Cleveland by Naomi Schenk

Before a brief visit to Cleveland, I promise my dentist to bring back a small painting by the artist Seth Chwast, which she has bought online on a portal for “outsider art”. Shortly before I arrive, Debra, the artist’s mother, tells me via email that she and Seth have decided to extend their stay on the Cayman Islands, so there is no one to let me into their home in Cleveland Heights. With a six-digit code, however, I can simply switch off the alarm system and open the door. The picture is lying ready to be picked up, sheathed in bubble-wrap on the large table in the attic studio. 

The disarming manner of some Americans – a dazzling mixture of pragmatism, openness and confidence – has always struck me, as well as the positive effect it has on my mood, which automatically changes for the better. This is the case on the afternoon that I set off to do my courier service. My taxi driver, an affable Patrick- Swayze type, tells me the vast Lake Eerie used to be known due to its pollution levels as ‘​​North America’s Dead Sea’, and that it even caught fire several times. Cleveland hugs the shores of the lake. Officially, it was named by the Erie Indians, but the literal meaning of eerie, as in scary, seems much nearer the truth. Still lying at the bottom of this Great Lake are sunken ships from the American-British war, the first naval battle won by the Americans against the British. That was back in 1813, just sixty years before John D. Rockefeller settled in Cleveland from where he built his oil empire. His house was on Euclid Avenue and his gardens extended far into what is now known as Cleveland Heights, a wealthy, suburban district with quiet, broad, oak-lined streets, spacious front yards and historically inspired stone houses. We slowly cruise along in the old taxi looking for the right house number. It is is located on a gently sloping meadow: a red-brick building with Tudor towers, a half-timbered façade and leaded bay windows. 

The alarm confirms the code that I type in with a soft peep and the heavy arched door swings open, buzzing. In the entrance hall, the polished dark parquet reflects the afternoon light coming through the myriad small windows. My camera hangs on my shoulder and I keep an ironclad grasp on it. I feel it might help me if danger threatens in this stranger’s house, which is gloomy despite the LED lighting. Debra told me I was welcome to look around and take photos: We have four floors full of art! 

I have not explored Seth Chwast’s work in advance, perhaps because I seem to experience things more intensely when I am unprepared; I am always happy when a good film in the cinema that I know nothing about takes me by surprise. All I know is that Seth is twenty-eight years old and autistic. The first picture I come face-to-face with is hanging in the lounge. It fills almost the entire wall above the sofa: a blue horse in profile, so large that its head almost touches the ceiling, planted firmly on all four legs, with a long tail that seems like a fifth leg rooted in the ground. The horse fascinates me – its rigidity, simplicity and friendly facial expression. 

When I turn around, six self-portraits gaze back at me, mounted as a block. Completely filling the wall above the other sofa, they are monochrome, painted frontally and full of strong contrasts. The faces have something archaic about them like African masks, but they leave a futuristic impression on me, like robots. 

I tear myself away; my sense of duty commands me to carry out my mission first. So I climb to the top of the flight of stairs where well-tended, gleaming plants reach their tendrils upwards. I cross Persian carpets, go past Indian wall hangings and Asian sculptures, on past the open doors of guest rooms full of books that reach all the way up to the ceiling, niches full of framed family photographs and shell collections on low tables; and everywhere there are vividly colourful paintings in the same naive, expressive style. Paintings of birds and flowers. Seek-and-find pictures. Free abstractions. A wall-sized self-portrait of Seth above a quilt-covered, king-sized bed. Here, in front of the window, there are also a few horse sculptures, which may have served as a model for the picture downstairs.  

The bright attic floor extends from one side of the house to the other, and has a table almost as long. On it lies the packaged picture and a book by Debra Chwast. An Unexpected Life: A Mother and Son’s Story of Love, Determination, Autism and Art. 

Back downstairs in the wood-panelled lounge, I sit in an armchair with the book. She couldn’t wait, Debra told me in an email, to hear what impression Seth’s art made on me. 

Intense and calm, I think. Like the horse in front of me, which I simply cannot tear my eyes away from. 

A horse monument stood in my hometown of Mülheim, a testament in stone to the last wild horses seen there. It was situated in a meadow halfway between our and my grandparent’s house. The three horses with their petrified, billowing manes and tails were depicted in galloping motion, and illegible letters were carved into the plinth. Every time we walked by, I felt a strong desire to sit up there and ride those horses. Once an adult lifted me up onto the back of the middle horse. But as soon as I was up there, I grew bored because nothing moved. The stone was light grey and porous. 

I flinch because a man-sized shadow suddenly appears outside the yellowish windowpanes. The taxi driver. I have completely forgotten him. And have lost track of the time, too. He presses his reversed baseball cap to the glass. I’m tempted to remain sitting here, motionless, and simply not respond. 

He has spotted me on the sofa and, through the murky windows, I can feel his eyes riveted on me. Still, it takes me a while to move, lift my arm and give him a sign that I am coming.


Cleveland by Naomi Schenk

Translated from the German by Lucy Jones