April 15th 2020
(I recorded this for Pete Harrison’s podcast Social Distancer. Check it out to hear me read this text with a cool beat in the background.)
We now live 4 miles south of where my Dad grew up in Yonkers. The Bronx is still new to us. We’ve been this apartment less than two months, over half that time in quarantine. We have stalled lists of tasks: Get new light switches, decide on a couch, a dining table, replace the screens with the weird holes in the bottom, and so on. Setting up our life “normally” is out of reach. 35 days in, routines and new normals emerge. Outside our windows we don’t know what is normal because, as new Bronx residents, we don’t know what to expect and things seem to keep shifting. The streets below empty out then fill with cars in waves, pedestrians come and go. Ultimately, we lose any sense of a baseline. Sometimes the only clue that things are different outside are the masks on everybody’s faces. The new normal seeps in like a cold draft as we observe the instability outside our windows.
My father told me a story on the phone this Easter. Growing up, four miles north of here, they had several large maple trees in front of the house. Starlings liked to perch in those trees by the thousands , damaging the trees and leaving significant droppings in the driveway below. The grandfather I never met enlisted my father in a fruitless quest to scare the birds away, at one point even wiring a doorbell in the trees to a button in the house. Dad said the birds would blacken the sky, their song creating a tremendous noise.
And one day, after many years, they just left.
The maple trees are no longer there but the house is. My dad and his family left long ago.
Years pass like the beats of a birds wing and I find myself here, a stones throw away from my father’s youth, the encapsulated optimism of the baby boom fully replaced with this liminal stasis awash in corona anxiety—this is our still-yet-to be named era. Through some generational, geographic ebb and flow, I am here. And so are the starlings.
These birds captured our attention immediately when we moved in. They sit high in the Tulip tree, tenacious enough to scare off a hawk. They sing on our fire escape, occasionally loud enough that we wonder if they made their way inside. We’ve learned they are excellent mimics, singing elements from other species or even man-made noises. It is delightful and cheery. The most we have seen at one time has been around 30-40, “normally” no more than a half-dozen.
What is normal? 60 years ago, flocks of thousands were a nuisance to my grandfather. Now 30 can spark awe in the same bloodline. Starlings have dropped in number since then, but there is not much concern. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has placed them on their list of the world’s 100 worst invasive species. Some suggest the starling is responsible for the decline of the state bird of New York, the eastern bluebird.
Maybe I still will see thousands of starlings in this landscape, but I am doubtful. It feels strange to mourn that. Starlings are an introduced species in North America. The original population supposedly stems from the president of the American Acclimatization Society – a mr. Eugene Schieffelin – releasing 60 birds in Central Park in 1890. He was motivated to introduce every bird mentioned in the Shakespeare’s plays, the starling being his most successful attempts. This group’s mission was to bring European flora and fauna to the US for economic and cultural reasons, drastically impacting our ecological future. Schieffelin, himself a Bronx resident, is viewed by modern biologists as “an eccentric at best, a lunatic at worst.” Our current normal is always the result of decisions and mistakes contained within the norms of the past.
Some recent studies have suggested North America has lost 30% of the bird population since 1970. It is hard to notice species loss and equally hard to draw conclusions from anecdotal evidence. We have to widen our view.
I am thinking of how quickly norms can shift and how quickly we don’t even know what we’ve lost.
Shifting norms are the result of our own processes of acclimation. We are good at it. It’s a weird term that obscures profound changes underneath a masquerade of stability. And it is in the news now. Things seem to shift easily and swiftly when something is lost and slowly with difficulty when something is gained. This adaptive response to trauma and the attendant numbness is what concerns me, although I can’t help but contrast it against the massive yet so-far failed effort to shift the norm to guaranteed healthcare in this country. Slow and difficult. I am confused by this overlap, how shifting norms can contain loss and progress, depending on your view.
To go forward, you must leave something behind.
