Before Joseph became the art mecca of Eastern Oregon, its main claim to fame was that Walter Brennan had a spread there. Back in the early half of the 20th century, Walter was considered the finest character actor. He appeared in over 200 films, but being Grandpa McCoy on The Real McCoys TV show pretty much overshadowed his previous work. I remember him from that show and because he cut the saddest record of all time, “Old Man Rivers” about an old farmer and his mule. The lyrics weren’t so touching, but Walter’s voice was devastating. Old Walter is gone now and buried in California, and the storefronts of Joseph have become art galleries and artist workshops.
There is a lot of of western art, horses and cowboys. But there are other pieces among the sculptures of ropers and the paintings of barns, an occasional oddity of abstraction. I go to Joseph less to see the art than to be among strangers, to have friendly discourse with a grocery clerk who doesn’t know my father, whose friendliness is also not afflicted by some corporate model of customer service. It is a narrow window of genuine warmth, one human being to another, untainted by familiarity or greed.
My most recent trip to Joseph was in September. The drive was uneventful except for the quarter-mile trip I took down a logging road looking for a place to pee. I didn’t end up relieving myself because almost as soon as the highway behind me was screened by trees and a bend in the gravel road, I saw four men in desert camouflage fatigues huddled over the hood of one of two black hummers blocking the road a couple hundred yards ahead.
They all turned and faced me, their eyes hidden by identical wrap-around shades. The odd thing was that in spite of rifles and other obvious military paraphernalia, they were driving personal vehicles. The license plates were regular Oregon resident issue.
Their stiff, unsmiling pose made me uneasy and I backed out of there quicker than it would take to read this. It puts a chill in me knowing that the military has infiltrated the hills of my home. It feels like a violation and that may be irrational. I know people who would say the military is welcome anytime. I’m sorry, like I said, it just makes me feel uneasy. It seems like there are armed soldiers everywhere–in the airport, even an installation in Christmas Valley. All this Homeland Security and I can’t help thinking about the Arlington’s and wondering what really happened at The Restin’ Easy that night.
I found a proper toilet in Joseph and then I started wandering down the main street. I was making my way from window to window, the sun was warm, but not rude. It was peaceful. Not too much traffic, not too many tourists. My stomach was beginning to nudge me toward the sandwich back in the cooler in the trunk of my car, when I was struck by a most unusual nude. She stood there in the gallery window, brazen, naked, and rusted. Her mower blade breasts like triangles of doom, rigid, unwavering. I can’t say what I thought when I saw her. I felt a little afraid. She seemed like a prophecy, an ill omen. And I can’t say that I felt any better when I read the card propped on the teeth of a hay bale conveyor chain, which the sculptor saw fit to use to represent her legs. ‘Evengance’ metal sculpture by Donald Wicker, $2000. I’m pretty sure that Donnie will never get $2000 for this piece. Not because it isn’t good. It is too unsettling to be purchased for the home or business, which leaves museums and it is less likely that Donnie Wicker objet d’art will be sought by museum curators than that I will win the Pulitzer writing for The Germaine Truth.
But that day in Germaine, when I wandered out among the weeds behind Donnie’s shop, I was looking for him. I found piles of obsessively sorted broken machinery parts. Each pile with its own sculpture totem. Some are meant to represent humans, others could be animals, some are completely abstract, shapes, forms, strangely articulate.
Donnie Wicker might be a genius. I think it’s best not to tell anyone. But I’m a journalist and silence just isn’t my modus operandi. If Donnie is going to heat up castoff bits of metal until they melt and stick them together and hold them until they cool, and then scatter them over his half-acre and display them in Joseph windows, then he’s got to expect that someone is going to notice. I just wish he wouldn’t name them after his mother.