“Anchor Panel,” AIDS Quilt 2000 (Detail)
LAST WEEK I posted a painting on Facebook (below), in response to its recent campaign to make art more a part of the site, and of its experience. I liked the idea, and so thought to add into the mix a painting of my own. The response could not have stronger or more positive. I was blown away! My friend Laura Beth Slobin suggested that I “make it weekly,” which I’ve decided to give a try.
Moondance, Miami Shores
So, here we go with the second weekly installment of Paul’s Art-o-Rama! The painting I’d like to share with you this week is a little different. You ready? There’s no particular place we need to get to, today, but we’ve got a little traveling to do.
On December 1, 2000 (World AIDS Day) the traveling National AIDS Quilt Project came to rest at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Each individual panel submitted for inclusion is a somewhat macabre 3’ X 6’, dimensions inspired by those of an ordinary coffin. Eight panels are in turn sewn into “blocks” for purposes of organization/preservation and display, each 12’ square. The work you see here is a full block, and at that size, the largest canvas I have ever worked on. Thus far.
My connection to the Project was very personal; the “dog tags” worn by my late partner Scott Gillen identifying him as a volunteer at the 1992 exhibition of the Quilt, at the same venue, even still hang loosely upon the framed photo of the panel I did to honor his memory 4 years later. Last night I took it down off the wall and dusted it off a bit to take the picture below.
The painting was actually done (with the support and logistical assistance of then partner/ current friend David Lydon) out under the stars one enchanted evening, the ungainly canvas sprawled out from here to yonder across my next-door neighbor’s front yard, facing the towering green coconut palm seen. The placement of the “painted part” near center allowed plenty of room for the invited creative interaction/personal tributes/ participation of the many who had come to remember their own, and maybe had no previous opportunity to make tribute. A small mountain of magic markers in a rainbow of colors was left on the canvas for that purpose. Here was art one was free to walk on, although total nudity was discouraged, wrestling in either mud or peanut butter & jelly prohibited outright, and participants asked to first remove their shoes. So around the canvas there lay strewn about on the floor every kind of shoe you can imagine, including a fair number of glittering, oversized cha-cha heels. It was a beautiful thing.
The Miami Herald ran a great photograph (that I wish I had!) of this canvas in use at the display, taken more or less from ground level. It captured a small multitude that seemed an excellent representation of our community in miniature, scattered about in every conceivable position, all intently at work in a private and solitary world of their own, together. The truly special quality of this painting, to me, is that it is essentially a kiss commended unto Heaven with a common sacred intention, by the hands of 3-400 others, and my own.
This one was as magical as AIDS is horrible. Art has a way of taking one on a journey, of the sort you know not where, but cannot really doubt is yours. This one was just wild, and there’s really no explaining it. In retrospect, when I’d first been asked if I would consider doing it, I replied “Yes” immediately, without hesitation. I was guided by instinct rather than logic or reason, and on that level sensed an opportunity somehow rare in the extreme, and not to be missed.
And indeed something did happen, and it was beyond extraordinary. I really will not blame you in the least if you conclude that I’ve created a story for dramatic emphasis, a literary flourish, or whatever. And I will be the first to admit that I have done just that, when there’s a metaphorical truth to it, and the telling seems called for by the story. (With one example being my encounter with the disappearing indigenous people on the shores of Biscayne Bay in the third posting on my search for the “Devil’s Punch Bowl.” Since I am generally fairly literal in reporting actual events, the post apparently created some confusion. Some expressed uncertainty as to whether or not my report of finding the site might be a fiction, as well (it was not). One sympathetic reader wrote, essentially reassuring me that such a “break with reality” was understandable, under the circumstances. From that, I extrapolated that others had been left flat out doubting my complete sanity. (I cannot say I blame them, at all. At the same time, I do find the concept both vague and highly overrated! The real issue at hand is not being “sane” or “insane;” those are only labels primarily of practical use only in a clinical setting. The only relevant question, that applies universally, is “How are you, now, with your suffering?”)
Besides, recounting the “factual” remains the trickiest of issues in the realm of personal memory, since (if you think about it) we are constantly telling a story about ourselves, to ourselves. It might be argued that to be Human, and especially to relate, is to tell stories. There is indeed a fine line between actual memory and imagination. Some degree of confusion between the two, or of their confabulation, is more the rule than any exception.
With all that said, I will say only that the account to follow is in no way made up, or even embellished. I realize that it may very much seem otherwise, but there is little to be done about it. For reasons you may soon easily understand, I have never before even once tried to speak of it to another. Until now. Perhaps I feared I might have something to lose; I don’t know. Now it is time.
