Not from our home in Durham is the Liberty Warehouse, which once housed tobacco auctions. The building is not beautiful; it is, however, historic because it is one of the last of its kind still standing, a visual legacy of what our city once was. It is also on its last legs. Its most recent owners have set it up for demolition with a sort of planned negligence that have created a bit of a quandary for historians and city officials who want to honor and retain our past and must also come to terms with the reality of the structure’s deterioration. The old warehouse, it seems, will soon give way to something else, save a facade or two — something else that will probably give another historical commission pause in a hundred years or so.
One of my colleagues from the computer store is on a trip through Europe, where the sense of history has centuries on us. Her Facebook page has been a photo gallery of all the Big Must See Destinations, including the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Her photograph showed up on the same day as Dick Gordon’s interview with a sculptor named Jimmy Grashow who, among other things, did a sculpture of the same fountain in cardboard. That’s right. Cardboard. Oh, and there’s this: his point was to put it outside, where it would be destroyed by the elements. The pictures show you how things fell apart. I transcribed the part of the interview that most captivated me.
Dick Gordon: So the plan was always to build it and then put it outside and to have it be destroyed by the weather?
Jimmy Grashow: Absolutely. Always. It’s thrilling to get an idea that just burns inside of you and then become obsessed with it; you try to push it away, you know its absurd . . . it’s so irresistible you can’t back off, so right from the beginning it was something I wanted to do.
Gordon: I don’t understand how you could devote the years you put into this always knowing that whatever intricate piece of Poseidon’s beard or whatever part of a horse’s hoof you were creating out of cardboard was being created simply to be destroyed.
Grashow: As you say it, I don’t know either. I want to cry. (laughs) But everything is process; that’s the only thing that I ever wanted to do was just do. It’s so thrilling to cut, to paste, to glue. Sometimes the result of all of that is inconsequential. I’ve done that. I’ve worked in the theater and the rehearsal sometimes is so much more magnificent than the performance. It’s so realer. Is realer a word? And that’s the way it was building the fountain: it was so real that the end result was inconsequential.
Gordon: You’ve just put it into terms that I haven’t thought of before because I was thinking of this ahead of time and thinking, OK, oil painters create a painting that is designed to last centuries; sculptors make something out of stone so generations will be able to look at it. Now you’re talking about dance and music and that doesn’t last the same way. So know you’re closer to performance art than fine art? Help me with the definition here.
Grashow: I can’t. I think it’s just about process. I mean everything goes. You know the World Trade Center came down and the Afghan Buddhas; I think last week they built a road in South America and used the gravel from a Mayan pyramid. Everything goes and everything is ephemeral. Artists sort of build in stone. Artists build in steel. What they build in is indicative of how they feel about mortality and life. I’ve always loved paper and cardboard. I’ve always loved material that seemed lighter and more ephemeral.
Gordon: More fragile.
Grashow: More fragile.
Needless to say, his last words had my humming Sting’s song for a couple of days at least. Something in there also sent me back to one of my favorite Robert Frost poems:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
We got a good rain here last Sunday night, which was my cue to get to weeding in the front yard on Monday morning. My attention had been pointed in other directions for some time, so the weeds had had the run of the place. The yard has been a work in progress since we moved in three years ago. There is no grass, only flower beds and trees and mulch and, well, weeds. The biggest culprit is the monkey grass. As I began pulling it up, I found the little plants were all connected. I was attempting to undo a network of growth and subversion, working to make room for the azaleas and hydrangeas to breathe. After a couple of hours, I had one side reasonably cleared out and the yard looks pretty good. Still, there is work to be done. I will need to keep weeding, I know, because I have already done so twice this spring. My hard work doesn’t leave much of a legacy, and it is still satisfying somehow, in part, at least, because it resonates with what Jimmy Grashow was saying about process: what matters is the doing of the thing.
As I listened to the interview, the other intersection for me was cooking. The reason I love to be in the kitchen is because I love the way food brings people together. When I create a dish, I want to make an offering, a work of art. I want the plate to create a moment where those around the table or around the room can find one another. A couple of weeks ago, I make Strawberry Shortcake for a gathering of folks in Birmingham. I even took a picture. The dish looked good, tasted good, and took time to put together. As soon as I put down my camera, we ate the artwork. And it was good. The legacy of the evening was in the stories and connections; the food was an invitation to the process.
The essence of a life well-lived is more like cardboard sculptures and strawberry shortcake — and even weeding — than granite fountains. I spoke with a colleague this week who told me about a teacher he described as “the greatest man I have ever known.” HIs seminal memory had nothing to do with a particular class or accomplishment. The teacher, who went on to become a principal and then superintendent, left his mark by cleaning lunch tables. My colleague said, “Everyday at lunch he would come take our trays when we were finished, which gave him a chance to talk to the students, and then he would stay and help the janitors clean the tables in the cafeteria as a way of showing us that everyone’s job was important. I think of him everyday when I come to work because I want to be like him.”
Both the Liberty Warehouse and the Trevi Fountain with go the way of the cardboard sculptures one day, yet love lives on. Love lives on.
This essay peels away so many layers of understanding, right down to the core. I like your insights so much.
I love this and should probably write up my arm with Sharpie: “It’s not what I build, but the love with which I build it, that matters.” I get so tired, building. Maybe it’s because I’m doing it with the wrong energy.