Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Going Home

It’s my last morning in Antarctica, and I’m trying to find some way to say my goodbyes to this place. I’ll be leaving on a C17 this afternoon, and will be seeing the night sky for the first time since the beginning of October. It feels like winter is coming; for the last week or so, the sun has almost been setting, and there’s a quality to the light that makes everything seem partially cloaked in fog. The temperature has dipped back down below zero, and for the last two and a half weeks, I’ve been hiking the Observation Hill loop almost every day to watch the sea ice change.

Some part of me has been craving the presence of a concrete point to measure myself against, and so I’ve taken on this little route as a sort of reflective pilgrimage. The solitary hour that it takes me to walk it each day has helped provide a sense of bearing in the middle of the chaos of leaving. I have been watching the ice turn to ocean, and back to ice again, observing the idiosyncrasies of its tides as it drifts by like strangely geometric clouds.

Once we finally started seeing open water, whales started appearing, and usually on my hikes I’ll see handfuls of them surface in the melt pools. Their spouting sounds like the hydraulics of some vastly echoing factory floor, and it’s hard to believe that the origin is organic rather than mechanical. There is something utterly surreal in the way the noise travels across the surface of the fractured ice.

For all my wry observations about the social dynamics down here, I have been hugely moved by the physical beauty of this place. It’s something I don’t write about very often because I imagine it’s implicit in everything I say. Last week I read Nicholas Johnson’s “Big Dead Place,” a book that talks about Antarctica with the frank and disenchanted cynicism of someone who has been driven half mad by the bureaucracy. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to know what it actually feels like to live in McMurdo. There’s a portion in the book where Johnson talks about the descriptions of Antarctica that actually make it to the outside world:

“Describing American journalists who cover presidential campaigns, Joan Didion wrote that ‘They are willing, in exchange for “access,” to transmit the images their sources wish transmitted.’ Similarly, we read in the paper that science in Antarctica is the end rather than the means, and because of this generous pursuit, everything, very soon, is going to be even better than it is now. When the NSF sponsored journalists step from the plane, Antarctica’s beauty speaks for itself, and the psychedelic vastness hobbles the critical faculties. Their stories recount the ‘howling wilderness’ and the ‘gale force winds’ on ‘the highest, driest, coldest’ and most ‘desolate’ continent, which is ‘pristine’ and ‘remote’ and ‘isolated.’
‘I just got back from Antarctica,’ they’re saying.
We are like a broken record still playing classic hits from the days of Captain Cook and Columbus. The reported particulars are not always untrue, but the consensus fellowship of professional journalism keeps things simple and catchy, so that Antarctica always brims with scientists and researchers just as wooded clumps next to the freeway brim with wildlife.”

I wanted to come down here because I was fascinated by the obsolescence of the untamed frontier. The romanticized myth of Antarctica exists only because there are so few of us who come down here to contradict it. And perhaps it’s a myth we prefer to maintain. Any information from this place leaves the continent in a protracted game of telephone, and by the time it reaches a venue for public consumption, it has all been distilled to science and penguins and glaciers. And it is hard to explain the reality of this place to people who have grown up believing in the myth. Sometimes it’s just easier to say, “Yup, there are penguins.”

The remarkable science and the extraordinary people are down here, but they are rare islands scattered against what is ultimately a backdrop of gross inefficiency and the utter breakdown of all communication, neatly wrapped up in a dominant culture of hard partying and mindless consumption.

And while that sounds like a scathing denunciation, I don’t mean it as one. In spite of the rant that I just went on, I love this place. And a huge part of why I love it is precisely because of its flaws and contradictions, the sheer impossibility of its existence. This is a place where everyone is still really excited about getting to take part in Black Friday holiday sales via internet shopping, where packages of new clothes and shiny electronic toys arrive from Amazon on military transport planes. Where stiletto heels rotate through skua, and TV’s are left on 24 hours a day. Where people are constantly passing through a haze of being actively drunk, or hungover before becoming drunk again. 

McMurdo is set up to encourage mindlessness, and the experience of being down here is certainly easier if you just allow yourself to check out and run with it. But my fascination is such that I have felt an obligation to try to document the stories of this place. So I stepped back and decided that my real job down here was to be McMurdo’s resident sociologist cartoonist.

And as such, it has been a rewarding but lonely handful of months: I have been an observer of this community rather than a full-fledged participant. People talk about how it’s impossible to find time to be alone down here, but I have had entirely the opposite experience. I feel like I have engaged with this place, but with very few of the people in it. And again, that’s something I’m ultimately grateful for. Back home I tend to be a complete social butterfly. Down here, I have made very few friends, but I have a great deal of faith in those friendships that I have formed.

