Ever since Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses, gave the wax tablet to mortals,
memory, writing and technology have been interconnected.
—Carolyn Guertin

Emerald Green

The ghost in the machine was doing a clever bit of DJing this morning. Kate Bush’s “An Architect’s Dream” was followed by The Books’ “Venice”. Why clever? Both songs are about making art outside, en plein air.

The Books found a gem of a vocal sample on an old LP, then laid a loop of bass and plucked kalimba tongs beneath for just the right touch of whimsy and intrigue. In the sample, an American reporter narrates as Salvador Dali paints outside on a Venetian plaza. There is crowd noise and reaction in the background—this is all happening in the middle of pigeons and tourists. Over the kalimba loop, the reporter begins in a formal, bygone, Walter Cronkite tone:

Reporter: Maestro, as you paint this picture would you tell me what…what’s going on in your mind?

Dali: Now the cross, the mystical vertical cross.

Reporter [for his audience]: Out of black paint, a cross comes down from the top left hand side of the canvas.

But the objective description loosens as he is drawn in, child-like, by the unfolding suspense of Dali’s brush. Before long, he’s yanked in to the act of painting itself—no longer a spectator, but a participant.

Reporter: [Dali] has just thrown a bunch of gold paint which has not only hit me in the face, but has gone across the canvas to the applause of the crowd below…The canvas and the photographers are covered with paint. I might add, its black paint and gold paint on a white canvas…That was a big splash of paint!

The maestro has more surprises in store for our reporter and the crowd, but I don’t want to ruin your fun in hearing this track for the first time…so go pick up a copy of The Books’ Lost and Safe!

In “An Architect’s Dream,” Kate Bush sings of watching a sidewalk painter. She’s drawn to the flow of entwining lines—the limbs of two lovers.

Curving and sweeping

Rising and reaching

I could feel what he was feeling

But when the artist laments, “It’s raining…what has become of my painting?” as his work is rearranged by a storm, the music moves seamlessly into “The Painter’s Link”, in which Bush joyfully extols the wash of colors, as beautiful as any formalized art.

The juxtaposition of these two songs got me thinking: There’s something akin to walking a tightrope in doing art outside, exposing yourself to whims of nature and the judgment of any passer-by. A balance must be struck between the private dream and its public display. While it’s not performance art, the act of art becomes an art in itself .

Then there are the physical hazards: wind, sunburn, bug bites, downpours. A muralist friend, Kim Polomka, said he was pelted with fruit while working on his latest installment in Colorado Springs. I’m sure this was a prank and not a comment on the excellent quality of the work, but, ironically, the subject of the mural is food.

We writers sit in the dark corners of wireless saturated cafes, typing and scribbling, looking out the window with our soft daydream gazes. I suppose that’s a sort of display. But the immediate results of these doings are not public. There’s always the safety net waiting below. We can rework, revise, or simply recycle.

And, yes, there’s the improvisational nature of poetry slams, jams, and jazz.

But none of these is quite as enthralling, quite as suspenseful, as watching a visual artist conjure something to life before our eyes. Why? I think it’s because our own observation becomes part of the process of creation. We participate in the movement of chalk, the splashes of paint, the running of colors.

This is reality-bending, daring, on-the-edge art. You’re walking along, minding your own business, then whoosh!, you’re confronted with a gaping hole where terra firma should be. You’re sucked in by a riptide of energy, pulled along by its inexorable current—the same current the artist is riding.

Rafting by Julian Beever

"Rafting"--sidewalk art by Julian Beever

Art en plein air is a reminder: Stop being a spectator all the time. Occasionally make yourself vulnerable to the opinions of strangers, to the elements, to free fall. Like Icarus, defy the everyday with brazen, waxen wings.

Recommended listening:

  • Kate Bush—“An Architect’s Dream,” from Sky of Honey, off the double album Aerial

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