my phone but still only have the command of a fist full of very basic German words and phrases. Two nights ago Tina and I were eating dinner at a beautiful out door restaurant in the medieval city of Landshut next to St Martins church (The tallest brick tower steeple in the world btw). I needed to go to the bathroom so I rehearsed how to ask for directions to the WC with Tina in her mother tongue. Going inside the restaurant I said in my best Bavarian accented Deutsch to the first wait staff I saw, "wo ist die Toilette?" to which he replied "Around the corner, down the stairs and just to the left" in perfect English with hardly a trace of an accent. WTF, Really?!?!
This environment is enchantingly beautiful and quaint but it is also very different in so many ways. I know that getting acclimated to a foreign country takes time but sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the challenge and sort of adrift; sometimes I feel almost disembodied from myself and lost. Much to my relief I am finding that continuing with my art making practice while I'm here is what the doctor ordered doing in order to keep me grounded. Yesterday I took my little beechwood travel easel strapped to one shoulder along with my old leather bag full of paper and drawing materials slung over my other shoulder and I walked the tree line up the hill, out side my pig barn studio, looking for a place to draw. In a short time I settled on a wonderful view that looked out over the valley dotted with poplar, linden and oak trees. The fields, some recently harvested, some just plowed, and still others standing tall with corn, looked almost like a victorian crazy quilt or better yet, they looked like a Grant Wood painting. I set up to draw in the shade of the oaks sitting in a grassy path littered with a slender kind of acorn that I had never seen before. Over the next three hours I covered my paper with red and brown chalk along with touches of sienna water color. Taking a few breaks for stretching and picking wild black berries, I put the finishing touches on my drawing and then packed up my easel. By the time I was walking over the threshold of my studio I felt surprisingly, right at home.
I drove to Chicago last Friday leaving in the early afternoon. I wanted to be in the River North Gallery neighborhood for the annual summer gallery walk. The are other gallery neighborhoods in Chicago but River North still feels like home to me after so many years showing on Superior Street at Ann Nathan Gallery. At 92 Ann has now gone into retirement and I now go with out gallery representation but I still like to go and visit this world from time to time. Going to a large city like Chicago and visiting the galleries and museums there is like getting a cultural bold transfusion. The Grand Rapids Art Museum is a joke! It's permanent collection is frustratingly small and its pre packaged shows all seem carefully chosen to not ruffle the feathers of its constituency. This being the case, being in Chicago, even for just a day, is just what the doctor ordered for this artist. Chicago is a home away from home.
This summer I made a very important discovery inside the preferences of my iPhone. I found that I could set up the GPS to avoid toll roads and major highways. This is has totally been a game changer for how I travel. This has become my preferred way to do my road trips when I have the luxury of turning a 2 1/2 hour drive into a 6 hour drive. It takes a lot longer to get where I'm going but maybe "getting there" is not were the real action is. Maybe that schmalzy framed poster in your sister's bathroom that she bought off Etsy that declares:
Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it. -(Somebody other than me said this.)
I guess you could say that I have begun to take my journeys more seriously these days. Going back roads to Chicago took me though Gary Indiana for the very first time in my life and I was shocked by what I saw. At one point I turned off the main drag to go down a neighborhood street. I just chose one at random. I could hardly believe what I saw. Houses being taken over completely by over grown bushes, trees and tangles of vines and weeds. Empty lots where houses once stood now completely over grown like a jungle littered with an amount of trash that would fill several full size dumpsters. There were chuck holes in the street I had to drive around because some of them were actually large enough to swallow up the whole front end of my Toyota. And mixed in with disytopian crumble were a scattering of houses where people still lived. I saw a couple kids playing in wading pool and two boys swinging whiffle ball bats at each other. This looked like the set of a zombie movie. It made Detroit look like a paradise. The curious thing for me was how I never hear people talking about Gary Indiana. It's almost like it no longer exists. And you know, it's right up next to Lake Michigan. You could live in Gary and take the commuter train into Chicago and be there in 15-20 minutes. Could this city rise again? Is it's time at hand or is it just too late and to far gone?
