Friday, March 16, 2018
Found object wanderings and reflections…
I was going through my old Orvis super tackle pack vest the other day looking for something or other, when I opened one of the pockets and pulled out an old pocketknife. It was a Shrade old-timer model with three blades. At first I thought it was one I placed in the vest, but then as I examined it, I realized that it was in there all along, and belonged to the former owner that I inherited the vest from. The blades were a bit rusty after all the years, so I opened it up and gave it a quick pass with the Arkansas stone and some honing oil. I then sat and reflected that it belonged in there, and so placed it right back in its pocket. It will come in handy for the hundred things small pocket knives come in handy for, most of which can’t be predicted. This was just like my first pocketknife my dad bought me from the Downer Avenue Hardware store back in the early 1970s. That knife is long gone today, but it was cherished back in the day, and a big event for a kid, as I imagined all the amazing things I could do with it, most which would either get me in trouble, or were a bad idea in the first place.
In looking at this knife, it began to symbolize and aggregate a series of thoughts I had been having about the evolution and changes to our tools for the outdoors, fishing and hunting in particular…
I had recently visited a Cabelas store to poke about, and found myself in the hunting and gun area, where there was a knife display. There were still some simple pocketknives on display, but they were outnumbered by far with what I guess could be referred to as ‘Tactical knives.’ These all had several things in common. First, they looked dangerous… even outright gruesome. No bone or horn handles here, just plain utility of black plastic and stainless steel. They looked like something that would be at home butchering a small herd of Jurassic creatures, and if push came to shove, much of the neighborhood. They were half hunting utility knives, and half combat weapons.
I strolled over to the rifle rack to see what they had, and yes, there were still a few classic bolt-action rifles in the mix, but in general, 80% of what they carried were plastic stocked facsimiles of military combat weapons.
Then, while waiting at the bank, I picked up the stack of magazines on the side table and found a recent edition of Outdoor Life. As I thumbed through the pages looking for actual content, (what the heck happened to content?) I began to realize how completely things had changed since that day when Dad gave me my first knife.
Call me dim, or call me Rumplestiltskin, but sometimes I can’t see the bigger changes like the proverbial forest from the trees until confronted with the time to waste looking at things I don’t really want to see. The magazine I browsed through was so different from those I read back in the day, and the biggest changes were to those of our tools, and how they were portrayed being used.
The aesthetics had shifted so far as to baffle me. It was actually difficult to recognize some of the fishing rods as fishing rods. They looked like power tools. Also, somehow large trucks, chewing tobacco, and camouflage clothing crept in on every page accompanying ads for items as diverse as lip balm, or adult diapers. It all had a certain look, a certain aesthetic that sold a way of life. It hit you in the face. All things were POWER, BAD, RUGED, DEADLY. I turned back to the cover to make sure I didn’t pick up a survivalist magazine by accident. Nope.
Arriving home, I opened the mailbox to find a new fly-fishing catalog, and encountered similar themes. There was a new reel named ‘Assassin’, and some of the rods looked like odd struts for racing bikes that somebody had adorned with corporate logo bumper-stickers. There was a new fly rod named ‘Badass’. I wondered what had happened to ‘Goodass?’
Well, label me a luddite, but I was confused.
Everything changes. Consumer products most of all, as our generational outlook shifts and wishes to establish its unique identity, and distance itself in an unending quest from the past generation. Identity is the foundation of marketing. I pondered whether marketing and product design and aesthetics were leading us or following us. Were the changes utility, or a mirror of our collective outlook on the world. If the later is the case, it might be a little disturbing.
I guess I missed the beauty.
Yes, that can lie in the eye of the beholder, but I do think that a classic wood-stocked rifle with beautiful bluing, a pocketknife or fixed blade with rich wood or horn handles, and a fly-rod that actually looks like a fly rod are beautiful tools of the outdoors. There seemed to be no beauty in the black plastic and stainless world, for it contained not just utility, but a perceived technology and newness with more than a hint of ‘Badass’ thrown in for good measure. A technological look was better. Our tools of the trade had to look space-age now. They had to be dangerous.
