Meeting Oliver Sacks

With the passing this week of the multi-talented Oliver Sacks, I’m remembering an evening in January 2001 when he gave a talk as a distinguished guest at the university where I was a member of the faculty. I attended his talk and the reception following – as you would imagine, it was a very well attended event. At the reception I was visiting with an artist and friend from Seattle, Wesley Wehr, who asked rather casually if I’d like to meet Mr. Sacks.

And so, on this occasion, I was introduced to Oliver Sacks. Near the close of the reception, they asked if I knew of a quiet place we could visit; I offered that we could use my office since it was close by. That would be perfect! they said. For the next couple hours we visited in the quiet of my office. It was an amazing visit, mainly listening to them reminisce and talk of writing projects. Toward the end of the evening Oliver pulled out a thick manuscript and gave it to Wesley, asking him to look it over. I don’t recall if there was a title associated with that work (perhaps it was Musicfilia since it was a passion they shared), but I was in awe at being a few feet away from this unique manuscript as it passed from Oliver’s hands to Wesley’s. The look on Wesley’s face at that moment was priceless, one of surprise and utmost humility; and later he shared his concern about the responsibility of being in possession of this original manuscript.

With the passing of Oliver Sacks I’m reminded of others who I’ve had the honor of knowing, meeting, or experiencing from the vantage point of being a member of the audience. I’ve been very fortunate in this regard. Of the many exciting things about education, events sponsored by various departments, programs, and faculty, namely distinguished speakers, concerts, cinema, performances, and visiting artists, are extremely valuable and enriching to all who attend – students, faculty, and community members. New ideas in many forms are presented, often challenging the past, if not the present. I have fond memories of attending recitals at the state college, and later as a college student, it was inspiring to come into contact with ideas presented by leading cultural figures. Reflecting back over the years, as a grad student I attended lectures by Julian Levy, Ernst Gombrich, and performances by Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and others; I was in the front row of the auditorium and after he advised the audience where. to sit for best acoustics, he sat in the row with me. The sculptor George Rickey was an artist in residence who welcomed advanced students (by appointment) to his workspace to view/critique portfolios. We met a few years later at an opening at SFMOMA at which time he extended an invitation to visit his studio in upstate New York as I was planning a cross-country road trip, destination, NYC.

Distinguished visitor programs continued to be a source of thought provoking lectures and performances; and after becoming a faculty member, I was involved in a variety of programming events that committed to bringing distinguished professionals as well as emerging talents to campus. It was through these visitors’ programs that I had the extreme good fortune to be exposed to a wide range of diverse ideas. Isamu Noguchi was visiting the Pacific NW in conjunction with plans for his Sky Viewing Sculpture. I was introduced to him and again we met when he returned for the installation of this beautiful art work on the campus. When visiting Santa Barbara I attended a lecture he gave at the museum, where he recognized me in the audience, and we had a nice visit following his talk.

In the early 1970s, my colleague Larry Hanson wrote grants to the NEA that helped bring many visiting artists such as Dana Boussard, Maxine Burns, and Judy Chicago to campus for presentations and workshops. He was instrumental in bringing Robert Morris and Yvonne Rainer for performances and Rainer again for her films. Nancy Holt made many visits during the building of, and after completion of, her inspiring, monumental Rock Rings. John Coplans, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell visited following the opening of their exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Robert made several visits to give lectures and consider a proposal for an art work.

I met Donald Judd years later when he was in the northwest in preparation for one of his commissions, and on subsequent visits as it evolved. He extended an invitation to visit in his Spring Street building during an upcoming trip to NYC. Several years later we were driving across the country and planned to visit Marfa, and were invited to stay in one of the barracks guest-rooms at the Chinati Foundation,  The next morning we got up early (at Don’s suggestion) to watch the morning light illuminate the sculpture in the armories and experience the numerous installations.

Later in my academic career, it was an honor to meet and introduce Carrie Mae Weems to an audience, where she gave what I consider to be one of, if not the best lecture/presentation I ever attended.

Over many years I was enriched through these kinds of programs as well through direct contact and interactions with many of the distinguished visitors. Programs such as these were acknowledged as important. I’ve mentioned only a few of the many artists I was able to see and/or meet; a complete list is beyond the scope of this brief post.

As an aside, my evening with Oliver Sacks and Wesley Wehr was in the administrative office that I used during my tenure as chair of the department. The office adjacent to my studio and teaching was upstairs, and it was in that office where my camera was. I was conflicted about not having it with me and as I contemplated going to fetch it, I was reminded of a story my friend Deidi von Schaewen told me of a similar experience, a time she didn’t have her camera, a time when she was at a table while Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray were playing chess. It is at times like these, that one must remember to live in the moment and absorb everything without other distractions.

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