Writer’s introductory note: Time sequences have been stirred like a pot, full of friends. After a long lifetime, we are “on a first-name basis.”
I don’t know what I would have done without these people. That’s a cliché, behind which lies ten thousand days of a life’s work, hit-and-miss attempts at soul-building, art-making and love-life. I’m writing too fast, so I’m leaving out the best parts. I’m just trying to give an idea of the kind of people it takes to help you find such a life of light as has been mine. Sometimes I feel guilty that I kept them all to myself. I use their first names, to protect the innocent. But you know most of them yourself, I am sure. Or many, many like them, I hope.
My wife and I were readying ourselves for an evening with Carlo, when we heard a great stampede of stomping feet, pounding up our narrow staircase. I answered a knock, and found just one man, standing in the doorway, tall and scrawny, with red-blonde hair. His eyes were alternately crazed and calm, as we exchanged names. He was Wally. He had been in Augusta, at the offices of the Maine State Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and they had given him information about our artists’ union. We told him we only had five minutes to spare—we had to go meet Carlo. Wally said that MSCAH had given him Carlo’s name too, but that he wouldn’t take much of our time. Two and a half hours later, he left, and we had become friends for life.
He had shown us his ringbinder with hundreds of slides of his sculpture. That was the first thing I learned from him: no matter how crazed or bohemian you were, present your work conventionally and well, if that is possible. If not, remain yourself. In any event, remain yourself. He said that he was an admirer of Rauschenberg—“obviously,” Wally said—but there was no mimicry. He clearly had his own way of seeing. Although educated, he was self-initiated, self-empowered by the work he had done, for which he had the required energy.
(He could take you through a serious philosophical exposition, into an almost howling excitement, in a matter of minutes, just the sort of person I’ve loved to “put in time with”). The night we met, we would no sooner finish one subject of conversation than one of us would bring on another, and we would be off on a tear (rhymes with “bear”) or, in my case, another tear (rhymes with “fear”).
In years to come, we spent many hours in gentle conversation and crazed self-historical hysteria. He is one of the men I’ve loved most dearly, and who would not say the same? For my needs, he always showed up at the right time, and always unexpectedly.
My son once confessed that as a boy, he never liked artists and poets. “They were always shouting and fighting.” They frightened him. I asked my friends if they recognized themselves in that description: a lot of arguments—but “No”—as Mark N. said, “of course not, that wasn’t our style.”
Then I realized that, if, at the age of three or four, my son had been present when Carlo or Wally were excited and holding forth on things seen and unseen, he might well have thought they were about to “step out on the green for a little knuckle-drill,” as my father used to say. But no, my son, there was never any knuckle-drill. We needed peace, time, and the inspiration of like-minded friends to get our work done.
That first night, after we had seen Wally off to his next stop, we went to locate Carlo. We found him at a Bowdoin frat house, where a large group of merry young students had taught him a new dance called “The Bump.” Carlo was in Seventh Heaven, as the saying goes.
It seems to have begun during a long weekend. Returned from a few days in Boston, Carlo showed everyone the new card in his wallet, proof of membership in the Boston Visual Artists Union. He wanted us all to band together and form the Brunswick Area Visual Artists (he called it BAVA!). The idea of BAVA lasted only a few days, and then he wanted us to start a Union of ALL the artists in Maine. I instantly suspected a new form of Carlo’s visionary aspect. He had a need to involve others in his passions, from spirulina to Bern Porter.
I thought that nothing sounded more absurd than a Union for artists. “But wouldn’t you love to know all the artists in Maine?” he asked. I laughed in his face. (I deeply regret now my childish need to shoot down his enthusiasms. There must be 100 examples). “But I already have enough friends!” I told him. “I have the best friends in the world!”
Within a few months, I saw the meanness of my response as the silliest ignorance. Stay away from silly ignorance. Fifty years have nearly passed, and a few days ago, Pam S. told me, “How lucky we all were, back then, to have met each other.” Within a week or so, most of us had signed onto Carlo’s belief in a Union.
