PJ O’Rourke: ‘I love to make things but I’m clumsy. The only fabrication of which I’m capable involves words’
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I make strange animals in my basement workshop. I’m not sure what sort of animals they are. And I don’t know what they’re for.
I love to make things but I’m terrible at it. I’m clumsy. The only fabrication of which I’m capable involves words. Joining nouns to verbs, sanding down adjectives and dovetailing subordinate clauses is all well and good. It’s how I make my living. But it’s not perfectly satisfying. When I’m done with linguistic construction, I’ve got words not deeds. I want to make things.
And I don’t have the talent. I was a child whose finger paintings were all thumbs and whose attempt to stay inside the lines in a colouring book produced a Jackson Pollock without the genius. My plastic model airplane kit assembly went so wrong in its wing attachment that my innocently encouraging Dad said, “That’s a fine little sailboat.”
I never got any better. Although I used to pretend that I would. My basement workshop is there because, when we bought our old farmhouse, I thought I’d do my own renovations and repairs. I started with shelves in the garage, which collapsed, spilling cans of paint on the car. The chicken coop needed a new door. Mine would either not close or not open, leaving the chickens to be eaten by foxes or starve. The barn roof lost some shingles. Getting up there, I lost all footing. After that the renovations and repairs were left to professionals.
And I was left to my basement woodshop. Sometimes I just sit there pondering accumulated junk until something suggests itself. There was a fence post in a corner, remnant of my attempt to enclose a vegetable garden. (I’m not only no good with a hammer and a saw, I’m no good with a shovel.) A knot in the wood at the pointy end of the post made for a facial look, a snoutishness. So I cut the post to a length that provided it with a hog-like body proportion. I drilled four holes in one side of the post and inserted dowels to give the critter legs. The post was bluish green with mildew so, remembering the colour wheel from my flunked middle-school art classes, I painted the legs bright yellow.
The result was a something-or-other but not much of one. Then I remembered I had a box of cut-glass pendants – long, thin crystal lozenges that once dangled from an ugly chandelier in our dining room. The light fixture had been removed, but I hadn’t been able to part with its gleaming bits and pieces. I drilled lots of holes in the creature’s back and inserted the pendants. They stuck up in splendid rows of transparent spikes. I suppose what I ended up with was more a fretful porcupine than the wild boar I was aiming at. But I like it. I call it “Glitter Pig”.
Sometimes I steal an idea. The Kongo people, who live along the Atlantic coast of Central Africa, carve wonderful statues called nkondi. These are fierce warrior figures into which the artists and their friends and neighbours pound numerous spikes, brads, tacks and sharp bits of scrap iron. According to anthropologists, nkondi are mystical idols whose ritual embellishments protect villages from witches and evildoers. But I suspect the Kongo are also having fun with available materials the way I am. I lack their carving skills, so a fierce warrior was out of the question. But I did have some half-rotted rafters and joists from a collapsed outbuilding. With a little trimming and stacking and a pint of the most darkly tinted furniture stain I could find, I was able to create a pile of wood that resembled a rhinoceros – albeit a blocky, clunky, cubistic one. I also had a large coffee can full of rusty bent nails. (Of course I did. By now I’m sure it’s evident that I’m a bit of a hoarder, with my workshop filled with cigar boxes labelled “pieces of string too short to save” and such like.) After prolonged hammering and five bashed fingers I had a nkondi of my own. And my excuse for not feeling exploitative in my cultural appropriation is that rhinos aren’t native to coastal West Africa.
My strange animals are not art. They’re not well-crafted enough to be crafts. And they’re too strange to be decorative. Their purpose is an existential question – of the kind that Sartre and Camus might have asked if they’d stayed in their basement workshops instead of going out and creating lousy philosophy. I make my strange animals to keep myself from making worse things.
A Cry from the Far Middle: Dispatches from a Divided Land by PJ O’Rourke is published by Grove Press UK at £16.99