During the last week of 2011, I received an email from our former neighbor at the Ranch, who is a nationally recognized fine artist. He was excited to tell us that he had an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and that the Where the Heck Are We? Sign from the Ranch* was in the exhibit. He had also included, in the SFMOMA exhibit, a photo he took of the sign in its natural habitat on the tree on the road to the Ranch. He told us that he had asked the current owners of the property for permission to borrow the sign and they granted it on the condition that he return the sign to the tree after it came back from the SFMOMA. At first, I thought the whole thing was hilarious and I wrote a blog entry entitled “I Have a Painting in the SFMOMA.” But the sequence of events surrounding the removal of the sign soon went over to the dark side.
I decided to go to the SFMOMA to view the sign. I must have had temporary amnesia because I forgot how much I dislike most modern art. I was swiftly reminded as I stood in front of a 5x5 painting that was entirely one shade of charcoal gray. The plaque next to the gray square quoted the artist as saying something like “I am fascinated by the way light plays on objects.” Since there were no objects in the painting and the light on a solid square of gray was not noteworthy, I must conclude that the artist has gotten his hands on some really good drugs. Our artist-neighbor’s work was actually lovely. I could even recognize real things in it, like trees and people. When I turned a corner and saw the Where the Heck Are We? Sign, however, my heart sunk. I felt as though I was looking at a wild lion trapped in a cage. The sign had little meaning in the context of a museum. It wasn’t even particularly funny, just vaguely clever. Seeing the sign in a museum was creepy and it made me sad. While I was staring in dismay at the sign trapped in the museum, it occurred to me that I would never have agreed to send the sign out on loan to the museum in the first place had I still lived at the Ranch and still owned the sign.
While the sign was away at the museum, our artist-neighbor made a temporary substitute sign and nailed it to the tree. Within a few days, it was stolen (he looked all over for it, thinking maybe it fell down, but no, it was gone). This development in the journey of the sign posed a new dilemma. If the substitute sign was stolen, subsequent signs might also be stolen, including the original sign when it came home from the museum. (I now understand the meaning of the Christian term “original sign.” I always wondered about that. OK, bad pun, discriminatory joke; could not resist.) After much deliberation by the family who owns the Ranch and the artist-neighbor, they decided not to chance putting the original sign back on the tree. They agreed to make and post a new substitute sign, but I have it on good authority that they have not done this as yet. So at this writing (more than one year from the removal of the original sign), there is no sign on the tree. The artist-neighbor has the original sign in his house and he emailed to say that the next time he sees me he intends to give it to me. What on earth will I do with it? Sadly, I think the original sign has lost its meaning, its mirth, and its home. Perhaps there is no longer a purpose to the sign. Perhaps the question I wrote on that sign in 1991 has been answered.
Here is a photo that my friend Jessica took of the sign at home on the tree in the 1990s.
*For those of you who don’t know the story about the sign, here’s the short version. On our first night at the Ranch in 1991, after we put the children to bed, Ron and I were in our bedroom listening to the unbelievably loud cacophony of chirping crickets. Ron, a city boy born and bred, turned to me in mock horror and asked, “Where the heck are we?” (That was not precisely what he said, but this is a family blog and the sign was a public family sign.) Of course, we loved our 17 years at the Ranch. Moving there was one of the best decisions we ever made. But Ron’s question was so hilarious that I had to paint it on a sign and post it. I nailed the sign to a tree beside the dirt road leading to our property during our first week at the Ranch. Many a first-time visitor to the Ranch told us, “We thought we were lost until we saw the sign, recognized your sense of humor, and knew we were on the right road.”