What is the link between travel and art? Is a destination, by virtue of its mass appeal, sentenced to a diminished craft community, of tinkerers and self-selected assemblers of earrings and shapers of raku coasters?
Are its painters and sculptors squeezed through a tube and into a mold that produces nothing that doesn’t contain one of the region’s famous birds, fish or antlered ungulates?
Is cliche the inevitable result of mercenary desires? Does a conscious appeal to the masses — that quest for broad acceptance, and a greater chance of sales — lead necessarily to a flattening of risk and edge in the artist’s creative output? Is safe “art” a safe bet for a transaction that lifts the artist above his or her starving (i.e. more adventurous?) brethren?
Can art exist or even survive in a world where the obvious and familiar are endlessly cycled into wall hangings for condos left vacant 11 months of the year?
These questions come to mind, browsing a collection of local art in downtown Hilo, Hawaii. I want to chew the questions, although I’m not sure it will produce a digestible answer. Overlaying the whole exercise sits the bigger question of “what is good — or great — art, and where does one find it?”
I’m not sure there is an answer to that. It costs nothing to look, which is what I do when I find myself in places that have earned some cachet among art lovers, albeit for reasons that beg the question “why?” In Sedona and Santa Fe, Carmel and Aspen, this cheapskate pedestrian has wandered into gallery after gallery, and departed in a fog of confusion about the goal of the artists and their gallerists. If every piece, to show its origins, must contain crashing waves or bugling elk or red-rock buttes, can it fairly be called art, or more accurately decoration?
And then there sits the line between art and craft. If utility is the underlying rationale for its creation, can craft compete with an item that is meant strictly for viewing? Is there greater value in the purely aesthetic, compared to that which has an aesthetic quality and also provides a barrier between sweat from a cocktail glass and the koa wood coffee table?
I love to visit galleries, or shops that represent a mix of talents, be they assemblers of beads and pounded metal, or painters, or whimsical welders and their scrap-metal representations of the local fauna. “Cute,” we say most often, and pass on.
For many people, this is what passes for art, and this is what many people come to think of as art, because they see little else, when they travel, in the shops and “galleries” that come to dominate the retail landscape of their destinations. Destinations, I should add, that ascend to the heights of allure because of the sheer volume of such retail establishments that have come to comprise their landscape.
To be fair, to each his own. Everyone has a right to like what they like. Not everyone wants or expects to be challenged by a creative work, although I do. I recall a visit a couple of years ago to Los Angeles, and some of its art zones. In particular, my wife and I found ourselves captivated by the work on display in several of the galleries in downtown Culver City.
In the instance of our captivation, I recall seeing nothing on the wall that looked to have been inspired by the world outside. There was fantasy, whimsy, humor and lust. We could recognize elements in some of the work, or nothing at all in other expressions. But whenever we stopped and stared and thought that if we had a spare $5,000 lying around, we would buy this, and buy it now, we were staring at a work that neither of us had ever seen or imagined before.
Yes, in shops to the left or right of the one in which we stood, we could find nicely wrought earrings or vases. But where we stood, we found wonder. In the world of all that is possible for people to create, only the rare and unfamiliar deserves such regard. The contrast emerges from the greater context. Without cliche, the magical and revolutionary would have nothing above which to soar.
Or, to put it bluntly, without the junk, the gems would never shine.
(Editor’s note: Despite the proliferation of social media, e-mail is still the killer app. It fosters business, and healthy, creative personal interaction. This is a transcript of an actual exchange, conducted between the very talented David Hanson and yours truly. I’ve changed the e-mail addresses to prevent invasion of our privacy by Da Bots. Context: David and his wife invited me and my wife for dinner. He made a lot of pulled pork. Way more than four people could eat. He offered some to us before we left, but we had to decline, albeit reluctantly. We already had a pile of leftover pork of our own at home. That said, is there ever such a thing as too much pork? ‘Dinerguy’ is me. ‘Messopork’ is him.)
On Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 10:09 AM, <email@example.com> wrote:
Wanted to thank you both again for a lovely evening — good smarts, good talk, good laughs.
Have fun with the ‘yardening.’
On Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 10:33 AM, <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Yessir. Great to have y’all over. I might install a small pork reflecting pond in the backyard. We have enough leftovers.
See y’all around!
On Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 10:36 AM, <email@example.com> wrote:
I like that. It would be a one-of-a-kind oddity features. People would come from all over the country — even Pendleton — to see it. Maybe they’d toss stuff in, for good luck. Coins. Pigs. Garbage. You would eventually have to expand it. And move your house, because the pond would grow a bit, to take over the Heights. It would become a superfund site, and get a slot on “Real Wasteponds of the West” (Travel Channel).
Out of small ideas, big things come. I see possibilities.
On Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 10:42 AM, <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
You’re a true Idea Man, and I can appreciate that. I see you going places, big places, in the #PorkPoolScapes empire. Let’s get your people with my people soon and get you on board.
First order of business: rigging a face of the Virgin Mary to **very occasionally** appear in the pool…
On Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 10:52 AM, <email@example.com> wrote:
I’ve still got a photo sent out by the AP years ago of a Hispanic woman down in N.M., standing next to a framed tortilla chip. On the chip is a burnt image that someone decided looked like the Virgin Mary. People DID come to her house, to the Shrine of the Holy Tortilla (I am NOT making this up, although I wish I had), to visit it and pray. I’m not sure where I’ve got the thing stashed, but it’s priceless.
BTW, I also have file folders of photos showing dignitaries reviewing the troops. And newspaper stories all talking about various earthquakes in the U.S., but noting that they’re still not “The Big One.” Ahhh, the Big One. That will be an American earthquake, truly epic, unlike any of those measly earthquakes that his Tajikistan or China or Indonesia, where only thousands die, routinely. When American ingenuity gets around to it, we’re gonna rock the world of earthquakes. You will never have seen such destruction, even in movies. It will be awesome. And we’ll all be walking around with our smart phones out, taking selfies and texting them to Boston.
BTW_2.0, I also wish I could say Shrine of the Holy Tortilla spawned a whole economic development boom in that small town, with attractions and amusements like the Guacamole Coaster and the Refritos Banditos and the Queso Cathedral, and musical acts playing Tejano tunes and such, and busloads of blue-haired Mexicans coming in to stay several nights and bask in the whole sordid shit.
But I can’t (say all that, that is).
I wonder if all this would go away if I started smoking weed? Hmm.
On Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 11:07 AM, <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
If God truly was Good, Jesus would come in the form of a lard-laden tortilla cooked by a nice hispanic woman in NM rather than a dry, tasteless wafer shipped in vacuum-sealed packages, and our boom towns would be hawking holy edibles instead of fracking gas and water out of the earth. But, you’re right, it’s about time we brought The Big One to America, even if it means drilling til we make one of our own ingenuity. Soon enough India and China’ll beimporting their goddamn earthquakes from US!
On Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 11:25 AM, <email@example.com> wrote:
YES! Earthquakes as the new, hot thing — an export product to beat all. As good as military invasion, maybe even better. Lower cost — packaging is the problem — but not as much need for military personnel or mechanical things, except one really big low-boy to haul the sucker into place (“REALLY REALLY OVERSIZE LOAD” sign on the back).
But Bechtel and such would still get all the rebuilding contracts.
I like it. You’re a thinker after my own heart. Good to keep an eye on Oklahoma as they refine the technology.
On the off-chance that this document survives what now appears inevitable, I want you to know that it all occurred not out of malice, nor with any indifference to the slippery slope that begins with simple charity, but simply because we couldn’t resist feeding the little kitty.
It’s not fashionable for a guy – a non-gay guy, that is – to admit having a soft spot for cats. It’s why I’ve had dogs for years. I know, the cynics among you will say, “Soft spot? Yeah, right on the instep of your right foot.”
But stick with me. I’ve had cats. They can be quite endearing, the way they rub against your leg (OK, a little hair on black slacks isn’t very professional, but it works on casual Fridays), or the way they look up at you and meow. It’s their sweet, innocent way of saying, “Hey, buster, better feed me and feed me NOW, or the next time you touch me I’ll leave your forearm looking like a bad suicide attempt.”