In my early twenties, newly married, I had moved back to my home state of Maine. I wanted to meet painters. My brother, a painter, had already introduced me to Bob Solotaire who often hosted a life-drawing group in his studio. I had been corresponding with Carlo for several years, and he had moved from Italy to Bowdoinham. It was a good time to move forward and educate myself, in the spirit of the time.
Carlo’s new Boston Visual Artists card had been signed by that organization’s “Secretary General,” Mark Faverman. In the spirit of the time, we soon began to refer to him as “Mark Faverperson.” If we in Maine were to have our own artists’ Union, we too would have our Secretary General. Carlo would be him.
I had worked as a proofreader, so Carlo made me editor of our Union’s monthly newsletter. At our first UMVA meeting, Pam S. was the first person to sign up as a writer. Building a studio in Phippsburg, she was a painter and poet, who became known for saying things like “I feed my neuroses deviled eggs.”
I met David B. at our drawing group, and he became involved with the artists’ Union. After a while, we began to see a good deal of each other. He had a vehicle and he had the idea of visiting artists we didn’t know. I recall when we first went to visit Natasha M., already an exciting painter. Later, she remembered: “You and David used to finish each other’s sentences.” I remember it this way: If one of us started to tell a story and then decided that the other one would be a better storyteller, we would defer, one to the other, and the other would pick up where the first of us had left off.
David was a painter whom I watched become a sculptor over a period of a few days. He seemed to observe himself so carefully that he watched himself make the transition from flat canvas to objects in space with great speed. Whereas others may not notice it is happening until the process is finished, David was in on the whole thing from the start. Perhaps it was years in coming, but it seemed to happen in two or three days.
Someone lent me Nancy M.’s hand drawn travel journals, which excited me so much that I began to make imaginary travels just so that I could work on journals of my own—the mixture of writing and pictures, things I’m still doing.
When David and Nancy announced their wedding, I cried and told my wife, “This is a great reward!” The wedding itself was the first marriage I saw at which all the poets stood up and celebrated the obvious love with poetry. It may sound corny, but everyone spoke from the heart, the communal, familial heart, so that it was far, far from corny.
Mark N. was a stalwart of our life-drawing group. He drew like no one else, with a great deal of chiaroscuro. His studio in Litchfield always contains some new approach, hanging on the wall, that makes me want to go immediately home to my own studio to find a new approach of my own. He is articulate, and can speak calmly, explaining why he’s doing something. I’ve never left his company without a renewed sense of clarity. Imagine such a thing across a span of fifty years!
When he married Lindsay, he seemed to gain the perfect complement to himself, a sort of Blakean consort. She has a musical voice that makes things happen, a healer and grower thereby, and it confuses me to realize that I’ve never heard her sing.
I wish I knew more of the stories of the childhoods of these Maine/American artists. I’d like to know where they came from, spiritually—or should I say—imaginally? David B. once watched a movie about Sinbad the Sailor with his grandfather, who told him, “I don’t believe half of it!”
I’ve heard many stories about Abby S.’s childhood, but her stories are hers to tell, and she tells them wonderfully. I can’t resist mentioning that I love remembering her long childhood bicycle rides. And the time she found the arrowhead. I hope I have not garbled these memories of memories too badly. I always welcome stories of an artist’s early years.
“I loved you the moment I saw you—since that time, you have lived deep in my heart.”
—from “Pseudepigrapha,” S.P.
The moment I saw Abby, first saw her, was in 1975 at a UMVA meeting in Brunswick. She had the great spill of black curls, the beautiful face, and she was carrying a big portfolio full of drawings. At the time, she was ten years or so older than I, and I accepted her immediately as my teacher. My wife and I found some excuse to take her to our apartment after the meeting. She showed us the contents of her portfolio, and I still remember her life drawings very clearly—canny and uncanny simultaneously (as defined in the American Heritage Dictionary!)
