I’m Walking Here

More photographs from the Nasher.

Children and Calder (Trois Bollards)

A pair of Giacometti, in front of a window.



Another new Video from Lana Del Rey


Sunday Snippet – Abandoned Hamburger

To catch the train home from work, Wilbur Jamison had to walk through an underpass beneath a busy thoroughfare to reach the platform. A train pulled in as he started down the stairs into the urine scented concrete tunnel – he knew he would just miss this one and have to wait for the next. A handful of young men vaulted the fence – baggy pants and all – and dashed through the honking cars to make the train. Wilbur wouldn’t… couldn’t vault and dash – he would have to wait.

There were two metal seats at the place where the train doors would open in a half hour. Wilbur plopped down on one to catch his breath after struggling up the steep concrete stairs from the underpass tunnel.

The other seat had a hamburger on it. Wilbur looked around to see if it belonged to anybody – there was no one on his side of the platform (the train had left only seconds before, after all). He was alone except for some man in a P-Diddy T-shirt and the most ridiculous pair of embroidered and bejeweled denim shorts he had ever seen. The man was screaming into a cell phone on the other side – across the tracks – waiting for a northbound.

The hamburger on the seat next to Wilbur sat in the exact center of a round foam plate. It had one generous, neat, semi-circular bite taken out of it. Wilbur figured it had been abandoned when a train pulled up – eating is not allowed on public transport. It appeared to be a plain hamburger. Nothing, no lettuce, tomato, pickles – not even a stain of ketchup or mustard – was visible in the exposed edge of the missing crescent. Wilbur thought that there could, however, be a thin careful application of unknown condiments in the center, hidden by the bun.

Wilbur considered getting up and throwing the food into the trash container a few feet farther down the platform. He thought of himself as being socially reliable and liked to think about doing small acts of responsibility and kindness unacknowledged by the rest of the world.

He thought about this, but before he could gather the momentum to get up and move another commuter, a large man accompanied by a young girl, pushed the plate and the hamburger off the metal seat, swatted the air a few times and then sat down with a grunt. Wilbur was surprised; he had not seen the man and girl walk up.

Wilbur frowned. The man had not properly disposed of the hamburger and plate – it was now wedged under the frame of the large advertising sign behind the little seat. He didn’t like this lack of concern on the part of his fellow commuter, but he didn’t say anything. He pulled a dog-eared paperback out of a jacket pocket and began to read until his train came and he boarded.

Two train stops down the line, a woman climbed on board and sat down on the bench next to Wilbur. She was wearing thin, ill-fitting black slacks and some sort of ratty brown striped Rayon uniform/smock. She had a black plastic visor with the white initials “WH” painted on it. Her large yellow plastic badge said “WAFFLE HOUSE – MARLENE.”

She had been smoking on the platform when Wilbur had spotted her out of the train window. She had leaned over and snuffed the cigarette out on a light pole and now that she was seated on the train had pulled out a weathered pack of Camels from somewhere and was carefully replacing the half cigarette back in the pack.

She had to concentrate to get the Camel into the package while the train was accelerating away from the platform and starting to sway. She scrunched up her face paying attention to her task and that brought out a tight maze of small wrinkles framed by her thin short blonde hair and the black plastic eyeshade. Wilbur felt he could read this labyrinth – thought he could see the echoes of decade after decade of struggle – of desire and disappointment – of unwilling denial that mirrored his own.

Wilbur had never spoken to a stranger on the train before, but after five minutes the pressure became too great. He became deathly afraid that she would get off at the next stop and he would never see her again.

“Uhh, Hi Marlene… I’m Wilbur,” was the best he could muster.

“Oh, How did you know my name? Do I know you?” She looked confused.

“No,” he said, gesturing to her badge.

“Of course,” she said with a little chuckle, “I forgot. Pleased to meet you.”

So they chatted until Wilbur’s stop. She was getting off the night shift, he was starting the day. They shook hands as Wilbur stood to leave.

It wasn’t hard for Wilbur to find the Waffle House close to Marlene’s train stop. It was even easier to learn her schedule and to time his commute so he was on the train waiting for her. He started getting to the station extra early, letting a train or even two go past, waiting for the proper time. He would make sure the seat next to him was open, no matter how crowded the car was.

