John Talbird

A Portable Art

When I turned 36, I started making minimal sculptures, wooden boxes made of cheap plywood and nails, no paint or markings of any kind. I spent hours in my studio just sawing, hammering and nailing, nothing else. I didn’t do any of the things I had previously done to avoid work—running for cigarettes, hanging out with the other artists in the building, clipping my nails. My relationship with my girlfriend, Heather, started to go on the rocks. I only felt connected to making these boxes of various sizes, from as small as a matchbox to the size of a crate large enough to ship a grizzly bear. All of the pieces were untitled, the body of work too. There was something so sensory about making them. I felt alive. At some point, after I had been making them for nearly a week, I realized I was shedding tears while I worked. And then, when I couldn’t work another minute, I would head up to the roof and the sky would blaze with multiple red and orange suns. The black tar paper up there rippled and smoked and the air cracked with the sirens of first responders racing to the various corners of Brooklyn and I wondered who, if anyone, would look at this art. Then I would go home to have breakfast.

All of my life, I’ve been a mobile sort of guy. Whatever I’m doing—smoking a cig, eating a slice—I’m moving. My art has been reciprocally portable—tiny clay sculptures, miniature portraits, performances and spectacles—more concept that material. Still, I realize that I’m more a conformist than a radical in the Art World. Fuck the avant-garde, if it truly does exist, I’ve always said. That statement always invites incredulity from recent art school graduates and other young art producers, but I know that most of the Art World agrees with me in some form or another. Oh, the desire to make Art that Matters! these youngsters practically say, new tattoos doing dances on their arms, their hands in tight little fists.

I continued to make the boxes throughout the spring and after, until the dog days of summer descended upon Brooklyn with a vengeance. I was building one final box, a lollapalooza of a box. It was thirteen feet high by eight by sixteen, the exact dimensions of my work space. I had to build the box from inside it.

All the boxes I’ve made up to this point are inside the box with me as I build it. As I make this one, I weave in-between the stacked boxes inside to pound nails and cut wood and, as the light goes out, the pressure rises and I hear these other, smaller boxes start to split apart. The grain of the wood in the box I’m building and standing in expands and contracts, groaning along the seams so that bars of light crisscross the space inside, dissecting me with radiance. I can tell I’m just about to “get it,” to be hit with the Inspiration that every artist hopes to be hit with at least once in his working life. My mental files will be wiped clean, something new imprinted there. My heart, my bones, my very soul will be different, charged, new. I’m going to be what I have always scoffed at: An Important Artist!

In the next second, the entire box—with all the other boxes inside, including me, my tools, and various sundries (thermos of tepid coffee, fast food leavings, porno mag, twisted cigarette butts, etc.)—contracted to the size of a pea. I was no longer the Creator of this work, no simple shareholder in a product going to market, but with a moment of Divine Grace, I became One with It. I will float here at the center of this Work for Eternity. I couldn’t do this by myself. I didn’t even make a conscious decision to start doing this by myself. That came from God or On High or the Cosmos. I started out making such human shapes—right angles, parallel lines—and moved to the lines of the universe: curves, a circle, a perfect sphere. Le divinité! The world inside that box that was no longer a box could have been London or Paris or even New York although New York was just outside its walls. It’s hard to judge inside and outside, judge space though I am in “here” all alone, though not lonely, and have all this space to move around in, though prefer to remain where I am, as still as sculpture.


John Duncan Talbird’s fiction and essays are forthcoming or have recently appeared in Juked, Ploughshares, REAL, Ambit, The Literary Review, and Amoskeag among many others. He is a frequent contributor to Film International, is on the editorial board of Green Hills Literary Lantern and has held writing residencies at Virginia Center for Creative Arts and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. An English professor at Queensborough Community College, he lives with his wife in Brooklyn.
His piece "Sublimation" appeared in TCR Issue 2. Read an excerpt here

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