Trip

©2001 by Stephanie Lee Jackson


"Waiting," lithograph by Michael Parkes



Irwin Frank III, Trip as we called him, was a true artist. I mean that. Margo didn t get it.

But I suppose I d better start at the beginning, though s difficult to say where the beginning lies. Perhaps it was the day Trip came through the Cactus café with a log over his shoulder and it was true performance art, unlike the time he sat in the Huntingdon gallery next to his installation piece, McGlut, and ate French fries until he puked all over the floor. Or perhaps it was the day he stood in front of Margo s basic sculpture class and explained in excrutiating detail how to make a wooden box, while Margo laughed hysterically and exclaimed, like a Monty Python sketch! Or maybe it started before that, with the tiny ceramic dolls, technically astonishing, doing things so revolting that one could hardly bear to look at them. Trip s art often pissed people off; they thought he was insulting them personally, which he almost never was. Margo certainly took it personally. To Trip s credit, the hostility was not reciprocal.

The day Trip came through the Cactus he was dressed like every other day, in a baggy brown suit with tie, brown shoes, brown felt hat pulled down over dark brown glasses and overgrown facial hair, like the creature from the brown lagoon. He strode in bearing what looked like a Yule log over his shoulder, large and highly polished. He looked neither to the right nor the left, but down his nose, head tipped disdainfully back. He went calmly and deliberately to the free matches on the bar, selected a packet, rotated one hundred and eighty degrees, and stalked magnificently out again. The next day in sculpture class, I told him, I enjoyed your performance in the Cactus yesterday.

Ah yes, in search of fire, said he.

Fire was important, because Trip lived almost exclusively off of cigarettes and black coffee, supplemented by peanut butter and homemade bread. You could smell the smoke on him from six feet away. He was a strict and gastronomically uncreative vegan, with the eventual result that his family had him hospitalized for malnutrition. But that happened much later.

I think I first became aware of Trip in summer ceramics class, though he did not make himself obvious. He worked his tiny, repulsive figurines in a corner, a gargoyle in a suit, while I struggled to learn to throw. I had no talent for ceramics whatsoever; my coffee cups weighed about half a pound and held less than half a pint. Trip had mastery over every medium he touched. This was not held in general respect. I respected it, however, and decided not to continue with ceramics.

The next year, I studied three-dimensional design, with the head of the sculpture department. It was then that I discovered that the making of modern art carries with it an immensely complicated burden of language; before that I had naively thought that art was about making stuff. In our three-dimensional design class we talked. And talked and talked and talked. Design pieces which impressed the class at first sight were frequently decried by the instructor as decorative or aesthetic, whilst other pieces, so featureless as to be almost invisible at first viewing, were later discovered to have been designed on faultless principles. One was not allowed to make something just because one felt like it; one had to articulate a reason for doing it that way. I was mildly surprised but got an A in the class. It wasn t until much, much later that I realized how big a price had been paid for it.

Toward the end of that semester, there was an opening for a new sculpture professor, and students attended presentations by the two finalists. One was a woman who did environmental art. She mainly seemed to do a lot of going out in fields and arranging rocks in circles, photographing them, and putting them back. The other finalist was Margo. She had lots of explanations for her pieces, which were highly varied in form, material and content. She had also done art in exotic places like India, and had a British accent. I went to the head of the department and told him he should hire Margo.

It seems to me that Margo has a greater range of artistic vocabulary than the other contestant; I believe her wealth of experience, ideas and technique would benefit a wider variety of students, I said.

That was very articulate, said my professor, and hired her.

I signed up for Margo s basic sculpture class in high anticipation and excitement. To be honest, I was hoping to make her my mentor. A bright young woman artist, educated and British! I was sure we have a lot to talk about.

I don t remember much about my first conversation with Margo. I was shy with professors. As a child in Texas I d been taught respect for authority, which did not include getting chummy with teachers; this was called brown-nosing by some, goody-goody two-shoes by others. But I think I said something about Oxford, maybe Shakespeare, something casual and friendly. She was a little chilly with me. I figured she was shy, too.

One thing I d learned in three-dimensional design was that the professor was God, and if the professor gave specifics for an assignment, one had better stick to them. One toe out of line and you got a C, two toes out and you flunked. One guy did a performance/installation piece for his final exam, involving ripping open cupboards of dirty clothing at random intervals, accompanied by a sound track. The professor simply refused to accept it and gave him an incomplete for the semester. That guy went on to medical school.

