Childhood

In Shadowboxes and the Round by Akira Ohiso

I walk across Market Street on 14th Ave NW.   Ellie and I are walking to Ballard Reuse, a store that resells used home furnishings.   It’s a creative exercise to browse in the jettisoned commerce of others; tubs, doors, street signs, school lockers, lights, cabinet handles, picture frames, radios, hardware, school desks, mirrors, chairs, nautical detritus, clocks, furniture with upcycle potential.  Hipster decor, cheap purchase or creative reuse for an upscale Craftsman.

I find alternative frame solutions for my work; a plastic streetlight, a drawer on its side, a wall piece with shelf and oval frame, gaudy picture frame.   I think about Michaelangelo’s Doni Tondo, a work that depicts a Madonna in the “tondi” or “round.”   

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I also think about Joseph Cornell, an artist who created found-object assemblages in shadow boxes.  He was a self-taught artist and was influenced by the surrealist movement.  Seemingly random juxtapositions, sculptural collages and poetic play were integral to his work.  He once said “collage = reality.”  He lived much of his adult life in a house on Utopia Boulevard in Flushing, Queens.  I was born in Flushing and lived the first three years of my life in an apartment on Bowne Street.  I remember mostly through family photo albums and stories.  My father photographed prolifically during my childhood.  I swear I have a memory of walking in the building laundry room with red slippers adorned with anchors.  My parents vouch for the red anchor slippers, but don’t think I could have remembered such a memory -a gossamer instance like a fragment of a collage. 

“Cornell in Window” 1972 by Harry Roseman  

“Cornell in Window” 1972 by Harry Roseman  

Years later, I would return to Flushing to finish school at Queens College where I received a BA in Studio Art.  I lived with an ex-girlfriend in an apartment building next to the Whitestone Expressway and Whitestone Lanes. The New York Times distribution center was across the expressway. She was a tough Queens girl with a thick New Yawk accent.  She lost both hippy parents at an early age and was raised by her maternal Jewish grandmother.  Her grandmother had died and she lived in the apartment by herself.  There was unresolved trauma around the loss of her parents.  She found her mother dead from a drug overdose.  She was raped at age 13 by an older kid in the neighborhood.  Neither of us had the emotional self-awareness to maintain the relationship.

These were issues I was not exposed to in a north shore Long Island suburb.  I grew up in Port Washington, NY, a cow-neck shaped peninsula facing the Long Island Sound.  In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby,  Port Washington was East Egg, the “old money” enclave of Gilded Age estates.  West Egg or Great Neck was for the “nouveau riche.”  Not that drugs and rape weren’t happening, but wealth can make those things go away very easily. 

I grew up middle-class.  We were better off than some, but I acutely felt the haves and have-nots in Port Washington.  The growing “Spanish” community lived in apartments on Main Street or in multi-unit houses near the industrial areas of town.  I remember the local police moving Latino men along who were “loitering” on fences around the train station.  Most of the young men lived together and simply sat outside their apartment buildings on warm nights.  Many worked in restaurant kitchen and landscaping companies. 

My neighborhood was middle-class, but has gentrified with yuppies since.  Smaller pre-war homes with wood floors and original molding appeal to a new generation of yuppies looking for authenticity and integrity in their down-low consumption. 

The Park section is a grid of four streets: Bar Beach Road, Park Avenue, Highland Avenue and Fairview Avenue.  The grid starts at Port Washington Boulevard and climbs up a slope to Woodlawn Avenue, a street that overlooks the Sandpits.  During the summers in the seventies, hang gliders would set off from the cliff and float over the Sandpits until you saw the soft silent landing in the sibilant spray of sand.  Someone would pick them up in “the pits” and drive them back up to Woodlawn Avenue for another run.

Sand was a booming industry at the turn of the 20th century and the sand pits provided raw material for many of the buildings in New York City including the Empire State Building, the Chrystler Building, the Queensborough , the former Twin Towers and Rockefeller Center.  Immigrants from Europe worked the mines and many single men lived in barracks.  Families lived in homes with stilts.  A school was established for children.  I remember seeing rusty cars and motorcycles embedded in the sides of cliffs.  People played “chicken” and it was rumored that the mob disposed of enemies in the pits.

A large green building with conveyer belts would transport sand to barges in Hempstead Harbor.  It was a dilapidated green relic that anyone who grew up in Port Washington at the time would remember driving along West Shore Road to Bar Beach or Hempstead Harbor Beach. The rotting barges remained on the liminal unused banks of the harbor until the nineties.

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As the sand mining industry dwindled, the pits eventually were used as a landfill.  The last sandmining company closed in 1989.  In the early eighties, I attended Salem Elementary School.  The school and surrounding neighborhood was ground zero for aquifer contamination. Residents were getting sick from drinking water and one local teacher died of cancer.  Salem school and the landfill were eventually closed.  Today, it is a golf course and corporate real estate for companies.  The Sandminers Monument was erected in 2011 as weekend golfers perfect their putt.