We use rings as a symbol for so many things in our life on this earth. But perhaps none more important than those that we give each other as a way to say “I do.” I do love you. I do want you in my life. I do accept all of those things about you that make you different. I do see you for exactly who you are. So it made sense to use rings to construct an arch for the backdrop of an outdoor wedding. An arch that starts out sort of random and rough, unfinished. And then gains some order, and reaches up to where it joins firmly together with another ring, and becomes finished and much stronger.
About a year before he died, my dad asked me to build the headstone that would mark his grave in the small town where he lived. He had just been declared free of the pancreatic cancer he had been fighting, and we all assumed he was simply looking ahead. So I said I would do it, and then didn’t think about it again. Not long after, the pain in his back was found to be cancer that had spread to his bones, and he wouldn’t be with us much longer. After he lost his fight, his ashes remained in the home he had built in rural Oklahoma. A year later, it was time to put them in the family plot of the small cemetery on a hill not far from their home, as he had requested.
So, it was time to make good on a promise. In the process of doing so, I realized that his request had not been some simple favor that he asked in dealing with his own mortality. It was not a way to save some money, or to have a grave marker different from the others. He had done this on purpose. If you doubt this is the case, I challenge you to build something for the grave of a member of your family, and tell me what you think about every second, of every minute, of every hour that you work on it. He had done this on purpose, and I’m sure he was enjoying every tortured detail of the project.
When considering how to proceed, the first thing that popped into my head was a tree. A living thing. Something that exists in all of the beautiful places we love to go, and gives us shade, and someplace peaceful to grab a bit of rest. The granite monolith we have come to know as a normal headstone screams death, and for me that isn’t what this should be about. It should be about life. And to me, a tree is as alive as anything on this earth, waving in the wind, and constantly spreading it’s branches to grab the sun. We should all be so alive. There would need to be some way to mount a small plaque with his name on it, so I decided to hang a swing. A workaholic in his youth, he had finally come to his senses later in life, and taken advantage of a good place to sit and relax, so it made perfect sense.
His ashes now rest down in the base of the sculpture, that can be decorated to match the seasonal changes of the trees that surround the cemetery on a hill. And at some point, hopefully a very long while from now, there will be another swing, and some company beneath the tree. But not yet. For the rest of us, there’s still time for spreading our branches, and grabbing some sun.
The day I moved into my fraternity house as a freshman, I was lucky enough to meet two exceptional young women. One of the first smiling faces to greet me inside the foyer was the housemom. The person behind that room-warming smile would act as chaperone for a few hundred unruly young boys each semester, who had little business being allowed out into the world on their own. So, for these residents, over the next few years, this woman would be the lone voice of civility and reason readily available under that roof. A job for which she was well equipped. And standing next to her that day was her daughter, Elizabeth. Pigtails, jean shorts, and an exact reproduction of that very same smile. I would guess she was seven or eight years old… and fearless. If I was guessing today, I would say that she probably put up with over a thousand big brothers during her stay in that house.
When you grow up with that many older brothers, chances are you will become quite adventurous and unafraid in this world. And Elizabeth did. Along with earning her PhD., she became an accomplished rock climber, white water rafting guide, and sled-dog racer. A completely shattered foot threatened to bring all of that to an end following a serious fall while rock climbing. Doctors lined up to tell her that she would never return to her outdoor life, and went so far as to say that crutches or a walker would now become her normal mode of transportation. Until one doctor decided to try something to mend her foot that no one else was willing to attempt.
She spent a great long while with her newly crafted foot locked in a contraption that held everything in place. And because of the doctor’s willingness to try, and her desire to do what she loves, today she is back on the rocks. Fearless as always. Which is what inspired “Rising.” Her mother shared the story and wanted a sculpture that included the “fixator” that held Elizabeth’s foot stationary while it healed. And her escape from it back to the life she loves.
