Pollice Verso, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1872.
The first time I recall helping out, it was to assist with artist and Prof. Scott Johnson's solo exhibition Places Apart in the summer of 2012, and the recollection is vivid. For one thing, a large wildfire was raging just a few miles away during the week and a half I helped out, and the situation was rather touch-and-go for a while, with local art collectors whose homes were potentially in harm's way bringing their art collections to the museum for safe-keeping, resulting in the "tube", the loading dock/crate storage area, becoming a veritable Noah's Ark for all the displaced work.
For another thing, it was the first time that my summer break while working at the Colorado College, not to mention the seven years prior, didn't entail being ball-and-chained to client-driven projects. I'd made the jump from such work to more self-directed art earlier that year, and while the lack of income was a downside, I was flying high, relishing, that summer of record breaking June temps, in my comparatively cool, calm, and collected ability to make art, volunteer at the museum, or just sit on my duff.
Speaking of the heat, I recall the days where the combination of the heat and the smoky air added a self-serving aspect to the volunteering of my time in the big, air-conditioned box.
That was also when I first met Blake Milteer and Joy Armstrong, who were at the time nearly the entirety of the art museum's staff. I tried to downplay it, but rubbing shoulders with such local and regional art notables was a bit heady.
Since then, I've been able to rub shoulders with plenty of other artists via my association with the museum, not to mention having a show there myself in 2014, concurrent with a wildly popular exhibit of Dale Chihuly's glass pieces.
Fast forward to yesterday, when I was called in to assist with some potentially risky business, the temporary deinstallation of one of the most noted pieces in the museum's collection, Chihuly's Orange Hornet Chandelier, as well as a couple dozen other fragile and expensive glass Chihulys, so that contractors can erect some new walls in that gallery without risking damage to the valuable work. Frankly, the museum staff didn't really need my help, but I really wanted to see the piece up close and personal, to view the construction of the supporting structure normally hidden within the piece.
photo courtesy the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College
Afterward, I lunched with museum staff/Chihuly denuders Joy Armstong, Jeremiah Houck, Jonathan Danke, and Michael Lorusso, in the Colorado College's cafeteria. Maybe it was because Joy was winging east today or perhaps it's because, following lunch, I sat with Jeanne Steiner, Greg Marshall, Niels Davis, and Heather Oelklaus one table over, that I recalled the time some of the same cast of characters and I encouraged Heather, over lunch, that she should definitely jump on a plane to New York - where she'd convinced me not once but thrice to zip myself into a body bag in the middle of the city (stories recounted below, followed by bonus pics of a naked Chihuly.)
It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face if marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.
My wife and I were in New York the last time Heather was there, and we assisted her in taking a few shots for her Bodybag Series, in which she photographs someone - a friend or family member is typically enlisted to be a bagman for one of her art rackets - completely zipped up in one of those thick plastic bags typically reserved for dead bodies, in a morgue, say - only in her work the person is standing on the beach, with arms sticking out the sides of the bag and holding a plastic bucket and shovel for playing with the beach sand, or in a phone booth, with a receiver in one hand, seemingly making a call, or in dozens of various other scenarios.
If you asked Oelklaus what the series is about, she might just turn the tables and ask you what you think. (Editor's note for non-artists: This turnabout-is-fair-play response from many artists isn't as much of a cop out as you might assume. It's more in line with the Socratic method, don't you think?) Having never asked Heather myself, I have my own take on it, but suffice to say that, upon an initial read, the series deals with a heavy subject - death - in a seemingly humorous and light way. Seemingly.
