Archive for February, 2010

“Queen of Tarts” – 24″ x 36″ – acrylic on canvas

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Year of Work – 1969

I had some  interesting jobs between June of 1968 and June of 1969 as a nineteen year old.  Many thanks to my father for a union card – Local 242 Laborers and Hodcarriers necessitated by construction labor on his bridge in Montana.

1.  Placing (vibrating) concrete at the top of a 110’ high bridge pier down deep inside of a steel form and a rebar cage made of number 18 rebar (2-¼” in diameter) Glad I’m not claustrophobic or agoraphobic.

2.  Volunteer fireman at lumber  mill conflagration in Rexford, Montana.  This valley, in which the boy became a man,   is now under 150 feet of water, Kootenai River became Lake Koocanusa due to Libby Dam.

3.  Tearing worm-rotted wood out of a drydock as big as a football field in Seattle for a week.  This vast field of soggy, mossy wood was filled with a billion long, green piling worms that had turned the 8” x 8” timbers to black, gooey, shredded wheat.  Whenever people refer to Seattle’s yuppie / Starbuckness, I think of many jobs like this I had in Seattle’s industrial area.

4.  Spending two full eight hour days swinging a nine pound double jack sledgehammer into the concrete blocks of a small building, reducing it to rubble – intensely therapeutic.

5.  Working as a longshoreman unloading bananas from Nicaragua (tarantulas hitching a ride at times), Volvos from Sweden, Salmon from Alaska, Scotch from Brazil….just kidding – from Scotland.  Frozen mornings hanging around with the guys waiting for the ship boom operator to get moving.

6.  Scraping chewing gum off of the exposed aggregate plaza in front of the Bank of America building in downtown Seattle for two days.  A Zen experience.

7.  Breaking up concrete pavement with a jackhammer for a week – noisy, also very therapeutic.  Same goes for swimming pool demolition (smaller hammer)

8.  Setting steel pan forms as large as bathtubs for a small suburban church.  We carried these things on our backs, walking along flat 2 x 6s a story above the ground.

9.  Graveyard shift at San Jose Der Wienerschnitzel.  Only three or four customers per shift – usually  low-riders.  Got bored, made wall sculptures from condiment packages, stir-stix, sweetener paks all taped to wall like a big totem – got fired for this stunt.

10.  Obstructed from racially segregated San Jose labor union local so:  Dishwasher / Busboy at Host International Restaurant at San Jose Airport.  Favorite things  after a long shift at steaming auto-washer scraping lobster tails and yelllow rice into garbage, was to spread a thin layer of molasses over the stainless steel counter and draw pictures into it a la Peter Max.  Also enjoyed going out onto tarmac where I could walk up and into parked, empty 737s late at night and sit in pilot seat.  I doubt  this is allowed anymore.

11.  During May I was focusing on my art career painting almost full-time using savings from the miscellaneous jobs and upon being hounded by the Seattle draft board, joined the Army.  It was like going on vacation.  I could sleep in until six every morning, three square meals a day, lots of good company, fun activities like shooting guns, tossing grenades, judo, bayonet practice, rope climbing, camping, jumping out of planes and helicopters, lots of great music.  Surrounded by complainers, I was having a nice rest and getting paid!

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All-Time Favorite Songs

1.  Hey Baby – Bruce Chanel / Delbert McClinton

2.  Artificial Flowers – Bobby Darrin

3.  Handyman – Jimmy Jones

4.  Jailhouse Rock – Elvis

5.  Stagger Lee – Lloyd Price

6.  Smokey Places – Corsairs

7.  All My Lovin’ – The Beatles

8.  You Really Got Me – The Kinks

9.  123-Redlight – 1910 Fruitgum Company

10.  Highway 61- Bob Dylan

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“Hound dog” – 2.5″ x 3.5″ – acrylic

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Letter to Editor: Palo Alto Daily News – 1/25/2008 – published

I saw this last week:  A middle-aged Hispanic woman leaves a large home in Atherton (wealthiest community on the surface of the earth) well after dark on a rainy night.  She walks across busy six-lane roadway El Camino Real in the pitch blackness – there are no streetlights, only the flash of passing headlights of cars going fifty miles per hour.  She must walk alongside one hundred foot long puddles of water along the roadway (no drainage system).  These puddles are three feet wide and occupy the “pedestrian” zone.  She walks inches from the traffic to avoid the deep puddles / ponds / pools.  A bicyclist passes her in the dark swerving into the traffic lane to avoid her.  She stands in the total darkness in the rain waiting for her bus.