Marlene began looking forward to seeing Wilbur waiting on the car. Every now and then she would be late getting out of work or the schedules would slide and Wilbur would catch the wrong train and they would miss each other. Wilbur would go through the day in a dark funk and Marlene would have a hard time sleeping that day, though she had worked third shift for most of her life, whenever that happened.

They traded favorite paperbacks, Marlene started bringing Wilbur lunches from the Waffle House, and finally Wilbur summoned enough courage to ask her out to a movie. He had a car, a nice one, really, though it had a lot of miles on it. He only took the train to work to save on parking.

Marlene slept while Wilbur worked so their schedules worked out pretty well together. They would go to a couple of movies on the weekends and try for a nice dinner on Wednesdays.

Wilbur decided to ask Marlene to his house for dinner after a movie one weekend. His only son lived in Japan and had stopped even writing to him years before and nobody other than himself had set foot in his house in the decade since his wife had passed away. He asked a neighbor for a recommendation and hired a woman to come in to clean the place. He kept a simple, neat house, that fit in with all the others in the suburb, but not one that was spotless. He had never learned how to do that.

He drove to Marlene’s second floor studio apartment to pick her up. She appeared at the door carrying a small overnight bag. Wilbur was so nervous and excited during the movie that he never could remember what they saw.

Later that night, not long after he had brought her to his house, Marlene silently removed her clothes.

“Well, here it is,” she said with a combination of regret, excitement, and acceptance.

Wilbur gasped. She looked as if a bite had been taken off the top part of her body – a pink arc from one shoulder across the tops of her breasts on up to the other shoulder. Another arc cut across her legs – from one hip down to mid-thigh and then curving back up to the other hip. Everything else between these two arcs, her entire torso, was completely covered in complex colorful, dense, intertwined tattoos.

“Oh my God!” It escaped his lips before he could get control of his amazement.

“I’m sorry – I should have said something… I should have.”

“No, no, Don’t apologize. I think they… it’s… you’re the most beautiful thing I’ve seen… in a long, long time.”

“I’m sure you’re wondering where, why… well… it was like….”

“No! Stop! Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. I don’t ever want to know. Don’t ever tell me.”

Marlene shrugged. She seemed more than a little relieved.

“Fine with me,” she said.

Eventually, Marlene quit her job at the Waffle House and gave up her apartment, moving in with Wilbur. The neighbors barely noticed. It took her a while to get used to a usual schedule, sleeping at night, after having worked third shift for so long, but she was glad to work at it.

Wilbur had saved up a lot of vacation over the years and they began to travel. They started out with weekend driving trips close to home and gradually worked up to international voyages. They particularly liked traveling by cruise ship – Marlene enjoyed the shore excursions and Wilbur preferred the luxury on the boat.

Wilbur liked to lie next to Marlene and trace the intertwined designs across her skin, to try and separate each one out. He would make up little silly stories about each one and Marlene would laugh at his imagination. A few times she wanted to tell him the real story about her tattoos but Wilbur would not let her say anything. They were a mystery and he wanted to keep it that way. They were his mysteries and he liked the thought of having something so wonderful and strange belonging to him alone.

Marlene was almost as alone as Wilbur, but not quite. She had a beloved old aunt that lived in Toledo, Ohio. Marlene received word that her aunt had fallen sick and she went up there to tend to her. She was gone for two months and Wilbur missed her terribly, but they talked on the phone every night, and that made it better.

Finally, Marlene’s aunt regained her strength and she flew back home. Wilbur met her at the airport and they drove home. Wilbur carried her luggage into the house.

“I’ve got something to show you,” Wilbur said.

“Oh, you didn’t have to.”

“I’ll give you the present I bought for you later, but this is different, it’s something I did while you were gone.”

“Something you did?” Marlene was confused, and a little nervous.

Wilbur turned his back on Marlene and pulled his shirt off over his head. There, angling across his back, was a large, complex red dragon. Marlene knew ink like that could not be done in one visit, knew that Wilbur must have been waiting for her to be gone for an extensive time to get this dragon done. She also knew how much it must have hurt.

It was an expert job; the colors were bright and the detailing crisp. The dragon was a Japanese design, she had seen it before. The dragon was long and scaled, with several pairs of legs, and it was curved around, almost tying itself in knots. It seemed to pulse and seethe across Wilbur’s back. She moved in to look closer and snapped on a bright lamp to see better. The dragon was holding something – something clamped firmly in its foremost claws.