I also figured that basic sculpture meant learning to sculpt. I d done a little bit of ceramics, and learned how to make my own stretcher bars in wood shop. I d never held a power drill or a chisel, never been near a blowtorch, certainly had no idea how to cast anything in bronze. In three dimensional design we worked mainly with wire, papier-maché, and foam-core illustration board. I wanted to learn how to work like Rodin, Brancusi, and Henry Moore. Oh woe, little did I know how behind the times I was.

Our first project started innocently enough, with plaster. The teaching assistant showed us how to mix up a batch, adding dry plaster to water until it thickened and got warm. Then Margo tentatively instructed us to make a sort of clay mold, and sort of carve the resulting lump until the two sides looked different from one another. Which we all proceeded to do. One woman got very meditative about it, making a smooth, windswept form that looked like a set of twin embryos. I thought it was rather lovely, but Margo seemed bored. Her critiques lacked both enthusiasm and constructive information. We moved on to wood.

We were each provided with a 4 x 4 x 4 stick, and instructed to make four wooden pieces of varying character. We could take a chisel and sort of carve one of them, and use the wood shop for the rest. On my own I discovered that using a chisel pretty much required the use of a mallet and clamps, and had a fine time whacking out my own graceful Brancusi-like form, slender and sproutlike. I had fun in the woodshop with the other pieces too, making them fanciful and organic, with titles like The Invisible Guitar. Margo disliked them. The only pieces she liked were the ones that ignored her instructions; her favorite was by a guy who made a single sculpture out of his stick, a hostile-looking thing, like a crooked snake with thorns.

It was during the wood critique that Trip got up and gave us his thesis on boxmaking. He stood in front of us with a beautiful box d made of birch and maple. He gave details about the varying characteristics of different types of wood, and which were most appropriate for lids, sides and bottoms. He discoursed knowledgably on warping. He gave instructions for the proper, safe use of table saws and power sanders. He discussed grains, polishes, oils and glues. I was listening intently when I noticed Margo stifling the giggles. Irwin, you ve got to stop, she choked. The rest of the class started snickering, too. Trip continued to talk, in his brown suit and glasses, providing us with valuable and erudite information. Margo lost control completely. She laughed loudly and long, and we all joined in. Irwin, why? Why are you telling us this? she asked.

I just think it s important to know how to make a nice tight box, he said. Somewhere below language, I agreed with him.

At this point, if only I had known it, our technical and materials instruction ended. We were asked to make something with great scale, and turned loose. I was baffled. My construction experience included cutting and twisting baling wire with needle-nose pliers, working foam-core illustration board with mat knife and glue, and using a band saw, hammer, and nails. I fetched some large pieces of metal out of the scrap heap and began festooning them with wire, hoping they would remain standing long enough to be critiqued.

I asked the T.A., aren t we going to learn casting or welding or anything?

I don t think she knows how to do any of that stuff, he replied. The college newspaper had featured a photo of Margo in welding regalia, her curly topknot making an interesting contrast with the gauntlets and face mask, but mainly she hired other people to weld for her. In fact most of her sculptures were of the installation variety, which meant that they were held together by tape and staples, if they were held together at all. Once, she told us, someone tripped over one of her pieces at an opening and completely destroyed it; she didn t mind, it was just sort of scattered on the floor anyway.

Critique, when it came, was less than helpful. s not successful, she told me, giving me a D. Successful? What was that supposed to mean? Successful at what? Lame, maybe, I d give it that, but I was lame, literally handicapped by my ignorance. I didn t know enough about sculpting to know what questions to ask. Except, will you teach me how to weld?

Why? Why do you want to know? So I could build something big? Something big that wouldn t fall over and kill someone?

The problem, as I now understand it, was a conflict of assumptions about the very nature of artmaking. Margo s school, the cerebral school, holds that art must be about something, some specific point that one wants to get across, and to this end one maps out a plan and comes up with a blueprint and then goes and constructs something. The construction is then successful if it gets said point across to a preselected target audience (most ordinary people being too stupid to get it anyway), and unsuccessful if there s any mystery or ambiguity about its meaning, let alone severe technical difficulties with getting it to stand upright. If the student has a compelling idea that requires the use of casting or welding or anything else difficult, the sheer force of the idea should be enough to overcome physical concerns. If not, obviously the student t a real artist.

