Week 51: Music

A mix of words and rhythm. The story for the mind and the story the body is in. Grandmaster Flash said that “before I’m a DJ, I’m a scientist.” Growing up black and poor in New York in the 1970s he developed his own field of study, the Quick Mix Theory. He had noticed that when people dance to disco their bodies reacted most intensely in certain sections, rhythms, the climax of the beat. What he calls the Get Down. He wanted to make the Get Down go slower or faster or to layer one Get Down over another. To infinitely loop Get Downs.

He got two turntables and played them like an instrument. He developed the Peekaboo by hooking up a third wire so he could pre listen to check he had the right section of record. He tested turntables with the Torque Theory, resting a pen on the platter and spinning it to see how long it took to get up to speed. He spent hours in a fabric store feeling rolls of cloth to find the right friction level, settling on felt (spray starched) and wax paper. He drew a map on the record, marking the Get Down with crayon. He got a wordsmith to rhyme over the beats he looped.

Hip hop, DJing, Rapping, all verbs, all from his theory. He collected records of all kinds: jazz, disco, rock and roll, pop, alternative. Electric engineering and collage that created a billion dollar industry of science and art. As a theory it can be added to, continues to evolve.

Medium: Crayola crayon, tracing paper, Ravel Bollero LP372 record.

For more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ka9ZpV8VZcY&sns=fb, and the TV show https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usv442G6H8A

When I was younger, I wanted to be a concert pianist. I wanted to find the difference between playing the piano and allowing it to play me—Liszt with his disjointed measures that build structure; Beethoven with all that gothic emotion requiring restraint; Nakada whose simple, kinetic melodies conjure the sadness of summer, dusk, deer in the pines. Thrill when my fingers kept going in performance after the page-turner missed her mark. The way that carrying something also means that it will carry through somehow.

I played when I couldn’t express myself in other ways. Why can’t you tell what she’s thinking? Why doesn’t she cry? Playing was personal expression but also entree to others in that it was a tool to guide their hearts toward Liszt’s boldness, Beethoven’s storms, the last sunlit days of Nakada’s grasshoppers.

When I stopped playing after college, it was more of the same: forced therapy to make my voice louder and full of what people wanted to call confidence. Stripping the upspeak and singsonginess, the girlness, of my Swedish great-aunts. (You know me, E, so you know this story has a happy ending: none of this worked.)

Peter Larsen puts bacterial growth to music using variables like sunlight to guide the melody, which is oscillatory, pathless, entirely itself outside of his efforts to structure it. I’ve been playing again—Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Oscillatory as well, but manifest, penetrating, down to the swollen ligaments in the spread of my hands.

Materials: Travel flat-head screwdriver, gouache, ink

For Peter Nelsen’s bacterial music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRb3-J2ABYA


Week 50. Cold

There are so many ways to say I love you when it is cold. Cold is good for love. A hug not only symbolic, but the warmth of another. A need to fill.

Hot water bottles, lavender oil in a bath, bonfires on frozen lakes, reindeer sausage cut with a pocket knife while standing in the snow, peanut butter eaten crouched behind a beaver dam before skiing an open stretch of lake. The way skin burns when you go inside.

All I want is to belong, to be a part of something bigger than myself. Researching the mysteries of Earth I was part of a global community of academics, but no matter how much I learned I was only orbiting nature. Doing science, out in the field, collecting samples of earth or plants, for a month or day or hour. The cold penetrates like nothing else, into the skin and bones. I became a part of it all. Ice on eye lashes, eating to stay warm. Alive like never before.

We used to open lakes, auger holes from which to sample. Eyes looking back up at us with the dark depths of liquid water.

Reference: Video of sample being taken from Yellow Knife Lake in Canada: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNCP88g3T0U

In cold air, sight broaches impossibility. As light enters the lower atmosphere, rays bend. Illusion is partly bend and cold, but also our own stubbornness in expecting only to see light as a straight line. Our hewing to the way the world supposedly behaves permits us to trick ourselves over and over, to walk into mysterious, imaginary worlds.

A violence experienced by someone I love. A year later, I still feel it though I wasn’t there. I’ll never know what truly happened. When the brain meets an unreliable narrative, it searches each shifting facet of the story as if it will find a clue as to where it belongs, how it fits in a day, a life. It forces you to build a world in which it can move, and in return for its realm, it bothers you less.