“The dragon is holding something,” she said.

“It sure is.”

She looked even closer. “Is that a hamburger? A hamburger with a bite out of it?”

“It sure is,” Wilbur said.


I recently discovered this band, Balmorhea… Their music is fantastic, it reminds me of Lucovico Einaudi – and they are named after one of my favorite places in West Texas.

When we first visited Balmorhea, it was like the start of this video – we were crossing the blasted desert looking at the red tornados of dust devils. Suddenly, there was a dive shop, and then the incredible pool of San Solomon Springs.

I wrote in July of 2000:

We drove the Interstate to Pecos and then turned south towards the distant blue wiggly line of the Davis Mountains. Watching the mountains grow, we drove through the most isolated and blasted looking territory yet. Nick and Lee were delighted by the enormous dust devils that the sun spawned across the desiccated fields. Looking like brick-red tornadoes these wandered across the flatlands. We drove through one and it was powerful enough to worry me about the trailer pulling behind, but it only gave the van a good shove and didn’t cause any real problems.

It was an easy drive and by mid-afternoon we arrived at Balmorhea. The park there is an oasis in the desert edged up against the foothills of the Davis Mountains. The rain that falls in the highlands percolates down and emerges from an artesian spring, cold and clear. Back in the thirties, the government took the wild spring and built a gigantic Y-shaped concrete swimming pool. The parks boasts the swimming pool, a nice little hotel, a recently constructed desert wetlands – the San Solomon springs Cienega (labor supplied by the Texas Department of Corrections) that provides habitat for two endangered species of tiny fish( the Comanche Springs Pupfish and the Pecos Gambusa), and a loop of nice little campsites each with its own quaint little fake-adobe shelter.

A quick sketch I made of the Balmorhea campsite.

Nick at Balmorhea, in July of 2000

Nick jumps off at Balmorhea, eleven years ago.

I had one of the most frightening experiences of my life the next day at that pool in Balmorhea.

From my journal, July 3, 2000:

We came back down to Balmorhea in the late afternoon and decided to go swimming. We talked to Lee about his fear of the fish in the pool and, as I suspected, it was mostly that he was tired and hungry yesterday. Some rest and some food and he was ready to hit the water.

He didn’t really do any swimming. What he preferred to do was to put on his goggles and stretch across his inflatable inner tube and let me swim and pull the tube around the big pool. He’d take a deep breath and stick his head into the water and look at the bottom. The pool is very large and there was a lot to look at. He would have requests like, “Swim me over to that end,” or “let’s go out to the deep part,” and I’d oblige. He’d plunge his face and come up with a report of what he saw: a school of fish, or some rocks, or a turtle, or a place where some kids had inscribed their names into the algae growing on the bottom.

After the crowded holiday that day before, only a handful of swimmers and some scuba divers were there. As I pulled Lee around Nick dove off the high board and swam until it was his turn. Lee wrapped in a towel and walked back to the campsite. Nicholas put on his goggles and I started swimming him around on his tube. We went into the deep end to try and spot the place where the copious flow of water erupted in a bed of white bubbling sand.

We came up against the stairs on the far side. I was getting tired and cold, the spring water is very chilly, it was late, I’d been swimming a long time and it was taking its toll. I asked Nick if we should walk back, around the pool or swim across. We did have his inner tube – I felt confident we could make it across one more time. We decided to swim. It was a mistake.

Nick looped his goggles around one shoulder and took hold of one side of the tube while I grabbed the other and we started to swim. Not too far from the side, but at the deepest part, maybe thirty feet deep, Nick called out, “Oh, oh, there go my goggles.” In retrospect I should have let them sink; but I took a big gulp of air and took off underwater, diving as deep and as quickly as I could. Maybe twenty feet down I saw a sinking orange blur, frog-kicked over to the goggles and grabbed them. Then I swam back up to the surface.

When you start reaching well into your forties, like I am, there is a fundamental change in the relationship between you and your body. What has been a good friend over the years, a partner, something you are… well, attached to – suddenly turns traitor. Abilities you have taken for granted for decades disappear. No one tells you about this. As a youth I could swim underwater with the ease and comfort of walking across a field. I took this for granted, the ability to hold my breath, come up for air and refresh myself. I discovered tired, and cold, and old, and fat… this is no longer true.