Suggestions:

1.  El Camino is a California State Highway and warrants  civil improvements, (drainage) superior to those of a Bulgarian village.

2.  Install a paved sidewalk at least five feet wide on at least one side of El Camino starting in Menlo Park and extending through Atherton to Redwood City.  Illuminate this sidewalk at night.

3.  Provide a well-lighted bus shelter.

Certainly, if one assembled the hard-working, intelligent residents of Atherton, they would agree that their nannies, cooks, carpenters and gardeners deserve a safe walk home.

Warm Regards,

Jim Blake

( two years later – Still no drainage or lights or sidewalk or bus shelter )

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Anxiety of Influence – de Kooning / Picasso

Willem de Kooning’s access to Cezanne was blocked during his formative years, the 1930s and 1940s, by the feverish cult of Picasso thus he never saw Cubism for what it is, Cezanne shorthand, not some cosmic invention from whole cloth.  Jackson Pollock also suffered from this myopia. These two painters banged their heads silly against Picasso like loose shutters in a hurricane while the magic, beauty and grace of Cezanne eluded them thus de Koonings un-mooring after his great masterpiece “Excavation” and the early “Woman” series.  Arshille Gorky,  de Kooning’s mentor, was completely obsessed with Cezanne to the point of mimicking his imagery in a very accurate manner.  Gorky’s obsession with Cezanne turned out to be an excellent launching pad into an original vision.  Gorky could instinctively avoid the dragon’s lair of Picasso.

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“Waveland” – Frederick Barthelme – Letter to Author

“Waveland” – Frederick Barthelme – Letter to Author

I was gripped by your fierce, ornery precision and also the similarities between your protagonist Vaughn and myself re: age, education, divorce.  Your description of Hurricane Katrina devastation put me right in the middle of it.  The link between the hurricane of a marriage and a real hurricane is strong thematic adhesive.  I was impressed by Vaughn’s diplomacy during the middle of the night visit by his girlfriend’s violent ex-lover.  Most people would have simply called the cops.  There is a brand of fiction that is super-realism as opposed to surrealism ie, a story rings so true it aches, it resonates.  It is commendable when an artist can demonstrate a comprehension of two hundred years of fiction and apply a concentrated focus to such immediately ordinary events thus making them extraordinary.  This is what all modernists strive to do and so few actually achieve.

Your novel is interesting on a number of levels.  Now that I have read the recent biography of your brother Donald I have a useful though narrow knowledge of your family structure.  I am an architect and studied with a few professors in the mid-seventies who were true believers in Modernism like your father.  I know how passionately indelible these men were.  They were true believers in the Eric Hoffer sense.  This Modernist army was on a religious crusade, one that was very serious and often mean.  Modernist notable Paul Rudolf was a critic at one of my final reviews at the Harvard Graduate School of Design – Mr. Rudolph was a real sour pot of milk.  These men took themselves too seriously and in many cases were not naturally gifted.  I don’t know about your father, Donald Sr.  I have not seen his work.

It is interesting to experience your writing style, with its roots in Hemingway and compare it to Donald’s with his roots in Kafka, Kierkegaard, Beckett and Joyce.  Donald is a CitraModernist ie Postmodernist: work with roots in Cubism, ambiguity, multiple station points, etc  You are an UltraModernist: Apollonian, orthographic, stripped-down, “ornament is a crime.”  You have an insurmountable task in Bloomian terms of having to swerve from both a Modernist (father) and a Postmodernist (older brother)  simultaneously, an inconceivable task.  You lean away from your older brother and toward your father into a powerful place as an artist.  Thank you for an excellent reading experience.

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“Pooch” – 2.5″ x 3.5″ – acrylic – 2009

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“Gulag” – Anne Applebaum – Letter to Author

Your book Gulag is a remarkable achievement.  It is a new and very large lens through which to view 20th century history.  I am embarrassed for the U.S. education system that Soviet history was so neglected in our curriculum.  I was led to believe that the U.S. military practically defeated Hitler’s army single-handedly.  We were not taught that Hitler’s army had been eviscerated by the Soviets at the expense of six million Red Army soldiers during four years of brutal, widespread fighting on the Eastern Front prior to D-Day.

