Untitled (Box with Perched Yellow Bird)* * *
c. 1935, box construction, 13 1/4 x 9 1/2 x 5 inches
UNTO EVERY ONE that hath shall be given, and be shall have
abundance: but from him that bath not shall be taken away even that
which he hath. So Jesus rebukes the Box Artist who is not bold
enough to seize his subject.
The Box Artist must constantly troll for happiness. La Puente.
Cerritos. Olympic Boulevard. In this cruelly deprived Year of Our
Lord 1935. This summer in which dried, cracked earth of the hue of
baked blood is turning to dust, blown by a Santa Ana wind. Travel-
ling the streets of Los Angeles anxious and yearning as any rejected
lover. The Box Artist must seek his happiness out there. The Box
Artist understands that happiness is chance, and always unmerited.
The Box Artist understands we must create the improbable circumstances
of chance that the yet more improbable circumstances of happiness are
revealed to us.
Cypress, Alvarado, Santa Clara. Westward, eastward. El Nido
to the south, La Mirada to the east. To the west, the Pacific Ocean
which revulses me for its vastness cannot be fitted into any box.
The Nickel & Dime Diner on El Centro Avenue. Amid boarded-up
storefronts GOING OUT OF BUSINESS! BANKRUPTCY! MUST SELL ALL! A
clatter of trolleys, automobiles and trucks and the heat-haze stirred
by the wind into a glowing phosphorescence of dust and grit. At El
Centro and Cupertino, a building marked The Los Angeles Orphans Home
Society. Weatherworn red brick set back in a large, mostly grassless
lot surrounded by an eight-foot mesh-wire fence. What the eye first
notices about this building is that there are few windows, especially
on the uppermost third floor. These windows are tall and oddly narrow,
like squinting eyes; on the first floor, the lower halves are crudely
barred. Peeling white "colonial" trim, tarred roofs, rusted fire
escapes, and at the rear amid sand and thorny weeds the rudiments of
A more melancholy "playground" I have never seen and I swear
that it was this playground that initially drew me, and not the possibilities of the orphans. For it is rare that the children are released from their work-duties to "play" and at the time of my first
visit, in the late winter of 1934, the playground was deserted.
Only by chance, at another time, did certain possibilities suggest
In the Box Artist's life of anxiety, yearning and sudden unexpected happiness there are such moments. One must only seek them
without ceasing as Saint Theresa spoke of prayer without ceasing until
prayer becomes the very soul, and the very soul, prayer. It is as if
the automobile makes this turn unbidden bv me onto an unpaved service
road beyond the orphanage. Scrub palm trees, broom sage and hardy
purple-flowering thistles coated in dust like exotic works or art.
A flock of sparrow scatters at my approach.
How many weeks it has been since I discovered the Los Angeles
Orphans Home. How many weeks observing the orphan-children from my
automobile, hunched down beside the window in the passenger's seat.
When moved to take photographs, carefully I ease open the door--carefully! The Box Artist is a master of precision. The Box Artist is
a master of discretion. No one notices the Box Artist, for he is as
near to invisible as any adult male, indeterminate age and of no
distinguishing physical characteristics (even my height and weight
oscillate from day to day dependent upon temperature and barometric
pressure), might be. My automobile attracts no suspicious eyes for
it is a battered 1928 Ford, its shiny black exterior and dashing
chrome worn by sun, rain, wind and wind-driven sand to this dull
pewter-glow that is the very absence of color. The Box Artist is
but an eye, a pair of hands, a fierce and implacable will.
You would identify the children of the Los Angeles Orphans Home
as orphans, even from a distance, in their faded blue clothing that
fits them like smudged daubs of paint, with their worn shoes, their
spindly limbs and raw scrubbed faces like the faces of wooden dolls
with awkwardly fitted glassy-teary eyes. They are "children" in but
a technical sense. Many of them are midget adults, with heads dispro-
portionate to their thin bodies. Even the youngest are not "childish." Such terms--"children," it "childish," "childlike"--apply solely
to wanted children. There is a recognition of this fact, or complex
of facts, in the slump of their heads and the sag of their shoulders
and the limpness of their legs even when they are engaged, under no
adult's supervision, in "play." (The playground is sand and concrete.
