Historical Portraits at Rao’s Café

Portraits I painted of Paul Revere, W.E.B. Du Bois, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost

In the mid-1990s, I painted and installed three portraits—Paul Revere, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Emily Dickinson—in the outdoor seating area at Rao’s Café in Amherst, MA. (Which has since been rebranded as Share.) In 2010, I added Robert Frost to the lineup. Each of these people was associated in some way with Massachusetts.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), colloquially known as the Belle of Amherst, was a poet known for her reclusiveness. I once lived in a house directly across the street from where she had lived. I was inspired by her mystique, and by the fact that the magnitude of her work wasn’t discovered and published until after her death.

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du BoisW.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) was an author, peace- and civil rights activist, and educator from Great Barrington, MA. He attended Harvard, where he became the first African American to earn a doctorate. Among other accomplishments, he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Paul Revere

Paul ReverePaul Revere (1734–1818) was a silversmith and patriot from Boston, Massachusetts. He famously rode his horse from Boston out to Lexington and Concord to alert his fellow American militiamen that the British forces were invading, prior to the battles of Lexington and Concord. When I visit Boston, I enjoy walking around in the North End, where his house has been preserved.

Robert Frost

Robert FrostRobert Frost (1874–1963) was a poet and educator from San Francisco, California. When he was eleven, he and his family moved to Massachusetts. Eventually he ended up teaching English at Amherst College, where I lived for many years. Of the four historical heroes, Robert Frost was from a more “modern” era, so I decided to give his portrait a more colorful treatment than the others.

As an aside, when I was in fourth grade, I memorized and recited his poem, The Road Not Taken.

Horse

A horse sculpture made of clay

I was born in the Year of the Horse, and I view the horse as a sort of personal totem or power animal. While I was a student at the University of Massachusetts, I sculpted this piece out of low-fire red clay, fired it, glazed it, and fired it again. It’s about the size of a basketball. Private collection (not for sale).

Divining

A painting I made about the subconscious realm

I am fascinated by the relationship between the subconscious and the conscious mind. It seems infinitely possible to train the conscious mind to let go of a hang up, a habit, or some earlier formed conditioning or prejudice.

But what of the subconscious? Try as I might to change it, I am forever having dreams that involve frustrations. In my dream I will be at a bookstore about to buy a magazine when I realize that I have left my wallet in the car. I go out to the car but it is locked and I realize that I have left my keys in a jacket pocket. But where is my jacket? And so on, ad infinitum.

When I wake up I want to shake myself by the shoulders and say, “This is Dreamland, Sweetie! You don’t need magazines or wallets or keys or jackets. Just pick the damn fruit right off the tree!” But it rarely happens this way. Oh sure, there have been flying dreams and “I am in paradise; completely at home” dreams, but these are more the exception than the rule.

I wonder what would happen if I could train my subconscious to be a little less frustrated when I dream? Would it have a beneficent effect upon my waking life? Would I be more creative? More successful in my career, my studio life, and my relationships?

Or is the subconscious meant to be inaccessible? Does it work on a deep, hidden level similar to that of DNA? Is the subconscious the spiritual equivalent of DNA’s physical blueprint? If so, can we inherit the dreams of our ancestors in much the same way as we inherit their eyes, hands, and smells? What would those dreams tell us about the life lessons already learned by those who have lived before us?

Technical Details

Divining is a painting that I made in 1994-95, around the time that I graduated from UMass Amherst. Its dimensions are 44 inches by 55 inches, and it is painted with oil paint on canvas that I stretched over handmade spruce stretchers. This painting has been sold. Photographed by John Polak.

Two Trees

Two maple trees at Mt. Pollux in South Amherst, Massachusetts.

You would be hard-pressed to convince me that there is anything more gloriously beautiful than autumn in New England. Each of the seasons has its own particular beauty, but October—my favorite month—ushers in a perfect convergence of climate, emotion, and color.