Anyway, my cats all died (not at my hand, I should note), and my wife and I found ourselves in a small house in the Mexican city of Oaxaca when the cutest little Siamese mix showed up on the porch one day. We were hanging laundry and heard him first. He had a bit of a weird white patch on his head, but otherwise looked pretty close to pure-bred. I later came to attribute the white patch to a parental contribution – I’m not sure which side would contribute “white head hair patch gene” – that, until that fateful act of copulation, had kept mainly to a knife-wielding clan of mountain lions.
We called him “Gato,” figuring it would help us with our Spanish, and would be something both he and we could remember. I wasn’t sure if he was eating, and didn’t want to step onto that codependent handshake, but my wife (and the mother of our imminent heirs) gently suggested I give him some tortilla strips and scrambled egg scented with cinnamon and vanilla.
“Cinnamon and vanilla?” I asked. “Seriously? What self-respecting cat eats eggs like that? You ever see Whiska-Lickins with cinnamon and vanilla?”
“Just do it,” she said.
I just did it. I put the food out on a piece of foil, and the cat nosed it a bit, turned and glared at me, then went back to the food. He licked it, bit it, gobbled it.
Then he ate the foil.
I’m not kidding. I didn’t see it, but when we came back from our daily walk, he was sitting on the porch, leaning against the wall, with what looked like electrical wire hanging from his mouth.
I was curious. Wouldn’t you be? So I bent closer to look, and saw that it was more like tinsel. It was two days before Christmas, so I figured he was just getting in the spirit, and didn’t think much of it.
After dinner that night, we had some chicken skin and joint crunchies (OK, what do YOU call those chunks of cartilage that come off the drumsticks and remind you of chewing the cap from your toothpaste?)
I gathered up all the scraps, opened the door to the porch, and found myself staring at the cat. Same cat, same white spot on his head, but he was a little larger than when we first met him. Back then, he came to ankle height. Now he was staring at my knees, and drooling.
I quickly dropped half the chicken skins onto a paper plate, and while the cat lunged at the food, I dropped the rest beyond the chain link fence so some of the local curs could share in the snack.
While the cat was busy – as he ate, he emitted a sound that was a little bit purr, a little bit siren, and a little bit wood-chipper – I stepped back inside and bolted the door behind me.
I could hear the cat through the door, and then he went silent. I looked outside, where he was descending into our yard through the barbed wire at the top of the chain link fence, a ragged hank of dog fur dangling from his lips. It looked like Yorkie or Bichon Frisee, but who can tell, at moments like that?
This was the point when I thought, “Uh-oh.”
I didn’t share my concern with my wife. I thought, he’s cute, and hungry. Cats will be cats, right?
Later that night, I was woken by a sound outside our second-floor bedroom. I thought maybe it was one of the neighbors, trying to start their car, or get it up the nearly vertical incline of our dirt street.
Nope. Outside, the cat was slowly grabbing pieces of scrap lumber in his jaws and maneuvering them so they leaned against the house. Just below the window to our bedroom.
He was trying to get into the house. And, although it may have been the sleep in my eyes, or because I wasn’t wearing my glasses, but the cat seemed to have put on a few pounds. I’m not sure how many, but let’s just say he looked to have scaled up, by maybe a factor of, gosh, twenty?
I could be wrong, of course, but the impression I got was that he didn’t really need the wood to get into our bedroom. A cat the size of the cat that now sat below our window, looking balefully our way, would be able to stretch upward enough to grasp the steel security cage cemented into the side of the house with its claws.
And rip it out of the house.
But it chose instead to climb slowly up the wood, until it reached the window, where it stared in at me with a somewhat accusing demeanor.
“What’s going on?” my wife asked, sleepy in the bed, just below where I stared out the window.
“It’s the cat,” I said. “I think he’s hungry.”
“The cat? At our window? We’re on the second floor?”
“I know. That’s why I think he wants something to eat. Why else would he be here?”
“We’ve got a roast chicken, some chorizo, a loaf of bread, and some papaya.”
