Thursday, September 23, 1993



Dear Jim,
Wending our way cross-country with laptops, sleeping bags,
evening dresses, broken hearts, hiking boots, Celia & I
managed to find the North Rim in the dark without a map.
Woke to your cowboy coffee, colon-blo, boiled french roast
that threatened to make off with the pot at Jacob Lake
which we never did find. Lake was a man, not a body of water.
Soon as we crossed the Utah border, Lord, how we suffered
from Mormon exposure, twisting our vowels (not bowels).
She insisted the sign at Dry Beaver Creek read
“Keep poets on leash/ or face fine.” We haven’t written a thing,
but could use a two-bit shower & a shave.

Dear Sharon,
We drive along the Virgin River, the towns of Virgin,
and Laverkin by the Cowboy Buttes in Beaver County—
& wonder, what was on those Mormon’s minds.
Celia calls me Mo-reen, says we’re in ’Merika now
but is confused by my speaking in tongues:
the ungulates crossing the road are cantaloupes. 
Oh give me a home…
Can you spell dicks-lexia, bulls and girls?
We’re born again, baptized in the Virgin River
(don’t know as to whether or not it actually took),
I say she baptized us in the wrong place: the difference
between dyslexia and dailysex is merely a perceptual matter.
Where does the the random mind stop and the prairie begin?

Dear Bruce,
Crossing the Sandia Mountains
I kain’t believe how much “Jesus saves” ’round here—
Or how on our 1993 White Trash Tour,
which officially began at the Cadillac Ranch
(a line of caddies planted nose first—car henge)
in Amarillo, Texas, folks take three syllables
(or all day, whatever comes first) to say fish and truck.
The trucks here are God’s personal rollin’ billboards
& the overpasses tell us poor watermelons to believe. 
God is dog; evil is live. Shone’s is one-up from Stuckey’s.
We’ve been on the road too long; Denny’s is beginning to seem like home.
We’re road worriers sinnin’ in the heart of the cholesterol belt,
getting good mileage on bad vowels and day-old puns.

Dear God,
El Reno, the epicenter of radio revival land is a shakin’ & a rollin’
but the cockroaches in the motel bathroom don’t seem very saved.
However, I do believe they will inherit the earth, by and bye.
Blanketed by kudzu vines, black-eyed susans suffer death by bed tax.
We’re humid beans descending into the syntax of the vegetable kingdom.
Like true love, and the blues, maps are abstract unless you’ve been there.
You’d like Hot Springs, home of Bill Clinton haircuts & the Sin Tax.
I bet the Mormons took to that idea. Say, God, who's your best friend?
Lightning storm—we pilgrims cross Old Muddy, enter Memphis,
& truly we have let Tennessee into our hearts, for at the gates
of Graceland, the chosen have come to testify the miracles.
St. Elvis is still King, and anything is possible—this poem, or even love.

9/23/93  Graceland

Wednesday, September 22, 1993



A flock of sheep
like smoke floods the road.
Dressed in red banners, corn mothers
dance in furrows. Clapton sings the blues
to the passing blur of fields.
Trying to press onto Shiprock by sunset,
we enter into twilight, equinox.
Sabitaie, the rock with wings,
the great bird that brought the Navajo
from the north, unfolds and emerges,
a Pliocene knife to the eye of the sky.
The earth’s shadow, a blue eclipse
below the belly of a salmon horizon.
We are no closer to knowing who we are,
than to where we were.

Tsé Bitʼaʼí, Four Corners
New Mexico

Tuesday, September 21, 1993



At Bowery Creek, the cottonwoods
undress themselves for the fall,
maples combust against
Navajo sandstone so red,
it makes the deer seem green.
Down from the summer pastures,
the Herefords part around the car
like the Red Sea. The cowboy tips his hat,
says his smile will break my camera.
Lariat ready for strays, he whistles
to the cattle milling at the stop sign.
A redtail hawk hovers above us,
vermilion spires pierce the sky.
Quaking aspens whisper sunlight
to the patches of first snow
and I am far from home.

9/21/93  Utah



The snake seeks the sun
crawling to the sky, a ladder
for the small spider gods
and the continuation of day.
Equinox. Sun and moon
and the trail to the sky is open
to the orbital continuation of days.
Amid the debris of the 20th century,
I am looking for the symmetry of worked stone,
finding only crystalline structures
in the desert varnish, the exposed marble,
the crushed hearts of riverstones,
and other signs of ancient oceans.
What of those concentric circles
with an upraised hand?
The beseeching of water, the labyrinth?
Is it the snake or lightning
that climbs up the rocks to the sky?
Hands at the end of the path to guide us—
At the four corners, an intersection.
The division of power—a circle and a cross.
At least the wind knows its own strength.
We are gathering rocks for those who will follow
the small hidden selves—
I am looking for symptoms of earlier cultures
than the amber glass, cans & cigarette butts
that will survive us.