Over the long two years spent working on this piece, it has come to mean so much more to me. It’s no longer just Elizabeth breaking free from her fixator…it’s women everywhere breaking free from the yoke of simply not being a man. There has been a recent swelling of what feels like contempt for women in this country as “tradition” has replaced backward thinking, and “fundamentalism” has replaced self-righteousness. Different words, same sentiment. We are once again losing our respect for women that I thought we had finally gained. They make less money doing the same job as a man. They are preyed upon on college campuses and in night clubs. They endure abuse at the hands of those that claim to love them. Politicians demean them with notions of a second class citizenship. Religion draws on misogynistic dogma to keep them in their lane, submissive to men, even though the words that drive it were written by men and ascribed to God to give them credence. The whole notion that women are somehow less than men just shows the extent to which men are ignorant, and have been allowed to perpetrate their own self aggrandizing version of the truth without ever providing proof.
And to those in the “men are better than women” crowd, I would simply say this… try and climb up to the elevations where Elizabeth can be found on a sunny day, and see what she thinks about your theory. Because she has risen above your ridiculous notions about women somehow being second class, and above pretty much everything else. And if by dumb luck you are able to rise that high, I wish you the best in getting back down… without her help.
Some years back, I attempted to create a wall hanging in our living room out of some simple fabric. I could describe it in detail and waste your time, or I could be blunt… it was less than stunning. And less than stunning can only get by in an “artist’s house” for about five years or so, apparently. About a year ago, I took it down and tried again. This time with some metal included, because that’s all I really know. It was a large piece with three panels of different colors. The top was solid orange, and was supposed to resemble the sun. That big star in the sky that gives us the ability to live on this planet. The bottom panel was a simple brown, and played the role of our earth. Receiving light and heat, and turning these into all that we live on. Between these two panels, was a colorful spread of shapes and patterns. All taking place in that space from sun to the earth. The life in between.
Even though this sounds interesting, it was anything but. It was too big. Too misunderstood. Too overwhelming. For the eye and for the room itself. And it probably would have only hung there being offensive for, let’s say, five years or so.
Yesterday, I took it down. Not for philosophical reasons, or for the sake of better art. It was much more simple than that. The hanger holding one end pulled out of the wall, apparently overwhelmed as well. So I removed the top and bottom panels, cut the metal from each, and inserted it within the center panel in absolutely no understandable pattern whatsoever. And what you see here is the result of that. Now, it fits the wall. It fits the room. It fits the eye as well. So, it turns out that for all of the fuss about the earth and the stars, the only interesting point of focus was the life in between.
I have no clue why, but I’ve always been drawn to the far east. No, not Maryland or Myrtle Beach. I’m talking just a bit further. The land of the rising sun. The Great Wall. The Orient. Perhaps because this part of our world is comprised of things so seemingly simple, but with a long history that is incredibly complex. Perhaps due to the general attitude of discipline and order. Or perhaps because raw fish and rice is awesome. It very well may be all of these things. But that allure has always been there for me. I have wall hangings that I have long forgotten the meaning of, but I am still taken by the beautiful lettering regardless of intent. I’ve never known the writings of the far east to be nearly as flippant as anything that comes from my fingertips, so I’m sure it’s some heavy stuff, whatever it may say. The bamboo growing in the windowsill is the coolest thing ever. I have a wooden bokken on the wall of my bedroom, above which hangs the Chinese symbol for “wisdom.” Or soy sauce… no way to know really. The small wooden Buddha next to my fireplace makes me smile every single time I look at it. How can I not be happy when he is so happy. And, even though we’re both bald and fat, and may be related… he makes me look skinny.
The last time I was stuffing myself at the local chinese buffet, I spied a pagoda in the garden outside. And I couldn’t stop looking at it. It’s ordered, and mathematical. Gracious and inviting, though almost shy. And I’m drawn to it. It makes me see calm waters and brightly colored fish that aren’t there, but should be. It draws in my mind small trees that are impeccably pruned, and quiet. When I look at it, I am quiet. Which, most of the time, is all I really want or want to be. Quiet. Because when I am quiet, all of that other stuff appears and it feels so real. And I had to have it.
