2013 Writing Contest Winner
A Point of View
To make great art, someone has to poke the cattle.
by Tom Hester
There's a certain kind of person who's attracted to places like Silver City. We couldn't exactly explain it, but Tom Hester captures it in this charming story of art and a surprising friendship with another kind of local with roots that go much further back.
Artists are like campfires, I told Starr. And our lives are the kindling. How good the art is depends on the quality of life the artist burns. I said this to her when she started to talk on and on about her cows and JMW Turner.
"What are you telling me?" she said through clenched teeth.
"Nothing more than if you want to make good pictures out of cattle, you'd damn well better be passionate about it." That's what I said. To the word.
I'm only Starr's neighbor and not as much an artist as a craft person, an enameler of copper, mementos that tourists like to buy and take home for the backs of their dresser drawers. I've been making enamel pieces since 1972. You couldn't distinguish a cloisonné box that I made 20 years ago from the one that I took out of the kiln this morning. So I'm not a great artist, a condition my late husband Ben always made sure that I recognized. But then, I also refuse any invitation to self-immolation.
Starr, though, is an authentic Joan of Arc, giving up her existence for art, just not to much good effect. At least not to good effect until this latest cow-infatuation. Periods in her life burst into flame and have become patches of ashes like those in the Gila Wilderness after lightning strikes. In 2002 she read auras. And she talked incessantly of Egon Schiele. Then she was into reflexology and had prints of Francis Bacon's nudes taped on every wall in her little Silver City house. (I despised that period.) Then it was Buddhism of a sort I can't pronounce and Watteau. Watteau! Like she had to make up for the Bacon disaster.
She has reduced her distant family life — comprising her son George and her daughter Astarte — to phone calls that Starr once described to me in detail like an old general outlining glory-filled feints and parries. "I could hear that buck-toothed harridan of George's scratching out instructions to him as he wheedled me for money to buy a car. 'George,' I told him, 'if you need another squirrel to give you financial advice, I have some parks to recommend.'"
So I was not surprised when one evening Starr knocked on my back door and announced that she had found a herd of corriente cows in the Mimbres Valley, about 25 miles east of Silver City, and that these livestock are dead ringers for the cows JMW Turner painted in oils or watercolors or captured in etchings. (The Spaniards brought corrientes to Mexico in the 17th century, and the cattle have kept their rangy, big-boned look, unlike the permed and frizzy Herefords and the sleek angus.)
She proceeded to elaborate the whole theory about Turner's place at the fulcrum between representational art, trying to convey reality with tricks, and modernism, seeking the reality behind our seeing. On and on, standing on my kitchen door threshold, she talked about the cows' role in this "shift." Never once did she stop to consider that while the corrientes in the pasture may be Turner's, the cows she puts in oils on her canvas are not likely to be even close to Turner's. Besides, I don't think cows had anything at all to do with Turner's seascapes.
Looking for cattle to paint, she had driven from Dwyer to Lake Roberts along the Rio Mimbres, which means "willows" in Spanish, though Starr couldn't give you the definition because she can barely manage "buenas dias." Somewhere about the middle of the return trip she turned up a long, steep and supposedly private drive and met Epifanio Ramirez, a man in his 80s living with a dog and a few chickens on a carved-down hunk of a ranch that his great-great-grandfather claimed at the beginning of time.
"His dog Lobo, a brown-and-black brute, circled the car baying and snarling when I drove up and I just sat there and honked. Pretty soon Epi came out of the house bent like a question mark. He hobbled over to the car and I rolled down the window. I told him that I was looking for cows to paint. He said that all his cows were painted already. We had instant understanding, he and I," she said, standing at the door because I wouldn't let her into my kitchen. Invite Starr into your house and you're committed for a good three hours. So she looked in his eyes, and if he could see past his cataracts, he looked in hers and BOOM — instant rapport.
Starr is not an authentic starving artist because her third husband, now her second ex, is a San Francisco banker, and for the privilege of his release he sends a monthly check, like paying for an exterminator. She told Epifanio that she was willing to pay to paint his herd, though how she knew he had cattle, I cannot say. I suspect that a good deal of the instant agreement on his part derived from that offer. "Epi looked around at his adobe and the old beat-up green pickup parked next to it and at the two sheds and the outhouse behind the adobe and said, 'There ain't no cows here.' 'Perfect,' I said, 'I want them down next to the Mimbres where they can chew their cuds and wag their tails.' Epi's accent got really thick, and he said that he did not think cows wag their tails. 'All right. Swish,' I said. 'The important part is that thanks to my banker ex, you can make real money renting your cows as models.' Epi said, 'OK. Can they keep their clothes on?' Cute, huh?"
