December 4, 2012 at 4:17 PM
"I often think about the donkey out there on a brutally cold winter’s night in the ice, mud and snow and the open sky and stars above..."
Thor Sigstedt is an artist in wood, words, cameras, bronze, cast iron, glass, notes and steel; a homesteader from Spirit Valley specializing in forest diversity and “land ethics” and a dabbler in practical and non-practical non-zero new paradigm complexity in the multiverse.
This particular piece of art has such depth and disaster that it bears a little more scrutiny as it gains even more character, which means that it packs in more tension and fascinating flaws as well as the marks of love and acceptance. The moment I laid eyes on him, I saw a big disaster and a touching story of survival as he was in a field up in Chimayo and I had just bought him for $150 and took a trailer up there to bring him to Adventure Trails Ranch, the name I had snagged from Laina, my grandmother, on her deathbed; the name of a children’s magazine she published and mostly illustrated back in the late '30s and '40s, based in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a real cow town back then and ‘not fit for a widow with five young children’, the local realtors said as they refused to show her any property.
So she ‘marched’ out and found a place to buy by herself, a cabin by a tiny creek in a small valley, later moving out of there and buying some more contiguous land nearby, up higher with a view and an old homestead-type log cabin and another larger stream with little speckled trout in it, that tasted really good. She taught me how to ‘clean’ them by taking a knife and stabbing through the end of their intestinal track and cutting their soft white bellies up the the gills, cutting the gills just right to grab the whole mess and drag out the guts and all and then cook them by coating them in oil, then dragging them around some corn meal and then frying them in butter. You could catch them with a hook and a worm grabbed from the super black soil near the creek or even a safety pin and a crooked little root would do to get one.
I was with her many years later, in her sky blue International Scout, down in La Jara, as she cried when she had to sell all what was left of her herd of horses to a Ute Indian guy with a thin pocketbook for a few hundred dollars. I had never seen her cry before, really, as she was pretty tough, but I had to convince her that the era had ended and it was time (actually way past time…..). I loved looking at the horses and I liked riding them, but in my world it was mostly just work; breaking the ice on the water trough, feeding them, moving them, seeing their various tragedies unfold, so when I had a young family I got the usual pressure to ‘get a horse’ and so I finally said that I was not interested in a horse but might consider a donkey. Here in Chimayo was Benjamin (who came to be called BJ) and he was injured all over his body from kicks and bites from the other horses in the field with him. It almost killed us and him to get him loaded in the trailer but we finally got him home, where he stayed for the next 20 or so years, under my (sometime dubious) care and becoming a huge part of my life and consciousness.
BJ was a mammoth burro, which means he was huge for a donkey. I rode him and packed him and, eventually found him a few companions, like Pinta the paint pony who I found by advertising to board ‘an old nag’ to keep him company, then Candy the miniature horse and then Isabella, a normal sized burro. BJ was loaded with personality and every day was an adventure out here on the ranch and all of the neighbors knew him; probably better than they really wanted to. Despite his basically kind nature, he was real smart and always a hand full and loved to escape and rediscover the neighbor’s dog food, loved to chase dogs, loved to eat. He looked pregnant much of the time, but was strong and fast and when the neighbors got together to take a group ride, he (we) always ran up to the front and stayed there, much to the chagrin of my fellow riders on their handsome steeds. A donkey is the sort of creature that, if you are not familiar with their looks, you, like me, are startled by their features; you are expecting to see a horse but run smack up against the large head, the stiff whiskers and scruffy mane, the grey color, the big eyes and massive ears, the small hooves and the scraggly and blunt instrument of their tails. Looking into their eyes is like looking into eternity and pondering the meaning of it all.
I did ‘controlled grazing’ with him for many years, working the ½ mile of Galisteo Creek bed, up and down and alternating the various fields I had fenced off and tying him to a long chain and rope each day and moving that around all summer to be sure he got food and the land was tended. It was an extraordinary learning experience for me as each day had some sort of tangle, drama, time stretching event. I often was trying to get to work in a hurry and was frustrated because as soon as I got his lead rope on and out the gate, then he would lurch here and there with his utterly massive neck and start grazing on the grass and weeds and trees and whatever else he fancied in the moment.
I fought him for years and poked him with branches and sticks and prodded him with whatever I could till we finally got to where we were going and I tied him up. One day, ‘decades’ into this routine I decided to try something different; I threw the utterly soft braided lead rope across his back and headed for where I was wanting to go. This was an experiment that occurred to me. He kept eating away like he was want to do, but then, as I rounded the corner out of sight he, all of a sudden, would run towards me and stop right where I was. Then I would stop where I wanted and he ran up and held his head high and I attached the hasp and walked away. This was stunning and wonderful! All of those years might have led to this mutual decision and solution that probably troubled him too.
