I’ve been thinking about this for a day and a half, since I woke up to the news Monday morning, trying to find the right words for all of the thoughts and feelings in my head.
I still don’t know if I have the right words. This is going to be a little fragmented. I’m still trying to sort out all the things I feel.
There is sadness, obviously, but there’s also a little guilt along with it – like, what right do I have to feel this way? I wasn’t his sister, I wasn’t his best friend, this tragedy doesn’t belong to me. Why does it feel like this?
But it does feel like this.
* * *
“In the universe – just like in music, or architecture, or relationships – the absence, the space between, is just as important as the observable, tangible things.”
I wrote this play on a month-long artists’ residency in the summer of 2011 at an artists colony in East Haddam, Connecticut, called I-Park. I was the only writer in a group of seven artists from all over the world. There was a Dutch performance artist. There was a jazz musician from Brooklyn. There was a multimedia installation artist from Korea.
And there was a tall, balding goofball who created what he told us were “site-specific art installations” – words that at the time meant nothing to me – until the night we all gathered around for “show and tell” to share with the rest of the artists a little bit more about ourselves and our work and whatever it was we had come to Connecticut to create. And that was when I think we all fell a little bit in love with Cameron Hockenson.
I know I did.
My entire artistic career, up to that point, was a series of staged readings of plays in progress in coffee shops and warehouses around Portland. But Cameron had made an arched wall out of recovered limestone in Cassis, France. He made a series of floating sculptures off the coast of Greece shaped like classical amphorae. He made huge rope-and-burlap hornets’ nests that hung from the trees of a forest in Italy. He made a “bird condominium” in California, a vast assortment of birdhouses sized for all manner of different birds, with “a solar powered radio system which detects the pitch and song of cavity nesters and chirps back air traffic warnings in Morse code.” He made a sculpture celebrating the rice farming agricultural cycle for the Ginkgo Festival on Shikoku Island, Japan. His summer project this year was a sculpture commission for the green roof of Frank Gehry’s new Facebook Campus Headquarters.
He was quite simply one of the most astonishing people I have ever met in my life.
Almost every night, me and Cameron were the last ones in bed. We would all have evening coffee together in the common room, sitting around on the couches and talking about how our projects were going, and then slowly all the early-to-bed-early-to-rise contingent would trickle off one by one, until it was just me and Cameron, talking about art and life until two in the morning. Then I’d stumble off to bed with my head full of thoughts and ideas, wake up the next morning when I smelled fresh coffee, and then sit down to write.
The best way to convey to you how much Cameron and those other artists shaped the play that became Dear Galileo is to tell you what I wrote about him when I first got home. In July 2011, a few weeks after I got home from Connecticut, I was asked to blog about my experience on the residency for 2 A.M. Theatre, and this was what I wrote:
Cameron and I used to stay up until two in the morning, drinking wine and talking about art and life and politics and relationships and family and religion and the world. On the surface you’d think our art forms had absolutely nothing in common. While I was writing in my studio (“writing” being an activity that encompassed such tasks as drinking endless pots of coffee, listening to my iTunes playlist of Songs About Outer Space, looking up “Higgs Boson” and “How do creationists explain dinosaurs?” on the Internet, and desperately trying to avoid being distracted by Facebook), he was out in a field on a ladder hammering planks of wood together and creating this.
But the more we talked about our art, the more we realized that we were doing the same thing with different tools. We had a conversation one night that I found so interesting and inspiring that I worked it into the play. It was early in the process, so I was knee-deep in research and fragments of scenes and bits of dialogue, trying to turn a kitchen counter full of raw ingredients into a reasonably edible dinner, and Cameron was asking me about my writing process. He asked me, “What’s the hardest part of writing a play?”
“Cutting it,” I told him. “I write like I talk, so everything is too long.” I told him about how I usually finish a whole draft, have a panic attack about how long it is and how bored the audience is going to be by intermission, curse my lack of talent, contemplate throwing myself down a well, and then finally suck it up, get out my red pen and start chopping. I told him I’m constantly at war with my tendency to say everything, to spell it all out JUST SO NOBODY MISSES ANYTHING IMPORTANT, and then I have to go back over and over and over to prune stuff out and leave room for the actors to, you know, act.
He looked thoughtful. “It’s funny, that’s kind of what I’m doing right now,” he said. “I have this design for my sculpture and I really like it, but I always have to make sure I’m thinking about the empty space. I don’t want it to be –”
“Yeah, cluttered. The space between is really important. I have to look at it like I’m sculpting the emptiness too. It’s just as important as the stuff you can see.”
The more we talked about working with empty space in our projects, the more we realized that, actually, that’s what everyone was doing.
