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Through the inside to the past


I was very happy to see your article on Helen Gillet today in the A+E. I happened into the Kemper art gallery last weekend. Nick, my seven year old and I were out scaring up things to see and do. The museum had table set up for kids to make Mardi Gras masks and Gillet was playing with Jeff Ruckman right next to the work area.

To say it was intimate and pleasant would be to give cheap billing to what was, to me, an emotionally expensive moment. As I held feathers in place on Nick’s mask as glue dried, the music and Gillet’s voice took me back to a little café in Trier, Simplicissimus, whose people and atmosphere was nearly as dark and funny as the magazine from which it took its name.

In 1986, I was young, stupid, drunk, and optimistic. A petite, boyish woman named Glenda captivated me, and thankfully I never gained the courage to speak with her. I was (un)lucky enough to fall in love not once that summer, but twice nearly simultaneously–with an American opera singer (from Kansas City!) who went on to some fame and with a wonderful friend of mine of whose green eyes still appear at the edges of my dreams. Love and hormone-soaked youth had so tossed me about that pursuing the burning infatuation with Glenda would have further confused me and led to seek relief in a rafter and a rope.

All this makes “De’ Simpli’” and the music that so turns my mind back to that time more important. Every Friday in the little bar’s courtyard, itinerant German, French, and Alsatian performers played the kind of cello and accordion that makes people laugh and cry in turns. Being young and idiotic, I had taken the opera singer and my green-eyed friend there at different times. I often went there by myself just to get drinks from Glenda and try to get the nerve to talk to her.

I’ve loved accordiancelloviolinfrench music from the time I first noticed it as I was sitting in the Simpli. It had been in my life before, in the background. But it was in that little courtyard that I gained a deep affection for it in all its permutations. Maybe it was the drink or hormones or the emotion the music evoked in a naïve American kid discovering that the Midwest was not center of the universe. Maybe it was just good.

So, sitting in the art gallery last week with my index finger in that glue and being unable to tell Nico what was happening to me emotionally, Helen Gillet took me to Trier and a time that was both good and rough. I closed my eyes and re-imagined my weekend rounds of Luxemburg City, southern Belgium, and the Lorraine; nights sitting in the candlelight at the bar trying to translate the Mosel-Frankisch I was learning in the vineyard into proper German; standing at my fifth-story room’s window hearing a sad, sad tune in accordion and cello filter up through the city just before a late-night thunderstorm.

I was going to tell you just now that that “it was a time of violent emotion.” That would imply that I’ve matured into emotional stability. But such is just not the case. Perhaps because of my emotionally volatile insides Gillet connected me with a time that was suddenly not so distant.

My day out with Nick wound up being pretty rough. We had gone to the gallery to see some pictures I like. Happening in on the kids thing was a great break, particularly because the music really softened me up and made me even more vulnerable to the intensity of these pictures. In fact, I went in to see them and was moved to tears. (I’ve yet to see a sculpture that has the same effect on me as painting.) Nick wanted to see the Egyptians at the Nelson-Atkins, but I just couldn’t stand any more art that day. Not that the Egyptians would have had that effect on me, but I would have been drawn to Monet, who always reduces me to a blubbering mess.

Poor kid. In that gallery room, he’s trying to figure out why I’m hiding my face. At the same time, he’s interested in some colorful sculpture and so was distracted. Then, as we were leaving, Gillet performs her treatment of David Byrne’s/Talking Heads’ “Heaven.” I was frozen. It’s a fine tune, that’s sure. One of my TH favorites. But in French in cello with her heart-filled voice in that space and after those pictures. . .well, Steve, I was like a bad boxer who, blow by blow, begins to lose his/her ability to feel and just takes more and more. After a while, I reached that special-miserable-glorious place where the savagery of beauty and memory make my insides feel like so much steel wool–dry, coarse, etc.–in a mountain stream.

It’s good to place to be, even if the pain of getting there and being there are frequently too much to bear. Now, I think about that music and the moment in the gallery as I sit in my living room. Nick’s outside going at the skateboard. It makes me think that life sometimes gets condensed into a piece of art–a painting, a song, or the course and development of a life. That piece is a moment, and that moment is the hardest and most painful place to go.

To my detriment, I find myself often straining to avoid it. And then I walk in on likes of Helen Gillet and find contact with that moment inescapable.

All my best,

Helen Gillet photo by nicole jilbert
Dog Days, Keith Jacobshagen
Valley of the Wisconsin, John Steuart Curry
Fire Diver, John Steuart Curry
Warming Trend, Helen Frankenthaler
Midnight Shore, Helen Frankenthaler
And many, many others.

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