Archive for September, 2009

The History of Photography Part III or the Black Dog

Posted in Art, Autobiographical, Photography on September 23, 2009 by smpiv


If you’ve been to the depths of your creative spirit then you may know where I am going with this.

Creativity at a higher level can come with a great deal of pain. I mentioned a while back that after my personal epiphany I spent five years at a creative level I haven’t returned to and that it was very painful. Winston Churchill called his painful moments his black dog and would disappear into a room for several days. This is the down side.

The up side, of course, is the product–a production of mind, body and spirit, therefore a product.

The mind does the initial heavy lifting as it processes, processes and reprocesses any kernel of an idea you may have. Beats it down to its basest level, spins it around again and again and regurgitates it any number of times. It consumes you, it leaves you standing struck dumb while holding a sheet of plywood while your workmates yell at you with measurements and you won’t respond–you can’t hear them because you are far, far away. It takes you places in your gray matter you’ve never been.

There are associations upon association, some that make sense others….others that don’t and some that are pure magic in their discovery. Things pop into your head at odd moments, most ethereal and ephemeral and difficult to pin down. It is like the clearest, driest August day that spells the end of summer that paints the sky the bluest blue you’ve ever seen, the clouds deafeningly white and the wind off the water chills you to the bone. It’s tingly.

For me it was like having one long waking dream–my skipping stone flying fast, spinning fast, and not touching down. The new term is absent present, but my absence wasn’t filtered through an electronic device, it sat just behind my eyes–dreamy, drugged, desolate; it only mattered when you met me which gleam you would get.

When you’re in it, it seems like an eternity, like it may stretch on forever, but a strange eternity that you are afraid will just as suddenly end. Looking back it is, at best, fleeting, at worst, having never happened–like it happened to someone else and you were only there to observe. For me my most successful pieces were the ones that immediately escaped me, the ones that were done by another magician who wouldn’t reveal their secrets to me.

Like my self portrait I’d like to revisit several pieces. One at the beginning, one in the middle and one piece made toward the end of my epiphanal ride.

I don’t fear decades. I tend to relish where I’ve been and look forward in earnest to where I may go as each of my decades end and begin. Thirty was no different, although I didn’t know it at the time my skipping stone was on the downside of the arc that would define the front and back of this particular decade. Not knowing that, I decided to take a snapshot, a Kodak moment, of thirty.

“Initium” titles the first panel–and these are panels. Door panels to be exact from a door that was demoed at a house I was working on as a carpenter. They had been sitting in my Mom’s garage for several years in anticipation of this moment. Magic maybe, hoarding is more like it.

In the center of the panel on its left side is a snapshot of me in July of 1959 looking out defiantly from my stroller. There are signs of intelligence in that stare, a lack of hair that forebodes and a squint that continues to furrow my brow. Beneath the image reads–

I was born in Kingsville, Texas

On November 13, 1958 to Anne G. Purvis and Samuel M. Purvis III

I am the fourth

Facts, because that’s all I was–a fact, a statistic. Another baby born towards the tail end of the baby boom defined best by those that bore me. Ill defined, an empty cup to be fixwd

The second panel is titled “Medius” and reads–

I am thirty years old

My hair is thinning, but I have a decent tan

July 29, 1989

As snapshotty as a painted panel can be. The three pictures on this panel were shot with 4×5 Polaroid film, torn and stacked to match the image below. One for each decade and centered.

My gaze is fully engaged here–perhaps my black dog was moving on. My mouth just, just barely, into a smile–almost a grin. My right eye raised to push up my eyebrow in a knowing, mocking way. And yes my hair was in an organized retreat.

The final panel you may recognize. “Exitus”.

When will I die How will I die

 Why will I die, Where will I die, Will I die?

The facts please

For this panel I used my standby, never-ending self portrait. Just my shadow on a tree, the bark of the tree defined within my shadow. There is nothing harrowing about these questions that are meant to finish my image that sits far right in its inner frame. These are questions that we have all asked at one time or another, although now that I am screaming past fifty they are not as light and fluffy as they used to be.

It’s straight forward. It was quick. It resonated immediately and with time it resonates even more. It challenges with its simplicity and like a good magician it’s the simple tricks that often work best.

14 Stations of the CrossThe next piece–“The Fourteen Stations of the Cross”–was done three years later and is the extreme end of my ride. It delves deepest into everything that made this journey memorable and painful.

My cousin Laura recently wrote me a note on Facebook asking me to see past my atheism to pray for something–I’ve forgotten what now. I’m sure somewhere in my past I said I was an atheist, and, well, I’m not. This is not a saving moment, I haven’t found Christ–he’s always been here, just to say that I’m no atheist. (see Henry Mortimer’s ” An Atheist Who Wants to Believe in God! What Would Mr. Mencken Say?” at  for a really nice essay within an essay on this).

