The Sculpture that Killed Its Maker

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Whenever my husband and I travel for work, we load the kids into the car and make the drive north and east, past the skyline of Denver and out into the open plains, where the Denver International Airport rises out of the grasslands.

DIA has garnered dozens of conspiracy theories over the years—in part, because of the expense of building an airport,  from scratch, 45 minutes from the city center paired with the failures in construction (such as the underground baggage retrieval system, which immediately malfunctioned and was quickly abandoned, leaving miles of unused tunnels beneath the terminals). But the conspiracy rumors originated from the red-eyed “Blue Mustang” sculpture, nicknamed “Blucifer,” that greets drivers entering the airport. That’s because Blucifer killed its maker. Each time our family turns onto Peña Boulevard, our seven-year-old daughter asks to hear the story of its creation, even as its red eyes, lit from within, shine from the looming sculpture in the median between the in-bound and out-bound terminals.

“Tell us about the horse, Daddy,” she says to my husband.

An artist himself, he first heard the tale as a teenager and has always remembered it. So he says, “Well, a sculptor made the horse. Do you remember what kind it is?”

“A bronco,” my five-year-old son says.

“Like our football team,” my seven-year-old responds.

“Right,” my husband says, “Our city asked the artist to build a sculpture when they were first building the airport. He drew a picture first on a piece of paper. Then he built a full-size model, and he cast it in plastic. Then when he was trying to move it around it fell on top of him.”

“…And then he died.” My daughter finishes.

She’s right, though the first time my husband brought out that piece of Denver trivia, I doubted such a thing could be true, assuming it was an urban legend like the other theories about the airport.

But it is true. In 2006, weeks from the sculpture’s completion, Luis Jiménez, the Chicano sculptor whose work had been shown in the Met and the Smithsonian Institute, bled out on his studio floor in an accident involving the sculpture. (We have not yet divulged every detail of the terrible tragedy to our children.)

Beneath its fiberglass blue skin, three steel armatures support the 9,000-pound, 32-foot-tall bucking sculpture. As the artist shifted its position, one of the steel armatures disengaged from its hoist. When the horse tipped, it caught Jiménez on the leg, severing an artery: a fatal wound. His sons eventually finished the sculpture on his behalf, and DIA installed it in 2008.

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Once when my daughter was a toddler, I heard a podcast where the host claimed that all children entered either a “sex phase or a death phase” around age five, obsessing over one of the two.

My two children have apparently entered the death phase. The first time we watched Planet Earth together, my children rooted for the wolf hunting the baby caribou. They wanted to see blood, true carnivores.

“Is this normal?” I asked my husband. He shrugged.

Still I was not prepared for my daughter to ask on repeat, “I want to hear how Jesus died.” We often read the Sunday school version of the crucifixion before bedtimes, but even the softened version describes torture and death. Jesus’ followers abandoned Him, He was whipped and hung, and then He asphyxiated on the cross—and He did it to rescue us. “Let the more loving one be me,” his death signals, as in W.H. Auden’s “The More Loving One.” The paradox of Jesus’ loving motivation yet gruesome death puzzled her. It became a mystery she was trying to solve, and the pages of her Bible eventually ripped from repeated use, to be taped back together for the next telling.

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My daughter has not yet had to say the “long farewell” to a grandparent though both my husband and I have lost grandparents during her lifetime, albeit before what she clearly remembers. But she has lost my parents. She lost them the day I cut them out of our lives with a hard-edge boundary she did not understand.

Here’s why I did it: my upbringing had been an emotional warzone. Trauma layered upon trauma, the manifold consequences had stained generations. From my grandparents to my parents to me, every generation wrestled through abuse and neglect and codependency and mental illness. Myself, I had suffered depression and anxiety starting at age four, younger than my children are today.

While visiting my parents on the East Coast in 2015, the truth surfaced: I had been my father’s favorite out of my three siblings. In front of a room of people, he called me out as his “favorite sister.” He spoke out loud what I’d always known to be true. The illusion broke: his favoritism had been there all along, the radioactivity silently poisoning me.

After I returned home, my therapist and I weeded through the mess. After prayer and a few panic attacks, I came to the conclusion that I needed space from my father, the worst kind of breakup. I emailed him the news six months from that momentous Christmas. It’s not you, it’s me, I might well have said.

But I had tried to stay close to my mother, whom my kids called “Mimi.” We shared tense weekly phone calls. Three months after the falling out with my father, she visited from the East Coast—alone.

On the last day of her visit, we played with the children, and then she laid them down for naps. She told me that she found my actions inscrutable, offensive, just plain wrong. We argued in the kitchen as the children slept. Why wouldn’t I talk to my father? she wanted to know. I had my reasons, I said. Why are you doing this to him? To us? I don’t want to talk about it, I said. Were you ever…abused? No, no, nothing like that, I said—but my voice cracked. I said, I don’t want to talk about this anymore, like I’ve said before. I said, If you bring it up again, I will ask you to leave. What kind of person, what kind of Christian, cuts their father out of their life? she demanded. How dare you do such a thing to my husband? Finally, eyes brimming, I spoke the last words: Mom, get out of my house.

When my children woke up, she was gone. Where is Mimi? I did not know what to say except, “Mimi had to go.”