A regular Mexican Henny Youngman, I told her.
Starr described to me Epi's house, a cool, dark place that smelled of sage and leather. He made Lobo stay outside, else I don't think Starr would have gone in. He made some sort of herbal tea, which had a flavor akin to diluted kerosene. I told Starr that she was lucky she still had her kidneys because the mejicano herbal teas can turn a person inside-out. I can just hear her, chattering away as she sat at the little table and peered around to decipher any secrets Epi had tucked away.
"I knew that his wife had died recently," Starr told me. "Homemade curtains at the windows, a rag rug on the floor, and old-fashioned apothecary jars held leaves on the kitchen cabinet, which was covered with linoleum that glowed with huge hibiscus blossoms. The room had no clutter and little furniture, but I was impressed with a wooden cabinet that leaned against the wall as though it had had too much to drink." (That cabinet is called a trastero and every traditional Mexican house with a claim to respectability has one.)
"On the wall next to the outside door, besides a crucifix and pictures of a saint or two, there was a calendar with a busty brunette in a peasant blouse. Above the bed hung photographs, mostly of graduations and weddings, I think. In the center of the jumble of photographs was a large black-and-white shot of a handsome young man in an Army uniform and a smiling girl in a spring print dress, apparently making a quick exit from the justice of the peace."
The item that impressed Starr the most was a book next to the only lamp. She told me that when she commented to Epi, whose dim eyes probably couldn't make out anything smaller than my hand, that he was a reader, he just said, "Hummmm." I've seen Starr sit at my kitchen table and go through bills that I've opened and stuffed back in their envelopes, so that it's no surprise that she leaned across and retrieved the book. It was poetry by Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz. Sister Juana was Mexico's first real poet in Spanish, a nun in the 17th century. Starr probably knew about Sor Juana the same way I did: art history. Miguel Mateo Maldonado y Cabrera, a Zapotec artist, painted her portrait, which became famous as one of the first images of Spanish Mexico. I figure Epifanio, apparently religious, had memorized the poetry and the book was a prompt. It's a gesture that belongs to a culture we've left behind, like the learning of American frontier families, with hardly five years of school among them, reading Shakespeare.
Starr said that she pointed to the photograph of the young couple and asked if it was of his wedding day. It was. Epifanio and Ana Louisa Ramirez were married 63 years, an arrangement that ended three years ago with Ana's death from the effects of diabetes. Starr passed this knowledge on to me with the same breathlessness I might have expected for her dishing the dirt on Jennifer Aniston or Helen Mirren.
"You know what was truly unusual, Liz?" Starr said to me. "When I told him about my three husbands, he said nothing, though I received clear vibrations that his silence was from a respect for me and my privacy rather than from a lack of interest in my life."
I could have suggested a half-dozen other, less complimentary reasons why Epifanio bit his tongue, but I bit my tongue. I can clearly imagine Starr seated in the circle of light at Epifanio's table, prattling on about Santa Fe, Siena and San Francisco, her three favorite cities, as she has insisted to me at least a dozen times, and her arthritic Spanish host wanting desperately to take a nap. Starr instead, with the subconscious stereotyping that carries her forward like a river at flood, commented that he had passed his life within a hundred miles of his great-grandfather's adobe, but seemed pleased that she had known "intimately" both Italy and Cambodia.
Some weeks after the doorstep monologue, about the same time of the evening, Starr knocked at my door. She had a matted watercolor in one hand and an oil in the other. Both were quite good. Better than anything from her Francis Bacon season in hell. The watercolor's hues emerged from a sun that had soaked the paper. Three steers were grazing next to the stream that is the Mimbres at mid-summer. The shade from the silvery cottonwoods splayed across the river bank and the grassy incline to the water's edge. A thunderhead boiled up in the deep sky.
