Sunday, July 3, 2011

One Simple Idea

"Are you willing to take a leap of faith, or become an old man filled with regrets waiting to die?"

~ from "Inception"

I was inspired to buy my ticket to Iceland after seeing the movie "Hereafter" last November. When I flew there this past March, one of the available on-board movies was "Inception," which I had seen before at the Admiral Theater with my friend Michael. I didn't watch it again on the way to Iceland, but I watched it on the flight home, which ended in almost perfect synchronization with my plane landing in Seattle. The other day I looked at my journal of thoughts I kept while in Reykjavik, as well as some of those I wrote afterward, and discovered the quote which is the theme of this post. It made me think of Michael.

What I would I like you to know is that Mike was a true working artist with over thirty years of knowledge, experience, and expertise who gave his life to being a master craftsman and glass sculptor of the highest caliber. I worked with him as his assistant, side by side nearly every day for two years, and one of the first things I learned from him is that there is a best way to do everything. Not because he said so, but because I could see it in the way he worked. He was patient, precise and exact, and he could always clearly explain to me why he was doing something a certain way. His methods were the product of a lifetime devoted to art and an understanding of all the machines, elements, hard work and love it took to make it. An important thing to know is that while Mike's boss, David Huchthausen, put his name on the finished pieces, it was Michael Barrette who did the work. I know because for two years I helped him, and he deserves credit for it.

At the time I started working with Mike, I simultaneously had the opportunity to work as a longshoreman on the docks of Seattle. As everyone here knows, that's lucrative work. But I turned it down to do something artistic instead. I turned it down because Mike saw something in me and offered me a position to put that something to work. I'd always wanted to get paid for doing something creative so I went for it. A lot of people gave me a hard time about that decision. Few understood it. Few understood why I would walk away from so much potential money and follow what I considered to be beautiful and interesting instead. No one knew then that a few short years later, Mike would be gone. I'm glad I stuck to my guns, because now I see how important that decision really was.

Mike was educated, passionate, witty and smart, with deep knowledge about mechanics, chemistry, politics, history and art -- glass in particular, which is a beautiful universe few people know about that I was fortunate enough to briefly enter. Mike read the entire paper every day and always completed every puzzle. He would often underline passages in articles, write his own thoughts in the margin, clip them out and bring them to me at the bar, where we would talk about contemporary events, usually political in nature. He was a fan of Ron Paul, and so am I. Mike genuinely cared about America, the Constitution and our freedoms, and that's one of the reasons we were such good friends. He always wanted to run for office, and I can say with great faith and honesty that he would have served our country well. 

Mike was a good singer, liked karaoke, and knew the national anthems of both America and Canada, which I heard him sing next to me in the stands at a stock car race last summer. He was a great conversationalist, and a nice guy with a charitable heart who helped people when they needed it, including me. When I was between apartments with no place to stay, it was Mike who put me up. He frequented my bar several times a week and I always looked forward to seeing him. We talked a lot and laughed a lot too, and it's hard because that small space where he used to sit is so empty now. 

I've never before lost such a close friend. He was a wonderful, decent, hard-working individual from Mineral Point, Wisconsin who came to Seattle to follow his dream. And he did. He was an artist and he was my friend, and on both counts I am honored to have known him. His essence as a human being is that he took raw materials and turned them into beautiful things, whether it was making a new glass sculpture, or in his relationships with other people. He was a gift to my life, and this lesson from his spirit is one I'll never forget. 

When in my early days I accidentally broke my first piece of glass in the studio, Mike took it in stride and made me laugh by saying, "Don't worry, you'll face greater disappointments." I never realized how prophetic this seemingly light-hearted joke would be. On the wall in the studio where we worked was a sign that read, "Live as every day will be your last, and someday you will be right." Mike dedicated nearly every day of his life to being an artist, and I honor that because it is a leap of faith that few are willing to make. To me he was not old, but maybe his body was. I hope he didn't die with any regrets.

Here is some of Mike's work. No photograph will give you the three dimensional experience of being in the presence of it as a sculpture, and no finished sculpture will show you the months of intensive labor, precise measurements, strong hands and keen eyes that went into making it. When you look, just know that Mike's soul is in there. So is a piece of mine.