What She Did – Chapter One
Yes, she had to stay at her brother’s apartment Ruth told their mom. Yes, she knew that meant mom would have to find someone else to let the dog out to go pee during the day, but she still needed to stay over there.
Ruth made a list of things she needed to do before she got there and another list of things to do after she arrived. The final thing on the first list was to pick her brother up at the rehab place. The first thing on the second list was to recheck his apartment one more time for any alcohol. She found none.
She cooked dinner for her brother, who was uncommunicative and surly. They watched TV until late then he went to bed. She wasn’t comfortable going to sleep until she was pretty sure he was out for the night. She finally faded off around 4am, sleeping on a fold-out couch in her underwear.
What the Fire Did – Chapter Two
She was aroused from a dead sleep by the smell of smoke. She immediately started coughing and her eyes started burning. She couldn’t see. She yelled for her brother but got no response. She crawled to his door with her t-shirt over her mouth, trying to breathe. She touched the doorknob and it burnt the palm of her hand. She called for him again but got no response. She crawled back towards the front door and opened it. She got up and ran down the stairs out onto the lawn.
Ruth was in pain, her legs felt hot and she smelled burning flesh. She saw a TV news truck, an ambulance, a cop car and a bunch of people hanging around, many pointing at her. She collapsed in front of the ambulance just as a paramedic was coming towards her. They were able to get her on one of those rolling beds they use and started to investigate what her injuries were. She was able to look back at the apartment for a brief moment and saw 3 buildings burning, including the middle one she had run out of.
She was whisked off to the hospital where she found out her legs had been pretty badly burned. She was exhausted and pretty much passed out once she got out of the ER and into the ICU. She was awakened again and again for various reasons but it was all a blur.
What The Nurse and Doctor Did – Chapter Three
When she awoke the next morning she was jolted by seeing the massive bandages on her legs. She felt like the world started spinning as she realized where she was and what had happened to her. She dropped her head back on the pillow and let the world spin.
When she raised her head back up a nurse was walking in. He introduced herself as Samha, asked how she was doing and explained what was happening. She had her burn wounds cleaned out a bit last night, they were covered in a cream to help loosen the remaining dead skin, then they were wrapped with gauze to protect them. This dressing was going to be taken off this morning and her wounds examined by the doctor. Then they would be cleaned again and dressed again. This would be repeated twice a day until she was ready for a skin graft, if it was needed. She told her the rest of the medical treatments would be explained by the doctor when she came in.
Ruth was about to ask about her brother when the doctor came in. She was perhaps 50 years old, had wiry salt and pepper hair pulled back in a pony tail and wore black rimmed glasses. Her full lips were covered in a deep but bright red lipstick. As much pain as she was in, she wanted that lipstick. She thought it very weird that she thought that. The Dr. smiled and started talking as she looked down at the chart. She introduced herself as Dr. Fernandez. Ruth asked her straight out, “What happened to my brother?”
Dr. Fernandez looked at her with kind eyes and said, “Your brother wasn’t able to make it out. I am very sorry.” The world started spinning and she dropped her head back once again.
What Her Dad Did – Chapter Four
She pretty much slept through the first 2 days. When she awoke her father was there. He had brought Ruth her phone, her tablet, her latest Vogue magazine and a book that had been on her nightstand. He had also brought a small rolling suitcase with her makeup and other toiletries as well as a underwear, various tops and a sweatshirt for if it got cold.
Her mother would be at the hospital later, her father said. She had an appointment at the funeral home and had to take the dog for a walk. Ruth didn’t mind. She would rather see her father anyway, less stress, less guilt, less feeling inadequate. She knew her mother loved her, but she also knew she loved her brother more. She would figure out a passive aggressive way to indirectly blame Ruth for his death, she had no doubt.
There was a food tray on the rolling thing, she didn’t know what those things were called. Her father asked her if she wanted to eat and she realized she was very hungry. She wolfed down the salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, not caring in the least that it tasted institutional. She actually smiled when she got to the Jello cup. It was her favorite flavor, grape.
What the Fire Did, Part 2 – Chapter Five
Ruth and her father talked for a long time about what happened and he filled her in on some details. The fire had started in the apartment next door. A burner had been left on under a frying pan and the leftover grease in the pan had caught on fire. They think it had caught a dishrag that was next to the stove on fire and that it had fallen to the kitchen floor and caught the a little kitchen rug and part of the cabinet door on fire. That led to the entire kitchen going up.
When the people in the apartment realized what was happening it was way too late. They ran out the door and the air coming in fed the fire even more. The kitchen wall was the shared wall with her brother’s bedroom and the fire took out that wall almost immediately. It’s very likely he was dead from smoke inhalation before she had even woken up her father said.