I went downstairs and came back with a bag of food for our little friend. I shoved it through the bars and he whipped it out of the air before it could fall to the ground. He turned and leaped to the ground, the bag in his mouth, a guttural growl expressing his appreciation.
The sound that followed was the most hideous thing I have ever heard. Cold sweat erupted from my skin. I remember thinking, so that’s what it sounds like when you eat a plastic bag – full of chicken, chorizo, bread and papaya.
I didn’t know cats even liked plastic, but we were in Mexico, and this cat was clearly a survivor. Living the feral lifestyle – what the locals call “la loca vida” – teaches a cat to broaden his dietary preferences to include items with a chemical profile a tad more complex than kibble.
I didn’t sleep very well after that. When the sun came up, I looked out the window again. The cat lay in the shade against the back wall, sleeping off his gordito. But I have to be honest, my wife and I weren’t sure if we should leave the house to replenish our larder.
“Hey, let’s just go,” I said. “He’s sleeping. Look how cute he looks down there.”
She looked, then looked back at me. “He’s as big as a Volkswagen!” she said.
We tiptoed through the gate and downhill toward the market. By the time we returned, however, the cat had awakened. We saw him as we approached the gate.
And he saw us.
“Look at the house,” my wife wailed. “Oh my God!”
He had been busy. The side of the house looked like a scratching post. All the electrical wires were down, like a huge hairball in the yard.
I fumbled for the keys to open the lock on the gate.
The cat stirred his now massive girth toward an upright posture.
I got the lock open, and we scurried toward the door.
The cat started slowly toward us. His head hung low, eyes intent on the bags in our hands.
I slipped the key into the door and turned the lock.
The cat quickened its pace.
We dove through the entry and slammed the door behind us, throwing the bolt just as the door absorbed the impact of a huge weight, like a wrecking ball.
The shock sent my wife stumbling across the room. I felt like my back had been dislocated, and that I would need disc surgery soon, or even a laminectomy, if my insurance covered it, and if I could afford the deductible.
“You OK?” I said to my wife.
She nodded, slowly picking herself up.
As we both tried to catch our panicked breath, we stared at each other, in shock, really, except I was also wondering what brand of door could withstand that much brute force, and whether we could get one for our house at Home Depot.
After a second, I went to the window, and pulled back the drapes.
A huge eye, the size of a semi-elliptical glass-topped coffee table with a grossly dilated pupil, stared in at me.
At the second I made eye contact with the cat, we heard it, like an oil-drill bit cracking basalt. It was oddly seductive, similar to a purr only different, as if a lynx larynx had been appropriated by a T-Rex, in its own primal way suggesting we should come outside and play, or at least scratch its chin, and while we were at it, drop off that freshly slain wildebeest that it thought we surely had lying somewhere inside this concrete cat box.
What comes next? We’re waiting. If the cat doesn’t eat this document too, it is our hope that the foregoing account may give you some idea as to our whereabouts.
Please don’t come looking for us. And whatever you do, don’t feed the cat.
How can anyone experience anything of a place at the speed of auto-motion? Cars and buses are great for moving us from Point A to Point F and quickly past Points B, C, D and E. What do we know of the in-betweens after we arrive at F? “Who cares; we were going to F.”
Sometimes, if we have a broken wrist and F is he hospital, we don’t give a rat’s ass about B, C, D and E. Just get me to the doc.
That said, driving is no way to see anything much beyond the bumper of the car in front. In the place where I live (Oregon’s Columbia Gorge), I am generally so focused on the road, signage and other drivers that I seldom take in much of the scenery on either side.
On rare occasion — I’ve tried to do this more often — I will divert my gaze, left or right, and see something I have never seen before — in 15 years of regular passage. Sad.
That’s why, in explorer mode, I believe that we need to reject speed in favor of the pedestrian. Often used as a diminutive adjective, “pedestrian” needs rescue. Like “slow food,” “pedestrian travel” implies opportunity to meet the world at an engaging pace, eye to eye, by and by.
As my wife and I planned our two-month stay in Oaxaca, the largest city in the Mexican state of the same name, we committed to learning the city by walking. OK, I’ll admit that we read a guide book. But we promptly forgot almost everything we read of any particularity that would serve to get us from A to B.
