Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Breaking Ground

In the Fall of 07 it was time to get started building a structure off the back of the camper. My plan was to spend two weeks in Maine. The first week my parents were to arrive two days after my arrival. When I first showed up I had a momentary episode of panic. My plan throughout the summer was to attach a small house to the camper where I had parked it the previous spring. When I arrived at the land and looked around, there where so many excellent sites to build upon I didn't know what to do. This was a big decision! I spent one day second guessing myself, weighing pros and cons of each location and decided to build where I had originally planned.
By hand, I dug out 3ft. square sections of of loam and vegetation until I hit compatible soil or bedrock which meant digging down only about 6-12 inches for every 8ft. (Eventually I shortened the span to every 4ft.) . In each dug out section I placed two 8"X16" cement blocks (to form a 16"X16"sq.) and filled them with concrete. I placed metal pipe strapping in the wet cement. By the time I was halfway through this step, my parents showed up. They had flown all the way from Oregon to help me out. And it was a good thing too, because I was feeling pretty doubtful about this sort of foundation. But they gave me just to boost of encouragement I needed. They got right to work with no hesitation as to my design or the fact that they had just driven three hours from a motel in New Hampshire!
So this is what we did: The foundation consisted of cement blocks every 8 feet. On top of these we placed chainsaw cut cedar and hemlock posts ranging in diameter from 10"-16" and anchored them with the pipe straps. Their lengths were all different so as to accommodate for the different elevations of the blocks and end up with a level floor. The house was to perch on a moderate incline. On top of the posts we set 4"X6"X8' pieces of hemlock and atop those we attached 2"X8"X8' stringers to form a 16'X16' sub-floor of rough cut 1" hemlock of varied widths. In addition we built a 4'X8' step up to attach the camper. At the NE side corner we built a pillar of cement blocks to stand flush with the floor. This was to support a future wood stove. There was no electricity so all of our cuts were made by chainsaw or handsaw.

Towards the end of my parent's visit we began to frame up some of the walls with 2"X6"s. We got most of the western walls framed where the camper was attached before my parents had to climb into their rental car and make the 4 hour drive back to Boston to catch an 8 hour flight to Portland OR to get into their car and drive another 3 hours to finally make it home to Roseburg. What a trip to take! On top of that they bought me dinner for every night of their stay. That's love. I broke into tears as they drove away. I could scarcely believe that they would go to so much expense and trouble just to help me build a shack in the woods on the other side of the country! But that is not the first time I have underestimated their love for me...

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Shack

It was the winter of 07 and I needed some kind of small dwelling on the land. It had to be small and basic with heat and a sink and maybe a place to sit and draw, like a desk. It was very much the thing I had imagined as an adolescent.
To date it is not finished. I constructed what is pictured mostly from poles on the land or scrap wood and pallets from various dumpsters on the Cape. At the end of February I bought a truck and camper combination for $500. It was a lot of money for me at the time but solved the problem of having a place to sleep on the land. It was fully self contained with a propane stove, refrigerator and heater. Before that I would either sleep in a tent or when it was crazy cold, stay in a motel in Belfast.
At some point I hope to finish the structure. I'm not sure what function it will serve...

