Saturday, March 8, 2014

Graffers R Us in Butte, Montana

Today at the blog, I thought I'd share something special about my adopted hometown.  Since we moved to Butte, Montana five years ago, my wife and I have settled into a comfortable lifestyle in what we're calling our “forever home.”  We're happy here--not only in this Craftsman house which was built in 1920, but in the town as a whole.  Though on the surface, Butte might look like the victim of urban blight, if you look past the crumbling walls of its historic buildings, you'll find a resiliency (they call it “Butte tough”) and a spirit of generosity (“Butte nice”) which is bound to carry this mining city far into the future.  My wife and I are certain that Butte has reached the end of its boomerang trajectory and is on its way back.  Butte, we tell ourselves, is the Next Big Thing.

Nance Van Winckel has also discovered Butte's beauty--in the unlikeliest of places.   My thanks to Nance for sharing her essay about graffiti and grace with Quivering Pen readers. Nance calls her hybrid work PHO-TOEMS.  Click here to see more of her work.

Graffers R Us in Butte, Montana
from "Astral Project Town"

I am not a fearless person, but I play one in Butte.  This place calls out of me the kind of chutzpah I can’t seem to manage anywhere else.  Alone, I roam past boarded-up bank buildings, the noodle palace, and the miners’ homes, the majority of which are empty now.  In their faded terracotta hues and poses of slump or demise, the structures’ haunting beauty hauls me out of bed to shoot their graffiti-covered facades in the sweet soft early-morning light.

And since apparently no one leashes dogs in Butte, when I see a snarling snout coming at me, I yell at it.  “I have pepper spray,” I tell the beast, “and I’m not afraid to use it.”  I grip the canister I keep in my pocket.  The beast backs off.  Butte makes me over into....what?  A force?  Someone who can at least put on the face of force?

The poor sad alcoholics half asleep in the doorways offer me curses or kind greetings or obscene remarks.  A morning’s walk in Butte adds up to equal amounts of each.

Roo N Boom Love More Than You says the graffiti on a crumbling tavern.  At 39 degrees on this early mid-August morning, it seems to me that is as lovely a poem as I could want.  Later when the shot is on my computer screen, I may have to add a little something to that wall.  Perhaps some faces from the old family photo album I found in a Butte junk store.  I stood in the store with tears dripping ridiculously down my cheeks as I turned those pages.  Hand-written notes on slips of yellow paper explained who each figure is, or was.  This is your great uncle Rudolph’s 1911 graduation picture.

At $14.95, the deep burgundy leather album was a steal.  (And apparently one receives a ten percent discount if one is weeping while handing over the cash.)  Gradually, over the last dozen years, I’ve been putting these figures back up around Butte.  I like them in the windows where they may gaze over their city’s streets.  Like me, they seem to appreciate some aspects of the future more than others.

roo n boom love more than you
Today I wear a heavy hooded sweatshirt.  My camera, hanging from a strap around my neck, is zipped inside the hoodie.  This cuts down on the camera’s annoying bounce as I walk.  But I realize, as I catch my reflection in a window, that I look about seven months pregnant.

People are amazingly kind to pregnant women.  They get out of my way in the crosswalk; they motion for me to go first through doorways.  Even the sad residents of the alleys where I most like to shoot don’t bother the pregnant lady.  Especially not one who’s clearly past fifty years old.

What Is the Who?
Just off Church Street, a wall speaks to me: Go Fuck Yourself, it says.  To stand and look at the wall is to recognize that there are others who aren’t like me and/or don’t like me.  From a most primal urge of “graffiari,” to scratch, someone has made a clear statement.  I AM HERE, TOO.  I LIVE AMONG YOU.  READ THIS AND REMEMBER ME.

And obviously Go Fuck Yourself is, basically, shorthand for that.

What, Inc.
The wall speaks.  It’s all about the wall.  I’m starting to get that.

The wall is what you walk beside.  It keeps what’s out OUT and what’s in IN: people, sewage, animals, merchants.  It keeps things moving in the “correct” directions, in the “correct” channels.  Pompeii was a city of many walls, an impressively large functioning underground sewage system.  One of many graffiti left after Mt. Vesuvius wiped out the town was Hello, we’re all wineskins.  As with a lot of poetry I admire, the message here may not be totally clear, and an exact paraphrase may be impossible.  The "wineskins" remark was seen frequently on walls—apparently a shared joke in 79 A.D.