A meager set of swings, only just two, the third having been broken
for months; a tarnished slide; a wooden teeter-totter. ) In the late
morning and again in the late afternoon the orphans emerge from a rear
slot of a door, trudging outside to blink in the mica-bright sunshine,
dazed with exhaustion from their work-duties (what these are, I can
only guess) though a few of the younger and more hopeful run for a
brief while and a few, always boys, as if recalling the bold maneuvres
of children beyond the eight-foot mesh-wire fence, will push
at one another and jostle for possession of a swing, a seat on the
Weeks, months. My photographs were few and infrequently inspired.
Yet every time the orphans appeared, my heart leapt in hope. A scrim
would be drawn, as in a film theater, and I stared, stared--but the
one I sought wasn't among them. Until one afternoon, a hot Santa Ana
wind blowing out of tbe Mojave Desert, and my eyelashes gummed with
dust, I saw, I suddenly see, the Blond Child. A girl-orphan I have
never seen before, yet recognize at once.
It is she. She is the one. The one the box awaits.
In the late summer of 1935. In the earthen-floored cellar of the
bungalow an Sacramento Street, East Los Angeles. Thirty-two wooden
boxes stacked neatly against the walls and in each of these boxes was a "capture" --a snapshot, a small artifact, a stuffed, lifelike little
bird. To the neutral observer the works of the Box Artist would be
indistinguishable from trash but each of the boxes was, to the Box
Artist, a testament to those minutes, hours, sometimes davs in which
the box was executed. Even the relatively uninspired boxes, and there
were some of these, were triumphs of a kind; they represented, to the
Box Artist, the solutions to specific problems. The box is the affliction for which only the box is the cure.
Yet each "capture" was solitary. Each of the boxes stood apart
from the others, though they were crammed together in that dank, airless space.
The one the box awaits, at last. The Blond Child, a little girl
of eight or nine, swinging on one of the swings. She is new to the
orphanage, at least I have never seen her before. Already in her
faded-blue uniform she resembles the others--except for the fierce
radiance in her face, and the speed in her little body. How desperate, flying on the swing with its crude creaking chains and hard,
splintery wooden seat; how defiant, kicking and bucking, her white-knuckled bands gripping the swing above her head and her thin arms
stretched taut like a bird's wings partly wrenched from its body.
Both her knees are scraped and bruised. Her "dirty blond" hair is
curly and snarled. Her eyes are intense, staring; her dazed soul
shines through her waxy-pale skin. A beautiful child though wounded
somehow, damaged. The sorrow in being born, without love.
She is one of them, now. The orphans of the world. Waiting to
be loved. Waiting to be taken--"adopted."
I think--I will adopt her. I will claim her!
I will make her hurt, mangled mouth smile.
But of course, being the Box Artist, I can only take the Blond
Child's photograph. And that only in stealth, hoping I won't be
My heavy black box-camera is gritty with dust. It is an old
camera, I am forever blowing dust off the lens, polishing it with my
handkerchief. After a few minutes I become reckless and leave the
protection of my automobile to squat in the dirt beside the mesh-wire
fence, hoping to be hidden by tall weeds; aiming my camera with the
assurance of a hunter as, oblivious of me, the Blond Child swings ever
higher. Her hair is ringlets sparked with fire, her skin glints like
mica, her eyes are ablaze like tiny blue jets of flame. As she swings,
her skirt is bunched over her bruised knees, there's a glimpse of
white beneath, much-laundered and frayed orphan's underwear it is,
and her heels kick upward reckless as a colt's. The Blond Child
swings carelessly off-balance, veering crooked and nearly falling
from her seat as if her secret wish is to fall and crack her head
on the dirty concrete. No! no! I whisper to her. Don't injure yourself, he world will shortly enoug do that for you. In the creaking
swing beside the Blond Child another, quite ordinary girl is swinging, not boldly at all but in a lacklustre manner; an older, slump-shouldered girl, one who has been waiting to be adopted for years,
and has all but given up hope. But the Blond Child is new to the
orphanage. The Blond Child will never give up hope.
I promise. Someday. Something--maybe.
The Box Artist is the artist of desire. The tenderness of
desire that can never be consummated.
The Box Artist plucks the child's flying image out of the air
as you might pluck a feathery little bird out of the air, a canary
or hummingbird, small enough to fit in your closed hand.