9/21/93 Parowan Gap, Utah

1994 Steelhead Special



Dendridic clouds, juniper, yarrow & aster.
Yesterday’s pronghorn and road signs glow
amber and red as if lit from within.
Turquoise and jade greet the sunset—
I gather cedar and sage for smudge sticks.
The power lines, ancient symbols of man
carry electricity west. Equinox.
We are eclipsed by technology,
and the urgency of fall light.
Amid the rows of new-mown alfalfa
a tumbleweed gallops to the horizon.
We talk of horses, Sinead O’Connor sings,
England’s not the mythical land 
of Madam Georgian roses…
We pass a hogan—earth household.
A meadowlark collides with the car,
death on the wing, by the roadside,
wild cotton, bluebirds weaving the air.

9/21/93  Parowan Gap, Utah

Saturday, September 18, 1993



Once 10,000 prospectors roamed the streets
of Austin, a ghost town of 204 souls.
At the International Cafe
(the only one in town)
Butch tells me of my cousin, Julia’s ghost,
the spilled coffee. Out at the adobe
the crazy twin who sat sewing
with imaginary needle and thread.
There’s a bar here for every 40 people.

At Home Ranch I look at photos.
My family astride the names of horses:
Ribbons, Stable Boy, Blue, Whitey, Lady.
Which one killed Wild Bill when the bull was unloaded.
Jim tells me stories of my grandmother
gathering eggs before the Indians got to them.
From Ireland she came cross-country
on the Great Western Railroad
to Battle Mountain where her uncle,
Wild Bill, came to meet her in the buggy.
Her brother Joe came by way of Galveston
because the boat was $10 cheaper,
they didn’t have enough for two fares.

There were two Indian villages here.
At the end of the season, Wild Bill
paid the Indians only half of what was owed.
The rest he gave to their women
because the men drank their wages in Austin.
Wild Bill, who once sold his truck in Ione
for a 5-gallon barrel of whiskey & a good game of cards
knew about the wages of sin and hard work.
He’d built this ranch up from dirt to grubstake.
But a foreman sold him out in ’Frisco,
pocketing the bankroll for a round of drinks
and an inferior bull.




On Highway 50, said to be
the loneliest road in America,
the eyes of a coyote gleam in our headlights.
I am caught up in the web of history:
who I am, where I come from.
We climb up into Austin
crossing the Reese River,
the road to Home Ranch.
Who’d have thought this desolate valley
would harbor a child
who would work on the bomb?
We pull into the Pony Canyon motel,
fragments jogged from memory
loosened like milk teeth,
or rocks after the thaw.

9/18/93  Austin, Nevada

Friday, September 17, 1993


Flying over the White Mountains
pines older than Christianity
flock the hills
in a sand lake, an island,
and islands of sand ships in the sand, 
like the sea of Azov
dendritic memory of dry riverbeds
the pale alluvium
most recent in memory
heading toward the sink hole below sea level
sand lakes remnants of oceans,
polyps and blooming coral, another kind of garden
that bloomed in the blood of our mother, the sea,
she is the first goddess to both emerge
and to give up her bounty
The Mojave with its green circles,
green coinage grows corn on the mother
on the other side of the rainshadow
sedimentary layers layed down 
like a ribbon cake from the air
it looks as if nothing grows in the pockets of canyons
the turquoise resevoirs, 
truly jewels in the desert
ghost cities layed out like Nazca lines
geometric knotwork of someone's failed dreams
but mirages are to the desert as waves are to the ocean.
We try so hard to leave our mark,
sometimes we leave it without knowing it.
Across Nevada, fault blocking,
we are flying along one long parallel valley
granite alluvium and bursting forth
cinnamon and ochre sandstone
a large city Reno?
a finger lake with fractaline shores
geometric complexity of the land
or is the is Arizona? Las Vegas? the stars?
no vertical history timeless geology
the rivers eat time    the Grand Canyon
the muddy Colorado, a hungry snake devouring the natal rock
like an old man seeking the fountian of youth
it eats ever deeper
coming back to a time when the earth was young.
It eats time the hungry beast
soon it will devour itself
becaus it eats through the earth's crust,
to the heart of the mother,
lava sensibilities hidden in the depths
give no clue to the passion
Set in stone, time itself is fluid
cracks in the earth, fissures in the soul
a lone dissident mountain the Rockies?
Why do I marvel so, the topography of the earth
varied skin of the mother
mysterious deep names for the earth
vermillion cliffs, Rainbow Plateau
from the air Glen Canyon and Hole in the Wall
recognizable from the air: Utah   Four Corners
canyon fringe, the plateau like lace
the landscape resonates
First Mesa, 2nd Mesa  Hopi lands  Navajo Lands
Kaiporowitz to the north
according to the map, Canyon de Chelly coming up
line across the earth in resonating patterns.
What do they mean? Power line visible from space?
Defiance Pleateau. How big, and utterly defiant
the land must've seemed to those crossing by wagon
no woonder they brought camels to the desert
Now the land has become less distinct. unified
It is an amalgum like the people who settled America.
We are flying over Acoma,
the oldest continuously inhabited city in the US
Coronado came here looking for gold 
and flund only the uninhabited cities 
of the Anasazi, the Old Ones.
Gold enough.

