A Shimmer of Possibility
I went to the Carnegie Museum of Art recently to finish reading a book.
That wasn't the only reason. When I moved from Little Rock to Pittsburgh last year, I gave myself the gift of a membership to the Carnegie museums, and it had been a while since I'd visited. A sunny, clear Sunday was a great time to go exploring in a place both long familiar and always new.
I took the book along because finishing it was something of an occasion. It's Daybook: The Journal of an Artist by the late sculptor Anne Truitt. I bought it one Friday afternoon at Jay’s Bookstall in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, way back in the last millennium, when I was a student in the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh.
Aside from sharing the author’s habit of journal keeping, I don't remember what gave me that book-buyer's thrill of finding a treasure hidden in plain sight. But I remember which bookcase it was on, where it was on the shelf, what the light was like. Maybe I opened it to a sentence that might as well have been in neon, a passage I admired for its construction and loved for its truth. I've kept the book all these years and reread it, or at least part of it, a few times (evidenced by the geological strata of marginal notes). And for decades I’ve kept a little sign on my desk with one of her sentences, printed in a font that now seems to scream 1990s: “Work is the backbone of a properly conducted life, serving at once to give it shape and hold it up.”
Moving back to Pittsburgh in midlife gave me an occasion to reread it; I had reached Truitt’s age when she wrote the book. I was 35 pages from the end. Why not finish it in Oakland, near sculpture?
The hall of sculpture was being renovated, though, so I wandered upstairs and spent about 45 minutes taking in “Strength in Numbers,” a photography exhibit that grouped several pictures from each artist. Aside from sitting in the cafe with my book and a cup of tea, and a stop in the restroom, it's the only place I spent time in the museum.
Two groupings caught my eye. The first was Pittsburgh (man cutting grass), taken by British photographer Paul Graham in 2004 during a two-year trip to photograph the United States. The trip culminated in his 12-volume photography book project, A Shimmer of Possibility. They're pictures of . . . a man cutting grass, taken from the parking lot of the motel where Graham was staying.
The guy had a big sloping lawn to mow. One photo showed him mopping his brow. I wondered whether the man knew he was being photographed, whether he minded. My favorite picture was the largest, with the sun parting the clouds, creating a constellation of light streaks. Insects in motion, startled into flight by the mower across their nest?
A card on the wall conveyed part of Graham's artist's statement:
This work is about appreciating the flow of the moment, the rhythm and currents and eddies of life, rather than neatly packaging the world into perfectly formed little jewels. . . . Many moments are mundane and seem worthless, but they form and shape our lives.
Across the hall was a group of photos of a shiny silver dome, curved like a just-getting-started pan of Jiffy Pop. It’s an iconic shape instantly recognizable to Pittsburghers: the Civic Arena, nicknamed The Igloo because the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team played there for many years. It was built in 1961, closed in 2010, and demolished starting the following year. I saw the Ice Capades there when I was a kid, and also the circus. I was mesmerized by the way the roof opened partway to reveal a starry Pittsburgh night or sunny afternoon. Once I knew it could do that, that's the thing I most anticipated any time I was taken to an event there. It's also where I walked for Pitt's graduation ceremonies.
The Civic Arena series was taken by Charles “Teenie” Harris, a Pittsburgh photographer whose body of work included 40 years of depicting life in predominantly black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. The first picture in the series seemed unrelated at first glance: a three-story brick building with a sign for the Crawford Grill. A closer look reveals empty windows, the first floor nearly obscured by a phalanx of salvaged wooden doors, and men on the roof dismantling wood beams. In the next photo, a crane demolishes a building while a black family pauses to watch. The next shows the steel bones of the arena, just beginning to come together in the hole where a neighborhood used to be.
The accompanying placard has no words from Harris, just the curator's text:
Though Charles “Teenie” Harris didn't explicitly work in series, he did return to the same locations over multiple years. Here, his photographs show the original Crawford Grill (a noted jazz club) being demolished and replaced by the Civic Arena. The “urban renewal” plan implemented by Pittsburgh in the 1950s and '60s displaced countless businesses and people, most of them African American, from the Lower Hill District neighborhood. With “The Igloo” now gone, this 28-acre site is set to be redeveloped, and many are concerned that the same mistakes of the past are being repeated.
An article in the London newspaper The Guardian provides more information about photographer Paul Graham. That sun-pierced photo was taken on the first evening of his two-and-a-half-year photo shoot around the United States, and he considers it his best shot of the whole series. Here's part of what he said about it, which answers my questions about the man in the pictures.
I was just travelling with no particular purpose, taking photos along the way. This was in the car park in front of the motel where I was staying, and there was this guy cutting the grass of an entire huge field with a very loud old push-mower. . . .
He saw me and lifted his hand at one point, but he didn't really care. So I kept on taking pictures, with the sun shining directly into the camera. (It's lovely to do everything that Kodak tells you not to.)
In one image from this sequence, he is to the left, then he's to the right, then he's wiping his face with a cloth. Then this beautiful moment happened: the sun burst through and the rain came down, and all the raindrops were illuminated in the shaft of light. It was quite extraordinary.
I like this shot because, besides the obvious reason of its beauty, it confers a nobility on what the man is doing. He was working with dignity on this unbelievable task—and, with perseverance, he was probably going to get it done.
