Sunday, April 27, 2008

Earthquake!/My Quest Begins

my signature circa 1981

I have just returned from a 10 day visit to my hometown in Wisconsin. Normally I only go back during the holiday season, and it's been nearly a decade since I've been there in Spring. Doing so brought flooding back memories of my childhood. The 4 years I've spent in NYC have tricked my senses into accepting concrete everywhere, whereas before that was never the case. Getting out to the countryside of my youth has inspired me to delve deep into my own past in a quest to decipher my perplexing decision to become an artist.

I grew up in a geographic anomaly referred to as the "driftless zone". Inexplicably, several waves of glaciation over multiple ice-ages spared an area of the upper Mississippi River Valley about the size of Massachusetts. The result is a landscape unlike any other. Whereas the rest of the Midwest was scraped flat by massive sheets of ice, the landscape in the driftless zone is populated with hills eroded over millions of years by rainfall alone. Some of the most ancient sandstone cliffs stand as the final reminders of an ocean floor from a time when the continent was still under water. The area is so unique that special words are used to describe the landforms, the large rock cliffs being called "bluffs" and the valleys between called "coulees". The people of many tribes and the animals they needed to survive gathered here in this oasis between thaws, when the rest of the country was frozen and barren. Their legacy remains in the names of the cities in the area, as well as the peculiar mound structures that they built throughout the region. This is a sacred and beautiful place.

Old postcard from my birthplace

In 1980 a new, exciting thing happened in the region: the first Mall had arrived. I was 4 years old, and recently sentient. I remember going to the vast indoor market and marveling at the glowing logos above every shop. I also vaguely remember understanding at the time that there had been some controversy regarding the construction as the workcrew had uncovered what appeared to be an Indian burial ground when the foundation was being poured. I thought bones and arrowheads were cool; I didn't consider the cultural ramifications at that time, nor did many others. Over the next 20 years, the entire valley surrounding this Mall has sprouted endless logos on poles and lightposts are as abundant as trees once were. At night the glow lights up the sky from miles away, beckoning shoppers to the convenience they've come to expect in life. In exchange, a once bustling historic downtown has become a vacant curiosity as the majority of money earned locally is handed to multi-national corporations and disappears from the region.

A similar scene today

My homecoming last week was met with a highly auspicious event. On Friday evening, the night following my arrival, the ground moved. Centered in West Salem, Illinois, an earthquake had occurred upon the mysterious New Madrid faultline. I can't help but marvel at the coincidence of the location of the epicenter of the Earthquake, as the small hometown I was staying where my parents still live is also called West Salem, but Wisconsin, not Illinois. The largest tremor was in 1811, when the great Shawnee warrior Tecumseh predicted such an event if the tribes didn't work together to stop the encroachment of the whites. I can't help but wonder if the Great Spirit is again frustrated as the current inhabitants once again seem unable to band together to stop the corporate scourge from colonizing their land and enslaving them through debt and low wages.

The tremors were documented during a newscast:

Whatever minute vibrations reached me from this rare event stirred me into action. I set out to discover my past, to reconnect with the person I was long ago, and document the artwork that still exists from these times. I believe that creativity flows from one project to another, never actually dying out, just shifting direction at various times. All the work I've ever made has been influenced by the sum of all the other work I've created before it. By searching through my past I want to find evidence that marks key developments leading to the current body of work that I'm creating today. If possible, I want to find the earliest possible signs in my childhood that I would become an artist. My first exciting clue came in the form of the following book:

I saw the corner of this familiar paperback sticking out from a pile of other books in the closet at my parents' house. I was drawn to it because a picture on the front page of the NYC paper I'd been reading on my flight the previous day had featured a picture of Jenna Bush reading a copy of the same book to some children. I pulled it out, and was completely surprised to open the cover and read the following text:

(sic: "T. Stanke T.T.S. this book belogs to t.t.s. Name teddy Stanke")

It was Mine! The great care I took in describing this book as my possession leads me to believe that it represents concrete physical evidence of my entrance into the world of property ownership. This was my Capitalist Baptism, and I was holding it in my hands. A hypothesis began to emerge. The year was 1981, and I was in Kindergarten. We were able to order books twice a year from the Scholastic book company, and this was my first selection. Anything else I owned before this had been given to me as a gift, and was therefore an unexpected suprise. This storybook represents my first selection and purchase of a commodity, followed by a waiting period and the final arrival of specific merchandise. Whether or not I realized it when I checked the box, I was making the first decision in my life as an American consumer. Surely when I was first given this book, I saw for the first time that I could choose things I wanted over things I did not. Any other choice at this point could have sent me in any other direction. I would assume most of the other kids picked out sports books, or cutesy stuff, but I was drawn to the amazing artwork and creative imagination of Maurice Sendak.

Looking at the images on the pages that aren't missing, I can see the exact same things that my young eyes studied and memorized. From these drawings, the seed was planted, and a young Teddy Stanke began to dream about becoming an artist.

My next find of significance was an early drawing, perhaps the first self-portrait I ever consciously attempted. This is a truly pure representation of the beginning of my art training. No particular talent is necessarily demonstrated. The image could have been done by any child. It appears the nose was easiest to visualize when I considered it in relation to a snowman, hence the carrot usage, perhaps the earliest allusion to my brain wanting to work in 3-D. My color choices were well chosen, with the same green eyes and blond hair depicted that I have today.

The signature on the back of the sheet captures a rare moment in my life when I knew my name by sound alone, and had a difficulty remembering how many "d's" that there were supposed to be when written.
. This young child is still alive, and his dream has not changed. My quest to become an artist began long ago, and continues.

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