Bruno was working on one project where he submerged white paper into water with ink in it to create watermarked lines; it was the whiteness – whether there was more or less of it, how far it extended, how distinct the line that separated it from the gray – that defined the visual impact of each space. And Brett was working on an electronic music composition where he recorded pieces on the trombone and keyboard and then digitally manipulated them, looping, reversing, reshaping, distorting, and layering the sounds to create a composition. In music, it’s the space between that gives us rhythm.
Everyone had a different medium – what I was doing with words, Cameron was doing with nails and lumber, Bruno was doing with paper and ink, and Brett was doing with a trombone. But everything we created was defined by the space between.
So as I find myself buried in notes, research and revisions for the second of what will no doubt be many, many drafts, that’s what I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about the reading I did at our Open Studios event at the end of our residency, where I performed an excerpt of my play while standing inside Cameron’s sculpture. I’m thinking about my empty space inside his.
I’m thinking about white paper and black ink, about the notes of a trombone floating through the air down the garden path and into my writing studio.
I’m thinking about a big wooden arch made of wooden planks assembled with a pattern that seems random, but is in fact anything but; where the negative space is perfectly considered and there’s just enough of it.
I want to write a play like Cameron builds a sculpture, where someone can stand inside it and create something that’s completely their own.
I would still have written a play about astrophysics at I-Park in June of 2011 whether Cameron was there or not, but that play wouldn’t have been Dear Galileo. It wouldn’t have been a story about an artist who makes things with her hands. It wouldn’t have been a story about how art and religion and science and music and all the things that make us human are connected. It wouldn’t have begun with a story about the way the universe and our lives are shaped – like the negative space between planks of lumber in Cameron’s sculpture, like the silences between notes in Brett’s music – not only by the things that are there in front of us, but the things that don’t exist.
The first public performance of Dear Galileo took place at Open Studios on the last day of the residency. I read three of the monologues from the play while standing inside Cameron’s sculpture, underneath the wooden arch – and its negative space – that shaped the play as I was writing it. The thing that I made and the thing that Cameron made were inextricably connected to each other.
I’ve been thinking about Cameron and Brett and those other artists a lot lately. It would be impossible not to. Dear Galileo‘s world premiere production opened three weeks ago in Portland and we’ve been playing to sold-out houses and enthusiastic audiences. By the time it closes, nearly a thousand people will have seen it. And every night as the lights come up and I hear those first lines – every single time – I flash back just for a second to that afternoon in July 2011 when I stood in my yellow dress under a wooden arch made by the most brilliant person I’ve ever met in my life and read for the first time ever the words of the play that he – and the others – helped me to write.
I know it isn’t logical to feel guilty that Cameron died while I was having one of the best weekends of my life, celebrating this play’s success – but I do. It makes everything feel very bittersweet now; I’m proud of the thing I created, and thrilled that it’s doing so well, but I’m never going to be able to watch it again without a pang in my heart for that adorable goofball genius and his twenty-five-foot wooden arch in the middle of a field where Dear Galileo was born.
I happen to own a framed, signed Cameron Hockenson original drawing, which now hangs on the wall in my house. It’s called “Poppy” and it’s even on his website – part of a collection called Specimens (pen and ink on paper, 2011). Cameron had a new idea during our last few days at I-Park to collect leaves from all over the property, create incredibly detailed pen-and-ink drawings of them, then replaced the real leaf with the drawing and photograph it in its natural habitat. One day we had a minor scare over a gas leak and the I-Park staff told us all to grab whatever we needed from our studios and go hang out at the far edge of the property while they waited for the fire trucks. (Everyone’s choices were fairly illuminating – Brett brought his trombone and his skateboard, Jung-Ki brought his camera, Bruno ran back into danger to get his bag of chips. We mocked him at the time but were grateful later, when we got hungry.) I brought my laptop but didn’t use it; I sat on the grass and watched Cameron draw leaves. “After your project is done, can I keep one of the leaves?” I asked him. I think he was surprised that I wanted it so badly. I think I was a little surprised that I wanted it so badly. But I really, really, really wanted one of those leaves. I really wanted to take home something that Cameron had made with his own hands.
And so, on the last day of the residency, he put it in my hands. “Poppy” by Cameron Hockenson. Pen and ink on paper, 2011 – with a note on the back, and splotches of orange from setting it down on the workstation table where Jung-Ki’s colorful ink-dye project had taken place. I carried it home between the pages of Sense & Sensibility, in my purse, so nothing would happen to it. Then I framed it and hung it over my writing desk, where I could look at it every day.
I don’t remember if I ever told him that I framed it. I hope that I did. I do know that when he gave it to me I squealed with delight and hugged him and kissed him on the cheek and he looked at me like I was a crazy person.
Just knowing somebody like Cameron made me feel like a cooler and more interesting person. Just knowing that somewhere out there was a tall, goofy genius making sculptures out of wood and stone and transforming the natural landscape from California to Greece with his creativity made me feel like the world was a cooler and more interesting place. I felt humbled to have been part of a group that had included somebody with a mind like that. I felt lucky to own a thing he had made with his own hands and then given to me.