Please feel free to think what you will, as I have no agenda here but to serve. But I am less certain that my first name is Paul, than I am of this experience. And I’m pretty sure about my name.
It happened when the exhibition had finally wound down and the panels were being carefully folded up and prepared for transportation. Chatting casually, I saw the panel lifted up, and was given one last look before it would be packed up. One of the volunteers said simply, with a smile, “Paul, your baby.” And at that precise moment, suddenly there was only deepest silence. The bustling motion in the great hall resolved into absolute stillness; it was as if time had suddenly frozen. I remember hearing the heartbeat in my chest, steady in its ancient rhythm. The whole event felt like a dream, but I was fully awake, on my feet, and surrounded by a small mob of people.
My eyes were naturally drawn to the quilt, as for the moment all else had faded into a “background” field of black and white, sort of. (Please bear with me here, because words are scarcely sufficient. But I nevertheless need try.) There was no thought, and yet I felt as if my eyes were truly open for the first time in my life. And I was amazed at what I saw. The Canvas glowed golden as if from within, like the shine of the metal highly burnished. And wherever messages had been inscribed upon it by the heartbroken, all over its surface, pure white light poured right through. Exactly like a window. It’s hard to put into words, but what I saw was no longer an object. It felt it so alive with love, that I could hardly bear to look directly at it.
And in that moment of eternity all illusions of distance between Heaven and Earth faded to nothingness. I remained on my feet only because I was held, and touched, and caressed by men, women, boys and girls, even babies, all in spirit. And there was no disfigurement in any one of them, nor even a trace of sickness. A chill ran right through me. There was only Light. And the light was never still, and neither was it only one color. But… it was so clean. In that moment I realized something I had never known before: I was not flawed or disfigured, in the eyes of God. I saw that I had never been truly lost, or strayed far at all from Heaven. In all of my life, I had never felt Love as a force so real, inevitable, and encompassing as in that moment outside of time. All paradox was resolved, none were ever excluded, and all words fell away, hollow as empty casings.
Then, I could swear that I heard the sweetest music. Kind of like I might have imagined the sound of an angels’ chorus, but very soft. Or it might have not been that at all, but rather another experience of “the silence.” It might not matter, but in that moment it didn’t seem at all as if the music and the silence were really two different and separate things. (Kind of like the color we see as “white” is in fact a synthesis of all other colors.) I really can’t say. But I can tell you that I felt the most intense peace. And it was a peace that was neither temporary, nor a reflection of a particular situation. It was at the root of all things, forever had been, and always would be. I still believe the truth of the lesson, but have (sadly) forgotten the feeling. And in the feeling, I believe, is the knowledge. I have forgotten how to remember.
And then it was over. I heard someone laugh in the distance, and then a woman’s voice that I recognized as belonging to one of the volunteers with whom I’d spent some pleasant time in conversation. Everything (but me!) was suddenly exactly as before. Had it been only a moment that passed, or hours? I turned to her as if in slow motion, and she said, with a smile, “It is amazing, Paul. You should be so proud.” To this day, I cannot guess what she had or had not seen. I just smiled and said “Thank you so much. I really am.” Then, with a subtle gesture, she signaled the waiting volunteers that it was time get it ready to be packed away with all of the others, ready for transport to their next destination.
Even now, thinking back on it, tears come to my eyes. I felt so privileged. And yet, back “in my body,” a little heartbroken, and sad. Yet what is one to do, what can one possibly do, but make art? Through Grace, I’d reached a place of peace with my pain. Did I have whatever it might take to pay the price of my love? Yep. Without a doubt.
But where was I to go from here? I guessed I’d figure that out as I went along. And that was just fine with me.
In the lower left corner of the center, you’ll see a sort of gestural homage to the Senator Hotel, an art deco dream that blossomed, flourished, and then languished for many years under the Florida Sun, frozen in time. Its hours of greatest glory had come and gone, and time’s river flowed on. Yet it stood faithfully and steady, resplendent in its aging state of art deco grace, giving its all to helping make Miami Beach what it uniquely was.
Then came the wrecking ball. Below, the site today: a lovely Goddamned parking lot.
