Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Because An Artist is a Person in Your Neighborhood

One way I drive into my neighborhood takes me past a house that has intrigued me for a couple of months. The driveway is short; the house sits close to the street, near a busy corner with a liquor store and flower mart.

Last spring I noticed a table saw set up adjacent to the garage, and over summer weeks, three-to-four-foot wooden obelisks being assembled. One night as I drove by, I could see a man at work in the driveway in the dark, a tarp overhead and a string of light bulbs illuminating the space. I began admiring his mysterious project.

It appeared to me that his painstaking process involved gluing together boards of wood and then shaping or sanding them down. More recently the vertical, cylindrical pedestals were topped with wooden globes, and I imagined them to be crude sculptural representations of people.

Tonight I made up for my missed weekend run by heading out on my usual route at 6:15. It was darkening already by the time I reached the midpoint at 6:45--the bottom of a hill. I don't much like running in the dark. Although I know I run faster at night, I feel unsure of my footing--and kind of drunk as I estimate the sidewalk below me. I also have a healthy fear of running down dark, empty blocks. So I chose to go straight up a more oft-traveled street on my way home versus turning right through a quaint neighborhood.

Not far from home, I remembered that the next corner I rounded would take me past the sculptor's house. I vowed to stop and ask him about his constructions if he was outside at work.

Hence, the serendipitous encounter this evening that has me feeling thankful for where I live:

I stopped, sweaty, and introduced myself to James, who was hammering copper onto one of the obelisks. The other three pillars surrounded him: cylinder bodies with wooden globe heads. Clearly a family.

He confirmed my guess by explaining that his work represented himself and his three children, 24, 21, and seven years old (the latter adopted). The sculptures are versions of Japanese Kokeshi dolls, but he adds scrap metal in sun, moon, and other archetypal designs to depict each individual's connection to the myths of man.

I couldn't have been more excited to hear the intent and symbolism behind the figures I had watched evolve in his driveway. He talked more about his work and the influence of mythology on his art, pointing out additional pieces in his garage. I shared that students at my school read The Power of Myth before delving into world literatures.

"Ahh, Joseph Campbell!" he exclaimed. "Of course!"

I discovered that my neighbor is a former teacher and currently the building manager at the city jail--a job which affords him more time with his art. He has taught younger children and older, in elementary and high school and even court and community schools, where he made puppets with at-risk youth. Through art, he helped them learn to see--and represent--themselves in new ways.

And so our neighborhood has this privilege.

Before we parted, I asked him if he ever spoke to school groups. I imagine him talking with our students about art and mythology, about his career path and influences.

And I thanked him for inspiring me. What a wonderful Wednesday.

1 comment:

Mama Deb said...

My husband often thinks I am nuts for striking up conversations with random people. But it's stories like yours that validate why we should take the time to get to know the people living among us! How very cool!