I have been noting that my Colby Community High School classmates had the class of 1963 fiftieth reunion in the cool Rocky Mountains rather than the hot, dry plains of western Kansas where we went to school… thus confirming at least part of my residual prejudice for the predominately flat experience of childhood & youth.
I did not attend, for any number of reasons, but now a small part of me regrets I did not expose myself to the possible soothing of those old abrasions. I was never actually wounded by classmates, nor do I have any particular scars… I simply never felt like I fit-in, or connected well with high school & have found many better life experiences over a half-century!
It was a great joy to have Catie & her partner Jacgues, travel here to visit Soundcliff after the reunion. She was the exchange student from France & was my senior prom date! We have been writing letters & have visited each other several times over the years… meeting Jacques when Stephen & I twice traveled to their village. The three of us [Stephen was in San Francisco with the film] had sweet quiet hang-time, celebrating her birthday. She conveyed news to me about the reunion.
Fifty Years Since CCHS…
[Open Letter to classmates.]
Congratulations to us! None… perhaps least of all myself… could have imagined our journeys to this significant time. That I write too late for this assignment demonstrates my perpetual propensity for procrastination. That is not my best choice to reintroduce myself, yet the intricate weave of my own knotty path to now has seemed too daunting to contemplate sharing, even as I’ve been writing it in my journals since turning 30. To address myself at 18 or 20… 30, 50 or 60 means opening so much which would be difficult to tell, much less explain.
All of you must experience similar conundrum.
Long Story Short:
Graduated with a BFA in painting from the University of Denver 1967.
Lived in Denver, painting & designing custom jewelry & gardening until 1974 when I moved to Sedona, Arizona, where I did not do much gardening…
I began a production line of small silver bells in 1983, which beings still keep me in their thrall.
Occidental [west Sonoma County], California, became home in 1989. Bells & a more serious coastal garden.
Following the bells & a great love I moved to Seattle in 1989, then to nearby Vashon Island, where I perch with my partner, Stephen Silha, celebrating 18 years together.
Cooking, gardening & entertaining, working with the bells, jewelry & calligraphy are my continuing passions. I’m recently playing with digital drawing/painting on my iPad’s touch-screen.
I have no children or grandchildren of which to boast or show photos… unless you consider the bells.
[I have written a blog, posting meandering musings along with hundreds of photographs, since 2005… from which I’ve made an index of of links you might find interesting. It, plus an small album of photos follow…]
I’ve never done so well with clock or calendars as is generally expected. I was never quite as “normal” in so many ways… I’ve come ultimately to celebrate that. I don’t claim any wound or scar, yet I suggest an early sense of sturdy independence & necessary remove, particularly within memories of my youth in Colby.
My personal psychology formed farther afield from CCHS, perhaps explaining my rather reluctant reluctance to participate more fully in this celebration, telling much more about me than about any of you. I suspect I might, were I there at the reunion, learn more objectively about myself during the time we were growing up together… yet the pattern of my life to rather thoroughly leave behind what I’ve outgrown & move on into my own next expectations of greener pastures implies my residual prejudices about social norms.
I joke that I left western Kansas 20 minutes after graduation, which suggests I’d already reached being quite ready for that first big change. I made the choice of enrolling at the University of Denver to give myself a canvas different from the more predictable. I know now that I probably would have gotten a better education in art at KU, yet I would not change the social experience of living in the larger city’s school which drew students from all parts of the country… of the world.
It was the right place to be then… I was hungry for a life I could not see, even in the broad expanses of sky above those plains. While I was a “farm kid” I was secretly more oriented to life in different soils. I had a great time at DU, quickly getting requisites out of the way so I could study art history & the studio classes in painting & sculpture. I graduated a quarter early with a BFA in painting [& the Faculty Award from the department for highest marks & showing greatest promise]… a degree never actually used!
Joining the men’s glee club proved pivotal, bringing me to actively confront my sexuality. While in retrospect I was always “queer” I came-out rather gleefully as a gay man long before those words became common parlance. I leapt into the bar scene, which was about the only way to accommodate such truths then. I accommodated my truth with a great deal of relief!
I have had two long-term relationships with men named Stephen… I met the first within a year of graduating from DU. I am now married [although we see little need to avail ourselves of the legal act which our state recently made possible] to the second… We just celebrated 18 years.
Another pivotal exploration came with the part-time job I took in a small jewelry store during college. I learned basic repair & ring sizing plus some rudiments of business. They were accommodating mentors, even if they understood me not more than probably any of you might have. They helped my partner & I to buy a house, which we remodeled during our 20’s. We were the only gay couple we knew who were so settled during that time & I got to scratch many old itches about defining myself beyond my extended family on the farm. I love to design to my own sense of home & garden… to cook for love & friendship.