But since I couldn’t steal theirs due to it being broad daylight, I had to come home and make my own. And then place it in the cathedral where a priceless piece of art most belongs. The front landscaping. Now I can enjoy the discipline and order of the far east by taking ten steps south… out the front door.
At first glance, this probably looks like an ordinary Christmas Tree. But a closer look reveals something a bit different. At ten feet tall, made from 400 feet of steel rebar and scrap pipe, this tree is designed to hold 434 empty wine bottles when fully decorated. I built this for Melody and Randy, and their whole gang at UnWINEd in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Perhaps the best little wine bar you’ll ever wander into. And also perhaps the only place where you can expect to find 434 empty wine bottles. If your holiday plans include being in Ponca City, stop by and soak up some some of the atmosphere in this downtown cultural destination. There is always something going on. And honestly, what isn’t more fun with a great bottle of wine?
But there is more to it, and this is my favorite part. You can purchase an empty wine bottle for five dollars, and place it on the tree. You can decorate your bottle and enter it in the fancy bottle contest or simply write your name on it and add it to the tree. When it’s full of those bottles that usually just get thrown away, it’s truly quite a sight. All of the proceeds will be donated to “Autism Speaks” to help with continued research toward ending the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the U.S. today. We’ve all heard of Autism, but few of us really know much about it. This may be the reason that it receives less than 5% of the research funding of many less prevalent childhood diseases, even though more children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with AIDS, diabetes, and cancer combined. Autism now affects 1 in 88 children and 1 in 54 boys, but we have yet to figure out a medical means to detect it, or cure it.
This is where I get on my soap box, so you may want to run away. With all of the money we spend on shiny things for ourselves throughout the year, added to all of the money we spend on Christmas gifts for each other that we certainly don’t need… we could probably put an end to some of these diseases. Or come close to it. But we’ve all grown far too selfish. Our society has evolved to breed selfishness. Our economy depends on it. Our culture holds it up as some sort of virtue. We shout to the rafters about following the lead of a guy named Jesus during this time of year, but we fail to do the simple things He told us to do. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and heal the sick. Love our neighbors, and do things for others. These simple things don’t build extravagant church buildings, or pay a pastor’s salary. They don’t make for great television. All of which is probably why they go overlooked. But they are what we have been called to do. More for others than we do for ourselves. That’s the path. The rest is just window dressing and arrogance.
I read somewhere recently that “what you do for yourself dies with you, but what you do for others will live on long after you are gone.” I’m not sure who said it, but I can’t put it any better than that. Will one empty wine bottle cure Autism? Maybe not. But 434 of them is a good start.
There is nothing quite as calming to me as the sound of a bell that continues to resonate for a great long while after it has been struck. That enduring, even tone that slowly fades away, but leaves you with it’s voice in your head so much that you have to ring it again and again. These bells began their lives as oxygen, acetylene or argon bottles that I use in the studio to force the metal into seeing things my way. Once empty, they can be refilled over and over again, until the inspection stamp is past it’s prime. Consistent with the greed and manipulation that has come to define this society we live in, it is now cheaper to buy a new bottle than to get an old one inspected, even though the bottles have years of life remaining. Which was frustrating at first, until I heard these bells ring. Even though they began their lives as a vessel to transport gases, they have now reached the potential that they were certainly intended to strive for all along. I’ve heard bells that have always been bells that don’t have a prayer of ringing in the manner of these bells that became bells after spending time as something other than bells. It’s like they have been holding their breath, and now are set free. And after so much silence, they are aching to ring, and ring, and resonate as long as allowed. Each has it’s own distinct voice, and it’s own color, and shape. And I ring them whenever I pass by them in the house, because no matter how they look, they are so much more impressive when they are heard.