U.P.S. - Unexpected People: Soil
Jheri St. James
Who is Paul
Casey? Why is he important to Common Ground 191? It was, after all, Cheryl Ekstrom
who went to southwest Kenya in January 2005, acting as soil collector during
her 17-day safari to the land of the Masai. The site falls directly in the path
of the famous annual “Great Migration” of animal life from Serengeti
National Park in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya. The dwindling of available
grass is the impetus for this primal trek. The horizon fills with 1,500,000 wildebeest,
200,000 zebra, 18,000 erand, and 500,000 gazelles, relentlessly tracked by Africa’s
great predators. Masai Mara National Park is home to 30,000 animals at any one
time—7,000 more individuals than Laguna Beach, California, where Cheryl
lives and sculpts.
“The safari leader came to my Journeymen
show to talk to me about coming on the trip, and he thought I had already been
to Africa. Some of the pieces in this
series do look like Masai warriors, I now realize; strangely familiar to me on
a very deep level, but I had no Masai in mind when I created them.” And
so amazing coincidences begin, and events are put into place for Paul Casey to
participate in Common Ground 191.
Kenya is an independent republic straddling the equator in East Africa, prosperous
and politically stable. North of Kenya are Sudan and Ethiopia; Somalia in the
northeast. On the west, Kenya is bordered by Uganda; on the south, by Tanzania;
and east by Indian Ocean. The Northern Serengeti supports itself mostly through
tourism, offering the “largest balloon ride in the world,” carrying16-18
people. Cheryl went on the balloon ride; Paul Casey did not. A short list of
some of the animals they saw—about half the number listed on the safari
guide—is included at the end of this article.* There were seven people
on this trip—Christopher Law, the man in charge of safari; an Oklahoma
oil man and his young actor son (both good friends with George W. Bush); former
museum curator, Phillis Lutjeans; Sue Hanger, an arts editor, Cheryl herself,
and Paul Casey. For the first 16 days, Cheryl kept thinking, ‘Who’s
going to collect soil? Will it just be me? Will it be a group effort?’ “It
had to be right. Gary Simpson had said, ‘You’ll know when it’s
right.’ I was getting worried; it was nearly the day before we were leaving.
Earlier we talked as a group about conceptual art. Phyllis, former museum curator,
was telling 76-year-old Paul Casey about Chris Burdon, who had himself crucified
to a Volkswagen, and other such projects. All Paul could do was shake his head.
He thought this was absurd, nothing he wanted to have anything to do with. And
I thought, ‘Oh but wait a minute, this piece of conceptual art (Common
Ground 191) is something that makes perfect sense.’ The more I thought
about it, the more I realized that Paul Casey was the perfect vehicle, because
he could be part of a conceptual art project that would last him a lifetime;
and it’s because of him that we’re able to make such a small world.
So I asked him the next day and gave him Gary’s brochure with the concept
and photo. He got the biggest kick out of it and said yes. I loved this man;
Paul’s wonderful, very low-key.
And then on the last day I saw the place, and I did know it was right. Hard packed,
dry clay would have been harder to collect, but it had rained two days prior,
and the soil had dried out just enough to make it easily accessible. Paul Casey
had a hard time getting down to scoop up the dirt because of an injured knee.
But he was the one who actually scooped it up with what we had—a ‘curiously
strong’ Altoid’s can. I held the bag, and together we stuffed it
inside the little box and he went over all the U.P.S. papers and sorted them
out.” It was another special, beautiful, coincidental moment.
Paul Casey and Cheryl Ekstrom as Conceptual Artists
The terrain was flat--Mt.
Kilamanjaro over the hill, Lake Victoria around the corner.
Hyenas, and at least 25 Cape Buffalo and their
little white Ibis friends watched the soil collection. Cheryl
wrapped a shirt around her head because of the intense heat. “Out
in the bush, you don’t give a hoot what you look like.
All you want to do is make sure that you’re safe, always
looking around. It’s hard to believe you are in the presence
of all these different species of animals, on their property,
and they’re allowing you to be there. And all we had to
do was just not harm them, and we could live. This was true symbiosis.
