I sat down next to Imran Ali Khan. As usual, I asked to bum a smoke.
»The piranha is making the usual request.«
»Please, of course.« He handed over his bag of American Spirit, papers, and filters.
Generous as ever.
I rolled one.
»How are things?«
»How’s the writing?«
»I haven’t done a fucking thing,« he smiled.
»It’s beautiful today.«
It was. We sat on the short wall behind Solitude’s studios at the edge of the farmer’s field.
We paused, enjoying the breeze. I don’t know if there really was a breeze that day, but in my memory, the wildflowers were always blowing behind us.
But I wasn’t okay. I was beyond anxious.
»Actually, I’m in a crisis.«
»Oh, really? What do you mean?«
During Solitude’s annual Sommerfest, I’d visited many of my fellow fellows’ studios.
I’d been blown away. Even writers like Imran had created immersive environments that told the story of the work. The skills Imran had developed in his former life as a designer were on full display. The stories, variations on the official texts of the Indian epic the Ramayana, which he had been collecting on a famous pilgrimage route, were visualized on the walls of his studio. Photographs and texts were connected by crisscrossing threads, forming patterns, forming the sense that things were connected. The threads are sacred and called mauli, though they have other names, too.
I write, »I’m in a crisis,« which doesn’t really describe anything about how I was feeling. »Freaking out« was closer.
»I don’t know what I’m doing. I see the work people are making, and it makes me question everything I’m doing.«
»You mean, you’re intimidated?«
»No, I’m so impressed, so inspired. I just want to do something different.«
»Well, why don’t you?«
Good question. I’m still asking myself that. I imagine something expanded, text and art and collabs and … more residencies like this one, in which I have the privilege of having crises intense periods of inspiration.
My shtick is lingering. Stories, fragments, some funky temporality meant to create resonances between things, which might also have to do with the challenges I face in my writing, like maintaining a thread or wrapping things up.
Changing the shtick would mean jumping in, getting my feet wet, taking new risks, actually making work, especially visual work. I don’t fear failure like I once did, but here I am in full avoidance mode. I’d rather grade.
Summer at the Schloss did find me dipping my feet into visual art again. Christoph and I made pornographic collages, which Imran kindly assisted us in assembling on our wall. There were photos of us, Nutella B-Ready wrappers, postcards Ctoph had picked up at the Queer Art show at the Tate Modern, and fragments of images from discount pornographic magazines we’d picked up at a local sex store.
We did morning photo shoots. Ctoph taught me some more of his selfie techniques, and, girl, we found that lighting and kept up our streak of on-point Instagram posts. And I took grainy photos of him with my five-year-old iPhone 5. The camera was scratched, and the images turned out grainy. My favorite is a cross between a still frame of an over-watched VHS porn tape and the famous image of Bigfoot.
Ctoph also gives me an assignment. It’s taking selfies. I get a lot better, but end up asking for an extension. I never finish all of the assignments. And some, like the laying in bed selfie, I never quite master.
We show up at the residency site.
It’s September 29, 2017.
It’s not a residency site yet exactly. They’re still working on the house.
»I’m not happy.« I’m not not happy actually. What I mean is, »I’m so envious.«
Jason, a former student, had invited Christoph and I up to hang in a house he and his partner had bought near Hunter Mountain, a few hours north. I hadn’t seen the student in ten years. Pohan, his partner, told me that I came up in conversation regularly. And the invite was cinched when he overheard her mumbling to herself as she looked for an essay she’d read in an art/theory camp at Banff in Alberta, something by someone named McGlotten.
»McGlotten? Shaka McGlotten?«
So that’s how I got invited.
They were still sorting out what kind of shape the residency would take. A work-study program? A cross between an Airbnb, with modest costs and a sliding scale? Would engaging the reticent local community be a condition of the residency? What would the application process look like? Who might serve on it?
After the summer at the Schloss, Christoph and I have a lot of ideas that we share, many of them impractical given the constraints of money and space. But we talk a lot about it anyway. Christoph and I talk a lot about the space. Jason and Pohan are doing it all themselves. Only a few rooms are finished, but you can see where it’s going. What’s finished is beautiful, and Christoph is looking at things through a designer’s eyes.
We stay for two nights, lying on the floor and watching movies on the wall, fireplace at our backs.
Fall has arrived and the location is picaresque and somewhat remote. So we watch weather appropriate media, like the cult classic The Craft, which is about four high school witches. Three of them go to the dark side. Fairuza Balk’s feral performance makes the otherwise mediocre film.
And we watch Twin Peaks, one of the highlights of American television, which Christoph had never seen. That show still creeps me out. It’s not just a quirky FBI procedural set in a quirky small town in Washington; there’s – spoiler alert – intergalactic possession and the murder of not-so-innocents. My sleep was more restless than usual.
On our last full day there, we take a three-and-a-half-hour walk up and down the mountain.
I hear them ahead of me. One of many of Christoph’s astute observations: »Maybe you can do a studio visits like they do at Solitude except instead of visiting people in their rooms or where they’re making their work, you just record walks like these.« Crunch crunch go the leaves in the silences that fall. Misty rain falls lightly against the rocks, which shift under my feet as I walk carefully.
I hear them ahead of me. I hear the light rain against rocks and leaves. The movement of rocks from my careful steps.
We’re planting seeds for future visits, maybe even our own residencies.
We want in.
You can call yourself an artist
In May of 1997, I rollerskated around the house I used to party in. I wore a too small girls’ Star Wars T-shirt with Chewbacca on it. Beige corduroy bellbottoms. And, yeah, roller skates. It was an indy art opening for the kids who’d been outside or cast out from the art program. I had my pastels up, most of which I still have, although they’ve been terribly stored these nearly 20 years. It was graduation weekend, too, so a lot of people were around. Parents curiously entered, walked around, smiled, exited. I did sell one work – to my mentor Katya.
Afterwards, we sat outside and shared cigarettes. I told her I’ve decided not to get an MFA, and that I don’t really feel like an artist, especially compared to some of my peers.
»You earned a degree in art. So you’ve earned the right to call yourself an artist.«
I still think about that a lot. I’m not sure she’s right.
But I do have that degree.