San Francisco to Albequerque

I went to NM 2 x, once with Lucia Hammond in 1991, and later with Celia Woloch in 1993

Saturday, September 11, 1993



At first I was confused but at last I can sleep after all those years
of frenzied droning. Lost bees, to the hive, they came and came…
Yes. The chemical baths are quite soothing …  October. Das Kapital.
No, red was never my favorite word, prikrasnaya was. The thaw
came early that year; Russia taught Napoleon a thing or two about mud!

I am truly sorry. I had no idea… Kiev’s ravine of  shame, the Bibi Yar…
When they changed my name it was hard to get the ink to flow,
but once in the blood…  I always wanted to be a poet among the birches.
They should have just left it Petrsburg. I’m not a city, I’m an institution!
For the record, I was never against the Window to the West.

How I long for a plate of varenyekii y smetana, a glass of pepper vodka.
To see again those ripe fields of wheat, the blue-eyed cornflowers.
A young pioneer once gave me her most prized possession
and I lost it. Indifference, I guess. Socialism was my bride.
I heard something about that hooligan landing in Red Square.

Really? The moon? A cosmonaut couldn’t possibly live three months in space!
They abandoned him? Yes, I know the feeling well. Star Wars?? Nyeh puni mayu.
Tak … Whatever happened to Karl and Feliks? Poor Trotsky in Mexico—
They say the assassin used an axe; was he a good Ukrainian kossak?
Did I tell you about my mausoleum; the red granite is from Cherkassy Oblast.

No I’m not familiar with Yeltsyn’s stance; like a pine tree. We’ll see.
The other vorona’s name meant strong as steel but he was a mean sparrow.
Whatever happened to my little blackbird, Gorbachev?
The things I hear when the crypt is empty—the guards talk of politics,
their bosses, wives, the vodka and bread lines; always shortages.

Tak, I’d love to get my hands on a copy of Pravda.
You know journalism was my first love, the smell of ink,
the clatter of presses, the truth in black and white for the world to see…
I always thought we’d free the masses. The revolution did not fail!
That’s where Stalin went wrong. Not everyone has the vision… or the means.

Winter is best; the ground is hard as rock. Political thaws are treacherous.
Yosef should have known better than to rule forever like a Tsar.
Of course they loved him, it was a cult. He was a vain man, a cruel father.
I’d given my eye teeth to see Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the table.
Yes, well, Breszhnev dozed off in here too; ochin starray like your Reagan.

St. Basil’s? Yes, Ivan the Terrible… Tak. This country’s full of silly rumors.
I’d love to see Peter’burg again in the fall. I miss the parades, the banners lufting—
I can’t see, but I can still hear. It’s so quiet now. These four walls, my Lyubianka …
Yes. No. That’s not true. I had considered stepping down; they wouldn’t let me …
In the end I too, was a prisoner, nothing more than an opiate for the masses.

We have a saying: Without a storm there can be no romance.
Spaceba for our little chat, I have so few visitors these days.
But the spruces outside my tomb are learning to speak;
I hear their branches whispering to the wind.


there's a revised version, damned if I know where it is

Prikrasnaya/ beautiful, (krasnaya/ red);
Bibi Yar/ the ravine where Stalin secretly slaughtered Jews;
varenyekii y smetana/ dumplings & sour cream;
Nyeh puni mayu/ I don’t understand; tak/ so, well;
Oblast/ region;
vorona/ a crow (=black sheep);
sparrows were Stalin’s special informers,
Gorbachev/ blackbird, he was Lenin’s student;
Pravda/ truth;
ochin starray/ very old;
Tak/ an exclamation, like So
Lyubianka/ KGB interrogation prison in Moscow;
spaceba/ thank you.