What the Nurse Said – Chapter Six
When her father left she had her dressings changed. She was completely grossed out to see her legs so violently stripped of skin, glistening with bubbly disgusting wet…she didn’t know what it was. What is under your skin but before the muscle called anyway? It didn’t matter, it was terrible and that’s all she knew.
If that wasn’t enough, it hurt like hell to take of the bandages, clean the wound and put new bandages on. She decided this recovery process would be a good ‘enhanced interrogation’ technique for spy masters. She knows she would tell anyone anything they wanted to know to stop this pain, that much was for damn sure. She was glad Samha the nurse wasn’t asking questions though because he would have blushed at her confession. As bizarre as it sounded, even to her, having this incredibly handsome but gentle man tend to her wounds was just about the most loving thing that had ever happened to her in her life. She thought it extremely unlikely these two things would ever be combined, but right then they certainly were.
She thanked him, telling him she could never do what he did, it was just so hard and so gross. He then said something that changed Ruth’s life forever. He said, “But it’s actually very easy to do because I love you.”
“You love me? What do you mean, you don’t even know me.” She responded.
He said, “Is what I am doing a loving thing to do for someone?”
“Yes, of course.” she said.
“And that means I love you.” he said with a light smile.
He was just about to the door when he turned and said, “I know you are the same you know. Your mother told me of how you cared for your brother. I think you are a lover, not a fighter.”
Ruth sat stunned. Love, loving, lover. All of a sudden she understood the connection.
What Ruth Did – Chapter Seven
When Ruth got out of the hospital 5 weeks later her father picked her up and drove her to her apartment. As soon as he left she went down to her car under the car port. She tried to start it, fully expecting the battery to be dead but it wasn’t. She was nervous about driving, her legs were so weak and she had a stick shift that demanded a pretty strong left leg for the clutch. She gingerly drove around the apartment complex parking lot, realized it wasn’t as hard as she thought it would be and drove straight to her brother’s grave.
She sat on the wet ground and talked to him for a long time. She told him she had tried to get to him and apologized for not being able to save him. She asked him to say hi to Grandma and Grandpa, told him she would take care of his record collection. She told him about Samha and what he said about love. She said that that one comment had clarified exactly what it was she was to do with her life. She hated that it took such a tragedy she told her brother, but she wanted to let him know that his death had at least one good thing come out of it, his sister now knew her purpose in life.
After she left the cemetery she drove back to her apartment. She sat down at her computer and wrote an email to her friend Mandy from college. She knew Mandy was off in Thailand helping at a orphanage, having seen a few Social Media posts of hers over the past 6 months. Ruth wrote asking if she needed any help.
Ruth joined Mandy at the orphanage a month later. Mandy actually ended up coming back home to the US 3 months after that. Ruth however stayed at the orphanage. She met the love of her life, a co-worker at the orphanage who was raised in the local village. They were married 3 years after she arrived. They adopted one child from the orphanage and named him Samha.
Ruth lived with no regrets, loving deeply and completely the rest of her life.
Drawing and story © 2015 Marty Coleman
I am at a client meeting and stayed after to have a second cup of coffee. Drew a quick sketch in between writing notes.
Will go home and finish the drawing, maybe write a short story to go along with it, who knows.
Monica the Brave
Many of you will remember Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern caught up in the 1998 Clinton impeachment scandal due to her affair with the President. She recently gave a TED talk about public shaming, something she knows a lot about. It’s a fantastic lecture and she brings up what I think is a horrible aspect of contemporary life, even more harsh than when she was in the center of the storm, and that is public humiliation and shaming.
Miles of Headlines
She had a number of great lines in the lecture and this quote was at the top of the list. It perfectly updates the old quote about walking a mile in someone’s shoes to apply to our current world. To really understand what the people most affected by public humiliation and shaming, think about living through the headlines and publicity they have to live through.
Compassion and Empathy
What she is asking for is to be compassionate and empathic in the cyber world as well as in the real world. Now, it’s important to clarify one thing. Feeling compassion for someone does not mean you are absolving them of guilt. Being empathic does not mean you don’t approve of some serious consequences for their actions or words. Having both in your repertoire of responses simply means you treat that person as you would like yourself to be treated, with understanding.