"I told Epi that I had to be above the scene. You know how important that is." I did know. I had gone with Starr to a Chamber of Commerce meeting where she tried to persuade the guardians of the purse that the arch they were set to erect over the entrance to "historical" downtown should enable tourists to ascend to the apex, like the arches in St. Louis and Paris. Paris? Did I mention Paris? Starr gave Chamber planners an expansive tour of the City of Light, from the lines snaking out in front of Notre Dame because tourists want to climb the stairs in the left tower, to the Eiffel Tower, to Sacre Coeur and Montmartre. The owners of real estate companies and antique shops were grinning when Starr began her tour of high places and "how the human heart yearns to gaze out on a panorama below." By the time she had finished, they were scowling and making obvious glances at their watches.
"Epi has been such a dear," she explained to me. "I wanted him to rearrange the cows, you see. You can see how they are perfect. But he was reluctant to prod them to their proper places. He explained to me why they stand the way they stand."
I didn't say, "I bet," but my heart went out to this poor old man whom I'd never met.
"I would like to give you this watercolor," she said. She had never given me any of her work previously and I was immediately suspicious. "Epi and I were talking about the picture and he asked me if I had ever given you one of my works. I mean, you've meant a lot to me." I said nothing, like a mute stroke victim.
I couldn't leave her babbling on the porch so I invited her in. Firmly planting my right thumbprint on the mat's upper left corner, I propped it against the backsplash of the kitchen cabinet, and readied myself for the flood of words. She crammed the unframed oil next to the watercolor, all the while talking. Her newest enthusiasm had to do with the conflict between our compulsion to see something new while knowing that whatever we see depends entirely upon what we've already seen. "Epi, poor darling, just stares at me when I say stuff like that."
Starr grabbed a shock of peroxided hair and pulled it out from her head. "Do you know what he said to me today?" I, of course, had no idea what they had talked about. "Epi said that if he could make a picture as good as that one" (here she pointed across the room to the oil shining beneath the glare of my kitchen fluorescent) "he wouldn't talk about it. 'Talking ruins the picture,' he said. 'But how are we to understand?' I said. 'We don't understand what is. We live what is,' he said." Here Starr slapped the table.
"We were talking about the cattle. 'Why do some lie in the shade and some stand in the sun?' I asked Epi. He makes this cute little gesture that has come to fix him in my mind. He looks at the animals grazing at the edge of the stream. They appear to be avoiding getting their hooves wet. 'Maybe we should buy tickets to Acapulco for the standing ones, because they want a tan,' he says." Starr grabbed another handful of hair and stretched it out. Great tremors of laughter made her face redden; I laughed as well, to be polite.
"I explained to Epi that we humans have this internal conflict between the compulsion to see and to see something new while knowing that of all things in life, newness is the rarest quality, and that interpretation of anything new depends entirely on what we've already seen. He looked at me for a moment, perfectly silent, which was his way, and said that he could put the cows where I could look down on them if that was what I wanted."
So she painted his cows and talked and talked, as she at one time had talked to me. My late afternoons had become sinkholes of monkish silence without her rummaging through my cabinets and massaging my works of enameled copper between her hands. Unlike Ben, Starr never sneered at my stuff.
About three months after Starr discovered Epi, I had arranged a clutch of jewelry in the kiln. It was four in the afternoon and I walked in front of my house, along Yucca Street, to look north toward the hills where the sun rubs against arroyos and junipers and abrades their texture. Starr stopped her car next to my fence, going the wrong way on the street.
"Our Mont St. Victoire," she said after she lowered the window and leaned across the passenger's seat to look up at me.
"What?" I said.
"Those mountains are to us like Cezanne's was to him."
"Maybe for you, JMW Turner. For me, they're just a nice frame for the world. Purplish blue tissue pasted on cerulean sky, Nature's collage." She snorted air from her mouth and nose, like a bull. Her commentary.
"I want to show you something," she said, struggling to unhook her seat belt and then almost tumbling out of the Mini Cooper.
"It's still fresh, so hold it by the stretchers," she commanded as she pushed a painting toward me. We walked toward my back door. When inside, I looked at the oil. It was again a picture of cattle, as seen from above, going down a bank toward a creek, and New Mexico light suffused the center of the canvas and opened up a vista across a field of grama toward cliffs, dark and red rough against the bleached sky. The painting conveyed space and time as well as I have ever seen them done. An artist like Bierstadt captured the immensity of the American western landscape by filling walls with huge works. Starr had kept the feelings produced by some of those 19th century vista paintings while tossing out the details and shrinking all but the feeling to a 24-by-30 inch painting.
