How the Mindscape Came To Be
The story of how I, as a visual artist, came to be involved with words and writing begins with my father and his unusual collection of typewritten thoughts, poems, and essays, kept in an old, cloth- bound metal post ledger.
He would come home after midnight, having worked the swing shift, and sit in his carpet-upholstered chair, typing by kitchen light into the wee hours of the morning. Some idea would have come to him as he stood working at the printing press that could not wait for sleep.
He never told me where he got the impetus to keep such a journal. Although his schooling ended at the tenth grade, he read a great deal. Perhaps that was the source of his inspirations. Maybe he had a subconscious wish to be a writer but knew that he could never support a family on hopes like that. He wrote few poems, which I found memorable, and even a captivating short story or two. His experience of the Depression probably chilled any entrepreneurial inclinations he had, and, to my knowledge, his writing was just a private thing he did.
Although my mother was always writing to her friends in a neat cursive hand, I rarely got the chance to read or hear what she had written. So, it was most likely my father, who thought nothing of waking me up at three in the morning on school days to read me his latest effort fresh from the kitchen chair think tank, who modeled the passions of writing for me.
The same gene that has inclined my choices toward creativity for forty years or more, like a life-affirming addiction, could just as well have been showing up in his mid-life experience as a propensity to write.
Although I was encouraged into the world of visual art, it seems as though a love of language tagged along, even though I didn’t sense it until I was in my early twenties. My love for words rose to the surface of my creative activity in the spring of 1967.
I had started a series of graphite drawings, inspired by my intrigue with the history of the abandoned mining towns and railroad lines of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. Whenever I had time off and enough money, I went exploring this great desert region to see how those who had lived there survived in the inconvenient places. There was a compelling mystery in the potential images I was seeing out there that seemed to get right down to a glamour- free, bottom-line reality. It seemed to me that the marrow of life could be viewed more honestly through the survivors and ruined remains of such places.
The drawing series finally grew to eleven images and took two-and-a-half years to finish. The time it took to do each piece gave me ample opportunity to ruminate about the places I was rendering so carefully. As I was drawing my images, the ruminations seemed to come to me with the compression of poetry or short story narratives.
These words not only seemed to actualize the visual experience of my image, but they could also transcend the border of the drawing in both time and space, revealing a kind of imaginative extrapolation. Because the experience began in the visual realm, these extrapolations seemed somehow more cognitively interactive--more intimate than the relationship between book or magazine stories and traditional illustration.
The extrapolation process was very often as interesting as the visual work itself. I began to write down these ruminations so that I might be able to share similar experiences with others. For lack of a better moniker, I called these concurrent texts “Poetics,” more because they seemed to work for the same kind of drama, compression, and emotional focus as poetry than any attempt on my part to conform to a specific literary paradigm.
There seemed to be an intriguing parallel between the actual two-dimensional flatness of my images, which had the artistic illusion of a third dimension, and substantive poetry, which reaches us as compressed language and then expands to a three-dimensional experience as it comes into contact with our imagination. I looked for other parallels between aesthetic media and began to have a keen interest in how such latent synergies might be developed and utilized as another form of art expression.
During or immediately after I had finished one of these early drawings, I would write out a first draft of words. Then I would work on the effect between my new image and its text. I did this for ten of the eleven drawings in the series and made a small edition of reproductions, each image with its respective text on a separate sheet. Then I went looking for an audience.
My part-time entrepreneurial venture kept me in spending money during my first three years of college. I took a hiatus from writing texts during my senior year of undergraduate study because I was learning a whole range of new printmaking processes.
The hiatus continued into graduate school for much the same reason, though by then I was already developing my own relief etching process. I recall thinking that the new relief imagery would be a “natural” for my poetic/concurrent text idea.
One of the third-quarter prerequisites at the university I was attending required graduate candidates to present an art folio of their recent work to a review board so they might determine whether the work was of sufficient quality for the student to continue graduate studies.
As I submitted my first semester and undergraduate work complete with many drawings, some with their texts, I was a bit apprehensive but eager to demonstrate what I had discovered about images, words, and imagination. They conferred for about fifteen minutes and then told me that I was in a solid position to continue my graduate work.
Delighted by this affirmation, I offered to recite the words to one of my images for them. When I had finished reciting, they told me that, while they didn’t claim to know a great deal about poetry, they did know that putting visual images and words together was decidedly “de’-classe’.”
They told me that visual art should stand alone as a discrete experience without such embellishments. Although I was disappointed at this response, their rationale had a sort of “father knows best” authority. I took their expert word on the subject and ceased to write for my images.
For fourteen years following that event, my writing energies as a graduate student and an art instructor went into reports, proposals, course descriptions, position statements, and essays. For my own love of words, I would occasionally write a song and play it on my guitar for friends or to the twilight walls of my living room.
During that time I completed twenty major coquille drawings and had finished printing the full sheet relief etching editions for fourteen of them. I was, however, left with an empty longing to explore with words the imaginary time and space I had experienced before I had become “academically sophisticated.” That longing tended to manifest itself as a desire to explain what moved me to do a particular image whenever there was someone who cared enough to ask. What triggered my second writing renaissance was just such an interest.
One winter afternoon in the fall of 1986, I gathered up a month’s worth of bachelor laundry and headed off to the laundromat. On the way I stopped to see Kim Peden at his dental lab and deliver my most recent etching for his collection. He took a break from the grinding and polishing wheels, and we started a friendly conversation that eventually got around to why I did what I did.