I feel myself acclimating on the 35th day of my social distancing. The shock is wearing off, which feels ridiculous to say. There were over 700 deaths a day this past week in NYC. 1 out of every 800 New Yorkers have died from this virus. Bronx residents are twice as likely to die from corona virus. the situation is even bleaker in prisons like rikers island. Our potters field is burying folks at 5x the normal rate.
And I find myself getting bored by Andrew Cuomo press conferences, even as he fights with the president?
This is the numbing power of normal that makes us forget the power struggles and inequities, the sadness and strife, the losses and the victories.
Meanwhile, the language of business continues to acclimate—but we don’t need anymore numbness there.
We are living in the midst of massive change. Norms may shift more than we can currently imagine and erode more of what we value than we are prepared for. We cannot be lulled into numbness, especially now. Learn to hold on to what you can and grieve what you must. Remember what things were once like. I have flashes of what life was like before the internet, but can hardly describe it in any meaningful way to my 14 year old nephew. Maintain a panoramic perspective and resist the narrowing of acclimation. Here I hesitantly borrow from the language of business, but it seems like they are quicker at sharpening the language that will shape our future- “Proactive, not reactive.” – but we are human beings – to me that means “being with.” What that with refers to seems to be an important question.
This morning I figured out the perplexing holes in the bottom of the window screens. There, on the ledge, was a starling looking back at me. I swear it was smiling.
I am maintaining a journal every night. More often than not, I catalogue what we eat and who we talk to. Small things accomplished etc. Sometimes the entries are more focused! My handwriting has gone down the tubes, but it is nice to write with my hand regularly.
Here is the entry April 8th 2020
The 7pm clap and cheers outside for the essential workers was the loudest one yet. It felt like a crowd. We were talking with my Dad on the video chat when we heard the noise outside. We ran to the window with bells and pan lids. To hear the normally quiet surrounding landscape erupt for a few minutes as the sun hangs low in the sky is like a ray of sunshine bursting through the clouds. Joyous. Euphoric.
I turned back to the screen to see my father clapping with us from his isolated outpost in Connecticut. Something about that pulled me out of my momentary rapture. I shrugged at my Dad and said “What a dystopian moment eh?” as the applause died down.
We are animals in cages, caught in Groundhog Day loops, but without Bill Murray.We are ecstatic to hear others out there like us. We connect with loved ones through the veins of multi-billion dollar data harvesting companies, configured to use ourselves against, literally, ourselves for profit. We are nervous beneath the laughs. We shake our heads in disbelief.
There in the smooth black glass of the computer screen is an image of my father, the man who I turned to to fix things in one way or another most of my life, the man who fought like hell to provide us a foundation the first time I felt the world crumble beneath me when my mother died. That aftermath was dystopian too, and then normal. I caught a scent of that time through his image and became crestfallen. This is the future now. What have we done? What can we do?
We extended our palms toward the camera for virtual high fives. We concluded with a mutual “let’s do this again” instead of the usual vague “talk to you soon.”
How did we get here?
This virus is an existential threat to many of us, but not most. Disturbing yet obvious race and class disparities are emerging in case and death statistics. Friends unsuccessfully call the unemployment offices hundreds of times per day. Refrigerated trucks are being outfitted to store bodies. Public parks are hosting field hospitals and plans for temporary internments. There were more NYC deaths in the last few days than the World Trace Center attack. How is this America?How is corona’s impact not political?
A New England Journal of Medicine article from March 23rd states
“epidemics put pressure on the societies they strike. This strain makes visible latent structures that might not otherwise be evident. As a result, epidemics provide a sampling device for social analysis. They reveal what really matters to a population and who they truly value.”
We have already felt increasing pressure in the US over the last decade and I am worried how this epidemic may answer this question. It is disheartening to wonder how much more pressure the US can take. Bernie Sanders dropped out of the presidential race today, and many who supported him believe he was uniquely suited to relieve some of that pressure. This future is uncertain.
The epidemic will eventually resolve.
So far our immediate circles are fairing reasonably well. There have been a handful of illnesses and an increasing number of deaths 1 or 2 degrees removed. We are lucky. We are able to stay home for long stretches.