In the desert, sirocco winds
shake the shaggy manes of palms
who have found water,
but cannot bend to drink.
They graciously nod
to the everblueness of sky.

I have often thought sunlight on water
to be filled with certain music;
palm trees, signifiers of caravans;
the word oasis to be cupped
and treasured between the palms.

Symbols of biblical proportions:
not the 20th century chatter
of Jezebels—easy dates
on LA boulevards and shopping malls.

My thirst seeks rare blue palms
found deep in the canyons of Baja
where we bathed in granite streambeds—
& what we let go of at sea level
because mountains weren’t enough
to hold us up to the scrutiny of sky.

Walker Creek Ranch



Sometimes we mistake
the beginning of rain for a poem.
Searching for the river of words,
we’re either naked or dressed all wrong.
We cannot escape its sharp tongue
leaping the banks: it punctuates our sleep,
and bowlderizes the language of rocks,
leaves a fine layer of silt at our doorsteps.

9/11/93  Walker Creek Ranch

Friday, September 10, 1993

Millard Sheets: Sixty Years of Painting, 9/3/93

—a retrospective, Sept. 10 through Oct. 24

A sixty-year retrospective of Millard’s Sheets paintings from the private collection of Ralph and Lois Stone is currently on display at the California Museum of Art at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.

Los Angeles born artist Millard Sheets, called the father of the California school of watercolor, lived a charmed life, winning numerous awards while still in school. Hatfield Galleries gave him the first one-man show while he was still at Chouinard School of Art in 1929; he also received a prize from the Edgar B. Davis competition in Texas. The $1750 prize allowed him to travel to New York and Paris via a banana boat through the Panama Canal; he was able to paint Central American scenes.

One painting in particular, “The Women of Cartegena,” was accepted at the prestigious International Exhibition of Paintings at the Carnegie institute in Pittsburg, and was pivotal in shaping his career; this acceptance opened east coast watercolor establishment doors to him and to other California artists.

In the ’30s, the representational style of watercolor painting was at its apex, but WWII ended that movement as American artists became influenced by the new style of abstract art in Europe. At the turn of the century, artists studied in Europe, where elaborate, carefully rendered pencil sketches were highlighted with watercolor, but California artists took an entirely different approach. They worked boldly and directly on the paper, often with little, or no preliminary sketches.

During the 1930s, their paintings became much larger. The California watercolorists’ fresh, bold regional views knocked the east coast establishment on its ear. Sheets, chief exponent of the California School of Watercolor, epitomized this bold new style.

This new California style, Synchronism, founded by Stanton McDonald Wright, utilized a highly stylized subject matter with abstract composition, and influenced Sheets and other artists. Their works were often featured on magazine covers, which made the style familiar to the general public.

Often hailed as a one-man renaissance, the internationally acclaimed artist Millard Sheets, worked in various styles. Some of his earliest works, from 1926 to 1936, including “Farm Near Lompoc,” “South Pomona Granary,” and “San Francisco Bay, Ship at Dock,” evoked the era of Social Realism, where 20th century industrial triumphs were viewed as works of art.

As I viewed the art exhibit, the experimental film “Metropolis” came to mind. When Sheets gave Eleanor Roosevelt a painting of tenements, which promptly was hung in the White House, (and is now at the Smithsonian), he was appointed as one the four directors to the Public Works of Arts which is best remembered for the huge WPA (Works Progress Administration) murals depicting regional America. This bold representational style helped to shape the imaginative eye of the public.

During the 1930s and ’40s, Sheets was one of the most recognized and influential artists who portrayed the California Scene. Though rooted in the rich color and emotional light of impressionism, Sheets often worked with a limited color palette; the more tonal modulations defined the forms in abstract shapes.

In the past few years there has been a renewed interest in the American representational art movement—especially the American regional scenes made popular during the WPA mural projects.

When he was painting “Farm Near Lompoc,” Sheets commented, “I was only just beginning to understand the subtle nuances of composition and design. The black cow was placed in a pretty important spot. I think it is a good example of the struggles that people who had not been accustomed to painting in watercolor, as we all were at the time, could try and find a composition and design in complicated rounded forms.”

