The Mentor’s Grove

Regarding the project the Mentor’s Grove:  Here is the original threefold pamphlet I made for my first pitch to build an outdoor classroom/sculptural setting to honor my mentor.

2004 3fold Grove reordered

Two things are remarkable about it for me now, 12 years later.  First that the idea was so fully present in this early draft, and second, that even while in its full presence, I was still incapable of recognizing key elements of it.

I don’t say this in a spirit of self-criticism.  I say it in an attempt to underline what was central to my experience of the Grove; which was, to use the words of the Gilgamesh Epic, “the untying of a dream.”

The following passages and images are imported from a previous blog:



A Study For A Relief Sculpture


A Study For A Relief Sculpture (Grove)

I’ve been thinking about my Mentor’s Grove project today. I’m in the process of writing a page about it to post here.   The Grove was a very ambitious sculptural-setting I designed (but was unable to sell) in honor of my mentor, Ron Brady,  who died suddenly in 2003.  It was/is a very rich piece but in brief it was an experiential sculpture, half labyrinth, half outdoor classroom.  The student’s experience of the sculpture began as navigating a maze that then opened into a quiet interior space — a grove —  where the journey just taken was depicted in relief on the walls. The whole piece was intended as an invitation to other professors to take on the full role of mentor (conveyor of life wisdom).

The main motif  was the grove in the underworld where heroes in stories travel in times of trouble. There they meet a wise soul who helps them untangle their difficulties. My mentor’s mentor Paul Piehler, Paul Piehler, wrote a book on this traditional literary occurrence.  The book was called The Visionary Landscape. I used the specific imagery of the journey to the other world from the Epic Of Gilgamesh because that was the subject of the most stunning lecture I ever saw Brady give.

The picture above was an an early concept sketch I did of one of the planned reliefs.  It was  to represent the moment in Gilgamesh when Enkidu realizes he is a human being: his identity (here represented by his face) contracts from the rest of nature.



Time to Present


These three  images are from the archive of my Mentor’s Grove Project.

They represent two distinct efforts at design of the relief sculptures. I like how different they appear.  I have learned a great deal thinking about that difference and still have a lot left to learn.

The relief sculptures were to surround the visitor once they had reached the center of the labyrinth.     The two distinct design processes can be related to one another once you know the conception of the reliefs: the whole story of Gilgamesh was to emerge from the walls like the images seen in clouds.

Imagine that: lying on your back, gazing into the sky and, instead of picking out a duck or a snowman in an individual cloud, you see surrounding you over the whole horizon, linked cloud by cloud, an entire coherent epic story.  This was intended as a metaphor for the naturalness of human life as story. That is, to suggest the way human life  relates to the rest of nature.

(But think what changes the world would have to undergo to witness such a spectacle. How is human life like and unlike that? That question was central to my process)

But, two efforts: 1. To tell the whole story of Gilgamesh and 2. to tell it in sculptures that appear in the same way that images appear in clouds.


First the cartoony sketch — I have, over two sketchbooks, the entire epic of Gilgamesh messily sketched out as sequential art, in an effort to see what was visible (most visual) about the events narrated in the story.

Second,  these ambiguous photographs: My idea for the visual look of the reliefs was like “images seen in clouds” — except seen in stone,  fieldstone and mortar.   I wanted viewers to see the sculptures the same way they see  images in  natural formations, clouds, rocks, trees.   I wanted the images to be invisible until viewers pulled them out of the undeclarative  surface with their imaginations.

I have hundreds of photographs of rockfaces and treebranches — particularly oaks for some reason — which I took in an effort to learn the style by which natural forms suggested images. The photographs here relate to a later stage in that process: trying to catch the repetition and interruption of such forms,   I incised a grid into a piece of plastic and then photographed images reflected in its divided surface.

Included in the computer slide show of images I reflected were pictures from Ankor Wat.  The Kmer sculpture and architecture from Ankor Wat has always struck me as a sort of hallucination occuring in our perception of natural forms.  It is far more visible and declarative than the sculpture I intended for the grove but still I like it.

