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