When I came up and handed Nicholas his goggles and put one hand on the inner tube and started kicking and swimming I realized that I was not going to be able to catch my breath. It came on with awful speed. No matter how hard I tried, my breathing became more and more labored, shallower, moving my arms and legs in the cold spring water was becoming extremely difficult.

It was horrifying.

With amazing clarity of thought, I knew I was not going to drown. I did have that inner tube for a float, even though I was rapidly becoming so weak I could barely hold on to it. There were some scuba divers in the pool that had finished diving and were sitting on the steps talking over the day’s sights and I knew I could call to them and they would haul me out of the pool. I came within a hair’s breadth of doing that.

The main fear I had was I thought I might be having a heart attack. I had never felt like this before. There was no pain, but I simply could not breathe, I could not get enough oxygen into my body to keep my arms and legs moving.

I don’t know what Nicholas thought, holding on to the other side of the inner tube, my son’s face only a few inches from mine. I must have scared him a little because I know I was flopping more than I should, trying to hook my arm into the tube and was unable to get it done. I didn’t want to frighten him unnecessarily so I kept my rising fears to myself.

Slowly, we continued to move across the wide pool, and finally I was able to reach down with a toe and touch the bottom. That didn’t help as much as you’d think because I was too weak to stand in the water and the energy used to hop and get my face above water made my breathing more impossible. Finally, the floor became shallower and shallower and before I knew it I was on the steps.

I released the tube and the brisk wind blew it away. “Could somebody get that please,” I asked, and a scuba diver caught it with a couple strong sure strokes and brought it back to me.

I didn’t have to sit beside the pool for very long before I felt fine. The fear and panic quickly drained away and left me with a slight elation even though I was still a little tired. I told Nicholas to take his towel and walk back to the popup at the campsite, I’d catch up in a minute.

Looking back on it now, I realize what I was feeling, in addition to simple exhaustion, was hypothermia. The spring water was cold and I had been in it for hours. There had been no pain, but I had felt a thin sliver away from death.

Walking slowly back to the camp, enjoying the last purple glow of the set sun, following the channels that the water followed as it coursed out of the pool, roaring down the irrigation ditches on out of the park, I felt fine. But the memory of those minutes of fear, the feeling of helplessness and drowning, are still with me. I had never felt like that before and I don’t look forward to feeling like that again.

What I learned this week, October 21, 2011

16 Tips to Simplify Your Life (and Increase Your Productivity)

from Tom.Basson

  1. Turn off all technology for 60 minutes a day
  2. Don’t check your email first thing in the morning.
  3. Start your day with exercise.
  4. Be obedient to the sabbath!
  5. Learn to say no.
  6. Plan your week ahead.
  7. Don’t answer your phone every time it rings.
  8. Get up early.
  9. Go to bed early.
  10. Eat a big healthy breakfast.
  11. Clean out your closets. Get rid of things you never wear or don’t use anymore.
  12. Stop watching TV.
  13.  Make sure you plan a decent holiday break once a year.
  14. Learn to protect your time.
  15. Do your banking online.
  16. Use Evernote.

Building Three-Dimensional Characters

  • Spine
  • Supporting Trait
  • Fatal Flaw
  • Shadow

I may be a loser and an idiot, but at least I’m not like this:

Family calls 911 when they get lost in a corn maze.

Isn’t that the point of a maize maze? Aren’t you supposed to get lost? I went to one once, with two kids, and it was a little disconcerting – but I was also aware that at any time I could walk through the corn if I had to.

OK, I hate Martha Stewart as much as you do… actually I hate her more, because I actually have a reason to be pissed at her. If you ask me nice, some day I’ll tell you about it.

In the meantime, she may be a nasty little piece of work, but she does know how to:

Make the perfect Macaroni and Cheese

Uncertainty, Innovation, and the Alchemy of Fear

  • Single Task
  • Exercise Your Brain
  • Reframe
  • Pulse and Pause
  • Drop Certainty Anchors

One of Lee’s friends told us about a pet that I had never heard about. Micro-Pigs.


Seems like a good idea, I suppose…. Isn’t that where Bacon Bits come from?


