I made this print on commission from Kate Riley. She said she wanted something for her best friend Nora. Nora’s favorite story is the Parable of the Prodigal Son a.k.a. the Running Father from the Bible. I read Henri Nouwen’s book about Rembrandt’s painting of the story. It gave me a lot to think about in terms of my own family and the human family more generally. I made two new carvings, which you see repeated in the bottom of the print. Both are self portraits from photographs, one laughing, one crying. The other images are assembled from blocks I had made in the past: a tree, some people in the Siberian landscape of my memories, and a visual feast of food within a house frame, from the recent print project “the Land Gives…” The original text in this piece I did by hand in oak gall ink. I made it in an edition of three. One went to Nora, and I have two left.
Cloud City is an imagined utopia somewhere out there… A collaboration with Huong Ngo and numerous participants…
1. Before the Revolution
In the days before our independence was won, people would wake up in the morning and look out the window or turn on the radio, and already they would know exactly what was going to happen that day. Everything was excruciatingly boring in those days. No surprises, no mysteries, no suspense. It was a vapid, mechanical way of life. Every day, we dressed appropriately. We brought an umbrella at 30%, we wore rubber boots at 70%, and at 100% we just stayed home. Our picnics and vacations were planned to the utmost detail, cancellations performed days if not weeks in advance. Weather reports ruled our lives.
Bit by bit, a small enclave of dissenters formed.
“No more!” said the little boy with silver hairs of lightning to his father who forced him to wear a raincoat.
“No more!” said the little girl with a heart of thunder to her mother, who insisted she stay indoors and play with her dolls.
The two brave souls ventured out, unintimidated by the slight possibility of a sudden thunderstorm with a chance of hail. They told the gentle man with a mustache of blue who ran the corner store, the little old lady with twinkly toes who tended her garden below, and even some local toughs stealing rainbows from the sky. No more would they endure the oppression of predictable weather patterns. The gentle man with a mustache of blue, the old woman with twinkly toes, and even the toughs with hearts in their eyes took to the streets, following the little boy and the little girl, and thus the revolution began.
2. The Commune
It started out harmlessly enough. A few puddle jumpings here and there, quietly, when no one was looking. But gradually these rebels were forced to adopt harsher tactics, in the face of rapidly increasing consistency. Rain dances quickly became blood baths. Umbrellas were booby-trapped and sunglasses outfitted with sophisticated tracking mechanisms. There were many such examples of grotesque terror – even suicidal monsoon missions that left many a father and mother weeping buckets.
The corner store on Eagle Street, run by the gentle man with the mustache of blue, became their regular meeting place. Under the cover of night, Lightning and Thunder (as the little boy and girl came to be called), clapped and banged at the back door of the shop, signaling their arrival. Every week, there were new recruits. One meeting in particular our elders still remember well. The forces were joined that night by Dew and Frost, who nearly disappeared in the heat of the glowing fire whilst removing their cloaks.
The girl with a heart of thunder spoke first. “You have all risked much to come here, but is it not adventure, excitement, life – real life – that we seek in our rebellion from our former boring existence?”
This gave the group pause. The little boy with lightning hairs spoke next:
“The rain can only touch those with fire in their hearts!”
The message was enigmatic, but effective. The room filled with applause. Committees formed and important goals were drawn:
We must vanquish Predictability!
We must defeat Boredom!
We must restore Impermanence!
We must replace all the ice cream bars in our host’s freezer case! We’ve eaten him clean out of stock what with all these planning meetings!
The growing band of guerilla revolutionaries, our esteemed forebears, became obsessed with their quest for spontaneity to be reintroduced to the lifeways of the earth. As their wills hardened, their organization grew denser and more cunning. An immense network of spies and informants spread out from the commune on Eagle Street that was the heart and soul of the project for a future of free floating. Eventually the web of dissent covered the entire globe like a dense fog, continuously shifting with the breezes and tides, adopting new sympathizers and strategies with the speed of an avalanche.
3. Civil War
At last, the leaders of the newly christened Organization For The Ideological Supremacy And Free Formation Of All Life As Clouds Floating In The Blue Sky (OFTISAFFOALACFITBS) declared all out war on the pervasive systems of attention to detail that subjected them to such intolerable exactness.
Alas, the revolutionary group quickly grew far too large, and it was plagued by incestuous bickering. New leaders had emerged through the complex process of global expansion, and any notion of the sanctity of life had long since ceased to concern them. Plus their acronym was pretty hard to remember.
Frost (along with Dewdrop, his squint-eyed lackey) was the leader of one extremist faction forging artificial glaciers across the entire Southern Hemisphere and even venturing into warm valleys elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Sunbeam the Wicked, as he was called, developed ever grimmer reflectivity technologies with which to terrorize the poles and mountaintops.
