General 11-19-2001

From the North Shore

Duluth is a small city, built on the extraction economies of a century ago, still a beautiful and feral place. It has a rich and strange history, but it’s never been a completely human one. Its old masonry factories, robber-baron mansions, and small frame houses cluster on a rocky shore of Lake Superior. The city is riven by a dozen wild streams and creeks, all fringed with forest, that come down from the Sawtooth Range; these basalt hills push the city up to the lake’s edge. From every spot in town you see the overwhelming presence of the sullen or riotous water. The ships come and go, hauling the iron ore mined nearby as well as prairie wheat. The city is surrounded by the tragic and beautiful second-growth forest that sprang up after the original white-pine ecosystem was destroyed. The slender birch and popple, the fierce tangles of black alder, green smudges of fragrant balsam, are as much newcomers here as the Europeans are. Here the natural world is primary, a scrim through which everyone who lives here sees the world. This is an economically depressed area. It’s not the place for ordinary ambitions. It’s not a place in which to consume. Instead, you are consumed, and you make stuff in response to the experience.

So it’s a city with a long relationship to music and art. Groups as diverse and fresh as Low, If Thousands, and the Black-Eyed Snakes, as well as a symphony, a chamber orchestra, and a ballet play here. There are composers, poets, writers of fiction. Some remarkable visual artists live and work here too. On this site you can see the work of Scott Murphy, a painter of peacefully shattering scenes, his smooth surfaces and glowing color bodying forth great emotional depth in playful ways. Murphy’s portrait can be found on the site of another Duluth artist, R. C. Johnson, a longtime producer of virtually collaged images of great wit and subtle edge who has lately turned to photographing artists of this region. He’s set down the knife of his satire, doing these portraits. They’re more than kind, they’re moving, revealing, respectful. Look for them as well as for the ink-jet prints, sharp and visually intelligent, that he produces, often working together with the poet Louis Jenkins, his friend.