It was in the weeks leading up to the trip a few years ago that Heather asked me if I'd hop in the bodybag for an intended photo shoot in Times Square. I was very reticent. Times Square is one of the epicenters of terrorist plots both successful (a small bomb was placed next to, and blew a hole in, the side of the ARO Architects'-designed Armed Forces Recruiting Station sitting in the middle of the square) and not (I could name a couple, but who knows how many more have been foiled?) and I just knew every millimeter of it was under vigilant 24 hour surveillance. In my mind's eye I could imagine someone in the middle of a large room in New Jersey packed with people and monitors perking up as they witnessed someone zip up into a bodybag on one screen, then two, then ten, as a multitude of hidden cameras zero in on the possible code red. What's that guy doing? Are we looking at a political protest? Maybe a self-immolation risk, a la the Vietnam era Buddhist monk at a busy intersection in Saigon?? Get the cops on this guy, stat!!
But Heather wore me down, and I found myself practicing for the Times Square photo shoot in the lobby of the midtown Manhattan hotel where we were all staying for the week, with my wife assisting Oelklaus with her 4 x 6 camera and timing us from backpack to shot to backpack. We knew we'd have to be quick to get the shot at all.
After we felt pretty comfortable with our speed, we headed out the door and wound our way south and east through the streets of Gotham toward Times Square in a cold sweat attenuated by a warm and windless October night. It felt a little like we were about to rob a bank or something.
Once in the square, we tried to look like tourists with nothing more on our agenda than taking it all in. All the while, Heather was looking for a suitable spot to shoot while Nan and I scanned the brightly lit and bustling streets surrounding us for police. None were in sight, but I knew as soon as we started our choreographed routine they'd come out of the woodwork. Heather found her intended marks and asked if we were ready. We nodded in affirmation and began to feign nonchalance as we began our operation.
We were glad we'd practiced because Heather had only clicked off a few shots before Nan said, with a note of concern, that a couple of cops were closing in on us. I re-entered the world and was folding the bodybag up as they stopped mere feet away and silently chaperoned us with stern, no nonsense frowns and folded arms. Hurriedly we wrapped up our exercise and Heather tucked everything back in her pack, zipped it up, slung it on her back, and we headed as lackadaisically as possible away from the center of the world. It was only after we'd gone a couple blocks that we knew we were in the clear. High fives all around.
So when Heather said, about a week ago over lunch with three artist friends, that her work was going to be in the ImageObject exhibition, the rest of us at the table told her she should definitely go to the opening. As I was when she proposed I become a person of interest in Times Square, she was initially reticent for a number of valid reasons - responsibilities at home, responsibilities at work. The expense of a last minute flight and hotel. Traveling by herself to the big city and rubbing shoulders with big time 'daguerrotypes'. But it didn't take her inclusion in a prominent show for the rest of us to know that Heather Oelklaus is the real deal herself, and the trip was a no-brainer. You go, girl!
In the end, Heather looked somewhat convinced she'd at least inquire as to the possibility of taking time off and check the cost of a round trip flight, and I was happy to find out, later that day, that she had booked it.
No doubt about it, when you're a maker with the hopes that one day your creations will go off and live their own lives in the world, be they photographs, musical compositions, your first 8mm short, or your fifth child, you're taking a real risk. Perhaps not always a death defying David Blaine level risk, but a real one nonetheless. Heck, if you're friends with an artist the same could be said of you - you might be asked to assist with some crazy and daring exploit or even be the subject of their work yourself. Living your life thus can feel, at times, like willingly entering the arena or being zipped into a bodybag well before you thought you ever would - I'm not dead yet! I'm fine! I'm getting better!
But hey, shouldn't taking risks be part and parcel of one's life? Shouldn't getting one's work out there where the art world can pronounce judgement on it, like a Roman Emperor deciding the fate of a wounded gladiator by either displaying a thumb's up (ironically, that meant death was desired) or a raised fist with thumb tucked in (like a sheathed sword, connoting mercy) - shouldn't such potential jeopardy be viewed - weighed carefully and wisely - as a kind of magnetic north for one's life compass?
Of course, Heather Oelklaus will be winging east, not north. But you know what I mean. So, Heather, have an adventure, only be glad it's just a virtual thumb's up I'm giving you.
And now, some of my shots of yesterday's risky business, the hand over hand deinstall of 384 pieces of hand-blown glass:
More risky business: I Fought the Saw, and...