by Ken Morrow
Then it was early Spring, 1969. I was a young man trapped in an old man’s life. Unskilled at obeying the stop signs and speed limits of a dead-end marriage, at navigating the blind curves and rock slides on the un-mapped road to success, I was lost in a labyrinth of detours and cul-de-sacs searching directions to what seemed to be the destination of everyone else’s highway.
On that particular day in April, I smiled and thanked every Happy Birthday that was offered by friends and co-workers, sat down at my drafting board, sharpened my pencil, aligned the T-square and triangle, but could find neither functional nor aesthetic solution to the floor plan I pretended to scratch at. Indifferent to proposals for lunch and celebration, at mid-day I left the office with no destination and no intention to return.
I wandered Philadelphia’s brick-walled canyons until I found myself in a wasteland of abandoned buildings, vacant storefronts, overgrown lots, and deserted diners. A once-proud, commercial thoroughfare empty of commerce, of life on the street, of something so simple as a place to eat. Block after block of ruin that drew me in.
Then the fleeting impression I had just passed a storefront with something in it. Very little, it seemed, but something. Through windows on both sides of the narrow passage that led from the street to the shop door my eyes found rows of small wooden shelves holding hand-sized lumps of somethings that looked like figures, human figures, apparently female, apparently reclining, apparently locked in a struggle with . . . .
Inside they continued their narrative along the walls on both sides of a long, narrow, austere, and unadorned room otherwise empty but for a woman sitting in a chair in the far corner, rocking. She said hello. I said hello. I turned to the figures, sidestepped sequentially past the small bodies of clay pinched and rolled into bodies of a woman: vulnerable bodies; determined bodies; bodies in agony; bodies in ecstasy; bodies opening; bodies delivering into the world the fruit of their quickening.
There were no signs, no placards of description. Whose sculptures are these? I questioned. Mine, she said. Of a woman giving birth? I asked. Of me, she said, giving birth to my baby. She ceased her rocking, opened her arms: And this is my baby. The face was the face of unglazed innocence, the same unglazed innocence on the faces of the unglazed bodies on their wooden shelves depicting in freeze-frame sequence the moment by moment progression of a life beginning. And here was that very life beginning, looking up now into the eyes of a not-so-innocent life looking to find its own beginning.
Is this an art gallery? I heard a voice ask, a voice that sounded very much like my voice, though my voice I knew at that moment was locked in a struggle with another voice, also my voice, one voice desperate that the mind stay present with the hand-wrought images before my eyes, the other voice arguing that the rights and wrongs, the shoulds and shouldn’ts, the doubts and certainties, the what-ifs and maybes rushing behind my eyes were the moment’s only real imperatives.
Yes, a gallery, she replied. The Eyes Gallery. We’re just beginning, we’ll have to see what we become. You should visit again, she added. Yes, I will, I promised. Meaning it. Intending it. Though the words belied the urgency of my need to break away before I broke down and left the bones of my contradictions to dance in my place. I hurried to open the door, cross its threshold, slip through the narrow passage back to the street, break into the world again, in a new state of quickening.
By June I had off-loaded marital baggage, cranked the top down, and the wide road was open ahead. By July I’d travelled to states of euphoria where dreams of utopia so clear just moments before had fallen from memory in the moments just after; watched houses and trees and the faces of friends become diamonds in the sky, then burst into liquefied rainbows, morph into Escheresque confusions; climbed a stairway to heaven that arrived at the place where it started.
In August slept naked in the rain on a muddy path as the beat of a distant music rose from a field on a farm I never found. In November traded my T-square and triangle for a carpenter’s toolbox and a bartenders apron. By the end of the year I was making my own sculptures.
The following summer I took a booth at the fledgling Headhouse Craft Fair opposite the booth of The Eyes Gallery; said hello again to Julia, the woman in the rocking chair; had my first Izaiah Experience; read to sleep the infant boy whose innocent face had looked up at me from his mother’s arms, from his mother’s sculptures; wove the thread of my personal renaissance into the warp of the South Street Renaissance, hailed as the hippest street in town.
Now it is early Fall, 2018. I am an older man living a younger man’s life. And my travels have brought me to the place I’ve always been. The Eyes Gallery soon will commemorate its fiftieth anniversary. I will pass again through that narrow, glass-sided vestibule, eye the display of hand-made garments, personal adornments, home decorations and hand-wrought sculptures from every corner of the wide world. I will enter that long, narrow, now crazy-quilt room, a sculptural phantasmagoria become an international gallery of hand-crafted art, a Philadelphia cultural institution. I will say hello to the woman sitting in the chair in the far corner, rocking. And I will thank her again for the simple narrative of those hand-sized figures that showed a lost traveler the direction back to the highway.