Then came years of marvelous visits and experiences, (as the Surrealists used to use the word, marvelous). How can black hair be so illuminating?
Years later, I got to go to a UMVA meeting at Abby’s house in Solon. Afterwards, most of the artists went to the Skowhegan School to listen to Joseph Campbell speak. Kris Wills and I stayed behind to celebrate Abby’s 50th birthday. We didn’t “party,” as I recall—we talked. Her voice doesn’t come from a place of secrets—I can hardly think of what to say. At the moment, I can only think of variations on the words honesty, peace, and the simplicity that’s attached to truth.
I’ve seen her disarm a surly drunk with the softness of her voice, while presenting him with iron advice. I don’t know if she remembers her 50th birthday. She may have been miserable, but as she spoke that night, my body filled from toes to crown with warmth and peace. I was in a long-desired (perfect?) environment, and in a place to which I can return in imagination when I have the need.
When I got home that night, I wrote a note to myself that must have looked goofy to anyone who ever read it: “Gold, turned into water, would taste like this, and I was so thirsty and broke, too.” How lucky I was to live on a planet that contained painters and poets. Without them, what would I have done to stay alive?
And I have met no one like Fang in my entire life. I don’t know how I could ever describe him adequately. I wish I had lived closer to him over the years. I can hear him responding, “Thank God you didn’t!”
But I’m not thinking of bugging him—I think of his barn-sized shrines, his music, his poetry, and his beautifully ragged collages—or simply his voice, modulated like song with sarcastic delay—music to my ears!
I first heard him read his scrolls of found poetry at an exhibit called Ghost Dance, years ago, where he appeared last on a long bill, where he presented (I think) three long poems. It was an overbooked reading and Fang was last in line, but he gave a great animated performance, brought the audience back from torpor, and ended the reading on a high note. I was very young, and watching and listening carefully. I learned from Fang to deliver the poem as if I was the only person on the bill, and would never have another chance. I learned to soldier through long pieces without giving in to the temptation to speed up my delivery.
As a writer of long poems myself, I learned not to back off from my poem. Let it take form and authority from your voice—let it fill its own space.
Fang’s shrines, with spiraling layers upon layers of religious figurines, and the funkiest commercial imagery are a great accomplishment and should have fanatical critical attention. Where are the people with the brains to study them, and photograph or film them? And how could this be done adequately?
I spent more than an hour, alone, in Fang’s largest shrine one afternoon. The only thing to which I can compare the experience are my trips on 60s non-Mafia LSD, and few artists have made anything that approaches that. (Regardless of your attitude towards any of the words in that sentence.)
In more recent decades, when Wally, Abby, and Fang, and their cohorts began to make (to my ear) free-form music together, I heard it as the perfect “accompaniment” to Fang’s shrines, Abby’s wasp-nest globes, and Wally’s friezes and harbors. I said to myself, “What a wealth we have had, freely given to us.”
As Fang once told me, “We’re so lucky, the shit we get to see.” The occasion for Fang’s judgment was a procession of candle-lit small boats, in Wally’s “bog” or pond, one night. The boat-makers, Wally and his artist neighbors, each made a boat (about the size of your forearm). They moved in the current with stately grace, putting candlelight reflections in the dark water. I remember no music that night except for beautiful exclamations (“Ooh! Ahh!”) Yes—well—that too was music.
At Carlo’s memorial service in 2005, artists from all over Maine and a number of states of the Union, paraded through Bowdoinham. From my position in line, I many times heard the blast of Fang’s brass horn, calling the gods to attendance—and I thought, “These are the Singing Flowers of the garden of my long life.”
I had spent the previous thirty years getting to know these people, after a childhood of Army bases and “world travel.” I had assumed I’d have a similar adulthood: moving to a new town, a new country every two years, meeting new people, new artists for the rest of my life. But after I had met the artists described herein (and so many others), I bethought myself and decided to stay right here. I remember the morning I said to my wife, “I want to see what happens to these people.”
Image at top: One of Wally’s magical boats, 2019.