The Gift of Time
Old trooper, I see your child’s red crayon pass,
bleeding deletions on the galleys you hold
under your throbbing magnifying glass,
that worn arena, where the whirling sand
and broken-hearted lions lick your hand
refined by bile as yellow as a lump of gold.
–Robert Lowell, from “For George Santayana”
At the suggestion of a local farmer, and after some deliberation, we took a back road and then no road at all, climbing over a cratered field of scrub into RAiR’s backyard. One of the residents came out fuming. “Turn around! Turn around!” He gestured toward a driveway that had been all but invisible beforehand. Rattled, Joe and I swung back—inched back, I should say—to the proper entrance. “A grand first impression,” Joe sighed.
We met Ryder Richards in front of his apartment and studio, a dun-colored affair with a slant silver roof that glared. All the other apartments looked much the same, excepting the compound’s meetinghouse whose single spire, in small silver letters, declared RAiR’s motto: The Gift of Time. Ryder showed us into the guest apartment where we would be staying. “There are towels in the bathroom,” he said. “You guys freshen up, then come over to my place for a drink.”
Joe showered first. We had been shed-camping in Madrid the past three days and were sooty for all the fires we had huddled over; too, the coal that blotched the surrounding hills—which we one day hiked—and hung in the air as dust, residual from the town’s old mines. Everything in Madrid seemed dirty, black. At RAiR it was the opposite: the walls were starkly white, the furniture austere. Even the sky was spotless.
Once Joe was out of the bathroom and I had had my turn, we walked the ten-yard expanse from our front door to Ryder’s. Inside, we were greeted with beers and a tour of the apartment’s three bedrooms (all but one of which were loaded with Ryder’s past works), the bathroom and the comfortable living/dining area where hung a slew of Ryder’s recent works. A collaborative project was arranged in a line above the bookshelf. “Very meta stuff,” Joe noted. “Photographs of photographs.” I sorted through the movies piled on the bottom shelf as they talked. Lots of actioners and blockbusters. Up a shelf was a tower of McCarthy novels.
Ryder then ushered us to his studio. Less open but equally as white (surprising considering Ryder’s work), the studio was enclosed by a set of empty inner walls, of Ryder’s own construction. “Is this where you do the gunpowder burns?” Joe inquired. Ryder nodded, pointing to the scorched sections of the concrete floor. “Yeah, it’s too dangerous to do them anywhere else—what with the dry weather and wind here. The smoke is the worst part, really. I have to be careful when blowing out the big burns, since I don’t use extinguishers or anything, not to breath in so much.” He walked us over to a piece-in-progress. “See here? I use painter’s tape to control the burn.” A bronze gradation navigated the sculpture’s surface, shading Hercules and the soon-to-be-clubbed Minotaur. Both figures, of thin wooden construction, were latticed by flowery designs like those you might find on the hilt of a rifle. The gunpowder brought them to life.
Come sunset, Joe started cooking dinner. I sat with Ryder on the couch to chat. “You see,” he began, “it comes down to masculinity with my work. ‘What is masculinity based upon?’ I ask. Our conception of it, I mean. Is it based upon current media? The cinema? Novels? Or farther back?—The Greek myths, for instance, and the sculptures they inspired, which I model my work after?” He pointed to the bookshelf and referenced the films Drive and 300. “These films portray masculinity in vastly different ways. Vastly, and they’re only a few years apart. Where 300 celebrates, saying, I think, more about our time than about the Spartans’—that someone today would make a film like it—, Drive dissects, acting as a critique of both the modern action hero and the modern man. To an extent, that’s what I hope my work does.” He took a drink of his beer and went on. “Yes, that’s what I hope. Like McCarthy, you could say, I also integrate place into my work. West Texas, where I grew up, is a huge purveyor of guns and hunting; it romanticizes the cowboy lifestyle. Romanticizes violence.”
Soon enough dinner was ready. We sat down and ate and drank for nearly an hour. We devoured Joe’s green chile linguini, the wine, the decadent salad, the bread and whatever else crossed our plates. Then came the first knock at the door. “Oh,” Ryder sputtered, gathering himself from the table. “It must be one of the other residents. I invited some of them over to meet you guys.”