Of the painting, “South Pomona Granary,” Sheets said, “I would go out to these little farms to try to learn the meaning of value—color as a related problem—to try and understand the way each color created other colors in the thing next to it.”

The painterly oil canvas, “West Los Angeles Wheatfields,” (1928), depicts a strong impressionistic influence with bold brush strokes but with a more subdued palette than, say, a Monet. Sheets' “Chino Dairy” (1935), is alive with brush strokes, the brilliant use of orange shadow befitting a hot southern light, and the ground itself writhes with heat.

In “West Los Angeles Wheatfields,” Sheets recorded a bygone era when Los Angeles was still a place of angels, “The grain fields started at Western Boulevard in Los Angeles and went right to the sea.…”

The large portrait of “Annabella,” a studio work, depicts many of Sheets’ favorite motifs and reflects back on his days in Tahiti. One can also see the influences of Gauguin in his other South Pacific landscapes.

Among my favorite pieces are his Mendocino coastlines, many done from his Barking Rocks studio in Gualala. "Fond Memories of Mendocino" with its olive green and vermilion/magenta sea and Chinese Ming style horses galloping on the bluffs avoids being a cliched riot of color notes.

Compositionally, his work is strong, with an underlying structure based upon sculptural and a liberal use of diagonal shapes that lead us to the heart of the painting. Sheets wrote of “‘Mendocino with Affection," "This painting expresses the mood of color that we get here on strange days when the sun is coming up or going down. It is everything that I like about the coast.”

Many of the pieces in the show are from another style, another era—a more careful study of light with liberal use of hard-edged shadow. When one begins to take apart elements of the pieces, one comes to the sudden realization is that they are very abstract—which comes as a surprise.

“French Alps, 1971,” along with “Evening Luau, Tahiti,” (1973), “Mendocino with Affection” (1987), and “Fish Rock Annual Fishing Contest” (1968) with their curvilinear lines and rounded abstract sculptural forms are both visually pleasing, yet challenging. These works best exemplify Sheets’ distinctive later style, reminiscent of Post-Impressionism—especially Gauguin’s South Sea scenes, and van Gogh’s South of France landscapes.

Of the simply painted “Church of Arles, France” (1970), with its muscular trees, Sheets commented, “This scene is one van Gogh knew…the trees are bare in winter and the atmosphere is very evocative. I thought about van Gogh, the man, while I was here.” A much earlier piece, “Ancient Church, Armenia” (1951), evokes a kindred connection to van Gogh’s work.

Sheets wrote of the small watercolor, “Kahili Valley” painted in 1934, “I made it during a period in my life when I was trying to figure out how to improve design elements of my work. This small painting is a bit static but I like its innocent charm…” Sheets had just returned from a visit to Central and South America; the painting strongly reflects the influence of that experience.

The collective body of Millard Sheets' paintings hang on the walls of some 45 museums in the US including the Smithsonian Gallery, Chicago Art Institute, the New York Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum. The California Museum of Art show from the private collection of Ralph and Lois Stone, brings together the varied themes of many of his works under one roof. Not to be missed.
SIDEBAR (some text is missing)
Born in 1907, Sheets died at the age of 82. His life included many events which influenced his work. Sheets was a war artist for the government and for Life magazine. He lived in Hawaii, Tahiti, and took artist all over the world to hone their craft. He received numerous honorary doctorates. He was Director of Art Scripps College, he was an instructor at Otis Art Institute, and Chouinard Art Institute where he influenced innumerable artists during his 40 years of teaching.
Sheets was also a renowned sculptor, and architectural designer, with over 100 buildings, murals and mosaics to his credit including public buildings, civic centers, universities, airports, hotels, malls, and hospitals. He designed over 40 Home Savings and Loan banks, and the Scottish Rite Temples in Los Angeles and San Francisco. 
Many of us may recall the bold tile mural at Waikiki’s Honolulu Hilton, and the murals at the Great Western Savings Bank, but few may know that the late Millard Sheets was the artist who designed them. In 1988, a year before his death, he received the coveted Dolphin Award from the American Watercolor Society.

© Maureen Hurley photos

California Museum of Art at the Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, 527-0297. There will be a gallery talk with David Stary-Sheets, son of Millard Sheets on Thurs. Sept 16 at 7 p.m.

The Western Sonoma County Paper, 9/3/93

(Alas, this is a facsimile of the original article as I don't have printed copy or tear sheet. This was from a damaged file and some text was lost. I am hoping a hard copy will resurface someday. Most of my clippings were lost during the Russian River floods of 1996.)