Painting with light

I have been playing around with my camera. I want to try a technique – actually a set of techniques – to paint with light. These are not finished attempts, just preliminary studies to see what the possibilities are.

When I was a little kid I used to read Popular Science and Popular Mechanics like they were the word from God. There was an article where you would set a camera down in the dark, open the shutter, and swing a light over the top of it, making a pattern. It’s a lot easier now, with a digital camera, because you can see what comes out right away – instead of having to develop the film. You can play around.

A couple of test shots with a small flashlight hanging from a ceiling fan.

Working on adding a little color

Next, I want to go outside at night and experiment with “painting” on objects. I actually tried that, but my neighborhood has too much ambient light – plus all the dogs go nuts. I need to think about this a bit more.


A new version of Video Games by Lana Del Rey

Good Stuff

Energy, Focus, and Courage

“The energy of the mind is the essence of life.”


“Goals provide the energy source that powers our lives. One of the best ways we can get the most from the energy we have is to focus it. That is what goals can do for us; concentrate our energy.”

—-Denis Waitley

I don’t have a belief problem, I have a focusing weakness. I focus on what’s loudest instead of what feels best.


Focus on where you want to go, not on what you fear.

—-Anthony Robbins

For man’s greatest actions are performed in minor struggles. Life, misfortune, isolation, abandonment and poverty are battlefields which have their heroes – obscure heroes who are at times greater than illustrious heroes.

—-Victor Hugo

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

—- Dune, Frank Herbert

Energy, focus, and courage.

I have a giant frightening project and deadline coming up at work. It has me scrambling. Even though the weather has been beautiful outside, as rarely beautiful as it ever is here in Texas, I have been cooped up in my office cube wishing I was somewhere or someone else.

As I fight my way toward the finish three words keep coming up in my mind. These three words, the more I think about it, are what I need — are what I’m looking for. The three words are

  • Energy
  • Focus
  • Courage.

Energy, Focus, Courage. I’m not sure where the words came from – they didn’t really pop into my mind… it’s more like they grew there, like from little imaginary seeds. I have been thinking about these three words, repeating them to myself like a mantra, until I think I’m beginning to have an idea what they mean.

I have come to the point where I think they all three mean the same thing… no, that’s not it… obviously the words don’t mean the same thing. What I mean is that the three words represent a view of something larger, or more complex, or crystalline – something that a single word can’t describe. That thing, that unnamed thing, is what I am trying to understand – but I don’t have the tools to view it directly. I can only see its shadow – a shadow that looks different when viewed by a light that shines in a different direction.

The shadow, from three different directions, spells out energy, focus, and courage.

Energy is power, power from exercise, cardiovascular and strength. Energy is passion, both the wild random volcanic passion of youth and the desperate focused passion of age, tempered by the terrible knowledge that time is running out. Energy needs its opposites – sleep and rest – to recharge. Without rest there is no energy. Energy is clear clean powerful and focused.

Focus is organization, planning. I think of Steven Covey and his four quadrants, of the important but not urgent.This is focus from a satellite, the view from far above and far away. Then there is getting things done, the minute by minute management of a day. Life itself can be thought of as a string of seconds (an average life is, what? 2,207,520,000 seconds long, a little over two billion), every one a tiny decision, “what do I do now?” Add these up and you have your life. Focus is a laser pointer. Focus is like a lens that takes the light from the sun and burns a little brilliant dot onto the sidewalk.

Focus is saying “no.” Focus is priorities. Focus is saying “yes.” Focus is making a choice. Making a choice takes courage.

Courage is not the opposite of fear, like most people think. Without fear there is no courage. The brave must face their fear, swallow it, feel it, and keep on doing what they need to do. Fear is that gnawing in your gut. Courage is looking at the point of no return and stepping right into it.

There is that moment when you have faced your fear, ignored your doubts, and stepped ahead. That moment when everything is set in motion, but nothing has moved yet. You have bought your ticket, opened your mouth and started to speak (the heads are all turning toward you), taken that step, dialed that number, hit send, swung the bat, released the Kraken, or whatever it is that you chose to do… that calm feeling of excitement – the sudden extermination of fear (how can you be afraid now, now that nothing can be done, now that your fate is decided) – that is the moment of pure courage, of focus, of energy.

