Friday, March 04, 2005

Wind, Sand and Psyche

The wind runs out of the cold West. I'm exhausted. Wind-blown salt covers my glasses and with the glow of sunset it's hard for me to see anything. I can see this sculpture, though, standing tall on the sloping beach. It's a mystery. I look around for the sculptor but I know who it is. I don't have to look for him. Somehow, he's me.

Some hours ago the beach was smooth and sun-flooded. I loaded the car, drove the short way to the parking lot and walked to the water with my bundle of Naugahyde and sticks and my bucket of tools. The tools are simple and cheap. I don't have any money for fancy stuff, but I do have ideas.

Diane and I have been talking about this, Diane who is with me in an internal expedition. We've talked about creativity and my love for building things that showed up when I was a kid. As we talk, through those long hours in Westwood, we lift the accumulated fog and see the connections between now and then.

One afternoon, Bob and I were hanging out on the beach at Maggie's Farm. I've always liked to play in sand. Being an adult gives me an advantage over children. I can move more sand. This long warm Maine beach whispered to my questing fingers, and I made piles and patterns of sand. Bob was busy with serious Photography and I just wanted to keep my hands sandy. Then I got an idea: Can I make an arch, a freestanding arch, out of this stuff? It sounded like something that could be done, but not easily. As an engineering problem it interested me.

I want to build a new sailing ship. I'd like to have one that is a little more realistic; the catamaran type I've been building stays upright but doesn't inspire my eight-year-old eye. This ought to be easy because we have half a garage full of woodworking equipment. I set to work with various tools and scrounged lumber. This ship, called Lightning after the Donald McKay clipper, starts to take shape. A little trimming with the miter box and then I'm ready to join the halves of the hull. Each half is about four inches wide. The only nails I can find are about three inches long. I'm stumped for a bit, but then I whip out the electric drill and blast a series of holes in the side of one half. With a punch I drive my short nails through to the other piece and have a hull. I'm on my way.

So I tried various techniques. I made a pile of damp sand and tunnelled through it. Worked for tunnels, but before it got close to being something that could be called an arch the roof caved in. I tried very wet sand, piled across a trickle of water running down to the sea, but it slumped even as I piled it. Noticing that the beach itself is hard, I dug two pits. The undisturbed sand between them did hold an arch. I dug several more, making a Roman aqueduct whose top was level with the beach. The technique worked but was aesthetically unsatisfying because the arch is underground. Night falls, ending the experiments. Fall came along and put a cold close on the beach season. Later, I left Maine.

In the gathering dark on the edge of California I stand in the wet running wind and contemplate the child of those Maine experiments. What stands here is a four-foot fantasy, interconnected loops of flying sand, product of my imagination that has taken a life of its own.

Maine was a couple of years gone. Out there in front of me was the warm Pacific with its long rollers coming in from Japan. Three thousand miles were behind me but sand is where you find it. I decided to try building a sand castle instead of my usual freeform shapes and piles. Any self-respecting castle has a handsome gated entry. That requires an arch, so I continue the experiments.
"That's impossible, Larry. It'll never work."

"Go tell that to the bumblebee; I have work to do. I'll believe it can't be done if I can't do it." I frequently had to wait for adults to understand something as well as I did. I'd come up with a solution, they'd try everything else, then take mine. Few things hurt more than being ignored; I spent a lot of time out on my own, figuring things out, enjoying the creative work of discovering or inventing new ways. I'd watch my latest ship sail across Indian Rock lake and redesign it in my mind.

What comes out as Diane and I talk about this is my delight in the process. Back then, just doing what I was doing, I didn't see that much. I thought everyone was like that. But when I was creative, solving things with no limits on the kind of solution, I was alive. School was dead. There, creativity mattered only if I went the approved way. I learned to act the way they wanted, but I knew the world wasn't made that way.

The cold blowing November dark closes around me. Dimly against the trampled surrounding sand I see this impossible structure raising defiant arches above the beach. Yes, I built it. Yes, I have watched people, passersby on the beach, respond in various ways to what I have made for myself. I've gotten somewhat used to it, inured in a way, after doing a dozen or so. After I'd made a few I wondered when I'd run out of ideas. As I stand for a few more moments and look at this latest sculpture I think of more ideas for new ones. Seems like each one makes room for ten more. So yes, I've gotten used to it but I don't understand it. I don't look too closely, either; magic doesn't tolerate tampering.

The gate wasn't coming together. I made a couple of pillars and then spanned the distance between with damp packed sand. Tunnelling through duplicates Maine's experience. I needed something new. Giving up on the castle, I went back to freeform playing. I tried putting my hand on the beach, covering it with sand, and then pulling it out. It worked, but the results were minuscule. I kept playing around. Beside me was a hole I'd dug deep enough, in getting sand for experiments, for seawater to seep into and make a puddle. I picked up some of the sandy water from the bottom of the hole and let it run from my fingers onto the beach. This made wonderful spires. I made lots of them and they grew, spreading and joining into a larger pile of sand.

Riding my slick red two-speed bicycle home from the swimming pool I roll down the short steep driveway out of the parking lot. There is sand at the bottom where I have to turn onto the street. I can make it without brakes, I decide. I spend the rest of the afternoon picking sand out of a nice collection of scrapes. That hurts. I have a new respect for sand on concrete. I've never made that kind of mistake again.

"I could never do that," I think as I look at a sculpture or read a book. That's real art. Where do they get the ideas and the ability? My own brain feels barren. As I turn sticks of wood and pampas grass into a ship, balsa into an airplane and sand into beauty I wonder why I am so lacking. The shy creatures of my mind learn to trust my relationship with Diane and they start to show themselves.

This idea is made solid. I can't see much; the sun is long down and the pier is a line of lights above dim white breakers. This sculpture is sturdy enough to stand. They don't always. Building it has taken most of my energy, but I can stand and walk long enough to get back to the car. It's a mystery, yes, but I am content to let this process be. Like the arches' delicate balance of mass against gravity my creativity is balanced between trust and ridicule. The arches spring from my own life. The engineering exercise has become a drive to express myself in the clearest language I know.

I wound up with a good-sized pile of dripped sand under a bunch of gargoylish spires. Wanting to start another, my hand went out to flatten this pile. It resisted, the whole pile moving sideways as a piece, sliding. I became alert, suddenly, completely. I started digging into the side of the pile. It was firm. The tunnel holed through and the ceiling stayed up. Enlarging it produced the form I wanted. The lesson, learned at Maggie's Farm in firm sand, grew up. Romans built them out of stone. St. Louis has one sheathed in stainless steel. Pasadena has a concrete beauty carrying a street across Arroyo Seco. I figured it out. Now Santa Monica had an arch made of sand.

Two years later, Santa Monica has a fancy arch. For three months I've been coming out here two or three times a week, a commuter to spend the day rearranging a ton of sand. The first two or three were simple variations on the arch theme but somewhere in there I woke up at the end of the day and found the arch still there but changed. The once-stiff sand now flows, draped around elegant hollows.

Next: "Concrete"


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