Fish Bones, the Governor, and Radio Love Songs
A few weeks ago I sent black and white pictures of fish bones to 14 politicians, including our governor. I sent them to our Washington delegation, as they like to be called, and even to the President of the United States. It was an experiment in the expandability of art. I was hoping to engage them in a conversation about their position on the value of salmon rivers when they are threatened by large mining interests. I wanted to begin a conversation about the way our elected officials seem to stand aside and pretend to other tasks while the Pebble mine moves forward in Bristol Bay. They were not interested and I received no response from any of them, not even a form letter.
I choose fish bones for my images because they can be more than one thing. For the ones whose appetite for personal wealth has turned their eyes to our rivers, they offer a hint of the final stages of this greed and thoughtlessness. The nakedness of the bones and the white tooth grimaces are an indicator of the bitterness I am beginning to feel. I wasn’t making a threat but expressing my disappointment and trying to remind them of their responsibility. I wanted to say that their involvement in politics shouldn’t be a career move, but a form of service to their community.
Later, I sent the images to 50 other people, mostly artists and writers who reacted to them generously and continue to do so. For them, the bones in their leaf, sand, and smooth stone beds offered me a chance to make my art a gift, not just to look at, but something to handle and possess. You could think of it as a showing, more open and far-flung than a gallery opening yet at the same time small and intimate. I did it to remind myself that putting art in a gallery is not the only way to present it. Besides the fight or the hope for change, it was an opportunity to alter the way we think about art. Not as an image for sale or one reproduced millions of times for mass distribution, but a real thing somewhere in between. Its first purpose was not meant to be a task but a way to take a break from the screen and think of something different for a moment.
No one really expects to change the world with a project that makes a request for poetry. It is preposterous to send a picture of a spawned and decomposing salmon to the state capital and think a vision of community or moderation would wash over anyone. A friend, Erica Watson, worked on this with me, and from the beginning we were aware that its value would have to come from the act of doing it. We kept our expectations real, just hoping to improve the fight.
So we did the project, according to Erica, I now can at least say I am the person who sent dead fish to the governor. But still, the hope is that we could have the real conversation about the mine and the rivers that she writes about, not the one where we state our opinion then bully each other about how to think, but the other one, the one where everyone is allowed to think and speak for themselves and is heard.
I live in Anchorage now, and yesterday in the quiet evening, the sound of a train whistle reminded me of the small Midwestern community where I grew up. My father had a dairy and we had a hired man with a friend named Pete, who was a part time announcer on the local radio station. He sometimes stopped by the farm for lunch and one day he asked my mother what her favorite song was so he could play it for her on the radio. With a little coaxing he got her to tell him it was “Wooden Heart” by country singer Joe Dowell.
In my secluded boyhood, it was a new thing listening to Pete on the radio and putting his face on the voice then one morning hearing that corny old love song. I remember hurrying to tell mother. It was magical, like poetry would be when I got older, a communiqué. It was part of my discovery of community and the way people are connected in a real one. I got that same feeling when I sent the fish bones and thought about the people they were going to. I found myself hoping that from this fish idea someone might discover a better one, and from that, another, until something did take hold and that magic could continue.
This is what I am trying to say, we are sick about Bristol Bay and that is still where our efforts lie, but it was a pleasure making and sending the images. I think of them as gift and thank you as well as a promise. To me they feel like a new Americana, like that radio song but going out on a different signal, scattered exactly by the addresses on the envelopes, and for me they are a reminder of a good thing.