Monday, January 26, 2009


A. L. Kroeber and Ishi

I've been asked what Nuukunui means. Nuukunui was made from Ukunui, the name of the Yokut-Yaudanchi encampment on the middle fork of the Tule River in California, as recorded in A. L. Kroeber's 1925 Handbook of the California Indians. Ukunui means 'to drink'.

When I traded a painting for a computer, I added Nu to Ukunui in a fit of romantic personalization and used the term for my email address.

It was not the first time I stole fire from the original human inhabitants of the region.

In the fall of 2000, inspired by friends with whom I was involved in local environmental and cultural endeavors, I painted a line of riverbed boulders with markings made to evoke and honor the spirit of older native designs, as an experiment towards the eventual installation of painted rocks 12 miles to the southwest along the frontage of what was once a state hospital for the tubercular. Parts of the hospital were designed by Julia Morgan; it now exists as a facility for seniors.

I had recently seen the caves at Peche-Merle in France. Awash in the magic of those images and intrigued by indigenous rock art nearer home, I set out to try my own hand at putting color and line to granite, and my mind to studies about the mysteries of the origins of art.

The mysteries still remain, and the final installation was never realized, but the experiment was made, I called it Nuukunui, and it still exists, just below the site of a battle of the Indian Wars, the 1856 fight at Battle Mountain on the north fork of the Tule River.

The photos were taken during the weeks spent painting Nuukunui. One day I'll return and see how they've weathered.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Three Dreams on the Same Rainy Night

Describe a dream, lose a reader, Harold Robbins used to say. But this one’s different. ~Elatia Harris
I dreamt I was on a boat. I dreamt it was a curious day of heavy weather. The torrent of rain brought a torrent of images, of faces and scenes swimming through my mind in an eerily familiar twilight without real morning, night or meaning and so disconnected me from action that I kept to the cabin with the sea dog curled in her bed and did nothing at all after cold-handedly wiping out the dismal, crook-nosed, dark portrait of X that had hung for a week in unfinished turmoil on the easel before the masthead, until Time, never letting go its constant grip kept hidden with a vengence in the chill watery gauze, rang five bells from the spire of New St. Vincent's and forced me from my bench to turn up the stove and re-heat the kettle of poi. When the cadence of the bubbling pot matched the tattoo of falling rain and the smell of boiling taro root rose and steam glistened the cabin-mold to the depth of a mirror, I lifted an old wooden spoon hand-turned 20 years before by its anonymous maker into a roughly hewn sigmoid curve, a utensil carried through my life as an icon of baroque memory, a spoon for stirring, left greasy on counters, never washed in a machine, an object held dear in drawers, saved in sea chests and packing crates through a maze of places, boats, ports and the kitchens of houses once called home where the closing sound of every door or hatch of each location still slams during the inconsistency of the night, or if sleep is easy, clicks securely shut with balanced weight - or more rarely- if a door is opening, as if X had returned unexpectedly, clicks in reverse and comes up the stairs on aural carpets unrolling on rocky steps in heavy seas and splashes the landing with the wing feathers of the dove.

I filled the spoon and brought it to the worn edges of my teeth, cooled it with a whistle, took a sip, wiped the drizzle from my beard and looked back to the canvas with its smeared mask of black and red and thought no more of lipstick, le chiffre or kohl, but of a time before X, and caught an image of still-life, of tangerines laid out in line on the felt of a billiard table with a clear-eyed icy pike hooked from the hoary lake where true winter first found me and caught me and moved me along to the castle in frozen awe, hurrying home, sliding along the dangerous promenade, soaked in a green doe skin jacket, blue jeans that would wait two years for embroidered patches, new cowboy boots never worn again, and the Genoan ensign's blouse traded for some spliff and my naked chest (Given freely!) to the boy in the corner, hours before, at the party Dad Renier gave one Christmas, for his mother and Petula Clark.

I dreamt the weather was worse, as bleak as the Christmas when every tree froze along the quay and sailors lit bank notes hanging from the branches to warm homeless-ones in their huts along the lake, the Christmas I'd left X alone with the seadog in the icy hold, shipped out on a grander boat and the spent the holiday at the castle white-washing the towers of every withered rose, daubing every espaliered bougainvillea thorn in every desiccated secret garden with a snow flake made of the coldest pewter, and tried to scratch the devil's face from every hot coin falling from the pockets of the dropped pants of aging rock stars and defaced every cent pouring from the unclasped purses of the hitched-up skirts of bent-over Age of Reason philosophers, erased the drawings of mad artists, tore pages from the notebooks of Russian novelists, and cheated croupiers, tripped retired ballerinas, cut the lines of water skiers, canceled agents, robbed hobby enthusiasts of glue, bakers of flour, wasted the expensive wine of generous patrons, and, in their nameless thousands, ignored the menu suggestions of waiters, left drivers un-tipped, denied shop girls the grace of a bon merci , hung up on receptionists, kicked window washers from their ladders, left a mess for cleaning women, laughed at carriage-less nannies, tongue-less Berlitz teachers, and the countless bezique players, florists and footmen standing on the shore in service to the memory of the exiled Queen of Spain, enslaved to their hunger, the complexities of modern life - and had painted, with wire bristles growing from the ends of my fingers, what I thought were sweet Deft tiles on porcelain light-switch plates meant for the gifts X boxed and wrapped and gave away to his needy crew.
Obama appeared at the hatch of my boat , the hatch opened, and the carpet rolled up the stairs. Obama woke the seadog and apologized to us both for already disappointing the world.
I asked Obama to come in from the rain. He came in, took off his coat and laid it across the billiard table . The silk lining of his coat was printed with faces, all those from the lake, and of Lincoln, JFK, Che Guevarra, Hillary Clinton, Matthew Shepard, Nina Simone, Johnny Cash, Coco Chanel, Cosette from Les Miserables, (her very image from the poster!), Queen Liliʻuokalani, a Guantanamo prisoner in flickering neon orange, X, and a thousand more, each of them speaking, or singing, or crying at once in tart atonal harmony.
And when Rod Serling passed the microphone from the little drummer boy to Farah Pahlavi she sang her song of revolution from the Imperial banquette at the foot of the Belle Epoch stage where Obama stood grinning, and he lit two cigarettes, handed me one, and asked me three questions:

When did I ever say I was the first black candidate?
When did I ever claim to be your savior?
When has criticism of me been forbidden?

I had no answers for Obama, told him so, and speaking softly from the projection booth told him Mr. Salazar was no gentleman not to remove his hat when introduced as designate for Secretary of the Interior, and hearing this, the multitude of characters swimming through my mind moaned like pixilated ghosts, all as one, in the antique voice of Marcel Proust, and scrambled up Obama's coat sleeves like rain drops reversing, and fell up from the castle into a clearing sky.

The weather eased, the seadog growled at a stuffed toy squirrel, and an invitation to a gay Hollywood wedding of came in the mail. X read it to me holding the spoon through the cloth of the lost portrait, and I played solitaire till I woke, losing game after game with a deck of religious cards that was missing the Jack o' Bamas.