Bring Me the Oar!

A letter to my father.

You and I have always loved water, and share an affinity with boats, ships, and water-faring vessels.  I remember when I was a teenager, we went to the Wooden Boat Festival and picked up pamphlets about a school where a person could study to become a shipwright. I loved working with my hands, the feel of wood, the idea of the seaworthy, and the twin senses of adventure and fear raised by the prospect of a voyage. I was pretty certain I knew what I would be doing next, but life changes and we wind down other paths.

People don’t want to die. It is hard to be there when someone you love is dying, but I would not dream of being anywhere else. I remember, it was only a few days before your last one with us, although we could not have known it then. We were talking in the living room, where you now spent all of your days and nights in a hospital bed. You had asked me to bring the picture of “mum” where you could see it, a photograph of Kinuko Takatani, my grandmother and your mother-in-law. It was a black and white photograph I had taken many years ago, a few weeks before she passed. I placed her next to the photograph of your own mother, the one Julia had taken. You seemed content to have these two together, and within sight.

We were sitting like this for some time, you in the bed thinking, and me on a chair dozing. You asked me, what are we going to do with all of our things? I asked, these things? indicating the objects in the room. You said, yes, if we are leaving, what should we do with all of our things? I said, I don’t think we need to do anything, we can leave them right here, we aren’t going to be needing them.  Then you asked me, how are we going to get there?

I will never forget this moment, trying to imagine what you were seeing when you said there. I knew you were talking about a place outside of this visible world, someplace on the other side of the thin veil that separates us from the rest of the unseen and unknown world.

How are we going to get there? I asked. Yes, you answered. I thought about it a moment. Since we won’t be taking anything, I guess we can travel however we want, I said. I began to list the more usual ways of travel – well, you love a road trip, I said, we could drive there. We could be bored and cramped and take a plane, or we could take a train and watch the landscape go by. Or, we could set forth by boat. You were liking these options, and as the mood felt playful, I suggested, we could even drift away on a cloud! We had a little laugh at this, and you went quiet.

I reflected on all the trips we had taken together and the ones you had taken with mom. You always preferred to drive or go by land or water. We had been all over the country in a car; you had traveled by train, and by ship across two seas, to Europe and to Australia.

You lay there thinking, maybe you were remembering these same journeys, or maybe you were imagining the terrain of the unknown place we were going, a place only you could see. Finally you looked at me and asked, how would you go? I just smiled and said, you know me dad, I love boats. I would go by boat! A sailboat, or a steamship, or a rowboat, or maybe a canoe. You smiled back and said, that sounds good.

Evening fell and we were gathered in the living room.  I had made arrangements for mom to have a night off. You remember, by those days she was always sleeping on the couch and looking pretty tired. Sometimes she would agree to sleep in her bed and I would sleep on the couch, to be there should you need anything.  You eventually fell asleep, and I settled down on the couch for the night.

Bring me the oar! you called out. I woke suddenly, leaping from the couch. Your eyes were open and you were looking upwards. I came to the bedside. You were looking right at me, but I was not sure if you were really seeing me. I knew what you were asking for. I laid my hand on your arm and your eyes closed, and you returned to sleep, or to whatever world you already had one foot in.

I have thought every day of this since you’ve been gone, of you calling out, bring me the oar! I think about how I should make you one. And how I would like to make you a boat, too.

I know it has been over a year since you asked, but look, here, I have started it. It is carved from cherry, a tree you loved to look at in blossom in the spring and to enjoy its delicious fruits at harvest time. Do you remember how we would go to the orchard and pick them by the bucketful? You always ate so many, saying cheerily, “one for the bucket, one for me”.   It was always cherry season during O-bon. Mom would pack our suitcases full of double-bagged fresh cherries and we would have to squeeze in our personal belongings around them. Remember how we would bring those cherries to Hawai’i and everyone was always so happy to eat them! We had already eaten our fill, and would be looking around for their mangoes and pineapples and papayas and apple bananas and jabon and avocados.

This year, I missed you so much. We all did. We sewed our yukatta together. I made your boat of bamboo and kozo; Karen helped me. We sent it to sea from the Big Island. We celebrated your hatsubon. We placed your remains in a wooden box we knew you would love, and settled you in at Punchbowl. You would have approved of the 21-gun salute.