I decided to do a piece of art around him and this new ‘string theory’ and so I threw the (now magic) rope on his shoulders while he was eating out there and took a simple crude digital shot, then I carved the scene into a large sand mold to be a heavy bas relief piece in cast iron, the iron pour with the Iron Tribe down at Highlands at the foundry where I had been learning the skills to do this kind of work. The iron pours are wild events (rodeos) in some ways and lots of people making decisions and trying to pour lots of molds and avoid getting hurt. It is colorful with the molten iron and the sparks and the heat and the ladles being carried around by two people and a director to help coordinate the pour.
I had carefully leveled my piece and was satisfied with the setup, but, to my horror, at the end of the pour I saw some students lugging the large mold to a different place closer to the cupola furnace and setting it down roughly and unleveled and I saw it crack in a few places, and I tried to level it quickly by eye as the ladle was headed my way and I banked it some with sand and they started to pour and the cracks were channeling the molten metal away and onto the sand and then they ran out of iron (which is a big no no) and came back as soon as they could to pour the rest and I was mortified by then and traumatized and it poured to the top and maybe the cold joint would hold and then I was dragging it to the loading dock still hotter than hell and someone decided to spray it with the hose (another thing that I would consider an insult) and I was pissed and I got it home and cleaned it up and noticed it had these beautiful color changes from the water spray and the cracks made it all the more ancient and interesting and I sold it not long afterwards, but not before I made a rubber mold.
I got interested in glass casting and so I decided to make a glass piece using that mold, so I made a plaster mold and I, at the end of the process before the kiln, used a little piece of refractory mortar to seal up a small imperfection in the mold and dam off a potential glass flow. How was I to know that that tiny piece of different material would, at the very end, slightly ‘catch’ the glass and set up the conditions for a crack, but it did. Later I went up to Montana to an iron pour and made a complicated mold for a frame for this piece and had a series of similar disasters then, too, that creating interesting cracks and wabi sabi features to deal with as I created the whole piece. The crack became larger and then a full split, and I decided, at last, to do something interesting with the piece and the crack and put a magnetic strip in the void and then carefully placed old wire brush bristles into that area and then I sprinkled iron from the creek bed on the magnet to create an affect that simulated that first glance at a burro and those whiskers and characterized the whole experience of being with this creature.
The experience of having to put my donkey down some years ago was extraordinary, also and bears repeating as it fits into this scenario and this codification of the clumsy, brutal and touching life event of raising a mammoth donkey. He became incapacitated from years of fighting hoof problems that began with being overfed, probably and he had foundered many years earlier and it caught up with him and me, finally. He could not get up for weeks and I took my front bucket and strapped it to him and raised him up and he could not hold himself up and I realized it was over.
Now I do not like talking about these things lightly, and it was, like with my grandmother, a rare event that I cry, but I did and said farewell and took my .22 rifle out to kill it (which is was all the yahoos I know had talked about doing in these cases….and I believed them…which I don’t anymore) and I shot him between the eyes and up) and he bolted upright and stood, dazed. I thought my gun had jammed and I was desperately trying to shoot him again to make him drop dead. I managed to get another bullet or two in him and he was still standing and began to walk. I ran into the shop and found my hunting rifle and by then he had walked around the bulldozer (there to bury him) and was leaning on it looking bluntly (and with love I might add) at me. I dropped him instantly with the big gun and buried him right there. I have learned over the years that euthanizing and death has its own poetry and the stories are often profound and important, which is why I am writing this piece.
You would think that this story was over now; the high drama finished and the beauty of imperfectness well described, but there is more, in my mind. I put this piece of glass art in a gallery on Canyon Road, the Last Gallery on the Right, and is has been outside for a full winter and done quite well that way. I put a good light behind it so that the greens and blues and clear glass show up nicely and it has the feeling of just what it should; a timeless description celebrating imperfection and beauty and life and death and timelessness in a real genuine way.
A woman walked into the gallery and bought it the other day and she put a deposit on it to hold it so that after her surgery in a few days she could have me come and hang it in her home. I was, of course, elated. A week passed and I heard that the surgery went well and she was doing well and had mentioned being excited about getting her piece to her house. I was flattered and glad to know she was doing well and conscious of her acquisition. A few more weeks passed and I got a message from the gallery that he brother had called and said that she would probably not last another month and that he wanted the deposit back. I was sad, but, somehow, not surprised by all this as this is what I was talking about all along. The artist, the subject, the art and the buyer were ensnarled in the same cosmic drama from beginning to end; no question about it. I wish I could have talked to her to see what she saw and compare notes, as she may be what we artists are always hoping for; an informed observer.
I often think about the donkey out there on a brutally cold winter’s night in the ice, mud and snow and the open sky and stars above and wonder what he is thinking and how he can possibly survive with such thin ankles...