Every artist grapples with the elements of his medium. To a certain extent, the only question left after the work has been conceived and begun is the limit that those elements present. In painting, it was for many years the boundaries of the canvas dictating the frame within which one worked, until Modernism spat on the edge and called that residue a material. In the performing arts, the limits tend to belong to the body—physical exhaustion, the muscular failure of one's singing or speaking voice, or the possible range of motion an individual body style can command. In writing, as in any art, limits include—but are not limited to—infelicity with language, distraction, narcissism, and most often, the assumption that style alone can trump substance, that the wrapping paper is worth more than the gift. In the work of landscape artist Roy Staab, this idea is meaningless. The word limit is not in his lexicon. I learned this firsthand on a frigid, windless day in late November, after eight hours with him in a canoe.
At its essence, Staab's work is simple to describe: he makes artworks in nature from nature, using only the materials that the natural world provides. In a career spanning three decades, he has made works around the globe, from his native Milwaukee to cities such as New York, Tokyo, Borgo Valsugana, and most recently, New Orleans, where he was in residence at A Studio in the Woods. Incorporating Buddhist principles of transience and immateriality directly into his work, Staab creates ephemeral pieces at specific points in a given landscape which, while formally intricate and geometrically inspired, leave little to no impact on that landscape and last only as long as the materials themselves. His materials include reeds, grasses, twine, hand-woven ropes of hemp, stone, snow, and the earth itself. When he designs and constructs a piece—in conversation, he calls this “making a work,” a rapid turn of phrase that bespeaks his years in the practice—he sketches it out, assembles the materials, builds it, films it or photographs it, and leaves it there to fall apart or rot.
The process of actually building a work, however, is tougher to describe, especially when it involves nine fifteen-foot-or-more bamboo poles, three twenty-plus feet of hand-woven bloodweed ropes, a three-foot-deep bayou with an unstable layer of mud and silt, two canoes obtained on borrowed time, and, to top it off, a current. We began the November day in mid-morning, overlooking Bayou Bienvenue in the Lower Ninth Ward. Three young bamboo shoots, waving in the breeze as if in welcome, marked the planned location of Staab's next work, Chaise Ile. We lowered the canoes into the water—the five of us, Roy and his four volunteers—and fetched the tallest of the bamboo poles.
It's one thing to canoe down a tranquil, bubbling creek, with the sunshine overhead and a picnic basket in hand. It's another entirely to pilot that bamboo pole against a constantly moving current in search of a spot beneath the water marked only by a single shoot, then anchor the canoe with a stick while a man drives each pole into the soft mud, dislodging it and hauling it up when the angle is off-center or when the tip strikes a submerged tree trunk, the rocking of the boats and the shifting of the weight threatening to overturn the canoe the entire time. Repeat this process nine times over, and the result—along with a torrent of what might be politely termed “Navy words,” for one is, after all, on the water—is the skeleton of a piece, the scaffolding of the work that is to come.
When we finished the first phase of Chaise Ile, it was beautiful by itself: three neat sections of three poles each forming the points of a perfectly spaced triangle in the water, the warm greens of the bamboo glowing against the pale morning mist and the fog occluding the shore of the bayou on the horizon. It was almost enough to leave just there, to observe how the creation of that geometric form had—even before the rest of the work—imposed order upon nature, as Staab's work always aims to do. We feared, for a moment, that the poles would fall, but the ground he had found was deep and firm, and in the absence of a storm, the poles would hold.
We broke for coffee and for lunch, stamping our feet on the platform and greeting the cyclists that visited the area. Bayou Bienvenue, as one of the more important waterways in New Orleans, both for its history as a cypress swamp and its changing ecology after the closure of the Mississippi-River Gulf Outlet, is now a scientific research site and a tourist destination. Staab's piece originally called for a triangle of bamboo to be joined by six bloodweed ropes, the first three forming the sides of the structure and the second three meeting in the middle at an axis of shifting empty space, a form he has explored in works elsewhere. But time was not on our side: the canoes would have to be returned by close of day, and it was not clear that the first tier of woven ropes would slot immediately into place.
They did not. Back out on the water, now carrying the ropes between the two canoes—struggling to keep them from falling in, as water both weighs down and swells the fibers—Staab soon realized he had woven them too long for the sides of the triangle, and each rope would have to be taken down and hewn to size. This was not uncommon, he acknowledged: in past works, he had found that a degree of approximation was necessary, and that experience had taught him to over rather than under weave a piece in length. All well in theory. In practice, this meant the tedious work of hoisting each rope over and through a thin wire band, pulling it up and through as from a pulley, measuring once one end of a side was tied at one of the three points, steering both canoes to the adjoining point to measure how far up the rope would reach, then cutting it to size after Staab had eyeballed how far above the water it would have to suspend. Each one, by default, sagged at least a foot below the surface, but as none of the sides of the triangle were perfectly equal, and all of their sides would adjust as each was tied to the other, the length was impossible to determine before we were on the water. All this, as before, while canoeing against the current in the freezing cold, anchoring each canoe with a cut stick.
On shore, the observers—high and dry—shouted encouragement, and laughed as they caught our stray Navy words. Lunch and coffee were long forgotten as we fought to keep the canoes in place, and Staab as he wove, cut, rewove, recut, and hoisted each new piece into the sky. As the triangle slowly took shape, and the brown arc of the dried bloodweed began to create a space within the structure where none had been before, we began to understand his design. Had a mechanical engineer stumbled upon the scene, he or she would have found no complaint: the piece held, held beautifully, and by the end of the afternoon, despite a slight sag in one of the sides—which Staab labored to no avail to correct, the foundational point of the bamboo having bent too far—we gasped not at the early winter chill, but at the work that had emerged.
Staab calls the work Chaise Ile in order to evoke a sense of reclining, of resting in space, but in truth, the work requires no name. For the cyclist who happens upon it on a tour of the neighborhood, it looms like a silent compliment to the beauty of the landscape, echoing and framing the cypress snags that litter the rest of the bayou, and giving both the water and the land both a human presence and a human dimension. John Taylor, of the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, lifelong resident of the neighborhood and custodian of one of the canoes, observed that in the early morning, the sunrise casts a shadow in the center of the work that bisects it cleanly, a feature that Staab has denied orchestrating, but which, at the launch of the work a week later, he celebrated by pouring out his wine into the water.
Only Staab knows his full intentions. Those of us who served as his assistants were privy more to his mental and manual dexterity than to the contents of his innermost vision. Even as he fought against a pole or a woven rope, he teased us mightily, to a point which casual observers would have thought was offensive. Part of this activity was distraction; the banter of manual laborers who would sooner talk about anything than the job at hand, and who consequently bond through insult. The other impulse, perhaps, was compensation: it became clear as the work progressed that it would be impossible to incorporate the second tier of ropes, that they would cause the bamboo poles we had spent the morning erecting to collapse underneath their weight, and so Chaise Ile was left solely as it was.
But it was complete.
Chaise Ile can be viewed at the intersection of Caffin Avenue and Florida Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward, for as long as it stands. The author, Benjamin Morris, was the second of the five “Ebb & Flow” residents at A Studio in the Woods.