The heavy black box-camera grows heated with the effort. The
shutter snapping! The mysterious film within, wound past the lens,
imprinted with the Blond Child who is oblivious of it. (And yet,
atterward I will wonder: was she aware of me, in fact? Crouched
here behind the mesh-wire fence, in a patch of dusty weeds? Was she
playing a game as precocious girl-children do, watching the Box
Artist through lowered eyelashes and giving no sign--except a s1y
little pursing of her lips?)
Until abruptly the children's "play" is over. In dispirited
columns they shuffle back through the slot of a door. Someone must
have called them, or a bell has rung. A matron in a dark coverall
appears in the doorway, commanding the children to hurry. How strangely
obedient they are, trooping back into the warehouse within; a house of
unwanted wares; the emptying playground releases them without resistance. Yet, bravely, the Blond Child continues swinging, pretending
not to have heard the summons. She's flying, kicking, bucking, jets
of blue flame leaping from her eyes, more recklessly than ever. The
matron shouts at her what sounds like, "You! Get down." For another
few seconds the Blond Child dares disobey, then she too gives in.
Like a bird wounded in flight, she returns quickly to earth.
How forlorn, her abandoned swing.
The pathos of the vertical, stilled swing.
Indistinguishable now from the others, how many others, resigned,
slump-headed in their faded-blue orphans' issue, the Blond Child disappears into the red-brick Los Angeles Orphans Home. My fingers
continue to snap the camera's shutter as, after the death of its
brain, a body may continue to thrash, to quiver, to pulse for a brief
while. But at last I stop. Shaken and exhausted. My soul seems to
have drained from me. Quickly, fumbling with my car keys, I prepare
to leave; in a sudden terror that the matron has seen me. As in the
past, not frequently but sometimes, occasionally, vigilant parties,
invariably women, have called molice to report--what? Who? What
crime have I committed, with only a camera? The Box Artist is bound
by no local law in the execution of his exacting art.
As I drive away in the 1928 Ford I peer anxiously into the rear
view mirror. Seeing only a dust-tunnel raised in my wake.
My defense would be the child knew me, as I knew her.
For hours that evening, and then for days. In the dank earthen-floored cellar of the bungalow on Sacramento Street, East Los Angeles.
A shabby house surrounded by palm trees, crude sword-shaped leaves
rustling in the ceaseless maddening wind. The whisperings and murmurings of strangers Look! look! look! look! look what his life is.
Yet unhurried, I develop rny film, precious to me as my very
soul. My pulse quickens as I contemplate the miniature images, I
feel almost faint, the Blond Child so captured, so my own. I pre-
pare the Box, the Box I have chosen for her measures approximately
thirteen inches by nine by five; an ordinary wooden box you would
say, and you'd be correct; stained from use, oil smears in the wood
slats; a box scavenged by the sharp-eyed Box Artist out of a mound
of trash in a drainage ditch out behind this bungalow. Eagerly
then, and in excitement and fear, I select my artifacts. In honor
of the Blond Child I must choose well; if I fail, she will be lost
a second time.
This is my body, and this is my blood. Take ye and eat. The
secret wish of all who live in their art.
After several blunders, and sleepless nights, I step back to
discover that I have created a Box landscape of uncanny subterranean
beauty! Coarse, earthen, primitive: of the rich sepia hue of memory.
Tiny snapshot-images of the Blond Child are secreted in the Box's
dark corners and beneath a heart-shaped rock covered in dried dirt
which I brought back from beside the mesh-wire fence. A vividly
yellow bird, canary or goldfinch, purchased from the taxidermist
from whom I purchase all my creature-artifacts, is placed on top
of this rock, tiny talon-claws secured by glue to the rock. With
a tweezers I have managed to lift the little bird's wings from its
body so that it appears about to fly away; its pert little tail
feathers are at an upward angle that, too, suggests imminent flight;
but never, never will the little yellow bird fly out of my Box, as
the Blond Child will never fly out of my Box.
Of your fleeting and unloved life I make you immortal.
Of vour broken heart, I make art.
Out of that lost day have I plucked you, and myself.
Yet, you are alone in the Box. I, doomed to invisibility, am
forbidden to take my place beside you.