Thursday, February 23, 2017


The Great Flood of Florence is, as they say, a hard act to follow, but I think I have something good to share in this story by Mark Chamberlain. Mark is a prominent figure in the Orange County, California art community. 

Here's Mark in an OC Register picture accompanying a review of his exhibition, "American Crazy: Life out of Balance". 
A photographer, an assemblage and installation artist, and something of a community organizer, he co-founded the BC Space gallery with his friend, the late Jerry Burchfield in 1973. It is to his great credit that it continues operating to this day--something of a record for a low-budget art venue. 

As a noted photographer, Mark uses satire...

Mark Chamberlain, "Fashion Island: Future Fossil series," 1977
Mark Chamberlain, "Lip Service at Chicken Little's Emporium: Future Fossil series," 1975

... as well as technical innovation to create striking and challenging images.

Mark Chamberlain, "Dorothy's Dream," 1988, 5' x 15' Cibachrome photogram/Tellgram

Mark's gallery specializes in exhibitions with a social conscience, championing such causes as world peace and environmental sanity. The program reflects his personal aesthetic of social responsibility, manifest in his Laguna Canyon Project and "The Tell" ...

Mark Chamberlain et al., "The Tell," 1989, 34' at high point x 363', plywood skinned sculpture with  200,000 collaged photographs
... a huge installation work designed to promote awareness and protect the vulnerable canyon from development, done in collaboration with not only Jerry Burchfield but a whole local community of like-minded environmentalists. The work achieved national attention in a Life magazine tribute in 1989:

In 2014, he received a Helena Modjeska Cultural Legacy Award as “Artistic Visionary” from Arts Orange County.

Mark's story is one of several I have received about childhood illness, and the loving support--and the sheer, heroic guts--it took to find a way to recovery and health. It's also a moving story about the love of a mother for her son, and of how he managed to repay her devotion later in her life. Below you'll find two lovely images of the mother he writes about here. He titles his story...

by Mark Chamberlain

Learning to walk the first time was easy. But then, I was a child and don't remember the experience. Everything changed dramatically, however, when I was nine and I had to start all over again.

It was the beginning of summer vacation in 1952 when I suddenly lost the ability to use my legs. I vaguely remember being carted off to our family doctor's office where I was strapped face down on an operating table with many assistants holding me motionless while kindly Dr. Luke Faber inserted an enormous needle into my spine to extract the fluid that indicated I had contracted the dreaded Poliomyelitis disease. There was an epidemic sweeping the country at that time and I had it. Things get fuzzy after that, but the next thing I recall was our home being quarantined, and I was isolated in my parent's upstairs bedroom. 

Not satisfied with the expected prospect of crutches and braces, my mother pressured Dr. Faber, who was a long time family friend, for solutions. Luke told her of a highly controversial approach to the treatment of polio proposed by a self-trained Australian bush nurse named Elizabeth Kenny. Instead of immobilizing the affected limbs, Sister Kenny, as she ultimately became known, encouraged strenuous exercise and stretching the muscles to restore their function. Armed with this lead, my mother, whose name was also Elizabeth, proceeded to teach herself the techniques of physical therapy that might make me walk again. And so began the longest and hardest year of my life, and probably hers as well. The resolve to undertake this came from a woman who had not completed high school, since she had to go to work in her senior year to help support her family.

The daily ritual we began consisted of soaking in the hottest bath I could tolerate, immediately followed by slowly and painfully stretching my back and leg muscles. It wasn't the stretching that hurt as much as holding the furthest position we could attain, while slowly counting to ten. My mother would hold my legs flat with one arm, while I would hold her other arm as she slowly increased the length I had to stretch. I don't remember it, but my older sisters later told of my involuntary cries of pain. But I did know then, and remember still, how it pained my mom as much as it did me. It was her willpower and sharing that pain that gave me the strength to endure the torture.

After these exhausting episodes, I would spend the remaining hours of the day recuperating in my isolation ward. We did not have television in those days and, since visitors were initially prohibited, the best entertainment I had was reading, which I voraciously pursued. This allowed me to escape from the confines of bed and the interminable therapy, and I devoured everything I could get my hands on. Soon I was traveling to strange worlds with Gulliver, swashbuckling with Long John Silver on Treasure Island, sharing the misery and triumphs of Oliver Twist, rafting down the Mississippi with Jim and Huckleberry, and exploring the caves of Hannibal with Tom and Becky. Mark Twain, in particular, became a favored author and through him I also visited King Arthur's Court and traded my pauper's place with the Prince. My solitary world was filled with high adventure.

This was the regimen throughout most of my fifth grade. But after nearly a year of this, my back and leg muscles were fully recovered and I was finally able to return to class with one month left in the school year, just so I would not be held back a grade. The next summer I incessantly pestered my father into buying a homemade wooden flatboat with a small outboard motor that a friend of his had for sale. My hometown Dubuque, Iowa, is on the Mississippi River and, with this magic carpet, I then became able to have my own river adventures. This is a pursuit I relish to this day, and I still maintain a houseboat on the river with the goal of documenting its entire length. So far I have covered nearly half the distance and plan to complete the journey soon.

My father passed away in 1967 and my mother lived on her own in Dubuque until 2003 when her health began to decline. After the family convened to determine her future, it was settled that she would come live in California. It was inconceivable to me for this strong willed, independent, woman be relegated to a nursing home, and it became my privilege to care for her in her final years. It gave me a great sense of completion to be able to do so.

My mother spent her last three years with me and peacefully passed away at home. She was just a month shy of her 98th birthday.

Mark Chamberlain

Agnes Elizabeth Hindorff Chamberlain 1909 - 2007



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