The heat of summer tapers off and is replaced with a cooler ambient temperature. Gardeners lay their gardens to rest, and people and animals alike batten down the hatches in preparation for the winter to come. Dramatic, blustery clouds and azure skies set a pensive mood. Golden afternoon light illuminates resplendent, fiery colors that the region’s trees produce. All of this is draped over a stunningly-gorgeous landscape and an all too fleeting American Gothic architectural style. By mid-month, invigorating breezes will whip up the leaves that will have fallen. Crisp, sweet smells of composting leaves will waft about. And by the end of the month the show will be over.

One of the places that I most love to visit during this season is Mount Pollux, located in South Amherst, Massachusetts. Formerly an apple orchard, Mt. Pollux is a little knob just north of Mt. Norwottuck, the highest mountain in the Holyoke Range. It is a very romantic, dreamy, energetic place. I wouldn’t be surprised if it sits atop an intersection of some of the earth’s ley lines. Many weddings have taken place here. Doubtless many young romantics have wooed each other on its flanks. Many hands have been held, many picnics have been consumed, and many kites have been flown. I brought my Dad here when he visited many moons ago, and we ceremoniously remembered my departed brother (and his son). As I recall, we visited on a bitterly cold the day.

One of the unique features of Mt. Pollux is that from the top, on a clear day, you are treated to a nearly unobstructed, 360-degree view of the surrounding land, which includes the Connecticut River Valley (a.k.a. the Pioneer Valley) and mountains as far away as New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire. You can’t see Connecticut to the south, because the majestic Holyoke Range stands in the way. And you can’t see Rhode Island because it’s just so darn small.

Another unique feature of Mt. Pollux is its centerpiece: the two maple trees at the top. I have been told that some students from nearby Hampshire College refer to the place simply as Two Trees, which makes perfect sense.

Calling it Mt. Pollux makes sense too, as the trees embody an energy of “two-ness.” Recursively underscoring this theme, there is also a Mt. Castor in the area, but it is harder to find.

In Roman mythology, Castor and Pollux were the Gemini (twin) brothers. As astronomy buffs will tell you, the constellation Gemini comprises the twin stars Castor and Pollux. (Incidentally, my aforementioned brother Trevor was born under the astrological sign of Gemini.)

In the myth, the twins shared the same mother but had different fathers (immortal Zeus and mortal Tyndareus), which meant that Pollux was immortal and Castor was mortal. When Castor was killed, Pollux asked Zeus to let him share his own immortality with his twin to keep them together and they were transformed into the Gemini constellation. The pair were regarded as the patrons of sailors, to whom they appeared as St. Elmo’s fire.

One thing I like about these two trees is that they seem to tell a story. They are not classically “perfect” maple specimens. They are unusual and asymmetrical. They are a little bit messy, not unlike life itself. The tree on the left sports a protrusion that reaches out to cover a corresponding chunk that is missing from the tree on the right. Both of the trees lean away from each other, but they seem to be relating. Is the one on the left reaching out to help one on the right, which has been injured in an ancient lightning strike or ice storm? Or is it more of an antagonistic gesture, as might befit a bickering old couple? Is it presumptuous to anthropomorphize them thusly?

If you have a chance, visit Mt. Pollux and decide for yourself! In the meantime, please enjoy this photograph.

Little Deaths, a Chapbook

Little Deaths cover

In 1995, fresh out of college, I wrote and published a chapbook called Little Deaths.

I approached this project as both a writing exercise and as serial sculpture: After I wrote the story and the haiku poems, I hand lettered, illustrated, printed, assembled, and bound all fifty copies in the edition (plus a few artist’s proofs). I did not have a computer at the time, so there was never a digital master. This production was as analog as it could be. The entire series was handmade using photocopies, blueprints, hand-carved rubber stamps, ink, and glue.

For the front cover (shown above), I used a highly-textured purple paper, which I glued to three chipboard supports (front and back covers; spine). I printed the title, by-line, and “logo” with rubber stamps that I carved by hand from rubber erasers.

Front papers

Little Deaths page spread

I developed this pattern of onions by stamping repeatedly with the aforementioned rubber stamp.

More front papers

Little Deaths page spread

Can you tell that I like onions? The left page was semi-translucent vellum, hinting at an onion skin; the right was an actual blueprint, which provides a nice velvety texture and some wonderful, accidental color bleed.