The loneliness has been good for me. This has been a year of isolation, and I have essentially spent it meditating. And the bulk of my meditation has focused on the notion of home.

My mom was born in China and came to the United States for college, and my dad grew up in England and eventually made his way to the US by way of Canada. I’m embarrassingly hazy on some of the details, and there’s a part of me that likes to keep it that way so that there is nothing to contradict my romanticized notions of flight and migration. I like to imagine that my parents left their homes following the vague call of some compelling wanderlust, and that they drifted gradually West until they reached the boundary of the Pacific ocean, and stopped.

In my imaginary recountings, I wonder if, in reaching the ocean, they found something large enough to hold them, that they were able to feel some sense of genuine home when faced with the vastness of the water. Or if it was that they had been traveling for so long that they were too tired to cross another unknown ocean. More likely still is that these narratives are just stories that I tell myself, and their settling happened in the natural way of most life decisions: it grew up around them, weaving them in with vines of circumstance until it simply became the reality of their lives. 

But the stories that I choose to invent are ultimately just the underpinnings of the same set of facts, and they do not change the sketch of my upbringing. I grew up in Northern California in a tiny town of 350 people, the daughter of two immigrants whose long journeys finally came to rest along a beautiful stretch of coastline peppered with miles of trails and quiet woodlands.

I always felt out of place in the town itself, and it has never been home to me. But I loved the hills, and I did find home in the sensation of walking. I spent my days out roaming with my reading material and sketchbook, idly trailing my hands against the bark of madrones and listening to the shingled clink of fields of dry grass. Home, to me, has always been the sensation of peaceful momentum.

But the flip side of feeling at home while in motion is that I have never been able to feel at home while still. Over the years, I often wondered if there was a part of me that was missing, if I was constitutionally incapable of feeling the sense of home that, for most everyone else I knew, was implicit. Home was not something I was ever given; it was an abstraction I needed to chase.

When I stop to look back on everything that has happened in the last 365 days, I sometimes can’t quite believe it. I left Seattle on March 1st, 2011, and now I am returning on March 1st, 2012.

In the past year, I biked alone across the United States, ended a relationship with someone I was engaged to, created a solo show’s work of new paintings in under a month, fell in love with someone who was only in my life for five weeks, and then promptly left to come to Antarctica.

And somewhere over the course of this year of insane forward momentum, something magical happened.

I found home.

I don’t know quite when or where it appeared. I think it started as a quiet place within myself, and I reinforced it with every step of this pilgrimage that I have thrown myself into. Down here in Antarctica, I have learned to be homesick. It is an entirely new feeling for me, because I have never had a sense of home concrete enough to tug at me. I have spent my whole life longing for home, and this is the first time I have ever felt like I know what it is. I’m solid and healthy enough in myself to recognize it, and wildly lucky enough to have found it, and I’m ready to go back to Seattle.

It’s funny to have discovered that I was already home, but just couldn’t see it. I first moved to Seattle because of an ex, and, quite frankly, I hated it there. I lived there for about two years and saw the city as a dull, pragmatic place—somewhere that lacked a sense of community, and whose culture was defined by the dull grey of Monday through Friday business casual. I’ve spent a good chunk of the last six months quietly apologizing to Seattle for ever having thought that. My bad, Seattle: it wasn’t you, it was me. 

When I got back from my bike trip, Seattle started smacking me in the face with everything I had complained that it lacked, and in the course of my two months back, I was completely won over. When it came time to go, I didn’t want to leave. My closest friends were out of town, and I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about how confused I was over leaving. So I did what I usually do and walked until things made some measure of sense. I ended up passing by a wall with buckets of chalk left out for people to draw with, and I said what I needed to say there. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that things come full circle, and how we don’t move through life in straight lines, but rather in looping curlicues. 

Our progress from point A to point B is hard earned and circuitous, and while I am going back to a set of circumstances that are remarkably similar to the ones I left, everything about this homecoming is different.

It feels like everything has been coming wonderfully full circle this year.

About a month ago I received an email from Hannah Stephenson, a poet who runs a project called The Storialist in which she writes poems based off of visual images. She contacted me to tell me that she had written a poem based off one of my pieces. This was an instance of delightful synchronicity, as I had based that particular painting on a line from a poem by Jim Dodge, one of my favorite authors. I’d first contacted Jim a handful of years ago to ask for permission to use a line from one of his books as the title of a mural I was working on, and had been in touch with him again to send him a print of the painting his poem had inspired. We talked about the interaction of artist/writer and audience, and about the magical way that inspiration crosses different creative disciplines. And so it seemed perfect that his poem had returned to its original form. Poem, painting, poem.

