The Polar Bear King (part 1)

All stories begin when the main character is knocked off balance. This is true in life, too. Change can only happen when you are knocked off balance. In our work together in The Circle Project, Patti and I always ask, “In what ways are you keeping yourself from being knocked off balance?” How are you protecting yourself from the change that will transform you?

Sometimes change comes to you. Sometimes you have to go to it. Here’s the first part of a story and how change comes to the Polar Bear King. :

I. Clap, Clap, Shimmy-Shimmy Shake

Photo by Michael Barrow

Way to the north, in the land of the tall icebergs and endless snow, lived the great King of the Polar Bears. He was mighty and old and wise and friendly to all who knew him. He was big, big, big, – bigger than all the other polar bears and he like to dance. It was not uncommon for the sea-grey sea gulls to see him doing this happy dance, he’d go (CLAP, CLAP, SHIMMY-SHIMMY-SHAKE). And then he’d say, “Oh Yeah!” His body was covered in thick long white hair that sparkled like silver under the rays of the midnight sun. His claws were strong and sharp so that he could dance easily over the snow and slippery-slidy ice. He was a hunter and ate well on salmon fish and sleek black seals. And when his belly was full of seals and fish, he’d go CLAP, CLAP, SHIMMY-SHIMMY-SHAKE. And he’d say, “Oh Yeah!”

The beautiful sea  gulls, those graceful scavenger birds, loved The King of the Polar Bears because he was always careful to leave them plenty of left-overs from his meals. When he did his shimmy-shimmy shake and said, “oh Yeah,” he’d signal his friends the birds to come and join the feast.  Because he was so considerate, the gulls never starved, and for that they were grateful. This great king knew there was plenty of life and food to go around. That’s why he danced!

The other polar bears felt good when they came to visit their king. They would come to see him for advice or when they were ill or in trouble or when there was a dispute over hunting grounds. Or when they just wanted to cheer up their day. He was always happy and fair and kept peace in the kingdom.

Now, the other animals where certain that the Polar Bear King had to be some kind of a great magician because nothing seemed able to harm him and he always had plenty to eat. Even in the lean times he seemed to always have plenty of food. And he was always so happy! When he went (CLAP, CLAP, SHIMMY-SHIMMY-SHAKE) the whole ground danced and his great good, “Oh, yeah!” made every heart swell with delight. He seemed to get bigger and stronger with every single passing year.

One day, the great good king was snoozing in his cave when he heard a sound outside in the water; a crinkley and crackley sound like the slow crunching of ice.  It was a sound he’d never heard before. He stood and stretched and went outside to investigate. In the water, slowly breaking forward through the ice, was an enormous wooden thing. It steadily broke its way through a narrow strip of shallow ice, made thin and uncovered by the steady summer sun. Standing in the wooden thing were several strange creatures, creatures that he’d never seen before. They stood on two legs. They looked scrawny and only had hair on the tops of their heads. The great bear had never seen anything like it so he moved toward the strange creatures standing in the wooden thing cracking through the summer ice. He lifted his great nose, sniffing the air and caught the strange scent of these funny looking creatures. He wondered if they would be friends or if he would have to fight with them. He already knew by their scent that they wouldn’t be good to eat.

When the king got near the water’s edge, one of the two-legged creatures yelped and raised something that looked like a straight shiny stick and pointed it at him. The stick made a loud “bang,” and the great bear felt a thump in his shoulder, his world began to spin, his mighty legs began to shake and his great body gave away beneath him. He fell hard onto the ice. He saw the two-legged creatures dance; they went (clap, clap, shimmy, shimmy shake) then everything went black. That was all he remembered. (…to be continued).

Drawing A Line

I rarely write  statements about paintings – especially my paintings. I come from the school of thought that says, “if you want to insult someone, tell them what the painting is about.” I believe people should have their own experience of art.  My interpretation is mine. What’s yours?

Twenty something years ago, during my first solo show at the Alan Short Gallery in Stockton, California, I followed two old men through the gallery. They paid me the greatest compliment I have ever received – to this day no one has topped it. They did not know who I was. I was the artist and at that time I was deeply invested in hiding; it was painful for me to be the artist.

The Alan Short Gallery was a converted Victorian house; there were many rooms to fill; I’d pulled out every drawing and painting I had and was desperately shy about my work.  The two men (one wore red suspenders, no lie) carefully considered each piece. They’d move in for a closer look then back away. Grunting and nodding, “Uh-hummm.” They’d move on to the next piece.

Suspender man would squint, purse his lips and offer, “Hmmm!”

“Mmmm,” his companion would reply, nodding.

Taking in every painting, they’d chew on it, each a savory bite fully tasted. And then they’d move on to the next with me as their shadow. I loved their experience because it was distinctly different from my own. They were seeing things I had never seen, interpreting the paintings from their experience, through their eyes, not through any abstract notion I might have placed between them and their seeing.

Following them opened my eyes to the power of art; they were creating it anew. It was theirs as well as mine. It was satisfying – as if they were painting the paintings.

We arrived in the final room, the last piece in the exhibit. At last, sated, red suspender man turned to his compadre and spoke the first words I’d heard pass between them. He said, “Do you think this Robinson is insane?” His friend nodded and said, “All the good ones are.”

As compliments go, it’s hard to beat that one. It’s never been topped.

In May I’ll have a piece in a group show at the ArtsWest Gallery in Seattle. One of the requirements of participation breaks my rule, I had to write a statement about the piece. The show is called (dis)connect. I painted this piece specifically for the show and call it Pieta and Paparazzi.

Pieta with Paparazzi

This is what I wrote:

In the introduction to his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, Neil Postman writes that contemporary society is more oppressed by “their addiction to entertainment” than by any form of state control. He argues that the forms of our media can only support a minimal level of ideas; what can we really know or say about our politics, our religious beliefs, our values when expressed in sound bytes, ticker-tape news, and 140 character messages?

We live in an age in which the line between substantive information and entertainment, news and opinion, is blurred. What do we become when there is no distinction between the sacred and commodity, money and morality? What is our destiny when we take seriously the plea from our leaders, that the best thing we can do for our society is to consume?

I share this statement because I realized while writing it that  I’m asking myself these questions in one form or another a lot these days. Not many people move through a gallery like red suspender man and his companion – they did not consume the art, they participated with it. They engaged in a relationship with the paintings – I would have followed them through the gallery even if it had been another artist’s paintings; these two old men were magnetic. They weren’t consuming the art, they fulfilled it.