The language had changed as well. We no longer seemed to be experiencing nature, but instead to be at war with it. Dad fished with a fly called a ‘Professor’ or a ‘Governor’, not a ‘Street Thug.’
There was always was a ‘Look’ to the outdoor sportsperson, from the fishing vest and bucket hat with lures dangling, to the felt shirt, tweed, pipe, and etc. that passes today for classic or old or outdated or silly. However, there was no required look in the past. We all dressed for the outdoors within a certain accepted boundary, but we were not yet pressed from the same mold or else not ‘Cool’. It seemed to me as I looked through the magazines that today, the new aesthetic was the ‘Look.’ That was more important than the deer or the fish, the skill, or the experience. I looked at an ad for a saltwater fishing trip and was instantly aware that if I were to attempt to embrace the new look, that I would not know which way to correctly cock my ghetto flat-cap, or which gang signs to flash as I held up the fish. If I did try, I might be like somebody’s aged uncle who, after imbibing too many martinis at a house party, attempts to perform hip-hop, causing everybody to excuse themselves, or stare at a house plant while grimacing in embarrassment.
But then… I am not the target market. Thinking people who like to read and research tend not to buy-in as readily. We seem to question things more. “Why is this better?” “What about this thing that has worked for years?” With knowledge of the outdoor sports and its history of gear, we can make refined choices, and more and more I see a push-back to a simpler time and an appreciation for both utility and ‘classic beauty’. Perhaps the growing legions of people who are turning away or back feel that marketing and the new gear have finally gone too far, and their intelligence is insulted, or maybe it is because we no longer listen to the noise, being too busy using the gear we have in outdoor pursuits to take the time to ponder if we are up-to-date or cool. When one stops looking in the mirror, a certain freedom can develop…
As a craftsperson I appreciate fine leather, wood, and natural materials. Waxed cotton instead of nylon, etc. Back in the day my father did too, and instead of trying to distinguish myself or differentiate myself by embracing the newness of generational change and marketing, I use what he and his generation left to me. Classic gear. Rooted in aesthetics, beauty and simplicity and not affectation, but also in a simple thrift. My old Pfluger Medalist or Hardy Perfect reels works as well today as it did when dads and uncles were fighting the Germans, and the guns they purchased when home and settled are still providing meat for the freezer. I hunt with Dad’s old Steyer and Browning today.
Just like the old pocketknife I discovered in the vest. Sharpened up a bit and polished, it will relive a boy’s adventures and dreams some fifty odd-years later. It still looks beautiful, and too boot… I actually recognize what it is. It may not be new, cool, or badass, but then… neither am I.
Thursday, March 15, 2018
This came out this last January as I wrote some sophomoric text or typing.. (writing vs. Typing...) on my website. I just needed to break free... and this emerged... Enjoy!
Art is Naked
Reflections and journeys in art and self-expression. A letter to myself.
Art is naked. Art is as naked and sensitive as we were the moment we were born. Fragile and at the mercy of a cruel world. Cold and bright and new and scary. Art is baring our souls to the world with no armor. Art is so fragile. Such a risk. Art is dangerous. Art is a hope for acceptance and joy, but a fear of rejection while naked on a stage. Art is bright, art is dark. Art is both a reflection of ourselves, and of how our expression is excepted. Mirrors upon mirrors…
Showing our inner-most thoughts and self-expression. Throwing it out there to be laughed at or… even accepted from time to time. The barriers and shields of life.. our shrouds of common existence laid bare and waste. Self-expression, putting out your inner self and fragility…
The birth of art is naked too. It exists alone, must be created alone driven by creativity bordering on madness.
Innocence of ideas uncorrupted by any other person or outside influence… of any critique.
The dangers of conformity. The voices in our heads or in others that want to change us. To make it all understandable. To be so unique as to be absurd… forced to find a voice that is not yours… or to conform to a common grouping… a classification.. you are an X artist or a Y artist. The unique but fragile voice like a child’s quavering first attempt to sing. Don’t quash it.
