We arrive at the lighthouse as the night fog is starting to roll in. The houses for the original lightkeepers have been converted into a hostel. Fourteen years ago I spent three days at Pigeon Point wandering on the small beach and deciding whether or not I could become an artist. All those memories now return to me, but I push them away to concentrate on the present.
Pigeon Point lighthouse is perched on a rocky cliff and is one of the tallest in America. The point was originally called Punta de las Ballenas or Whale Point but was renamed when the clipper ship Carrier Pigeon was wrecked on the rocks below. It first guided mariners in 1872 and is still in use today. During the winter months it is common to spot gray whales during their migrations between the Bering Sea and Baja California.
As we walk towards the office the wind is blowing hard and cold. We check in and go to our room in the Pelican building, which also houses the office.
“Spartan” is the word that comes to mind. Instead of a dormer, which is the other type of accommodation here, we’re in a private room, sharing a bed—a tattered blue-and-white quilt, yellow sheets, and although we have not seen them yet, warm felt blankets. The heater is not working but it is nice to be inside. The lower part of the casement window is frosted to look like ice crystals and there is a strong smell of wood and disinfectant that makes me want to go to sleep.
We get on the road again to have a drink at the only place nearby, D., in Pescadero. The bearded hippie at the office told us that D. is expensive and I didn’t believe him. But he was right.
Everyone in the bar knows one another and has heard one another’s stories a thousand times so they look bored and comfortable. The women have hungry eyes. A big Mexican with a winter cap is telling the couple at the next table a tale sprinkled with unexpected new-age terminology. As I am distractedly listening to his salivated Spanish, the bartender has an attack of rage but we miss the cause. He throws a glass full of ice on the floor and the whole place freezes. We ask for the check.
At Pigeon Point, we sit on the cliff overlooking the darkening ocean and I ask Thomas if he thinks we might see some whales tonight. He looks at me, smiles, and says, "wait a second, Starbuck, let me get the tape recorder." He comes back with the machine and four blankets, and begins to ask me questions.
He: You’ve hinted that you see religion as an illusion. I don’t see it that way, I see it as a powerful way to remove illusions—to prevent confusion about what’s not important. Why do you see religion as an illusion?
I: I see your life as a Franciscan as a very difficult and meaningful struggle and its renunciation of the world is both repellent and alluring to me. But isn’t there a certain amount of safety in having the moral rules of your life pre-determined?
He: Living by those moral rules is profoundly risky…in the question of faith everything is at stake.
I: I understand that.
He: I respect your opposition to creeds, but your avoidance of a direct spiritual discussion seems like a smoke screen to me. It’s obvious that there is a spiritual component to your work whether or not you admit to it.
I: Do you think there is a religious quality to my work?
He: Yes…clearly. Your work suggests a morality and an approach that seems very religious. I also see you trying to blur the line between art and life, which is related. You’ve taken your sculptures to the ocean and have gone swimming with them—you want these pieces to be alive. You aren’t trying to create art, you’re trying to create life. Are you a religious man?
I: I am not, but I can’t help looking at the world from a religious point of view.
He: What do you mean by a religious point of view?
I: A way of living and of thinking where questions of purity, belief, vanity, life, death and redemption are important. An approach where freedom and duty are not contradictions.
He: Is art a path to freedom?
I: It could be, but most of the art we see is not. Many people accept bad art because they don’t know what to believe and what they call open-mindedness is either numbness or confusion. The art that can be a guide is not the art experience that most people seek.
I look distractedly at the tape recorder. All my words are in there. The misery is in my stomach—a sense of regret for everything that I have said, but especially for meddling in Thomas’s religious beliefs. What happened with the dog back in Carmel? The way he handled the dying and death, is that the reason for religion?
He: Do you think your belief in art is narrow?
I: Sure. But I see art as a supreme principle in which actions and choices are not a matter of whimsy but of duty.
He: For you, art defines an ethical sphere.
I: Yes, and within it, temporary preference and pleasure must give way to a larger law. Art is not a product of taste but the embodiment of a specific morality, closer to a philosophical system, a political system or a religious canon, than to a branch of décor.
He: What if you are wrong? What if art has nothing to do with what you think?
I: If art weren’t a categorical imperative then it would not be worth pursuing as a life commitment. For me, only when art is ethics do I want to be an artist.
He: But why can’t art have other legitimate functions other than ethical? There are other ways in which art can serve life.
I: There may be a variety of functions for art but I’m interested in art when it extends the reach of consciousness, gives me a better awareness of who I am and becomes a signpost for the future. I have tried to create a system to penetrate “the subject that experiences the world,” and to a certain extent consider “what is the world.”
He: Those questions sound a lot headier than the experience I get from looking at your work.
I: I recognize that these questions sound esoteric and not necessarily urgent. But in fact, the opposite is true. My work is deeply rooted in them.
He: How do you experience “being” or “the world” as concepts?
