Sunday, January 17, 2010

Talking to a wall

August 23, 2009

Dear Mrs. Noyes,

I opened your July 28, 2009 letter much like I open a book – undecidedly, and with a vague sort of anticipation – and read it deliberately…absorbing each word utterly: my eyes narrowed with the passing of every sentence. An assortment of potential acidic and acerbic retorts filled my head like helium in a balloon, until: a single sharp flash of recognition as I took in the signature line – Judy Noyes – popped by the pin of your pen.

The hands of time stood still, then spun wildly backwards a full quarter of a century. The sublime Kathryn Eastburn was correct when she once reckoned your name “possibly more familiar to many in Colorado Springs than most people’s neighbors' or children's school teachers.’” While your knowledge of me is framed entirely in the context of my original letter, mine of you is decidedly more robust. So please, allow me to properly introduce myself.

The Chinook Bookstore opened eight years before my birth, and was a fixture of my youth – particularly those heady days at Palmer High School, where my husband and I met and fell in love. We still cherish those stolen moments when we’d stroll hand-in-hand through Acacia Park, grab a brownie from Canterbury Cheese or an ├ęclair from the Agora Mall bakery…then float into the Chinook to peruse its many tomes. As was true with Hibbard’s, Levine’s and Michelle’s, the news of the Chinook’s closing hit me like a bitter-sweet sucker punch.

Indeed, “one of the important and desirable elements of public art is the stimulation of discussion,” and at the risk of seeming disingenuous, please believe that I am simply delighted by this unintended discussion with you; regardless of this matter’s outcome, your letter is already tucked safely away in my “keepsakes” folder; thank you for taking time to respond to my rant.

I’ve enjoyed and looked forward to the annual Art On The Streets exhibit since it first opened eleven years ago – smiling at the whimsical, puzzling over the obscure; wondering at the beautiful – and this year was like the previous ten. As always, each piece I saw was in one way or another a delight unto my eyes –

– then came that moment, when I first caught sight of her bow from the corner of my eye…glimpsed, like a ghost ship out on the horizon. “Why, those are just reeds,” I remember telling myself, blinking…doubting the clarity of my vision. For an unsteady moment, sound and time and I simply stopped. A cold, invisible hand reached out and took hold of the silver chain I wear around my neck and began pulling me; mesmerized, as though in a dream, my feet moved of their own accord. My head became dizzy with the dreadful dawning of inescapable recognition; evenso, I audibly caught my breath when I saw it: a centuries-old reflection of me, caught in the jagged shards of a terrible, bronze and blood-stained mirror. My ears roared with a silent screaming and tears stung in my eyes – I stumbled back into the present…seasick and disbelieving.

Shaken, I dropped everything at that moment to research the art, artist, subject and exhibit, and my investigation was nothing, if not thorough; but the awful shocking cruelty of the devils in these details left me stunned, bewildered, and outraged. I was still reeling when I wrote – and then sent – that first furious letter; and while I remain unsettled by the wave that rises up within me whenever I think of it, it’s plain that the angry tenor of my letter distorted its intended message. Please: pardon me my tempestuousness.

You and I – we are strangers living in parallel worlds; and at the same time, we are kindred, with similar experiences and mutual concerns for tomorrow. Mostly, I believe we both share a curious and very real sort of love and loyalty for the city of Colorado Springs.

For nearly half a century, the Chinook and Palmer looked into each other’s faces from across the park, and shared memories; perchance you recall these events from the 1983-84 school year:

• A group of Native Americans took offense to Palmer’s mascot Eaglebeak, with whom the school ultimately parted ways. I was a cheerleader that year, and felt this was so much ado about nothing at all – but changed my mind once I learned that, after the Cowboys had smoked peace pipes with the Indians, they’d turned and gifted them with pox-riddled ponchos. Better awareness of Native American history rendered me better able to appreciate Native American sensitivities.

