Friday, August 31, 2012

Death and the Maiden

Let me tell you a little story....a true story...
Back in March of 2009 I was teaching a workshop at the Upstart Crow in the Vancouver BC area.  One of my students compiled a list of places to visit for junking purposes.  I had a free day so I figured  I'd hit the town looking for goodies.  One of the addresses was for a place on Main St., called the Bakers Dozen.  I showed the address to the concierge at the hotel I was staying and I asked if I could walk to there, after all it looked fairly nearby as far as the map was concerned.  The hotel employee winced at me, paused and said, ", you can't walk to there".  I replied, "Really?  I doesn't seem that far away".  The concierge said, " should drive".    I figured he knew what he was talking about and I hopped into my car and headed down the road.  The address written down for me was 352 Main St. and as I got closer it dawned on me why the concierge was so tentative with me.  It was a very depressed area.  Substance abuse, homelessness, metal illness, and all the other misfortunes associated with urban despair were visibly apparent.    I drove around looking for the address...which turned out to be the location of the Vancouver Police department.  I drove around the blocks a few times, thinking that perhaps the address was off by a number or two.   On about the third spin around the block I was on the corner of Abbott and Hastings, and down and out folks seemed to fill the sidewalks.  I assumed  that a soup kitchen was nearby and lunch was being served.  As I drove through the intersection I noticed a number of folks staring and pointing toward a fenced-in vacant lot.  Curious, I wondered what the commotion seemed to be....and then I saw something I will never forget as long as I live...something poignant and mysterious that reminded me of something said in the film Citizen Kane:
Bernstein: A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.

Well to some degree, the same is true for what I saw that particular sunny Spring day in Vancouver.  The empty lot was filled with weeds and trash, in the center was pile of concrete rubble.  
Here is the exact locations courtesy of Google Earth
Standing on the rubble, was a svelte woman in her early twenties dressed in black goth/punk clothing.    Actually she was not exactly standing, she was pirouetting.  Here...surrounded by despair, decay, and death...this woman was dancing...alone.   She danced despite the world she seemed to inhabit.   She was a small bit of beauty in monstrous setting.  I wish I could have captured a photo, but then again it is probably one of those scenes that would never quite turn out...the mind is a wonderful filter.

Of course, I have absolutely no insight to the  situation whatsoever.  Was this a common occurrence?  Was she mentally ill?  Was she on drugs?  Was she dancing in despair or in happiness?  Also, I have no idea what became of her...whether she has moved to better times or  whether she still dances to an invisible band.  Because all of these unknowns she has become a metaphor in my mind. 

I am reminded of Schubert's Death and the Maiden, where a young woman dances with death, afraid, but Death tries to ensure her that he will ease her pain.  

The Maiden:
Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!
Go, fierce man of bones!
I am still young! Go, rather,
And do not touch me.
And do not touch me.


Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!
I am a friend, and come not to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

Over the years since I saw the pirouetting maiden, I often considered trying to translate the story into art.  Nothing I conceived of seemed to do the story justice...that was until recently.  

Last Spring I found a strange wooden device in North Carolina.  Looked like part of an odd door or ornate cabinet.  A large metal shaft protruded through its semi-circular opening (I assumed it was a latch of some kind).  It was from this that my version of macabre dance was born.  A doll head mounted the top of the device transforming into a strange devouring beast.  This would be my Death.  My maiden would be from a Barbie Princess cake topping...a little ballerina generously donated to me by my step-daughter.  She would dance in the mouth of Death.

My story varies a wee bit from  Schubert.  In his version, Death is the comforter and the Maiden a fearful of all that he entails.  My version tried to interpret what I saw at Abbott and Hastings.  A woman who was defiant in the face of the Moloch of death.  
The devouring Moloch in the film Metropolis.  
A most definite inspiration:
Death did not frighten her, rather she seemed to live despite Death's grip around her and her surroundings.  Her soul would never be his entirely...her body, yes, but her soul, never.

So here is the finished piece.   
Death and the Maiden 

Thanks for checking in...


Thespoena said...

An absolutely stunning work of art and amazing testimony of life & death. Thank so much for sharing!

Pam McKnight said...

Great Story and Great Piece. I love it when our memories and our "finds" merge to create such a tale as this.
on a side note, did you ever find the Bakers Dozen?

deMeng said...

I did Pam...back many times since...especially since I now live in the Vancouver area.

Elderberrystudio said...

I enjoy the stories that go along with finding the pieces you use in your artwork as much as the finished work!

Nichola said...

Love the story and the piece. Really, really wonderful.

Anonymous said...

What an amazing story and an incredible work of art! I love that I saw it in an early stage at VRAS and can now see it finished and know the story behind it!

dragongourd said...

When I first looked at it, it seemed very frightening. But after reading how it came to be and the symbolism behind it, I am completely enraptured.

Anonymous said...

Quite a transformation! Thanks for sharing the story behind it and how it evolved.

Jeanne said...

I usually just lurk but something about this one... sometimes your stuff is too intense for me and this one might have been too, but for some reason, dead tired that I am, I read your story and now I find this piece irresistible. I'm fascinated by it, it holds me in thrall...

Gina M. said...

I love how you describe the creative process of this piece; how the moment lived in the subconscious until the piece was born. You articulately explained how a creative mind works. Well mine anyway. Thank you.

Paris said...

You are a fine story-teller. I love the area around the old cop shop...although it can be sad in the shadows there is also much beauty and hope shining through. As for the Baker's Dozen, it is just around the corner from my house. Come for a cup of coffee the next time you are in the neighborhood! (If you don't remember me, just ask Megan.)

Parabolic Muse said...

Michael, I linked to the image of this work from Twitter. I was awed by it, and amazed.

But your post made me cry. Stunning.


donnaj said...

Love the piece and the story behind it-that inspired it.

Wulf said...

I think this may be my favourite of your works here. It's interesting how our reactions to it change on reading the story of its inspiration.

mhegan kate said...

This is one amazing work from you. Its so wonderful cause it depicts life and death. You've definitely nailed it.
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