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New Times / Cover Story

The following article was posted on September 25th, 2008, in the New Times - Volume 23, Issue 8 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 23, Issue 8

A palette full of color and a pocketful of stones

Artists say a lot about death - and life - from both sides of the grave

ASHLEY SCHWELLENBACH

Editor’s Note

Momento mori: Remember that you are mortal. Consider the macabre theme our annual Autumn Arts edition not as a celebration of death, but as a reminder of vitality, a reminder that life, however brief, can be purposeful and well lived.


JON BARTEL, MUSICIAN
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Many, many years ago at my grandfather’s funeral, I recited the poem "High Flight." As I put text to memory, I recall my mother desperately searching for the perfect music, as though the correct rhythm and lyrics would accurately convey my grandfather’s worth and life experience. It wasn’t that he had an exceptional fondness for art—or music in particular. It was that my mother instinctively grasped that art transcends death. Incapable as we are of writing just the right words or singing just the right song, other talented creators had already performed the task. The beauty of the poem "High Flight," besides its soaring descriptions of the weightless glory of flight, is that it is a poem about life and death. The author died within months of writing it and, being a member of the air force, death must never have been far from his consciousness.

We look to our artists to comfort us in death because they so joyously and bravely express life. Any number of famous artists have bent their genius in the direction of the grave, some might argue to tame death, some to come to terms with its inescapable finality, and others still to declare war upon its claim upon them. Emily Dickinson turned her pen, comically and pensively, toward the final sleep. It is impossible to forget Anna Karenina’s desperate plunge beneath a train. Or to erase the mental image of Virginia Woolf wading into the River Ouse, her pockets filled with stones. And the poet John Berryman, who jumped from a bridge above the Mississippi River, waving to passersby during his journey downward, lending weight to his stated belief that "we must travel in the direction of our fear." Accounts of their lives and beliefs give the impression that the artist bears a social responsibility to entertain, enlighten, and question, a charge they wish to fulfill even in their manner of death. Artists can linger on this subject knowing they carry a special reprieve. Long after they gasp their final breath, society will bear the permanent imprints of their identities and personalities.


JOHN BATTALINO, ACTOR
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
So, in the season that embodies nature’s march of decay—autumn—we elected to celebrate that mournful end, if only out of respect for the consequence it lends life. Eight local artists, wielders of brush, pen, camera, and guitar, bravely faced death, armed only with the implements of their craft. Poet Linda Camplese, of ECHO Artspace, was a mere corpse abandoned in a bathtub inexplicably situated in Soda Lake. Her own words. "None of this matters/ because no one is spared/ for their wealth or fine cologne/ Stockboys and CEO’s/ ride the same gurney to the grave" scrawled on the side of the bathtub perhaps mocking or comforting her. Sculptor Pam McKenna leapt to her death, and lies at the base of the parking garage with remnants of the sculpture that just wouldn’t conform to her aesthetic standards. Painter Marni Mutrux became the victim of her own stairwell, leading to her rooftop Vine Gallery, the self-portraits that line the stairwell her final
companions in death. Harmony True of Civic Ballet was the unfortunate victim of a rival dancer, her body conforming to its inclination towards ballet even in her final pose.

Similarly, actor John Battalino was poisoned by an envious fellow thespian hoping to acquire his role. Musician Jon Bartel, perhaps a little too swayed by a rock star lifestyle, was electrocuted during a gig. Filmmaker Ryan Johnson of New Rule Productions suffered an accident while filming in Avila Beach, though inquiries as to the cause of death have been narrowed only to drowning and some manner of bacterial infection from the water. And, lastly, Robert Frear, perhaps the most fortunate soul whose death in bed at the Sanitarium was witnessed only by his photographs above the bed.

There may be a perfect literary death, steeped in symbolism and meaning, for each person—as is the case for Harold Crick in Stranger than Fiction. Or (worlds simpler and considerably less appealing) we may die in a completely arbitrary manner. All we can hope is that we leave behind something that speaks of our experience, the human experience.

As we learned during the course of the photo shoots, it takes a village to kill eight artists. Special thanks to the following organizations and individuals for collaborating for the sake of art alone: Kristina Kolkowski, Patrick Leonard, Heather McDermott, Anita Bohannon, Civic Ballet, the SLO Little Theatre, Forrestt Williams, the Sanitarium, and Cal Poly marching band members Katie Sisk, Rebecca Hennings, Emma Shaffer, Jeremy Zwang, and Nicole Olson who gamely shared in an evening of adventure and trespass to star in our cover photograph.

 

 


 


PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
HARMONY TRUE, DANCER, CIVIC BALLET "Many of the traditional, classical ballets have death involved in the story. For example, The Dying Swan shows the last minutes in the life of a stricken swan. Slowly, trembling, and trying to hold on to life for a brief last flight but then giving up, she dies. The dance is not meant to satisfy the eye, but penetrate into the soul and to create the symbol of the everlasting struggle in this life and all that is mortal. Dance is a way for the audience to loom at death, watch it with the passion that the dancer performs it, and hopefully see the beauty that it possesses." 

 

 


 

 

 


PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
LINDA CAMPLESE, POET, ECHO ARTSPACE "Death, murder, and mortality come
up in my poetry because I’m interested in exploring root themes of individual experience as they relate to and impact the human condition (also, the other way around: the impact of the human condition on the individual). That leaves death, birth, fear, love, sex, character and free will to choose from. And it is the most unifying theme of them all since everyone tries it at some point."

 

 


 


PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
ROBERT FREAR, PHOTOGRAPHER, FOTOSTRATIONS "It is common among artists to race towards death and break free from earthly constraints in pursuit of their art, unlike most, who feel death is not a goal within itself and should be avoided. Some artists embrace death as their muse, as the one thing that is guaranteed
in life and serves a constant motivation to make the most
of the time we are given to perform our art."

 

 

 


 

 


PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
RYAN JOHNSON, FILMMAKER, NEW RULE PRODUCTIONS "As a filmmaker and creative person, transforming the stages and events of humanity becomes a daily task. I think many artists tend to use death as a method to increase the drama or intensity of their projects. The very thought of death is a haunting one and by exploring it creatively one can take ownership of it and allow one’s self to be less impacted by the thought of their own eventual demise. This creates a contrast that is somewhat controversial."

 

 


 

 


PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
PAM MCKENNA, SCULPTOR "Very few artists become renowned after death through their artwork. Most artists live and die in relative obscurity. Creating artwork is, then, something we must do to live fully, not something we do to become immortal. The best we can hope for is that some of our creations will be treasured by a series of people through the ages even though other pieces end up in landfills."

 

 

 


 

 

 


MARNI MUTRUX, PAINTER
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
MARNI MUTRUX, PAINTER

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach thinks that if you find death offensive, you’re not very in touch with life. Send howls of outrage to aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.