Hell’s Gate Illuminated: A Tribute to Paul Oberst by Kathy Weinberg

above: Paul Oberst, Studio shot

When people talk about tragic events they often start with where they were and what they were doing as if by introducing the mundane back-story one could perform some crude magic and reverse the outcome. What this does is illustrate how our pact with the continuity of things has been ruptured and forever altered.

We follow our trail of breadcrumb memories, back to the time before.

I was on my couch when I heard the election results. The night before I went to bed with the stock market crashing, globally, and an electoral map turning red, like a wound, across the country.

One month later I drove into Manhattan at sunset with my husband. An oppressive, solid, cloudbank was low in the sky. Stopped in a long chain of traffic, we sat while the sun edged through from under the clouds. The city was backlit, darkened, and the low angle of the orange sun made harsh silhouettes out of the rows of cars, metal shells—the shadows between objects were like chasms. Looking to our left, there on the Major Deegan Expressway, Hell’s Gate Bridge was illuminated and glowing against the grey black world around. “An Apocalyptic sunset,” we agreed.

Did I remember then how the morning began when the handle on a full cup of coffee broke just as I handed it to my husband? Or did I remember that later, when all things became signs and portents.

Paul Oberst, Installation

That same night, just before midnight, an old friend had just left after a long dinner. My husband checked his phone because a call came through during the meal. We were sleepy, happy, tipsy—in good spirits. He listened to the message. “Its Simone,” he said and we both looked puzzled, she did not usually contact us. Our relationship to her was with, and through, Paul Oberst—Simone was Paul’s former wife, current friend, partner and collaborator. “She said to call as soon as I got this message,” he said, “is it too late?”

It was too late. We have never called anyone at midnight. But sensing, already, that this was not a usual call, without hesitation, I said no, it was not too late. I never say that. We were less sleepy, less tipsy.

What follows are images, both of us pacing, my husband just holding the phone, not speaking, then sitting down on the edge of the bed, silent and listening to the voice on the other end. “What is it?” I mouthed at him. “The worst,” he mouthed back, and kept listening, his eyes had the same look as on the day he saw the World Trade Center hit by the second plane, and then both towers crumble, from our rooftop, less than a half mile away.

Even then I did not know what I believed the worst to be. A dark road, a deer leaping flashed through my mind. A state of profound ignorance enveloped me. A few moments later I mouthed, “An accident?” now wide-awake and sober. He made one gesture that said it all, a common gesture children use: an extended thumb and forefinger pointed at his temple. It was no accident, and it was irrevocable.

Did I sleep or just lie in bed drifting in fragmented thoughts? The next morning I began to look through my correspondence with Paul, wondering what our last conversations had been, what had we been saying, were there signs? Certainly signs could now be seen in retrospect, signs that were obscured by the light of reason and belief in positive solutions to everyday or unexpected problems. And always, always assuming that despair was not an option.

I began slowly at first, and then methodically, to compile my email exchanges with Paul into a document. Starting at the beginning, following many twists of threads and tangents often several threads at a time. Over the course of hours, then days, I transcribed an 800-page document that spanned four years. My husband has a similar collection. During those years we also regularly shared studio visits and meals where we talked and carried on the conversations in person. Our correspondence covered a range of topics and moods from thoughtful and philosophical to silly, from analytic to bitchy, sometimes gossip, often poetic, ending days before my friend killed himself, and just as I arrived in New York.

Paul Oberst, studio

What does this number, 800, mean to me in an age where numbers work at cross-purposes—Popular Vote vs. Electoral College? Paul had friends he had known for thirty years, or fifteen, one friend never met him but exchanged a meaningful note that moved her. And then there is his artwork, compiled and filling a measured space in the new studio he was building. His recent video had him measuring a section of beach. Numbers represent a need repeated, like three meals a day, or two aspirin.

To me the numbers meant continuity. Daily, and often several times daily, our emails exchanges became a voice narrating our lives. Paul, being a few years older, often took on a role of older brother, sage advisor and flat-out cheerleader. My correspondence with Paul continues now in my head, some days narrating events, describing an exhibit, something I read, or a fleeting thought. And times all I can say is “Dear Paul,” followed by a long silence, concluding with “Love Kathy.” Sometimes I repeat these lines, over and over, like a mantra.

