Journal of Michael Baum / Travels of an Artist

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Vertigo

Saturday, 4/21/07
I'm standing on a narrow ledge with a 50 foot drop at my feet preparing to step across an empty gap where the ledge has fallen away almost completely. My head swims with vertigo. How did I get here?

We had started out that morning from our camp near Polly's Island deep in the Grand Gulch in southeast Utah, hiking the sandy stream bed, sheer sandstone walls soaring above us, hemming us into the world of the canyon. Grand Gulch is alive with the dead—ghosts of the Ancestral Puebloan people who once lived here—the Anasazi. Their rock art adorns the cliff walls. Their dwellings and other structures grow like natural formations in the deep alcoves.

We had already explored several sites with our friends from the Colorado Archaeological Society, trying to increase our understanding of the people who lived here and taking stock of the condition of the sites. Even this remote canyon sees visitors, and not all tread lightly. And we are here to immerse ourselves in the beauty and solitude of this wild place.

Now we were following an obscure foot path climbing through a jumble of boulders. Our goal was a high ledge sheltering some almost perfectly preserved structures, the best we had seen. They were still covered in mud plaster grooved with the finger marks of their builders.


 


 


Mike & Patrice out on a ledge (photo by Paul Hanke)

  Ahead was a large sandstone slab leaning against the cliff. The path disappeared behind it. And on the other side, a narrow ledge leading to our goal. This is where the vertigo kicks in. I often experience vertigo in situations like this. I get dizzy, disoriented, and fear tingles through my body until I can barely feel my feet. This is not a good thing on a narrow ledge. My first thought: No way I'm crossing that! But I want to see those structures. I go on.

Behind the rock is a deep gap. I step across onto a chunk of rock. Beyond is the ledge with the gap and a long drop. The cliff overhangs the ledge, bulges out slightly, so that you have to lean back a little as you cross—forcing you toward the tipping point that will launch you off the ledge. I imagine falling. I can feel myself falling. I can feel that instant of white-hot panic as I lose my balance and tip over backward into the void. One of my friends already across the gap beckons, "Come on, it's easy." Yeah, easy for you I think. Your world isn't spinning around. I have to get a grip.

I calm myself until the dizziness dissipates. I can feel my feet again. I sling my day-pack over to my friend, take a long breath, focus, and step out, hugging the rock, tilting backward.

Then it's over. I'm across. It was easy. We continue along the widening ledge to our goal. I felt great, like I had taken a great risk and earned the reward of going on to greater things. But, for me, the real reward was just crossing the ledge. I felt ready to take on the world. And crossing back was easy.

Okay. What does this have to do with being an artist? Later that day I was painting some watercolor sketches (making a mess really) and contemplating the day's adventure. It struck me that what I had done on that ledge was act out a perfect metaphor for the painting experience. During the course of a career and often during the course of a single painting, an artist will glimpse something ahead that he wants bad. He will see how his work could be if only...and there is the gap at his feet. And the fear of crossing, of trading something "good enough" for a chance at creating something extraordinary. If you take the step, you might fall, ruin a painting, get lost. But  you won't die. And who knows, if you cross enough gaps, if you hang your ass out over the void enough times, you might actually do something extraordinary.
 

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