When I returned to California, I found this cherry wood. It was late July and just a few days before your birthday. I had it cut to my height, and began to carve. I have not forgotten.

I am bringing you the oar.

September 2016


The Fox

It's been a sad week, seeing so many animals struck on the road. The intoxication of spring has perhaps made them too lively to remember the danger of humans. This sweet fox was warm when I went to pull her off the road. I never understand how people can hit an animal and keep driving. I felt she needed a burial, but first I made a memorial imprint. It's not an ideal day for cyanotypes, the sun dips behind clouds and the wind blows everything all over. The lizards and hummingbirds and my bird crush, the Pacific flycatcher, are here to keep the spirits up. Later Kate  will come over and we'll bury the fox on the hillside with a view facing west.


The Buck

I'd like to share another story. I told you about the fox, but not about the deer. It was May Day, and I was driving home over the mountains. The view was splendorous as always, mountain ridges fading into shades of melon, pink pearl, and lavender. I caught sight of a doe on the far side of the road. She was looking around, bewildered. I slowed down as one deer usually means another is near. As I rounded the bend a car was driving around something in the road. I saw the deer lying there. I turned around to pull it off the road. As I approached the deer, he panicked and tried to stand up but stumbled, eyes wide and wild, until he collapsed again. I walked up slowly, "it's okay baby, let me come to you", I said over and over. I wrapped my arms around his chest and heaved. He was a large young buck, with fuzzy new antlers, and heavy. Finally, we got near the turnout. He struggled to get up and I saw his hind leg broken, twisting grotesquely to the side as he crumpled into a heap. I was torn, should I leave him alone? I knew my presence was agitating him. I straightened out his broken leg and placed him in what I imagined might be a natural position to lie down. Froth and blood were starting to run out of his mouth, and his tongue hung slack. I sat on the ground and stroked his head, neck, chest. He moved his front leg and it landed on top of my left thigh. I stroked his leg, and head and touched his fuzzy antlers. The sky turned a deep blue and Venus blazed on the horizon. I imagined spring love, and that he had been with the doe around the corner. I wondered where she was now. I watched the sky, trying to transfer its beauty into the last moment of the buck's life. Then, he kicked and kicked and heaved enormous breaths, tossed his head up, spirit rising...Was his chest still moving? Why is the moment of death so hard to mark? I said a prayer and returned to the car. I was struck by this view of “deer in the headlights”. My camera was on the passenger's seat. I set it on the dash and made this image. I am not sure it honors the buck's life, but perhaps telling the story does.


Remembering (or not forgetting)

There is, of course, more to the story. I hope this image does not bother you. After holding the buck until his death, I continued home, saddened and numb. As I turned the last corner on the dirt road up to my home, an owl flew across the ridge. The islander in me paused at such an omen and I felt a chill in my bones. As the lightness of its wings disappeared into the trees, it turned into warmth for how much I admire these creatures. I wondered, is this the same owl I heard the other night? On Sunday, on the full moon, the pink moon, the peony moon? I had been moonbathing on the deck with a glass of wine when I heard the comforting whoo-whoo, which was answered by the chirp of the pacific flycatcher, who sounds like he's saying, "Over here! C'mon over here!". It was a surprise to hear that call as the hour was late. His call is irresistible, and I have quite a crush on him. All this made me smile, despite the complex feelings of the day.

Last night, we buried the fox. At dawn today, I passed through the misty valley on my way to San Francisco to get on the plane-where I am now writing-to go to Colorado for an exhibition. I began to think about my last moments with my father, how when the time was getting near, I was sitting and looking into his eyes. When my mother and sister came to the bedside, I moved down the line to make room for them, as I am the youngest. I kept touching his arm, his leg. We kept telling him everything was okay, and that he could go, and that we loved him. It seemed like this went on forever. This time too, like with the buck, it was uncertain where the breath ended and when the heart stopped. And then, the agonizing seizure of the body. The transference from life to death, the shell of the body dying, violently. It is a moment I can never forget, although many times I wish I could. Time passed, and later, it was peaceful, being with him. My mother said, make a picture. Here is one.


