1994, Transport

I feel lucky that in the four summers I was a lifeguard I only had to make one save. And it was an easy save. While guarding the pool known as the “middle pool” – primarily for 4-6 year olds and running only two to three feet deep – a girl was bouncing along toward the deeper end and lost her footing. A brief slip and her head was under and she did not know how get her feet back under her. And seeing the terrified look in her eyes I knew she needed help. It was simple, I reached in, scooped her up and passed her to her mom who was close by reading a magazine. It was a save though. And I didn’t need to use any of the complex maneuvers learned in lifeguard training. Just a watchful eye and long arms.

There are a number of moves that you had to practice to rescue a drowning victim – how to support them, transport them, and even defend yourself. Developing the ability to move yourself and the victim through the water fluidly and safely was what you were trained to do. This was of particular importance for a potential victim of a spinal cord injury, someone who was unconscious floating face down in the water. To minimize the amount of neck movement, you were to enter the water without disturbing it. Approach the victim carefully. Cradle the victim’s neck with your hands front and back and your arms bracing the chest and spine. And finally with a swift kick while maintaining this cradle, you would propel yourself underwater while gently rotating the victim face-up so that they might breathe again.

1994, Transport

Practicing this maneuver in the lifeguard training class required that we take turns and act as victims. It was always fun to act as the flailing victim who is so freaked-out you end up attacking your rescuer. Your partner would have to push you away, swim underneath you, and come at you from behind to start over. Between this and the spinal victim exercise, you made a lot of physical contact with your partner. And between a bunch of sixteen year old boys and girls there were a number of sexual undertones that went with these exercises.

These were the kinds of things that you knew everyone in the class was thinking about but no one wanted to talk about. “Yes I know that I’m putting my forearm between your breasts while gently placing my hand on your chin. I’m fully engrossed in pretending your back may be broken. That’s all that I’m thinking about, really.”  You were supposed to be asexual and everyone else was asexual.

1994, Transport

I imagined that in an actual emergency situation hopefully my training would take over. All the physicality would be a means to saving a person from drowning. And all the nuances of body language would disappear behind the shear terror of being responsible for saving someone’s life.

it cannot be trivial

1992, Intaglio print on paper.

It resulted from an argument I had with a Jesuit Priest. “Michael, art cannot be trivial. You cannot make art from trivia. Art cannot be a trash can.”

This was how Father William O’Halloran let me know that my proposed sculpture installation for Swords Hall would not be allowed. Fr. O’Halloran was Vice President of Holy Cross in the spring of 1992 and he had, earlier in the semester, allowed me to install a sculpture temporarily in front of Hogan Campus Center. That success inspired me to try again.

In retrospect, I understand that every proposal made by an undergraduate seeking attention for his art cannot be indulged. But it was how he said “no” that was disturbing to me. The dialogue drifted into a polemic on the definition of art and its value.

I documented Fr. O’Halloran’s statements about art in my journal at the time. “It must be lasting. It must be exquisite. It must be magnificent.” I admit I did provoke him by asking if he believed Jesus was an artist. To which he answered, “Jesus Christ was not an artist.” Why not? “He didn’t paint anything, he didn’t draw or sculpt. Art may be directed performance, written word, music.” But he spoke freely about his beliefs and affected millions. “Jesus Christ was not an artist.”

This was an argument that I wasn’t going to win. The piece would not be displayed.

Though I couldn’t install the work, I didn’t let the conversation end there. I made 18-20 intaglio prints of a trash can on paper and stenciled each with one of Fr. O’Halloran’s statements in red ink. I posted them throughout Fenwick Hall, the main academic building on campus and home to the deans (mostly Jesuits) and Fr. O’Halloran.

After about a week, only a few remained, which I decided to take down and save. Fr. O’Halloran and I didn’t discuss art ever again, but it got back to me that a few faculty had taken the prints and put them up in their offices.

The words and definitions of  “it” as “art” stuck with me. They became the seeds of inspiration for many future works about art, religion, and safety.

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