The most extreme cold air mirages: Fata Morgana, Novaya Zemlya, the Hillingar. Land placed atop itself in towers, jumbled at the horizon. Mapmakers drew the landscapes, mountains, outcroppings they saw on a cold, clear day, later finding that they never existed. What was impossible to see became visible in the winter air for those who understood the power of being fooled.

Medium: watercolor, India ink

Week 49. Death

The day after 9-11 I sat in a philosophy class, existentialism. I liked the way bracelets slid up and down the teacher’s wrists as he raised and lowered his hands. They clinked against each other, tiny bell sounds above the sleeves of a conventional suit. “Fanaticism is the need to know and have all the answers.” The men on the planes could not stand the uncertainty of life.

Death to me meant nothing until Byrd was born, with his six pound body came the terrible slamming against a wall that leaves you crumpled and spent. I had never had anything to lose before. I had never considered my life, never taken charge. Before motherhood, I couldn’t even tell my own parents things that bothered me, could not say no.

Three weeks after Byrd was born my Grandma died. It was all logistics of covering my head, my elbows, my ankles, breastfeeding in the car at the cemetery. She was orthodox jewish, had taught me how to keep kosher with three sets of dishes and silverware. She used the ocean as a Mikva to clean things, running a brand new grill into the waves fully dressed. I had asked her about death a few years before.

When you die you are gone. – GM

What about your soul?- EA

What soul? – GM

What about god? – EA

There is no god in Judaism. – GM

The philosophy professor with bracelets gave us a choice – to have everything safe and determined or to allow for discovery and freedom. The tidy world would offer guarantees, but would have no art. Art comes from uncertainty. The song that never ends is 25 words on repeat.

Without an ending there is no plot.

This summer, I made huge paintings of the St. Louis River and chopped them up, so now you can only see the river in pieces. I painted my ribcage containing a gilded gold and carmine heart, cells in the human mucosa, bits of lost language, all part of the river, all chopped.

The St. Louis River is brown and foamy because dissolved organic carbon from decomposing plant life and all the death that’s sheltered by a body of water decay and form oily surfactants that churn and bubble and root-beer-float away. The river is home and death and culture and long vowels shaped by the decomp-drought in fall and the thrust of the dam in spring.

Sometimes a seiche from the great lake will push the river into itself for miles, add new rot, in payback for the river’s brown line of dirty entry in Superior’s blue perfection. See, tourists, that’s my papermill, matchmill, casket-upholstery-manufacturing-mill home.

In the lamina propria—the layer of mucosa beneath the epithelium—macrophages, mast cells, B- and T-cells, collagen, afferent and efferent nerve endings, and starfish fibroblasts come together in a dance of death, life, salvation, annihilation, and risk. You never know, and you can’t control it. All you can do is accept their dance as part of home and listen to how they shape your language.

Materials: gouache

Week 48. Museums


This paper should last 100 years, the sales clerk thought I might want something a little more durable. But I can’t imagine beyond a 100 years.

I wanted to love the Uffizi in Florence. To be moved by the Birth of Venus, the iconic cherubs and profiles of aristocrats, all of it. But those images already have a life of their own, are out on bags and posters and in 1990s music videos.

In the museum infinity goes up on trial.” Bob Dylan said that.

Mammoth skeletons in lake mud, ancient atmosphere held tight in glacial air bubbles, soil chemistry laminated in cave stalagmites, the secrets of the big bang zooming through space in an asteroid. All preservation, an exhibit waiting to be made accessible to the public.

As the jury at the Uffizi, two of the three of us got bored and started to race on the stairs. It was not brush strokes or themes or artist names I took away that day, but breathless giggles echoing up and down stone steps. Feet clip clopping up and down. Stone steps that breath moisture, the collective humidity of human bodies and mid October heat.

Medium: Sketching crayon, pencil, white pastel. 

In Boston, I visit the triceratops before checking in to my hotel. In Philly, I use my train fare to see the mummies. These are all love affairs, clandestine and foolish, twinning the joys of waiting and meeting.

The triceratops lives in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which is the best kind of museum: a dearth of narrative (you weave your own), treasures sharing space with spiderwebs (where does natural history begin and end?), and curators secretly placing insects, crystals, and fossils into intricate arrangements. It’s my grandpa’s basement, a place to meet the ancestors in the silence of my imagination taking up what hands behind the scenes have made for me.

I move quickly through museums. Maybe my body collects signs that it will later piece into meaning, obsess over until a story is integrated.

