In January of 1997 I was a 20 year old kid working for a landscape design company. My job actually involved parking lot maintenance using a street-sweeping truck or trailer attached to a pickup truck. I worked all over the central New York region, but mostly in the area triangulated by Rome, Utica, and Syracuse.
I was fairly aimless after high school. Having grown up in Upstate New York the very idea of going to college seemed distant and was, in many ways, discouraged by the people who surrounded me… “What are you gonna do with that?” scoffed the wire mill workers who frequented the gas station where I worked a day shift. That was my life: gas station in the day; empty parking lots for the overnight. But I’d been working on something else, and something else had been working on me for a long time.
I’d spent the previous 6 or 7 years actively studying the foundations of art-making. The first few years I used Bert Dodson’s fantastic Keys to Drawing (thanks Grandma Clara!), but eventually moved on to self-directed work from observation and imagination. I was writing and reading a lot, listening to CDs of classic books in the cab of my street sweeper on those late nights, and dreaming prayer-like dreams into the night. I was also smoking like a chimney, singing Pantera songs at the top of my voice, and popping caffeine pills to stay awake; I generally worked from 11pm through til 5 or 6 in the morning. It was a surreal life. I saw and experienced more than I can ever describe to anyone who wasn’t there. I needed to go through it all. The questions and desires that grew within me during that time were necessary to who I would become.
So there I was after 18 months on the job, driving my truck through a mall in Mattydale just north of Syracuse, on an icy cold January morning. It was 2:30am. Why I was there I’m not sure. With all of the lake effect snow we’d gotten there was no way I could “sweep” the parking lot. And my regional boss had taken my sweeping truck and left me a sweeping trailer attached to an old Ford Ranger. What I would soon learn was that the hitch on the sweeper was a different size than the ball on the pickup…
This is the place where the trailer jumped the ball… I took this photo last week at the very spot where it all began (I was in Syracuse visiting one of my former students, Jake Crook, who is an MFA candidate at SU).
Of course, this grate and the pavement surrounding it are all entirely different now. At the time, however, the grate was a huge divot in the ice-covered pavement and it tossed the loose trailer off easily. As I l knelt in the freezing slush and figured out how to jack the trailer back up, bend the hitch back around, and chain it all in some semi-safe fashion to get it the 50 miles home, I made a decision. I knew I had to at least try this whole art thing. I knew I didn’t want this sort of event to be the measure of my ability. I knew that I didn’t want to wake up in a decade and wonder what the hell I had been doing with my life. I knew I didn’t want to just get by. I knew I would make an attempt at something different.
The next day I applied to Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, an extension of Pratt. After a couple years I earned a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
I ended up doing and experiencing a lot of wonderful things. A lot of hard things. A lot of humbling things. A lot of true things. A lot of astonishing things. And every single thing that’s happened to me – going to Ox-bow, spending time in Italy, earning an MFA, getting married to my best friend, publishing essays, having shows all over the world, having the amazing and humbling joy of working with students, all of it – are a result of laying in that snow and ice with the orange sodium-vapor glow shining down on me. I needed that experience to come to a point of decision.
I’m really thankful for that hitch coming loose. I’m thankful that the ball was too small. I’m thankful that the wind was cold. I’m thankful that I was over-tired and pissed off.
I think God was close by that night.
By the way, my latest essay, Standing Beside Gods, is available on Neoteric Art. Click to read it.