by Amy Trachtenberg
Crouching on my knees, lying on my back with buds, bees and leaves. Listening to the power battles between the scrub jays and hummingbirds, I’ve become enamored by the nests constructed like baskets of anticipation. The hummingbird nests are tiny perfect bowls. Deep shapes spun with layers of spiderwebs, leaf veins and something resembling laundry lint. They are camouflaged on their outer sides by lichen and green bits of broken-down fern leaves, the work of an expert pointillist. For her nest, I’ve seen the female scrub jay break off twigs and smash them with her beak while her male keeps vigil. High inside a densely branched maple tree, they’ve woven a large, wicker-like basket, as sturdy as it is hidden. Scrub jays are known to plan for the future and spend a lot of their time hunting and hiding food for that future. They actually know how to plan, a singularly rare ability in non-humans. The jays constant foraging and hiding accounts for annoying pecking sounds, while their staccato screeches break the hush of pandemic
quietness. I find that I have a murderous streak in me as I consider how to off this monogamous couple of beautiful blue kidnapping killers. Twice they’ve snatched up nesting hummingbirds, chomping them down as snacks.
I am thinking about the earliest days in the startling framework of Covid-19, fearing for our future differently and in the most basic terms. I executed only one out-sized food shop as the hype of scarcity washed over me. With the memory of physical proximity to my sons both living on the opposite side of the continent, I’ve become hyper maternally vigilant over the tiny Anna’s hummingbirds that love our blossoms. In this essential condition of vulnerable fragility, I hear their many sounds of clicking and whirring as a balm. I see into their iridescence as a life force.
Pianist Hasaan Ibn Ali “became very skilled at the modern sounds, and then went right past them into something very esoteric. He went way out there. I guess you could say his brakes didn’t work.” — Saxophonist Benny Golson
Day 5, day 21, 37, 42, 59, every day and every night. The spires of the banana trees flap their torn leaves towering above poppies and bougainvillea. I see right through this garden to the two Henris: Matisse and Rousseau. Three tree ferns signal the dream of the tropics while I shelter in the cool of San Francisco.
Tree ferns that date to the time before flowers, a prehistoric species thriving just beyond my worktable. I check out the lemon trees to see what has been ravaged by nocturnal rodents. Their methodical gnawing off of the skin leaves behind naked flesh dangling by their stems.
The wisteria, fern fronds, artichokes and old roses are Monet, Nolde, Araki, Mitchell and Seurat. My quarantine library reinforces this knowledge. I breathe easier looking at what is possible in late paintings by Cy Twombly. He is in overflow with his room-sized works of scatters of flowers from his late series Blooming.
Tucked into bed with an old book of Tunisian watercolors and drawings by August Macke. Paul Klee traveled with Macke to North Africa, keeping a diary from their 1914 voyage to the south. Klee writes about the colors being new. It’s reminding me of living in another language, in love with the scents of unknown herbs and beings, new color in fields, in bed, in markets and in the sea. I remember fearlessness in distant places.
Assad granted amnesty and reduced sentences for all crimes committed before Sunday.
Studio. I am sitting on the floor even more than usual. I find myself moved to go back into older work, pulling pieces out of the rack and off the shelf. Paintings, collages and sculptures are in the unmaking process. Pinned on one wall are records of stellar finds. A section from a Bedouin dress in a purplish raw umber geometrically sun-bleached revealing a small embroidered pattern of flowers and a near-black square. A large brass cymbal, two dozen sanding belts suspended in a loop as a near infinity sign, a scrap of tarpaper in the shape of a profile, gold foil flattened in traffic looking like a seahorse. A handwritten sign on corrugated cardboard that spells H U N G E R Y. I recognize their circumstances of origin. This Corona time no longer feels like a rehearsal with constant turning points and opposing data mapping the disaster of federal leadership.
I’ve started some intimate collages with foreign stamps and parts of used envelopes. In the past, this scale has brought me into a root chakra place. Starting something from absolute scratch is not calling me now.
“Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas! / You really are beautiful! Pearls/harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins!” –Frank O’Hara
I’ve hauled out a bundle and a box of material from installations and theater pieces I’ve designed over the decades. I cut off the sleeves and opened the seams of sashes from costumes made for a Frank O’Hara play directed by my friend Mac McGinnes for a night of Poet’s Theater. I’m incorporating their red, white and blue hand-painted stripes into a collage on wood panel. In excessive acts of stapling, I am shooting thousands of metal angles through the cloth, dotting every border with shiny dashes. The other cloth
shapes are cut from corduroy pants, magenta spandex, polyester micro-florals, striped sweaters and canvas that I’ve previously printed. Situated among rectangles of tarnishing foam rubber, I’m thinking that the red, white and blue are stand-ins for the politics of color or the color of politics. Maybe a flag or an over-sized emblem for the whole crumbling world of overproduction and consumption. I don’t have the title, which often prevents me from deeming something finished – par for the course right now.
“I have taken dozens of objects…. In every material…assembled them in unlikely groups, photographed them, painted them on paper, canvas, stoneware plates. I’ve done this until I’ve created a unity out of a confusion of unwanted objects.” – Viola Frey
Thinking about what shattered has felt like in my lifetime in the collective sense:the offshore terrors like Viet Nam and whether my oldest brother would be drafted. Fears from threats of other wars; nuclear, Iraq and Afghanistan; police killings, domestic man-made unnatural disasters; and enduring these denatured Trump years. We fight back together in large, tight crowds except for now.