When draw Harvard’s insects, I notice they’re the same morphologically and yet are individuals. Everything is so fragile, so willing to receive love under sustained gaze and touch. I feel sorry for their deaths, find the idea of “exhibit” heartless. But I can tell the curator had compassion in her hands. I know there are millions of love affairs under the surfaces of arranged and gazed-upon things.

Medium: ink and watercolor

Week 47. Distance

A while ago, you said that because I walk nearly everywhere, I have an artist’s residency in my feet. I experience distance not through mileage or time, but through the sensations in my feet and legs and back, through sunburn. And, in winter, through sound, the wearing away of my soles, trapped ice or dogshit, steep hill clumpCLUMP clumpCLUMP as I lean back to not pitch forward into the styrofoam crunch of packed snow.

Distance in Saint Paul is snaky, irrational, because the Mississippi is snaky, irrational. The hills mean that distance might never be a straight line, a road without sudden crevasse. It’s different when walking; the terrain makes me closer or further from my destination than I’d thought.

Where I’m from, distance from the river had to do with you were, who you became. And with how you spoke, the way the river trained your tongue if you were close enough to listen. Ten miles: crayfish. Five miles: crawfish. Two miles: crawdad. One mile: crawdaddy.

Medium: Ink, watercolor, Sharpie

Time away from the kids, relief and extra cups of tea and quiet. We bind ourselves together by escaping to a place with no mail or bills or laundry to fold.

Last spring we went to Red Wing, brought our bikes and rode on the Cannon Valley Trail – what was once the Chisago Great Western Railroad Line. Today, a bike path bordering rivers with people in tubes bobbing like apples in a bucket.

We marked miles by planets. A scale of 1: 600,000,000. We rode from the sun to Jupiter and broke for water. From Jupiter to Neptune and shed a layer.  Neptune to Pluto and we stopped to eat apples and cheese.

Distance from the kids and I feel them like a second skin, soft cheeks that burn red from any disturbance: running, wind, tantrums, strawberries.

I dont believe that I am a universe to the microbes on my skin, in my gut. I believe they are real as much as I believe our planet is round and orbits a sun that burns you if you fly too close. How do we fathom what is so far? The rings around Saturn not thick like airplane wings, but rock debris and water.  A wrecking ball to a moon, the moment of destruction frozen in time by the force of gravity.

Medium: Sharpie, pencil, white chalk.

Week 46. Light

In the time it takes for light on the lake to fade from blue to a color like butter, for individual trees to blend into a solid horizon, for dusk to bring night.

When I went dogsledding last winter I walked around swallowing an open mouthed howl. To walk on dirt, eat by candle light, sleep with the waning warmth of a fire, bath only when the sauna is lit (wood also).

In the time it takes for the sun to slip into the water naked and glowing, loon calls sound of wild cats or fucking.

I was terrified the woman who ran the place saw through me. I felt guilty like I had drugs in my pocket.

We light even outer space. Escape is only lateral – to forgotten places without broadband. I know I’m unmoored, ungrounded, that I only know how to take root in the blunt rawness of wild.

Medium: Borden&Riley #840 Kraft Pad, Cretacolor Sepia Hell and White Pastel.

I wait all year for this time, when dark falls (or surrounds) at 5pm, when the sky goes from pink to lavender and Jupiter appears, when the shadows of statues become giants on the eaves. All the sadness and romance and mystery from moonglow and the ghost of waning light a hemisphere over.

My dad taught me to watch for when the light falls at the end of a summer day, for when things change shape. Suddenly the world can be different and impossible, only from the corner of your eye. But in winter, there’s no drawn-out changing of the light and the shapes of things; there are only trees, buildings, and bridges skeletal at the horizon.

I remember my grandma’s funeral through slants of northern light broken by spruces, the graveyard on a hill near Pre-Cambrian cliffside, air choked and yellow with wildfire smoke drifting southward. She was named Jay because her mom saw a bluejay when her daughter was born.

The jay’s blue feathers are a trick of the light, or a way to see things change shape outside of summer dusk. Light is scattered, bumping along the grooves of spine and quill, and the short blu wavelengths are returned to our eyes, made beautiful by the melanin that truly acts as pigment. And what we see is distance, illuminated.

Medium: Ink and watercolor

Week 45. Young adult literature

I just read Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, about triplet girls born as queens and destined to fight each other to the death. Each sister is either a poisoner, an elemental, or a naturalist.