Without some sort of mental illness or psychological aberration, art could not exist.. the world would be black and white and boring and tasteless. Albert Camus wrote : “If the world were clear, art would not exist.”
Dangers of listening to critique. Dangers of non-acceptance or ambivalence. Learning to put on soul-armor and masks. Self examination after criticism or non acceptance. Self-loathing and the decent into despair. The Van Gough effect? Putting down the brush and pen and picking it up again because you have to. Creativity and the need to get it out. Alcohol fueled ideas and paper and canvasses crumpled, crushed concepts reborn later in new joy and clarity.
The small acceptances along the way. A kind word like a feast… like light into a dark room. Warmth on a cold gloomy day. The flowers that bloomed in your head as you walked in the hills, blossoms of ideas in shades of seasons.
Of those who don’t understand and our wanting to explain or alter our art to make it more accessible. Our final acceptance that most people couldn’t ever appreciate the subtleties in a Cézanne landscape and move their lips when or if they read Yates.
It began with the realization of who you are. I spent my youth along side my classical pianist father, and my prolific and amazing mother who’s painting brushes dripped in colors of unending talent. I was always creative, but spent so much of my life trying to be someone I wasn’t. A success. A business guy. A corporate clown. Only to have a mid-life crisis, give up my job, my career, my life, move clear across the state to a small rural town and wallow in the joys, successes and fears of creating art. The risk is naked too… It was born long ago when telling a story around the dinner table. My cousin told me I should write these things down… so I did… Badly at first. Then with more clarity and gaining a voice… I never had my father’s ear, or my mother’s brush. Instead… in the middle of my life, I discovered a pen in my pocket.
Creativity is a joy in itself. Mom would finish a painting and move on to the next idea, seldom stopping to sign or frame it. I understand. It just has to come out…. Art for Art’s sake and creativity for creativities sake is not sin or vice.
The ups and downs. The self-doubts. The heights of joy unparalleled when revisiting a creation of art and finding it perfect… at least to our minds… and just being pleased with a line drawn or written…. For the moment.. the moment is naked too.
Living for that moment….
And the confidence….
To put it out there, structured how you want like a piece of jazz only ten people will ever understand…
And meeting some of those people…
Art is life. Life is living. Living is art. Art is home.
Monday, February 12, 2018
|Gas Station flies on hand made leather fly box cover and Wolf-River rod circa 1975.|
A number of years ago I drove to the Brule’ river in far northern Wisconsin, passing through towns on the way that held memories of youthful vacations. I had not seen this landscape in almost forty years. Back in the day, the mid-1970s to be exact, our little family of three and our defective Volvo would take an annual vacation by driving to see relatives ‘Up North.’
‘Up North’ was a catch-all phrase for going somewhere rural where men went when they wanted to re-visit what it meant to be a man: away from the city… a place of muskies and trout, deer and cabins. To a ten-year old boy it was something exotic fed and conjured by elders in tales punctuated by beer and smoke with the spreading of hands and arms in measurement. My ‘reality’ of Up North was absorbed and simmered gently during the timeless hours of childhood summers reading Outdoor Life and listening to Dad. When I closed my eyes I saw rivers, smelled pipe smoke, heard winds through pine trees, and imagined groups of men wearing red and black checked wool hunting jackets.
For my mother, Up North meant time to spend painting landscapes and visiting local art and craft shops. For my father, it was a time to re-visit his dreams. He was an armchair fisherman and outdoorsman, so most of his dreams would be unfulfilled. Much later in life, I came to learn that perhaps a man with dreams is already fulfilled…
In those summers sitting and listening to him talk of the north woods, names began to be whispered: Brule’, Namekagon, Wolf, and Peshtigo. These were rivers of legend, and I can still hear Dad’s voice as we peeked through the birches and pines in our first and only glance at the rushing holy waters of the Wolf River. Maybe just attending this church by visiting was as good as participating in the worship or fishing. I never will know for sure, but Dad lowered his voice to a whisper when pointing out a rising trout to a wide-eyed and eared ten-year old. We never fished, but what I caught that day will be with me always.