I am watching the sky. From the full, pink moon that rose above Mission Street at the start of Corona Time to this week’s waxing moon. The sky is a point of clarity as the whole world locks down and CO2 emissions are crashing. Outside in the backyard, I’m filming from under the trees. The avocado trunks curving widely on the diagonal against the right angles of branches with the night sky studded in abundant leaf silhouettes. They render a Rousseau looking for its lion. Fauvist Matisse passes through this urban forest, and I am rinsed with pleasure, shooting videos and grabbing slow night shots. Minutes later, on the phone
with Leo, Nate and MC in Brooklyn, I hear the constancy of sirens as the foreground soundtrack for my kids. My denial is interrupted.
“…Mercy does not come from the sky” — Norma Cole from Fate News
Walking through The Mission, there are threat warnings and notices for COVID-19. Stapled onto telephone poles, plastered on every house, stuck in doorways, blown into the garden weeds or swept onto stoops. “Get Tested” in four languages. FREE! I see the people in the shadows, undercover and sprawling below cardboard constructions or nylon tents. Already marginal, suddenly, they must now be warehoused indoors to protect them to protect us. Along Folsom Street, there are masked people in long lines waiting for bags of food in a schoolyard where no children are playing. Police cars are randomly parked alongside TV news trucks marking further how rapidly the landscape is changing.
I wish we had the old WPA or the Green New Deal. Something structural that could better use us. I don’t want to wait for the aftermath. Imagining the ecology of the art galleries, museums and what happens to the structures that conventionally hold art in place. With this found time that some of us have, their lockdown is another facet of painful. I miss the direct response of standing bodily in front of something. When this started, with the roll call of early closures and non-opening of performances and exhibits, people became truncated as their work and lives became undeliverable.
“As usual, I can’t seem to read a calendar properly…” — saxophonist Phillip Greenlief on Facebook
Two of my public projects are on my mind now – one scheduled to open and the other waiting to be built. A beginning and a finale in suspended limbo. Ecstatic Voyaging is a ceramic tile installation for the newly
built, nearly finished but unopened BART Station in Milpitas. While the process began well over a decade ago, my artwork is now finally installed on the 20 structural columns of the passenger platform, 1,000 feet in length. My idea was to create a public space for esthetic sensation. A detail from an Ikat weaving pattern is blown up to landscape-scale and screen-printed with oxide and burned into each tile. The last time I entered the station, I wore all of the designated PPE. At the time, PPE meant a hardhat, steel-toed boots, protective eyewear and a fluorescent vest. The station sits empty of trains and passengers. Cutting the ribbon is indefinitely postponed. The other project was one day into construction when the lockdown began, a glazed brick tile tapestry on the six columns and façade of the C. G. Jung Institute.
My mother died this February, about two weeks before Coronavirus further altered my life and the textures of the whole world. The lead-up to her passing was long and it was hard. Though 90, her death seemed still premature. On our sofa, she was surrounded by her large family. Within an improvised chain of clasped arms, heads on shoulders and hands grasping hands, she took her final breaths. When the pandemic constrictions began, a part of me felt relief. I had already been in hibernation.
“…blackening soft, deep/siren’s song—she died/several times that night…” — Norma Cole from Sarabande 2009
“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food, and of excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art; and I could trust a majority of you to use it as you would a parlor game. A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.”
–James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
I grew up with this book Agee made as a young man in collaboration with the photographer Walker Evans during the New Deal. As a child reading the photographs, I recorded the feeling of the thin men in caps waiting in line, the drawn women looking into nowhere wrapped up in faded aprons, groups of children massed together on sinking beds with curlicue metal frames. They spoke for the way the western world
looked in times of scarcity and hunger. That Dust Bowl had a circumscribed location, though its effects spread across the continent. Covid 19 lurks everywhere among the most vulnerable as well as on the oatmeal box and the jogger that sprints past me. They say it is the invisible killer. I dreamt that my glasses were shattered, and I had to wear them anyway because nothing was open.
Iran released 85,000 prisoners last week on temporary leave.
I sit on the floor, unraveling a jumbled tangle of bike tires sewn together with red rubber banding. In their first afterlife, they were suspended as a floor-to-ceiling curtain for the dancers to move through in last year’s performance of ECHO by choreographer Sara Shelton Mann. Now, when laid across my floor they look like letterforms. I’m unstretching an old painting to be combined with a stenciled dropcloth I’d used in painting my banner for the Washington, DC Women’s March. Made early on in our protests against Trump, the banner is rolled up, lying in wait for safe public assembly against this virus of a president. Like a crossword puzzle, sprayed word fragments remain from the “Give me your tired your poor …” Emma Lazarus’ poem ghosted onto the canvas. Painting into it begins to look like the nightscapes I photograph along the Bay.
I’m stacking thick rubber cut-outs removed from 48 tractor tires, the saved discards from my San Jose Library project that opened in 2006. The rubber rings may become pedestals for future paintings or for what may not be paintings. I can’t picture it yet.
# # #
Photos: Amy Trachtenberg except where noted.