"I always thought Arlington was the place you went to when you made the wrong turn on the bridge," said Chasen Gaver.
"I brought him to Arlington and we ended up at Ballston Mall and it was so ... comfortable, it reminded us of our home towns. They have a Penney's here!" said Judy Byron.
Gaver, a District poet, and Byron, a District artist who draws people life size in crayon, have created a portrait of the bubbling melting pot that is Arlington today. Their show, "In Common: Arlington County Observed," opened last night with a reception at the Arlington Arts Center, 3550 Wilson Blvd., and will run through March 6.
As you enter the room, you hear Gaver's taped voice reciting one of his 14 poems about the people and places, the heart and fears and future of Arlington.
The 11 huge drawings surround you like neighbors at a block party: the Parks family on their doorstep, a Vietnamese father and son in their fabric shop, three girls at the mall, here a portrait of Gaver at 17, there a picture of him today at 34, and so on, with matching self-portraits of Byron, also at 17 and today, at 41, in a photographer's crouch.
"Basically, we dealt with the same class of people we came from," Byron said. "The Parkses live in a house like my Aunt Mary's."
Gaver's poems are reproduced in large print alongside the pictures. From "In Common":
... the future artist in a navy blue ensemble,
a pillbox hat, and nylons -- wearing
an expression more suited
for an East Coast salon
than a North Syracuse prom ...
the teeny-bopping bard, dancing
his way out of Adrian, Michigan;
his hair streaked with "Sun-In,"
his smirk growing faster than his beard,
and his elastic frame, already magnetized, being
pulled toward the more powerful signals of the city ...
The two artists had been talking for years about doing a project together, something about genuine experience, something about small-town life. They have been working on this for about a year.
"Halfway through it," said Gaver, "I was diagnosed with AIDS, but the Arlington Arts Center was wonderful. They said keep working, we'll accommodate you, we want this project."
He has managed to keep working most of the time, though he had to go on disability from his job at the Federal Trade Commission last October, and "there were days when Judy had to take me to the hospital because I couldn't breathe."
But, he said, having a purpose like this helped him to make sense of his life.
"I had to decide whether I'd go home to die," he said calmly. "I had built this surrogate family in Washington, and it keeps me challenged, it shows me the possibilities in life. I couldn't go back to Adrian. I have no idea how the hospital there would deal with an AIDS person."
Through the year, he and Byron would visit Arlington people, and he would interview them while Byron took the photos from which she would draw the crayon portraits.
The poems emerged from the interviews and Gaver's thoughts about Arlington. There is a certain tension between his sometimes mordant comments and the joyous energy of the brightly colored drawings.
On the craggy face
of the Washington metropolitan area,
Arlington is the nose.
It sits between the grin on the lips
of Ernest P. Worrell, yacking with "Vern!"
and the glint in the eyes
of Peggy Cooper-Cafritz, roving the roster for a vernissage.
Keen and centered,
between the hick and hip.
It was never easy. "We did our first field trip on Washington's Birthday," Gaver said. "Went into the Vietnamese area, thought we'd have dinner and just talk to people. We tried this fabric shop, came in there with the camera and the interview pad -- and all of a sudden nobody spoke a word of English. Finally we realized they thought we were from Immigration."
They learned to go in slowly, to use mutual friends and trusted contacts "who took us back to the very same places and we found everyone spoke perfect English. They got the idea it could be good for business."
Talking with families, white or black, in their homes, or with Salvadoran refugees who have organized to save their Lee Gardens apartments, posed similar problems.
"It really got to me," Gaver said, "that these families are so closed, they say nothing negative. They don't admit any problems, everything's just fine, we all get along so well. It made me nervous. It reminded me of the limitations I had in my home town. 'This is not to go outside the family.' You used to hear that. It's an incredible experience to know there are all these people in the community who know your business, your secrets."
Judy Byron, who has a BA in speech and drama from Ithaca College, close to her Upstate New York home town, came to the Arlington project from several years of work with area labor unions. Most recently she did a series of woodcut portraits for the service employees union, which sharpened her interest in small communities.
