My friend Nancy Chappell is dying of a brain tumor.
Locked away inside her finely tuned mind is a treasury of Art– schematics, principles, esoterica, unrealized creations…
I’ve known her for 2/3 of my life. She is like an older sister.
The problem is, how can I get these WORDS to convey to you the West Coast ambience of the ’60’s? Or was it just my stepping out into the new world of my early 20’s, into a life far removed from my parents and childhood surrounds… I think not. I think the world had cracked open in the middle 1960’s, a freshness breathed into the air, Light was somehow brighter, anything was suddenly possible.
I had not yet been brought up short against the hobbles and cripples of my inner workings. There was that unexamined simplicity…
Nancy was living with her husband Walter Chappell over the side of a Big Sur cliff below the Coast Gallery, in a narrow house overlooking the western sea through huge windows from one end to the other. Doug Madsen had built it from salvaged timbers from when all the Coast bridges were replaced by concrete. The cement floors were embedded with little round river pebbles which massaged bare feet almost uncomfortably, the huge fireplace mantled by a 6′ double-ended sawblade, its viciously jagged teeth buried in the chimney masonry.
Walter was a tall older man with tatty hair and no front teeth, a photographer in the ranks of Steichen and Steiglitz and Minor White. Quite charismatic and intimidating for me at half his age… I was subject in some of his work (anything around the place was a likely subject). He would stand there behind his camera and WAIT. Wait. Wait… While he waited, I got over my selfconsciousness, my mind settled out, I settled in… and he would always wait to click until I was in a ‘certain space’, and somehow he always knew exactly when I arrived there.
The Sandpiper was being filmed up the coast, over the side of another cliff in a little cabin built there for the purpose. Locals snorted– it was badly located, and everyone predicted it would never survive the winter storms. An interminable stairway had been built to access it, and we’d watch two people haul Elizabeth Taylor back up after the day’s shooting– she had been dieting heavily for the film, and had absolutely no energy as result.
Marty Ransohoff was directing, and had brought his protege Sharon Tate along so that Walter could shoot her portfolio. I have never met, before or since, such a beautiful woman. Once I saw her put on her shoes in front of those huge windows over the sea– the web of skin at her Achilles’ tendon was so fine, the sun shone right through. And her beauty was not just skin deep; she had a simplicity and a purity about her that floated ‘way above Hollywood and its trips, even past Marty and his baser designs. Once I had to bring her a towel when she was taking a shower– she seemed so delighted to be naked around another woman. The studio owned her body otherwise– I doubt they even noticed her soul.
The hot springs were still Big Sur Hot Springs, set up for the chain gangs who’d built Highway 1 down the coast. Faint wisps of sulphur hung over the area. A potter and his wife kept the office, and kept their toddler in the confines of a ceramic cauldron there.
No one wore clothes at Chappells’. I walked in first on a summer day– Nancy was behind the counter in the kitchen, a long black braid down her back over a blue cardigan… as I came to greet her she said “I don’t have a bottom half!” What freedom!! I instantly took off my travelling clothes. (Earlier that year another girlfriend had introduced me to the freedoms of peeing in a remote meadow, no toilets in sight!)
Their first son Theo, a toddler with a blond bowlcut and a short babybottle clutched by the nipple between his front teeth, knew one word: ‘wheel’. The picture of a train brought him to ecstasy: all those wheels!! I am still watching him, decades later, for the metaphysical manifestating of this early preoccupation…
Nancy had been a painter, but was frustrated that her paintings were staying on the wall while she was out and about, and had taken up painting cloth to make into garments. This was right in line with my talents– as eldest of 3 closely-spaced siblings, Mother had taught me sewing and knitting to occupy myself while everyone else took the naps I had outgrown. I was a lanky girl in a time of short round Misses patterns– Junior sizing did not come out ’til the ’60’s either– and had been making and making up my own clothing for years. We started a sewing business! What fun! The Phoenix, a gift shop down the coast at Nepenthe, carried mostly the products of Big Sur artists and was our first outlet, although with time I had clothing at a sandal shop and House of Today in Palo Alto, and B’tzalel in San Francisco.