By eleven o’clock, nearly all of the RAiR residents were gathered around the table. They were a varied bunch. Some old, some young. Some inspired, some insipid. Some bombarded the conversation with ideas, some gushed cliché after cliché and some didn’t talk at all. One resident from the Bay area said he had been involved in a collaborative project shortly before coming to RAiR. He said he had acquired an entire gallery space and webbed it with threads of yarn. “A whole wall of yarn,” he said. “It got torn down before the night was over. A very disturbing event, I tell you.” Another said she had never collaborated in her life; said she didn’t consider teaching a collaboration. “No, no. I’m an instructor to my students. I don’t collaborate with them. They’re eighth-graders, for God’s sake!” She moused over a hunk of chocolate. No one said a dissenting word.
We woke and showered again. Again the shower floor was ruddied with soot, the last of it clinging to our hair and the creases of our hands. After drying off and changing, I rummaged through my bag and removed Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, a poetry collection I had been reading nigh religiously throughout the trip. Over the next hour I finished its third section, where Lowell explores the artist as father and teacher. Joe cooked us a small breakfast meanwhile, of scones and coffee, and then called Ryder, rattling him out of a hangover. The three of us decided to meet downtown around noon, at the Museum and Art Center of Roswell, which was currently exhibiting a selection of the work Ryder had produced at RAiR. To pass the time until then, Joe and I set out to visit the Anderson Museum.
Not two minutes into our drive, on the same road that had eluded us when we initially arrived at RAiR, we spotted a blue mansion with an enormous, elephant-like earthwork looming over its front lawn. Joe gasped and dialed Ryder a second time. “Ryder? Have I got you, Ryder? Pick up. Pick up, you.” He paused. “Have I got you, Ryder? Good. I want to know about this monstrosity Nicholas and I are right now driving by. An earthwork. Looks Swedish in design. Not from America, I’d bet—the architect who designed it.” He paused again. “It’s called ‘the Henge,’ huh? How would one get a closer look?” Joe and I were approaching the outskirts of Roswell, and aliens had begun to decorate every storefront in sight. Even McDonalds had bought into the myth, constructing of their play area a crashed UFO. “Yes, a tour would be lovely. You think you can arrange that? All right, then. Just let me know.” Joe hung up the phone and turned to me. “Ryder says the same people who run RAiR own that house with the earthwork. You believe it? The Andersons. Don and Sally. Ha! What a couple! They own the museum where we’re headed, too, you know? Old codgers are single-handedly gentrifying this town.”
The Anderson housed the work of every previous RAiR resident. Visiting was, for this reason, an exhausting experience (as with any museum, I suppose). Upon entering, Joe and I were met with the choice of three diverging paths. We chose the one to the right and wandered through room after room of seemingly endless art, through a swill of paintings, photographs, sculptures and everything in between—all arranged salon-style, literally wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor. The highlights were an early two-panel photograph/painting by the ParkeHarrisons, from their series The Architect’s Brother, and a Luis Jimenez sculpture of a mad vaquero atop a mad, red-eyed horse. “That Jimenez was over-the-top. Always big and brazen. Brazen and big.” Joe gazed up at the towering vaquero. “D’you know one of these works sent Jimenez to an early grave? Wham! Support beam crushed his leg. Can you imagine—going out with your art? Ha! Brazen fool.” We surveyed the Anderson’s remaining rooms, then departed for a quick lunch before Ryder’s exhibit at the Museum and Art Center.
Ryder found us in the museum’s parking lot. He looked different in the sunlight. Apparent were his sunken eyes and high spirits, the ratty sweatshirt whose frayed, gaping pockets pouched his hands, the opulent belt buckle that shone from his waist and the few strands of gray hair that shone amid a forest of black; before then, I would never have guessed he was nearing forty. “Hey, guys,” he said, leading us inside, where curators offered practiced waves and smiles. Ryder smiled back, keeping his hands in his pockets while directing us to his exhibit. “Conflicted is what I ended up calling it.” A variation of the Hercules and Minotaur sculpture immediately caught my attention. At its center was an octagonal wood board attached to four thin, wooden piers which rose toward a hole in one the exhibit’s many white walls—walls much like the ones erected in Ryder’s studio at RAiR—and connected the sculpture to its own shadow. If you can imagine, it looked something like a half-finished column whose two ends were of the same image. Next to strike me was a motley wood Icarus supported by an oilrig’s tower (also wood), his fall pantomimed on the wall behind him thanks to some clever light placement. Joe had us pose in front of Icarus for a photograph. Afterwards, Ryder fished his buzzing phone out of his pocket and said a tour of the Henge was on for three o’clock.
