Interviewsand Articles


Editor's introduction w&c #16 : Toward Inacessible Places

by richard whittaker, Apr 26, 2016



David Tomb, Resplendent Quetzal, 2007

What do we mean by inaccessible places? Our interview with Irene Sullivan tells of places accessible, but difficult to reach—the Arctic villages of Alaska and Manitoba, for instance, beyond highway and byway where she lived and worked as a nurse practitioner among Inupiat-speaking peoples. She talks also of places that simply were not accessible: the priesthood for women in the Roman Catholic Church and, in her case, the PhD program at Princeton University.
     Sullivan turned her disappointment with Princeton into a Fulbright grant with the Institute of Eskimologie that enabled her to search through forgotten materials in the dungeon of the old royal residence in Copenhagen. She says, “The place was so dusty I needed antihistamines just to sit and go through boxes and boxes under one bare light bulb.” It was there that Sullivan found evidence of shamanism among women in indigenous arctic cultures. According to Sullivan, among academics it was thought that in those cultures, women were never shamans. It raises another question. Where is the territory of the shaman? And is it accessible? Sullivan’s story is likely to amaze you as much as it did me as I listened to her telling it.
     Then we come to painter Andre Enard who was born in Le Mans, France. He apprenticed with Fernand Leger. Contributing editor Jane Rosen arranged for our conversation with Enard, a quiet man of unusual presence. It was from this conversation that our theme appeared. When Enard said, “If it is true that attention is the breathing of God, a divine energy—and I feel that more and more…” our theme appeared. Perhaps there is a path to such places. Perhaps their inaccessibility has something to do with our ordinary ambitions and our confidence in ordinary thought.
     Over millennia there are countless stories from those who have reached inaccessible places. The outer ones, like reaching the South Pole, are easy to understand. But what of the stories of inner territories of which it is always said, there are no words to describe? 
     Can art take us there? Enard tells us, “When you’re very present, attentive, you don’t dream. You don’t think. No words. Just silence, when you are here—watchful, watchful. Nothing else. Doing nothing, Enard says, is the most difficult thing—to do nothing. To be entirely doing nothing. This is an opening to a real world.”

Painting by Andre Enard, 1982.

     Our third conversation in this issue yields its own examples of our theme quite powerfully. Taya Doro Mitchell worked in self-imposed isolation for some twenty years. What invisible places might she have been traveling as she worked? Perhaps there’s a clue in her work, a little of which is pictured here. But there’s something else. Her husband suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Mitchell, a trained psychiatric nurse, chose to take care of him herself, and there was a remarkable moment near the end. As Mitchell says, “He hadn’t said anything that I could make any sense of for a long time. Then he had this brief moment just before he died. The last thing he actually said to me was, ‘You really made this place beautiful.’”
     One can only wonder, from what depths could he have spoken? 
     On the inside, front cover is David Tomb’s painting of a resplendent, long-tailed quetzal. For most of us, the word probably evokes Quetzalcoatl, the divine plumed serpert of ancient Mexico. Tomb tells us that quetzals are difficult to find, even in Chiapas in the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, which is home to some four hundred species of birds, including the quetzal. But he saw one there and it inspired this painting. For years, Tomb has been well known in San Francisco for his striking portraits. Lately, however, he has a new passion: birds. Actually, they’ve fascinated him since childhood, but it’s only now he’s embraced them as subjects of his artwork.

This issue is something special. It’s not just that we’re adding four more pages (and increasing our costs), but we could not pass up contributing editor Enrique Martinez Celaya’s permission to publish, in serialized form, his book Guide. Here we offer installment one. The book represents several years of this artist’s penetrating inquiry into art and values. Couched as the fictitious story of a road trip up California's Highway 1—Celaya with a friend, Thomas, 70, a former Franciscan—his meditation will, I believe, become a classic of art writing.
     And our “Art of Living” section has grown. Being a fan of AK Coomaraswamy, we take his famous quote as our guideline: The artist is not a special man, but each man is a special kind of artist. Need I add that his use of “man” was in common usage a couple of generations ago, meaning simply a person? 
     This is where Meredith Sabini’s story comes in. It’s an account of how she first rummaged in a dumpster, a territory that, for most of us, might as well be inaccessible. Her experience was unexpectedly profound and led to a fascinating meditation on our relationship to our material possessions.
     Serendiptitously, contributing editor Paul Van Slambrouck writes about a related question in Thoughts on Art Left Behind. What’s to be done with the artwork of a deceased parent when the house is sold? What to do with these lovingly handmade works so vital to a parent’s or relative’s life when the storage space runs out? 
     A Man Impossible to Classify is an account of a friend’s remarkable experiment in living. How much of life is inaccessible only because, being consumed with life’s demands, we cannot open ourselves to what’s present all around us? Laurie Seagel’s experience is a window into possibilities that, almost exclusively, we've only read about.
     And we welcome Kathleen Cramer back in this issue. With Prophecies, she brings a report of mysterious findings from the Near East. “Located in the littoral, the region exposed by tidal comings and leavings, somewhere between plastic bags, empty cigarette boxes, tangerine peels, water bottles and candy wrappers, lies a thick layer of discarded manuscripts of indeterminate age. Not knowing what these really are there’s only one possible conclusion: they must be cult related. In all likelihood, the true source of these cryptic texts will never be known, because the real sources are simply inaccessible.”
     Rounding out the issue are two stories from, one of the projects of with which we are now in partnership. Whenever I’m tempted to try to describe the doings of ServiceSpace, I soon find myself at a loss for words. Why don’t you visit their web site? These stories are from their “Smile Card” project, which has become an international phenomenon.
     And finally, for those of you who are following Indigo Animal’s adventures, we have the latest episode. This is part of the unpublished third and final book of the trilogy.
     We’ve got some great letters, too. Please don’t hold back if you feel like writing to us. —Richard Whittaker            


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.    


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