Beaten with a Hammer

Spider Lilies, Lycoris radiata, in our back yard—volunteers that appear every year and last just a few days—a startling metaphor for lives cut short and all too brief.

I sat out on the back deck this morning. I was finally able to sit out on the deck for a few moments in this too slow to go dread Dallas summer delivered from the bowels of Hades.

We had rain last night that meant more than our cat Popper being pissed she was getting squishy mud between her delicate pink pads as she checked the peepholes in our fence for near trespassers. What it really meant was that many of the horde of firefighters across much of Texas could get a break from trying to put out the hell-spawned infernos that have been incinerating desiccated prairies, crops, trees, homes and people. It’s been a hell of a year indeed.

no rain

Fuel for the fires—no rain and no money for irrigation water. West of Hondo, Texas on State Highway 90

It also meant I had a few quiet moments for thought. I’m haunted, still, by something recently seen.

It’s humid from the rain. I try to decide whether to switch off the AC in the house. I hear it click on as the outside compressor fan comes to life. I hate humidity too, as much as her evil twin the heat so I let it run knowing it won’t stay on long. I see our neighbors roof above the top of our tall fence. Squirrels are having fun finally, chasing each other before they get down to business planting acorns and somehow imprinting the locations in their little memories. Maybe they can smell those fermented nuts months from now, or maybe it’s like a photograph triangulating micro benchmarks for later retrieval.

It’s all beautiful for a change, and I’m still haunted.

What is it drives men to violence and hatred? It’s more than big pickups and tiny dicks, though those are common enough indicators. Men have been on a killing spree from either Cain or some unnamed missing link—take your pick. I wish “someone else’s turn” would really happen.

Three women, Ellen Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, shared this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. I read some of the celebratory comments in different online fora and a common thread spanned all the ones I saw—that maybe it’s time for the women to be in charge of everything on the planet. Oh, to be sure, there will always be Margaret Thatchers, Phyllis Schlaflys and Sarah Palins aplenty. But for every one of those there will be a multitude more who are peaceful and progressive, sheltering and nurturing and true to the essence. I think the odds are in favor of a better job being done.


My friends Joe and Julie Delio were off on a short trip to see the Albuquerque Ballon Festival. On their way back they would take a long southern detour to stop at the Davis Mountains State Park to spend a couple of nights at the Civilian Conservation Corps 1930s-built Indian Lodge, so named for its imitative design of the Pueblo communities of the Southwest. I decided to drive down and join them in the interruption of their journey home.

Dawn at Davis Mountains State Park

and then she came

Indian Lodge just after dawn

Indian Lodge

A progression of dawn shots. It is an achingly beautiful place to spend some time. That Joe and Julie shared it made it all the more wonderful.

Beauty abounds in the spare, sere reaches of the west Texas high country. I love the big sky and big geology of it. What meager talents I have in the transcription of photography, I feel my best work is often done in open spaces such as found in the Big Bend area.

(I say “meager” deliberately, without a need for any contradiction, knowing my place on the spectrum of ability + artistry and always seeing the beauty in what others produce. I’m rarely envious and usually take such beauty as instructive and illuminating which I think is a sustaining approach both to life and photography.)

Lonely road

I love lonely roads—there’s never a worry in going slow or stopping to get out and think on the very nature of beauty. Highway 118 west of Fort Davis. A larger version is here.

Lonely roads are for bikes too.

And I returned, of course, to a favorite personal icon of beauty. It encompasses the paradox and dialectic of the beauty and profane for me. The artists of this non-commercial-functioning art installation intended (I think—I don’t really know) for it to be a social commentary pitting two elements against each other: the things we need versus the things we want.

Midday at the Prada Marfa

It was a beautiful day, the clouds were amazing and a gift for composition. Larger version is here.

Prada Marfa

A larger version is here.

Of course I don’t own the Prada Marfa store—its art or presence. It’s a personal hajj for me to view it again and again because of my affection for it. I only claim the images I’ve made of it as my own, which are really only a veneer of its substance, and yet I’m happy to place myself inside the store for a moment, if only by reflection, and transform the space it occupies showing clouds within and without. (If you click on the image itself to take you to the Flickr hosting page, you’ll see a comment left by my photographer son—a false contretemps comment as he knows what it means to me.)

And yet we see that profane dialectic I referenced above in the following image. Whether it’s mere vandalism or a contributive statement is for you to decide. I know what it means for me, and I know there are other ways as well.

Prada Marfa

I focused on the recent bullet embedded in the bullet-proof Lexan of the storefront—an attempt on my part in composing some semblance of beauty in spite of the efforts of others. I imagine the assault as a drive by shooting betraying some physical or emotional impotence. Again, I choose the words carefully—”assault” for what it portends in the rest of this story, though there is no real comparison.

Come sit a spell with me and grab a Nehi beverage from the cooler—before we get to the bad part of this story. We’ll grab a seat near the barber shop and think and talk, maybe solve some minor problems and decide what we ought to do. I don’t really think either of us will have any answer to what we’re about to see though, but it might help to take our time getting there.

Have a drink

come sit a spell

I returned to this beautiful sparsely populated corner of Texas even though I had recently visited. I don’t mind that it takes 11 or 12 hours or more to get there in my choice of how I travel—staying off the Interstates and opting instead for the beauty of blue highways. I’m not really sure how long it takes to get from Dallas to Big Bend, I’ve never kept track. It’s a long drive. Except for the freeways of Los Angeles, and not counting Alaska, Texas is the only state where you can drive for more than 15 hours and still be in the same state. One benefit of these long photo road trips is the modern hermitage—a solo driver encased in metal and glass—contemplating the fittingness once again of the song Hejira at about 85 decibels and 58 miles an hour and no one caring or even hearing when I miss the high notes. Joni Mitchell’s 1976 album is still beautiful and apt today moving forward to me and backward in time to Muhammad’s hijira from Mecca to Medina in the 7th century. I don’t know how this song gets so outside of time.

