Chris Ware, Ox-Bow, and a Drawing

Back in 2001 I was awarded a Fellowship Residency at Ox-Bow in Michigan (you can read more about that transformative time here). This was a time before browsing the internet by phone from basically anywhere was even possible; hell, I didn’t even have cell coverage there. There was only one internet connection accessible at Ox-Bow and that was via dial-up.

In the Inn (before renovations that happened back in 2004 or 05), there was a small desk tucked into a corner where people would use the phone to call home or connect their brick-like laptop to the web for a few minutes. I had quite a few late night phone chats there with my then-girlfriend/now-wife after which I’d use the phone jack to log into my email for a sending/receiving session.

One evening I walked into the Inn to see Chris Ware sitting at the desk, talking on the phone, and making a small drawing on a scrap of paper. Mr Ware, a famed-though-awkward comic book artist who had created the fantastic Acme Novelty Library series and the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (Among many works. You should look at them – they’re quite profound and beautifully made) was at Ox-Bow to give a talk. And there he was: silent, hunched, and seemingly distracted from his phone call. His pen moved gently, pensively. His paper skittered over the pitted wooden desktop.

We – those who had to use that desk and that phone because no other forms of communication with the outside world we available to us – had been used to sketching absentmindedly while sitting there. I had drawn many a cartoon self portrait during that summer. Often our drawings would join together, becoming layered time capsules consisting of blue and black ink. Mr Ware’s sketch was added to the desk drawer to be subsumed into the mass of other drawings.

Some time later – a day, a week – I found myself rooting through the drawer for a paper upon which to put my jottings, and there was Chris Ware’s drawing. On a 4 by 3 inch scrap of Ox-Bow map (verso) a weary figure, perhaps bemused but certainly full of existential angst (a stylized self-portrait of the artist?), sat before an anachronistic rotary phone. The expression of the man, the drawing’s line work, and the overall feeling of the piece are all quintessential Ware.

And so, here it is for your enjoyment:

ChrisWareDrawing2001Both sides of a piece of paper with a drawing by Chris Ware on it. Ink on paper, approximately 4 by 3 inches, 6/21/2001.

All These Remainders

“The creation of legend is never known at the time of its genesis. Only displacement can imbue the past with the aura of sentimentality. Oh, to yearn, to stretch back with every fiber! To feel again that desire; the shrouded figures that play still on those lost, faded shores. Seeing ever so faintly the afternoon sunlight through old windows and recalling the impression of newfound knowledge in those dusty old books. Oh, to squeeze the eyes tightly, if only to glimpse for one moment that gone-ness – to feel it in the pit, to be in that pit, to stay: impossible. Knowing that it all exists only because I can’t stay there. Oh, to regress into my own idealization, to see myself again as I did then…”

“All these remainders have a keening tonality, a tinnitus of sounds, which we are unable to hear outwardly but which our hearts intuit. They are the silent sirens of what has gone before, and they call to us with accolades and accusations.” – from A Mnemonic of Longing, an unpublished essay, 2002-2009.

So ends my remembrance of Ox-Bow, ten years after. So much more could be said, be shown. I’ll leave it at this for now. The text I have shared in these posts is, perhaps (if only to me), my best artwork. It evokes for me the feeling of remembering and the instances that remembrance serves equally well. The words I’ve shared are as present to me as the times they transform and recreate. In turning them over, reading and re-reading them again and again, I sense anew so many true things. In them I know again the many secrets I held all those years ago. The creaking of the Inn, the internal affects of grasses and trees, and the whispers of the wind – which even now (this VERY second!) are stealing across the Lagoon and through the meadow, past the Mary K and over the dunes – are all as true now in these mnemonic words as they were when I wrote those words down. And they rest in me, speaking in me as to one who has glimpsed a deep but unnameable majesty. Darkness sits near (deathly close to) light.

- Matt Ballou, September 1, 2011.

Images from digital photos taken between May and August 2001.

Half-light – the time of soul-sense

“Later on, again I saw the stars rushing in that great sky-arc, their pathways subtly changing over time, subtly changing tonight even as I gaze upward. I think of my place along those paths, and as I think I understand that it is no wonder that the ancients thought the earth was the center of all things. Even when one’s thoughts consider those things farthest from the self, those things impose themselves upon the self in a very physical way – an implication, an assertion. No other beings but us can know these things… To lie on the dock at 1am, the water lapping (piles softly swaying) at languid fingers, touching them with such immediacy even as light a billion years old breaks the plane of these wet eyes. A prayer offered to God. No, it is no wonder to me that the ancients thought themselves the center of all things.”