As we approached our place, we started at the center, or by walking to the center first, then looping our way back out, as if describing the geometry of a clover leaf.
Occasionally, map in hand, we would pick a destination and move in its direction. Along the way, discovery, as well as at the destination, and along a different path home.
The other day, seven weeks into our stay, we rose to a blank slate. “Let’s just go to a place we haven’t been before,” my wife said.
“There’s nothing you want to see in particular?” I asked.
“Nope. Let’s just go>”
I picked a neighborhood through which we hadn’t yet walked.
As we left known territory and entered a part of the city beyond the edge of our free turista map, we worked around a crush of cars assembled to gather children leaving school, across a street from a huge panteon (essentially, a graveyard).
That’s when we heard the thwacking sound. No, not zombies escaping. A bit farther on, we came to the source — an older man and a youngish woman, behind chain link, alternately whaling the tar out of a rubber ball with what looked like tennis rackets, on a court that reminded me of a racketball court with only three sides.
We clung to the chain link fourth wall, and watched them play, smashing the ball maybe 30 yards to the front wall, waiting as the opponent chased the carom and returned it. Back and forth, consistently hitting it, consistently hitting the wall.
When they finished, I verbally applauded their energy and grace. I asked the man what the game was called. “Fon-ton,” he said.
I Googled it later, and found a Wikipedia description of a sport called “Frontenis,” invented in Mexico in 1900, and played now in 18 countries. The description matched what we witnessed. It looked way cool, like a ton of fun, and I didn’t know it existed before we stumbled on it.
Into the adjoining neighborhood, we came across a public market we hadn’t yet explored. Similar to several others, it was bright, neat, clean and compact. Great for locals.
We next found a church, not that unusual in Oaxaca, but a bit dowdy, and new to us.
Across the street, an explosion of color, at a store selling cartoon character figurines (Snow White, anyone?) and pinatas.
Down the road, another Chinese buffet (the town has tons of these places, but nowhere that we have discovered where you can sit down and scan a menu of a thousand items and select something other than modest variants on veggie stir-fry).
Working our way south, we came across what looked like a walkway but also might have been a road, which paralleled a drainage canal draining … well, let’s just call it dirty water.
The walls of the homes facing the canal, like many elsewhere in town, had been appropriated by artists of varying talent, for bright and engaging murals, at one end of the scale more graphic than good, and at the other, more indicative of talent deserving an audience greater than the few who strayed down this back alley.
As a car surprised us and proved the flexible use of the corridor, we came to a tree blooming with bright yellow flowers. It was one of many scattered around town. I have no idea the variety, but they are spectacular when you find them, a glorious cloud rising just above the concrete jumble and litter that mars a city of marvelous art, architecture, energy and warm spirit.
The footpath-street-canal led to a boulevard down the middle of which a bike path had replaced a trolley line (Avenida Ferrocarril). We took that route as a welcome alternative to sidewalks. In Oaxaca, sidewalks are an unruly affair, sometimes wide, sometimes missing, often tipped topsy by roots and free-form design additions, or interrupted by utility installations or driveway ramps.
They pass an often-discordant mix of tire repair shops, paint supply stores, beauty salons, office buildings and gymnasiums.
So the old rail bed, which was little used, put us beneath a canopy of trees and in between the traffic heading east and west.
After crossing a major boulevard, I realized that we had returned from the “great beyond (the part of the city on the tourist maps)” and back to the “centro.” A man stepped out from his repair shop when he saw us consulting our map, to ask if we needed help. We thanked him, but declined the offer.
“We’re fine,” we said. “Lost, but found.”
Even though we again knew our location, what lay ahead was still new, scrolling up more churches, crazy architecture, free-form integration of parks and parking, and more.
We kept walking, seeing, stopping, talking, absorbing the magical ordinariness of it all.
Very, very slowly, never once tempted to leave the sidewalk and join the people inside the cars, out in the congested streets, jostling to protect their fenders while missing abundance uncelebrated, wonders unimagined, revelations uninvited.