by Ambrose Black
His historic house casts a presence onto the rest of the block. Tall and expansive, it makes the rest of the block– groupings of smaller carpenter-style homes– almost fade away into the world. Its existence in this quiet neighborhood is clearly evident.
It sticks out as something marvelous among the mundane.
Evidence of his artwork can be seen around the outside of the house. Pieces of aged sculpture are scattered on his large, wrap-around front porch. His overgrown back yard reveals pieces of weathered furniture placed with purpose amid the vines and weeds. The house looks weathered yet cared for– a paradox contained within a structure made of mortar and bricks.
The force that emits from the dwelling fills one with a feeling of both wonder and fear.
It echoes the presence of the man who dwells within like a beacon out on dark and stormy waters.
I first met Leon a couple of months prior to our most recent encounter. Circumstance led our paths to cross. Immediately I was struck with a feeling of familiarity with him. He spoke with quiet command; confident, yet mild. His inner self could be seen on his face. I thought I was seeing a different version of my own inner person.
I quickly came to realize I was seeing a side of him he kept only for himself.
We talked like we’d known each other forever– friends from long ago in a different life.
I could understand him.
He could understand me.
I could trust him.
He could trust me.
I’ll admit, last night when I was standing on his front porch and knocking on his large wooden doors, I was nervous to be speaking with him again. Pad of paper and pen in one hand, pack of cheap smokes in the other– I stood anxiously waiting for the mysterious man to answer my knocks, all the while wondering if I should call the whole thing off and go home.
Was I intimidated? Absolutely!
To be among someone who has the ability to peer within your soul can be ferociously intimidating. I am a person who questions. He is a person who questions. Two souls with the same alignment meeting together to talk is like a cosmic force shown throughout the stars.
Leon is mystery.
Walking through the doors of his house was like entering into a home that lives outside of time and space.
It felt large and small.
Hot and cold.
Old and new.
The mystery of the house calls an adventurous person to explore. It exudes the spirit of a fantastical world from a child’s fairy tale. Everywhere you look are hidden pieces of his art. Big and small, quiet and loud; the work stands out yet feels like part of the general soul of the place. Somehow everything fits together, but it doesn’t make any sense. One is filled with the longing to seek and discover the house—as if something different could be found around any corner. The only term that comes to mind is magical.
(Art: Leon Dickey; photo: Lisa Spindler.)
The earthy smell of historic lumber and cigarettes met me as I entered. Candlelight cast shadows upon the ancient walls and sculptures. The soft beats of relaxing electronic music filled my ears. Truly, it felt like I was entering heaven. I felt like I belonged.
There we sat in his living room for hours. Chain smoking cigarettes. Passing the small glassware packed with herbs that I had brought for us. Sipping on white wine more impressive than the bottles of Barefoot I was used to.
It didn’t seem like I’d been there for hours. I couldn’t tell if I’d been there for seconds or days; as if time itself had stopped, frozen among our conversation.
Honestly, I did not know what the fuck I was doing there. Yet there I was, talking with this man I barely knew, telling him things about myself I’d never told anyone. And he was doing the same. We were open with one another. No bullshit could be found between us. We were just being, revealing truths to one another. Exposing our most inner processes.
We talked about our roles in our own lives—how we need only control the self. Only judge the self. Move on from our previous ways in order to seize a more truthful existence.
(Art: Leon Dickey; photo: Lisa Spindler.)
Then there is Leon’s art.
Tribal and destructive, his work shows a duality to his existence. Like breathing, he creates strikingly complex sculptures that exhale all of the truth within the creator. With no thought, Leon cleanses himself by revealing his truth through his art. Like an exhale of breath. Automatic, without conscious thought.
His art isn’t simply a material construct. It is deconstructed reconstructed truth placed within the confines of a sculpture or painting.
(Art: Leon Dickey; photo: Lisa Spindler)
His art is his soul.
He is his art.
He finds beauty in darkness, and darkness within beauty. He sees failures in life as stepping stones to a higher consciousness, and sees joy within them. What one would throw away, he finds as treasure. He uses the forgotten trash of the world around him to create icons of himself; organically and spiritually. He isn’t just creating an image. He is the image. They are one and the same. His artwork is a literal expression of the control he has in his life.
The control everyone has in their life.
He has to expose his truth to the world, for he is a creator. His truth is that one is in control of the self– the only judgment and choices one is responsible for is the self. His art is ironic to his truth, but purposefully and honestly. The trash he uses signifies his and our failures. But like a phoenix from the ashes, he uses the deconstruction to create something of beauty. He creates a new existence for what once was forgotten.
(Art: Leon Dickey; photo: Lisa Spindler.)
His truth is simple: Always be looking to become a better you with every passing moment. Turn darkness to light. Be God to yourself in order to put things where they belong.
Leon doesn’t create his pieces with knowledge of where they’re going. He creates knowing where things should be. He seizes control and makes anew a perfect creation unlike its former existence as thrown-away trash, or of things forgotten.
