"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"*
Have you seen the four straps hanging over Vance Kirkland's work table? Have you heard that he spent many hours a day suspended in those straps? Have you tried to imagine what that must have been like for him to float above a work in progress, sliding the canvas back and forth below on four rustic skateboards?
Kirkland saw musical explosions and vibrations, mysteries and forces, rhythmic and discordant, in his imagined galaxies and had the artist's drive to capture these visions in pigment on canvas. He mixed the unmixables—oil and water. Zealous in his conviction that the responsibility of an artist is to show people something they had never seen, he tried to send the colors "where no man had gone before", into brilliant spaces beyond the visible sky.
The techniques he developed required his canvas to be laid flat on a table top so that he, and not gravity, could control the flow of the paint. He poured and spooned the mixtures from baby-food jars and moved them with rags, mopping up the water when it had deposited the paint just where he wanted it. He placed each peaked dot with a wooden dowel, dipped once in color and dabbed two, maybe three times before it required a refill.
Once he made the first small paintings, the first small worlds, it was only a matter of time before he cut the replaceable notch in his studio doorway to accommodate ever larger canvases, ever larger creations. The 5'2" visionary adventurer wanted to make paintings larger than himself, paintings that demanded a heroic reach.
His arms were too short, his aging back too vulnerable. So he and a friend devised a system of four straps to suspend him above his work. They bought the 3-inch green cotton webbing at an army surplus store. Imagine how long it took them to work out the details, the number of straps, the length of each, and the distance between them. There must have been a lot of trial and error to get them positioned so that he could climb in and then forget them. In these straps, he could defy gravity. He could lose himself in the weightless work of bringing a universe into being.
Sadly for us, Kirkland was never photographed at work in his straps. His assistants staged and photographed a recreation of the scene using fresher and narrower nylon slings to help us imagine the artist at work. Everyone who sees those now-empty straps must wonder, if just for a second, what it feels like to fly with a paint-loaded brush or dowel in their hand.
I never met Vance Kirkland, but I work in his space, always surrounded and enriched by the cosmos he created. Recently, at the end of a long day, with only a few staff members left in the building and Vance's work table empty, I asked for the oft-fantasized favor and it was Granted (Hugh Grant-ed, that is—permission given by our founding director and curator). So, not for hours, but for a few moments, I flew in the straps of a genius – "Ah...", indeed!
* from the poem Andrea del Sarto by Robert Browning