Holding Our Own: John Thompson’s invisible travelers: An essay by Sally Eckhoff

Holding Our Own: John Thompson’s invisible travelers

An essay by Sally Eckhoff

When D.B. Cooper stepped out of the passenger door of a Boeing 727 in midair on Thanksgiving eve, 1971, he couldn’t have known what sort of mythical figure he’d turn out to be. Earlier in the day, he boarded the same plane, took a seat, lit a cigarette, ordered a bourbon, and calmly extorted two hundred thousand dollars from the police and the FBI. Airline personnel had no choice but to do whatever he asked: he had a bomb in his briefcase. There’s no way to know for sure whether it was real.

Cooper’s plane landed in Seattle, but only temporarily. The passengers debarked and the plane was loaded with items he demanded as terms of his ransom: parachutes, fuel, and, of course, money. Airborne again, Cooper directed the captain to fly to Reno, but only Cooper never reached that destination. He was somewhere between Portland and Seattle—and more than a million dollars richer in today’s currency—when he opened the passenger door and parachuted into the cloud cover below. The plane’s captain could feel the precise moment when Cooper was gone, he said. The tail lifted. Where was Cooper trying to go? He wasn’t saying, and no trace of him has ever been found.

Three years later, in 1974, another payload disappeared from a carrier making its usual rounds. This time, no one survived, even putatively. The Edmund Fitzgerald was an American freighter that sank in a violent storm in the Great Lakes, taking her captain, crew, and valuable cargo of iron ore to the bottom. Again, it was November. Again, the craft that carried the cargo was not at fault. The lake, roiled by hurricane-force winds, whipped into bigger and bigger waves until thirty-five-foot swells buried the ship’s rail. The captain, a popular, voluble, and capable man, reported that the Fitz, as she was known, was in difficulty. But no distress signals were sent in her final minutes when Lake Erie swallowed her whole.

“We are holding our own” were his last words heard on shore.

The Edmund Fitzgerald sank in more than five hundred feet of frigid Canadian water with thirty people aboard.

Ship and plane were made to be symmetrical, industrial, and unapologetically mundane. Their careers were supposed to consist of a series of back-and-forth trips, short segments of a long trajectory aimed at some scrap yard or other ignominious end. Instead, Cooper’s plane made its hijacker a legend (and in some circles, a hero), and the Fitzgerald’s wreck mystified engineers for decades. An artifact from Cooper’s plane and a handful of tattered bills surfaced at a campsite eighteen years later, but the parachute and the skull later held up as evidence weren’t his. A witness on the ground reported that a truck was flashing its lights somewhere near where the landing would have been. Cooper had said he wanted to go to Mexico. He might more easily have wound up in Canada, which seems like an easy place to get lost.

Salvage crews that have been working on the Fitzgerald since it sank have produced no evidence that anyone did anything wrong, which is not to say that the captain’s last words make much sense. “We are holding our own” isn’t the usual signoff of someone on the verge of drowning.

Cooper became a cipher. He perpetuated his own personal disaster. The crewmen aboard the freighter, in contrast, had no influence over their fate. It seems a dire and lonely way to die—weighed down by tons of iron ore in November, tumbling downward through a volume of water so vast a person gazing over its surface couldn’t see the opposite shore. Both Cooper and his nautical counterparts fell into places nobody had ever been before on purpose, and both were utterly taken in.

The works on exhibit for the month of October are made by sculptor-painter John Thompson, notably a student of industrial practices. He’s not an expressionist, an action artist, a social gadfly, or an attention-seeker. Instead, his work reflects the anonymous mastery of shipbuilders and mechanics, people who never sign their work or stick around to hear their names announced. Thompson isn’t a guileless creature. He’s a wry sort of mimic who can make anything in wood. This artist eschews the personal, if the personal in art consists of a gesture or some other admission of mood. His work doesn’t require his presence at all. It’s best seen alone, or as alone as you can be.

Artwork that resembles war vehicles has a short but poignant history in the United States. Thompson’s unfussy replicas can be distinguished from the work of the late American sculptor H.C. Westermann by their innocence. Westermann’s work is burned, sheathed, and distorted by raw fear: the artist was a gunner on board ships in WWII and survived at least one bona fide kamikaze hit. The even-tempered Thompson knows no such conflict, but presents the individual artworks as facts sufficient to themselves. Strangely, it’s easier to imagine Thompson’s passengers not as embattled soldiers but as people in the street, or maybe even as oneself.

Looking at these artworks, it’s easy to imagine being helpless and very small, a half-alive being trapped in wood.

Ships and planes deliver cargo. People deliver work, sustenance, money. Art is supposed to deliver goods that are intellectual and emotional. But what happens if the cargo disappears mid-trip? Who failed to deliver the goods? Can anyone go back and retrieve what’s lost?

Some people might identify with D.B. Cooper, the notorious thief of time. Others identify with the Edmund Fitzgerald’s captain, Ernest McSorley. Both are gone, their bodies unrecovered. All we have left is the fuselage, the hull, and the headline.