I’ve nearly always maintained studio in my homes. I’d begun to design & make jewelry at the store, so I worked between that & painting, until I learned I could support myself more easily designing custom metal pieces to wear rather than canvases needing a gallery. I worked in both media through my twenties. I also did a fair amount of display & calligraphic work, particularly during the years Larimer Square was first begun. Some of you might remember that I did such work when I was “boy Friday” at the J.M.McDonalds store in Colby. That job was also where I began doing the sign-making which nurtured into my ongoing affaire with calligraphy… although I’d begun even earlier when I lettered posters for various HS events & political campaigns…
The national political scene was turbulent then for all of us, but I chose to dance outside those riotous arenas many radical friends chose. I was radicalized along another bent: never quite a hippie, I celebrated being the egotistical artist, busily building home & relationship… while also becoming a bit of a disco queen.
After 7 years Stephen LaMons & I came to an amicable separation, selling the house & divesting our collection of curiosities… a process I’ve gone through several more times since… I still collect too much!
I took several long road trips finding my next life, settling ultimately in Sedona, Arizona. That 14-year sojourn lasted a dozen more than I’d expected… I really wanted to live in the Mecca of San Francisco, but I found life in the high mountain desert was unexpectedly much of what was good for me then. I’d never lived much alone & I had to work to keep myself from becoming entangled too soon in another relationship. I knew not a soul in that unlikely SW resort town, but immediately was thrown into its artistic, business & social stew-pot.
I had been invited to help start up a shop with a stone dealer acquaintance from Denver, who wanted a retail outlet in Tlacquepaque, an arts & crafts village along Oak Creek. Tavernier was an unusual concept: displaying an opulently large collection of loose colored gems. That was a useful experience teaching me once again how I can become too accommodating for my own good. While I’ve worked retail of some sort most of my life, I am not a manager. I am not a shopkeeper, even as I dream now of helping my apprentice do just that…
What I did discover was a passion for hiking the red rock canyons, enjoying year-round access to sculptural spaces far more intricate than the heights of the Rockies… or the flats of Kansas. I came to understand those rock formations as some of the best gurus I’ve ever had… sitting to observe eons of chthonic time in their gorgeous erosion. I had a number of friends eager to join for jaunts out on foot to spots catching the the best views of sunset, or full moon hikes with a picnic I’d packed with wine in my capacious backpack. My reputation for being a foodie often found them somehow showing up at my door around dinnertime!
My thirties brought another house to remodel, purchased for me by a friend who wanted a lover, but settled into being a patron.
I made custom jewelry in the richness of that retirement resort, taking a hiatus from gardening since the summer heat made visits to the cool creek more agreeable. I soon was immersed in a lively social life since my patron also owned the best restaurant & watering hole, meeting everyone as soon as they hit town.
By my fortieth I was questioning much about the cul-de-sac I seemed to be living. Mid-life crisis? I spent that birthday with family, our parents having built their retirement home in Monument, Colorado. I was discouraged about business & love; AIDS began devastating my curass; I slipped away into an easy celibacy for the next decade… my proclivities toward solitude having what seemed the best medicine for my soul, even as I could not easily pull away from the social life of so many friends.
My studio work took on a new venture toward the production line I’d long wanted to have as a way to move from putting so much attention into a single piece for a single client, only to later learn it had been lost or stolen… or thrown off a bridge in a divorce! I wanted to amortize such loss. I helped a friend develop a foundry with the equipment I’d bought for such project. While I’d long done my own one-of-a-kind casting, I knew I didn’t want to do it on that larger scale.
I impulsively carved a bell as a piece to test the capability of that new facility. Having not much intention or desire… much less hope… to make more than a single annual holiday bell, I quickly became intrigued with the nice problems of physics in making a small amount of metal have resonance as a bell. That ancient archetype captured me… I now have some 250 designs in my line. The bells have started two more manufacturing businesses since then. I’ve not swung the arm of a casting machine since, preferring a more tidy wax design studio, without all the mess of plaster dust.
After several attempts to leave Sedona… several more versions of temporary studio… I did finally move in 1990 to west Sonoma County, not so far north of my earlier dream of Mecca. I took the “opportunity” to finally spring out of my desert rut to help during the illness of a deep college friend’s partner, who died. He became the third close friend I lost in three months, dying a year later. That was a very difficult period!