Influence and Power
Here is her suggestion for action;
The theory of minority influence, proposed by social psychologist Serge Moscovici, says that even in small numbers, when there’s consistency over time, change can happen. In the online world, we can foster minority influence by becoming upstanders. To become an upstander means instead of bystander apathy, we can post a positive comment for someone or report a bullying situation. Trust me, compassionate comments help abate the negativity. We can also counteract the culture by supporting organizations that deal with these kinds of issues, like the Tyler Clementi Foundation in the U.S., In the U.K., there’s Anti-Bullying Pro, and in Australia, there’s Project Rockit.
We talk a lot about our right to freedom of expression, but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of expression. We all want to be heard, but let’s acknowledge the difference between speaking up with intention and speaking up for attention. The Internet is the superhighway for the id, but online, showing empathy to others benefits us all and helps create a safer and better world. We need to communicate online with compassion, consume news with compassion, and click with compassion. Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.
I agree with her. I would love to hear your ideas and suggestions as well.
Here is the video of her talk.
You can go to the written transcript from there if you prefer to read it.
Drawing and commentary by Marty Coleman
Quote by Monica Lewinsky, 1973 – , American author and activist.
“Good art should illicit a response of ‘huh? Wow!’ not ‘Wow! Huh?'” – Ed Ruscha
Whenever I travel I like to check in advance to see if there are any cool museums I should hit. I often am wanting to see the architecture as much as the art. In 2009 I hit the jackpot with the Denver Museum of Art. It’s an amazing structure that had amazing art inside.
One of the pieces there was this one, ‘Molten Polyester’ by Ed Ruscha. I hadn’t seen any of his work in decades, since I had been in graduate school. I had no idea he was doing these larger pieces with epic mountains and words and it resparked my interest in his work.
Molton Polyester – 2005
As a Napkin Kin you know how much I like words and that almost every napkin is a combination of words and images. Then it’s no surprise that one of my favorite artists over the years has been Ed Ruscha. His use of words, sometimes laid over recognizable images and sometimes just on a gradient of color, have always been compelling and thought provoking to me.
Ed Ruscha by Dennis Hopper. 1964
His first recognition as an artist came in the 60s when he had his first show at Ferus Gallery, a groundbreaking space in LA that championed a number of California artists, including Robert Irwin and Richard Diebenkorn, already in the ‘Artists I Love’ series.
Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights, 1961
An interesting side note for those who think New York is and always has been the first city of art in America. It was at the Ferus Gallery in 1962 that Andy Warhol had is very first solo art exhibition. It consisted of his Campbell Soup Cans and 5 of the paintings sold. They cost $100.00 each. The gallery owner, Irving Blum, decided all the paintings should stay together and cancelled all 5 of the purchases. Just imagine what they would be worth now if the collectors had been able to take possession of the paintings.
Ruscha was firmly in the grips of the new pop art aesthetic when he started. He liked using the images of the world he saw, mundane and non-elitist, similar to Warhol, Johns and Lichtenstein.
Ed Ruscha – Standard Station, 1963
But he had a subversive side that pushed further than simple pop visualization. He added an element that he said was based purely on his visual curiosity, as in, ‘I wonder what a standard station would like like if it were burning.’ And there is that innocent, gee whiz, element to it. But there is no denying that culturally and socially he was making a statement.
Ed Ruscha – Burning Standard Station, 1965-1966
He took it even further when he depicted the new heart of art in Los Angeles, the LA County Museum of Art, opened just a year earlier, burning down. This wasn’t a generic gas station, this was biting the hand the fed him. I remember this painting for two reasons. One, I was taken to the LACMA soon after it opened by my parents. Number two being it was right next door to the famous La Brea Tar Pits, home to long-deceased dinosaurs.
Ed Ruscha, Los Angeles County Museum On Fire – 1965-68
In the late 60s Ruscha started doing paintings of liquid in the shape of words.
Lisp – 1968
Sometimes it would be water, but other times it would be a liquid connected to the word, as in ‘Ripe’.
Ripe – 1967
Adios written honey is another example. By having the ants stuck in the honey we know who the ‘adios’ is meant for. But it also allows us to abstract that idea out to larger situations that could include humans. It’s literal and metaphorical at the same time.
Adios – 1967
The painting of fruit juice or honey to look realistic is one thing, but taking non-art materials and actually using them as your art-making material was another step. Ruscha, influenced by Duchamp’s readymades and other artists using found objects, started to do the same. One of his most interesting series in that vein is the gunpowder series.
It’s simple enough, he drew with gunpowder instead of graphite. It looks the same in many ways but he liked something about it’s texture and how he could work with it. It was not lost on him however that simply using the word ‘gunpowder’ in his list of materials was part of the artwork and the meaning.
