Published as an introduction to the book LSD Worldpeace by Joe Roberts, Unpiano Books, 2015.
Some families seem to live forever. Parents, grandparents, great grandparents sit smiling on stiff floral couches at yearly reunions, the fruits of their labor milling around with red plastic cups and beer bottles, children with sticky faces run screaming across lawns. They make big pots of spaghetti and cut up loaf after loaf of bread. They give speeches. To Grandma's 90th, to good health, to good luck. They call on the weekends, they send out newsletters. But in some families, like ours, death looms around like a distant relative. Death, death, a shadow lying listless in a corner, holding his plastic cup, waiting for a swing of moods and circumstances to join the party again. Uninvited and often untimely, but ultimately inevitable.
When death lives at your doorstep, you learn to regard it in a different way. If you are open to it, you can transform the idea of death. Remove it from it's religious and societal implications. If you are open to it, death becomes no longer a finite and regimented experience. It is an illusion. It is transcendence. In the midst of life we are in death. "You are already dead." And so, in families like this, if one adopts the right attitude, we will miss and we will cry and we will mourn and we will cry, but ultimately, we will explore. Explore the divisions between the tangible and the perceived, explore that act of breaking through to other planes of reality, other realms of existence. Dreams. Drugs. Manipulation of childhood objects and activities, our connections to the people who've moved past our everyday reality. We will represent them in our actions, their lives pulsing through ours.
It was our grandfather who taught us to make art. A spry, skinny, Hungarian-American war veteran, he lived on McDonald's coffee and stiff bananas. The jokester. The trickster. In a Native American legend, he would be the coyote, all sly grins and twinkling eyes. His face looked like it had been carved out of wood. A moustache to twirl and a full head of silver hair hidden beneath his black cap. Or was it navy? And those stiff stiff pants and threadbare shirts. Strong hands and a soft heart. Stephen J. Vasy.
Stephen had lived many lives, but the one he lived with us was the loving family man, the born again artist. Taking up residency in a local University's art department and print shop, he reinvented himself as a multi-media master. Time spent with Grandpa was a lesson in creativity and introspection. To teach art is to encourage the exploration of the self. So we thought about what we were interested in, what was important to us, and we scratched line drawings of dogs into copper etching plates and smudged acid across lithograph stones. Each visit from Grandpa presented a new tool, a bouquet of supplies. Bricks of clay and stacks of watercolor paper, boxes of pastels and charcoal and pots of paint, and tucked in between, warm apple pies from his last trip to Mickey D's.
But the real supplies we were encouraged to use didn't come from the store or the leftover stock he lifted from school cabinets. No, he was a found objects enthusiast. Any garbage can was ripe for the picking, and dumpsters were treasure troves of sculptural accessories. We combed the shores of Lake Michigan, searching for aptly shaped chunks of driftwood and sea glass, tied them together with bits of colored wire and painted faces and fingers on them. We spent afternoons scanning sidewalks for candy and cigarette wrappers, slicing them into strips and mushing them, glue-dipped, on chunks of mason board. A bar code became a moustache, a grassy field bloomed Newport green.
Among a handful of grandchildren, Joe was the only boy. A golden child, carrying Grandpa's middle name and his carefully hidden favoritism. It was Joe that got to hop into the dumpsters, Joe that received secret instructions in shoplifting. And it is in Joe's work that we can best see this influence of family, and this deeply veined exploration of the afterlife, the sublime. Childhood caricatures mingle with one another in cavernous hallways and catacombs, float weightlessly in starry skies. Watches stop, time stops, time circles around and we are back at the beginning. Back to what we share with the ones who are gone. Gone but not gone.