That is the moment that life is lived in.

But Jeez, I sure have a lot of work to do.

Another Project

Well, I managed to get another project crossed off of my todo list.

A while back I dropped my camera and spent too much money getting it fixed. I didn’t want to do that again, plus I wanted some way to carry my camera around with the extra lenses (I always seem to have the wrong lens when I’m out taking pictures).

So I looked around at hard, fitted cases and they simply were too expensive. So I did what I always do – make do with what I can come up with myself, no matter how crappy it is.

I dumpster dived a hard plastic case. I don’t even know what was in it, maybe a drill or something, but by the time I found it, there was nothing left. That works for me – it was tough, in good shape, generic looking, and about the right size.

So I went by the local arts and crafts superstore and bought a roll of foam. Some outlining with a sharpie, cutting, and a little glue and I have my custom fitted case. It will hold my Nikon and a couple of extra lenses. It’s small enough to fit in a backpack, but has enough space for extra batteries, filters, release cable… that sort of little thing.

It doesn’t look very good, but I think it will work.


Sunday Snippet – The Iceberg

(click to enlarge) "Approaching Storm" by Claude-Joseph Vernet, Dallas Museum of Art

The river was teeming with plump fish. Today would have been a good catch. The storm blowing in from the sea will put an end to that. Dorothy came down with baby Aaron to warn us, wearing her favorite red dress. She’s holding him as he squirms, he wants to play with the fish. John and I are down on the rocks working, trying to get the day’s catch gutted and put up before the rain starts, while the rest pull in the nets. A stray dog is barking as Donna fights with the mule, the animals know what’s up and want to go home now, instead of helping us with our load.

A sudden flash startles me and I look up to see a giant bolt of lightning scream down at an angle from the glowering cloud. It strikes the city, golden in the distance. The sky has darkened leaving the cream limestone of the city’s domes and towers to almost glow in the last free rays of sunlight. A while later the thunder careens down the valley, distant booming echoes coming off the giant rocky crag of Gray Mountain behind the city and from the walls of the canyon itself.

Above me, high on the canyon walls is the Duke’s estate. New luxurious stone buildings built around the ancient ruins of a ruined castle. Since the Duke built the new tollbridge by the city, his fortune has increased tenfold. A lone figure, one of the Duke’s men, looks down, high overhead from the old ivy-covered tower. He is probably watching the boats; some nobles were out for a day on the river and were caught by the sudden wind. They are heading back in their carriage, leaving the boatmen to struggle with their craft.

The storm is building, piling up upon itself, towering overhead like an angry giant. The wind whips even wilder, I can smell hard rain approaching, the flashes of lightning come faster now. My excitement is beginning to be tainted by fear; the old highway back to the city runs along the canyon bed, under the stone arch; and even with the mule helping with the nets the storm will be strong upon us before we reach the bridge. The tumbling cataracts here in the last stretch before the sea can rise up quickly, many travelers have been engulfed, with their destination in plain sight.

I look at Dorothy and little Aaron, Donna and the mule, the netmen; all looking to me for guidance. I should have known this storm was blowing up, should have stopped work sooner, should….

Jim was jolted out of his reverie my something moving across his field of vision. Something thin, dark; something slinky, something sexy. He felt her in his gut even before he even really figured out what had startled him. The young woman walked by between his bench and the painting; his head turned to follow as she passed on by the big oils of landscapes and ocean scenes down the room and back several hundred years to painted scenes of Christ on the cross.

She was wearing a short black dress, black stockings, and her long dark hair poured over her shoulders. Her face… her skin was as pale as a cold egg. She carried a little notebook and a thick textbook; she must be here with a college class. She was young and thin and tall, moved with a nervous jumpy weightless ease, flitting along from painting to painting like a colt.

Jim stood from the bench and let out an audible sigh. It was time to go findShelby. He preferred the old masters, paintings that looked like something, art that told a story. He had been sitting on a padded bench in front of a Claude-Joseph Vernet painting, “Approaching Storm” for over half an hour.

His wife liked the modern stuff. He knew what gallery she’d be in. With another sigh he set off.





Elmore Spencer has climbed the mountain of the art world. From a child prodigy that startled adults with his sketching skills at the age of six to a celebrated student of the Paris art schools to a meteoric rise to the jet-setting toast of the New York Art Society, Spencer has had it all.

