Shawn meets reality

This is a story about a drug addict I met 2 years ago and a sculpture that has changed the way I look at the art. For anonymity's sake we'll this man Shawn. The first time I heard Shawn talk, he told me a story about himself as a toddler – that he was always crawling around trying to put a butter-knife into an electric socket. His parents kept taking the knives away and covering up the electric sockets, but he kept finding the knives and finding the sockets and trying to do what he knew he wanted to do. His only explanation was that a butter-knife looked like it would fit perfectly into an electric socket. Eventually his persistence paid off, he received a big shock and he never did it again.

Last week I went to visit Shawn. It had been a few months since I'd last seen him and we had a lot of catching up to do. He fetched me a glass of water and we settled in for a long conversation. Shawn has had his share of troubles.  He has been sober for three and a half years and he is a man whose insight I esteem greatly. We started talking about women, drugs, racing, family, the usual, and ended up talking about a dinner he had had with his relatives recently and a very special surprise he had received there that night.

Years ago, Shawn was married and a successful entrepreneur. Very successful. He was charismatic and confident with a savvy intelligence. However, he was also a severe drug abuser for almost all of his life. Whatever joy life gave him, crack took equally from him. After managing to white-knuckle through 6 months of sobriety, his longest since being a teenager, he received a doctor's note warning him of a heart condition and that he had one year to live. This note sent him spiraling back into active addiction. Shawn disappeared. He stopped showing up. His wife said it's over and packed up. His family prayed for him. No one knew where he was.

Christmas morning in 1991, Shawn woke in a crack-house. He knew he was too loaded to come home for Christmas. He called his family to say he wouldn't be able to make it – that he was too high. His father and mother tried to understand, and felt there was nothing they could do. What Shawn didn't know was that this Christmas his father, an artist, had made a special present for him, in response to the years of anguish that Shawn's addiction had caused Shawn and his family.

His soon to be ex-wife eventually took that sculpture and all of his belongings and put them into storage for nearly two decades. Then those belongings ended up in the hands of Shawn's sister, who brought them to dinner for him last week. While Shawn and his family were enjoying a meal, his sister's husband snuck out and loaded up all of Shawn's belongings in the car, which was completely stuffed from trunk to front seat. Shawn couldn't believe the amount of stuff packed into the car.

Nineteen years later, Shawn is telling me the story about that Christmas. Now the boxes are sitting in Shawn's apartment and we are starting to rummage through them. I found a tiny mound wrapped in red tissue paper and asked what it is. “Oh," said Shawn, “That's something my father made for me”. Carefully unwrapping the tissue paper, he showed me a small, black, spiked wooden cube perched on a stand. On the other side of the stand was a pair of hand carved tongs mounted onto a spindle. This was no ordinary gift that a father makes for a son. Then Shawn handed me a typed out letter from his father.

[Shawn] Meets Reality

This interpretive sculpture is a symbol of your life.

You'll notice that no matter how you try to "handle it", it will cause you pain. You will also notice that if you grip it tightly ignoring the pain, you will find that when, or if, you try to let go it is now stuck to you, a part of you.

The tongs are an outside force, a different way of handling your life. If you use this force to help handle your life, you will soon see the pain is reduced.

Your choice is to continue to tightly grip your current life ignoring the pain, resisting any change; or look for and use the external force.

Consider the options

Love Dad


Part Two: An analysis into the meanings of Shawn's objects

Among the other objects we unpacked that night were a hand-colored, checkered cummerbund for one of Shawn's racing events, and one of his father's ceramic pots with a hanging sling macramed by his mother. This was the first time Shawn had seen these objects since his belongings were packed up. Back then, he was probably too irresponsible to properly care for these possessions, and out of providence they have returned to him.

As an artist I'm struck by the depth of meanings that these pieces have not just for Shawn but for me, and the impotency of artists to create these kinds of meanings. Artists cannot control what will happen to an object in the future.  So many artists struggle to link their work with meanings, multiple meanings, no meanings, esoteric (confusing) meanings, social meanings, personal meanings, etc. and in the end time has more of an effect than their act of creation.

Shawn's father created this sculpture with an inherent meaning – its purpose was to symbolize a painful life and to instruct a new way of dealing with that pain - but since its creation the sculpture has had its own life and now carries meanings which were never crafted or put forth by the artist himself.  It's purpose has been retooled, but beautifully.  Likewise, the macramed pot's meaning has deepened.  And the cummerbund, a meticulously sharpie-ed DIY project from two decades ago, has changed in meaning, even though it retains its original appearance.

All of this means that artists don't control how people interpret their work, or even how time affects the work.  But this goes far beyond art; the effects of all of our actions are unknowable.  And as far as managing the messes our actions can cause, Shawn would agree that these are best handled by an external force.  To Shawn it's the same external force that takes these things away, and returns them to us when we are ready.