Collagraphs

A timeless meander and proto-blog

On leaving home for the first time at the ripe and wizened age of 19, I found myself in school at what then was called USC-Coastal, a few miles south of Conway and a few miles north of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. There will be a blog one day which tells the story of happenstance along the coast, and how this relocation came to be. But for now, it is simply a tale of a young kid looking for his own space, his own life, and in a place that was, at the time, one of the most happening places in the state.

So it was that this collagraph plate came into being just before my 20th birthday, after having experimented with linocuts, woodcuts, etchings, and lithographs. Suddenly, the idea of collaging a flat surface into something which could make multiple images took hold, and I was off and running on this piece. I was frugal with school work at that time, and used a project for a photography class as the base image for this work. Just a few weeks before, I had returned home to my hometown of Kershaw, South Carolina to interview some people for an English class (more commandeering of frugality) and had taken off through the country to shoot images for a photography project, all the while helping my parents hang wallpaper in a large old home in Bethune, SC that weekend. You see, the interdisciplinary mode of making art had taken root already, and multitasking was alive and well before anyone had ever heard that word. None of these ideas were intended, of course. The truth was, I was scrambling to get all things done under a wealth of conflicting deadlines.

By the first week in November, there I was, pondering the concept of collagraphy. Procrastination had also reared it’s ugly head, so this problem had to be solved pronto. On bumping elbows in the small photography darkroom with four other students gifted in the art of procrastination, I realized that this image of my shadow cast upon the waters of Hanging Rock Creek from an old timbered bridge nine feet above the swift golden current, which was not exactly making a great photograph, would however make a hell of a subject for a print.

And so it was that the plate you see below came into being in early November of 1975. I’m surprised it, like me, has survived all the moves, road trips, and travails of life, from coast to coast, oceans to mountains, mountains to desert, in the last 49 years. I re-discovered it in a cluster of Russian nested packing boxes in 2011, on arriving in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I am not kidding—after opening a series of boxes, all dog-eared and becoming progressively older with each discovery of yet another box packed away, there was this box which dated from 1980. The year Ronald Reagan was elected. Jimmy Carter was still president at the time it was packed, and he was first elected the second year I was at Coastal.

This dense chipboard plate was a relic of a life led long ago, an idea hatched before corrugated amber entrapped my creative solution for surviving a long weekend earning money for further adventures along the Grand Strand; out-maneuvering project deadlines, and finally resulting in 10 or 12 debossed prints from this plate, not one of which I still have. I was uncovering my own artifact. This is, really, what Life is, if one considers the subject long enough, for we do seem to leave a stream of consciousness behind us, diaphanous relics which survive us long after we have forgotten the events of earlier decades. Long after we have molted our previous incarnations of consciousness.

The original title of “The Stranger,” which came to me as I shot my own shadow on the surface of Hanging Rock Creek, seemed to record well the feelings I had of returning to my family’s homeplace. I had indeed felt like a stranger in a strange land on that return. Walking the same hills after the fading of Autumn was an exercise in remembrance of my father’s people, and all the stories he had told me of his kin and friends as he grew up “out there,” just three miles from Kershaw. He had sold the land that year to a neighboring farmer, at great cost to his own legacy of memories and sense of self, in order to finance a dream my mother and sister had woven together in a delicate dance of conflicting goals. He had not set foot back out there yet, since the sale, but had continued working at DuPont, as he had for many years, returning home at around 5:15 each afternoon to start his second shift as a framer in their triadic new endeavor. We called it, “the shop.” Such a simple word, a simple name for such a complex and life-altering endeavor. While Dad loved making the frames, he never forgot the land, but rarely would ever visit it again for the many, many years he lived after parting with it. The owl tattoos I wear today represent all that which I learned from my father in all those days of growing up in his presence, and feeling often the infectious ebullience of his state of grace as he communed with those breathing acres.