The fractures in our society will remain but we can and will remake things, hopefully for the better, when we emerge. It starts with things like the 7pm cheers.
Tonight we participated in a collective, self organized action, creating meaning with hundreds of neighbors in the community we never met. For those few minutes, it really felt like everything is going to be ok.
I’ve donated a painting to this great event! Dorsey Gallery is at 553 Rogers avenue in Brooklyn. Hope to see you there! It’s always a great evening and it is a honor to participate.
Excited to participate in this Thank You Show, opening Sunday June 9th
THE THANK YOU SHOW XI
A Tribute and Thank You to the Dorsey Family of Fine Artists
Meet “Brooklyn On My Mind” artists and the author Dr. Myrah Brown Green
Opening Reception – Sunday, June 9, 2019 3 PM to 8 PM
Closing Reception – Sunday, June 23, 2019 3 PM to 8 PM
Viewing by appointment – June 10 to June 22, 2019
553 Rogers Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11225
Hope to see you this Friday May 3rd for a reception for our show “A 5 minute walk” at The Chameleon BK.
Show will remain up until May 18th, 2019.
“The tenth edition of our tribute and thank you to the Dorsey Family of fine artists who have chosen to donate their art to benefit children of NYC.
Featuring Art from over 50 Fine Artists”
I have two paintings in this group show, opening June 10th 2018. 3pm – 8pm.
Dorsey’s Art Gallery is located at 553 Rogers Ave in Brooklyn NY.
I left this painting in England in 2010 after completing my master’s degree. It was part of a show that I put on called “Landscape Resounds.” I left it at a local cafe in Totnes, the Fat Lemon, where it hung until they contacted me last year saying they didn’t have space for it anymore. In that same week, someone at Dartington Hall had contacted me about the painting, and, a dozen or so emails later, with assistance from my former professor Richard Povall, the painting had traveled up the hill to the Dartington Estate. I had donated it to Dartington Hall.
The painting now hangs in this building
This is a surreal experience to coordinate from across the pond as well as a thought provoking one. Paintings need time and space in order to come into their own. They find their place, often on their own accord and in surprising ways.
This was not my favorite painting that I produced during my time in England, but this process has made me reconsider and warm up to it. It now is participating in the long unfolding history of Dartington Hall and the people involved in making that place.
The initial email included the sentence, “There are a group of us here that are working to bring learning back to Dartington and we’re making progress.” I was in the final year of Dartington College of the Arts before it moved to Falmouth University to eventually get swallowed up. The phrase “bring learning back to Dartington” takes on extra resonance for me with the thought of the painting returning to the estate to be hung on a wall for display. It creates a new layer of meaning related to the painting, years after it was ostensibly “completed.”
If the artwork accumulates meaning as it progresses through time, it makes me ask the obvious question—At what point is a painting finished? The secondary question that arises is, how can I craft paintings to best be prepared for these unexpected moments? I imagine paintings as seeds sent off into the future, sometimes finding fertile moments of germination, growth, and meaning.
Paintings as seeds for meaning in an imagined unexpected future context.
There is something to that as an idea. I think it is how a painting practice operates consciously within the context of the social fabric. I’ve seen works of mine blossom in wholly unexpected futures that become integral to the success of the piece. Painting with the past, present, and future in mind.
Speaking of time, I did a time-lapse video of the process of creating the painting. I also made the soundtrack music from ambient noises captured in the studio.
The Barn is located on the Dartington Estate in Devon. While I was there it was surrounded by security fencing, but I stuck my camera through the fence to get my reference photos. At the time, I fixated on ruins, and what they say about our relationship to land. The best information I could find about the barn was that it was likely from the 1800’s, used as a field barn for the Dartington Estate. I’m not sure how long the security fencing was around it, but a recent search reveals it is being actively reimagined as a place for therapeutic horses.
Below are photos of the 4 foot square painting hanging in Dartington Hall. Check it out if you are in the area. The building is gorgeous and dates back to the 14th or 15th century. Pretty cool to have a painting on display there.