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Beautiful Conflict

My friend Shane recently asked if my Jehovah's Witness upbringing has provided inspiration in doing art projects. It's a good question and I think it relates to this Maine House project. The short answer is "yes"; and although I am not altogether sure that I would use the word "inspiration", I cannot think of a word that seems any more appropriate. Inspiration is not necessarily some rapturous event. The creative process involves a lot of love but just as essential is conflict. It is conflict of the soul that drives people to create in the first place, to manage it. The craft of Art is really little more than the management of opposites. The greater the harmony of light and shadow, of cold and warmth, of great and small of all elements contained in the piece, the more pleasing it is to experience.
The people that we become as adults is largely influenced by our childhood experiences, especially as we relate to others. I think it is true to say that the way in which we relate to others determines how we live our lives and spend our time. All people need people. That is why solitary confinement tends to be a prisoner's most severe punishment. That is where the conflict comes in for me and the subsequent drive to make art.
My personal experience with organized religion maybe a little unusual but the end result for many who were raised in heavily religious households can be very much the same. The Jehovah's Witnesses is a cult that finds loyalty by coercion. The Governing Body which is at the heart of the organization, creates lessons and sermons which are passed down to the Elders of each congregation. The outlines that the Elders are given site many Bible verses (which usually consist of one to three sentences) from all over the new and old testaments, that back up the prevailing message of each sermon or "talk" as they call them. A new scripture would be sited every 60 seconds or so during the discourse and it was strongly encouraged that all members of the congregation look up each scripture and read along with the speaker. As soon as the verse was read, you could hear the crackle of a hundred Bible pages flipping simultaneously to the next verse sited. Of course each reading would backup whatever fear-based horse shit the speaker was rattling on about. Sometimes I would try to read the paragraphs surrounding the verse to figure out the context, but the rest of the congregation was always off to the next verse and if I wasn't turning pages my parents would notice and smack me. So it was in this way that from a so-called scriptural basis nearly every form of social interaction with the outside world was reduced to outright sin. I was to have no friends outside the congregation. (my parents did make an exception to that rule regarding a neighbor boy that I had made friends with. That however did not last as I was excluded from all extracurricular school activities. He found normal friends.) Other rules excluded me from any activities that had their basis in religious or national holidays. I was not to salute the flag. I was not allowed to play sports after school or attend any dances or other social functions. If a film or school project contained any depiction of religious holiday (i.e. Christmas, Halloween, Valentines Day etc.) I was excused to some other room to do worksheets or some other form of busy work. Sometimes I was allowed to draw.
My estrangement did not become obvious to me until around the 4th grade when I began to notice that the other kids were beginning to form groups or "clicks". In addition, I was becoming very interested in girls which were also forbidden. By Junior High, the horrible reality that I was a "weird" kid was painfully sinking in. It also became obvious to several other kids. Some of them would spit in my face or sucker punch me (among other things). My moral center was so askew that I felt I deserved it. It never even occurred to me to fight back. They were doing the same as I would do. I loathed what I was. In my opinion they were being easy on me. It was a bit of real interaction in what was otherwise a world of solitary confinement.
So I spent a lot of time alone. I experienced the harsh conflict between the need to be among my peers and lonely despair that was my reality. Conflict turned to rage. I discovered great depths of hatred for the unexpressed thing in me that was ceaselessly pushing, asserting it's humanity. Nature wanted to make me a man; a filthy disgusting sinful wretch. My body and mind conflicted terribly with what I was groomed to be. The Jehovah's Witnesses demanded absolute cleanliness of mind and body. To think a sin was the same as committing the sin. If a sin was found out, immediate expulsion from the congregation and from the offender's immediate family was the penalty. And there I was, committing countless forms of immorality in my mind upon most of the girls at my school and most especially upon myself where I had free reign. Next to nothing was not a sin and at age 12 I dreaded the very real possibility of disassociation. Even sitting quietly at the Kingdom Hall, flipping back and forth through my Bible, I was sinning up a storm. Some of my "sisters" were looking good, especially the way my extra-developed, badly disciplined imagination removed their proper dresses and altered points of their anatomy. It was around the age of 13, with the looming possibility of being expelled from my home, that I began to design my own private dwellings. They were always cleverly hidden so as to avoid the authorities and generally very small, like a clubhouse. Even at that age, building such a thing was not out of my realm of possibilities as I built several "practice" structures out of scrap. The problem was always feeding myself. We lived very far from any stores and I had no money. The possibility of stealing what I needed did not occur to me until later. In retrospect however, I think that the thing that held me at home was the emotional connection to my family. It took many years to mentally and emotionally "kill" my parents to sever that connection. Only after that could I endure disassociation from my family and attempt to cast off the built-in moral constraints that made it impossible to live with myself and others. I am now resigned to the possibility that I will never fully rid myself of this manufactured behavior. It's just too deep. I learned so well to be without people that I am now repulsed by most contact with them; and yet I love and need people around me to maintain my sanity. Most aspects of social life make me very uncomfortable. But art is a sort of sanctuary. Managing 55 acres in Maine, far away from everyone is blissful, but only for moderate amounts of time. I tend to become ungrounded and depressed within about two weeks.
Through my upbringing, I experienced great conflict which in turn gave me the power and the need to create art. Maybe the seed of inspiration lies somewhere within. For me there was no other form of expression. The punishment at the time for talking about my feelings was too great. I cannot resolve the conflict between my humanity and the artificial morality implanted by the JWs, so I try my best to control or harmonize the conflicting elements of my environment like color in my paintings or structure in the house sculpture. The house is very much the expression of my conflict, but with many more dimensions. I am realizing many of my old childhood fears and possibly putting some to rest through this process. Each dimension helps me understand myself a little better which in turn makes life in my body a little more bearable, sometimes a pleasure!
Sometimes I make conflict beautiful.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The outhouse

One could define a spiritual experience as that of being released from a prison to a state of perfect freedom. The prisons in which we find ourselves locked tend to be mostly if not completely psychological. Their liberation equally so: despair to love or from hate to joy. Euphoria can be experienced whenever our perception of reality moves suddenly from one opposite to another. Spiritual experiences happen all the time.

When the snow abated in the spring of 07 I set to the task of building an outhouse. Oddly enough I did not need a building permit for the house I planned to build. No such thing in Monroe. The state of Maine does, however have strict environmental laws. I did have to go to town hall and buy a $100 permit to dig a hole for an outhouse. The hole I dug had to be inspected by the local code enforcer. The hole had to be exactly 30" deep and approximately the same size across and back. As soon as I had dug the hole I called the inspector and he drove out (surprisingly promptly) to look at my hole. He climbed in, measured it, and told me to fill it in 6". It was a little too deep but other than that I had the go ahead to start building my out house.
It took me three days to build. No finish siding or trim work, but complete to National Park standards with a 4" exhaust pipe. I did not "use" the outhouse as I was leaving for the Cape that afternoon and the inspector might want one last look. Besides, I wanted to save the christening for my next visit..
In June of 07, my parents came to visit me on the Cape with my aunt Punkin and uncle Mike. After a short visit in Provincetown we all drove up to Maine. My folks were excited to see the land. I had been sending them photos and updates since the purchase. Upon our arrival, we took a walk around the property then went into Belfast (about a 15-20 min ride) to eat dinner and to check in at the motel where my folks and aunt and uncle were staying.
I could have stayed at the motel with electricity and running water etc. but I wanted to stay on the land, so I drove back that evening. At that time I had recently acquired the camper so I had a place to sleep and now I had an outhouse; an enclosed throne upon which I could poop with dignity and grace. As luck would have it, I had been constipated for the last three days. Whether that had anything to do with my parents visit I don't know. What I did know is that I needed a bit of comfortable me-time.

As soon as I had arrived back at my land I made way to the outhouse with haste. It was dusk, nearly dark. I settled onto the seat and sat with the door open. It was a beautiful scene to see the tops of the trees against the darkening sky. Then one by one fireflies began to light up the darkness until there were hundreds of little sparks diving back and forth. Seated firmly in the Captain's Chair, with a couple of puffs of Mary Jane, I was ready for take off.
I must have sat there for half an hour. It is to date the most memorable bowel movement of my life; perhaps a spiritual experience.