by Tim Gilmore, 3/18/2017
cont’d from Coquina Gates: 1, Wild Cherry
Station Wagon to the Moon
Jim Russell pried up from the beach the great slab of coquina concentrically ringed with the dripping of tides for thousands of years and coaxed and hoisted and wedged and lodged and jammed the ancient sea sediment into the back of his station wagon, the front wheels lifting straight off the ground. The car looked like it might take off for the moon.
The work had taken long enough, taken enough patience and fortitude too. Still, his only alternative was to remove the slab of coquina, remove the front passenger seat, work the coquina into the space where the seat had been, and set Anna atop the coquina.
Then they set out on the long narrow highway, Old A1A, the edges of which Atlantic storms had washed away. The old coastal road looked like the ocean had taken bites from its sides. It had. The car would barely budge. They had 60 miles up the coast yet to drive.
Besides Wild Cherry, the other house in Coquina Gates named for a tree is Chinquapin. Its structural stonework and external emphasis on horizontal lines might remind you easily of Henry John Klutho and Frank Lloyd Wright. Their designs too were to demonstrate the close relationship of house with earth.
Chinquapin has corner windows. A cantilevered roofline with exposed beams tilts slightly upward above a wide round stucco bay fitted with tile and long ago salvaged stained glass. The house’s curves and lines show each other off by contrast.
When Kristen Martini lived in Chinquapin with her kids, she retiled the rounded kitchen walls. The floors throughout are cemented with broken mosaic fieldstone. The walls stand heavily plastered. The swamp hardwood ceilings bear bravely their exposed beams.
As in each small house at Coquina Gates, the hearth girds itself up massively, its coquina broken and fitted to place. In the arched doorways that lead to the kitchen and two bedrooms, patches of stone remain exposed from the surrounding stucco.
Chinquapin doesn’t just welcome you in. It harbors you. It’s there for you. Its fireplace and immense hearth will warm you through several lifetimes’ worth of Jacksonville winters and the stucco and tile will cool you in Florida’s summer oppressions. Chinquapin is the earth formed up from itself for the sole purpose of taking care of you.
In the circular kitchen bay, exposed beams fan out from an inner corner of the ceiling, radiating into the full roundness of the room. Beneath them, the small
arched windows rise with green and maize-colored stalk-like forms of stained glass, and through the clear glass that alternates with stained, the great green lush variegations of the gardens and trees show through to you in their shelter.
How Art Creates Its Creator
For eight years, Jim Russell studied the forms the forest showed him. He studied the declivities of tannin’d waters running along the feet of the loblolly bay, the particular protuberances that shape cypress knees in slow-growth cumuli, the golden luster of the right dead wood after the right exposure to sunshine following the right degree of decay in dark soil.
In later describing his eight year tutelage, he said, “I’d pick up an oddly shaped root, curled or twisted leaves, branches with some parabolic shape that would appeal to me.”
He noted patterns in the numbers of branches, how an initial shoot grew first taller, then split in two, and how branches added upward in simple and predictable math. 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so on up. He charted florets that spiraled in the same series and noted the specific arc in the unfurling of flowers, in mollusk shells left on old wood in cold creeks, in the fiddleheads of ferns, in the windings and unravelings of pinecones.
He found that failed destructive forces often left wood and insect exoskeletons and cicada husks and bone and hard fungus stronger. Fire and blight and bloat and saturation so often tempered the softer forms of the forest.
Jim fit forms to forces, combined the materials of the woods and swamps again and again and finally understood what things preferred.
“I worked for eight years with things I found in the woods to understand what goes together,” he said, but most of the houses at Coquina Gates took “about a year, maybe less” to build.
Jim didn’t build the houses. Sometimes he said he put them together. He assembled them the way he would montage sets as a child for his father’s Vaudeville theatre in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
“Building implies a set of rules,” he once explained, but “putting [houses] together means understanding the relationships of things and blending them. There’s quite a difference.”
But that wasn’t quite right either. His role in the putting together of houses was less active than that of the houses themselves.
Instead, he let the pieces relate, blend, juxtapose, triangulate, and comprise.
A house was a musical composition. He could hear the flagstone, the brick, the iron and copper, the color and texture and shape. Each material had a resonance, a pitch, a distinctive voice, and coquina spoke differently to iron than it did to pecky cypress. It had different things to say. It had different cadences and voices to say them.
“There’s a freedom in building houses,” he once told a reporter. “They just come to their own mood, like a story or a piece of music.”
But Jim was no more a composer than he was an architect. Perhaps he was a compriser. He comprised the houses in that he consisted of their building.
And so he also said, “No man is equal to his art. I don’t feel that any man is ever equal to what he creates.” Surely. Art redeems us. Better than we are is what we leave behind us.
There again rose the conundrum. The language trapped him. His arms lifted, and his hands fastened, and his eye measured, and these facts claimed he created.
But no creator creates the creation.
Humility and awe were materials as integral as wood and stone. To fail to let the materials and colors and shapes and timbres and tones bring themselves together would be to sterilize himself, to fail to make anything ever again.