As I drove through the towns again, I was out of place in time. My snapshot of Up North was decades old. I couldn’t believe how much it had changed. Most of those small hardware stores, and mom and pop places had been replaced for the most part with a plastic sameness as Kwik e Marts grew like cancers on my memories.
Back home some time later, I was going through old fly-boxes owned by a Wisconsin fisherman. Many of the flies were patterns I didn’t recognize, and with my penchant for history and old-things, that takes a bit of doing. When I say ‘Old’ it is rather relative, for most of these flies were purchased and fished during my lifetime, in fact in the very period of those youthful vacations. Old is relative, but I was alarmed by the amount of gray in my beard this morning when I shaved; like rust on those hooks of those flies…
These flies were not commercial patterns in the strict sense; they were ‘Gas-station flies.’ They were not perfect by any standard, yet some of them were. Tails were often too long or short, wings too bulky, materials set off-kilter, and heads too obese. They would never make the quality test of a modern overseas fly company today.
Maybe that is a good thing. Today flies are tied in an almost clinical perfection in Asia and Africa by people who have never seen a trout stream. That kind of perfection can be flawed in economy of scale. How many hundred dozen do you want? Regional patterns and local ties like I held in my hand slowly disappeared or became scarce in that economy. These were unique and like a mirror in time. They held a place on a map…
Back when these flies were created, every great river had a local shop. I am not talking about a modern fly-shop in any sense. These shops were often places that sold gas, bottles of cold pop, flasks of brandy and bourbon, and sporting tackle. They were small operations run by locals. In a rural economy back then, they could exist on a shoestring, or maybe by selling a few shoestrings.
When one left the city and drove Up North, one always stopped at the local shop to fill up the Buick, add a quart of oil, pick up a needed item forgotten or worn-out, and to find out the local forecast for the fishing conditions and see what ‘They were biting on.’ The guy you went to talk to always knew your name as you knew his. Norm or Stumpy would be behind the counter. The flies that were working would be in a cardboard tray on the counter. They were tied by guys that fished the river every day. They knew exactly what was working, and the patterns were made up on the spot. “The Woodcock Special’ may be a great stone-fly imitation, but it could also be because somebody’s brother shot three woodcock last week. These people hunted. Other than a few materials such as the hooks, floss, and hackle, the materials used most likely saw the front porch of a hunting cabin, and spent a few weeks in borax and salt. The flies smelled like wood-smoke and deer hair. You purchased a half-dozen of each and clipping them into the tin fly-box, knew that you had the hatch all figured out because you trusted an authentic local expert.
That word summons so many images and feelings in me as I close my eyes… because I was there. I may just have been a little punter, but little punters have big eyes. What I saw and experienced as I walked through these local ‘Sporting-goods’ stores was real, authentic, rural, honest, local. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was breathing in history along with the dust. Yes… dust. Much of the shelving was covered with a fine powdering of dust. It lay on the boxes of muck-boots, the barrel of nets, and on the tackle that was timeless. I have grown to like dust. Dust is the most authentic thing of all, for all life is made of it. To a modern retailer, these places would need a massive cleaning and refit. There were no merchandising standards other than “The hip waders are in the back aisle under the shotgun shells.” Fish mounts and old bowling trophies sat or hung crookedly. There was no product rotation, so as a kid, I could always find an old Daredevil spoon or cap-pistol that was priced sometime in the past decade, and would be cheap enough for a pestered parent to buy. If you asked for something, the owner would furrow his brows, ask his wife, and she would root through an old box and find it. It was like a kind of magic. Muskie plugs and bucktail streamers appearing out of the primordial lost spaces of dust. The clutter was beautiful…
The fly-fisher never used all those local flies, but it was always a part of consideration and good conduct that one made a purchase of a few things to support the local store. The excess flies got stored away and now sit in front of me along with a fiberglass fly rod made locally for fishing the northern Wisconsin rivers. It is an odd rod by today’s standards…
Standards that have in time made these purpose made rods look obscure…. but they weren’t.