I: I see them every day as questions of identity, belonging, personal history and relationships, and our level of engagement with the world dictates their urgency—if we are engaged with life, then these questions are urgent and pressing.
He: Those questions that you are trying to address are vast. How do you manage to create work that feels specific, purposeful, rather than general?
I: Paintings must embody a need, and this is always particular. I only like to work through my specific experience staying away from generalities, but the key to my work is to realize that the personal is only an entryway. I rely on metaphor, emotion and thought to explore memory, identity, introspection, belonging, absolutes, permanence and transientness. Also, I think that the key to be able to make work that’s not general is to not seek consensus or opinions about it. I don’t ask anyone what he or she thinks of my work and I never ask for comments from my visitors. Democracy doesn’t work in art. Even the great private collections of the world are the product of one vision at a time. The reason why the Prado has such great Titians and other Italian masters is because Velazquez picked them himself, without consulting the king or anyone else.
He: It’s obvious that you are not a great admirer of groups. Do you think that fighting against all those camps we have spoken about and the constant shift in your work can lead to isolation? For the public, I can see how your position can be very difficult to align with larger movements or groups.
I: In each of the groups that I criticized there are great people, but in very small numbers; the majority are followers. I dislike groups because meaningful social exchanges come from people who suffer and love individually. To point at something great or meaningful necessitates choosing specific instances; groups dissolve the important nuances that make great ideas great.
Social revolutions need critical mass and followers, but I don’t think art does. Revolutions in science and art depend on the strength and power of individual works. Great art depends on individual judgments that ultimately ripen patiently in solitude. You’re right that my dissatisfaction with alignments and with fashion has led to some isolation. And I accept it if it means that I can pursue what I want. Hype and fashion try to convince us that mediocrity is as important as Vermeer, Einstein, Kierkegaard or Celan, and it isn’t so. I’m willing to pay a price for keeping my vision clear. I think isolation is a fair price.
I look at the lights coming from homes down the coast. Right now, my wife and daughter are getting ready for bed.
He: Where does art end and life begin, for you?
I: There is no distinction between the two.
I know that there is a difference between art and life, but it is hard to talk about it. Thomas knows that also.
He: What would you say is the central issue in your work?
He: What aspect of time?
I: We take the whole of experience in parts; little fragments broken loose by perception, reason and feeling. Time is the medium in which these parts float.
He: Why parts of experience, rather than a more complete understanding of experience?
I: The bulk of experience is too much to be taken all at once.
Especially now, when we are engaging the impassive Pacific Ocean from this cliff.
He: Why are these questions important?
I: It’s hard for me to accept that life is temporary and that the people I love are temporary. The idea of permanence is a clean mirror that reflects the fragile face of what I can grasp.
The night is very cold. I wrap the blanket more tightly around my body. I look at the venerable “fixed stars” and feel the pain of being here for only a while. I think of those I love and how brief the whole thing is. I stare at the water and from time to time a burst of light foam appears, a small wrinkle in the dark ocean. It is like the paintings of Ryder—the same solitude and the same immensity. Is the record of our loneliness the best we leave behind of ourselves?
He: How does art relate to these ideas of fragmented experience?
I: My life is pieces, fragments. If I could assemble these pieces correctly, in the right place and sequence, full awareness would be possible. The problem is that even if I had the ability to do it there is never enough time. Art is the only way to expedite this process; it suggests what experience might be in its fullness. I see my work as traces, markings and scratchings trying to record my passage and for at least a moment elude impermanence.
He: But why this preoccupation with permanence?
I: I always have the nagging suspicion that I’m not seeing what's most important. My life seems to pass too fast for me and I’m always trying to catch up.
He: I share your concerns. As human beings we’re always vulnerable amid the uncertainties of life, and no manipulation of our outer situation can protect us completely from the possibility of sorrow.
I: The balance that life requires from us can be so easily disrupted that optimism and hope are good testimonies of the resilience of the human spirit.
He: That’s why I feel that compassion needs to be at the forefront of our consciousness. We gaze at the same stars, the sky covers us all and the same universe encompasses us. Saint Francis asked the Lord to grant that he may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console. I’m not an artist but I’ve always felt that artists could do that. Could console.
Compassion is the path to freedom. But can you be compassionate towards those who have traded their own notion of value for someone else’s? Towards those that you have attacked today?
I: It seems to me that selective compassion would be hard to defend. So, I don’t know how to answer your question.
He: Is your work compassionate?
I: I want my work to be moving, which is tied up with compassion, but it’s difficult to speak this way without becoming self-conscious. I agree with most of what you are saying but I’m not sure that compassion is the entire answer.
I: Well, many people make claims to compassion and emotion as a way to validate what they’re doing, and after a while, compassion starts to sound hollow. Also, there are great maladies in our world that may need to be improved before our environment can nurture compassion. I can’t imagine that malice, evil and smallness of spirit could be cured with compassion alone. And yet, I’m not sure if I’m able to offer a better solution.
