I spend time, at this age, pondering histories, memory and fondness. Ideally, I’m not a huge believer in nostalgia, but as I age I’m more convinced that reverence has become an under-appreciated virtue. The current generation reveres little. Almost no market exists these days for antique furniture unless a given piece is museum quality. I will say, this may differ in Europe and the dystopia I witness may be more uniquely American. Our culture grows more disposable and virtual by the day.
In my work making photographs recently, I’ve been questioning issues of pure graphic design, human touch and need, and how my feelings and emotional responses connect to the graphic, especially considered through a veil of years. How does design work? What do use values actually mean? How is that particularly different from the vanguard of contemporary conceptual art? Where can those aspects of human expression meet?
Among all my musings, I often revisit place, lands, and dwellings from my past. No object connects more purely to what I feel about use values than a building, made to shelter and hold us, to provide home.
In my final year of college in Sewanee, Tennessee, I chose to live in a quite odd dormitory, which had perhaps only sixteen rooms. It had been built as a temporary structure, from cheap materials, to house overflow of men returning on the GI bill from the second world war. It took the university longer to get around to tearing it down than planned. Architecturally speaking, it had no virtues. No aesthetic effort had been made for the structure. By appearances, even surplus paint got applied. The carpet was mouse poop brown. The walls were paper thin, and privacy of sound, nonexistent. The dorm was called Selden Hall.
I chose it because its reputation spoke of bohemianism. Only seniors lived there, and the model held that the Dean of Students (responsible for housing assignments) allowed older men with good grades and questionable regard for rules to finish out their matriculation, with a minimum of harassment. I wanted a dorm where I could get high and have a girlfriend (God willing) sleepover. Selden was perfect.
The beating heart of Selden Hall was it’s bathroom. A long mirror covered a counter with several sinks on one wall. Directly across stood a communal shower, where some intrepid friends of mine held beach parties. On a perpendicular wall stood three toilet stalls, and a single urinal to the left of the stalls, next to the lone window in the bathroom. You could enter the room from either end. The bathroom (though not the only place in Selden) was covered richly in erudite and profane graffiti, almost entirely written word. Our reverence for this was nearly biblical. It held thirty years of history and humor and identity. It held the ethos of Selden.
The year after I graduated a plan was finally enacted to finish the job and obliterate Selden Hall. That happened in the summer of 1982. In mighty Google no word search has produced for me, a picture of the building. Perhaps somewhere in Sewanee’s archives exists an image or a drafting of the dormitory. Maybe one day I’ll find out. Next to the urinal beside the one window in the bathroom, a friend of mine (according to legend, unsubstantiated) wrote a poem on the wall. We all believed it was the finest piece of art in the building. In my first year post college, I was living ninety minutes away, in Nashville, and I returned regularly to see my grandmother and many friends. I had learned of the slated demolition planned for June. In May, I drove to the mountain and brought a small crow bar. I strode into the Selden bathroom and took possession of the finest piece of art in the building. Having carefully pried and broken away the slab of masonite, holding the poem, I later took it to a radial arm saw and squared it up. To this day it remains a most prized possession. I’ve had to re-ink the lettering twice, since common ball point ink interacts poorly with masonite and surplus wall paint, causing it to repeatedly fade. Antique value gone, the words remain readable. That’s all that matters to me.