Title page

Little Deaths page spread

Another blueprint featuring an enlargement of the onion pattern.

Dedication

Little Deaths page spread

This little chapbook written and hand-bound in an edition of 50 (plus a few artist’s proofs) by Trace Meek […] U.S.A 1995. Thanks to Benjamin Ostiguy, who took the photos on pages 26 & 30. For all who would listen…

The story begins with a walk.

Little Deaths page spread

Little Deaths page spread

Now and again Annelise would go out on walks and would collect mementos of her various visits. A pebble here, an interesting stick there. Occasionally a pine cone or a sweetgum pod. A piece of mossy bark, a small shard of brick, a snail shell. A palm full of strange-color dirt from a significant location, the dried shell of a bumblebee. An old shoe heel, a

Little Deaths page spread

butterfly wing. Quite a smattering of these little treasures had begun to collect here and there in the nooks and crannies about her apartment. Each one would forever evoke in her a little pocket of memory, a reminder of a particular place, a particular time, and a particular state of mind. On this particular day, Annelise walked in a direction that she had never taken before. Guided only by intuition and a desire to be outdoors, she proceeded without a fixed destination. Out from the bustle of the town, through the quiet neighborhoods behind the college, over the abandoned trestle, out along the paths that lead through woodlands and meadows, left muddy by an early thaw. Out along

Little Deaths page spread

a subtle ridge to a cornfield and an apple orchard, to a view of those familiar mountains in the distance. The weather was unseasonably warm, but a roaring wind blew thick, moist air in over the mountains. High above, the close-knit trees clacked their leafless branches together as though they were deer locking antlers.

Little Deaths page spread

As Annelise gazed out upon those cool grey mountains and the slightly lighter-grey sky above, she wondered to herself, “How could I possibly express this moment and the euphoria that it brings, without positively living it for someone?” She entertained the notion of bringing back sweetgum pods by the bagful and handing them out to people on the street, then had a little laugh to herself. “Everyone will find their own little memory pods,” she mused, “their own reminders of a particular place, a particular time, and a particular state of mind.” For ages Annelise would continue to try to express the inexplicable, such as she had experienced on that winter’s day, and

Little Deaths page spread

on so many occasions before and since. Now and again she would go out on walks and would collect little soulful impressions, little memories, little nuggets of folk wisdom which would swim around her and emerge into five- and seven-syllable phrases. Annelise would stash these phrases in the nooks and crannies about her heart, live with them, and savor them. To her surprise, they would eventually assemble themselves into haiku poems, some of which are shared with you here…

Haikus

Little Deaths page spread

Little Deaths page spread

Little Deaths page spread

Little Deaths page spread

Haiku
The good goes away,
the bad follows right behind,
then they both come back.

Little Deaths page spread

Haiku
Expressing our needs,
look at what our hands have done—
this is where we live.

Little Deaths page spread

Haiku
Onions enlighten—
peel back through clear layered skins,
get to the essence.

Little Deaths page spread

Haiku
Islands in the Sun
thinking we could be as one:
closeness in distance.

Little Deaths page spread

Haiku
When in a painting
you see a beckoning road,
then down it you go!

Little Deaths page spread

Haiku
Send a friend a gift—
when it arrives at the door
you get love supreme.

Little Deaths page spread

Haiku
Natural logic
pays attention to within—
calm before a quake.

Little Deaths page spread

Haiku
Fate interrupts us—
little deaths we live each day
as we approach one.

Little Deaths page spread

Haiku
Several apples,
passed over by suns and moons,
return to damp earth.

Little Deaths page spread

Haiku
In the wild of life
relationships come undone
and new ones are formed.

End papers

Little Deaths page spread

More end papers

Little Deaths page spread

Little Deaths cover

I sold a few copies of this chapbook on consignment through a cool but now defunct bookstore (whose name I forget) in Downtown Amherst, gave many copies away to friends, family and muses, and kept none for myself. Thanks to an old friend, a copy made its way back to me nearly two decades after I published it, so that I could scan it and reproduce it here. Enjoy.