Back to that quotation about work that I keep on my desk: “Work is the backbone of a properly conducted life, serving at once to give it shape and hold it up.” It has often encouraged me; sometimes it’s haunted me. (Sometimes it simply reminds me to sit up straight.) I keep it on my desk now out of habit, a bit of continuity on a desk that has been mine for about 40 years, transported from Pittsburgh to Arkansas and back, and set up on its increasingly wobbly legs in seven homes, including two moves within 14 months.
That sentence meant one thing when work was a 40-hour-a-week day job at the same place for nearly 20 years. It means something else now that work is a patchwork of self-employment. Reading those last few pages at the museum coffee shop, I saw that I’d utterly forgotten its context.
It’s from an April day when one of Truitt’s daughters is visiting:
Mary is here on a quick visit. We are enjoying ourselves immensely, ranging happily from our personal lives to James Joyce to Prince Genji to Tolstoy. Fresh spring peas drop from their translucent pods into my earthenware bowl; the iron clumps on the ironing board. We breathe in the crisp smell of freshly pressed cloth in the sunshine. Mary drinks apple juice full of nourishing pulp that we feel sure is welcomed by her growing baby, a silent third in our lively conversation. Mary remarks on the fact that all of Tolstoy’s characters are sustained by their work: Anna turns to her desk, Karenin to his business, Levin to his fields, Kitty to her household. The final price for Vronsky’s waywardness is that he is deprived of his work. We agree that work is the backbone of a properly conducted life, serving at once to give it shape and hold it up. Of like mind, industrious by nature, we work even as we talk.
A few years ago, I thought I was in danger of losing my job. One effect of that was like being given glasses that make the wearer notice what people do for a living. Checkout clerk, coffee shop barista, rental car agent, repair shop receptionist and mechanics, person in the little hut at the supermarket gas station, retreat facility’s food prep and cleaning staff, camp administrator, crafts store shelf stocker, vending machine stocker, diner cook, insurance agent, echocardiogram technician, essential oils broker . . . How did people learn to do what they did? How many of them had settled for those jobs? Were they working towards something “better”? How did they handle the stress of being on their feet so much? (Would they wonder the same about a job that meant sitting on their butt so much?) Could I ever memorize all the knowledge that some of those jobs seemed to require?
My job was not in jeopardy then. I left it by choice a year and a half later. But worrying about its disappearance was a gift in that it gave me increased respect for all kinds of work. More than that, it helped me to see how all kinds of work interlace into a fabric that supports us all.
It was evident even in the museum. The front desk attendant checked my membership card, gave me my admission tag for the day and offered me a map. Eager young people in the coffee shop prepared my tea for me, told me the mug had been heated, and advised me on how long to let the tea steep before drinking it. Paul Graham and Teenie Harris had done the work of taking photographs and documented people doing the work of mowing lawns, dismantling buildings and erecting others. Unseen curators had chosen the photos, what size they should be, how they should be displayed, what the interpretive cards should say about them. A gift shop clerk sold me something I’d been on a quest for: a snow globe that had nothing to do with Christmas.
In fact, my favorite thing that happened at the museum that day involved the integration of work and attention. The front desk attendant also directed me to the nearest women’s restroom. An employee greeted me as I entered and was still emptying trash bins when I started to wash my hands. So I decided to venture a question.
“What’s your favorite part of the museum?”
She thought for a moment, then had a ready answer: the Indian exhibits. And the polar exhibit, the Wyckoff Hall of Arctic Life, which you have to pass through to get to the Indians. We chatted for a few minutes, about her favorites and my favorites in the natural history museum, about exhibits that had changed since our childhood visits, about some of the weirder stuff in the museum of art. By then I’d dried my hands, and she’d changed the liner in the last trash can, and we went our separate ways. She wished me a great day, and I wished her the same, and called her by name, since I could read it on the tag on her workshirt. Joy.
I think it’s time for me to retire that decades-old piece of paper on my desk. I could replace it with a portion of another resonant passage from Truitt’s book:
Unless we are very, very careful, we doom each other by holding onto images of one another based on preconceptions that are in turn based on indifference to what is other than ourselves. This indifference can be, in its extreme, a form of murder and seems to me a rather common phenomenon. We claim autonomy for ourselves and forget that in so doing we can fall into the tyranny of defining other people as we would like them to be. By focusing on what we choose to acknowledge in them, we impose an insidious control on them. I notice that I have to pay careful attention in order to listen to others with an openness that allows them to be as they are, or as they think themselves to be. The shutters of my mind habitually flip open and click shut, and these little snaps form into patterns I arrange for myself. The opposite of this inattention is love, is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.
It was true 40 years ago when Truitt wrote it, and it’s true now. But putting it on my desk calcifies it, separates it from its context, and gives it the burden of unintended commandment, a risk for any inspirational quotation or refrigerator poem that’s enshrined for too long.
It’s time for me to let those words go. (It’s probably time to let my copy of Truitt’s book go, too. Jay’s Bookstall is long gone, but an established used-books shop has moved into that neighborhood.) It’s time to hold, and then release, something Paul Graham said in an interview about his photography project: “Just slow down and look at this ordinary moment of life. See how beautiful it is, see how life flows around us, how everything shimmers with possibility.”
Photograph by Laura Lynn Brown