“Half-light – the time of soul-sense. It is muted sense, muted movement, and muted knowledge. When the world falls away to an edge; we are on it and in it, but at a moment of unknowing. How can we yet remain? Oh, to strain, to stretch! To allow that great letting occur, where our selves, our identities of self, are removed from our references, from our knowing. This is the pure spirit. What has happened?” – from A Mnemonic of Longing, an unpublished essay, 2002-2009.

Images from digital photos taken between May and August 2001.

It was a record, that flaming consumer…

“And the fire was always there with us as well; its cast of gray ash strewn about as a memory of the night past. Here and there on the ground lay also the print of a known foot, the circumference of a bottle, the twisted remains of a cigarette butt. It was a record, that flaming consumer: constantly fed and ever needing more, never totally gone out.”

“The bricks keep it contained, except on those special, pagan nights. Over the years they have become fragile, having seen the fierce flames that flash for three months and then fade for nine many times. The dune now cradles the fire pit in its sandy palm; nature allows us to knead that surface and turn it over with toes and rakes for another day. All the while smoke signals the call over the waters and the trees…” – from A Mnemonic of Longing, an unpublished essay, 2002-2009.

Images from digital photos taken between May and August 2001.

A Submission to Delights

“A constant comfort of that place – apart from the foliage, springing paths, and multitude other charms – was my mug. Handcrafted and ergonomic, it felt then as it does now: a real weight in the hand – substantial, truthful. It declares by its heft the worth of what it holds. It is heat, a vessel security blanket, a confirmation of time. And of course I carry the time with me physically even now as I use the mug emblazoned with the O and the X (hugs and kisses from the past to the future) almost every day. It reminds me of 2am munchie runs and awesome weekend breakfasts, of wind swept evenings and overcast middays. Its circle pleases me and my mouth conforms to it easily – a submission to delights.” – from A Mnemonic of Longing, an unpublished essay, 2002-2009.

On nights like these – remembering Ox-Bow and my mug of that time – I think also of drinking port with Lex up the slope behind the Inn. One late afternoon, both of us moving toward that state of mellow so frequently found that summer, we debated art and ideas. I had my prized Odd Nerdrum book with me and, in a sequence of events not without mystery and malevolence, the tome found itself flipped off the deck and down the hillside. I keep the book broken away from its cover to this day in remembrance of my time with Alex.

Photo: My second Ox-Bow mug today. I got this mug at the same time as the one I speak about in the text above, but that first mug – my primary mug, the one that I had used every day for two years – was stolen from my workplace in 2003. Now I keep the second mug as a commemoration and never drink from it. Both mugs were made by Becky Wehmer, long time Ox-Bow-luminary and an artist/educator at Waterstreet Glassworks.

A Sound of Being

“Evening often brings contemplation. The paths are quiet and fires smolder in the distance. I’m out behind the Inn again. Some people come and go, moving in the ethereal between-time, but we sit on the steps with a kind, unimposing light glinting out from within. There, the warmth of the air touches my arm as I bring my hand up for another pull on my smoke.

See how poetic that stream of consumption is as it gracefully spreads upward, as smoothly as my eye follows it, as light as my mind. Shared… a cigarette-trust between friends.

And there is just silence, but that is not to say there is no sound. There is a sound that true silence makes, a sound of being. What a precious joy now to sit and feel that silence, having grown accustomed to all the oft-unheard sounds of life embodied in it: there two girls talk quietly down by the lagoon, here the underbrush rustles with some rooting creature. Around us the sounds of the night move in close, the trees and hills settling in. Above, in the near cabins, assignations await. The studio glows, and there’s music trailing through the trees… notice the diffusion. The Inn lights lilt like ghosts greeting that twilight time, that time when the entire world is mother-of-pearl.” – from A Mnemonic of Longing, an unpublished essay, 2002-2009.

Image from a digital photo taken between May and August 2001.

Ox-Bow as Self-Portrait

“As I reflect on this experience from the mitigating distance of years, I am staggered by the power it still holds within my heart. And by my heart I mean the seat of my emotions as well as that physical member within me. Perhaps this is because, as with all fantasies, I remember it in an idealized form. Yet even the least ideal aspects of the time hold a remarkable glow to me.”

“At the time, I saw that land – that Large Place – as a separate sphere, a space out of time, out of normalcy. It strikes me how, when I am able to recall it very clearly, my heart almost seizes within my chest as I briefly sense again the stinging joys that I felt there.”

“It was an exploration of myself, not simply a holiday from the reality I had always known. Sitting there on the shore of that ancient lake, gazing back west towards the big city that has since become my home, I marveled how it seemed that I was gazing across some chasm of time and space.”