The Squirrel


I was feeling increasingly irritated walking up the road. Nothing about it was peaceful. Cars passed constantly, and every five minutes a dump truck barreled by. It was garbage day. The truck would pass me, clanking and rattling, and leaving behind the stench of decay. Then I would catch up to it as it collected garbage, pass it, and then again, it would pass me. It would happen like this, a leapfrog, as the heat of the sun beat down. I was hugging the edge of the road, trying to take note of the trees, the light, and the plants around me, attempting a walking meditation, but instead, the lingering smells of garbage and diesel, the roar of engines and the squealing brakes of massive construction trucks. I was thinking about J and his dispassionate nature towards me, and ­how I wished I had stepped away from him that very first night we met, under the full moon. I learned everything I needed to know then, but I was seduced by the moonlight and continued forward until it came true and I’m left with the same lesson I can’t seem to learn. Maybe that lesson is to stop moving towards, but to remain still. It was then that I saw the squirrel. Its head was crushed into the asphalt, but its body intact, a slender string of entrails fanning downhill. It was fresh, and I could smell both the blood and the shit. I pulled the bag of cyanotype paper out of my backpack. I would make my first imprint of this walk here, on the road, not of leaves or stones, but of death. A metaphor for the thoughts filling my mind. Perhaps the squirrel, too, should have remained still. But, like myself, that is against its nature. I placed a sheet under its paw. Then I placed another under its tail, where it curved elegantly along the edge. I stepped back, looking, and thinking where to place the third one. I always prefer things in threes. It was then that an enormous dump truck came towards me. As it gained speed upon descent, I stepped back another few inches. The wheels ran right over the squirrel, squeezing its guts across the paper and into the air, fluttering down the road. I stood there with my mouth open and my arms stretched wide. The rush of air and blood so close, I looked down, imagining pieces of intestines clinging to my bare thighs.

You poor thing. I could no longer make out your tail, there was no real recognizable form left of you. I stared at you for a long time, squirrel. I had meant to make your imprint in respect of your life. I dug into my backpack and pulled out my bag of snacks, emptied it, placed the two sheets of paper inside, and sealed the bag. I carefully tucked it into a dark pocket inside my backpack, put it back on, and continued my walk uphill.

Going up to Overlook Tower, Catskill Mountains, New York
26 July 2017


Preparing for Death

You: There is power here and it will kill and give life.
Me: I wonder which will happen first, death or life?
You: They are both immediate. Which do you choose, life or death?
Me: Is there a choice?
You: I think we best be prepared for both. Life prepares death, death prepares life.
Me: Well then, I have prepared well.
You: You are prepared, but surprise is always surprising.


Waterlines | Tomiko Jones + Jonathan Marquis


Approach the sea.
Light matters. Time matters.
Disperse patterns of sand and stone.
Pour water. Spray water. Submerge.
Submit to the elements in a layered ecology.

Water is a tangled history. After more than five years of severe drought in California, this year’s winter storms brought an incredible amount of rain and snowfall. Come spring, the unprecedented precipitation brought relief to the drought stricken region, but along with the water came a new set of concerns: floods, infrastructure damage, cracking dams, and overflowing reservoirs.

Waterlines is a response to the urgencies of water in the age of extreme weather and climate change. How do shifts in weather and the fluctuation of scarcity to abundance shape the climate of behavior? When and where does it become personal?

In the polarities of too much and too little, photographer Tomiko Jones and painter Jonathan Marquis, wrestle with the tangibility of the elusive element of water. The fluid is so factual as it flows from a faucet or is contained in plastic bottles, yet so mythic, powerful, and destructive. Its immeasurable extent is impossible to grasp.

A series of cyanotypes, created on-site in an intensive two-week collaboration in Northern California, thread together a correspondence of water and human activity. The immediacy of the cyanotype engages both photography and painting, presenting an appropriate medium to collaborate and examine the issue of water.

The works began with a 4x5 field camera to document sites of water containment, regulated flow, and public use. The locations follow the winter floods after years of drought from mountain to reservoir, to river and finally, to sea. The negatives from the field camera were then exposed onto cyanotype sensitized paper. Next, a second layer of cyanotype solution was painted on top and around the existing image, and brought to the transitional shore of the Pacific Coast. Here the works were completed in collaboration with the sun, sand, rock, and sea.

July 2017