Sally opened the door and welcomed us in. She had a brisk way about her; moved suddenly and severely through the house, leaning in whenever someone talked, as if desperate to ingest all that was said. It was, of course, her poor hearing that precipitated such intense listening—Sally was in her early seventies. Nonetheless, I found it refreshing to converse with someone who at least appeared overwhelmingly interested in what everybody had to say.
In the living room we found Don hunkered over an eReader, by a constellation of his own paintings surrounded. The paintings, Sally later told us, were a kind of travelogue. “Don paints places from our trips. Places he likes. He doesn’t paint them there, on the spot. He paints them from memory, as he remembers them. He paints them when we’re back home.” Although Don’s subject matter was largely banal—clapboard houses, birded seascapes, mountains—, there was something impressive about the geometry, the exactness of his paintings: that they could come from memory and be so carefully engineered. And to see them, so many of them, together was certainly impressive.
“Well,” Sally chirped, “you guys ready, or what?” She pushed open the living room’s sliding glass doors and pranced into the yard, avoiding the ranks of sprinklers that attended, in vain, to the dying grass. Ryder followed first, with Joe and I in tow, the four of us entering the Henge’s shadow almost immediately. Breaking off from the group, I approached one of the Henge’s squat legs and ran my hand along its craggy surface. The leg bent up to an enormous roof that, with a pompadour’s flare, seemed to surf the sky. A few yards away, Sally explained to Ryder and Joe that the Henge was constructed out of gunite concrete, steel supports and chicken wire. The architect was a man by the name of Herb Goldman. “Swedish?” Joe asked. Sally leaned in. “Come again?” “Swedish—is the architect Swedish?” Sally thought for a moment. “I believe he’s from Detroit, actually. He and Don built this thing damn near by themselves. Off and on they’d have help from residents, but not much. Not much. Not even from me. In those days—the mid-sixties—Don was a young man, and he could backhoe dirt and work steel all day.” She pointed to the yard. “You see the terrain here. It wasn’t always like this. Don hilled it himself. He brought in all the boulders you see, too.” She put her hands on her waist. “That man, he was something else.”
On the opposite side of the Henge—the front of it, if there is one—was a narrow corridor. We stepped in and down its narrow staircase. Sally jingled a ring of keys. “We don’t keep this door unlocked anymore. Not after we started finding beer bottles and condom wrappers strewn everywhere.” The door was made of a thick metal and painted brown like the rest of the corridor. It squealed loudly when Sally shouldered it open.
The first room was empty save for an idle humidifier at the center of the floor. An unfinished mural decorated the walls around it. “This is my late husband’s work,” Sally said. “Don contracted him soon after the Henge was completed. Look here.” She motioned toward an eerily realistic portrait of Don, decades younger, standing cross-armed before a painted window near the entrance. “Quite stern in those days—or at least that’s how Willard saw him. I’d guess it was more of a joke than anything to paint him with a scowl on his face, but who can say now? Next to Don, there in the pearls and blue dress, is his first wife. A gorgeous lady, wasn’t she?” Joe advanced toward Sally and the woman in the blue dress. “So how did you and Don meet, then?” Sally raised her eyebrows. I thought for a moment she might ask Joe to repeat himself. “Well—” she started. “Willard and I were once residents here. Long time ago now. Don’s wife passed right around the time Willard did. Maybe not a month between them. I hung around with Don a lot after that. And…” A smirk pinched the right side of Sally’s face. “One thing led to another.”
The room’s single nook was painted to look like a stage where ballerinas were stretching. The entranceway to the space acted as a divide in the stage’s curtain. Ryder walked in and shook his head in astonishment. He remained silent as he moved out and along the walls, gazing at the shadowy, half-finished figures, the painted mirrors that reflected other dimensions to the world Willard had created in his mural. “You guys take your time,” Sally said. She paced into the dark of the next room and flicked on the lights. A chandelier bloomed above a long dining table and revealed a spiral staircase up to the Henge’s top.
We flittered from mullion to mullion. “Don’t worry,” Sally assured us. “This skylight has held lots more than four people.” She stamped on the glass. “See?” Then, leaning toward the concrete impediments that stood waist-high all around the skylight, I looked down at the house. I could see Don moving about inside. “Over there is Don’s studio.” She pointed to a small circular building with a conical roof. “If you look close enough, you can just make out his easel through the big window. Right there, yep. He built it in a bet with another artist. A bet to see who could build the biggest easel. Can you guess who won?”