Geballe Prize Finalist Feature: Caleb Colby

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The Geballe Prize was established by the Stanford University faculty to recognize outstanding writing by freshman and sophomores pertaining to Cantor, its collections, exhibitions, and programs. The prize is awarded in three different categories of writing: essays, short prose, and poetry.

StAR is proud to feature 2015 Geballe Prize finalist, Caleb Colby (’17), and his prose piece inspired by La Barre Goodwin’s Cabin Door.

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A Door Through Time: Reflections on Richard La Barre Goodwin’s Cabin Door, 1889

Everything is shades of ocher – except for one scrap of shock-white paper, stuck in a sliver near the top of the door. It’s a letter. I read the address:

“Monsieur La Barre Goodwin

            White Memorial Building

            À Syracuse, N.Y.

                        États Unis”

The envelope delivers an exotic twist to an otherwise domestic scene. The fact that it’s addressed in French increases my curiosity. I want to rip it open, to read it, to unearth the secrets it contains. Yet the letter remains opaque: difficult to interpret, and impossible to read.

A fox occupies the painting’s center. Its bright golden fur, which shoots like a comet down toward the fox’s gleaming snout, creates a dynamic center that sets it apart from this otherwise static work of Still Life. I’m so unaccustomed to foxes that I almost mistake it to be alive. Only its vertical position and its limp tail reveal that despite its lifelike glow, this fox is clearly dead.

Yet the fox remains an unsatisfying subject. Disappointingly, its eyes are hidden; its expression is unreadable. I search for another point of entry. As soon as I lose the fox’s face, I find the barrel of a musket, leaning at an impossible angle. My gaze travels up to its muzzle, where I discover an intricate balancing act: a nail supports a satchel, which props up the rifle, which secures a hunting horn, which in turn secures a metal whistle. The haphazard orderliness of the scene feels poorly curated, halfway between an O.C.D. outdoorsman’s back door and a mediocre museum exhibit.

Indeed, these everyday items appear as artifacts to my 21st-century eyes. Set in front of the mottled, ocher door, the hunter’s tools appear to be encased in amber, preserved forever as objects of scrutiny and inspection. While the world outside the painting has changed, the contents of its amber world have not. This process of fossilization makes this painting feel peculiar, alien; but also, like any antique, especially valuable.

The whole display shimmers like a monument, a rugged ode to the painting’s invisible subject: the hunter. His worn-in hat and boots reveal how familiar he must be with the outdoors and with hard, physical labor; the cantilever balance of tools speaks to his fine judgment, his ability to weigh the odds, aim, and hit his target. The horseshoe, which appears tied to the fox by the string, gives this shrine an air of humility: it seems to remind one that misfortune, as well as manly skill, contributed to the fox’s demise. I imagine the hunter knows this, too, and feels grateful, rather than arrogant, for his prize. I even wonder, if he and I were to stand side-by-side before this blazing trophy, whose awe for the fox’s sheer brilliance would outmatch the other’s.

A pair of white-haired women approach the painting, momentarily interrupting my reverie. One leans in close, and in a huff says to the other: “Dead animals – they never appealed to me.” They glide past, but I step in closer, furrowing my brow, trying to make out what they deemed grotesque in this image of glory.

I first notice how different the paint looks from up close. From afar, the door was a rich, dark olive; now it feels glossy and flat. The fox, once a bright burst of sun, looks withered and lifeless. Examining his fur, I notice a long scratch of white at the base of his tail where the paint has chipped off. Then I see another, at his neck, and another in the shoulder of the rifle. The painting’s cherry-red frame bears similar notches: its left side is pockmarked with a few small blisters.

Stepping back, I notice how the wear-and-tear endured by Cabin Door’s frame and paint reflects the damage collected by the painted door itself. The first mark to arrest my gaze is the swooping, angry groove made by the lock on the left. How bizarre that to protect the house and its contents, this lock must gouge the very door that it seals. Perhaps it is the amber-green door’s very role as a preserving force that has brought more battle-scars upon it than any other object in the painting. Perhaps, in order to shield its gilded ornaments from harm, the door must bear the harm itself.

My attention turns back to the top of the door as I notice the other jarring defect it has acquired: the jagged splinter that secures the letter.

Perhaps this painting is in fact a sort of letter: an inscribed document framed by some bits of wood, offering up a revelation of a faraway world. The two are similarly shaped, and if I turn my head, I can imagine a stamp instead of a hat, and a “Remercier” instead of two shoes. From this view, even the gun jutting into the frame resembles the splinter cutting across the front of the letter.

Taken as a letter, this painting is extremely ambitious. Like bullets, letters rip through space and time, creating a channel through which a message can fly. When successful, a letter sews a single thought or emotion through two different places in the fabric of reality. In my world, the Internet era, communication requires as little firepower as a popgun. News travels at light speed, and if you have a smartphone, your message can travel a thousand miles a minute. In La Barre Goodwin’s lifetime, postage required a little more patience: this letter from France would have taken a month to cross the Atlantic and arrive in New York.

But regardless of mileage, Cabin Door has traveled the furthest, a full hundred and twenty-six years from Goodwin’s world to mine. This 19th-century tableau is more exotic than any postcard I could receive. Instead of using a stamp, Cabin Door’s payment for transportation is written in its red wooden frame, with all its nicks and bruises, and in its equally scraped-up panel of paint. Even in its transmission, Cabin Door’s message has changed. As an interpreter, I am subject to Time, an imperfect translator.

Yet this shotgun blast of fur and wood has somehow managed to punch through the decades, colliding with my eyes in a message which, like the French letter, I can see, and even feel – but one that I can’t quite read.

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