He: I understand your doubts. In our world many important ideas and beliefs, not just compassion, are obscured by our anxiety, stress and lives that seem to have little meaning.
I: I’m afraid that many things that matter are lost in the struggle between the rich and the poor, one religion and another, the right and the left, the successful and the rejected, and so on. That’s why I don’t like extremists. And I know about confusion. More than I wish I did.
He: I don’t know about you, but I find that history helps me understand more clearly what’s happening. The polarization that you describe is not a new phenomenon, every age has its share of philosophical, political and religious polemics.
I: I also look at history for perspective. But I think we see the past differently. When I’m moved by history, it’s always because I’m inserting, even subconsciously, someone to feel the experience. The vast trajectories, the desires of the species, the geological evolutions, are moving because I feel myself, and by extension all humans, trying to capture them within our finite mind and spirit. Through the individual is how I can feel the largeness of the sublime.
He: The spirit is not finite.
I turn to face him. I see the window reflected in his pupils. I adjust the mirror and sink deeper into those round dark openings looking at me. The tireless expectant, like a cemetery sculpture, is waiting for me. Thomas is a grave marker.
He: Are your reasons for doing art different now than when you were younger?
I: When I was a kid, I used art as a way to express my feelings, not as a way to understand them. Other than that, I need art in the same way as when I was a kid.
He: How have these ideas shaped your work on Beethoven?
I: The part of Beethoven’s life that interests me is the bed-ridden man, a dying man with sores on his back. A great man in his dying bed. I’ve tried to imagine the sky from his window, the sweat-stained sheets and the music littering the room. I have taken parts of his life, like Haydn and his youth in Bonn, to help me make sense of what he left behind. I have tried to make some sense of the traces that his body left on the bed when he died.
He: Why Beethoven?
I: The man and the music span something of a universe of options between the sublime, the abject, the nostalgic and the moral, and all of these are relevant to the mystery of what’s revealed but unnameable. For me, invoking Beethoven’s last moments are the means to something, not the end.
He: What is the end?
I look at his profile against the dark sky, his prominent nose, perfect forehead and thin lips; Thomas looks like my father except for his eyes. His question; I try to think of something generous but I feel the infinite weight of the stars above. Unable to say anything better I resort to waving my hands in the air around us as a form of answer.
He: I think we’re done.
We stay at the edge of the cliff looking out and listening to the ocean until our faces are softened with moisture. After a few minutes he speaks.
He: I’m going to sleep. I’ll leave a glass of warm milk for you on the bedside table.
He stands up and walks away. I stay a while longer feeling a whole day of words. I am not sure if they bother me because they are a big part of me or because they had nothing to do with me. I am tired and fall asleep long enough to dream that a youthful and strong German Shepherd saves me from an attack by large glassy water serpents.
I wake up shivering, take a last look at the ocean and go towards the house. Once inside, I drink the milk and sleep until the next morning.
On the way back I decide to go a different way. I take a small road named G16 and drive through the beautiful and desolate Carmel Valley towards Greenfield.
I think about the virtues of living in the country and the lives of the migrant workers that I see on either side of the road; on the rich fields of the central coast the people bent over the land in colorful shirts do not seem real.
After driving on Highway 101 for two hours, I go back through the mountains, taking the 41 to Atascadero and continuing down the coast. At Point Mugu, I realize that in forty minutes I will be in my studio and that the trip will be over. Before I know it, I am back at the parking lot.
It is very dark by the pier, but through the fog I can still distinguish the hills of Malibu and the Pacific Coast Highway.
I am trying to keep myself warm as I walk to my truck. The air is moist, cold and the sound of cars drowns the ocean. In the parking lot, two dogs walk next to a black homeless woman. Her hair is matted like felt, her skin is wrinkled and her feet are swollen and cracked, and she is carrying a large hat and a roll of pink insulation in her cart. The dogs’ eyes follow me as I get in my truck.
I am on the road again, and out of habit, I look in my rear-view mirror. In the distance, the Ferris wheel, full of children and lovers, and further on, Thomas’s orchard.
Return to part 9
Many people have contributed their effort and thoughts to this book. I am particularly indebted to Christian Williams, Jack Shoemaker, Jack V. Hoffman, Jessica Hoffman and Mary Rakow for their careful reading of the manuscript and their invaluable suggestions. I would also like to thank Sarah Gonzales, Matthew Gottlieb and Elise Carpenter for their help in compiling and proofreading the text. I am grateful to William Griffin and Mark Hasencamp for their generosity of spirit and dedication to this project. My greatest debt of gratitude goes to my wife Alexandra Williams for her tolerance of all the time I spent traveling and writing.Copyright © 2002 by Enrique Martínez Celaya
First edition by Whale and Star in 2002.
For additional information go to www.whaleandstar.com