U.P.S. - Unexpected People: Soil

By 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, hedgehogs.

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 Disneyland.

     “ 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 with 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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