Jim's poem: 

Palms to the Moon
Jim Dodge

We were fifteen. Summertime.

We walked through the moonlit village

the cliffs above the beach.
We made love at that trembling pitch

where sensations become emotions,

none of which we'd ever felt before.

Our hearts like torches hurled into the sea.

A magnificence

that cannot survive

that makes it possible.


No beauty without perishing.

No love without that first desolate moment of heartbreak,

when you know something is wrong,

but you don't know what it is,

or how to stop it.


Midnight, the mountains,

we make a bed of our clothes

on the granite slab.

Naked beyond skin,

we lift our palms to the moon,

our bodies trembling like the limb of a tree

 My painting: "a magnificence/ that cannot survive/the innocence/ that makes it possible"

Hannah's poem:

Hannah Stephenson
Iceland is not only ice, nor is Greenland
very green. The only way to know

about a place is to see it, to go

there. Keep your days unplanned

so you can discover the cafe

in which you will eat one meal,

alone. Later, you will recall the feel

of the warm cup in your hand, the stray

mint leaf in your mouth that swam

upshore from the teapot. A trip

levels every place, makes you rip

apart the truth of where every damn

person is. Chiefly, you. You know

we can only have one experience

at a time, must not shift verb tense

in the same line. But when you go

home, you will miss the place

you just came from, and when you

travel elsewhere, you will want to,

eventually, go home, to your trophy case

of lustrous cities you almost fled

to, that you loved but only got to first

or second base with. Homesickness hurts

because it will always be unrequited.

Hannah’s poem is something that has stuck with me of late, because it touches upon so many of the questions I have always asked myself about home and motion and solitude. And it somehow seems perfect for right now, for the impossibility of leaving this place.

But all of this is to say that I am thoroughly ready to go back. I have come full circle on myself, and am ready to go HOME. 

I am not done with Antarctica. There are so many stories that I want to explore down here, points of fascination that I want to pursue. But for now I am ready to be stationary and explore this strange new contentment with a rooted sense of place. I plan on coming back. Maybe not next season, but at some point… I’m going to hibernate and go radio silent on blogging for a bit. Don’t really know how long, but I just need a bit of a break.

So Seattle, I’ll see you in just over two weeks. And Antarctica, I’ll see you again at some point. Hopefully when I’m down here on the artists and writers grant… And for whoever is actually still reading after this ridiculously long post, I’d like to leave you with a book passage that has been on my mind throughout the course of this year:

God made mud.
God got lonesome.

So God said to some of the mud, "Sit up!"

"See all I've made," said God, "the hills, the sea, the

sky, the stars."

And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look


Lucky me, lucky mud.

I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.

Nice going, God.

Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly

couldn't have.

I feel very unimportant compared to You.

The only way I can feel the least bit important is to

think of all the mud that didn't even get to sit up and

look around.

I got so much, and most mud got so little.

Thank you for the honor!

Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.

What memories for mud to have!

What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!

I loved everything I saw!

Good night.
--Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

Goodnight, everyone. 

I’m some damn grateful mud.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Under the Bed: Outside Notions of Antarctica

As someone who has always loved coming up with silly collaborative projects, I often find myself in the position of organizing something and having absolutely no idea who, if anyone, is going to play along and participate. There invariably comes a point at which I wonder why on earth I have once again decided to charge off to do something epic and time consuming that leaves me masochistically busy. But then that point is always followed by the part where people make incredible things, and community is built and fun is had, and I am left delighted and renewed by the whole undertaking.
Under the Bed took on a life of its own. A few months ago, I asked my artist friends to make art about their Outside Notions of Antarctica. Well. They did. And they spread the word. All told, I received work from over thirty artists (much more than that if you count the third grade and high school classes that sent submitted art, but for simplicity's sake I'm considering each class one very large person) hailing from California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, New York, Alabama, Maryland and Massachusetts. This left me with the fantastic problem of having too much art to fit under my bed, particularly because some people-- ahem, my dad-- chose to completely ignore the size parameters I had set in my call of art.  Because I'd initially asked for tiny art so it would fit under my bed, I felt that it was important to honor the venue.