Everything has purpose, yet everything has no purpose at all.
It’s up to the viewer of the art to give it definition. To find its meaning.
(Art: Leon Dickey; photo: Lisa Spindler.)
There we sat in his living room, baked on some homegrown kush, lit cigarettes in hand, coming upon the mutual understanding that we needed each other’s expressions of what we knew to be our existence in order to make our voices heard.
I would bring into existence his voice. He would bring into existence my passion. Working together for the same good.
Isn’t it amazing how life works? In our most desperate moments, light finds a way to be seen. Up until now I have never been able to see how the pieces of my life were going to fit together to bring about some higher understanding of peace. Always awaiting the right experience to come into my life. And I always wait with hope, thinking that tomorrow may be better.
Right when we are at our deepest moment of self-doubt, someone gives us confidence.
Right when we want to quit, we’re reminded there’s light within darkness.
I recently fell in love with writing. I’m not great by any means, but I know it’s the only way I can truly express who I am. But I didn’t know what I could do with it. I wanted it to be my work, but I never saw how it would be useful. Leon has art he can’t put to words. People look to him for meaning to his work, which is something he can’t give them.
I relate to it and him enough where I can understand it. And not understand it. I get it enough where I can give it meaning that identifies with the meaning he might give it.
We needed one another. Existence caused it to happen.
All of the choices we have made, up to this point in time, caused us to meet one another. We just had to open our eyes and actually see one another for what we are.
We are unknowable.
We hold mystery.
We can’t begin to comprehend the vastness of our own existence.
We are artists. . . .
I am Leon.
At a young age I came to the understanding that everyone has their own unique existence—separate, individualized worlds—abstractly intertwined with one another. Everyone’s perspective looks different. Everyone and everything is unique. Where one may find beauty, another may find distaste. Where one sees Love, another sees Hate.
Where one may find meaning, another may find rejection or indifference.
Ever wonder why some people always seem to be drawn to the things that no one else finds beauty or intrigue in?
As a child, being entranced by the dancing smoke that would come out of the end of my Grandma’s lit cigarettes was normality for me. The smoke would spin and twirl in the most delicate of ways, but slow, like time had started to drift off to sleep. I could watch her for hour . . . chain-smoking while seated in her worn, deep blue reclining chair; my Grandma not noticing the smoke-ballet that was taking place around her head.
Ever think back to what your home looked like as a child?
I remember the small, red and pink roses surrounded by faded green leaves that made up the pattern of the wallpaper hanging in my childhood kitchen. I would trace their outlines with my fingers and take in their color, almost entranced by their statement in the room. Grandma would often tell me to stop rubbing my fingers on the wallpaper because she wanted to “keep it clean”. Never mind the fact that they were stained yellow from constant infiltration from tobacco and coming loose at the seams. To me, it was the presence of the imperfections that brought life to the wallpaper. They revealed history. They defined time.
It was a ceaseless question in my head of why people saw the world differently than I did.
I grew up in Tennessee. The town had strong ties to racial injustice not long before my time on earth began. Echoes of the past rang into the future, as they often do. Soft whispers of division were all around me, echoing the racial divide from a not-so-distant past.
Is hate ever a justified response?
Are we as people separated as a species by color or ancestry? Are we really separated by our social classes? Or, is it all a false construct; a dichotomy in place to keep all of us divided?
People are people.
Our differences are what make life worth anything at all.
My childhood cannot be painted as if it were a perfect, soothing landscape like in a doctor’s office painting.
But it also wasn’t ugly. It just was what it was. Like anyone’s upbringing, my childhood was comprised of both the good and the bad, woven together to create the being I have become.
My parents were mostly out of my life. Every now and then they would appear to say “Happy Birthday,” but that was really all I had as far as memories of them go. At least, the one’s I care to remember.
To be honest, they were both toxic people living toxic lives.
They were not different from many of us.
They made their choices.
They took their own paths.
The past cannot be changed, but we can change the way we look at it. Sometimes one must simply forget in order to metamorphosize. In their absence, my Grandma filled their void in my life. It was she who raised me. And I can’t even begin to think of who I would be if she had not. We have no control over our history but we do have control over our future.
It was my Grandma and I encountering and experiencing the world together.
She put up with me as much as any parent puts up with any child. Mind you, I wasn’t an easy kid to deal with.
Unique, you could say.
While other kids needed to be outside playing in the sun on a nice summer’s day, I needed to be inside of my own head. Daydreaming. Thinking. Creating new worlds that looked different from the one I was living in. It was in my introversion that peace was obtainable. In retrospect, it must have been nearly impossible for my Grandma to raise a child with so many introspective qualities. When I saw green, she saw orange. We viewed the world differently.
We were different people.
Young Leon was always questioning, and it drove my Grandma mad. It wasn’t out of some innate desire for rebellion.
Or was it?