Instrumental in founding the “New Realism” school, he then rejected this return to “Painting that looks like something” and veered off into innovative artistic experiments that challenged the border between art and observer, maintaining his success and popularity through it all.

Now, he struggles with a return to his roots, to maintain the connection with his audience that he feels his decades of success have cost him. The conflict of the avant-garde and the traditional, realistic and symbolic, is at the heart of what Spencer is up to now.

“It’s been a long road, but I’ve been lucky,” Spencer said in a recent interview, “To others its seems like a climb, a rise, but to me it feels like a spiral, the further I go, the more times I return to the same places.”

His newest installation in the Checkwith Gallery of the Kooning museum communicates that duality in Spencer’s own way. A large room in the gallery has been darkened, a dual-sided screen has been installed in the center of the room, along with two digital television projectors and a powerful sound system.

A film plays on this screen; a man walks from the murky distance, approaching the screen in slow motion. The man stands for a minute, then, on one side of the screen a small flame appears at his feet. The flames slowly grow until the man in engulfed. Finally he disappears in a massive wall of fire.

On the other side of the screen the same man is assaulted by drops of water falling from high overhead which increase in frequency and volume until they become a torrent falling. The water slows and stops and the man is gone.

Meanwhile the speaker system booms out the sound of water falling, the sound of roaring flame. It is interesting to note that both sounds are the same.

The film installation is work of art in itself, many, if not most, visitors assume that it is the artwork. With his playful genius, Spencer has visualized this darkened room as a controlled setting for his real art. He has constructed a series of twelve sculptures, to be placed into the area on a rotating basis.

One sculpture is a pair of lovers, constructed of modern materials, rugged and realistic. They sit on a bench in the darkest corner of the film room, they are only visible during the peak of the flame portion of the film, illuminated by the fire on the screen. They are locked in a kiss, an embrace, his hand is slipped inside her shirt, hers rests on his thighs. The museum receives dozens of complaints on the days this sculpture is set out.

Another sculpture is a mechanical museum guard. He stands inside the room. When the guard is present the film is turned off. Infrared proximity sensors pick up any patron that enters the room; and after a delay, the ersatz guard plays a recording, “I don’t know, they’re supposed to have turned the film on by now.”

Some of the sculptures placed in the room are designed to look at home there, others, such as the murder victim, placed in the corner with a knife protruding from his back like from a cheap detective movie, are obviously intended to shock or annoy. On certain days nothing is placed in the room, leading to a scene where patrons in the know walk around examining each other, trying to determine what is real and what isn’t.

Spencer has even been known to spend a day in his own installation, sitting on a bench with his famous sketchpad, drawing the reactions of the observers. This has been so successful; he has taken to walking around the museum sketching patrons looking at art.

“As artists we live for the people that look at our work, really. We never think about them, or study them, or try to incorporate their lives into the art itself. I want to change that…….”



She turned from the painting, a huge panel covering most of the wall, hand painted with extreme skill to look like a blow-up of an article from a art magazine, to see her husband standing there.

“What do you want?”

“It’s time to leave.” Her husband looks at his watch. She thinks he always is looking at his watch.

“I’m not finished reading this.”

“What the hell is that? What’s it supposed to mean? Might as well go home and read the paper.”

“It’s by Spencer, My Life, it’s called. I haven’t decided what it means yet.”Shelbyfelt anger welling up in her throat. She’s known James, her husband, her love, since they were children and had been angry many times over the many years, but nothing like lately. She could feel a fight coming on, a mean and nasty fight, and one with no resolution.

When they were young, when they were first married they would argue, like all newlyweds, like all friends. It would end quickly, though, with both giving in. The next day the argument would seem so silly.

Now, though, they fight, and the fights never end. They taper off into silence and simply flare up again at the next conflict, the next insult. She could feel the heat rising, like a hot nut right under her sternum.

“Come on!” Jim said, placing his hand on her arm, “We have things to do.”

