The short answer is that it was a magical place. The American Academy in Rome is a little parcel of heaven plopped down on the tallest hill in Rome. I cannot imagine it having been better or more fruitful. For eleven months, I was provided delicious food, a large studio, and a generous stipend. I was surrounded by some of the smartest, most beautiful people I’ve ever met.
From time to time on this tumblr, I will try to think about the long answers out loud, not out of a desire to illuminate the interweb but as a way for me to unpack this strange, unearthly experience. As a part of this process, it might be helpful to put some of the thoughts into words for my own sanity and sense of clarity.
In my final few weeks there, I was haunted by a reoccurring scene. It is Rutger Hauer’s last scene in Blade Runner. Maybe you remember the story: Hauer plays Roy Batty a human-looking robot known as a replicant. His particular model has a fixed lifespan, and having nearly reached the end of his life, he’s returned to Earth to find his designers to see if he can somehow get more time, more life. Harrison Ford plays a cop who hunts down renegade replicants, and in the stormy final face-off, Hauer defeats him. Roy explains, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time.” It is a beautiful, wrenching scene that has stuck with me since I was a teenager. I remember thinking in Rome, That’s like me. I’ve seen Kim Bowes and Elizabeth Fain-LaBombard make giant prawns into finger puppets to squeak out Dan Hurlin in Trani. I’ve wandered down into the fog filled ravine in Mattera in the early morning hours and watched Catie Newell take pictures of dewy spider-webs. I’ve heard Eric Nathan play Radiohead’s “Karma Police” on the trumpet at three in the morning in an undisclosed location. I’ve spun around awestruck inside the Vatican’s golden Sala Regia with Sheramy Bundrick. The list would continue as long as I would let my mind leaf again and again through the glossy picture-postcards of memory.
At some point, the dying of Rutger Hauer’s replicant always tripped up that analogy. Realizing that analogy was entirely too maudlin (I hope to hell I’m not going to die anytime soon), I set out in search of less melodrama. I’ve settled on two. The first one is short, and like all good analogie, involves the last scene in the series finale of Newhart. Now, Newhart was Bob Newhart’s series that ran from 1982 to 1990 where he played the owner of a Vermont bed and breakfast overrun with a wacky cast of characters. In it he’s married to Joanna, played by Mary Frann. It’s also important to know that the decade before, from 1972 to 1978, Newhart starred in The Bob Newhart Show, where he played an awkward New York City therapist, and his wife was played by Suzanne Pleshette. So, the final scene in the later Newhart, after being knocked unconscious in Vermont, Bob wakes up in bed of his very dated 1970s New York apartment and shakes his wife awake, only it’s not Mary Frann but Suzanne Pleshette, saying that he’s had the strangest dream: he was an innkeeper in this tiny Vermont town.
I like that one because it’s short and to the point, and it’s got Bob Newhart, which makes anything a little more surreal. But there is still something lacking in that analogy. Here is where Star Trek: The Next Generation comes in. One episode of T.N.G. from the fifth season, “The Inner Light,” is unlike most shows in the series. There are no interactions with the godlike Q, nor are there any laser battles with the Borg or the Romulans. “The Inner Light” is a singular, stand-alone episode. In it we find the Starship Enterprise with Patrick Stewart’s character Captain Jean-Luc Picard on the bridge. As The Enterprise approaches a satellite of unknown origin, Picard falls to the ground, unconscious. It’s apparent to the other members of his crew that this satellite is somehow the cause, so they are reluctant to disengage or destroy the satellite for fear that it may make the captain’s comatose state somehow worse. Meanwhile, Patrick Stewart awakens not in his captain’s uniform but dressed as a laborer on another world; a strange woman calls him by a different name, saying he’s just recovered from a fever and that she is his wife. Picard tries to figure out what happened and asks all the right questions, but the bottom line is that everyone there on this draught-stricken planet recognizes him as an iron weaver named Kamin. Finding no possible way back home, eventually he lives a full life as this man, falls in love, becomes a vital part of his community, and even learns to play the flute. Near the end of the episode, when Kamin is a withered old man, his middle-aged daughter invites him to see the launch of a rocket that contains a probe. He realizes it is the same satellite that he encountered a lifetime ago as Jean Luc Picard on the bridge of the Enterprise. Awestruck, he watches the rocket go up. Suddenly all the people from his life on that doomed planet reappear as their younger selves, and they explain that the satellite was made to insure that their story will live on, that by living this life as Kamin, Captain Picard will be able to carry their stories with him, to share their lessons so that their lives will not be forgotten. Suddenly he awakes again, this time as Captain Picard, on the floor of the Enterprise where he has been unconscious for the twenty minutes or so.
This may be the best way to describe it. I feel a little like that, I was a father, arts-activist, painter, and art teacher at a liberal arts college in Memphis, and the next thing I knew I had been awarded the prestigious Rome Prize, I went through a divorce, I sold the building where I had my studio and lived with my family for nearly a decade, to find myself bathed in Rome’s powdery light at the American Academy. It was an alien land with an entirely different set of parameters and expectations where I had experiences that slowly shifted my fundamental understandings of my life in art. A place where my once broken heart flourished and swelled out of all proportion. A place where I could fall madly in love with so many people in so many different ways for so many different reasons. A place where I grew to know people who would become my greatest heroes.
Unlike Picard who had to rediscover that the Enterprise was his really his home, I know that both places are real. They are both lives I have lived. I will spend the rest of my life unpacking and processing the lessons from my friends in Rome. I will do what I have always done: go to the studio and think of them as I paint. I have no doubt that we will once again sit across the table from each other and talk late into the night. I said it many times there in Rome, at the communal dinners, sometimes with my fourth or fifth glass of wine held high, I am thankful to have lived so well with so many for so long.
The episode of Star Trek didn’t end with Picard waking up, of course. In the final scene we see Captain Picard in his ready room, ruminating upon the day’s events. His first officer comes in, bearing a box, explaining that after careful examination of the probe, they found a relic. Alone in his study, Picard opens the box. Clasped in both fists, he holds the beloved flute from his life as Kamin close to his heart as he walks to the window and slowly begins to play the flute. I am here now, awake in Memphis, surrounded by the love of old friends and family. Yes, the unknown waits in front of me, but in my head and my hands, I am holding all of my dear new friends and keeping their stories close.