Always questioning the instructed standards and rules; they didn’t (and still don’t) make sense in my head. What most would accept as truth, I required explanation to grasp what I was being told—needing to know the meaning to the standardized constructs.
Questions at school. Questions at church. All of these questions were incessantly irritating to those I was questioning. It was a never-ending rabbit hole of mystery until I came upon the understanding that constructs and rules mean absolutely nothing.
Why would we not question?
At a young age I awakened to a new way of expressing my inner-self to the rest of the world. It was and is a way that continuously shapes every decision, action, and movement within my life. I felt so much frustration as a child because I struggled to make the world see me as I saw me. To see life as I saw life. I was lost in translation.
An escape was required.
I was 10 years old and sitting in Miss Holton’s class. It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and we were having a “fun” day. The task that the teacher wrote on the chalkboard was simple. We were to make a hand-print turkey on the piece of white paper provided to everyone in class. I watched as everyone started on the project—using colored pencils to trace their hands and turn them into a turkey.
It was apparent that everyone was making the same project. Large googly eyes. Sloppily-colored brown bodies.
Some sprinkles of red, orange, and yellow here and there. No story behind the thought.
I traced my hand and stared at the outline for awhile. It was just the shape of a hand, but I needed to “see” the turkey before I started to color and draw.
Little Leon needed his turkey to be different.
Time was used to shape the head and the beak. Careful precision was executed to color the body to look feathery and ruffled. Depth was added by creating scenery around the turkey—a thoughtfully placed tree or rock. Some grass under the turkey’s feet. Colorful fall leaves spread about.
Miss Holton walked around the room to gaze upon the progress of our creations. My nerves tensed as I heard her footsteps draw closer to my desk.
Would she like it?
Would she be upset because other elements were added to the picture?
Miss Holton made her way to my desk. An inhale of her breathe could be heard as she stooped down to look at the masterpiece on my desk. I was proud of that turkey.
I remember the anxiety that young me felt as I desperately waited for her response. She picked up the picture and looked at me with a large, beautiful smile on her face.
Sigh of relief.
“This is absolutely beautiful!” she exclaimed. She held the picture up for the entire class to see and pinned the little masterpiece up in the front of the class above the blackboard. It was, in a way, my very first art installation.
The joy that the 10 year old me felt seeing his drawing displayed with honor cannot be fully described.
Finally, something was right.
I had found my escape.
The next week Miss Holton asked me to draw her another picture. “Something still-life” she explained, “Like flowers in a vase.” The request was taken with joy. I rushed home after school and scrambled to find some paper and pencils. Pencil met the paper, and I tried envisioning a vase with flowers in my head. I drew and I drew. Paper after paper. A stack of discarded sketches had grown beside me on the kitchen table. Nothing that I drew seemed right.
Mistake after mistake. Frustration was brewing.
But were they all mistakes?
Maybe they were not being viewed correctly?
A small squiggle had found it’s way from my pencil to the vase I was working on. It looked like it could be a crack.
I looked at the vase with the squiggle longer through squinted eye. . . . I liked it.
It was something different. Something imperfect. It was almost as if it needed a blemish to let it’s beauty ring through.
I continued the squiggle with my pencil and turned it into a large, jagged crack straight through the vase. Pieces of the vase were missing or lying next to it. It was ugly. It was beautiful.
A historic relic. Something with age. Something with character.
It was reminiscent of some of the items that my Grandma kept on her shelves in the family room. Things that were imperfect and broken, but things she kept safe because they had meaning to her. Iconography of her life and the things that she loved.
Excitedly, I took the completed picture to school the next day to give to Miss Holton. The picture was completed with some dark and wilted flowers that drooped over the ruined remains of the historic vase.
Miss Holton seemed puzzled.
She said that it was a nice drawing, but she thought that something bright and full of life would be more appealing. I could tell she was confused by the execution. She didn’t seem as excited as when I had drawn the turkey that still stood hanging at the front of the classroom.
At first, I was confused by her reaction. Maybe I was feeling hurt? I had thought the picture was even better than my turkey. It had more detail and creativity. It was full of life, even if it was not traditionally beautiful.
But I learned something new about myself that day.
I thought I was gratified by the way my turkey drawing received a positive reaction from the teacher and my peers.
But what was really learned was that the true gratification I had felt had come from the voice I had found. The voice that could be used to project my abstract views of existence into the noisy abyss of the world around me. I now knew that life does not always meet everyone else’s standards of perfection and beauty. We all have a different world happening inside of us. No matter the color of our skin, our age, gender, or our status, everything and everyone is sacred to someone else.
No matter of the reception it received, my art was an expression of me.
The good and the bad.
The beautiful and the ugly.
The triumphs and the failures. . . .
Art became me.
Ambrose Black: a new writer seeking to find his voice amongst all the noise.
He blogs at: ambroseblack.wordpress.com.
(Portfolio photo of Leon Dickey by Lisa Spindler. Unattributed photos are public domain.)