My own belief is that most of us have plenty of ideas just screaming to express themselves; also themes, emotions, intuitions, and poetic constructs bursting with mystery and wonder, which is what I perceive to be the essence of art. If I could articulate why I want to make art, I wouldn t need to make it. But in order to do so I first have to understand my medium. For a piece of art to have an effective presence, the ideas and themes channel themselves organically through the material. The resulting structure is thus seamlessly integrated with its purpose. It is almost impossible for me to intellectually predetermine my meaning and impose it upon a construct.

Certain themes seemed to be more artistic than others. Margo told us about two students she d had at another college, two young men, who were so great, they were so angry. They wouldn t follow anybody s stupid rules, they were so controversial, it was really great, there was so much anger. She liked Bob s sculpture; he took a fifty-foot beam, covered it with tar and nails pointing downward, and suspended it at a forty-five degree angle over the entrance to the building. He did this without permission or safety permits, and the school made him take it down, but not before critique. s really great, there s so much anger, said Margo.

At this point I decided my next project would be an eight-foot, tar-covered, obstructional WALL, to symbolize the wall I felt I d run into in sculpture class. I still didn t have the technical skills to pull it off, though; Margo watched me struggle with it for three weeks without volunteering any advice, then during critique she said, ve done it all wrong, you should have used the whosamajiggy, it s not successful. Evidently she didn t appreciate art that expressed anger with her.

To inspire us, she showed us a video about Spiral Jetty, which was about the most boring thing I d ever seen; tons of footage of dust spraying out behind a truck, bulldozers pushing rocks into a lake, making a spiral-shaped landform that slowly disintegrated. I said that I didn t see the point of spending all that time and money and environmental destruction to make a spiral and nothing else, look at Picasso s Guernica, that was an efficient use of resources and more environmentally sound, too. Margo said, I never really got Picasso, anyway.

Another of her ideas for inspiration involved changing the environment in the sculpture studio. We didn t have a lot to work with; we piled the sculpture stools and pedestals around the room in random constructions. The spiky-snake guy threw plaster dust into the fan, which changed the environment so much that everybody had to leave the room. After it was habitable again, we went back in to make drawings for our next pieces. We got bored with drawing piles of stools and left early. During the next class Margo told us all that we were very rude and not to ever do that again.

For his environmental piece, Trip made a slender white stool, with a thing dangling off the top of it that looked like a long, bloody tampon. He affixed the whole contraption to his head, and stood for critique. The tampon swung merrily about his face as he talked.

I have built this piece to remind you that I am a place as well, he began.

What s that thing on top of it? It looks like a tampon, said the T.A.

That is gore, said Trip. It is to say what I think of all of you for drinking milk. He went on to expound the horrors of modern milk technology, how all milk has blood in it and how we are murderers and torturers for participating in such filth. The T.A. got upset and started shouting. In fact, people often started shouting during Trip s critiques. He was very serious about veganism.

But not all of Trip s pieces were violent or repulsive. He made wooden figures out of stray logs that were transcendently lovely. He told us a story about one of them. s actually been in battle. A frat boy in a BMW turned a corner rather quickly and came close to running me over. I gave a tap on his hood with this doll to remind him to be courteous. He stopped and wanted to have a conversation about it, but I pulled a chisel out of my boot, and he suddenly changed his mind. It seemed to me that Trip s work knowingly depicted two sides of humanity, the sacred and the profane, with incandescent technical virtuosity.

There seemed to be no room for either the sacred or the profane in Margo s class; she only seemed to appreciate the egotistical and the frivolous. She gave an to a guy who made a video of his classmates playing leapfrog in business suits around the capitol. That guy dropped out of the art department next semester and went on to get an MBA.

By this time I was completely hamstrung on my own rage, frustration and helplessness. Every time I went to Margo for suggestions, she responded by telling me to look and so-and-so s work; I dutifully went to the library, to discover art which bore a tangential relationship to the most superficial aspects of whatever monstrosity I had been struggling with that week, which only confused me more. And never once did anyone show me how to use a power drill.