Two Sketches For Relief

Screen Shot 2020-03-05 at 12.23.20 PM copy
I’m still working on a page and another post about my Mentor’s Grove project, which I designed in response to the death of my mentor.  I’m writing mostly about my struggles to realize the relief sculptures.  I wanted to capture the entire epic of Gilgamesh on the interior walls of the grove. These two sketches depict Gilgamesh and Enkidu dancing through their heroic adventures, dancing in the joy of their strength.  You can see pictured the killing of both Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven.

But these things are pictured, depicted, rather than narrated through the pictures. The pictures require captions. My hope had been that the pictures would replace — stand in the place of — the master storyteller who had been lost.   It took me a long time to realize that this task was impossible.   Like so many other parts of this experience, my own story reflected the story I was attempting to retell.  Wasn’t Gilgamesh forced to the same conclusion at the end of his long journey to resurrect his friend?

2 pages from the 2nd Grove notebook

Here’re two consecutive pages from one of my grove sketchbooks.  They depict some of the last episodes in Gilgamesh. Trying to design the relief sculptures for the grove, I cartooned the whole story to see which events were most visual.


Presented the Grove Today


I added some new stuff, shifted my presentation around. I think it went well. I have another shot next Monday so I’m hoping it goes even better.

One of the things I added was an introduction on Brady’s philosophical concern for intentionality.  I showed some of  the classic illustrations and then I tried to suggest how this concept influenced his methods reading and interpreting events and narrative.  I started with this drawing:


Which illustrates a part of Utnapishtim’s sleep test for Gilgamesh.  Whereas today we would say, “Gilgamesh fell asleep” the text asserts that “sleep poured over his eyes like a mist.”  I think both descriptions are available to us as sensations. Learning how the original readers of Gilgamesh understood sleep adds to what I can notice about sleep. Still though, sleep itself is known to us or at least something we are familiar with in our own way.  I then moved onto this cartoon, dealing with another familiar subject, this time a bit metaphorically (?) and I asked the class, “And then what happens?’


Best Grove Presentation So Far




So I presented my Mentor’s Grove Project to Dr. Kay Fowler’s Death and Dying class (thank you, Kay!) for the second and last time for the fall semester of 2010.  It was the first time I got spontaneous applause!  Twice!  I rearranged my presentation from last week, starting this time with a concrete description of the actual project and then moving into the “why this is so meaningful” part of the talk. Much more sensible order.

It wasn’t perfect but I liked how it went. I introduced the project as a use of art and image making as, for lack of a more compelling phrase, one way to suffer grief as a process.

I talked about a danger of working with images and meaningful objects:  Forgetting the significant way of looking at them or telling the wrong stories about them when presenting them.  (Ask me about the swimming with dolphins story I told at one of Brady’s memorial services. Perfect example. But I don’t want to spend all night on the computer.)   But of course there is a virtue hiding there, the possibility of the process: images unfold, their meanings dance with you as you go through the steps, as you twist and turn, wriggling to get free.  What seemed like a perfectly sensible, perfectly satisfying, permanently settled understanding  can explode into whole new vistas simply by asking a different question of the image.   The images wait through our ignorance and persist through the changes that allow us to see them more fully.

The picture above is a two page spread from a notebook from 2006.  It’s a bit outdated and definitely from a time when I was asking the images the wrong questions (or at least less developed questions than I have now) Still I like the way the sequence of views(participations) the grove presents are represented by these six illustrations.  And my cartoon of the scorpion people from The Epic Of Gilgamesh may just be one of my favorite drawings ever.

Tonight I finished with the idea of the image not as an illusion or a depiction but the image as a part of nature, a remarkably human part of nature.  I will continue to develop that part of the talk though who knows where my thinking will be next semester.





A Sampling of the Gilgamesh Comic from my Sketchbooks



My Last Conversation with Kay about the Grove


There are several references in this blog to my presentation of my grove project in Dr. Kay Fowler’s Death and Dying class.    Kay died one year ago today after fighting cancer for a year.  While she was receiving treatment she kept a journal at to record the facts of her treatment everyone would want to know so that when she talked to someone she would be free to talk to them of other things.  Kay being Kay she soon turned the journal into an opportunity to share her favorite poetry.

