Opened Skin: The Inner and Outer Landscapes of Craig Goodworth

It started with cigarettes.

This tall, lumberjack-looking fella sat on a bench in between Biology and Liberal Arts.  I recognized his beard from class.  He had this intense thinker aura, a man grappling with big questions. It was warm, slight breeze, the leaves of aspen losing chlorophyll.  The lumberjack was reading an article, something with small, dense print. He was absorbed, body arched over the page, pouring over words. I walked past him smoking a medium-filtered cigarette. This fella looked up, making eye contact.
   "Hey." he said. His voice had the texture of forest loam.
   "Hey." I said.
   "Think you could spare one of those?" he said.

At 6'4", Craig towered over me and most others I knew. His logcutter physique threatened without threatening. He was intense, a man who took life and learning very seriously. Did this guy get into fistfights over philosophy? I couldn't be certain. I'd be wary of spilling Schlitz on him in a crowded bar.

In group conversation, Craig was reserved, speaking only when he had something substantive to offer. The rest of the time he listened.  

He hinted at his art, rough-hewn Craig-sized installations built with found natural (bone, hide, branch) and human-made material (metal, wire, twine).  These were physical expressions on death, god, and sublime beauty. Art that spoke of place, internal and external space, rites and violence.

I imagined his studio: a massive hangar, a slate-blue warehouse, hulking contraptions of plaster and wire, strange subconscious formations, metalworks like Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches.  Blaring music, cigarette smoke, empty beer bottles, this hulking guy and a blow torch, shadow splayed on the wall, manic cackling in the thrall of creation.

A year later, we found ourselves in Ann Walka's writing circle. Craig had gone through a rocky relationship that ended in divorce. He was slipping deeper into art. We found common ground in our writing, a mutual interest in Cormac McCarthy’s bleak work. After class, one day, Craig suggested that we continue our conversation. “Let’s walk,” he said.

Our first jaunt was up trail, through stands of scraggly juniper and desert scrub, to Mt. Elden's fire-scorched apex.  I had made this walk once before, meditating on it for a class assignment.  Craig wanted to experience it, first hand.  

Later that season, we trekked out to Anderson Mesa, a windy steppe south of town. Here, Craig showed me a carcass at the edge of the dry lake. Once a rangy steer; it had been reduced to bleached bone and hide.  The carcass had been pounded full of rebar. It was stunning to see, an image both violent and hallowed. Later, Craig removed the rods, leaving behind a hundred tiny holes—skylights in the abdominal cavity's cathedral-like ceiling. An empty space filled with light.

It takes time to understand his approach. In a Slovakian meadow, a pig carcass is overstuffed with dry corn.  A steer is slaughtered at dusk in the hills east of Flagstaff. The noise and the blood and the smell is captured in film and words. In the forests around town, used condoms are collected and photographed in juxtaposition to dried fruits that bear resemblance.  Deer antlers, the fragile skins of song birds, a pig’s snout – all material that hints of sublimity, all part of a grander rumination on death and life and the spaces in-between. How do we make sense of  death? What kind of values do we impart upon that which is dead?  Perhaps in our treatment of death, we find the lynchpin that determines the qualities, the values we impart on life.

On our last Flagstaff walk, we were tromping over the dry grasses of the Mesa, searching for carcasses, when we came upon a bright yellow ellipse, about the size of a football field. From a distance I couldn’t make sense of it – it was stunning, but I didn’t quite understand it.  As we neared, I realized that it was a patch of flowers, a simultaneous group flowering. Something in the basin, water likely, was feeding the stand, and the plants had responded with this tremendous display. 

Craig’s art is like this basin.  From afar, his sculptures, photographs, and altered found objects are impressive; they have a presence about them.  Their purpose, however, is not easily understood.  It takes coming close, watching the films, paying attention to the photos, the carcasses, to understand where Craig is going.  His work challenges—daring the viewer to look hard at death and its aftermath. But also, despite the horror, the stink of decay, the slaughtered bodies slumped on concrete slab, Craig’s work captures the blood and guts and sad innocence of life. By examining life honestly, compassionately, he shows the viewer that death, too, can be life-affirming.

Justin Bendell is a writer and (disillusioned) activist. His nonfiction has been featured in Confluence and Sojourns. He lives in Tucson, Arizona with four chickens, two rabbits, and his partner Rose. But all that will change, soon.