Saturday, April 21, 2012

R is for Reverie, Reverence, & Robert Seydel

Robert Seydel, Untitled (To Joseph C)
via "Ode to Robert Seydel" from This Is The What
Robert Seydel was the chair of my thesis work at Hampshire College and one of the most extraordinary thinkers and artists I have ever had the pleasure of encountering. He died of an unexpected heart attack on January 27th, 2011, three days after my 23rd birthday. The world has less wonder in it without him. That there would be no Museum of Joy without Robert is unquestionable. Robert was my professor from my very first day at Hampshire, and his approach to the making of art is so deeply branded on my consciousness that I cannot imagine my life without having met him.

It is hard for me to talk about him, because I want so much to describe him to you, especially now that he is gone - to keep alive forever the way he paced around the classroom (always caught up in the rapture of a piece of art, abandoning his sentences unfinished, grinning to himself and shaking his head, flailing his hands), the particular way he spoke (always full of idearrrrs instead of ideas, as if he had to ground them in the world with the long tail of rolled rs so they wouldn't float away), the leaps his mind made (a student of his recalls a photography critique with him: "After we finished talking about it, he said, 'Well, it's obvious you need to take a linguistics class.' Only Robert would say that... but of course, he was right.")

Robert Seydel, Ole? Boen, from A Fauna, 2005
Mixed media on card, 6 1/2" x 4 1/2"
via the Cue Art Foundation
His classes were always a mixture of students who worked their butts off and students who had obviously stayed up doing coke all semester and forgotten about their projects til the last minute. If you brought in a project you'd spent hours on, Robert would pick apart your ideas and argue and point out everything that wasn't working for him in your piece. (He'd praise it, too, oh, wonderful praise - but he wouldn't let you off the hook, either.). With the students who brought in a couple of photos of their grandma and an old record player and talked loudly about existentialist themes in modernist methods of making (or whatever), though, Robert would never say anything cutting about the lack of effort. Instead, he would spend minutes on end examining the stuff they had brought in and imagining, out loud, everything he saw as potentially meaningful. He would suggest seven different ways to hang the photos, wonder aloud about audience experience of a dark room versus a well-lit one, talk on about what could be added or expanded. It drove the hard-working goody-two-shoes like me nuts. It wasn't until later that I realized he knew perfectly well that the kids who worked hard were going to go make more art, and it was precisely those who couldn't really be assed to put in the effort that he wanted to inspire. He talked about everything he envisioned in their work because he honestly saw it that way - full of possible meaning, something wonderful just on the edge of being made. He genuinely wanted his students to see the world as being just as impossibly rich as he did - so rich, indeed, so dense with threads of beauty and meaning, that they would all (like him) become helpless not to make art.

In progress.
A section of the finished structure.

I took a class with Robert my first semester at Hampshire, and it made me the happiest girl in the world - because Robert's class was an absolute revelation. From Robert, I learned that the things I loved the most (tiny bottles, walking in magical cities at night, toys, trinkets, amulets, dreams, the feel of old streets in the rain, fantastical window displays in shuttered shops, alchemy, museums, cabinets of curiosity, Charles Baudelaire) were not only beloved by others but a legitimate thing to study. It was Robert who introduced me to Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project, Joseph Cornell, Rosamond Purcell, Rebecca Solnit, and more and many more. It was Robert who treated it like a perfectly ordinary and understandable thing that I would want to study miniatures, daydream, wonder, and the spaces nested into paintings and poetry - not external landscapes but the internal worlds of imagination. It was Robert who encouraged me to put my finger on the sense of the spirituality I feel is inherent in the making of beautiful spaces, who nudged me towards the combination of reverie and reverence that led me to spend the better part of a year building a room one part city street, one part library, one part Alice-in-Wonderland wood, and one part temple in my living room - the physical genesis, of course, of the Museum. (I originally conceived of the space as a series of rounded egg-shaped huts full of mystical artifacts. No wonder I fell in love with cob.) The Museum of Joy is the flower of a seed that was planted during my time at Hampshire, a seed I would never have discovered without Robert's help. It was he who said to me that the twin pursuits of reverie (daydream, wonder, imagination, invention) and reverence (love for things and people and places, a sense of the holy, a feeling of the invisible and the mysterious) were not only worth pursuing but desperately important.

"To tune reverie and dream to usage," he wrote in my final evaluation, "- to design a new domestic arrangement to accommodate and foster the complexities of interior life, to shape kitchen, living room, and loft in accordance with the dictates of beauty and magic, is an exercise that is both ethical and life affirming to a rare degree, and has wonderful future implications. To embed imagination in the locus of daily living seems, in conclusion, a superb and exemplary ambition, not to say an alchemical one."

Robert is gone, although his amazing works remain, or some of them, along with an incredible book that anyone who loves the act of making art should get their hands on. But his words to me - "to embed imagination in the locus of daily living seems a superb and exemplary ambition" - well, perhaps they hold more weight because he's gone, because I can't go back to him and sit and talk about books any more, or seeing the world like a child, or language, or magic boxes. The only way I can communicate with him now is to live the things he gave me - that is, to make sure they don't die by keeping them alive in me. I feel a deep reverence for Robert and his way of seeing, and a reverence for the world that he opened up to me, the daydream of a world, the wondrous reimagining of the ordinary. But I can't just go and say thank you, not now, not ever again. I can only offer up the things I have because of him, can only try and put back into the world some of what was taken out upon his leaving. And when I let my mind wander into the dream of the Museum, I see him off away on a hillside, stomping around in his boots and reading poems into the wind.


  1. Well, that's a pretty awesome tribute. It really is.
    It makes me wonder what you'd think of my book.

    And have you looked at my miniatures, yet?

    1. I did look at them! They are awesome, I just couldn't see a place to comment on the page about them. They must've been so fun to make, and your son is lucky to have such a crafty dad! And which book are you wondering about? I don't have a Kindle, but I'm always happy to read manuscripts :)

  2. Well, I'm glad you like them :)
    I haven't been able to figure out how to get comments to be available on the other pages, but you can always comment on one of the blog posts, because I'll still get it that way.
    I have a ton more pictures up on FB.

    I was speaking of The House on the Corner. The only book I have out, at the moment. It has a lot to do with imagination, which makes me wonder what you would think about it.
    Just by the way, I don't have a kindle, either, but there is a free app you can download to your computer. That's what I've done for a few things I could only get on the Kindle. I hate sitting at my computer to read, but I'm not ready to fork out the money for an e-reader yet.


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