"We were two white strangers going into an area with a strong black history," she said. "The Parks family had lived in Arlington for a hundred years. Their great-great-grandfather was the first black buried in Arlington Cemetery. There is a real stability there. I identified with that sense of belonging, but there was another side to it: What do you do if you're different?"
In her picture of the Parks family (which is not, by the way, related to Rosa Parks, the civil rights fighter), one youth is looking off to the side, signifying disquiet and conflict.
The two artists had their fights over things like that. "I want the flaws," Gaver said. "I work around conflict and contradiction. It's what makes an interesting poem. I got really angry about some of these things and did some drafts that weren't very nice."
He couldn't understand the lack of hostility the Parkses showed over racism. He couldn't get a coherent statement from teen-agers at the mall.
"Judy would say, 'You write these mean poems because you just hate these people, you hate the world,' and I would say, 'Hey now, let's not do a puff. We don't want people who have a bone to pick with the Arlington developers or something to come in here and see just smiling kids.'"
They talked it out, reached a balance. Gaver came to understand that much of his anger arose from having grown up gay in a small town not so different from the Arlington that was. Byron learned to value her upbringing in a working-class Italian family even as she moved far beyond that world.
"It's about finding your voice," she said. "You can get caught up in different styles, but it's about your real voice. Chasen's journey helped me to clarify the two parts of myself, to let go of the past but to accept that my work is rooted in it."
In fact, the two friends became so close that one day when they met at work they noticed they were both wearing the same outfit: green pants, goldenrod sweater, black shoes. Even the same socks.
Statistics are interspersed with the poems, describing the staggering changes that have swept through Arlington, the successive waves of immigrants. "During the 1970s, Asian/Pacific Islanders were one of the fastest growing segments of Arlington's population. On April 1, 1980, Arlington's 7,684 Asian/Pacific Islanders accounted for 5% of the total county population ..." Today the Asians are established, and Hispanics are coming in. The schools are almost 50 percent Hispanic, the artists said.
They love to tell the story of Bob Welsh, who spent his whole life in Arlington, in Cherrydale, in his grandfather's house, and who when he married simply moved down the hall to his parents' old bedroom.
"He gave us a tour of the county, and we were driving around and there were so many new buildings that he said to his wife, 'Joan, where the hell am I?' "
And Irmgard Schwartz, a painter who finished a picture of the Wilson Tavern, went away on vacation, came back and found the place torn down. Gone.
From "This Used to Be That":
Can you see the future ...
Are people like us paying rent?
Is it life on view, from face to face ...
Or just a series of sunglasses at public events?
At a County Board hearing held March 7, 1987, Helen Hedges testified that the FDIC project would rob her neighborhood of sidewalks and would prevent pedestrian connections. My eyes narrowed to the width of the proposed walkways. And blinked. Because virtually nobody walks in Arlington now ...
Part of the exhibit is a 16-foot-high paper facade model of the Olmstead Building, a postmodern office building in the exact center of Arlington and a symbol of the new energy.
For the artists, it says something about the changes in people's lives wrought by developers and the anguish that is part of growth. Byron lives in Mount Pleasant and Gaver in Adams-Morgan, neighborhoods whose character is in danger of being leached out by gentrification. They have learned to appreciate both change and those who fight it.
"We both feel a strong obligation to bring out the different types of people in an environment," Byron said. "They're not all mixed together, they're in enclaves. You do see a mix in the mall, which is the village green of Arlington."
The mixture of people, the mixture of poem and picture: These are appropriate for Byron, whose work is basically collage. She starts with photographs -- her husband, Rick Reinhard, is a professional photographer -- and cuts them up to form composites. Then she draws them life-size on paper, and cuts that up too, changing a face, the angle of an arm, a figure's position. Later she may translate the drawings into woodcuts.
Her studio floor is perpetually ankle-deep in crayons. It made a great playroom for her children.
The show pictures are for sale, as are the poetry tapes and a catalogue. Next month the artists will teach a course in collaborative art to three classes from the Corcoran School of Art, where Byron once studied printmaking.
Gaver: "I'd like to see more artists focus on this area, and look at the richness here. Not just the people, but even the scenery, even the highway grids."
Byron: "I want the gallery-goers not just to observe. I want them to be moved."