When I was a child, I thought there could only be one of something in a family: my dad was a scientist, my mom an artist. I was smart, my sister pretty. The brain is a computer, the heart a pump. Identity, when named, is powerful and blinding. It makes impossible what was before simply unnamed or unimagined. It hedges you in until that’s all you can see. Our words form ghosts around us, make us believe our selves are composites of gifts implanted or taken away.

The queen-sisters get caught up in developing their powers, though, of course, you can’t be a poisoner without an affinity for nature, and you can’t separate the activity of the elements from their touch on biological life. But invisibility and impossibility thrive in isolation, and isolation makes it easier to believe that destiny has called for your cruelty, that you are just fulfilling your role.

Young adult lit is dark, fun. It’s written for people with only a smattering of years on the planet, people for whom anything might be possible and little is surprising. It dreams in realms untouched by many erasures, without walls of impossibility closing in.

Medium: ink and Sharpie

With books I throw myself as I never did with love at first site.

Last week I snuck the thin paperback out of the boys room and read it in the hallway by headlamp. The story will take weeks to finish reading aloud – I had to know. My youngest sisters asks me if it is pleasure or anxiety to devour books this way.  I ask myself this, but I can’t answer.

My first brush with faith came in college botany class memorizing latin names of plants. I walked the city weaving myself into the landscape: asteraceae, aceraceae, ulmaceae.

The story is of a sick younger brother, an evil principal, a wall flower teen older sister, and a cherubim (plural of cherub). One moment they watch a star being born, the next they are inside the sick brothers mitochondria. The fate of the universe hinges on this boy. They use telepathy, learn that size and distance mean nothing.

To fight evil with love, and love is done by naming. To name each star, each tree, each sad and lonely person.  This is the war of good against evil. That everything is given a place. I realize, I was not just weaving myself into the landscape, I was weaving the landscape. The closest I come to god is through seeing, the uttering of words and pencil strokes on a page to sketch veins, leaves, stems, flowers.

Medium: water color, micron pen.

Book referenced: Wind in the Door, Madeleine L’Engle

Week 44. Random

She didnt believe it. She had thought it was another swimmer that bumped her, and when she saw the sleek gray tail in front of her, she told herself it was the back of an outrigger canoe. Later, on the boat she swam to that let down a rope ladder for her to climb aboard, she felt terror, but it was mixed with the excitement of having been so close to something so magnificent.

I tell her I accepted a long time ago that she might die swimming solo where others dare not.  I used similar rational to accept her attempt to deploy in Iraq as a social worker. My mother in a war zone, sixty-nine, actively shrinking, all muscle and extra skin from the five kids she bore. If you love something let it go.

“I didnt want to die out in the ocean eaten by a shark. I never thought I would see one. It was random.” She spits back.

When I pull a core of sediment from a lake I find a time series of forest turning to prairie and back again. There is no design to how a seed or leaf or pollen grain falls and where it lands. Yet a collection of random falls over time tells a story. Random moments organized by probability, the story of our galaxy, planet, the evolution of species.

Blame and gratitude switch from randomness to probability to god and back. My mom says that in her dreams she had always frozen, so in real life when she got away from the shark it made her feel more confident and also more willing to pretend there is a god.

Medium: Water, water color, sharpie, random number generator.

The Aiuaba Ecological Station preserves a desert forest in Brazil’s Caatinga biome. Though it lies in the planet’s tropical zone, Caatinga means xeric shrubland: thick-stemmed, thorny, waiting all year for rain.

Aiuaba hasn’t been managed since 2012, and since then, people have killed many animals and taken native trees from the preserve. This is according to the Wikipedia article, the first that popped up when I clicked “random article.” It includes the odd phrase that “the Aiuaba Ecological Station had been delivered to its fate.”

I like that my heart is so easy, that for the past several days, I’ve been thinking about Aiuaba, about the eared dove that lives there. I sometimes think that people and objects and animals are randomly assigned to be lynchpins at birth, that we’re each holding something to the earth, protecting it from being delivered to fate.

People once found atoms suspect because of how they were thought to move—randomly, without pattern. People though God was organized and purposeful, the opposite of random, but didn’t carry the idea through to imagine the horror of fate working toward greater and greater organization and predictability.

Look at our building blocks: cytoplasm, the solution and dissolution of blood. Even at our cores, we move to dissolve, to random distribution. I know little about God, really, but I know the universe has an easy heart.

