Softly Through Stone

A week into summer school, I moved into a huge converted garage in the hills above UCLA. Best place I‘d ever lived; best $350 a month I’ll ever spend. I‘d enrolled in my first-ever sculpture class, taught by Charlie Ray, and had immersed myself in the creation of an immense voting booth.

After a long day’s moving and unpacking, that first night‘s sleep in Beverly Glen was one of the best of my life. I awoke at 6:45, made coffee and continued unpacking. Around 7, I heard a series of nearby plinks.

Plink, plink, plink. Plink-plink. Plink . . . plink . . .

It was a pleasant plinking, a soft plinking of hard surfaces. I got out of bed, put on clothes and went outside to investigate.

Two doors up the hill, an elderly woman in a housecoat stood in her small front yard, chiseling stone. The stone was on a small table. Three or four similar tables, covered with partly cut stones, dotted the rest of the yard.

Hers was a humble sculpture yard that lay before a simple bungalow. The house I’d just moved into was, I‘d been told, the oldest one on Oletha Lane; from the looks of it, this one, Anna’s house -- Anna Mahler, the sculptor working in her front yard -- must have been one of its original neighbors.

Having attended public schools in any major industrial nation but our own, you no doubt remember Anna‘s father, Gustav, as the composer of Das Lied von der Erde, Kindertotenlieder, the “Resurrection” Symphony, and other dramatic and melodramatic classics. Between bouts of depression and more than a joust or two with mania, Gustav married Alma Schindler and made Anna. And now here she was, at the age of 80, my new neighbor, softly cutting stones.

I took a shower and went to school to work on my voting booth.

About 7 the next morning, the plinking returned. And returned again many times. Sometimes I’d just lie in bed and listen. It was beautiful plinking, really: almost music.

Then I‘d get up and go work on my voting booth.

No Matter Who I Vote For, It Always Ends Up Nixon: an additive sculpture. My first. Eight-foot flat-black plywood planks, upright, forming three walls around a manure pallet supported at waist level by four fat, crosscut logs, bark intact. Up on the pallet, 200 pounds of rusted automobile parts -- carburetors, mostly -- arranged around clear plastic and glass containers partly filled with red liquid and interconnected by a network of clear plastic tubing that passed through and between the auto parts. Respiration, circulation. I roofed the top of the monster with chicken wire and hung a golden curtain as the fourth wall. Through the chicken wire I then poured 40 or 50 pounds of plaster to form stalactites to keep the machinery from escaping through the roof. And beneath the pallet, the representative voter’s legs, my legs, the lower half of my (clothed) body cast in gauze and white plaster.

When it was done, Nixon weighed about 400 pounds. It wasn‘t going anywhere, I figured, whether or not it deserved to. But a week after class ended, after the shopfolks assured me that Nixon was a welcome addition to the Dickson Art Center courtyard for the time being (lots of other student work lived there indefinitely), I somehow . . . misplaced it.

“Didn’t he call you?”

(Who?)

“He said he was gonna call you.”

(Who?)

“The guy who was supposed to call you to tell you we needed to move it.”

(Well, he didn‘t.)

“He said that he’d called you, and that you‘d said we could throw it out.”

(Well, he didn’t.)

Financed by my registration fees, a maintenance crew had dismembered Nixon and thrown the corpse away, leaving behind only my white plaster legs.

Just like a real voting booth.

I returned with my orphaned legs to find Anna still plinking away, well into the dusk.

* * *

#If you attended public school in the United States and both your parents worked, there‘s a good chance you never got an opportunity to hear Gustav Mahler’s music. The Classical Music Pages at the Fritz-Haber Institut of the Max-Planck Society has some biographical info, plus WAV and MP3 excerpts (w3.rz-berlin.mpg.decmpmahler.html) to help you figure out why.

#Casa Mahler (www.casamahler.com) takes you into the late Anna Mahler‘s fantabulous three-story medieval house in Spoleto, Italy, with lots of detailed photos of the house, Anna’s sculptures and Anna herself. (Apparently you can rent the place.)

#Public Art at the University of California, Los Angeles (www.usc.eduisdarchiveslapubartUCLAArt), is just a small part of USC‘s potentially formidable (in a simple sort of way) Public Art in Los Angeles site (www.usc.eduisdarchiveslapubart, as you might imagine). It contains images of and location information about a great many things worth visiting, including Anna Mahler’s Night (1963).


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