Thew texts, “Are you up for a walk today?”
Driving forty-five minutes from my parent’s house to Danbury, North Carolina, I turn down a dirt road marked only with a mailbox. My car climbs up the gravel path and I park next to a house with blue siding. I grab my small backpack filled with sunscreen, bug spray, and water—it is July and I don’t know how long we will be gone.
Thew greets me by my car, hands me a walking stick, and before ducking back inside, tells me to meet him at the edge of the grass behind the house. In the record-breaking heat, I’m wearing heavy boots and jeans. My head and shoulders are covered, my top shirt button buttoned. The air is breezeless and thick.
Thew emerges from the house, and I hear him before I see him. He is wearing boots, khakis pants, and a tweed wool blazer with elbow patches. Pinned to his coat are large, dangling mirrored discs that bang into one another as he moves. He sweats. I sweat.
“We will be quiet now,” says Thew, and begins to walk into the woods. I follow.
The incline is steep and the path disorderly. I trip over twisted roots and midsize rocks, realizing the utility of the walking stick. The trail curves a few minutes in, and the house is no longer visible. We are under a canopy that opens occasionally to white clouds, but no midday sun. I push dry leaves around with my feet, leaves that will never be bagged up and placed on the front lawn for trash day. The mosquitoes buzzing in my ears are outdone by the swarming gnats that are diving for the wet of my eyes. They are so vigilant I have to scoop the dead victors out of my lower eyelids.
Thew is several steps ahead of me. The giant paillette mirrors clang and jangle like unruly bells. Refracted light encircles him, trembling. The reflectors consume the leafy surroundings and hold onto bits of sky. Light flashes on the ground. Thew is open, porous, camouflaged, and patterned in sharp green. He glitters. I glitter by association.
The path loses itself, but we keep climbing. My breath is syncopated with my stumbling feet and the knocking mirrors. Yards in front of me, Thew stops and wipes his brow. He looks back. There is no sound and the dancing light pauses in the encounter. I think he is waiting for me, but as I approach, he moves again. I pursue.
The ground trades brown leaves for pine needles, which are softer, quieter. Familiar with the nearby woods, I expect to see deer, but there are none. We step over stacks of thin tree limbs. My guide stops, looks, and smiles. This time he waits as I approach a log so big that I would certainly struggle to get over it by myself. Thew holds out his hand to assist me. In proximity, the dazzling reflections fade and become just mirrors again. When I am upright, he moves ahead of me, the glowing light returns, and we continue.
The ground levels a bit. I can see a ledge, a look out. Framed, Thew is the silhouetted figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). I stop. He doesn’t look back. I wonder if this is our destination, if this vista is why we’ve come here. After a few beats he turns left and forges further.
Now, our steps extend outward, straighten, and ease. I think of Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1967) in which the artist altered the landscape by pacing in tall grass. I wonder if I am Sophie Calle in Suite vénitienne (1983), chasing a stranger in the streets of Venice. I imagine Francis Alÿs pushing a block of ice through Mexico City in Sometimes making something leads to nothing (1997). But there is no tall grass, no winding streets. I wish that block of ice was here now.
Without a horizon to calibrate to and no phone to check, I am unaware of distance and time. Thew’s refracting figure remains diligently ahead. My assumption that we are walking to somewhere is called into question. Is there a route? A destination? A map or instruction we must adhere to? Maybe we aren’t going anywhere in particular. Instead, he is a glimmering wanderer, a rural flaneur. But I am here too. Following someone so intent upon getting lost seems ill advised. Even in this performance meant for me, I am extraneous, an interloper. I watch someone stray. Thew glances back.
We descend quickly, pulling aside thin branches. No longer intent upon every step, I notice oddities: a small burn that has created black dust and charred sticks on the forest floor; a single red leaf; the hoot of an owl—how strange at this time of day.
In the distance I see blue siding and I gain ground. Close, Thew looks back once more as his pace quickens. His reflectors lighten, taking in more sky. I hear a final clang of mirrors, as he turns the corner at the edge of the grass, out of sight. Our procession ends.
Back at the house, we sit on the porch, open containers from the fridge, and eat with our hands.
Thew Smoak is an artist working between painting, performance, and political theory. He is the recipient of research fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University’s Center for Collaborative Art and Media, and Yale Norfolk School of Art in New Haven, Connecticut. He has had solo and two-person exhibitions in Madrid, London, Milan, Berlin, Knoxville, Atlanta, New York City, and St. Moritz, Switzerland. He was a resident of Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2019), studied quilting in Gee’s Bend, Alabama (2021), and received his MFA in painting and printmaking from the Yale School of Art (2022).