I told her Turner would have been proud. She reacted like a school girl, twirling about my kitchen, giggling. She announced that she was taking the painting and a dozen others to her gallery the next day.
After I saw Starr open her garage the next morning and weave her Mini down Yucca Street, I drove out to the Mimbres Valley. It wasn't difficult to find Epi's place, thanks to Starr's close descriptions. As she had done, I gunned the car up an insane incline to an open patio in front of an adobe shack. I honked. Lobo first barked and then skulked around my car, sniffing the tires. To my surprise two old men looked out the front door. Only when I honked a second time did the older of the two, armed with a six-foot staff, limp toward my car.
I had made up my cover story. I was Teresa Avila, lost in the wilds of New Mexico. I was looking for a Narciso Garcia. Epi — and it was Epi investigating who was disturbing his dog — said that he knew of many Garcias but no Narciso Garcias. That is, if I were looking for a live Narciso Garcia, for he thought he could assist me in finding a dead one.
I said that only live ones would do. I had a bequest that my law firm would like to turn over to the appropriate Narciso. Epi crept toward the house and consulted with his colleague. He emerged again after some minutes and suggested that I join them and talk about the Garcias in the shade of a box elder that hung over the roof of the house. We sat in three aluminum lawn chairs with faded and shredding vinyl webbing. Black ants scrambled across my feet so that I had to stamp my sandals every minute or two.
Gumicindo introduced himself. "People who know me call me Chorty, sometimes Chapo," he said. Chorty's eyebrows, the size of frazzled paint brushes, waggled when he talked. He held my hand until I snatched it free. His right hand was amazingly soft and puffy.
We three sat watching almost a dozen iridescent birds ducking in and out of a mound of prickly pear, the dead, almost petrified pads at the base forming protective niches for nests. That day the nopales had burst into a riot of fuchsia-colored blossoms and bees dodged the birds to reach the nectar.
"It's lovely here," I told them. "Why did you build your house so far away from the river?"
"I did not build my house," Epi said. "My great-grandfather constructed the beginning of my house, and after him, my grandfather and father added other parts. I don't know why he built the first house where he did, aunque if you ever saw the Mimbres flood, you would appreciate how smart he was."
We proceeded to uncover the complex genealogy of the Mimbres Garcias, a tricky affair since neither Epi nor Chorty had familial ties to Garcias. At the end of our time together, after we had shared Mason jars of water and store-bought macaroons, I was convinced that every family in the Mimbres had incestual links to everyone else in the valley. I stayed till the early afternoon, watching the air shimmy and glow above the almost dry river, and hearing the old men ruminate like cicadas over the centuries of sere stories and partial memories. They accepted me into their company as a sort of accident of nature that gave them cause to call up a rusty fact or a disused association. Still I crouched under the shade of their elaborate courtesy and they may have been sorry to see me go.
I don't believe Starr ever learned about my visit. When she and I later together met Chorty at the funeral, he just winked his eyebrows at me and mentioned nothing of our afternoon together when I was Teresa. His discretion was another element of his courtly civility. Starr had already ceased her invasions of my kitchen, but after I had sampled her time in the Mimbres, her visits to my studio became even scarcer. One early morning several weeks later, I saw her wearing oven mitts and carrying two aluminum baking trays to put into the Mini's trunk. She was taking casseroles on her plein air expedition.
That same noon I again drove to the Mimbres, and where the road to San Lorenzo curved, just below Epi's place, I pulled onto the shoulder and hoisted my bird-watching binoculars to my eyes. From my parking spot I couldn't make out the plaza in front of the house but could see the back of the adobe. Epi had dragged a rickety potting table into the shade of the box elder, and three men and a woman sat on lawn chairs around the table, eating from paper plates. Bottles of Dos Equis tilted on the table's uneven top. I knew at once that Starr had prepared her only dish of any note other than an arugula and goat cheese salad: macaroni and cheese with a toasted bread crust. Using a cream sauce base, emmenthal and fontina and parmesan, she transformed childhood comfort food into a dish of mysterious complexity. Starr had made the casserole for me once, and through the binocs I could make out the sensuous pleasure that had flooded me, playing on the faces of Epi, Chorty and a man I learned later was Flaco Quintana.
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