Quit – Gunpowder and colored pencil on paper – 1967
Self – Gunpowder on paper – 1967
Eye – Gunpowder on paper – 1970
He also started doing work with no words at all.
Man Wife – 1987
Strong Healthy – 1987
And what does he do when he uses no words? He leaves blank spaces where words would be then titles the pieces so that you believe the title fits into those spaces.
Eventually Ruscha started to incorporate whole sentences into his work. They were mundane and unremarkable in their reference to the everyday world but when disembodied from their usual context became rich in possible meanings. As usual though, there wasn’t any one interpretation that was right or wrong.
Pay Nothing Until April, 2003
I Don’t Want No Retro Spective – 1979
Of course, as one might expect given Ruscha’s inclination towards word play and irony, this painting became the cover of a retrospective book on his art work.
The Act of Letting A Person Into Your Home – 1983
In doing this piece I came across something about Ruscha I didn’t know; he was raised in Oklahoma, where I now live. It actually has found it’s way into his work in many more ways than I realized. From his cross-country travels from Oklahoma to LA where he discovered his love for the landscape and the iconic gas stations along the way to the use of the words Tulsa and OK again and again in his work, Ruscha always remained connected to his roots.
Tulsa – 1967 – Gunpowder on paper
OK – 1990 – Lithography
Tulsa Slut – 2002 – Acrylic on canvas
This is from a series he did on palindromes, words or phrases that can be read the same forward or backward.
No Man’s Land – 1990 – Acrylic on canvas
Even when he doesn’t use words he is still often asking a question, ok?
Meaning and Questioning
One of the questions that gets asked about Ruscha’s work has to do with meaning. What is he trying to say, what does he mean? I think the best way to understand Ruscha’s meaning is to replace the word ‘meaning’ with ‘question’ since he isn’t really much of an answerer or a propagandist. He reminds me of a visual Paul Simon. Simon’s lyrics often stop short of an clear storyline, instead they give pictures and hints about meaning. Ruscha does the same thing and that’s why he is an artist I love.
In 2013 Ruscha was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people.
This is not a exhaustive showing of his work or explanation of his place in contemporary art or art history. There are incredible resources to explore if you are interested in finding out more about his work and life. Here are just a few.
Ed Ruscha’s L.A. – The New Yorker, July 1st, 2013
Ed Ruscha – Catalogue Raisonne
Ferus Gallery history – Archives of American Art
Road to Ruscha – a collaborative road trip from Oklahoma to LA
More Artists I Love
The entire ‘Artists I Love’ series can be found below or by clicking on the ‘Artist I love’ link at the top of the page.
Betsy heard it first as she was running her usual Saturday morning run. She had a long training run that morning and had decided to run through some lightly used trails that criss crossed open fields in the State Park behind her college. Most of the students who ran stayed much closer to home, usually running around the campus perimeter on the sidewalk. But Betsy liked the freedom and open space of getting off the beaten path. It allowed her time to let her mind wander creatively, something she sorely needed on a regular basis at her school.
As the sound got louder she looked up and saw something streak across the sky. It hit the ground within 50 feet of her, creating a big indentation in the grass. Once it hit it stayed put, not rolling, not tipping over. She ran over to it, stopping a short distance away, expecting it might be hot. She held her hands out as she walked slowing towards it. She felt no heat so she continued until she was arms distance away.
It appeared to be made of rough, porous stone. There were inscribed lines radiating out from its center and bright jewel-like lights in between the inscribed lines. She touched the stone, then one of the lights. When she touched the light a quiet tone played. It sounded like it was coming from everywhere at once. She touched another stone and a different tone, equally as quiet, played. She continued touching the lights, trying to hear how many different tones the object could play. She figured out that it played what seemed to be eight tones in one octave and the another eight tones exactly one octave higher.
She tried touching two lights at one time. When she did that the object played a chord. The two tones of the two lights and a third complementary tone. All the tones and the chords were incredibly beautiful to listen to. Like the clearest bell she had ever heard.
Betsy spent the next 3 hours playing the object. She found out she could make a tone repeat regularly if she held her finger on the light for 3 seconds. She found if she quickly tapped a light twice it would play the light’s normal tone and a harmonic tone at the same time. After about an hour she felt her cell phone vibrate in her pocket. She brought it out and found that her music player was notifying her that a new song had been downloaded. She went to the player and found the song. It was untitled with no cover art, no information about it at all. She played the song and heard the object’s tones. It was the sounds she had been playing.
She put the phone away and went back to playing the object. She learned more tricks and methods and came up with what she thought was a pretty cool composition. After another hour her phone vibrated again and another song from the object had been downloaded. It was the composition she had just come up with. She did this one more time, increasing the complexity and rhythm of the composition and one more time the object sent the music to her phone.