So I decided to bite the bullet and go through official channels, and I got permission to set up a BUNK bed in Gallagher's Pub, one of the two and a half* bars here on station. Things on station are incredibly hectic right now, as the mainbody crew is starting to go home, and the once-every-two-years resupply vessel is about to arrive. As such, rooms are jam packed and housing couldn't actually loan me an empty bed, so I used my own, and tracked down someone who happened to have an unoccupied bed in their room.

One of the nice things about doing this showing of Under the Bed as a formally recognized event was that I was given the help of the General Assistants (GA's) in setting up. The GA's have pretty much the best job on station; while their job is entry level and doesn't pay well at all, these guys get to go EVERYWHERE. As the title implies, they go wherever help is needed, and so they're always jetting off to field camps and hopping in helicopters to shovel snow and drive snowmobiles all over the continent. I am very, very jealous.

The GA's are my favorite group of people on station, probably because they are the ones who most remind me of the sort of people I am generally friends with back home. As a whole, they're an outdoorsy and gregarious bunch who are competent, down to earth and often hilarious. And I don't know if this just happens to be a particularly good year for GA's, but they are also quite easy on the eyes. Sometimes they rotate through the galley, and because I'm friends with them, they come work with me in my little tucked away Empire of Salad Land, and then the other cooks accuse me of stealing all the eye candy.

Anyways, this is my GA friend Buddy out monitoring fuel lines. This picture pretty much sums up how I think of the GA's: fly fishing, porn, and getting to do all sorts of random weird jobs around station. 

That was a bit of a random tangent wasn't it? Ok, onwards and upwards to Under the Bed. I did the best that I could to document, but the turnout for the show was absolutely ridiculous, and once things really got rolling, I had very little time to take pictures of anything.

I got off work on Thursday after working 9 days straight, gratefully grabbed 10 minutes to shower, and then rounded up my GA's, and set about taking apart my beds and moving them into the bar. 

A friend who is in charge of the laundry room** hooked me up with sheets to use for the gallery walls, and we strung bailing wire across the bed legs for hanging cables, and wove rope lights through the mattress webbing for a light source.

The Under the Bed Gallery. Looks all warm and inviting sitting there in the middle of the bar, doesn't it? 

Gallery sign. The selection of acrylics in the craft room down here was somewhat limited, so I ended up using some very non-Antarctic colors.

We had everything set up and ready to go right around 7pm, and people started trickling in at a little before 7:30.  

And then things got crazy. 

This is a portion of the line to get in. The wait to get in was well over an hour, and the line snaked all the way around the bar. I have no idea how many people came, but the bar was completely packed, and many people were unfortunately not able to make it under the bed to see the show before the bar closed. Which is really the best sort of problem to have with any sort of opening. 

All of the artists wanted their work to find homes down here in Antarctica, and I decided that the best way to make this happen was to give the art away to whoever wanted it the most. With this in mind, I whipped up a handy little form for people to fill out...
People did take me up on trying to bribe me with bourbon, so that also has something to do with why I didn't do the best job of remembering to take pictures as the night went on. 
 Free Art Forms (FAF's, because in Antarctica we make everything an acronym (IAWMEAA))

 Someone folded their form into a paper airplane, and it snowballed from there.

As people were waiting in line, many of them asked if the art was for sale, and I really enjoyed being able to say that it was all free. Creativity and commerce make for awkward bedfellows, and in a perfect world, art would always go to whoever is the most moved by it, not to whoever can afford it... 

Here is a random assortment of pictures of the inside of the gallery. It's mighty hard to photograph in such a crowded, tiny space, but I did the best I could. 

 Nudity is a fairly common occurrence down here in Antarctica, so this piece was quite popular.
The winning FAF.

 Kelly Owens, Seattle, WA

Rachel Rader, Seattle, WA

John Boylan, Seattle, WA

 Rebecca Reilly, Denver, CO
This piece by Bill Fahey was one of the crowd favorites. Many people argued passionately for why it should go to them, but there was a clear winner. My friends Matt and Baxter work out at the Pegasus runway, and they, quite frankly, have waaaayyyy too much free time out there. So naturally, they brought a dinosaur coloring book out there with them, and they started a wall of dinosaur drawings. Everyone pitches in, and the firefighters out there spend huge portions of their day coloring. I wanted to post a picture for you, but I don't have one... I'll track one down and post it later. Here are a few entertaining FAF's about this piece: 
"My mother doesn't believe in dinosaurs, she thinks they are a worldwide government conspiracy." Amazing.

