Mark Mendel

Before I was a mason I was an artist. I started writing poetry in high school and by 1975 I was painting my poems on barns in Maine and walls in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I built poems in neon, towed poems through the sky with airplanes and flashed poems on a billboard in Times Square. Was I a poet or visual artist? I have always felt corralled by labels and categories. Visual artist. Craftsman. Mason. Sculptor. Poet. Artisan. To me it is only my work and when it overflows one category and spills into another, so what?” …Mark Mendel

“Our hands got to be this way by doing certain things a long time.
The hand must still do those things or it isn’t what it can be.”
–Gary Snyder

“Well this thing where one poet published for other
poets doesn’t tempt me, doesn’t lure me, only drives
me to bury myself deep in nature’s woods, before a
rock or a wave, far from the printing houses, from
the the printed page…” Poetry has lost its ties with the
reader, he’s out of reach…it has to get him back…It
has to walk in the darkness and encounter the heart
of man, the eyes of woman, the strangers in the
streets who, at twilight or in the middle of the starry
night feel the need for at least one line of poetry…”

–Pablo Neruda, Memoirs

Made by hand the craft object bears the fingerprints, real or metaphorical, of the person who fashioned it. These fingerprints are not the equivalent of the artist’s signature, for they are not a name. Nor are they a mark or a brand. They are a sign; the almost invisible scar commemorating our original brotherhood or sisterhood. -Octavio Paz

“Seeing and Using: Art and craftsmanship,” Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature (Harcourt Brace, 1987)

…This stylistic convergence is arresting: from the Whole Earth’s communes, as from beside Walden Pond, fly chips of portable wisdom, in what has been, from Ben Franklin to Ezra Pound, one of the most persistent of American genres, the aphoristic: what a man working with his hands might generate, concentrating his reflections in the course of some practical task. It’s not a “ literary’ form though Thoreau used it as a literary base, polishing aphorisms till they sometimes resemble souvenirs. The Whole Earth apodicta are leads finished; you can watch them crystalizing, spontaneously, out of the practical information that’s the  Catalog’s business. Here is a man called Mark Mendel, one of the dozens of contributors, telling you how to build with stone:

“Stone walls and buildings. These are actually weaker than they look. It was the wood frame houses that survived the Alaskan earthquake.”

That’s the stuff of a parable, and just at this point he could swerve, if he wanted, into Thoreauvian musing. But his mind is on conveying information, and he’s soon explaining how: “Strong Beautiful wall is laid up rock by rock. No other way…Knowing which rock to choose from your pile. Like a puzzle with no two parts the same. Choosing the wrong rock means that your work comes down at your feet. (So don’t be barefoot!…)An old Maine stonemason told me that  ‘Even a round rock has a flat side if you can find it.’”

You can see this exposition weaving in and out of the zones where aphorisms are generated. You canals sense an implicit morality, prescribing an attitude to living as well as a technique. All of which I think helps account for the immense success of the Whole Earth Catalog:  far from being simply a bizarre shopping list of glassblower’s torches, Swedish looms, $50 funerals, wind-driven pumps, and books about Polyhedra, organic Gardening, Beekeeping, it’s a nubbly multi-focused any voiced meditation on what we might be doing with our lives. In short, reading matter; a kind of space-age Walden.”

— Hugh Kenner, excerpt from “The Last Whole Earth Catalog”
New York Times 1857-Current; Nov 14, 1971

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“Our hands got to be this way by doing certain things
a long time. The hand must still do those things or it
isn’t what it can be.”

–Gary Snyder

Art in nature is open to all the confused longings
and idealizations our culture lays
over nature itself. Art outdoors –
in streets, parks, gardens, or fields –
is a particularly effective vehicle
for communicating these discoveries. It can be
more intimate and accessible, closer to people’s
lives, than art seen in brutally hierarchal
buildings (museums look like courthouses,
schools, or churches) or in elegant exclusive
settings (commercial galleries look like rich
people’s living rooms) nature on some level is
still felt to belong to all of us. Art in nature or
in the local community becomes more familiar
a part of daily life, simulating though not
replicating the role of art in other times

Artists are … repossessing the means of
communication by going directly to their audiences.

There is still the possibility that when art
is accessible – not necessarily to huge
numbers, but to a cross-cultural, cross-class,
audience – some viewers will be so directly
touched by the experience that they will be
led to make esthetic personal or political
statements of their own

Lucy R. Lippard
Excerpt from the introduction to Overlay 1983

Zen Master Seung Sahn’s Memorial Unveiling





Mark Mendel

Mark Mendel at Getty Gardens,  Los Angeles, 2004. Photo credit: Anne Bray