The Senator was demolished by its fearful owners even as the fierce battle for historic preservation approached its fevered peak. It had been the kind of hard fought bloodbath that can result only when two huge and diametrically opposed ideas clash head-to-head, see no way of co-existing, and quietly resolve to kill or be killed. There was no question about it; one of the two Great Dreams here held so close would have to die. (The wisdom of saving the unique and whimsical architecture of the era from further wanton waste and destruction now seems abundantly clear, even self-evident. But that was not always so.)
Sad and senseless though it may have been, the “death” of the Senator was not in vain. Suddenly, the need for real protection of the old buildings “on the books” had become far from academic, and abundantly clear. The public was utterly outraged with the unexpected demolition: the completeness of the destruction and its brazen timing. The reaction set the movement on fire, and energized a strong final push towards triumph.
Thus we now have a Miami Beach Historic District, rather than a chaotic melange of tall sleek skyscrapers, shabby new construction, and maybe a couple of megaplex Cocowalks on that “billion dollar sandbar.” And travelers from the world flock to the area, haunted by indelible and enchanting images they’ve seen on all kinds of television shows and movie screens. They seek out its restaurants, are taken on tours by the busload, and in a way unusual for “tourist magnets,” seem almost always glad that they’ve come. And so they return home and tell their friends, and the phenomenon grows.
Possibly what resonates most strongly of the art deco district, is that it is genuine, and the only one of its kind and exact situation, in all of the world. I am reminded of this quote from poet e e cummings:
“B-but…it was just here!” Gone.
The story of the Senator Hotel seemed to me to belong in an AIDS Quilt, if something so monstrous had to be. That was especially so in an anomalous panel within the Quilt focusing specifically upon place (South Florida) rather than person. The themes it raised resonated quite clearly with the losses I and so many others had experienced, first hand: the sudden presence of absence, with only mounds of smoking rubble, splinters and shards marking out where joy had so recently been; the hurtful unfairness of a match between the delicate whimsy of the 1930’s deco confection (which had never hurt anybody) and the brute force of massive metal wrecking ball swinging in at full force; the whimpering unanswerable question, “Why must it always be innocence and elegance that have to die, in this world?”
Gay author Edmund White wrote, “With each new death, a library burns.” Buildings are not people, to be sure, but they do reflect their once-highest dreams. Well-used buildings of previous eras remain always stories given form, and start out as such from day one. Hopefully the dreams remain even after the buildings have returned back to dust, even as tales of the heroes live on, and even grow,long after the heroes themselves have presumably ascended back to their to their personal Valhallas.
Before people parked their cars on smooth black asphalt here, they sat on a wide, breezy front porch and rested, daydreamed, took in the ever-changing parade without end, and at times “visited” for hours on end, without even a clock anywhere in sight. (And no “smart phones.) The sun rose and set, leaving the evening to the stars and the more delicate, shy, and gracious Moon. All of this, and the sea always only steps away! Somehow it all seemed enough.
They swam & socialized, as naked to one another in the fullness of their beauty as society’s values would properly allow, and on that account might often be just a little excited. They paraded their figures or sucked in their guts unconvincingly, combed scant hair over bald spots “on the sly” when convinced nobody was looking. They couldn’t help but marvel at how very delicious the water always felt on their toasty skin, even in the middle of winter-time! They sometimes forgot themselves, and became a little sunburned.
Some came season after season, until they could no longer, and waited each year with greatest anticipation for that singular and wonderful moment when they’d step once again into the familiar lobby for the first time, striding right back into its cool shadows exactly as if they’d made it back home at last, and owned the place. Everyone saw, but no one minded in the least. People sat and talked here at virtually all hours, sometimes sharing conversation never to be forgotten: honeymooners with one another, Grandparents privately with their grandchildren (!), friends that had been too long apart, and wheeling dealers peddling to the next dreamer to come along, their latest great new vision.
Of course there were fanciful frosted flamingos etched on to the glass! What other kind of portal would be nearly as well-suited for “framing” the serious whimsy of pondering, people-watching, or just watching the world go by, on just the other side?
It likely never even occurred to them that the front desk, along with its eager attendant staff always at the ready, would one day be gone. (Of course not; with no desk, how would people even check in?) But it would.
Thanks to the Miami Design Preservation League. which has preserved more than its share of romance in a world always in desperate need of more.
Remember that, in a sense, the Senator died so that other historic buildings might survive, so at the least its loss was not without meaning. Maybe my impulse to celebrate the Senator was to borrow from that particular sad tale of destruction its accompanying promise of redemption.
I suppose I will always await redemption more complete and fulfilling, in the unfolding of each tale being more fully told. One could do worse.
See you next week. Sincere thanks for your company along the way.