We were on one side of the jeep quickly collecting soil, but
we knew the animals were aware of us and they were allowing us
to be safe. It was soulful. Jackson, our guard, was apprehensive
to have us out of the big open-air Land Rover, very aware of
what was around us, and when we were back you could see the relief
on his face. You just don’t know what danger lies right
around the next bush— lion, hyena, leopards, cheetahs,
Cape Buffalo and White Ibis watch the Soil Collection
As elephants make
their droppings, the hippo immediately comes and eats those
rich droppings. In this land of symbiosis, animals
and people recycle and reuse everything. The women make huts
(out of clay bricks reinforced with elephant dung) and do everything
else—make the clothes; prepare milk mixed with blood,
and meat as food. They weave their wool fabric from sheep and
Cape buffalo hair, then apply vegetable dyes for color. Beads
are made from the clay soil. The men spend their lives outdoors,
hunting and herding, going inside only at night for protection.
It’s completely black in the huts, with three cylindrical
holes in the roof for smoke to exit.
A Masai warrior has to kill a lion when he’s 13. He goes
out with only his stick, like a broomstick. And some of those
sticks are passed down. After that, when he comes of age, his
family chooses his first wife then, depending on how many he
is able to afford, some of them have nine wives. This is now,
in the 21st century. And when one Masai man takes his cattle
to another village, he goes to someone’s hut, puts his
sword or big stick out front, and the resident male then leaves
the hut, the wife, the food, and his home for a couple of days,
returning when the stick is gone from out front.
Masai Villagers with Sticks in Front of Elephant Dung/Clay Hut,
Some with Ear Adornments
One night in open camp, thirty minutes from where we collected
the soil, we clearly heard human screams. In the morning the
waiter who came to the tent with coffee and biscuits, part of
the four-star cuisine of the safari, told the story of how he
came upon a lion within six feet of him and his scream brought
the Masai running, who scared the lion off with their sticks.
At first I thought it was one of those ploys to make the trip
exciting, but no. This is the real thing. This wasn’t
I was a bit disappointed how little conscious inspiration I found
for my work. It seemed more like inspiration for my spirit and
my soul. The people touched me; the textures; the lighting was
amazing. The animals didn’t seem particularly important
in that sense. Being more of an abstract, impressionistic
sculptor, my eye went to the silhouettes, particularly of
the Masai, so
reminiscent of my Journeymen.
The uneducated Masai have a big hole in their earlobe, with inserted
plates or earpieces. A Masai man came and talked to me—very
educated, very “white” as the native people say,
and with nothing in his ear. I said, ‘Well, you have all
this time; while you’re sitting out there tending your
cattle. You must really go inside and think spiritually and get
in touch with this real deep inner self.’ ‘No,’ he
said, ‘we’re just like you. The whole time we’re
out there, we’re thinking how we can get one more cow.’”
And so Cheryl’s Journeymen series now
has the additional consciousness of her safari experiences; her interactions
Masai tribesmen, and with Paul Casey.
Cheryl with Soil, Paul Casey and Jackson
Oh, by the way, U.P.S. is the principal shipper of soil from
all over the world to Laguna Beach, California, for Common
Ground 191—a critical part of the documentation process.
And Paul Casey’s father and uncle started UPS. Paul’s
family was the owner up until two years ago when they went
public; they’re now the largest stockholders. Thanks
to Common Ground 191, Paul Casey is a man with a whole new
definition of conceptual art, and we expect, of curiously strong
coincidences. “Whenever I see an Altoids can, I will
think of this,” he said about his participation. He was
going from bush to boardroom to make plans for the 100th anniversary
celebration of UPS in 2007. Thank you, Paul Casey, conceptual
artist, peace worker, small world creator.
Bushbaby, Bushbuck, Camels Cape Buffalo, Cheetahs, Monkeys, Dikdiks,
Dulkers, Elands, Elephants, Fox, Gazelles, Gemsbok (Oryx), Giraffes,
Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eaters, Cranes, Eagles, Egrets, Francolin, Egyptian
Geese, Helmeted Guinea Fowl, Spring Hares, Red Hartebeests, Hippopotamus,
Spotted Hyena, Tree Hyrax, Impalas, Jackals, Kipspringers, Kudus,
Leopards, Lions, Reedbucks, Black Rhinos, Topis, Warthogs, Waterbucks,
Wildebeest, Zebras, Crocodiles, Geckos, Lizards, Grey Herons,
Glossy Ibis, Bustard Koris, Ostrich, Red-Billed Oxpeckers, African
Green Pigeons, Lilac-Breasted Rollers, Common Sandpipers, Secretary
Birds, Lesser Gray Shrikes, Splendid Starlings, Maribu Storks,
Lesser-Striped Swallows, Vultures, Buffalo Weavers.
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