I feel even more lucky to have it now.
* * *
Cameron built things with his hands, made of wood and metal and stone. That was how he entered the world and made sense of it.
I’m a writer. I tell stories.
These are the stories about Cameron that I remember.
I remember the night we all drove out to a small-town Connecticut dive bar where Cameron turned out to be unexpectedly amazing at pool. And yet, as with everything else about him, he seemed to lack any consciousness of how amazing he was; it was hilarious to watch him make a great shot and then kind of mutter to himself, “Oh. That was an accident. I was aiming for the other one . . . Well, okay.” As though he were at the mercy of the forces of nature, and winning against his will. He was also a remarkably patient teacher; Jung-Ki and I sucked the most, so Ed coached Jung-Ki and Cameron coached me while we battled for who was the marginally less terrible pool player. Then we moved onto darts, and after five out of my six darts found themselves embedded in the wooden wall paneling, Cameron took over as my coach again. Eventually I got three darts to actually hit the dartboard, which by my standards was a bullseye. Cameron was very proud.
I remember the picnic we had at Devil’s Hopyard State Park. I remember that I was scared of the rushing water and the rocks, and stayed mostly in the shallows, but Cameron wasn’t. He dived right in and waved to me from the other side of the waterfall.
I remember that when they showed him how much stone and scrap lumber they had in the warehouse for him to use, he was like a kid in a candy store. I remember that he wore a dorky old-man’s khaki bucket hat in the sun. I remember that he was a good cook. I remember that I-Park’s common room DVD collection skewed towards Serious Art Films, and Cameron was thrilled to learn that I had packed Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I remember the day his sunglasses broke and he wore one half like an eyepatch and told me to call him “Pirate Cameron.” I remember the night he walked into the common room one night while some of us were watching Burlesque on Bruno’s laptop and sat down to watch the second half of it with us, in utter befuddlement, as though it was a documentary about an alien species. (“What’s happening? Why are they mad at her? Why is Cher losing her business? Who’s that guy?” “We’re not watching this movie for the plot, Cameron.”)
I remember the afternoon that I walked back from my studio to the house for lunch and stumbled on Cameron taking a break from his sculpture to make a site-specific art installation by hanging hula hoops from the trees in the back yard. I went back to my studio, got my laptop, and spent the rest of the day writing at the picnic table, watching him rubber-band hula hoops together and tie them at various heights all over the yard. “Is this part of your project?” I asked. He shrugged. “No, I was just eating my lunch and I saw the hula hoops . . .”
I remember that we took a field trip to the beach and while the rest of us were splashing around in the water or laying on the sand relaxing, Cameron disappeared to go exploring and returned like three hours later to drag us all off and show us all the cool stuff he found. I resisted mightily, because I had been napping, and also I had not packed “hike through the woods and climb over boulders” shoes, I had only packed beach flip-flops. But without Cameron, we never would have seen the old stone lodge with its huge open terrace, built in 1936 by the Works Projects Administration. We would never have found the spot where the huge orange tiger lilies grew in vast heaps, everywhere, like weeds, or the place where you could peer through the shrubbery and look down the hill to see the colorful rainbow of beach umbrellas spread out in the distance, or the big rock formation full of little tidepools where you could sit at the edge of the world and look out forever over the water. I would never have seen any of those things if Cameron had not come back from his walk, poked me with his hiking stick, and said, “Come on, come on, I have to show you guys what I found!”
When I heard that Cameron had been killed in an accident, sketching and photographing a steep and rocky part of the coast in Carmel, it was that day at the beach that kept circling back through my mind over and over again. How I was afraid of falling, because I had worn the wrong shoes and didn’t want to climb all over huge slippery boulders in my crappy plastic beach flip flops, how much easier and more comfortable it would have been for me to stay down there on the shore. But Cameron just barreled on ahead. Because there were beautiful things to see, and he wanted the rest of us to see them.
It will never be okay that Cameron Hockenson is gone. It will never be okay that we didn’t get to see the next extraordinary idea that was building up inside his crazy genius brain. Or the next. Or the next. But it feels fitting, in some strange way, that capturing the beauty of the natural world so he could show it to the rest of us was the last thing he was doing. That he died looking at something beautiful.
Before he took off on his hike that morning – before he discovered the amazing ocean view and came back to show us – I watched him draw silly pictures in the sand with his hiking stick. There was a sketch of a little cottage nestled in hilltops. There was a square labeled “MINE! TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED!” which he would not let the seagulls land on. There was series of abstract swirling shapes.
And then last all, before he hiked off to go find beautiful things to show us, he wrote “Remember 7/10/11 Forever” in big letters in the sand.
Then the two of us stood there and laughed as the waves rolled in and swept it away.