The Windmills of Your Mind

My husband and I were at an art gallery one day a few weeks ago, when I saw a strange sight on one of the walls. From a short distance, it looked as if Venetian blind slats had been hung on the wall. I went to investigate.

Up close, it was nothing short of amazing. “You’ve got to see this,” I told my husband, propelling him by the elbow. “Your life is up here on the walls.”

How to explain it? Check the Gallery Shoal Creek website here and scroll down to the inch-high landscapes. That’s what I’m talking about.

The Austin artist, Katie Maratta, has captured the landscapes of my childhood and my husband’s. Seeing her work, I reverted back to the long driving trips when I was a kid. The wind whipped through the car windows and, from the backseat, my sister and I looked out on the endless prairie horizons.

It looks like pure nothingness to the unwary visitor — nothingness that stretches on forever. Imagine how it must have looked to the 16th century Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado as he and his expedition searched for the Seven Cities of Gold. In 1541, Coronado and his men roamed the Llano Estocado, which is now in the Texas Panhandle, searching for a rich city called Quivira. (I grew up a couple of hundred miles south of the Panhandle. Two hundred miles is nothing by West Texas standards. People drive 100 miles for a cup of bad coffee or to get to school.)

But, anyway, think of Coronado and his men being led by an Indian guide mysteriously called the Turk, who kept reassuring them that untold riches awaited them in Quivira. They finally found it in what is now Kansas but Quivira wasn’t quite as advertised by the Turk. Its people were simple and poor and naked. Coronado headed back to Mexico and the Turk was garroted. (The Spaniards never got the Indian sense of humor or playfulness, obviously; once again, my people got screwed.)

More than 400 years later, millions of buffalo and hundreds of thousands of Indians are now gone, along with the Spanish conquistadors. What’s left is the prairie and the great sky. Again, it looks like nothingness, but when you’ve grown up there, your eyes are trained to notice its subtleties and hard grandeur. You know the dips in the earth, the occasional curves in the road, the gnarled trees bent over by the wind, the oil derricks, the windmills, the fences.

I’ve always thought we were forever marked by the places where we grew up — and the harsh, unforgiving landscapes of West Texas were what marked my husband and me. In her series, called “horizonscapes,” Katie Maratta has recreated those horizons with a wonderful carefulness and affection and artistry. She’s from West Virginia, which I think is the most beautiful state in the country, but she sees the haunting power of the West Texas land.

The horizonscape we ended up buying shows an oil derrick,  a fireworks stand, a lonely house, a barn, a windmill, a few trees curled as tightly as fists. When I saw the fireworks stand, I knew we had to get it for my husband, the childhood pyromaniac.

So, as the writer said, you can never go home again. Maybe so. But the truth is, you never quite leave it behind, either. Right now, it’s hanging in our entry hall.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)


Read the story of Prada, Marfa and Talking to Chickens


14 comments… add one
  • Steve Link

    Or, as James McMurtry puts it:

    Flatter than a tabletop
    Makes you wonder why they stopped here
    Wagon must have lost a wheel or they lacked ambition one
    On the great migration west
    Separated from the rest
    Though they might have tried their best
    They never caught the sun
    So they sunk some roots down in the dirt
    To keep from blowin’ off the earth
    Built a town around here
    And when the dust had all but cleared
    They called it Levelland, the pride of man
    In Levelland

  • Cindy A Link

    For me, the biggest change in West Texas since my childhood is those enormous white windmills, an overwhelming blight to the landscape, barren as it is.

  • I heard you speak at the Texas Book Festival last weekend and your blog lives up to the moderator’s enthusiastic endorsement! I thought I’d just check out the latest post, but then there’s the one about Martha Stewart (don’t you think it’s interesting that she went to prison for insider trading while the boys all keep trading away?), then Prada and the chickens (I loved your line about there not being a tree tall enough so you could hang yourself). Anyway, I’m heading to Shoal Creek Gallery and thank you for the inspiration!

  • Amazing drawings–they look like black and white photography. I’ve never been to West Texas (or really anywhere but the airport) but I get a sense of what it’s like in those drawings–such wide open spaces

  • I grew up in places which look nothing at all like west Texas, but I’ve spent time there. Those landscapes certainly stay in the mind. Good to wonder what the conquistadors thought about it.

  • These are gorgeous and just reinforce for me that I need to come to Texas some day.

  • Incredible that she can make such tiny drawings so effective!

  • Yes, yes, I find that I see what I see now, but also what I saw then. You captured this feeling in your post.

  • Really amazing art. I would not have been able to resist, either.

  • I’ve seen the art of which Ruth talks and it’s quite something. It really shows the starkness of the landscape, which isn’t easy to do.

  • What a great piece, Ruth! I agree, we are forever marked by the places where we grew up.

  • It’s always amazing to me how fully meshed we are with the place where we grew up. I’m so meshed that I still live here and always will – Traverse City, Michigan. More specifically, the Old Mission Peninsula, where you can still find some desolate beaches that must be pretty much the same as when the Native Americans roamed here eons ago. I love that sense of history.

  • Amazing art. I’ve driven across West Texas a number of times. I thought the drive would never end. Next time, I’ll look at it through your eyes.

  • Mark Link

    I can’t wait to see the piece. Remember the old “Ski Lubbock” poster?

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