Materials: acrylic (Golden Open). This week, I was secretly practicing brushstrokes for my rosemaling class. But there is so much chaos and precision to brushwork (bristles, angle, pressure, grip, motion) that painting has an underlayer of randomness.

Week 43. Color blindness

Someone once told me I behave like a playlist on random or shuffle. My mind leaps to and between random ideas and thoughts. It’s like living with a view of the world that looks like a partially completed tarot card reading, or like having all the ingredients for soup but no way to make it.

I once watched a fishing family inspect Dungeness crabs for sex and throw them back if they were female. You can tell the difference by markings on their undersides, and it’s illegal to eat the females when they’re preparing to mate. And I thought of spiny lobsters, which can only mate when the female molts, and then only with great gentleness, with great brutality. Like many dichotomies or overlaps, it’s easy to refuse to see one side. Maybe people who say lobsters don’t feel pain have neglected to understand the gentleness, to look at it fully.

Color blindness isn’t an absence or a darkness, but an inability to distinguish between colors. Spiny lobsters are dichromats—blue-green vision—created by anatomical acuity for blue and for violet. The colors of light on the sea; maybe some light remains in the mud.

The larvae of spiny lobsters are piecemeal waiting to be fused, which looks like some kind of grace. They are collections of nearly microscopic parts, hennaed ghosts.

Materials: watercolor, gouache

Blue is the most recent addition to our colors. Words for colors appear in stages in cultures, and blue is always last. There was no blue in the Odyssey. Ulysses saw the ocean as wine colored.

Are the sky or water or eyes really blue? Or is blue just a reflection of a reflection reflecting back?

Blue M&Ms and skittles and other sugary treats are died with aromatic hydrocarbons, originally a waste product from coal processing. Mars recently made a commitment to use only natural pigments: roots, seeds, and other plant parts. It hasnt gone well with blue.

For water, sky, ice, bird feathers blue is a trick of diffraction.

General Mills was unable to come up with a natural blue for Trix, so they left it out.

The most promising dye is an extract from algae spirulina, but natural compounds are unpredictable.  Sometimes this blue taste of pond scum, bog, natural rot.

Medium: Crayon and leaves.Hopefully I am not being too clever rifting off of last week in black and white – well a purple infused black and white

References:Radiolab and a New York Times article

Week 42. Front and back

It always bothers me when I notice that my perspective has been warped by the shape of my surroundings, by changing light. I noticed this first in churches and theaters—buildings that draw gaze almost toward a vanishing point, but really toward a captivating performance. The front of a church or theater—its outward face—becomes the back once inside, though your gaze hasn’t changed; it’s been given a trajectory, directed as if on a course.

When I studied blood flow, I became fascinated by how clotting evolved in many different lineages. How our cells hold potential for migration, for arduous journey. To migrate toward a wound, a cell has to behave like two people in a canoe, polarizing so that molecular activity at the back and front is different. The front moves toward. The back moves to allow the front’s towardness, contracting, suppressing, detaching, and the cell migrates toward distress.

The toward is always in the away, the away in the toward. Once I ran away from a terrible decision, and my dad said, “Sometimes the spirit moves you,” and that was that.

When I say “back,” I think “dorsal,” and of the live fish we dissected in 9th grade to watch its heart beat—something of ancestor heart there—and how I wanted to stop a million times and didn’t. The performance of cruelty always feels easy, impressive, and on a trajectory that must be finished. I think of that fish all the time when I think it’s weak to be compassionate, when I’m shaken, when I need to run away or toward.

Materials: Ink, Sharpie, pastels

I miss it every year – I expect all the trees to turn at once so I wait to look. Wait to say this is autumn.

My silver maples are green, but the rest of my street is gold or flames. Yet, I’m still waiting. I looked it up, did you know butterfly wings dont have the same pattern front and back? In the 2-D of a leaf drawing we never profile the leather and ribs of the back. When I used to identify pollen in lake samples I could focus on the grain’s top, middle, bottom to see 3-D in segments. Almost like analog animation.

But it is hard to hold a 3-D object in mind, the front and back pattern of a butterfly wing, the collective red, yellow, orange of fall that moves like a slow river through the neighborhood, the river bluffs, the forests on top of glacial moraines, the flat sand plains and into November.

Medium: Tracing paper, glue stick, crayon, leaves