Vestiges & Verse
In 1970, an album of 283 mysterious drawings was discovered in the trash in Springfield, Missouri. The artist behind the drawings of wide-eyed people, gentle lions, and nostalgic American landscapes was later identified as James Edward Deeds Jr., a nearly lifelong patient of mental institutions. There’s no recorded history of why he created this album, or what it meant to him, just the enigmatic illustrations that have a surprising peace despite the place in which they were sketched.
But what narrative can we really give to this art? It was something I considered when I wrote a short essay on Deeds for a catalogue being published in conjunction with Vestiges & Verse: Notes from the Newfangled Epic, now on view at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Deeds is one of 21 featured artists, alongside visionary artist Paul Laffoley and artist of imagined airships Charles Dellschau. Each reflects some element of visual narrative, and although their intent is sometimes obscure, it’s a moving exhibition that celebrates the often unsung storytelling of self-taught artists.
In my work as a cemetery tour guide, I often contemplate how we treat our dead, and how that treatment is not equal. In New York, for instance, our city’s potter’s field is an island mass grave, where prisoners bury the impoverished, stillborn, and unclaimed in long trenches. It’s difficult to access; my one time on Hart Island, our small group was only permitted to stand in a gazebo stranded out in a grassy meadow, with no obvious graves in sight.
I recently read a beautiful book called The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home, which was released in fall of 2017 by Lucia|Marquand. It questions such issues on death through the haunting story of Julia Pastrana, an indigenous Mexican woman who was exhibited for her hairy face in the 19th century. Following her death, her body was embalmed, and there are records of it being on view as a carnival curiosity up to the 1970s. While there is certainly darkness in the book, I was inspired by the artist Laura Anderson Barbata’s leadership in a decade-long mission to repatriate and bury Pastrana’s remains. It’s easy to think one person, or the arts, cannot make a difference; giving Pastrana back her dignity is a reminder of their power.
Growing up in a small oil town in Oklahoma, all I wanted was to get out. Now when I return to the state as an adult, I appreciate its unique beauty. Sure, it can be one that’s hard to love, where places like Picher are wreaked by toxic industrial history, and many of the old brick buildings in downtown Oklahoma City were demolished for an unrealized I. M. Pei plan. Still, rarely have I experienced somewhere so otherworldly as the Great Salt Plains, where crystals embedded with hourglass shapes are just under the surface, and its white expanse seems to go into eternity. The streets of Guthrie retain a Victorian architectural charm that feels like a film set, and driving Route 66 has endless wondrous oddities, including Ed Galloway's Totem Pole Park which is truly one of the world’s most extraordinary concrete art environments. Above all, though, it’s the sky. Blue and cavernous with whips of clouds, green and broiling with foreboding storms, or black and expansive with stars, I never get tired of looking at it.
Maps & Guide Books
I’ve been spending a lot of time using paper maps and guidebooks to explore. Since writing these days means being online extensively, whether for research or email, it’s relaxing to use non-digital wayfinding when I can. Although I probably could have uploaded it all to an iPad, I lugged the big Lonely Planet guidebook to the Middle East last summer while traveling Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, and it was an excellent companion for historical tidbits, last minute lodgings, and honest opinions on not making a donkey carry you up the many stairs to Petra’s Monastery if you can walk (although I did regret that a bit). When in London, I carried the Secret London book to discover the city’s first drinking fountain, with a couple of metal cups still chained to its stone, and and the first sculptures ever of dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park. And for more local exploration, Leslie Day’s Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York City is my favorite for identifying the European hornbeam or Eastern white oak spotted along my commute.
I recently edited a Concrete New York Map for Blue Crow Media, for which I researched 50 sites of concrete-based architecture in the five boroughs, from an 1870s arch in Brooklyn to the modernist spiral of the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. The publisher has an incredible array of architecture cartography, such as Brutalist Boston, Concrete Tokyo, and Modernist Belgrade, and just unfolding these well-designed maps gives me intense wanderlust.
My grandmother passed away this summer, in her 90s, after a full life of travel, music, and whiskey sours, her favorite drink. While in St. Louis for her funeral, I was asked if I wanted to take any of the wind-up toys that she and my late grandfather had collected over the years. As a kid, I was never allowed to play with them, a great source of despair as they seemed like the best toys ever and I didn’t understand the line between a child’s toy and a collector’s object. Yet when I was revisiting them, I realized I’d totally overlooked what made them so special: each had a small tag with a handwritten note. My grandparents were married over 50 years, and had a gifting system for Christmas and birthdays. My grandfather gave my grandmother a music box, and she gave him a wind-up toy. I brought three of them back to New York: a strutting metal peacock, a fuzzy lion that roars and twitches its tail, and a little dancing pig wearing a top hat. Its tag simply reads: “To: Mille; From: Larry; Christmas — 1948”. It was likely the first wind-up toy gift in this long exchange (and before the wind-up toys became my grandfather’s main gift). When I look at it (or delicately wind it up), I think about how the time we get on this planet is short, and how small gestures can fill it with love.
My advice to writers who might be starting out in media is always this: have your own projects. No matter how great your job is, it will someday end, and what you’ve created as your passion will be just as important. It also makes you stand out. Being a cemetery tour guide is a position I established independently of my writing, and it gives me a platform to talk about the arts, architecture, and death in a context that is my own. Furthermore it made me confront one of my greatest anxieties—public speaking—and in turn makes my writing richer by taking me away from my books and computer and out to meet strangers and understand more about the world. Whether it’s writing short stories with no immediate intent to publish them, creating a zine of invasive wildflowers with a friend, raising a bonsai tree, or whatever, find something you care about that is your own.