When in doubt, appropriate

We were both then, in a manner of speaking, strangers to that which we had both always known as belonging to us, and of us belonging to it. “It” being that land, those waters, and the dark swamps that lay over the three ridges inside the heavily timbered, old-growth watershed valley. These were the thoughts which reconciled into a title for a print which was not yet conceived; for it was the mediocre photograph which bore the title first. Only upon it’s less-than-golden-birth in that crowded and frenzied darkroom, the photograph, while laying hours later upon a stool by the worktable on which I was creating this collagraph plate upon, did the title truly come home, and was appropriated without hesitation for the soon to arrive sequence of prints.

It was luck-of-the-draw that my photography professor was also my printmaking professor, and she cackled heartily when I presented the completed prints, just two more than the required ten to warrant a baseline requisite for each print we made that semester. I had pulled 12, as a dozen meant I was to have two more to trade. Maybe. Potentially. By the end of the printmaking class critique, I had traded four of them to fellow classmates, for that had become the norm for that group of artists-to-be that year. One went to my father, who framed and hung it in his frame shop studio for years. He knew it’s backstory, and what it as an image represented. It was the last of these prints I was to ever see, before it faded into our own collective histories. Over the next week, three more were used as legal tender to get three more works of art from my peers.

Ocean Music Studio, Myrtle Beach SC

And so it was by the making of those collagraphs I came to be employed by the Cribb brothers, who owned a music store in the only section of Myrtle beach proper which is still standing, for all the rest of the old core city has gone the way of skyscrapers which loiter about like so many Las Vegas-Lite casinos. However, in 1975, there was the old newspaper just around the corner from this music store. I had landed a job as a stat camera operator for the paper, only to spend more time in that other store, which sold guitars, which gradually lured me from the dungeon darkroom of the paper into a much less well-paying job for the Cribb brothers. They couldn’t afford an employee, so my salary was zero dollars a week, but in a very cool and highly trafficked store.

Ah, but there was a bennie. I could hang my art on their walls and sell it, without a commission to them, which was an enlightening little side trip. Once this was an option, I hung a few framed pieces on their walls, and the remaining four of “The Stranger,” along with a large pastel I’d made of Bob Dylan, sold that month. When I did the math, I was earning more selling art and working for the Cribb brothers for free than I earned in the newspaper dungeon stat lab.

“Ghosted Stranger,” an edition of 25 collagraphs from the shoulders of the Great Smoky Mountains, in the wet, and in the cold of those clouds which seem never to dissipate and allow the sun to do what suns should do.

In the latter part of 2018 I was in Whittier, North Carolina at the home of a dear friend and family member, who happens to be a very gifted writer, visual artist, and handmade book artist. She and her partner had gravitated to Iowa for the holidays, and their collection of orchids needed tending. Best yet, they have real internet, high-speed even, and that had been (and still is at present) a luxury during my stay in South Carolina. A chance to work on a website was nigh. But for years, I’d been wanting still to revisit this old plate I had made in college. Thanks to Lauren Faulkenberry, I was able to ink this plate once again, but with a much different view to it’s meaning today.

That golden creek, that waterway which had fed my forebears’ homeplace and their old gristmill for a century earlier, lies greater than a thousand arms lengths from reach, yet some nights I can still hear the two species of owls calling out their nightly claims; their territorial imperative displayed audibly on the slow evening breezes, which would only then on the morrow change yet again with the vagaries of the music of hoots. My father had told me of these raptors’ staking out their nightly hunting grounds first when I was only six years old, seated beside him on the great rocks along the ridge of the back side of our farm in the darkened gloaming, allowing what always seemed to me a titan’s view of the entire watershed valley between our perch and the town of Kershaw. One can not photograph such things. Even by recording the sounds of such things, the larger meaning can not be grasped. Only the greater effect of being in such a presence experientially has the minutest chance of indelibly anointing our souls to that part of a world which can never die.

View the gallery page on which the “Ghosted Stranger” prints will soon be posted. It’s not quite there yet, as I’m still building it. It will come, just like the Cornfield baseball league in Iowa.