Your book tells a remarkable story of that devastation and the price paid by the Soviet people for Stalin’s towering battles with Hitler’s forces.  The timber, oil, gold, silver, bauxite and coal that fueled the Soviet war machine, all extracted by the slave labor of millions of Soviet citizens.  I assume that the machinery itself: tanks, aircraft, artillery pieces, ammunition and the machine tools required to make it all also had a sizeable component of slave labor.  The dams, roads, canals, tunnels, highways and railroads, the whole shebang – GULAG!  What an astounding revelation – who knew?  Your marvelous book should be required reading in every high school in America.

The Soviet people made a colossal and awful sacrifice without which, our “Greatest Generation” would have been chewed up by Hitler.  I have a few questions, perhaps you have some insight.  1.  To what extent did Churchill and Roosevelt know of the great sacrifices in the Gulag and the Red Army?  2.  Was it their intention to allow these two nations destroy each other?  In retrospect, it appears that our lend-lease provisions bought the lives of allied soldiers at the expense not only of the Soviet army but of the workers in the Gulag system.  3.  Was Stalin an evil man or was he caught up in a great natural culling of an overgrown population?  4.  How might Stalin have otherwise procured his nation’s most inaccessible natural resources,  material that he needed in a hurry, if not by slave labor?  5.  How many victims of the Gulag would have died of starvation in their homes during the years of great famine?  6.  Do you think that if it were not for Stalin’s brutal policies regarding his own citizens that the Soviet Union would have been devoured by its neighbors during the 20th century along all of its borders?

In summary, the United States rode to victory on the sacrifices of tens of millions of suffering Soviets,  who received NO credit from Americans.  The Soviets, from my earliest memory, were seen as “the enemy” bad guys, huddle under your desk.  In a larger sense, might it be that the population of the now former Soviet Union is composed of people destined to submit to totalitarianism and once they have submitted, to treat one another very poorly on a scale so massive that it must be blamed on national genetic traits rather than a few bad policy makers?  According to your book, whenever a Soviet individual had a chance to make life a little nicer or a little more miserable for each other, they chose the latter on a grand scale.  I don’t imagine that it is easy to be nice when the temperature is fifty below zero and there is little to eat.  I am reminded of the words of late, great comedian Sam Kinnison screaming about the starving Ethiopians:  “WHY DON’T THEY JUST MOVE!!”

Miscellaneous ramblings:  Kleb Boky, the chubby Chekist who watched his enemies twist in the wind.  Couldn’t the bedbugs and lice been added to the soup for some protein?  I was disappointed to read your questioning of the validity of Racwicz’s story told in his marvelous book  The Long Walk, which I read in high school.  Is phony spelled with an e before the y – you have it both ways throughout your text.  Aluminum is not mined.  The mined mineral component of aluminum is bauxite which,  after an energy-intense industrial process,  is transformed into aluminum.  The great dams on the Columbia River in Washington state generated the electricity for the aluminum used in our World War II aircraft. I  Loved your great book – thank you.  I am enclosing a drawing inspired by your text.  I apologize for its vulgarity but, of course, it is a subject rife with vulgarity.  I am left with one over-arching question:  What is it about Russians and suffering?  I am currently working on an essay titled “The Tragedy of the Chosen Child: Frank Lloyd Wright, Joseph Stalin, Douglas MacArthur.”  Your book was intensely illuminating regarding the scale of Stalin’s influence on the Soviet people -this story has a certain peculiarly feminine, smothering vastness.  Your book is a great blessing.  Warm Regards,  JB

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“The Rest is Noise” – Alex Ross – Letter to Author

I enjoyed your book.  Lots of excellent mini-bios and bracing descriptions of a wide variety of important modern composers and their musical compositions and performances.  Your book is an excellent catalog for tyros such as myself.  I found it odd that you appointed yourself as the out-meister for 20th century composers.  Was this a bone tossed to your gay readers?  I would think that if these homosexual composers wanted to be out they would have taken care of that during their lifetimes.  The first half of your book is brimming with vitality, the remainder is depressing.  It seems like many 20th century composers fell into the trap of oppressed minorities everywhere tearing at each other like crabs in an over-crowded pot,  pulling each other down from the lip lest they escape into public recognition.  Boulez comes across as the quintessential art-thug, one of so many examples.  You are a bit of a thug yourself from your bully pulpit at the new Yorker and in this book.  It is hard to hear the music through the hate, fear and backbiting you so thoroughly relate.  This is unfortunate, when all is said, Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman had greater musical gifts than the whole menagerie.  I must admit, however, that your book offers an excellent education to a novice.

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