I wasn t the only one, either. The general walkout on the day we drew the stools seemed to presage a groundswell of discontent; even the few who were in favor tended to disappear into the wood shop to talk with Jerry, who was grouchy but who knew how to make things that would not come apart.

A major part of the difficulty was that this was, in fact, a beginning sculpture class. As I see it now, Margo would have been a perfectly fine teacher of graduate students. She pushed us to act and think like mature artists, and we just weren t; most of us were under twenty-one. Those of us who tried to fake it were publicly humiliated. One girl, a fluffy blonde of about eighteen, piled up the hallway with every piece of art she d ever produced, to make a tunnel leading us upstairs to an oily sort of altar, where she d lit a bunch of candles and pasted words of indecision and confusion on the floor. Margo said, These paintings aren t very good. And why do you have the candles? I like them isn adequate.

It is my belief that the artistic maturing process cannot be bypassed, speeded up, or faked. A few geniuses are born old souls, with both a natural proficiency and a reservoir of wise things to express, but most of us mature the hard way--through experience, reflection, and much trial and error. Not for nothing did the old school ateliers require years of rigorous, uncreative technical study before allowing apprentices to produce original work. An artist did not express himself until he had something worth expressing and the technique to pull it off. Stifling, perhaps, but it kept the adolescent piles of puke out of the museums.

By the time the final critique arrived, even Margo was showing the strain. Enough people had cut her class and complained about her that she herself was feeling as misunderstood as any of her students. The T.A. had the flu. Our projects were scattered about the building and surrounding grounds, since of course they had to be environmental, the critique took on the aspect of a scavenger hunt, moving from bushes to hallway to bathroom and back.

I had converted my tar-covered wall into a sort of corral, within which there remained evidence of some mysteriously violent occurrence; it was dismissed with compassion by the class and disdain by Margo. It was, however, successful, in that it accurately depicted my state of mind at the time. We moved on to a spiky rape sculpture in the bushes, which met with more approval, and an ambiguous steel thing which was evidently a complete failure, but for which Margo made excuses. It was made by the thorny snake guy, who was so disaffected that Margo approved of him on principle.

Then we were taken to a small hallway between the men and women s restrooms, by a girl who had met with critical disdain so often that she was a desperate creature. She divided the hallway in half lengthwise and broke eggs all over the floor, shells on the men s side, yolks on the women s. Then she unleashed a box of real live baby ducks and chickens onto the eggs, to see what they would do.

What they did, of course, was to run around peeping, smearing egg and feces all over the place. That wasn t what caused the pandemonium. What caused the pandemonium was Trip, who regarded the pointless breaking of two dozen eggs as genocide, and went apeshit. He started flailing his arms and shrieking toward the ceiling, in the direction of the administrative offices, located on the mezzanine directly overhead.

Passing the offices was professor Solomon Snipe, a sadly constipated old wreck who made a career out of destroying his students creativity, and who hated Trip s guts. Snipe turned the color of an eggplant and started screaming back. Somehow, after some minutes, Snipe was down on our floor with veins popping out of his skull and his nose within two centimeters of Trip s, both of them braying loud enough to rouse the administrative vice president, hitherto invisible. The two of them had to be forcibly restrained while the gentler students and Margo crawled around retrieving chickens.

Its little heart is going really fast, said Margo concernedly, evidently unaware that the smaller the creature, the faster its base level heartrate. The egg girl thus disgraced for cruelty to animals, we moved on to our next location.

Except that Margo didn t come with us; she had been yanked into the administrative offices and was getting yelled at for failing to control her class. She reappeared after about forty minutes, said, well, there s been a bit of a disturbance, burst into tears, and ran away.

Um, I guess class is dismissed, snuffled the T.A.

Over the break, so I heard, Margo went to the administration to try to get Trip thrown out of the art department, preferably out of the university. The administration decided that since they d had roughly the same number of complaints about each of them, both of them could stay. Trip signed up for Margo s Advanced Sculpture class in the fall; she didn find out until the first day of class. She spent most of that semester in New York on important business.

Meanwhile I found a compatible sculpture professor, a beautiful genius from Thailand, who resurrected my shattered self-esteem, divined my ambiguous intent, and offered simple suggestions which actually helped. Make little things like music, he said. If you need organic form, look for branch of tree. And poetry like that. I made muses for him in plaster and wood, cheesecloth and stone, with candles and mirrors and music, and everybody was happy.

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