ralph stanley and the clinch mountain boys
oil on canvas by tj worthington
A facebook friend posted today his thoughts and experience on a lifetime of reading, looking at the books, in particular, that were important to him, that stay with him. Like I look at a bookshelf and my eye falls on One Man's Bible, by Gao Xingjian, a Chinese dissident living in Paris. I feel the same glow in my heart as when I gaze at the window and see a squirrel at the birdfeeder, tail curled behind its head, nibbling a seed. The spine of the book reminds me of the content, as powerful for me in the time of reading it as Henry Miller's Colossus of Marousi in the time of reading it. James Lord's biography of Italian/Swiss/French sculptor, Giacometti, was important, because I came to know him, admire his mind, his vision, how simply he lived. At the end, Giacometti died and was buried. I closed the book, sat in the chair and cried for half an hour. It was the same as hearing of the death of one of my closest friends. I see a piece by Giacometti today and feel his presence in it. The only tool he used was his pocket knife, which inspired use of minimal tools in my own art making. I use a drill, a saw, a brush, and a palette knife, wood glue.
I see the title, Man On Wire, and remember Philippe Petit, who walked the wire between WTC towers. I have three newspaper articles I've kept because they said something powerful to me. One was an article from the Village Voice when Andy Warhol was shot. Another, Philippe Petit's amazing event walking the wire. The third, an article from a newspaper about Johnny Weissmuller, a famous Tarzan from the Fifties, kept alive a vegetable in an Acapulco condo on the beach, tubes and round the clock nurses. Couldn't talk from stroke after stroke after stroke, unable to die because heart was so healthy from a lifetime of rigorous exercise. All he could do was give out a Tarzan yell from time to time and run shivers through the whole condo. I think the Tarzan story told me exercise aint what it's cracked up to be. Why was Petit's event so meaningful for me? He walked a wire between two buildings that sway, up high in the wind above the city of canyons. I know that I could not even stand on the roof of a skyscraper, could not step out of the elevator or stair well door. I sure as hell could not stand at the edge and look down at the street two tenths of a mile below. I don't know all there is to know about self, not even close, but I do know that. Him crawling over the edge and just stepping onto the wire rates my total respect. I'd rather read about him than Henry Kissinger.
The Lance and the Shield, by Robert M Utley, a biography of Sitting Bull, hit me as deeply as the Giacometti biography. By the end, I knew Sitting Bull, the man himself, who he was. I felt something I had never before felt from a biography, that I knew this man, knew him well. His values were mine. He seemed as familiar as reading a memoir by someone I already knew well. Like Wendy Salinger's, Listen, a beautifully written memoir of living through sexual child abuse by daddy, illustrated for me why my friend Wendy was wired tight as a banjo string. Sitting Bull, I felt I knew as well as I knew Wendy. I spoke with a woman friend about it who was somewhat psychic. She told me to ask him. I said I don't know how. She said, Yes you do, just do it. Later, at home, I went into a kind of meditation, settled down, and appealed to Sitting Bull in spirit. He appeared. We were in his tipi, either side of a small fire in the center. We smoked the pipe. I was in awe, hesitant to speak. I was thinking this is about more than a silly question. Eventually, I asked him why he is so familiar to me, why I know him so well. He said, "I am your real father." We spoke a little bit more, though mostly sat in silence. I visited him a few more times, no more questions and answers, only silence. I painted a portrait of him that is on the wall maybe four feet from where I sit. My version looks more like Gregory Peck in brown face.
The Lance and the Shield was reprinted years later with new title and some places rewritten, Sitting Bull. I read it. And found later, a book of stories from the life of Sitting Bull that were passed down through the family, by his great-grandson, Ernie LaPointe. They're among the book treasures in the house. Another treasure in the house is Ralph Stanley's memoir, Man Of Constant Sorrow, written for him by Eddie Dean, who wrote it in Stanley's own words, as if Stanley, himself, wrote it. I have to credit Dean, because it is so beautifully written. I carried the copy to a show at Fairview and asked Ralph to sign it. I couldn't speak. I knew if I spoke a word I'd break out in tears that wouldn't stop. I asked him to sign it by opening the book and putting it before him. He got it. He wrote his signature in it, and that was all I wanted. I'm not one to ask writers to sign books, but this was necessary. I painted a portrait of him and his band playing at Fairview Ruritan, drove it to Clintwood, Virginia, and gave it to the Ralph Stanley museum in appreciation for his music. Asked if I'd like to meet him, I declined. I said I'd turn to jello. They said, he's just a man. I said, I know. He's also Ralph Stanley. A biography of the Carter Family, Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone, opened their music to me, one of the great gifts of my life. A few days ago I started Philip Glass's memoir, Words Without Music. I can see already it's going to be one of those books that is a treasure for how deeply it speaks to me.