Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Belongings: A Story About Amy Winehouse

I came to know about Amy Winehouse the way any knowledge-lacking music fan would—by proxy. Someone, somewhere had said or read or reread something about the (at the time) up-and-coming Brit-pop-soul singer and a song that might—should the circumstances be right—become popular and/or famous.

So, amid a respite from graduate school—in the summer of 2007—back home at my parents' house, I happened to first see the video for Winehouse's "Rehab." There, in mom and dad's family room, me in a chair and Amy on a couch inside the television, I knew it was her. My instinct told me, in the face of my knowledge-lacking musical fandom—long removed from the days I lived and breathed music—noodling guitarist and evolving cynic I was and perhaps still am—and with that my strange connection with Amy Winehouse began.

Grad school, at the time, was a mess, that summer between semesters. I lacked direction, lacked craft, and lacked any sort of love life. Not yet set in my ways that would lead to my eventual MFA thesis, I ventured into areas of art quite unknown to me, leading—long story short—to my dragging an artificial lighting kit to my apartment on a late summer evening, in an effort better my technique, to enable my elevated distinction in some way. Dare I say it: to become a better photographer. That stupid plastic army battle tank case of lights, bulbs, and cables, still giving me a crink in my shoulder to this day as I think and write. I hated it. I hated what it contained.

This all occurred the summer I had moved away from family and was truly living alone. My isolation, in retrospect, was higher than ever—perhaps leading to my increased creativity and productivity—and I relied on the web (Internet) to reach out to others. I transitioned from public to private, from physical to virtual, and the night I lugged a bomb shelter case of strobes to my apartment happened to be night I bought my first digital music download.

I don't know exactly why I felt like buying digital music at the time, with those strobes in their black Kevlar case staring at me. And I don't exactly remember why I had never previously purchased a digital album at all. But until that point my digital music collection—already, even in 2007, becoming less personal and more stoic than ever—consisted solely of burned copies of every CD I owned and a random assortment of illegally downloaded Napter music from freshman year of college.

Even amid reservation to becoming a little "like everyone else" I decided the first album I'd ever download from iTunes would be Back to Black by Amy Winehouse. And I listened to the thing—though to this day, music that exists only in digital form still doesn't feel like a "thing" to me—and enjoyed it, all while getting nowhere with those artificial lights, the artifice of the the digital album booming in the night.

As I left behind the last remains of music as a physical medium I lost myself in those lights. And it was terrible. The lights, not the music. Neo-doowop-soul pouring from my meager computer stereo speakers, and I was awash in technical conundrums in my brain. Do I change this switch here? Does this setting change there? Why are these images so dark, what speed syncs with this equipment? Though I've since figured out how to use light kits like the one I danced with that night, the thought of that evening still makes me anxious.

It was strange new circumstances, indeed, in the way Back to Black came into my life. From Amy on the video couch on MTV2 to the night I played with strobes to no avail.

Jump to four years later, again it's the summer, with everything about my life wildly different, and I am on the verge of embarking onan entirely new chapter of existence. There's twenty-six feet of belongings behind me, and our moving truck is lurching at a snail's pace up the winding embankments of Interstate 84 known as Cabbage Hill. I have several years of memories with me amidst the struggles of the diesel engine.

The truck is part of my future wife-to-be's great migration eastward to be with me and start our life together as homeowners; we're moving. Picking up and going somewhere else. In a day's time we'll be sipping beer and eating pizza (and, frankly, when does pizza taste better than after a big move?) having transported her belongings from her place and mine from mine, all into our new place.

As we wind our way around Cabbage Hill, a story comes on the radio about the death of Amy Winehouse. I'm struck by this in a way that still stands with me, curious and cold, buffeted by the hauling of six tons of baggage up the hill with me, Amy's baggage released by her death and mine gaining altitude in the back of a rental truck. Emotionally, it felt as though I was pulling a case of lighting equipment up Cabbage Hill, more than two thousand miles removed from that Michigan digital summer night.

The boys in the truck with me, our sons, were curious and wanted to know who she was.

"She was a singer," I said. "And she was pretty wild, and she...well, she died." Assuming it was determined to be by her own hand. Assuming the impending well-known tragedy to be a part of our narratives. For slight shifts in either's veracity might have altered my response to them, these boys, not yet a third of twenty-seven, so far removed from the pains and troubles of others, just asking an innocent question.

Amy Winehouse rose and fell a few times in my life, quite briefly, the way mythical figures often do. Back to Black doesn't get regular play these days, but sometimes "Me and Mr. Jones" comes on, and I can't help but think of those three times in my life where Amy Winhouse actually meant something to me.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


I started out 2013 with the goal of completing a piece of work every week. Life quickly took over, and I was teaching online, chairing a department, serving on a search committee, and dealing with my school's budget issues.

But I've had some artistic success this year despite the busy life. In April, I was lucky enough to show in curator TJ Norris' Off the Plain exhibition in Portland. Following that was a solo installation in the Portland Building downtownin August. And in September I received word that my work will be featured in an exhibition in Estonia next summer.

I'm in the process of updating my website, putting process images up on my new artist page on Facebook, and polishing up a new—in-progress—body of work for exhibition opportunities.

Stay tuned.