Documentation of the Mask’s True Origins
I think I hear footsteps on the roof of the barn. Could it be Tom, the groundskeeper? Or maybe—because of some strange sequence of occurrences—it is James Chinneck in his flying helmet, having just disembarked from his alien craft.
Chinneck is the one who left mysterious “state certified fact” plaques along the trails here—marking the location of, and telling about: the rusty old sausage truck shot up with bullets; the most unstable piece of ground in America; the events leading to the dissolution of the last known elephant beetle orchestra.
I wonder if Hank is near—if so, that’s probably Tom on the roof because wherever Tom goes Hank goes. I set off to circumambulate the barn looking for one of them.
My wife is jealous about Hank—that I’m spending time with him, tossing pinecones with the old boy. She loves Australian shepherds. Tom told me that Hank—rescued by Tom’s daughter from a sack in a ditch—used to be a runner. One night in desperation Tom drove the wily dog to a busy roadside truck depot at 4 AM. Tom opened his vehicle door and nudged Hank out. Hank bolted, and cruised haphazardly around the concrete expecting Tom to chase after. Tom, aloof, didn’t pursue him, but the Mac trucks barreling by soon disoriented Hank. “Go ahead run all ya want. There’s nowhere to go…I’m all you’ve got.” This ritual took just under an hour but it cured Hank of his fits of escape.
There’s no sign of Hank or Tom outside the barn.
I do run into a man leaning a ladder against the building. I say to the back of his head: “Was that you walking on the roof?” “Yes, the shingles need work,” he replies.
They take good care things here: the land, the buildings, and the residents. However the sculptures must endure the vicissitudes. There are a multitude of sculptures on this property. The program makes no attempt to preserve the sculptures, so a creation can forfeit its legacy if it succumbs to the elements. A weak structure can live on though if its story is meaningful.
The story of this place is meaningful. Djerassi’s daughter, Pamela—a poet and painter—took her life in 1978 here on this land. Carl Djerassi—a wealthy scientist—commemorated his daughter’s life by starting this artists’ residency in which I now participate. When his wife, Diane Middlebrook—Stanford professor like her husband—died in 2007 he added more artist housing to the campus. Carl died in January of this year. This special session of the residency incorporates scientists among artists—a nod to the program’s founder.
I continue around the building, with plans to complete the circuit; I run into Karl. He is in the sun with a mask across his mouth shaking a can of spray paint. He tells me he’s painting props for an upcoming performance. He has choreographed a dance that proves the Pythagorean theorem. He’ll perform it soon in New York City.
I tell him that I dreamed of tessellation last night. I explain that though I quickly picked up the dance routine he taught me yesterday it was more on intuition than explicit understanding. However, last night in bed at 4 am I awoke and realized that the rhythm of the feet in the first half of the dance is the rhythm of the hands in the second (clap-step-clap-clap, step-clap-step-step…).
I short-circuit my tour of the building perimeter and head back in, walking through the expansive shared space of the Artists’ Barn. There are doors everywhere: entrances and exits to bedrooms, studios, workshops, a fully stocked kitchen, and the outside air. Throughout the year ad hoc tribes of a dozen humans move in and out of this place transiently.
I walk by Deborah, the primatologist who used to consult for design teams at Nissan, and Katie, the artist whom I saw earlier studying a piece of leather she had molded and coated in home-made aluminum paint. She makes art using the tools of nano-chemistry.
I live in a large and lovely room with a Mason and Hamlin grand piano, a record player, a desk, a couch, a wood burning stove, a Wurlitzer electric piano, closets of sound equipment and a lofted bedroom and bath. I was one of the first to arrive here. Alone in the Artists’ Barn that first day I ran about, inspired by the sunny mountain scene I saw through the expansive glass wall of the barn. I jumped up and down in my room and buzzed with joy. I did a few cartwheels.
That’s when I first encountered Chinneck in his flying helmet, having just been dropped off in the dry grass by the silent, weightless alien machine. He walked in my room and shrugged his shoulders in questioning judgment of my childish behavior. But then he introduced himself and took me on a tour of the grounds. He showed me all the art. He foreshadowed what Margot Knight, the program’s director, was going to tell us residents the following day. He told me she would say that we all had a job to do here at Djerassi and that the job just was “to be.” He said not to listen to her though. He said this was all some new-agey rubbish and that I better accomplish something real professional-like while I’m here.
He reminded me that Jim Crutchfield had been here the year previous and that Crutchfield was a big shot physicist. He asked me to explain my research on birds to him, but then he interrupted me with abrasive questions. When I faltered he barked louder. He asked me to play a tune on the piano for him. I began the second movement of Mozart’s piano sonata in C. “Really? he scoffed, “That’s such a basic piece.” Then he smacked the backside of my head, told me to get up and played the piece himself. “That’s how it is supposed to sound!” he gloated. All the while he was still wearing this flying helmet.
Finally I broke. I said “What’s with that ridiculous head gear? You look like a fool in it.” The helmet was big and boxy; black like tar paper; spackled with silver mirror splotches. It was adorned so as to evoke a bird’s head, complete with a beak. The beak was shiny—stainless steel. The helmet looked intense and mysterious but also crude and mask-like. It was somehow very enchanting and I coveted it.
I grabbed the helmet and snatched it from his head. He yelped “My flying helmet!”
He swiveled around to grab for it and briefly his eyes met mine before he looked down—away. I saw his face though. It was grotesque, misshapen, like a twisted rag with skin and sensory organs attached. I still held the helmet but I offered it back. The pain in his eyes when I saw them moved me, despite his biting cruelty. He reached for the helmet and placed it back over his head.
I tried my best to just get on with the residency. Chinneck disappeared rather quickly once I challenged him. Nevertheless his words still haunted me. There was enough skepticism among the other residents about Margot’s existential imperative to amplify the echoes of Chinneck’s voice.
It is now the fourth day of my stay. Back in the barn I head for my room to play piano. I sit down and begin to improvise. The sounds are jagged, disjointed, dissonant and rapid. I am discharging my anger with Chinneck. Why did he deride me? I ponder at how I’ve already grown to love his plaques, his enchanting tales. How he must suffer though. The footsteps are above me now. I play in rhythm to them. I close my eyes and dive into a trance but am soon yanked out by a knock at my door.
I open my eyes. As I zip to the door I sense a dark mass on the floor in my peripheral vision—it was not there before. Deborah beckons. She says “Hey, James Chinneck is here. He’s showed up unannounced. Come say hi!”
It is indeed the same man I met my first day. He is engaged in unabashed affability with the residents. His mangled face is not covered. It is somehow painless now, though still alien—there is a new softness to his visage. He is all smiles. I am introduced as though we have never met. He does not let on—though he does reach out to hug me as though we are long lost friends. He holds me in an embrace for a split second and in my ear he whispers “I’m sorry.”
The day winds on and everyone falls in love with James. He tells us wild stories of his adventures here. They are farcical, bold and ridiculous, but we cry for more.
James packs up his Prius and drives off after a bout of sentimental farewells. I return to the room and discover Chinneck’s mask there. The following day I begin to justify its presence. I tell the other residents I made this mask.