Essay edited by Peter J. Wezyk
A Voyage on the Waves of Rococo
This series explores desperate imagination, journeys created out of my passion for travel. Stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, I began drawing and painting composites of memories of previously visited places. But my yearnings kept bringing me back to a focal point, worlds filled with art of the Rococo. An invitation to travel is at the heart of the Rococo style; its ornate curves, constant ebb and flow, and asymmetrical patterns reveal the excitement of novelty that comes with exploration.
Three years ago, I became quite obsessed with pictorial imagery of the Basilica of the Vierzehnheiligen, a glorious church in Bavaria, constructed with Rococo architecture and devoted to the Fourteen Holy Helpers. These saints are patrons of ailments, having originated during the time of the Black Death when every light of hope was growing more faint. I could imagine a pilgrimage to the basilica; I could see the weary travelers, dirty and almost hopeless, against the grim backgrounds of their past. Once they crossed that boundary however, the Rococo clashed with their form; the seductive pink and turquoise, the rich gold and ebony white organic stucco style was in complete contrast to the pilgrims, despite them representing the same. On the surface it was juxtaposition, but any deeper it was closeness. Scratching the gilded walls of the church would only reveal the material beneath.
Opposite to this literal sickness, I began to see a connection to a societal illness I had been exploring up until then, the Gold Fever. It is a history rich with greed, sadness, fame, drama, and unbelievable fortunes that would be quick to topple. As Oscar Wilde once said, “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between“.
Wilde visited the US in the late 19th century, traveling from New York City to San Francisco, he stopped to give a lecture in 1882 at one of the richest silver mining towns in the States, Leadville, Colorado. He spoke at the Tabor Opera House but had also stopped by at the Silver Dollar Saloon as I did in the summer of 2019. The saloon itself was a representation of change, the old victorian interior highlighted both by LED lights and by modern travelers; it was almost suspended in time. I could feel thousands before me, sitting as I was, tired from their own journeys and finding this place of rest.
The trip took me to the picturesque ghost town of St. Elmo, just about in the middle of nowhere. Driving there on the dusty road, I couldn’t stop wondering about how the prospectors ever got to these places, or why their obsessions possessed them to look for gold in the middle of a harsh country that wasn’t theirs to begin with.
St. Elmo wasn’t named for the St. Elmo I knew from the Vierzehnheiligen Basilica, but I didn’t care. The composites of the rich Rococo and austerie Ghost Town opened up an avalanche of pictures combining gold, sickness, abandonment, and strangeness. I could see the blues of the Colorado sky and the emerald shades of spruce trees as if they were on Tiepolo’s pallette.
I saw St. Elmo in St. Elmo.
I saw St. Elmo’s windlass at the mines and wells.
I saw St. Elmo’s confession booths in the old outhouses.
I saw St. Elmo, patron of sailors, as the pandemic sprawled across the country, restricting travel to all.
I look at the abandoned homes of St. Elmo and I see their glorious past in a glimpse of Victorian furniture and extravagant decoration. I dream of explorers, prospectors, pilgrims, migrants, and seekers.
As I stare at the scrolling, ornate walls of fantastic color, reality falls away beneath me and I take my imaginary voyage on the waves of Rococo.