BluePrint for a Disaster
A Quarter of a Century Later
September 11th, 2003
In mid-September of 1978, my wife Lynn and I had just finished setting up our studios at Yaddo to begin the most important fellowships of our lives. I was relaxing for the first time in what once had been the writer Carson McCullers' beloved Pine Tree Cottage – our home for the next two months. As New York City had been in the midst of a long, drawn out newspaper strike, the local Saratogian was the first paper I had seen in months. In reading it, I felt compelled to learn more about a place ironically named Love Canal. I called to see if I might be able to meet a woman, Lois Gibbs, and some of her neighbors. Much to everyone's surprise, including our own, we asked the Yaddo administration's permission to leave briefly, just a few days after our arrival. I had just established an extensive arts development effort in New York City for the Department of Cultural Affairs and had been unable to focus on my own artistic endeavors. Yaddo's studio time was extraordinarily precious but nonetheless I felt the need to go. My wife, the painter Lynn Small insisted on accompanying me despite my protestations. "Stay here in heaven on earth and paint," I said. I knew that where I was going was to the other side of that continuum.
Only a few miles from Niagara Falls in Buffalo, New
York, hundreds of miles and worlds away from the idyllic haven of Saratoga Springs'
Yaddo, Lois, a 26-year-old mother of two believed she had proof that her children
and her community were being poisoned. At that time, no one had heard of Love
Canal, hence the Yaddo administration's complete bafflement at our request to
leave. They told us that indeed other fellows had left before but did not usually
return. We assured them that we were thrilled at the honor and rather unique
opportunity we had been granted and that yes, we would be returning as soon
as possible to our bucolic Pine Tree cottage. The long drive west started out
with a fair amount of lively discussion as to what exactly we were doing. In
my heart, I knew it was important but was not entirely certain what it all meant.
This morning I awoke to the realization that I am still at work on this story and that all of our landscape work – capturing rapidly vanishing pieces of the American landscape – has been driven by this experience. As I write this, I am in the process of revisiting my photographs and artwork produced from that 1978 road trip. Love Canal was and continues to be important and the details of that trip, while intriguing, are not the essential story. It is as relevant an issue today, if not more so, given our longstanding indifference and benighted behavior.
Rarely did I show images from this body of work. In 1982 a few select pieces were shown in the Perceptions exhibition at SoHo Photo and Foto Visions 82 at Foto Gallery, NYC. A quarter of a century later, it is my hope that people may be more willing to look at the implications behind those images. Perhaps, the time has come for all of us to look within and hold ourselves individually and collectively responsible. The choices we make each day on how to live our lives truly matter.
Lynn and I are in the midst of a productive period. Just a few days ago, I started a major video installation work. It was a most unusual creative experience in my more than thirty-year career, coming about quickly, evolving over a few days. On September 10th, I created what I thought was a finished video piece entitled, Another Day – its title an homage to a very early painting of Lynn's. The metamorphosis was wonderful, almost effortless and seemed to be a resolved work. It was Love Canal revisited, about the choices we make in our lives and how they may be taking us to the point of extinction. In capturing the sublime, it was my hope that people might consider the subtly delivered back-story. Truly, it was a wonderful day and the work seemed to bring about closure to a problem that had long been unresolved.
The next day was September 11th. I set myself in place for yet another sunrise, hoping to return to an earlier series of California Golden Light. Set up and positioned by 5:30, I consciously resolved to make something of my morning when the predawn fog did not diminish. I had no idea what was about to transpire. As it was obviously not just another day and the memories of two years earlier were on the minds of many, I began to see the fog as some kind of metaphor. It was not a conscious evolution, yet I began creating a wrenching tale about saying good-bye. With tears in my eyes and pain in my heart for the son of a dear friend who had lost his life in the North Tower, I began to weave the previous day's work into a companion piece, Not Just Another Day.
As I turned around to ponder how best to use my time in the fog, I saw a cell phone relay station and a trail leading by it. I tried to think what I would have said to my wife Lynn in those final brief moments. How do I say good-bye to the love of my life, my friend and companion of more than forty years? The sadness and regret for all I hadn't done or said welled within me while at the same time, the joy and passion of our years together released memories within. Smells and moments of laughter mixed with the tears and sorrow and before long it was time to pack the equipment and go. In leaving I did something I never do – I unpacked and reset the equipment and began to work some more. It felt like remorse and an unwillingness to let go. Creating abstractions from the cell tower's shapes, forms and barbed wire enclosures through the mist and fog, I continued to work on details and close-ups. Thoroughly exhausting the creative possibilities, as well as my own emotional being, I knew it was time to move along. And yet could not. It was exactly what I would have felt in those last moments, a reluctance to cede to the incredible event taking me from the life still before me. Given the context, it was understandable. There was, however, another day beginning and so much more to do. Yet my heart and mind knew it was not just another day and never would be again.
I often think of Lois and the other women we met in the public school their children had attended. I cannot help but wonder how time has played out in the lives of their families. I will also long remember my dear friend's eldest son who perished on that September morning. When we were last together, he called me "the man who carried time" as he remembered that I always kept a fossil in my pocket. "How many years do you carry with you today? 50 million years or do you have that 300 million year old trilobite with you?" If I were able to see him now the answer to that question would be, "Well, today I carry no stone in my pocket but one in my heart. It is only a quarter of a century old but it will be what tells us just how long we may have left."
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