Day 0 – aWay station

For the month of August, I am an artist in residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin, north of San Francisco.

It’s an exciting prospect for me and I’m really looking forward to weeks of focussed time to work on my new piece entitled aWay station.

I will post about it here on the blog, and also in a new section I’ve created on this website dedicated to the aWay station project.

To start my residency, I’ve invited 10 artist’s whose work I respect and who have strongly influenced my own work to come to the  aWay station for an afternoon, to work with me and to celebrate the birthday of Herman Melville in a ‘Whittling and Scrimshandering Soiree’.

aWay station Soiree #1

In preparation I have enjoyed browsing Moby Dick one more time.

I revisited one of my favorite chapters – Chapter 42 ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’.

This chapter always reminds me of the artist’s dilemma. As Meville’s narrator says –

“What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.

Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man’s soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.”

Melville then goes on to one of the most gloriously rambling paragraphs in the book –

“Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title “Lord of the White Elephants” above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial color the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides, all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things- the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honor; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great-white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”

I think that the ‘panic in the soul’ that Melville refers to is the classic artist’s or writer’s fear of the blank white page. The moment of poise before the creative act begins. The moment of fear when the muse has yet to appear. Or as he says the moment when “all these chapters might be naught”.

Entering into the wonderful Project Space at the Headlands for the first time was like this.

The blank white page!

But thankfully, the muse did appear and I have started to occupy and engage the space with the first elements of aWay station.

aWay station - iteration #1

And most importantly my friends and colleagues are about to arrive and get the energy flowing around the making side of things.

I’ll post more on the outcomes of the first actions in the aWay station next.

2 Comments

  1. as always donald you are an inspiration, and i am really looking forward to seeing how far away you go!
    i recently read ‘leviathan’ by philip hoare. much of the book is about melville (and his unlikely association with nathaniel hawthorne) with many extracts from ‘moby dick’, which made me want to go back and read it again. i think you would really enjoy leviathan even though it is also a bleak account of our obliteration of whales.
    david

    Reply

  2. Thanks David.
    Yes, Leviathan is a great read. I enjoyed reading it while is was in the UK the year before last. I was very interested in his pursuit of the ‘truth’ behind Moby Dick. And yes, the information about how ruthless our slaughter of whales was just the last few decades of the 20thC is mind boggling. It dwarfs the destruction of the great ages of whaling by many orders of magnitude. And now we are doing the same with all of our fisheries…..
    Thanks for staying tuned.
    Donald

    Reply

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