This piece by Jed Dunkerley was also very popular, although some viewers were unsure if the artist is aware that polar bears do not live in Antarctica. The artist's bio did not help clarify this:

"I am an illustrator, collaborator, performer and high school art teacher in Seattle. I painted the scene with a herd of hundreds of polar bears roaming the ice shelf just like they did in real life Antarctica, before they were hunted to extinction by the Eskimos. I wanted to be as realistic as possible, so I showed them engaged in activities that polar bears engage in, like swimming, eating things with blood in them, and humping. I made this to raise awareness about the movement to reintroduce the polar bears to their native habitat." 

I tried to help with this situation by posting a photograph I happen to have of the artist wearing a "no polar bears in Antarctica shirt." Oddly, someone stole said photograph. 

Here are some FAF's about this piece: 
The piece is going up to the Arctic, where its new owner promises that she'll try to take a picture of it with a real live polar bear. 
 Another crowd favorite, by Jackie Margolis of Bethesda, MA

Sophie Yanow, Montreal, CA

Most people were pretty good about sending me tiny art, but as I mentioned earlier, my dad chose to completely ignore the fact that the gallery was going under a bed,*** and he sent me a large kinetic penguin sculpture. 

The artist's description of the piece: 
My real claim to any recognition in Antarctica is that I am Tessa's dad, but I am also currently a guest at the Centre for Environmental Biology at Lawrence Berkeley, helping with work on microbial ecology.
My artwork is a kinetic sculpture, the Penguilum, inspired by Tessa's comments about lack of penguins and an idle fascination with the work of Ernst Mach (1838-1916),  who came up with the pendulum wave idea.   While he made numerous contributions to science and philosophy, he is most famous for his work on shock waves and supersonic speeds which lead to the development of the Mach number, wherein Mach 1 describes speed at which flight becomes supersonic.  Obviously, penguins are not fast enough.

Many, many people wanted this one, but again there was a clear winner. This person first won me over by her decision to ignore the front of the form and write whatever she wanted on the back, and then I loved her argument:

You may have seen Karen Joyce in Herzog's "Encounters at the End of the World." She is the woman who fits herself into the tiny orange bag. Anyways, she's the proud new owner of the penguilum.

I have many, many more pictures, but am going to call it quits for now as
1. this post is getting epically long
2. I LEAVE ANTARCTICA IN LESS THAN 3 DAYS!!!!! And I really, really, really need to pack. And find some way to come to terms with saying my goodbyes with this place. 
I imagine you'll be getting an introspective post about leavings and homecomings from me, but then again, maybe not; this whole year has seen me with zero time to really reflect before charging off to the next thing, and I'm not sure that's something that's going to change.

So I'll just end with a big thank you to: 

Claire Siepser Tuscaloosa, AL
Bill Fahey Seattle, WA
John Hulls Point Reyes, CA
Rachel Rader Seattle, WA
Jackie Margolis Bethesda, MD
Marie Gangon Seattle, WA
Anna McKee Seattle, WA
Martha Cederstrom Forest Knolls, CA
Sophia Larsen Forest Knolls, CA
The Wallabies Massachusetts
Annakalmia Traver Brooklyn, NY
Meghann Riepenhoff San Francisco, CA
Eric Carson Seattle, WA
Rebecca Reilly Denver, CO
Sarah Diehl Seattle, WA
Kelly Owens Seattle, WA
Nichole Rathburn Seattle, WA
Larry Cwik Portland, OR
Klara Glosova Seattle, WA
John Boylan Seattle, WA
Sophie Yanow Montreal, Canada
Jed Dunkerley Seattle, WA
Vivian Hua Portland, OR
Ellie Ray Portland, OR
Saskia Delores Seattle, WA
Jess Engle Leadville, CO
Theadora Tolkin Brooklyn, NY
Leah Faw Oakland, CA
Zach Gore Seattle, WA

And a few sneak preview shots of where I've been taking the art:
The Wallabies Newbury, Mass

Eric Carson Seattle, WA

Sarah Diehl Seattle, WA

The Wallabies Newbury, Mass

*there are two bars and one coffee house. The coffee house serves whiskey and wine, so it's sort of a bar, but generally more mellow. I have not seen people take their shirts off and dance on tables at the coffee house. Cannot say the same for Southern Exposure or Gallagher's.
**interesting Antarctic fact: due to a very dry climate and overtaxed dryers, we have frequent laundry room fires down here. We've had to evacuate the building because of them a few times.
***ever have those moments where you realize you're too much like your parents? Yeah... We both get projects lodged in our heads and ignore practical things that might impede doing them exactly as we want to