In Butte I climb over crumbling chest-high walls.  I want to shoot their backsides.  All the good stuff’s on the backsides.  And as I climb I recall how, as a girl, I went over a wall I wasn’t supposed to and almost died.  It was a hot summer day in Roanoke, Virginia.  I was 5.  There’d been a big rain and the drainage trench behind my family's house was a flowing stream.  I scrambled over a wall, lowered myself into the murky water, and let myself be carried gently downstream.  When I was thoroughly drenched and happily cooled off, I stood up and walked home; I climbed back over the wall.  By early evening I was running a very high fever.  It was all the poison ivy and poison oak—weeds people had culled out of their yards and thrown into the blocks-long trench—that almost killed me.  A concentrated poisonous sewage.  I had blisters internally.

I spent a few nights in the hospital.  Respiratory problems, erratic pulse, etc.  I had defied the walls.  Bad.  I disobeyed the walls’ boundaries.  And I had been duly punished.

Butte Carriage Works
Susan Stewart in her book, Crimes of Writing, discusses the nature of “criminal art,” and graffiti’s position as both crime and art.  Graffiti, she says, “combines the remoteness, abstraction, and simultaneity characteristic of mechanical modes of production with the ethic of presence, signature, and individuality characteristic of handicrafts.”

Art, she reminds us, is usually experienced in a “closed arena of consumption.”  Museums and galleries contain the visual art.  You go to the printed page for your poetry.  So graffers call into question the whole idea of how/if art is to be/should be contained.  Graffers negate the very notion of art as commodity.  Back in 1988 when her essay first appeared, Stewart made a good case about this non-commodity idea as a reason graffiti had stayed (until then) outside mainstream art.  Nobody made money off the graffiti artist.  But in the last 30 years, this has dramatically changed.  As with other outsider arts, eventually a door somewhere is tipped open.  In the 1990’s as the art establishment began to embrace graffiti as a kind of pop art, or the hip-hop version of pop art, graffers moved indoors.  To canvases.  A part of a building graffitied by Banksy can sell for a hundred grand.

Like graffers everywhere, Butte’s graffers blur preconceptions about the ownership of space.  They convert the “privately” owned into “public” sphere.  Or, put another way, just how privately owned is it if some Boston bankers (who’ve never set foot in Butte) are, by default, the deed holders?

Summer's Whistle of Wind
Walls stand betwixt and between anyway.  A here and a there.  But the two aren’t so mutually exclusive.  After that five-year-old girl defied the wall and was poisoned by what lay beyond the protected domicile, in her poison-ivy fever-dream her dead father appeared at the foot of her bed and spoke to her.

He was, in point of fact, killed when she was two.  What happened to this child is a wondrous thing—a thing forever after associated for her with transgression, for now she, by virtue of her transgression, has somehow trespassed through one sort of wall into a realm she'd believed was forbidden to the living.  But WTF?  There she was.  Her deceased father, three years after his death, was wearing a white cummerbund.  The girl can see him and the outfit to this very day.

And to this day, linked in her little mind are the words TRANSGRESSION and TRANSFORMATION.

Some sort of message was conveyed.  From behind an unfathomable wall.

What marks I leave (albeit just “digitally”) on Butte’s walls are brief “passings,” like the cigar sign from 1923, or the faded 1951 school logo, or the 2007 graduates’ hooray for their class.  Leaving a mark, we enter the wall.  We state our biggest joys and curse our crazy foes.  We tag back to all the wall holds—between us and it.

Footnote Palace

Nance Van Winckel, originally from Roanoke, Virginia, has lived in Spokane, Washington since 1990.  Pacific Walkers, Nance's sixth book of poems, was recently released from U. of Washington Press.  A fourth collection of linked short stories, Boneland, came out with U. of Oklahoma Press in October 2013.  Nance’s other books of poetry include: No Starling (University of Washington Press, 2007), Bad Girl, with Hawk (U. of Illinois Press, 1987), The Dirt (Miami U. Press, 1994), Beside Ourselves (Miami University Press, 2003), and After A Spell (Miami U. Press, 1998), which received the Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry.  Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The American Poetry Review, the Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Gettysburg Review, Field, Volt, The Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Ploughshares.  Nance's three books of short stories are Curtain Creek Farm (Persea Books, 2000), Quake (U. of Missouri Press, 1998) which received the 1998 Paterson Fiction Prize, and Limited Lifetime Warranty (U. of Missouri Press, 1994).  Her stories have appeared in The Georgia Review, Colorado Review, and AGNI.  A former editor of Willow Springs and creator of Spokane's Writers in the Community Program, she is an emerita professor in Eastern Washington University's creative writing program and currently teaches in Vermont College of Fine Arts' low-residency MFA in Writing Program.  Click here to visit her website.

No comments:

Post a Comment