This rod is a seven footer for a seven-weight fly line. Short and with authority. It was designed and built off a Fisher glass blank by a man who owned a local shop like this. It was and is the perfect tool for the rivers it was born on. It was designed for brushy rivers with big trout and sweepers and log hazards. Throwing big size 2 hex nymphs on the Bibon marsh at night and catching alligators of brown trout as long as your arm while keeping them out of the rushes and cattails? Here is your rod. This wasn’t the Missouri river, and not all rods had to be 9 foot 5 weights. This was a specialty rod. When we look at the history of fly-fishing, we see as we descend the map a growing myopia of fishing culture, equipment, and tactics. These were grown locally and fed on long studies and days a field. The Letort and her micro-terrestrials and the rods to match. The Au Sable and the midge rod and long boat. The Wolf and her huge trout and deep rocky runs grew the large weighted stoneflies that made the rod in front of me a necessity. Each local fishery grew in myopia then, there was no internet, and thank god for that, for if there was, Marinaro, Fox, Flick, and the other local experts would all be told that they were doing it wrong… Instead, the local tackle and flies grew in a vacuum of sorts. The river grew the fish, which grew the fishermen, who grew the fly patterns and tackle, which became part of our history and culture. Yankee ingenuity at its best.
When we hold one of these flies in our hands, we must be aware that there was experimentation here and serendipity. They were purpose-built by a tier who lived in a small cabin and traded them for gas and cigarette money. That kind of small economy and craft is what made America rich…. not monetarily, but culturally. These flies are a time machine, with rusty hooks, faded colors, and hackle chewed by bugs and fish alike, small pieces of gut and nylon attesting to memories made on the rivers. The rivers grew all of this. We are all children of rivers.
A fly is an artificial deception to the trout, but also a word that means to travel through the air. This spring, a few of these that are in better condition will do just that at the end of my rod, a fresh leader, and a fresh perspective into local history. The honesty of knowledge that led to their creation in less complicated times will still deceive the fish, but my memories from those childhood travels through the Gas station sporting-goods stores will never deceive me or fade. The hooks on these old flies may need sharpening a bit, but my memories are as sharp as ever. I can still smell the pipe-smoke and the dust….. I can still see the Wolf River through the pines and hear Dad’s voice… whispering.
Dedicated to my Father and all the other dreamers back in the day, To the moms and pops that ran these small shops, the flies and tiers, and to Joe Balestrieri, and Bob Blumreich who remember… Up North.
Copyright 2018 Erik Helm
Monday, January 29, 2018
|In the classroom|
I was beginning a day on the stream teaching a trout master class to another angler when he turned to me and asked “What is the agenda for today?”
I replied with a smile that we ‘Were going to let the river determine the agenda.’
I paused a moment…. What had come out of my mouth? After all, I was the teacher today, or was I? I decided to go with the flow, so to speak, and told the fellow angler, “I am the interpreter…. The fly-fishing translator to help solve the little challenges the river presents to us.”
“The river is the curriculum, and the course will change with every bend.”
After a successful day presenting casts and techniques to open up the hidden doors I reflected… “We all get stuck in ruts, but if we lack an agenda and just follow the river, it will take us into uncharted halls of higher learning.”
I learn every day from my teacher… the river. It is my professor of ease and difficulty, of frustration, surprise, and problem solving. The waters are my classroom. I decided to follow my new philosophy on the next solo outing.
Instead of having an agenda, and rigging up at the car, I placed no fly on the line and simply went down to the side of the stream and sat awhile. What would I learn today? The next few hours would be an open book with the chapters hidden, and the solutions and morals to be discovered. . The problems were there – the solutions are the challenge for me to solve.
I decided to fish every inch of water, and not pass up a challenge. How would I get my fly into a tangle with overhead cover hiding an undercut bank? I asked the teacher, but he just murmured back at me. I had to find the solution. After getting caught up several times, the solution occurred to me; get out of the water and walk around the obstacle and approach it stealthily from the upstream side. I was awarded with a feisty little brown trout that ate a dry fly presented with a modified roll cast with my body hidden by a bush. Only the tip of the rod ever showed over the water.