She realized it was getting late and that she had to get back to her Sorority for a big event that night. She tried pushing the object, thinking she might be able to roll it to an out of the way place. That way maybe no one else would find it and she could continue to play it. However, there was no moving the object. She would just have to hope it was still there when she came back.
The event that night was a mixer with a fraternity from a neighboring school. The girls all went over to the frat in a bus. Some of the girls had already started drinking at the sorority house and were tipsy by the time the party started. The guys were all vying for attention by doing stupid party tricks or dangerous stunts out the windows and on the roof of the frat house while the girls oowed and awed.
Betsy was bored with it all and decided to find a quiet room where she could listen to the songs she made with the object. She walked into a 3rd story bedroom. Her head was down looking at her phone and she was just about to push play as she entered when she heard a grunting sound and looked up. A young woman was on the bed being held down by a large burly young man. He had on the frats sweatshirt but his pants were down around his ankle. The woman was topless, her bra in the man’s hand, which was also pinning her arm down on the bed. Her skirt was up around her waist. The woman screamed, ‘Betsy, help me!”
Betsy dropped her phone and leaped towards the man. She tackled him and the two of them fell off the bed and onto the wood floor. Just as the man started to raise his fist to strike her Betsy heard the object’s music starting to play. The man’s arm fell and his twisted, angry face lost all expression. He went limp and blank.
Betsy jumped off him and turned to look at her Sorority sister. It turned out to be Selena, one of the new girls, one she hadn’t really met except for at the rush party a few weeks earlier. Betsy asked if she was ok, if he had raped her. Selena said no, he hadn’t actually penetrated her yet but he was just about to. Betsy quickly turned back toward the man, double checking to see if he had gotten up, but he hadn’t. She picked up her phone, shut off the music and called 911. The ambulance was there within 3 minutes, as were the police. They all dealt with it as they should have; having a counselor available, taking her to the hospital, testing her, taking photos and arresting the man.
The would-be rapist, a student named Bradford, eventually woke up from his stupor. He contritely confessed to the police that he had attempted to rape Selena and that he would have if Betsy hadn’t stopped him. He said he didn’t remember anything after she tackled him except some weird music as he went down. He said he had no idea where the music came from and the police chalked it up to him being knocked out cold. He was tried and convicted of attempted rape and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He would get off in 7 if he behaved himself.
Betsy was hailed a hero by Selena, her sorority and the entire school. She got a call from Good Morning America to be interviewed about the incident and it became a national story. Time magazine did an article on the everyday heros of America and she was #12 on the list. A guy who saved puppies was right above her at #11. She tried to explain that she had no idea why he went out like a light the way he did, but most people credited it on the blow to his head as he hit the floor. It went well with the story of her being strong and fearless and there wasn’t much she could do about it. She wanted to tell someone about the music playing a part in it but she knew it would make no sense. But even if it had made sense it wouldn’t have mattered. The next time she tried to play the music it had all disappeared from her phone.
Because of all the attention and activities surrounding her saving Selena from being raped she didn’t get back to the field with the object in it for almost a week. When she did go back the object was gone. There was an indentation in the ground, but that was it.
Fourteen years later she had her second and final run in with violence. She was driving on the freeway, her two kids in car seats in the back when a truck cut her off in traffic and slammed on his breaks. She just barely avoided smashing into him. The man, red-faced and angry, got out of his car and stomped back to hers.
She was scared to death but was able to roll up all the windows and lock the doors before he arrived. He started yelling obscenities at her, telling her she was a danger to society, that she should learn how to drive and that he was going to teach her a lesson. She turned to the front media console and pressed the emergency call button she had programmed. As she did this she took a quick look in her rear view mirror. She saw her 5 year old panic stricken, about to cry. But her 7 year old was calm, looking down and playing with the old cell phone her mother had given her as a play toy.
As she got 911 on the line and told them what was happening the man violently busted in her side window with his elbow. She screamed as he reached in to grab her neck. She grabbed his arm instead and pushed it towards the steering wheel. She pressed his hand against the wheel and Hit his elbow as hard as she could. She heard a sickening crack. He screamed in pain while at the same time bringing up his left hand. In his hand was a gun. He was in the act of aiming it at her face when she heard the music. It was the music of the object from so long ago. The man went blank just as the rapist had. He dropped the gun and dropped to the ground.
She turned quickly around to see how her kids were. Her 7 year old looked up, smiled and said, “That’s my favorite song. I made it up myself.”
Drawing and story by Marty Coleman