Our garments were based on Eastern philosophies– designed from geometric shapes, respecting the loom, and as beautiful inside as out. They stood alone, complete without a human body occupying them. I’d accumulated a large boxful of patterns over the years, one bought for the sleeves, another for the bodice etc., and shortly pitched out the whole thing in the face of this new way of considering garment construction. I still operate from that basis.
There was a strong spiritual side to this art: early on, Nancy and Walter announced that I needed an Inner Life. What an exciting concept for this rebellious one who had left the confines of the Episcopal church ‘way far behind… We were sent to see Willem Nyland in New York, a side trip to bringing #2 Son to meet the grandparents, who lived conveniently near the Berkshires. There began a 7-year association with the Gurdjieff ideas. I may find a way to discuss that in time…
Their landlord was becoming impossible and the Chappells began looking around for another place to live. One weekend on my way down to visit them I spotted Walter’s jeep at the house of a real estate agent Margaret Lisle, and pulled over. Margaret had just asked Walter if he’d found any sign of First People at Doug’s place– Walter had dug out a small pond in the garden, and in the black soil had turned up ahuman femur and a piece of skull which currently sat on a windowsill in the house. Margaret became agitated and asked him to quickly rebury the bones in similar dirt, and to ask foregiveness for having disturbed them. She went on to relate that another real estate agent who was building a motel just north of the hot springs had brought a potful of the earth from there and left it on Margaret’s porch with a note saying that it would be good for her houseplants… Margaret said she came to herself halfway back down the coast, driving furiously toward the motel site with the pot of earth in the back of her car. She’d spread the dirt over the site with prayers and apologies… and during that night had awakened from a sound sleep because of a strange and pervasive odor. A tall chief was standing in her living room, wearing a white feather headdress down to the floor. He told her “Do not let them disturb the soil!” Later investigations found this same chief appearing to seers all up and down the West Coast, with the same message.
Later I had the bad timing to be first car in line just north of the hot springs while they replaced yet more bridge timbers, an hour’s wait ’til traffic would be again allowed to pass. A small Cat was ‘way up the cliff above the road, doing daylight work for a larger bulldozer. To pass time I asked the foreman if he’d ever found remains of Indians, with all this excavating– oh yes, he’d found part of a stone bowl, which he’d swapped for a pint of whiskey. This was so offensive! I told him Margaret Lisle’s story and the chief’s message… as I finished, we were startled by some stones falling to the road in front of my Volkswagen bus– overhead, part of the cliff had fallen away and the small Cat teetered on the edge, one tread half out in the air… the driver jumped off as it tumbled down and landed smack in front of my ‘bus! The foreman ran over and shut off the ignition– in the flurry of activity, the line of cars was flagged on through. As I drove past, I looked at him fearfully out of the corner of my eye, certain that I’d be arrested for causing this accident! He did not appear to connect the dots…
Dear one, I am beginning to stumble badly over the converging paths that this conversation has drawn in!! Life has been so FULL, and I have been so blessed: what did I do to deserve such good fortunes, and how could I begin to return such favor, or even shovel fast enough to pass it on?? It seems that reviewing my life could take as long as having lived it…
In any case… Nancy. She had studied with Mr. Nyland’s wife Ilonka Karacz. Ilonka had created hundreds of covers for the New Yorker magazine, and was ancillary to the burgeoning art movements of the early 20th century. There was much of the esoteric stirred into her work, and Nancy is party to this, and this is no longer accessible through her– Ilonka is long gone.
There is a formidable storage unit down in Sonoma County with Nancy’s life packed in there every which way. Her youngest son has risen chivalrously to the occasion, and his mother is passing her final days at his house within reach of mine– When time comes, I’ve volunteered to sort through that welter of stuff. Perhaps my perspective will be adequate to the task of arranging its judicious dispersal. The book she never wrote, the study course never set up, the fine spiritual aspect of art must be scattered throughout.
Wish me luck with this impending project: we all would benefit so much from its light!
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