You could write a song about it:

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen—

sang Gordon Lightfoot, whose hit The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald rose to the top of the Billboard charts in 1976, only a few years after the ship sank. Lightfoot said it was his biggest contribution to music, and he was a popular recording artist at the time.

D.B. Cooper, in contrast, had to wait until the year 2000 for his own a musical tribute:

Not far away from the City of Roses
Lights shine from a house out in the rain
It was D.B. Cooper
Drinking champagne

Singer-songwriter Todd Snider tacked a happy ending to Cooper’s escapade. His song celebrates a thief, to be sure—but a thief on a grand scale, or possibly just someone with a death wish who wanted only to be noticed when he jumped. For all we know, Cooper fully expected to be found eventually, perhaps not until the statute of limitations ran out or he managed to flee to Mexico. On one hand, nobody who expects to be reduced to a few scraps of circumstantial evidence would bother to make such precise arrangements. You don’t need a million dollars to crash into a rock and die. On the other, it’s reported that a decent number of people who commit suicide are so embroiled in crisis they’re not even aware that the condition they’re trying to attain is permanent. So is he a hero or not?

There’s something valiant about a ruined ship or a plane, as if it wanted to do what it was built to do but somehow wasn’t allowed. They’re both disappointed somehow: beautiful in their pragmatic nature, they dissociate until they’re gone.

Three-dimensional art that emphasizes its own handmade quality needs to be considered in at least two separate categories. Thompson likes to say that his work is built rather than crafted. The two pieces in this show, dubbed The Mighty Fitz and D.B. Cooper’s 727, are made from materials you could get at Home Depot. The models for both are carved from found fir beams. The 727 is entirely wood, but the Fitz includes brass tacks (escutcheon pins) and brass rod. The vitrines and installation also contain composite pegboard, composite faux pine, plywood, a mirror (for the 727), and acid-etched glass for the Fitz—perhaps the only concession to fine-art construction.

Contrast that to H.C. Westermann, who made his sculptures out of birch ply, maple, and rosewood, and rubbed them to a satiny shine. Many of his works are of ships and houses, but there the resemblance to Thompson’s work ends. Westermann was said to be such a perfectionist that he had the foundation to his house dug out and re-poured when a minor construction error made it a couple of degrees off square. His obsessiveness is hard to miss. If you’re lucky enough to see his Battle to the Death in the Ice House or one of his Death Ships in person, you’ll notice that the joints are dovetailed and the hinges are homemade polished brass. This work claims a moral high ground. It’s romantic and grim. It’s also anything but anonymous.

In John Thompson’s work, however, there’s a whiff of the guilty party, at least in D.B. Cooper’s case. (The Fitzgerald’s captain, Ernest McSorley, comes off as noble and possibly a trifle optimistic.) A number of people on their deathbeds have claimed to be Cooper, and every once in a while, someone comes forward claiming that D.B. Cooper was their uncle. I’ve even heard that wannabes were tested but the DNA didn’t match. But what was there to match it to? The news stories, which became vaguer and fainter over time, don’t say.

To obtain the maximum enjoyment and emotional bump from artwork, you may, if you choose, try a two-step process that works particularly well with John Thompson’s work. Accompany these pieces with their stories. Then un-accompany them. Strip them of their rapacious hero-worship, legal ramifications, and logical conundrums. Just let them be. You may wind up identifying with Cooper anyway, but of Thompson’s two works in this show, the greatest share of spiritual command belongs to the Mighty Fitz. The confluence of plan and material here has surprising power. At once casual and grave, the built (rather than crafted) presentation of the sunken ship brings a startling gift, breathtaking when conditions are just right. Ideally, you approach the curved vitrine obliquely and perceive it as both a coffin and a fuselage that links the sinking of the Fitzgerald to the Boeing, until a full-on view reveals the holes in the pegboard eerily spreading into a firmament of regular, cold, brilliant stars.

They shimmer off the glass, which becomes the water, which becomes the bottom of the ocean, and after that the sky, which shouts back that it’s empty. The perps are gone, the heroes vanished, and the person who brought all this to your attention has just stepped out of the room. John Thompson is missing and presumed present—and very much alive.

About the Author

Sally Eckhoff is the author of F*ck Art, Let’s Dance, a memoir of the East Village in the 1980s published by Water Street Press.
A former Village Voice essayist and critic, she has worked for the New York Times, Details magazine, Salon.com, and Newsday.
Sally lives, paints, and teaches in Philadelphia, and is currently working on a sequel to F*ck Art tentatively titled Spot.

To download a .pdf version of this essay, click Eckoff_Thompson_October_2014

2 Responses to “Holding Our Own: John Thompson’s invisible travelers: An essay by Sally Eckhoff”
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  1. […] on the viewer’s knowledge of the two events Thompson references. Information is provided in the exhibition essay, although the show seems to be dependent on a deeply rooted, culturally imbued memory of the […]

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