A rocket lands on the roof at Mass MoCA (BTW column)

On the ceiling in chalk it said “I went to the skies because I wished to live deliberately.” Equations surrounded it, as though the person lying on this bunk jotted notes by lamp light at night. On the shelf behind the bunk stood a line of tomato preserves in glass jars. 

I craned to read the quotes on the ceiling and began to laugh, because I recognized Thoreau — with the kind of sudden jolt of delight that makes you turn to the person next to you, wanting to share the joke.

The person next to me, as it happened, was Malik Sajad, a graphic artist in residency with IS183, and I’d talked with him just a few days before about his work in the ‘Islam Contemporary’ show in Pittsfield. We met here by chance, in the doorway to a space ship like a silver Airstream. And I want to go back.

Have space ship, will travel

In the years since it opened, this is the first time I’ve seen Michael Oatman’s “The Shining,” one third of his “All Utopias Fell.” It sits on the iron grid walkway above the boiler room in Mass MoCA’s Speedway, and torn orange parachute silk flaps around it, hiding and revealing a view over North Adams to the mountains.

It feels like a hippie science fiction artifact (and I’m reminded of the giant eyes in front of the Williams College Museum of Art, which someone once called an invasion of giant luminous snails.)

Half an hour isn’t long enough to take in the marvelously crammed rooms in “The Shining,” the exercise bicycle, the tiny bathroom, the throng of red yarn god’s eyes. This silvery subway-car-with-wings is a microcosm, a place shaped to reveal its missing occupant. I want to know about the vanished person who lived here, in this blend of space-age technology and canning jars.

Right smack dab in the middle of town

The unexpected detail fascinates me. And the way I felt when I read the words on the ceiling may sum up one of my arguments for public art.

I have been thinking lately about the art around Pittsfield. As I walk past the marble whale outside the coffee shop, or listen to the fountain playing near the war memorial, or stand among Michael Melle’s straw soldiers at Arrowhead, imagining the spring day when local men in their teens and 20s enlisted in the 54th regiment in the Civil War — I wonder about the work it has taken to make them and bring them here.

Why do we have public art?

I’ll define public art as art in public spaces, downtown, along the main streets, in monuments, and in museums that I can visit for a nominal admission fee, or free with a pass from the library. Even without visiting the museum, passersby can see the silver airship cash-landed on Mass MoCA’s roof, making the straight brick outlines of the buildings suddenly surprising.

Rodin meets R2-D2?

When I think of public outdoor art, art that can stand up to rain, ice, climbing children and college students with purple spray paint, I think most often of sculpture. And I am defining “The Shining” as sculpture as the International Sculpture Center defines it, within artwork, as a three dimensional object occupying real space.

So when I ask why we have a marble whale on North Street, I am also asking — what is sculpture today?

The Internet tells me that ancient Greek sculptures showed battles, religious scenes and rulers. We have war memorials and President McKinley in Adams, Daniel Chester French’s Lincoln Memorial and Andromeda. We have the stations of the cross at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge.

But where does a fantastical space ship fit in?

What about the fanned-out trees that won the Curator’s Choice Award at Chesterwood this summer? Or Michael Hewitt’s human-sized clay pots at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, gleaming like a brook in the shade? Or compass points in blue tile in “Islam Contemporary”?

Or Rodin’s bronze man with a broken nose at the Clark, or Degas’ child ballerina, or Andrew DeVries’ lithe, full-grown bronze dancing women in Lenox?

The soul magnifies

When I think of the sculpture I remember, sometimes years after I saw them, I remember the ones that led me to see a place or a person or a moment in time. I remember the grain of the wood on Mary’s forehead in Durham Cathedral years ago: a lean woman in corn rows laughing, caught in wonder at the news of the Magnificat. She was young and vulnerable and amazed, a girl becoming a woman, learning that she was pregnant. She looked like an artist who has just felt for the first time that she will have the skill to do the work she wants to do. In a massive building of golden stone, one wooden woman made the room a real place, not a monument to the past, but a gathering point in the present.

A sculpture becomes part of its place. Often it is made to fit there and to last there. It may lead me to see the curve of a landscape, or the way a tree grows on a hill, or the colors of November leaves, in a way that catches me off guard and gets my attention.

That, at least, is what I hope for. Coming on a glass globe, a bronze woman basking in the sun, a copper shape in the trees, a clay vessel or a shape moving in the wind, I hope to be so moved that I can’t help speaking, that I grab the nearest person and say look at this.

We have liftoff

Thoreau said, and Michael Oatman alluded to it in chalk: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

It’s a spare and clear intention: to see where you are and feel alive and unselfconscious in it. I wish to go to art and to writing that way, and to conversation and to blooming meadowsweet and raspberry fields and friendships.

I wish to go deliberately, with intention, conscious of what I do and where I am, paying attention, but not without improvisation or intuition or surprise. A marble whale outside my corner coffee shop may be a way of making the world look different from what I expect — and larger.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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