Daily Archives: April 6, 2017

sheel

To sheel is to shell, meaning to de-shell.

And when you peel away the shell, how does it feel?

Clams and mussels are shell without and flesh within, which means that without the without they are soft. Turtles, de-shelled, are soft but have bones farther in. Humans have the hard deep within and are soft without – so we cannot be without something hard to go around us: buildings, and cars, and the assorted armour of culture. The world is our oyster because we are cultured oysters in our world: we build our shells and then take what irritates us and build shells around it so we have pearls. Of wisdom? Of great price? Of art? Sheel us and find out.

One sheeler I think of is Charles Sheeler. He was a photographer of things industrial, and a painter of them too. Factories, buildings, chimneys, bridges, iron scales, slate roofs, the hard diagonals and sharp angles of steel and stone: the bones and shells of our culture and means, all rendered with exquisite precision. Do have a look at some.

I first met Sheeler’s work in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston; I went there often to swim in the paintings. Take the red subway and the green streetcar (E) and walk a block until you are almost in a lush little fen-way park, and there is the flat stone face. Go in and you will know that museum smell. Upstairs, go left, then right, halfway to the other end, turn right, and there in the centre of it all is a gallery of moderns. The Sheeler is on a half-wall in the middle, facing left. Or at least it was two decades ago. Shale-grey steel carrying steam, an image of what we have made to produce things to protect us and convey us. This hardness we’ve produced, now flaked off in a flat pinacothèque rectangle for us to admire and see ourselves reflected in its sheen. Other painters show people; Sheeler’s pearls were our shells: he sheeled them for us. Does that seem inside-out? Remember that a pearl is just shell grown in the other direction. The outside is deep inside, a universe locked in a grain of sand; the inside is all there is to see, and it shines at the infinite within without.

Where does sheel come from? It is related to shell, of course, but also (and perhaps more closely) to shale. Shale was first a word for a husk, a covering; from that (we think) we got the name of the rock. And all this is also related to scale. As we scale the sheer heights in our buildings, so we scale the heights of our art, and we weigh our lives in the scales and the scales fall from our eyes. But we never stop making our shells within and without, even as we ever look to the sheeling.

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