by Carlos Antonio Piñón
August 21, 2019
Ahh, Ox-bow. If you've never been to Saugatuck, Michigan to attend a class at the Ox-bow School of Art and Artists' Residency, then you are truly missing out. This secluded art camp is a gem for those seeking a quiet space to reflect and create work. From peers in your class to artists in residencies, you get to surround yourself with a makeshift community of people interested in making art. Plus, kayaking across the lagoon and to the beach at the lake certainly helps making the experience all the more unique.
The summer of 2016 was during my transition from being a junior to being a senior at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Due to withdrawing from several classes, I needed additional credits in order to graduate on time. Seeing as I still needed to fulfill my off-campus credit requirements, I scoured the course catalog, trying to find something to pique my interest. While the likes of glassblowing and metalshop were intriguing, I had already used too many studio credits. I was beginning to think there wasn't a class for me until I came across a gem: Making the Wor(l)d Visible.
Cross-listed as an art history class and a studio class, Making the Wor(l)d Visible was everything I didn't know I needed. Seeing all the ways text is prevalent in our lives from books to closed captioning, from social media to advertisements, the course took a stroll through history to examine how words and text were used from early paintings to contemporary graffiti. In between the grounding context from different historical concepts, we explored the very same themes with our own two hands. It was made obvious from the very beginning why this wasn't just an art history class, but a studio class as well. Every single day in the two-week class, we would be reviewing historical work, and then generating our own in response. From gestural painting to blackout poetry, from typewriter art to artists' books, we covered everything possible from text art to concrete poetry.
My time at Ox-bow was a perfect break from my home life. I was in the midst of a fight with one of my closest friends on the heels of my dog's death just weeks before. Truthfully, I was a mess. Most days, I managed to jog through the forest and along the lagoon to find my inner calm. Through it all, I was trying to recenter myself. I was trying to learn everything I can. I stayed in the studio late most days to keep working, to keep learning and experimenting. By the time we were on our final projects, I knew I had to do what felt most true to me. I had to make a book.
The boy does not let himself cry.
He wants to kiss him all the time.
He'd feel that'd be queer...
Maybe because it was.
It would feel especially good to remove his clothes.
He pulled his shirt, his belt, his pants.
He touched his cheek.
Whose idea was it, this body of his?
It wouldn't matter.
The boy did not love him.
He'd had that feeling before.
This wasn't about him.
Of course the boy had been crying.
Longing is a very short story about a boy in love with another boy who doesn't love him back. This kind of story is so universal. You've read it countless times, seen it in movies and TV shows, heard it in songs, and maybe even experienced it yourself. This is the kind of story that is especially more true for those who are LGBT. So the fact that I hadn't actually written this myself (well, not exactly) is one of the best things about it. The original iteration of Longing consists of 14 segments of text cut out of Leaving the Sea: Stories by Ben Marcus, which was a book I happened to bring with me to Ox-bow for the sole purpose of cutting up. (Sorry Ben Marcus!) I had never read this book, but I skimmed looking for lines of text that caught my interest. Without attempting to claim I know anything about Marcus's story, I'm pretty sure "the boy" in his story is a baby, so to see how different the story becomes when given a different context is incredible. I can't even imagine what I would have created if it wasn't this book with these words. Could I have still created such a sweet and honest story if I chose a different source material? It's just impossible to know.
That first iteration of Longing was about the size of a postcard. Fairly small, but not quite as intimate as I'd like. After all, I wanted the words to hold even more weight, which I sought to accomplish in my second iteration by making books by hand. Each page was painted by hand, cut by hand, folded by hand. By now, the words I scavenged by hand had been so far removed from their original context, that they started to genuinely feel like mine, especially as I retyped each letter by hand with the antique typewriter I bought in town.
As a simple bound book, I took three sheets of watercolor paper and made ink paintings on both sides. Then, I stacked them with an additional sheet of watercolor (completely covered in ink on one side) to serve as the cover. All together, I folded them so that there would be twelve unique pages. During this time, I made the single, most important discovery in my young artistic life: I love to paint. Well, you'll never hear me call myself a painter, and I will probably never do much with acrylics or oil paints, but if I'm not cracking open a bottle of ink, it's because I'm dead. Though some gestures were more intentional than others, all of the ink paintings attempted to capture the mood both partner pages and their line of text.
As I started to tear the sheets to make deckle edges, I still was unsatisfied with the size of my book. It was about as big as the original version until I decided to split it in half. I didn't want to let the other half go to waste after spending so much time perfecting it; thus, one book became two. It's unintentionally almost an homage to God using one of Adam's ribs to make Eve, except clearly in this version, it'd be to create Steve.
Perhaps the hardest decision I had to make was whether to make the second book have the same text, or whether it should be a book from the other prospective. If I had to change anything about my approach, I'd try to write from that other perspective, but it was just so hard. This was the story I knew and related to, but the other intrigued me in such a way that I could never have written a satisfactory companion that wasn't self-indulgent. It was especially difficult because I didn't even write the text did I use because it was all found text. Still, since I ended up making the second copy have the same text, that means that the two copies are a pair. And because I will never make another version, the couple will stay companions for all time.
The end of the course was somewhat bittersweet. I was so sad the class was ending, but so proud of the work I had done. I don't think I've ever received such a good critique on a single work that even now, I keep trying to think of ways to do another project like this one. I stayed in Ox-bow for another two weeks to take a science class, but by the time I got back home, I felt like I was gone a lifetime. I had grown so much that of course I had been crying.