• I played the role of Rheba, young black housemaid to the wealthy, wacky Sycamore family in the fall production of You Can’t Take it With You; a young white actor named Chris Brown portrayed Rheba’s black boyfriend Donald. Strangely importuned that Mr. Brown actually look brown – like me, presumably – the director, Beth Eply, cast him in black-face…a decision that was roundly panned, and detracted from the entire production.

• That spring, spray-paint wielding pranksters homed in on the beloved sculpture of General William Jackson Palmer astride his horse – and “un-gelded” the gelding. The proper authority hastily rectified this assault upon the public decency…yet remains aloof to the traffic hazard the sculpture presents in the intersection of Nevada and Platte Avenues, where it’s stood for over a century.

Fast-forward to the present.

Though his work is often moody and hard to describe, Michael Brohman is clearly a master sculptor; and though I maintain Journey is a sharp departure from the light-hearted and indefinable pieces of all the Art On the Streets that preceded it, it is only the unfortunate setting that offends me and keeps me from designating it a masterpiece. Yes, yes, YES as a monument acknowledging the blood, sweat and tears shed by untold millions over 500 years of slavery; Yes – even across the street at the old court house, which is now a museum! But come, now: Journey, as a “depiction of liberty, justice and freedom,” is stationed appropriately in front of the county court house?

Well, I beg to differ.

Simply put: in our known history, the enormity and inhumanity of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is comparable only to the Jewish Holocaust; the terrible truth of its lasting legacy made plain in present-day state and federal incarceration statistics; and when one incorporates the ghosts of 5,000 lynchings – often on the very courthouse steps – the magnitude of a haunting such as this requires careful deliberation and deference.

My father is a black man from the savannahs of Georgia, and my mother is a white woman from the Netherlands; my husband, also a native, is white, and three of our four children appear to be white. I tell you these things so that you’ll know me more fully; not as an angry extremist or back-East elitist, but as I am: a home-grown, home-spun, home-town Air Force brat and former patron, who learned to write in the schools of District #11, and was raised at the foot of that changeless and ever-changing mountain.

Though my Dutch forebears were the very initiators and innovators of the slave trade, I do not blame my mother for the sins of her fathers; but if she were to suddenly begin sporting a charm bracelet of miniature bronze people hanging by their necks, I’d wonder as to her deeper meaning. And so it is with Journey: that a slave ship – constructed of more than 1,000 bronze people – sits at the entrance of the Terry R. Harris Judicial Complex, right in the center of my hometown – why, I wouldn’t even believe it if I hadn’t already seen it with my own eyes! Like my conspiracy accusation and Massa declaration, to me this is in preposterously bad taste; and attempts to defend this gaffe go beyond the absurd and enter the realm of the tacky. I could only be more astonished if Michelle’s re-opened and began selling chocolate fudge penises at Easter time!

I know you once objected to the customary prayer at the start of city council meetings, so I hope that you’ll not be similarly offended by this prayer of my own: I pray that I’ve restated my case well enough, and that you’ll put down these pages better able to see things from a different perspective, adequately moved to provide remedy to this easily correctible and pardonable oversight.

In conclusion: even if mine is the only complaint you receive about the court house setting of Journey – I remain unable to reconcile it within myself, and find this error enough to diminish everything else about it: the art, the artist, the exhibition, the exhibitor; Mr. Harris and the court house; and the forgotten horrors of an experience so sanitized and silenced by the centuries, few are ever able to really appreciate the sorrow and sacrifice of those enslaved millions; indeed, I am diminished by it – moreover, my home town, the city of Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the United States of America, is diminished by the insensitivity of this sculpture’s current installation.

Borrowing from the abolitionist William Wilberforce, “having heard all of this you may choose to look the other way but you can never again say that you did not know.” Whatever the outcome: I hope that you might also keep this blue forget-me-not – pressed, perhaps, between the pages of some old and weighty book – if only for the sake of remembering the occasion when you and I agreed to disagree.

- Spydra

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading the articles and viewing the artwork available at your site. You are a gifted writer, photographer, and researcher. Thank you for taking to a higher level the quality of websites emanating from Colorado Springs.