Friday, June first I drove into Grand Rapids from Ann Arbor finishing the last leg of my journey home from my two month long residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I felt a mixture of emotions as I passed the sign on I96 letting my know that the exit for Fuller Ave was in 1 mile.
I don't live at 106 Fuller Avenue any more but for the past 11 years I did. I drove on past the exit and got off at the Wealthy Street exit that would take me to my new home on Division in the Grand Rapids Michigan Heartside Neighborhood. When I caught my first glance at my new apartment my heart sank at what looked so cold, white, empty and lonely. I bit the bullet, rented a U-haul and went shopping. Target, St Vincent DePaul's and Archive Antiques; I needed everything, from a can opener to a bed and bed linens. I haven't added up what I spent but I walked to my car in the Target parking lot pulling two shopping carts loaded full behind me.
When I finally had everything unwrapped and put away I was completely exhausted. Collapsing on my new (secondhand) king size bed I slept a full eight hours that night (I can't remember the last time I slept eight hours un-interrupted.) I woke up not sure at first where I was. Saturday was a hard day because I felt so washed up on the shore alone. I went through my phone list of contacts and realized there where really only a small handful of people I could count in the territory of "close friend". I started sending texts most of which left my phone mute for a long time until Bill responded to my invitation for a lunch date. A ship on the horizon responding to my smoke signals!
Today feels much better as I type away on my laptop at the Lantern coffee house barely a five minute walk from my apartment door. I think in some ways the artist residency suspended some of the hard reality of my marriage's ending. Through out the separation I had been living in the carriage house in the backyard so again the marriage was over but not really. Now it is really over, over and over. The reality of this huge life shift is now hitting with full force. I know deep down that some of the aloneness I feel is an important part of the rebooting of my life. It's almost as if I am downloading important new software and while this download is in process some parts of my life are kind of shutting down for awhile. Its natural, it's what needs to happen and I remind myself of this as I sometimes feel a deep sense of loss.
I am also very excited because of the way my life continues to open up in new ways. I am encouraged by some of the new relationships I now have with people who live in other parts of the country and other countries. I have a new level of freedom that I have never experienced before. The question remains if I in fact want to remain in Grand Rapids. I may want to move to another city and have a fresh start where there aren’t all the constant reminders everywhere of the life I had before. I may want to find a city that will have more opportunities for my work as an artist to stretch out and grow.
Yesterday morning after nearly two full months, on the 29th of May, I drove off the grounds of the Virginia Cultural Center for the Creative Arts to make my way back home to Grand Rapids Michigan. At the VCCA exit there is a hand painted sign that lets you know that you are "Now Entering the The Real World".
I had decided to make my way home staying off the large highways and toll roads. I booked Airbnb rooms to stay over night in Cleveland and Ann Arbor. I knew driving back roads would add a lot of time to my travels. I wanted to make this more then just a drive back home. I was looking for adventure!
One of the things I discovered staying of the interstate highway system was that much of small town America does not seem to be doing so well to put it mildly.
It seemed the very small towns where the hardest hit. Some times there would be entire block of buildings abandoned and some sitting crooked on their crumbling foundations. Boarded up in front with evidence that the last attempt towards life was either an antique store or a haunted house. When I some times took the time to park my car and take a stroll. The sadness and heart break of these zombie buildings and dying towns became palpable. I wanted to ask the old men coming out of the convenience store, "What happened to your town? How did it die and how do you feel about it?" I didn't ask but I wanted to.
I wondered how this had happened to these little towns. Was it the lost traffic when the big inter state highways were constructed? Was it the super stores like Walmart and Costco in the nearby by towns that siphoned off all the business from the small locally owned stores? Is America just kind of rotting from the inside out with it's billions of acres of GMO corn, factory farms, nightmare president, fast food chains, and hidden away meth labs? I found this quote below on a the history.com website:
I am writing this blog from a coffee shop on Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland. I poked my head into a the Subway to ask about the parking out front if it was only for 30 minutes. Sherry who was just getting the shop ready to open said yes just 30 minutes. Then she asked which car was mine and I told her the little blue Toyota. She told me that she will keep the parking police away by letting them know if belongs to one of her workers. I will soon find out of this generous offer from a complete Cleveland stranger worked. I hope to get to the Cleveland Art Museum and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before I hit the road for Ann Arbor late this afternoon. Hey did I just see a medieval Knight walk by on the other side of the street?
