Thursday, December 18, 2008

Found in light and shadow

Sometimes your life changes and you don’t know it until later, perhaps at a quiet time when your thoughts are your own and not held captive to some outside influence or imposition, your self laid bare under your own gentle scrutiny, and you get a glimmer, an inkling, of some subtle shift occurring in your thinking or vision or imagination, the way we see or imagine the world around us and our place within it. A little light switches on, perhaps dim at first but steadily growing brighter, and with Holmesian introspection and meticulous digging you trace the transformation back to its source. 

And sometimes it’s a slow evolution, the cumulative accrual of observation and experience. Looking back on it now from a space of several months as well as a hundred or so photographs, some tossed, some set aside as merely decent and a select few life-altering, I’m becoming aware of what began far away in another state and an old hospital, now museum, where sunlight filtering through gauzy curtains lay like time itself on the dusty coating of an ancient potbellied stove, or reflected off stainless medical instruments splayed on a table like tools of torture, or even of how a sliver of a hallway, laced by a crack inching toward a yellowed plastic light switch, seemed to hold the very essence of the structure in microcosmic completion. Indeed, my most memorable shot was so simple as to be impressionistic, a single shadow aslant down an unblemished wall with only a small hook to provide texture or dimension. Ultimately, what memories were captured or hauled off like booty were not of the museum’s entirety but of a few individual pieces that encapsulated, and perhaps defined, the whole.

Whatever the transformative process, whether sudden or slow, there were no angels singing when we closed the car doors in the parking lot at Missouri’s Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site and Park, no revelations from on high, no peals of trumpets. The lot was empty except for the vehicles of employees and a smattering of small birds filtering through the trees, a mixed flock of some half-dozen species. Low clouds played cat-and-mouse with a sun already lowering in the west while a slight breeze rattled the desiccated leaves like the faint stirring of castanets.

Lori seemed in awe of the visitor center, a sprawling megalith anchoring one end of the parking lot and a tangle of deciduous woods beyond hiding all else. “I’ve always wanted to come here but never thought I would,” she said.

It had been a trip hastily planned—minutes, actually, something unlike my normal plodding pace fraught with research and other diversions. When she mentioned the mill several nights before I’d leaped on the opportunity as part of Chase Jarvis’ admonition to go for the sake of art. So we went, taking time to close out the work week and make reservations for a hotel. I found much to like in the new and improved me.

I also found much to like in Watkins Woolen Mill, though it would be days and weeks before I learned the full extent of it.

The site encompasses a lavish interpretive center but once past the rear double doors the present falls away and one is back in the mid-1800s, when Waltus Watkins built his farm and mill. The latter, the only 19th century textile mill in the nation with its original machinery intact, stands several hundred yards down a dirt path shaded by overarching trees. Off to the side is the main house with its smaller smokehouse and summer kitchen, and beyond an extensive garden and orchards give way to distant woods. The place has an aura of being suspended in time and curiously emptied of its denizens, as if they’d wandered off and were expected back at any moment. No doubt our off-season arrival and the fact that we were the only visitors heightened this sense, but the pleasure was all ours in the personal attention provided by the staff.

We met our guide at the mill. So well has it been preserved that it appeared almost new, a massive rectangle of three stories and a towering chimney, its brickwork sharp and clean-edged. Stepping inside was another matter. Windows provided the only illumination, November light spilling onto the worn wooden planks in harsh angular shapes whose intensity waned and waxed with the interplay of sun and cloud, while in the corners the disturbed shadows seemed to shift and sidle under their own volition, advancing and retreating in an endless war of give and take. 

As Lori and the guide wandered off I was drawn to the ancient furnace. Several hand-hewn boards lay lengthwise inside the firepit on ashes long since grown cold. The metal casing on the heavy door was shattered from heat, the housing pitted and peeled away by rust. On this lower level light slatted through open framing and congealed on the uneven cobblestones at the base of the forge as if burned there by past fires. I centered the furnace and a portion of the hallway within the viewfinder and snapped several shots, varying the exposure to capture the confluence of luminosity and gloom, imagining as I did the scene in black and white. In this forever twilight there was no room for color.

And that should have been that, a simple exercise in making art, the pressing of a shutter and moving on to the upper floors and the eternal shades of night captured within the flywheels, gears and cogs of the machinery, the endless strands of thread dangling like spiderwebs, the preternatural silence swallowing our footsteps, the mote-filled air. But if Watkins Woolen Mill is as much in the present as it is in the past, so too are our lives, and somewhere within those shadows something more than the shutter clicked, something still in the gloaming but slowly, ever so slowly, coming into the light. What we take away we also leave.

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