I found solace volunteering in a long-established organic garden nearby, growing salad greens for the AIDS food bank & continuing the revival we’d begun of the estate’s garden where I was living. Those beds became a “daughter” of that “Mother Garden”, under the tutelage of the head gardener, who’d been there for many years. His wealth of knowledge & our deep friendship continues to teach me the essential value of compost in all of life’s passages. Such ripeness & rot during that sad period came to match Arizona’s Red Rocks as a fine guru…
The bells began to collect more interest than I & the foundry in Sedona, with whom I was still working, could easily produce, I accepted a business proposition with a company in Seattle so that the bells could attempt livelier growth & wider exposure. My intention was to stay with my garden & wonderful studio space in Sonoma to design the bells at that distance from their manufacture & marketing. That worked quite well for the first several years… even as I was contracted to a dozen new designs each year, putting me to work harder than I expected.
My gardening friends had introduced me to the Radical Faeries, a spirited cadre of gay men identified with earth-grounded spirituality. The root of the word “Radical” actually means root…
For my fiftieth birthday I staged a costumed Faerie Ball which became one of the milestone events of my life. I had met, only several months before, the second Stephen, breaking my 10 years of celibacy & falling in love. I was thrilled he accepted my invitation to fly down from his home on Vashon Island to attend.
The notion that 50 was half of a possible century symbolically gave me new life. A year later I moved to Seattle to be closer to both Stephen Silha & the bells, taking a very small downtown studio only a few blocks from the foundry & the famed Pike Place Market. I had lived “in the country” for 20 years & decided I wanted again to experiment with urban life, which became four years of exciting changes.
Stephen was at the beginnings of remodeling Soundcliff & I became ever more involved with that process. I was spending more & more time on the Island, missing having a garden on the street pavement which was my front yard.. I moved to live full time with him, finishing out the space in its capacious new foundations for a delightful studio at garden level.
Soundcliff is perched on a cliff overlooking the Puget Sound with a fine view of Tahoma [the native name of Mt Rainier] across the water. The land is fragile since all beneath us is alluvial fill: layers of clay, sand & gravel rock left by ancient glaciers… prone to sloughing & slides. The name is both a description & a prayer.
We’ve made a delightfully blowzy garden to enhance the ever fascinating aspects living on a shipping lane with a parade of large container ships, tankers & barges, fishing boats & sailing regattas. Abundant wild life on our rocky beach includes the excitement of spotting Orcas on rare occasions!
Stephen Silha grew up in Minneapolis, son of a newspaper family. He is a free-lance writer, a “recovering journalist” for The Christian Science Monitor & YES! Magazine among many others… a lifelong traveler, networker, collector of interesting people… a romantic & a bit of a poet.
He’d intended to write the biography of his mentor, James Broughton, when we built a sweet writing cottage for him. But, since James was an experimental film-maker & poet, he took advice to make a documentary film instead.
The production of that project, titled BIG JOY!, the Adventures of James Broughton, has challenged us for the last 4-plus years. He assembled a great directorial & editing crew, so the result is delightfully strong & beautiful! Since the world premiere at Austin’s South By Southwest Film Festival in March he has been traveling with it on the festival circuit, winning great reviews & several prizes.
I’ve joined him on numerous travels to Europe, India… Bali last Solstice… but, I am often content to stay home in the garden, my continuing passion, while he is always planning his next departure. We could not be more different in most ways, while we love learning the other’s offerings to our rich life. James gave Stephen the nick-name En Route while I’ve became In Root … I’m still & again the “farm boy”!
I continue to enjoy cooking from my gardens & we entertain a good deal. While he goes into the city at least weekly, I can happily spend weeks without leaving the property. Vashon is accessible only by ferry [a 20 minute trip] making it quite rural while city’s amenities are easy to access.
As I trust it is for all of us… Life is good!
Gordon R. Barnett
Here are the links to posts from the blog which seem apropos:
About the article from a 1963 CCHS Highlife written by Virginia Theimer about my studio on the farm. [I so sadly miss the communication she began with me on our 20th reunion… ]: KIVA:
A piece published in the American Bell Association’s magazine about my design process:
Musings about multiple values: http://grbarnett.blogspot.com/2010/09/hierarchies-brass-bronze-silver-gold.html
My calligraphic doppleganger, Leo Toye: http://grbarnett.blogspot.com/2012/04/leo-toye-returns.html
61st Birthday: http://grbarnett.blogspot.com/2006/08/leo-puddling.html
Recap of 2005: http://grbarnett.blogspot.com/2006/01/late-long-slow-recap-of-2005.html
The egg I made in 1983/4: http://grbarnett.blogspot.com/2011/03/egg-returning.html