How do I flesh this out?

The first piece I did to begin this journey was my brother and I on a hobby horse ready for a ride into the desert. An apple dangled above our heads symbolizing the temptations that would swallow us throughout our lives and would wash away the innocence that gamely mounted that horse.

“The Fourteen Stations of the Cross” is a piece that at the other end takes that desert journey and smothers it with every bite man has ever taken out of that apple and marches it around three shrouded bodies. The man of a thousand faces stairs down in a visage easily recognized as Christ. It is so difficult to explain this without seeming trite and maudlin. But.

I have never finished this piece. Four little shells. Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter are missing. Dogwoods bleed on each corner with nothing to tell them when to thrive and when to die. Iraqi prisoners march endlessly around the inner frame. I don’t want to finish this piece. I can’t close this chapter, I don’t want to. Can a tear fall on a computer screen?

It is the dark undercurrent that truly pushes our creativity–I’m sure of it. The complexity of this piece comes in its transience. It’s a sand painting, a mandala, sweep it up and start again–but I won’t finish it, so it can’t be swept. For me it’s four little shells that would wrap it up–to begin my eternity all over again. The undercurrent is the ebb and flow of our collective cruelty.

Truth be told it has kept my black dog at bay, at arm’s length. It sits in front of me every day as I sit at my computer to innocuously go about my day. It is contained. Heal.


One of my favorite movies is “Sherman’s March” by Ross McElwee. Watch it, it’s oddly hypnotic. McElwee starts out to make a movie about Sherman’s March through the South which he has been awarded a grant for. He ends up visiting old girlfriends throughout the South, under the aegis of his film project, to find out where their relationships went wrong and that’s his film. That’s me.

I began my journey with a scholarship and a stipend to study photography. By the time it was over I was constructing, painting and occasionally using photography to flesh out some visual aspect of my work. Far more sculptural than two dimensional. In fact I almost didn’t graduate because of it. McElwee in essence is confronting himself throughout this movie, his ex-girlfriends simply unwitting shills in his obsessive march. (Watch his movies that followed this, it gets worse).

That is in essence what I have done as well. After all what is art today, but self-reflections, the social necessity for art long gone. My initial pieces were definitely reflective–“Mater Dei” a perfect example.

I have come to the conclusion that if you don’t come from a dysfunctional family that there is something wrong. You can’t hide behind Doris-Day-curtains–the truth is always worse than the fiction you create. My family is no different.

For years I thought my mother’s father was dead. Well one day my Mimi received a letter in the mail that notified her that his name was still on the deed to 117A. “That son-of-a-bitch!” Shocking on two counts for me, because at sixteen I had never heard her swear, barely raise her voice, and cursing the dead all in one go.

I replied “He’s dead, what difference does it make?”

“He’s not.”

Hitch number two–hitch number one had occurred earlier that year when my parents had gotten divorced. We were living in California, so it did make some weird sense, but my god-like progenitors were giving their clay feet away at a great rate. My Beaver Cleaver world was crumbling like a stage set.

tamo shanter fixed“Mater Dei” looks to set this right or at least to capture it within a frame. Translated mater dei means Mother of God. The central image set in a tondo is of me and my mother in a classic Madonna pose–I wasn’t more than six months old and as innocent as any other baby. If it had been done in the Renaissance it would have been titled “Madonna and Christ with Tam o’ Shanter”.

Like most kids the notion of a virgin birth isn’t so farfetched. We tend to look at our parents as perfect beings–god-like–and thus the spawn of a god. Please, remain calm, I have no delusions here, no sacrilegious thoughts, no Jim Jones aspirations.

This is me coming to terms with my family–the imperfect beast that had charaded in my mind as “Ozzie and Harriett”. My mother’s father’s face is painted blue. A renaissance technique to denote a saint or donors fall from favor–an imperfect means of erasing the past that at least acknowledged the persons existence.

At the base of the piece is a skull and a message within the tondo that denotes a simple truth–like you I am doomed to the same fate. Another renaissance cadge.


And then it was over.

I never set out to make a living as an artist, so as my creative ride came to an end there was no pulling of hair, no cutting of ears, no fetal crying jags. For me it was a personal journey that I let anyone who wanted to, to take a look.

My lens became my hands. My constructions were built of pieces of my life that had been buried under and behind other more pleasant thoughts. Don’t get me wrong, my life has been a blessed one, but nothing is perfect and I occasionally hear the whelps of my black dog trying to rebirth thoughts I have buried in wood, paint, paper and glue.

As I watch Min grow up I wonder what baggage I have packed for him. Only time will tell .