Believe me, I wanted to tell my daughter–the oldest daughter, as I had been in my family—every single detail. I wanted to vindicate myself: I’m the good guy! I wanted to insist it. But no story is that simple. And any child would be crushed beneath the burden of details, by needing to pick a side. So I have aimed to keep my daughter a neutral party; in the rare moments she talks with Mimi while a relative babysits, she can enjoy her own relationship with her, unencumbered by mine. At least that’s the hope.

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This July marked three years from my mother’s last visit. My daughter has stopped asking to visit Mimi on the East Coast. More than once, she has confused Mimi for my grandmother, who I call Meema. Which one is Mimi? she asks. I do not know whether I feel relieved by her forgetfulness or heartbroken; the forgetfulness marks one more thing in which my mother and I are separate.

My kids may have lost the specific memory of my parents, but whether they remember or not, my parents were once in their lives, showering them with presents and attention and snapping photos of their every movement—and then they weren’t. I wonder if the “missing” resides in their body, the way the body keeps score of so many wounds. I wonder if, suddenly, my children ever return to the moment of the argument overheard from the kitchen and the absence of Mimi that followed it. I do not know if I made the right choice.

Likewise, I am unsurprised that my children have taken to the horse with glowing eyes on Peña Boulevard. How else do children make sense of loss but by rehearsing it? Yet the rehearsal must satisfy a deeper need that they cannot name—loss as muscle memory. My daughter says, “Dad, tell me again what happened…,” and we relive the tragedy together.

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(Originally published at the Curator Magazine)

 

 

My Mother Vs. Modern Art

I (Liz) don’t know any artists with artist parents — okay, maybe a few and they’re a troupe of singers from Austria. The truth is that most artists live among a majority of nonartists, or at least people who would never dream of calling themselves artists. They probably cook and sing and knit and decorate their houses just like artists do, but “art” seems like such an extraordinary (read: odd, strange, quirky, incomprehensible, etc.) activity that is far removed from their real living.

And in fact, these views about art are not really that surprising. When you look at the art that has been lauded for the past fifty years (since Modernism), you can see why most people feel that art, particularly art that hangs on the walls of art museums, was not made for them. They “just don’t get it.” (Though, really, who does?)

Just for fun, I thought I’d give you a peek at one of my favorite so-called “nonartists” — my mother. Two years ago, we went to the modern wing of the National Gallery in Washington, DC, and I took notes. Does this experience feel familiar to anyone else?

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My mother and I walk into an art museum. Already this sounds like the set-up for a joke, and really it is; you could even call it a small miracle that my mother was even willing to step foot inside a building with something called “art” on its walls. Probably the last time we entered the National Gallery together was for my class field trip in fifth grade when, just to be nice, she signed up to be a chaperone.

We buy tickets; she treats — the first reason I brought her along. And as we walk toward the modern wing, she now discovers the second.

“Mom, is it okay if I write down your responses to the art?” I ask, pulling a small black notebook out of my backpack before she answers.

“Yeah, I guess so,” she says.

We walk toward the wall in front of us. “What do you think of this one?” I ask her.

In front of us a canvas stretches across the wall, the length and height of a man, except that no forms or colors are painted onto the canvas’ surface.

“Well…” she says, “Am I missing something?”

“What do you mean?” I say.

“I mean… is this it?” she asks.

I stand next to her, just to her right. “Hm. I see what you mean,” I say.

Then suddenly I step backward. “Let’s look at it from back here,” I say.

My mother joins me, taking steps backward, continuing to stare at the canvas in front of her, her head still. We look for a few more seconds.

“I think there may be a white paint on the surface,” I say, watching my mother’s face.

My mother squints her eyes. Her mouth squirms. Then she sighs, turning to look at me. “I’m sorry, Lizzy, I just don’t see anything at all. It just looks like a blank canvas to me.”

“Fair enough,” I say, grinning. I make a note in pen on a page in my notebook.

We move on to a sculpture hanging on the wall just a few steps away. We pause in front of it.

“Is that what I think it is?” asks my mom.

I laugh. “Almost definitely,” I say, “Marcel Duchamp was famous for his urinals.”

“And that is ‘art’?” says my mother, pointing at the urinal, “Who decides these things?” She makes a few furious hand motions and then turns to leave.

“Hold on, hold on,” I say, scribbling in my notebook. “I came to find one piece in particular. We can leave after I see it.”

My mother sighs and follows me deeper into the gallery. Soon I catch a glimpse of purple and grey paint from a few rooms away: one of Jackson Pollock’s lavender masterpieces.

“Here it is,” I tell my mom. We sit down in front of it on a wooden bench.

“Okay, so what do you think of this one?” I ask.

“Well,” says my mother, “On a first glance, it looks like some of the paintings you created in pre-school.” I laugh.

“And on a second glance?” I say.

My mom stares at the painting for a bit before answering. “As I stare at it,” she says, “I begin to feel sad. It seems sad to me. Is that right?”

“Sure,” I say.

“And… it looks like it might be raining. Isn’t it called ‘Lavender Mist?'”

“Yeah, that’s great, Mom,” I say.

I nod approvingly, trying to encourage her to go on. Instead she says, “But, hun, I still don’t get it. So can we leave now? I’d like to grab some lunch before we head home.”

I smile. “Okay, Mom,” I say, and we make our way toward the cafeteria and then out into the open air, both convinced our outing was a success: for me because my mother was willing to stare at modern art for thirty whole minutes, and for my mother because she knows I will not force her to step into another art gallery for another ten years at least.