I am in my last week at the artist residency here in the Virginia Cultural Center for the Arts. Grand Rapids and my life there feels so very far away. Central Virginia and the Blue Ridge Mountains feels like my new home. Sharing lunch and dinner meals with culture makers from all over the world has become my new normal. If I could only find a way to take this way of life home with me. Who knows, perhaps I can.
My 30 year marriage to Brenda Beerhorst officially came to an end two weeks and one day ago on May 7th 2018. Our separation began April 10th 2017. It was then that I moved into the my carriage house studio and out of our home on Fuller Avenue where we had lived since the summer of 2006 when we came back to Grand Rapids after living in Brooklyn New York. So much has happened over this past year. So many lessons learned, tears cried, and adventures had. I am grateful for the years that Brenda and I lived together. There are so many good memories to think back over and fat photo albums to page through. These documents of the rich journey that we walked together. Fortunately we have parted good friends with six children between us. In some ways you could say that our journey continues only on much different terms. I know that we both have a lot of growing to do as we each discover what life looks like on the other side of our marriage.
The sea rocks have a green moss.
The pine rocks have red berries.
I have memories of you.
Speak to me of how you miss me.
Tell me the hours go long and slow.
Speak to me of the drag on your heart,
The iron drag of the long days.
I know hours empty as a beggar's tin cup on a rainy
day, empty as a soldiers's sleeve with an arm lost.
Speak to me... Carl Sandburg, 1926
Leaving my marriage has allowed me to rediscover my self. I'm sorry if that sounds cliche but it's true. I have been rediscovering who I am and what is important to me. One of the ways this is coming about is through poetry. Lately comfort and inspiration has been found in the work of Carl Sandburg; thanks to a tattered old sepia toned pamphlet published by Simon & Schuster back in 1926 I picked up in a musty smelling used book store in downtown Milwaukee. Before that it was Charles Bukowski and before Bukowski, Robert Bly and his book Iron John. I have been committing some of my very favorite poems to memory and I have been doing the same with music, particularly the Rolling Stones. Looking for a Friend and Wild Horses are now book ends in a new cluster of cover songs bringing new life to my repertoire.
I wrote the the words, "a wanderer and observer generally" at the top of the painting I was working on yesterday. I wrote these words in silver paint so that in the early evening slanted light streaming into my VCCA studio makes the letters float on the surface of the canvas. I plucked these words out of my beloved Carl Sandburg poetry collection from a sentence that came at the end of a paragraph that described Sandburg's life before he became famous. He had held many different kinds of jobs through out his life. "Before a single verse of his had been touched by type he had served his days and nights at the trades of men" The author explains that it was this rich history of work experience that gave Sandburg the ability to fashion such rich and authentic poetry. It is my hope that some how through the process of all the hundreds (thousands?) of dippers I changed, hundreds of pizza's made from scratch, grocery store dumpsters I rooted through and countless weeds I pulled from our kitchen garden; that these life experiences will some how sift down into my paintings. Into the songs I sing and the conversations I have as I daily to step into this new life I am learning to live one day at a time choosing to go forward as a wanderer and observer generally.
I Have been traveling since I left Amherst Virginia April 29th. I found my self in South Philly visiting my daughter Rose after leaving Williamsburg Brooklyn. I got to her neighborhood early so I had about four hours to kill. I found a neighborhood coffee shop and settled in with my laptop among all the twenty-something hipsters and wrote a blog post. Rose and I had arranged to meet at 6:30 when she would be home from work so at about 4:30 I left the coffee shop and took off to explore her neighborhood. South Philly feels and looks working class. The row houses are packed tightly in on very narrow streets. The two story buildings all have very understated facades with very few adornments. The main streets are filled with shops: hair salons, pizza/sub shops, dry-cleaners, shoe repairs... it all felt very lively with the sidewalks filled with people. It was nice to see people sitting on stoops enjoying the sunny late afternoon. It was nice to see people gathered in small clusters of conversation.
