Cooling breezes blew in yesterday and in this moment, where I live, all is calm. We’re told another storm comes which could bring lightning leading to more fires. It’s been unsettling, and yet, I’m reading Marilyn Chase’s book, Everything She Touched. It’s about Ruth Asawa, an amazing sculptor and woman. Seeing her work at the De Young in San Francisco I’ve been enchanted, but now I know more of what created this woman and her art.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed, her parents, farmers in the U.S. but immigrants from Japan, were separated. Her father was taken away and interrogated as a spy. The other members of the family were taken from CA and interned at the Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas.
Ruth’s response: “I hold no hostilities for what happened; I blame no one. Sometimes good comes through adversity. I would not be who I am today had it not been for the internment, and I like who I am.”
She had an amazing array of teachers but what most stays with me is that she used wire for her sculptures. When one considers how she was confined by barbed wire that surrounded the concentration camp, and how she then turned it into art, well, to use a cliche, she turned lemons into lemonade.
She learned the wire-crocheting technique she used while on a field trip in Toluca, Mexico, where villagers used a similar technique to make baskets from galvanized wire. She said:
“I was interested in it because of the economy of a line, making something in space, enclosing it without blocking it out. It’s still transparent. I realized that if I was going to make these forms, which interlock and interweave, it can only be done with a line because a line can go anywhere.”
“A line can go anywhere.”
I’m reminded of Annie Dillard’s words from her book The Writing Life. She’s writing about a stunt pilot Dave Rahm who died during a performance.
The air show announcer hushed. He had been squawking all day, and now he quit. The crowd stilled. Even the children watched dumbstruck as the slow, black biplane buzzed its way around the air. Rahm made beauty with his whole body; it was pure pattern, and you could watch it happen. The plane moved every way a line can move, and it controlled three dimensions, so the line carved massive and subtle slits in the air like sculptures. The plane looped the loop, seeming to arch its back like a gymnast; it stalled, dropped, and spun out of it climbing; it spiraled and knifed west on one side’s wings and back east on another; it turned cartwheels, which must be physically impossible; it played with its own line like a cat with yarn. How did the pilot know where in the air he was? If he got lost, the ground would swat him.
Rahm did everything his plane could do: tailspins, four-point rolls, flat spins, figure 8’s, snap rolls, and hammerheads. He did pirouettes on the plane’s tail. The other pilots could do these stunts, too, skillfully, one at a time. But Rahm used the plane inexhaustibly, like a brush marking thin air.
His was pure energy and naked spirit. I have thought about it for years. Rahm’s line unrolled in time. Like music, it split the bulging rim of the future along its seam. It pried out the present. We watchers waited for the split-second curve of beauty in the present to reveal itself. The human pilot, Dave Rahm, worked in the cockpit right at the plane’s nose; his very body tore into the future for us and reeled it down upon us like a curling peel.
Like any fine artist, he controlled the tension of the audience’s longing. You desired, unwittingly, a certain kind of roll or climb, or a return to a certain portion of the air, and he fulfilled your hope slantingly, like a poet, or evaded it until you thought you would burst, and then fulfilled it surprisingly, so you gasped and cried out.
The oddest, most exhilarating and exhausting thing was this: he never quit. The music had no periods, no rests or endings; the poetry’s beautiful sentence never ended; the line had no finish; the sculptured forms piled overhead, one into another without surcease. Who could breathe, in a world where rhythm itself had no periods?
“Purity does not lie in separation from but in deeper penetration into the universe,” Teilhard de Chardin wrote. It is hard to imagine a deeper penetration into the universe than Rahm’s last dive in his plane, or than his inexpressible wordless selfless line’s inscribing the air and dissolving. Any other art may be permanent. I cannot recall one Rahm sequence. He improvised. If Christo wraps a building or dyes a harbor, we join his poignant and fierce awareness that the work will be gone in days. Rahm’s plane shed a ribbon in space, a ribbon whose end unraveled in memory while its beginning unfurled as surprise. He may have acknowledged that what he did could be called art, but it would have been, I think, only in the common misusage, which holds art to be the last extreme of skill. Rahm rode the point of the line to the possible; he discovered it and wound it down to show. He made his dazzling probe on the run. “The world is filled, and filled with the Absolute,” Teilhard de Chardin wrote. “To see this is to be made free.”