Paul Oberst

We do not know what the next four years will bring. Hunter S. Thompson killed himself at the start of the second Bush term; despair set in even when his voice would have been helpful to counter what was to come. Paul’s abrupt departure took some of the light out of the room at a time when we feel dark forces gathering. Will I look back to the events of this time and read them like tea leaves, an oracle, as a prophecy? Whatever is to come, I will always look back on this moment in time as silhouetted by a late fall sunset, not shedding light, but casting darkness and deepening shadow. A time when Hell’s Gate was illuminated.

Paul Oberst, studio

 

Letters and fragments

from Paul Oberst to Kathy Weinberg

October 25, 2016

Sure is gorgeous at this moment with this sunrise. I just walked down the drive to appreciate my humongous pile of firewood. I can’t believe I have done that in such order. My peacock tail was in full display as I walked by it and picked up a stray stick to throw in the stove, which is stoked and running at this very moment. Life is good and graceful at this very moment.

Have a lovely day creating and being.

Paulo

February14, 2016

As for success, I was most successful as a child. All I really want and need to do is play like that and all is fine, and I do that at times and am going to work a lot harder at it from now on out. I think our culture is insane and at times I think somehow I am supposed to heal it. That is not possible. I can do a little counseling, I can be a shaman in the studio, and I can hang with my buds tearing it all asunder over a meal and drinks. And you know what. That is mighty fine my dear. Chin up. P

January 25, 2016

I’m caught in these streams of thought that are along the lines of, “Now why is it that this really matters?” I look around and for the most part I have rather efficiently organized my life and creations. Again the question is raised “Why?” It only matters if I am inspired. And I have been so inspired in this life. But I have learned not to avoid this current form of questioning knowing full well that such matters are best penetrated and explored fully.

L, P

May 29, 2015

Dear Kathy, You know, no matter how hard one works in an alternative way to one’s nature, the truth of one’s nature always comes through. I have always been drawn to black and to the mysterious. Death has always been fascinating to me. Even though I do banded poles of lovely colors, they suggest passage…passage to what, through what. The answer, LIFE. Back to the mystery, back to black. I take a set of dice and photograph them…dice, game! Light subject! Wrong! Luck. Death. Life.

I swear. It is insane. Kathy, when the dice are blown up…any of the out of focus images, the resulting mist of jet sprayed fine ink is so gorgeous my jaw drops…if only Seurat could have seen this printing…he would have stopped painting.

What a stunning day! Peggy Lee is in the background singing, but I can hardly hear her today.   Paulo

May 27, 2015

Art is so damned hard. It is exactly like life. And at times it is so flawlessly graceful. Remember the Barnes Collection tour. Imagine the struggles that went into the creation of all those works. Imagine the struggles to exhibit it all! Sobering. It is like walking this warrior’s path of heart. Not for the faint of heart. But, there is no choice.

Paulo

May 26 2015

There is a song by Peggy Lee that goes “Is that all there is to—“. And it goes from her childhood up to her mature years and then reflection on life at the very end. Is that all there is to a circus, is that all there is to life, etc. So, Simone and I call such days as today, “A Peggy Lee Day.” … It is irrational, art. IT defies logic. I defy logic.

December 13, 2014

Kathy my dear, one could argue that I am an arrogant son of bitch about my art….and the art of my friends. I just feel that what we are doing is sacred work, pure and simple. As long as it is sacred and speaks to the great and noble longings of humanity and creation, then the art world can kiss my scrawny ass. Their loss…surely not mine because I am making the shit no matter what. Sacred Shit. We make this shit because it brings balance to the world because creation deems it necessary to do so because it is the nature of our nature in resonance with nature.

July 9, 2013

Okay the gardens are now in peak performance…the fireworks of plant blossoms…the Day Lilies and the lavender spiked native Maine flowers and Black Eyed Susan. The Hosta is starting to bloom and so much more. The day lily are over 5 feet tall and each year get taller. The last picture is taken from the enclosed porch above the entrance door. Eventually the garden may all displace me.

Paulo

December 12, 2013– Part of a poem, in a letter

Most appreciative

I am most appreciative of the moments

(I was going to say time

but it wasn’t time.

Such events are moments

we string together like beads on a rosary.)

Such moments are prayer.

Sunset, December 2, 2016

 

Paul Oberst
January 11, 1955 – December 2, 2016