Shelbywanted to explode, but the twentieth century gallery at the Kooning museum was not the place to have a knock-down, drag-out, so she walked stiffly in silence, stewing. They passed through room after room, moving back in time towards the rear entrance until they reached an area dominated by a huge landscape painting; the most famous work in the museum. It was a scene of icebergs, a giant white slope, begging for footprints, a brown and purple timeless sky. The ice in the foreground was littered with debris, a shattered mast, a glacier torn boulder. The ice rose in craggy veined cliffs all around pierced by an emerald green frozen tunnel, a mystery. The calm sea was disturbed only by circular waves radiating out from some unseen event.

She could not stand it any more, she was so furious.Shelbypulled away and sat quickly down on the circular bench. Jim sat down beside her, staring wide-eyed. Pulling in her anger, she started to speak.

“Jim I…”

“Excuse me, folks,” said a man they hadn’t noticed. He was gray-haired, wearing old jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. He was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall under a Thomas Dougherty landscape, a large sketchpad resting on his knees. “Do you mind sitting there for a while, I’d like to draw the two of you. If you don’t mind.”

Jim stammered, “Well, we have…”

“Sure, go right ahead,”Shelbyinterrupted.

“Alright then, umm. turn toward each other a little, now look at me…. Fine, why don’t you hold her hand a little…. That’s right.”

He started in drawing right away. Working with colored pencils and some charcoal and a bit of an eraser. Jim and Shelby felt nervous; the fight, their day quickly forgotten.

“Ummm… try to relax, why don’t you tell me a story. Tell me about when you first met.”

“Well,” Jim started.Shelbywas surprised that he spoke up so soon. She was getting ready to talk, but he beat her to it.

“We met in junior high school, seventh grade, we were both thirteen. She sat if front of me inEnglish class. I remember, I loved her from the first moment I saw her. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Our teacher was old, he would lean on a podium and lecture us all class long. The room was too small, our desks were crammed together, her seat backed right up against my desk. All I would do is sit there and stare atShelby’s hair. Her blonde hair. Sometimes she’d wear it down and it would fall in cascades right in front of me. Sometimes she’d wear it up, like a golden seashell, a yellow spiral. Sometimes in one ponytail, sometimes two, it didn’t matter. That was my favorite hour of every day, to sit in that hot crowded room and look atShelby’s hair. I felt like I could do this forever, for the rest of my life.”

Shelby and Jim sat there then and talked. They talked of old times, when they were young and when they started dating. They talked of old friends. They talked of their first apartment, of their first house, of the cars they had bought together, of the meals they had cooked, of the vacations they had taken. They forgot about the artist, ignored him until he finished. He put his pencils back into a little wooden case.


“Well, can we see it?” they asked together.

“See it? You can have it.”



He handed them the paper and thanked them simply. The artist walked around the corner and was gone.

The drawing had the iceberg painting in the background. Carefully done in colored pencil and pastel chalk it was amazingly detailed and accurate. He must have been working on it for hours. The painting, or, rather the drawing of the painting faded in an oval spot near the center. He drew only around the edges, leaving a blank spot, waiting as he drew for someone to come along and fill it.

Shelby and Jim now occupied the oval. She gasped as she saw it. It was a life-like drawing, done mostly in pencil and charcoal, cross-hatch and shades of gray, only a hint of color added. Detailed. It was realistic except that they both were drawn naked.

Jim looked at the drawing of his wife’s breasts, at their intertwined hands. Shelby, at her husband’s naked body. She was shocked when she noticed that the artist had drawn in the patches of hair across Jim’s chest exactly right. The lower right corner had a quickly scribbled “ES.”

They suddenly noticed that over a dozen people surrounded them. They must have walked up to watch the famous artist work, but Jim and Shelby had not even noticed. Embarrassed by the gathering crowd pointing to details on the sketch, they rolled up the drawing, and headed out to their parked car. They held hands as they walked,Shelbyleaned her head on Jim’s shoulder as he drove.

They spent some money to have the print professionally framed and mounted at a shop across town that handled fine art works. Never really comfortable with the nudity, they couldn’t hang it in their living room. The framer recognized the signature, told them it would bring in tens of thousands of dollars, especially with the story of the sitters. He recommended a gallery. Even though they could really use the money, Jim and Shelby couldn’t sell it. It meant too much to them. They did hang it, in their bedroom, next to the closet.

For many decades, until the days of their death it was the last thing the saw at night when they went to sleep, the first thing in the morning when they woke up.

(click to enlarge) "The Icebergs" by Fredrick Church, Dallas Museum of Art