At least twice she had chemotherapy to prepare for a procedure using stem cells. The chemo knocked out every bug in her body as well as every defense she had against bugs.  This writing comes, in part from her CaringBridge journal during her second unsuccessful attempt at harvesting stem cells four months before she died.  In it she references ideas about the underground I commonly mentioned in my grove presentations:

Written Feb 8, 2012 11:32pm by Kay Fowler

Desert Places

by Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it–it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars–on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Nobody can evoke the empty spaces within us better than Robert Frost

His is the gift of the familiar natural image.  The whole medical world pulls the opposite direction everything is unfamiliar and unnatural so to frost I turn as my counts go on their magical journey into the underworld like all the great heroes  (Oh Kerry where art thou to explain this as eloquently as you do).  My WBC hit 0.5 today but so far so fever, no infection, no mouth sores. Etc.  WE are all watching and defending scrupulously and putting up huge hex signs – keep off the Kay – 3 or 4 more days down here on the bottom of the canyon and I shall begin to climb up and if I am really lucky some ass will give me a hand.  ‘bout to do my magic mouthwash ritual again so will sign off just asking everyone to please clap loudly and say “I do believe in fairies”.  I’m feeling just a bit dimmed at the moment.  BTW for a complete different topic and feel if you are familiar with Jay-Z and Alicia Keyes’ New York State of Mind you must check out my favorite parody Granite State of Mind at  It had me gasping for breath.

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— Having been directly addressed, I responded:  Written Feb 9, 2012 6:39am

I’m right here reading every post. :)

Kerry Dennehy

— Kay then wrote me an e-mail with this subject title —

A visit from a mentor in the grove Kay Fowler to you – Feb 9

Dearest Kerry: I am stunned and profoundly changed by your shout back to my cri de coeur in the middle of a very desolate night last night when I was holding desperately to your notion of I must travel to the deep dark depths in order to get healing and wisdom to come back.  And just when I felt most abandoned and alone in this 3am quest I wake up to the reassurance that the mentor has been in the grove listening to me and waiting to me.  What an incredible gift you have just given me _ the rest of the days down here at the bottom of my counts will be a little less awful because of you.  Love you and hugs.  Kay

— I wrote back —


That is wonderful to hear.  That is exactly what I would have wished to offer you but would have never dared hope I could actually give. Such is the power, I guess, of conversations sustained over years: sincerely spoken in peaceful times they may resound in times of struggle.  Your support and your continual invitation to develop my work in your class, as well as the dialogue we started with the allegory class, make the words I speak half yours.



— A few days later on Caring Bridge Kay again referenced the Grove image —

WHOOOSHHH!  That is the sound of the collective breath-holding that has been going on around the tri-state area and, in Montana, Minnesota, Alaska, Ireland and beyond.  I have officially engrafted and am now sitting pretty with a White Blood Cell count of 1.20.  A re-birthday indeed – Feb. 13, 2012 my re-birthday.  There is little reason to revisit the days spent in the underworld except to say that I was never alone in my journeyings.  Paul and Ellen and Scotty visited just before the descent and gave me extra doses of strength.  Once I had begun my journey down, Bob and Sharon took nights in turn – trying to get any sleep they could amidst dozens of interruptions without the benefits of pain meds and other drowsers … Deanna came and just spent time quietly doing gentle touch and calming presence work. Geoff and I were phoning, texting, etc. throughout.  Christine came and brought her vitality and joy into the room.  It stayed around for days.  My quilt with the luminous faces of the wonderful women of the Moon Sisters called out to me again and again to hold on for the flowers, the dancing, the swimming in the ocean, the gathering of the stones.  The messages of love on email, and the Caring Bridge  and the phone and the healing energies of the Moon Sisters and of the daily 7:30 EST healers all attached me with bands of light to the upper world.  I even found one of my dearest and most cherished mentors waiting for me by his grove which helped enormously on the finding my way back to the dawn and the light.  Having made the climb out I hope I get to keep the wisdom I acquired during this period but if  not – oh well – today is a new day!!!  And I didn’t eat even a pomegranate seed – well I just COULDN’T eat anything – but either way… I do not have to return to the underworld for months at a time.  Nor did I look back as I came out.  I do my reading – I know the risks!  But I have to tell you I think what worked was that they let me go to stop me from singing – not because they were moved by the beauty of my singing*  I could be wrong but I just got that impression.


* Kay loved to sing but she was one of the few truly awful singers I have met.  🙂

Dancing through death Gilgamesh

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