There for the Taking

A Public Place and an Artist Who Accepts Its Offering

by Pablo Diego Viramontes

Memories come back to me of a special place when I was a child, growing up amongst the orchards and mother earths fertile soil in the delta area of Contra Costa County. Pruning time was a time for nature to slowly settle down for a rest, freeing the old season from our trees of life. The shrubs and branches from all the trees that had been pruned would be taken to the back of the orchard and piled high on top of each other to eventually be burned. I would go there with my clippers and handtools and construct round caves in the brush. I would carefully camouflage my entrance so it was concealed and fit in perfectly with the surroundings. It was there that I would often goto the stillness that was comforting, warm and secure as mothers womb. I have since had other special places, and I would like to share one of those with you.

Who would have thought that I would receive a college education from Stanford University and that it would not cost me a cent? Actually the learning is there for anybody who wants it.

I began my day by greeting the rising sun as I always do, giving gratitude for the birth of a new day. As a runner on the 500-mile Native American Indian Spiritual Running Team, I was to be a participant in the gathering of the elders ceremony at Mount Madonna Park. We ran from the entrance of the park into the circle where we were acknowledged for our work with at risk youth and the 18th consecutive year of the spiritual run. My plan was to stay at the gathering of the elders for the day, but I was asked by one of the support persons of the run if I would like to go to a dedication of a sculpture garden at Stanford University. I vaguely remembered someone telling me about the sculptures while they were in progress. Something inside told me to go.

Upon arrival at the sculpture garden I found the place crowded, but I knew that this was a special place and that I would have to return by myself. The setting was perfect as the full moon shone on the sculptures, giving them life. The ceremony was to last until sunrise with drummers from all nations taking turns to keep mother earths heartbeat alive. Some of the sculptures formed a spirit house, which the sacred fire kept warm and well-lighted, as it had through the ages.

The artists had been flown in from New Guinea for the dedication of their work. As they mingled with the crowd I thought of their naivety, and memories of my own naivety as an artist flashed back to me. Some of the artists were doing face paintings on people who then blended in with the sculptures that had been created. To me they had become sacred objects amongst sacred objects.

Hands tell me a lot about a person. Strength and gentleness and physical labor showed in the calloused palms of these artists. I could see that with their hands they were able to work, play, love, threaten, show joy or grief. Sensitive symbols of faith and friendship, their hands drew me to everything they had marvelously made. Directed by their minds, eyes, minds ears and hearts desires, their hands expressed their dreams, stories, culture and the ways of their ancestors. Although the artists had difficulty speaking English, what words could not say the hands expressed with tenderness and love.

As the moon set and the sun rose to give birth to another day, I approached one of the artists to meet him and shake his hand before I departed. He gave me a moment that I will never forget the rest of my life. It started with a smile and a greeting of the eyes. As I said goodbye with my eyes, I looked down to the ground and noticed his feet. Someone had given him a new pair of Nike tennis shoes, and he had placed them on the wrong feet.

I have since gone back to Stanford to continue my free education amongst the Nobel prize winners, scientists and notable dignitaries. Sometimes I take the youth that I teach, and we sing and drum with the spirits that are there. Other times I go by myself to listen to the spirits stories and songs, as they enjoy the constant change that is around them. They serve as a reminder to me that all life is sacred.

I have not described the sculptures on purpose. It is difficult to describe these objects that I consider sacred. They have constant prayers, they must be felt. The education is there for the taking.


Right image: Figure, New Guinea Sculpture Garden at Stanford University

Pablo Diego Viramontes is an artist and teacher of at risk youth at The Foundry School, San José, CA. He has exhibited nationally and regionally, and his works have been published in the California Art Review.

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