However, it was another of her songs that turned out to be prescient for me on this trip. Her Magdalene Laundries has often struck me hard over the years. It’s not just that my connections to Ireland are so recent, my parents immigrating from that beautiful and troubled island, the song speaks of the corruption of power that one gender holds, one that was evident in ways in our own family. Here it is again, with the addition of her explaining before the song what it was that inspired it.


I think it’s amazing, unconscionable, that the last Magdelene laundry only closed in 1996.


Joe wanted to stop by the Marfa Lights Viewing Center on the off chance that some aliens might happen by. We stopped in Marfa for an unremarkable dinner and headed out in the gathering darkness to the viewing center east on Highway 90. As expected, we didn’t see anything that couldn’t be terrestrially explained, but at least we could say we were there just in case. There were quite a few people gathered and a couple of them were cowboys.

Cowboy and Marfa Lights

It’s a bit dark, I know, but this is shot with my Nikon D3S at ISO 16,000 (normal ISO is usually in the range of 100-200). I couldn’t see the cowboy with my naked eyes and had to manually focus since the cam doesn’t have a light assist focus. It’s a bit grainy, but hell—ISO 16,000? Also, it was shot at 1/13 sec at f/1.4 handheld—so, not too bad.

It was blowing hard and cold at the viewing area, so we decided to pack it in and cap the evening off by counterbalancing the blasé dinner with a trip to the local Dairy Queen on the other side of Marfa for dessert.

We drove by the haunting place, Julie was the first to see it, but we were eager for ice cream so we vowed to come back and look at what caught our attention.


In what looked like an old fashioned service station, but was now according to the signs the Big Bend Coffee Roaster, we saw an enigma. It might just have been a simple art installation and it took a little while to figure out the horror stories it represented.

Random bits of white things floating in an otherwise empty and lit place.

The shapes of the suspended forms, hung by a single red thread, were beginning to make sense.

Red hand-written script on anatomical shaped plaster hearts.

In the larger version, here, you see this inscription: Carmen Patricia Ramirez Sanchez 34, 2005, Shot To Death

Every heart, every heart suspended by a single red thread, represents the death or trauma of a woman from domestic violence. Every heart had the words written out: the name, age, date and method of death or damage.

What we saw was an installation by Marfa artist Bettina Landgrebe.

The following is from Bettina’s website, and describes the installation in much better and starker terms than I could ever present.

A constellation of objects suspended in mid-air creates an impression of a gathering cloud. Approaching the work more closely, what appears as a cloud dissolves into individual human hearts; a common denominator of our humanity: a symbol of love, hope, and life. On further inspection, each heart is inscribed with answers to the following questions: Name, Age, Date and Method of Death.

While reading/listening to the systemic tone of a female voice reciting the fate of these human hearts, a terrifying emotion shutters through the room.

The body of these hearts is absent. The corporal silhouette that housed these vital organs is invisible; this body, we find out, was prematurely and unnaturally taken from these hearts.


But it is not only the body that was violated. The body of their relationships with their family, their community, and their culture was also disrupted. These hearts belonged to females of varying ages and backgrounds: to a girl, a daughter, a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a wife, a cousin, a niece, a godmother, a friend, a lover. 

However, we must remember that the death of these women will not be primarily remembered by the heinous transgressions that took their life. The life of these females goes well beyond this exhibition. They were and remain richer and more colorful than this installation or anyone could ever try to capture. But what this exhibition strives to do is to cast a stark and unflinching eye at a common red thread that is shared by these human hearts; that is, collected in this room, a system of violence emerges. 

A war is being waged on the culture of women and civil society along the border city of Juarez, Mexico. 476 hearts are testimony to this war. A war that is waged against empathy, civility, love, hope, family, community, and towards the “softer”, fragile side of life, which the war of terror and totalitarian domination views as a threat to the complete command and control of society.

It is not a war contained amongst warriors, but it is a war that devours life and replaces it with human greed and the vanity of power. The physical and psychological warfare perpetrated against women is a testament to this naked disregard for life after war. There will be no life.

copyright 2011 Bettina Landgrebe, used with permission.

The installation runs through November 19.


The name of the installation, Beaten with a Hammer, is from one of the hearts, one of the invisible silhouettes—Tomasa Chavarria Rangel, aged 54—and the method used in her murder in 2005.

I can’t really do this justice, but I can bring it to you and let you think about it. Maybe it will haunt you too.

Update: I want to personally thank Bettina Landgrebe, with whom I’ve corresponded via email, for her kind permission to allow me to use the text from her website. It’s my hope that bringing some attention to the installation will also bring attention to the horrific plight of the victims—that with more attention that there will be changes. I know what I’ve done here is just a small measure of what needs to happen. I hope also, that with this blog and with others writing about Bettina’s art in all it’s terrible beauty, that the installation will find a home at other venues across the Southwest. It just takes a spark for that to happen. If I helped in that spark, then I’m gratified to have that small part. 

You can also hear Bettina with host Tom Michael of Marfa Public Radio 93.5 talk about the installation at this link. It’s an enormously interesting interview. 

all photos copyright © 2011 by barry b. doyle · all rights reserved

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