“I was dislocated, thrown, out of my time into another, somehow timeless, yet time-full arena. I was looking backward and forward to that other shore of past experience and an unsure future. I could never be the same.”

“I could never be the same.”

“I could never be the same.”

“I could never be the same.”

All text: from A Mnemonic of Longing, an unpublished essay, 2002-2009.

All photos: Self-portraits taken between May 2001 and August 2001, in roughly chronological order.

Drawing: Matt (Hardass). Ink and Sharpie on paper, 11 by 14 inches, 2001, by Reid Thompson and unknown Ox-Bow Fellow (A.G.).

PS: Don’t smoke, kids.

The Ox-Bow Studio

“Image-making in this place seemed axiomatic. You live to make. Or, at least, in living you make. Let us take the ninety-degree turn twice and go back to where we once were, shall we? It was fun, challenging, and worthy; the most worthy and real thing I did that summer. It is the most abiding thing I did, even now. Alas, all the rest is dust, chaff, and stubble – ‘which are burnt and which the wind drives away’ – though it all was so beautiful while strewn on the ash pile there. And we, like the old pagans, went down to color it and cover our nakedness with it.” – from A Mnemonic of Longing, an unpublished essay, 2002-2009.

Above: the studio I used during the Summer of 2001 while at Ox-Bow on a Fellowship Residency. Click for larger view.

Below: a sign one of my fellow Fellows left for me one day. I’ve saved it all these years. I have a feeling who left it on my chair that night, but was never sure. Click for larger view.

Into Dust

“Can I remember it only in some half-form? Can I remember it only as a chimera, made of memory and will and hope? Can I not recall it totally, fully, being in myself as I was? Does no one understand the fullness of the emptying time? Does no one sense it in themselves, that time when they lost the tether? Let it loose again, to feel that it is gone! Alone. This is the deep pit of sensing, where I know the contour of death and dying. Suspended above the abyss. Glory.” – from A Mnemonic of Longing, an unpublished essay, 2002-2009.

“Look… an abyssal missive, a doctrine of smoke… ‘into dust.’

In the end I suppose that I wish for it, (and sometimes still seek it with nervous hope) that confusion. Sweet psychological instability – the wobbly legs of a newly drunken lad – here as the land curves away beneath me. I guess that, at times, the seeking is more interesting to me than the knowing. I’ve seen it here, right here on this land; is there self-loathing? What’s beneath the surface of us all? Did I see myself here for the first time, or was I just revealed anew, from a novel angle and in skewed light? The absolute beauty of being permissive, of stepping aside and watching oneself from the wings – it can’t be beat, though it stays with you in some way I can’t yet fully understand. I don’t think I ever will understand it. Watching others though – there’s the bittersweet fruit. The fallen human trembles and tumbles through life, and even at the lowest point renders to itself the most poetic, romanticized stroke.” – from A Mnemonic of Longing, an unpublished essay, 2002-2009.

Still falling
Breathless and on again
Inside today
Beside me today
A round broken in two
’til your eyes shed into dust
Like two strangers turning into dust
’til my hand shook the way I fear

I could possibly be fading
Or have something more to gain
I could feel myself growing colder
I could feel myself under your face
Under…your face

It was you
breathless and torn
I could feel my eyes turning into dust
And two strangers turning into dust
Turning into dust.

“Into Dust” by Mazzy Star

All images above are from digital photos taken between May and August 2001.

Sense of Place

There is a great Bad At Sports interview with long time Ox-Bow cook and Director of Chicago’s Roots & Culture gallery Eric May. It’s awesome. Check it out here.

Above: Eric in his grilling glory, summer 2001.

A lot of what Eric talks about in the conversation with Claudine Ise reminded me of my favorite parts of Ox-Bow life… it creates its own micro-cultural climate, its own peculiar and special sense of place. Here are some of my thoughts on it…

“It is interesting that the wonderful mixture of scents is always with you: air, fire, dirt, grass, and water. There is the staleness of cigarettes, the pungency of weed, the hoppy brews left after the parties. There are dinners of steak, shrimp, pork chops, Portobello mushrooms and ever-present feta and peas. There are soups, fish, teas, deserts, additions, and all; delights each and every day. All manner of body odors redound. The lesser animals also make their presence known, as does the mildew. Rain always works its strange rejuvenations to counter the constancy of the Lagoon. There is the rotting wood, the wet leaves, the morning mists, and my hair with its own unwashed, unkempt glory.” - – from A Mnemonic of Longing, an unpublished essay, 2002-2009.