The two factions overlapped and undid each other’s work repeatedly in a farce of disgrace. The original ideals the revolutionaries had cherished so long were all but lost in the torrent of violence that pulled them forward with no end in sight.
But the little girl with the rumbling tummy and the little boy with flashing eyes never lost hope. This war was a terrible condition, but if they could just manage to pass through – beyond, across, over away, above – how great the reward must be. Thus they consoled themselves in the darkest hours, when even the flicker and spark of Lightning’s magic hair seemed to be fading.
The little girl fell asleep one night thinking, “Golly gee, if only we could get away from all this somehow. Have a fresh start.”
She had a prophetic dream that night, and in the dream a wise old blackbird with an Illinois accent told her about a place called Cloud City. “To get there all you have to do is clean out the fridge and throw a party to finish up all the leftovers,” croaked the blackbird. “Then sell everything you own, put the money in a ragbag, and go all the way to where the highway runs into the blue sky and then four hundred forty-four and one fourth ways beyond that. Give or take a mile.”
Knowing this the little girl named Thunder set off with the little boy, Lightning, followed by the faithful few: the store owner with the mustache of blue, the old lady with twinkly toes, and the band of toughs.
All of them had their money in ragbags to match their souls. Thunder had a loud rumbly one. Lightning’s was flashy and momentary. The store owner had a fuzzy blue ragbag that smelled of pipe tobacco. The old lady had pink polka dot sequins painted with nail polish on her ragbag. The toughs had plain black and blue ragbags hung on the end of a big stick.
Little Tough-Tough tired out first from swaggering too happily, so the old lady carried him on her belly back and the group moved on. They began to imagine what Cloud City must be like, and realized that each one had a different version!
Thunder saw bell towers clanging on every building and factories banging out drumsets and firecrackers. The streets were lined with balloons to pop as she strolled along.
Silver Lightning saw camera flashes, lines of string connecting person to person, with sparks from the bottom of their shoes that ignited at every step.
The blue mustachioed shopkeeper saw blind blues men with starry eyes on the corners and blue skies reflected in puddles of deep blue rainwater.
The little old lady saw nothing. She was in it solely for the adventure.
And the toughs saw misty dusks and dawns, perfect for ganging up on each other, lurking in alleys, and looking for trouble.
And so, clutching their visions close, they traveled to where the highway met the sky and on through, beyond, across, over away, above, until they came to Cloud City.
This was a wide-ranging project we did in 2009. At the core of it was growing a container garden on the roof of Huong Ngo’s studio.
It was part of an alternative pedagogy project she was organizing called Secret School. We started thinking about all the other secret gardens, the ones that you don’t even know are there, tucked away onto rooftops and hidden in backyards.
So we started organizing tours of the secret gardens. This was an especially cool one made by Brian Trzeciak. Later that summer his garden also hosted some great rooftop saunas that Anna Larson and I organized. Our goal with the tours was to build a community of secret gardeners, in which I’d say we were moderately successful.
We also made some mobile gardens, like this greenhouse built onto a tricycle. We left it locked up on the street and someone put a blue ribbon made out of masking tape on it. That made us very happy.
We made one on a red wagon too. Later on, we made the tricycle one nicer and it was part of a show called Bike Rides at the Aldrich Museum. After that it lived at the Red Shed Community Garden for awhile, and we used it for seed starting.
We were also working on seed saving, using these custom secret seed packets we made. We participated in a seed saving exchange organized by folks from the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, and also made an exhibition of seeds, along with other stuff from the project at NurtureArt, the local non-profit art space in our neighborhood.
Some of the seeds were from wild plants, which I have a special affection for. We made little origami boxes to display them in, and laid them out on a table. It looked like a cityscape. There was also soil in bags down below the table, our trust for the future, and other ephemera. Plus we made a twin watercolor drawing of some radishes we grew, and put that on the wall.
A related work was the Beeline Transit Map, a reimagining of the NYC subway map. It shows the routes that birds, bugs, and bees might take to get around the city, hopping from greenspace to greenspace, to point out how important those spaces are. We drew it by hand with watercolor and pencil.
We displayed a copy of it along with the seed saving stuff, but also had it at Smack Mellon for another art show. It was kind of funny, we hung it high up in the second story window, where it would be really hard for gallery visitors to look at, but easy for birds flying by. However, we did make a small nod to the flightless humans by providing binoculars. We also made a folding pocket-sized version of the map with folding binoculars, which you can buy at the Emporium.
Oh one more thing, there’s an anonymous article in an online magazine called the Highlights. It refers to our map as an example of “crapomimicry,” which apparently is a new word some crazy scientists were trying to get added to the dictionary. We wouldn’t know anything else about that, but if you click on the link and scroll down to “XII” you can read it for yourself.