I found that the more I pointed my camera to snap a photo the more alive the neighborhood became to me. I began to see beautiful and strange things everywhere I looked. I became so intent on what my next photo would be that at one point I stepped off the curb with out noticing a biker barreling down the street at full tilt. He blew past me so fast and so close that I could feel the breeze from his bike. After that near catastrophe I made sure to look both ways before I began to cross the next street.
I have been on the road a lot lately. Today I drove out of Williamsburg Brooklyn to Philadelphia on my way to visit my daughter Rose. The thin little female voice coming from my iPhone was right there to faithfully guide me every mile of the way. I was on the New Jersey Turnpike for a good stretch of the way. In spite of how importantly that particular road figures in Mrs Springsteen's discography, I found it a boring route. I was hankering for the scenic route so I paid my $5 and got off the turnpike.
I ended up in Burlington New Jersey, a city that looked like it had seen better times (a long time ago). A city that has yet to experience the juggernaut of gentrification many inner cities across the country have enjoyed. Burlington is a city still very much in ruins. I pulled into a gas station because my oil light was flashing and bought a couple quarts of 10W 30 Gulf motor oil. (I'm driving a 2001 Toyota Celica thats seems to be oil thirsty.) The Indian man presiding over this particular dumpy Gulf station made change not out of a cash register but from a thick wad of bills he pulled from his pocket. I asked him if he sold maps and he just looked at me dumbfounded for what seemed like a long time but was probably just half a second until he said "What?". I repeated my request, "Do you sell road maps, you know...like we used to use when we traveled before smart phones?" He seemed both bothered and confused suggesting I try Walgreens. After I fed my Toyota its motor oil I got back on to main street, pulling a U-turn, and made my way into the Walgreens parking lot across the street. I bought a $15 Road Atlas, a $10 magnifying glass and a $1.25 bottled water.
I turned off my GPS, pulled out onto Main street and promptly got lost. I must have forgotten how to read maps. I was wanting the scenic route to Philly but even with my magnifying glass and my brand new map (which just looked like a confusing jumble of lines, numbers and had very few streets named). Well it wasn't long before I had my GPS turned back on, my little Toyota back on to highway 76, and my newly purchased Road Atlas tossed into the back seat.
My artist residency at the Virginia Cultural Center for the Arts came to an end last Sunday morning. I packed up my studio. I filled all the little holes in the walls from my nails, push pins, and staples then I painted those walls and the table tops flat white. After breakfast I packed my car and drove off with my phone GPS pointing the way to New York City.
Now that the residency is over and I'm looking back, I realize that my experience was as much about the people I met as it was the art I created. I find that when I meet other artists there is a kind of instant camaraderie and this made the time spent at the VCCA feel almost like a family reunion. So now it's over and it leaves me looking for ways to continues these kind of interactions in my life. I also come away with a whole cluster of new friends all over the world that I can remain in contact with and perhaps even visit.
The word that came to me often during my month long residency was liminal.
What is a liminal space? In anthropology, Liminality (from the Latin word limen, meaning "a threshold") is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a rite's liminal stage participants "stand at the threshold between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the rite establishes"
I love this definition from Wikipedia for the way I feel like it describes so beautifully the state I find myself in right now. Before beginning my residency, I moved everything out of my carriage house studio where I had been living for the past year since My separation began from my 30 year marriage (I had been using the space as my studio for 11 years). I moved all of my artwork, tools and other belongings to the basement of the apartment where I will eventually make my new home and studio. Of course it wasn't only about moving my stuff, it was in the act of moving where I began experience in a very concrete way that my marriage had come to an end. One way of life was ending in order to make way for a new way of life.
And now it's the gypsy life for me. Because of circumstances beyond my control my new work/live space in Grand Rapids Michigan will not be ready to move in May first as had been originally planned but now the landlord is saying June first. This has made me officially homeless. I have been stitching together a patchwork quilt of places to stay across the country. That quilt looks like going from Manhattan to Brooklyn, to Philadelphia, back to Grand Rapids for a night, then to Milwaukee for a couple days then to Grand Rapids, then up to Belair Michigan (Spitting distance from beautiful Travers City) for two weeks and then finally I can settle into my new home.