In the next run a new lesson began. This one included a large trout cruising in shallow water slowly circling and eating some sort of bug. Here I had to solve the menu as well as the presentation. I placed on an ant and shot my back-cast into a bush behind me. The lesson was clear: take inventory, and don’t get your nose so far into the book that you lose sight of the big picture of the exercise. I nodded to the teacher and pressed on.
Here was a long riffle with a single big fish rising at the head of it. It required a 50 foot cast with a left reach-mend. I was up for the challenge. I stepped forward and stripped out line and the fish stopped rising. I had placed a foot into the tail of the pool and the small fish holding there had panicked and swum helter-skelter up the run and put down the big fish. I smiled at the lesson and began to move on when I spotted a beautiful orchid growing at streamside. Here was a part of the new lesson I failed to appreciate. Take time to smell the roses. I sat on the bank and closed my eyes. A few minutes passed as I listened to the river and the breeze in the trees, the warblers and a kingfisher calling and singing. Then I heard a ‘Slurp.’ Yes, grasshopper… here was another sublime side-lesson the teacher reminded me of. Taking time to pause resets the trout, and quiets their fear. I made a good cast and missed the strike. At least I had a shot.
The lessons continued into the evening. I learned: why it is important to tie one’s bootlaces properly, not to try to wade through quicksand, when to pass up the little fish for a single shot at a nice trout. When to use a bow-and arrow cast with a weighted streamer in a tangle, when to slow down, to eliminate my shadow, and when to by-pass a problem and come back to it later.
Passing up those challenges and whatever the river serves up to us is like choosing the same math problems that you already know the answers to from a book, and calling it education. Even as a ‘teacher’, I was still learning: learning with every cast and footstep. To close my eyes, to open them, to listen to the river…
Learning by breaking the habits of our common approach, and letting the fish and the river determine what we do… We must mirror the problem with a response or solution, not force our own preferred solution on the equation. Four plus four does not equal six, so why do all of us, me included often try to present a ‘six’ for the solution to diverse problems? We may be fishing a bobber and a nymph, and an opportunity presents itself that may call for a change in the proffered answer... a dry fly or a change in position and a streamer… Do we change the answer to fit the problem and put on a proper fly for the water… or do we try to force the answer to be ‘six?’ Let the teacher tell you… listen.
My final lesson appeared to me as the sound of distant thunder rumbled… when to go home. The bell had rung… school was over for the day. What would tomorrow’s lessons be?
When we stop learning, we stop breathing. I took a deep breath of the smells of the forest, and smiled. Thank you teacher.
Thursday, January 11, 2018
I was reading a large volume on the history and artwork of Van Gogh and enjoying his letters to his brother Theo, when the name struck me…. What if Vincent was a fly-fisherman, and he wrote a letter to his brother Theodore Gordon? What if there was a bit of anachronism or time juxtaposition? What if he explored the world of art within fly-fishing… what if he was a bit mad….
There is a lot to be interpreted or contemplated in the themes Vincent touches on in his letter. Enjoy!
I hope this letter finds you well. Yes! I am working again! I am in the middle of going a bit mad tying colorful buck tail streamers. New colors! Glorious. I start with a picture in my mind, and then use the blending of the fibers to produce my palette and create a composition as a fly! Why? you are asking as you read this… Well, you know me. Always detouring on the path…. Distracted by beauty.
After all Theo, this spur of creativity is your fault! Remember when we sat on the bank of the Neversink, and after you had hooked and landed that 3 pound trout, you took your rod down and we sat sipping absinth and discussing the entanglements of art and angling?
That set me thinking Theo. Often I no longer sleep now.
What happened? We should be ashamed.
There is something brutal here. I get the impression, even if I don’t understand it, that the sport has become pure social status and no longer about nature and art.
I know you worry about me in this little room, so I walked to the stream on Monday and went fishing, and what a clarion day it was, for without the noise in my head of the marketing and materialism and the posing, I drank deep of the purity, the essence of fly-fishing.