He pointed to Sierra Before the Storm and said, “Take that one, for instance. What’s the philosophy behind that image?” My explanation began like a leak forming in an earthen dam that had backed up a mountain river for far too long.
“Geeze, man,” Kim noted when I was through, “that’s good. You should write that down; maybe have it printed for your collectors so they can frame it up next to the etching.” I thanked him for his advice, told him I’d give it my best shot, and we’d see what came out.
The washers were barely staying in balance as I sat in a plastic chair scratching my head. On a legal pad, I had been trying to plow through what had all the earmarks of becoming a very boring essay about the soul of visual art and the purpose of human creative motivations.
All of a sudden I woke up. I realized that the poetic/concurrent texts I had done years before offered a perfect resolution. I didn’t need to cover my behind with the same kind of seamless political dogma I had been turning out for my job. Besides, who in their right mind would choose to read through a new sports car owner’s manual instead of getting into the bucket seat and taking the car for a spin in the country?
The solution was so obvious that I felt like yelling, “Eureka!” But, unlike Archimedes, I had not waited so long to do my laundry. I wadded up my philosophical hen scratchings along with the myopic paradigm of my graduate professors and threw them into the trash can.
I took a deep breath, stood up and transferred my damp clothes to the dryers, fed in quarters, and started them spinning. I sat back down with a clean sheet of paper. What was long overdue and seriously needed here was solid “poetic” soul. So, with the dryers flopping the damp clothing around, buttons clicking and scraping against the windows, I began my first poetic text in fourteen years, shocked that so much water had passed under the bridge. At the top of the page I wrote, Sierra Before the Storm.
With the writing of this text (see page 16), I began to reconsider a rationale for artistic activity that focuses on and explores the potential synergy in the spaces between cultural media disciplines. I eventually began to call the finished products of my exploration mindscapes.
Although I rejected my graduate professors’ admonitions, I knew there were good reasons for their apprehensions about combining visual and literary forms. Just so that I would not overlook or forget their valid and unspoken reservations, I established a production standard for all of these symbiotic creations. The rule states that the various component expressions of a mindscape should be able to stand alone, without the support of the other components. In other words, the visual, the concurrent text, the music, and any other work included should all be cut from the same quality of fabric.
The process of assembling various kinds of mindscapes into book form has created new potentials. The first inkling that a coffee table book of collected relief etchings and their concurrent texts might be the most suitable vehicle for this new kind of experience occurred to me in the spring of 1986. I recalled reciting my fledgling “poetics” to whole rooms of people in community art shows back in the late 60’s and seeing their positive reactions to that experience.
I decided that it was time to work some of my newer texts into a form of oral drama. Pursuing that inclination, I went into Stephen Bigger’s sound studio in the fall of 1986. We laid down a series of recitations and song tracks. After I left, he added reverb, equalization, and musical accompaniment. About three months later, he handed me a tape of our collaboration. For a first try, the effect was marvelous. I was hooked on the idea of taking my words into the audio realm. In the spring of 1991 I was finally able to get back into a sound studio, where I could further explore images and words in a sound medium.
The rapid growth of digital audio technology from the mid 80’s to late 90’s has facilitated many of my ideas and explorations. I can create audio- worlds in my small studio at home that would have required a very large sound stage when I first began writing.
During the summer of 1991, I made my first sound camera with a tripod, a stereo microphone, and a DAT (digital audio tape) machine. I took this makeshift rig and went on an extensive road trip throughout the Southwest. The idea was to gather CD quality sounds in those places where I was inspired to draw each of the images in this book. I likened myself to a Navajo sand painter gathering colors to use in a painting ceremony.
By bringing these sounds back into a digital studio, I could load them into the computer’s memory, then mix and use them like paint on a pallet to create audio landscapes. Against these audio stage sets, I could perform the oral drama for each text.
I began composing the music for this project in 1994, and by 1996, I had completed more than enough music to use as introductions and segues for the audio landscapes.
Not only has this project given me the chance to create works that are customarily segregated art forms, but also it has necessitated that I fuse them into one tangible platform. In that process of fusion, every Roadsongs monograph becomes a conceptual art vehicle--another work of art. For this reason, every example in the first edition is hand-signed and serially numbered, like the relief etchings that sparked this long creative progression.
The book was designed so that you could go into the quiet of your own listening environment, sit back in comfort, put the CDs on the player, look at an image and let the audio landscapes, the music, the narration, and the drama, transport you beyond the borders of my imagery into places that exist only within your mind. With this book and your imagination, the moving synergy of the mindscape can open the door to an experience that at once is both shared and uniquely private.
I hope that your experience of this art may at some point parallel my own. This true sharing of experience may only happen occasionally. I have had complete strangers who, after viewing one of my images, came up and told me the very thoughts I was thinking while in the heat of creating it. I have seen deep emotion in the faces of my viewers in public places where such overt displays would normally be embarrassing. I am moved by these incidents because this is exactly the kind of meaningful connection I look for in my personal aesthetic encounters, whether they are inspired by man or nature.
I do not subscribe to the notion that there is only one way of seeing a work of art, nor do I want my viewers to feel that the genetic idea behind these images is, in any way, intended to limit their own perceptions. To be critically thinking humans, we need to seek our own meanings in all we view.
For me, it is the tractive ability of an image to draw the viewer in and communicate on many levels that determines whether a work of art finally matters. The determination of how well I have done my work will reside personally with those individuals who participate in the extended experience that this art was made to generate. For those who engage in the mindscape experience, I want to assure you that the road map to get you into that personal imaginative dialogue was the very best that I could have drawn.
Malcolm Graeme Childers 1998