Surviving Survival

Save the date. Mark Tuesday, February 25 at 7PM as the date to meet Evanston author Laurence Gonzales discuss his non-fiction work, Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience, at the Evanston Public Library, Main Branch.


Back in the day I did a bit of adventure travel and became acutely conscious of how fragile the boundary is between robust health and incapacitation. I did not experience anything similar to the horrific and horrifying stories in this book, but there were close calls. If you are a fan of Into Thin Air (Jon Krakauer), Wild (Cheryl Strayed) and Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition on The Endurance (Alfred Lansing), these stories will fascinate. I was keen to understand the science and neuroscience behind why and how some people survive and others do not. 

Gonzales is a clear writer and excels at making complex subjects understandable. The last chapter of the book, “The Rules of Life,” serve as a primer for getting through the trauma and crap that comes with being human.  Most of us, thank God, will never suffer the way the subjects of this book have. But everyone who is actively living their life will at some point experience disappointment, suffering and failure. Many of us will need to reinvent ourselves, either in our careers or personal lives or perhaps both. And as these compelling stories prove, loss does not need to lead to defeat. It becomes part of the story, but it need not become the story.

Ghost Writer at Evanston Library

I prefer reading a book with paper pages than electronic ones.  Scanning someone’s personal library is my own personal Rorschach test for learning about them.  These days, to be more environmentally conscious and budget-savvy, I frequent the Main Branch of the Evanston Public Library.  One of the many things that impresses me about the library is this fabulous artwork, Ghost Writer, by Ralph Helmick and Stuart Schechter.  In 2014 Ghost Writer will be 20 years old, but it has aged beautifully.


The view from the ground floor looking up is mesmerizing.  I did not realize until I researched its history that all the suspended figures (more than 2,500 of them on 900 cables) together form a head and a face!  On the artists’ websites, they describe it as “a ‘portrait’ of imagination and learning, a metaphor for the creative process.”  The library as “a vessel of knowledge” is the perfect venue for this sculpture.

Recently I spoke to Schechter about the creative process behind Ghost Writer.  He described a period when computers “were at the beginning of consciousness” and the tools to use them were still fresh and often untried.  Schechter’s original career path was as an engineer studying robotics and the design of artificial limbs, an area that allowed for a great deal of creativity and experimentation, but he was interested in merging the technical with the artistic.  He and Helmick began experimenting with abstraction, pointillism, and optical illusions, knowing that “the brain is better than the eye in putting things together.”

The two friends decided to combine their talents on a project.  Working with an Amiga computer, 3D CAD (computer aided design), and a laser scanner with a video output port, they made a tape of the CAD animation to sell the concept of a three-dimensional floating sculpture.  Using a computer, the two men plotted out the design of the head and the face as if the viewer was walking around the sculpture; the other pieces were added by hand and mocked up using pieces of paper tacked to a wall.  Each piece within the sculpture would be individually cast.  This was the birth of Ghost Writer, their first collaboration, purchased for the Evanston Library through the City of Evanston’s Public Art Program.

The Evanston Public Library website offers this bit of insight into the elements of the sculpture: “There are three segments to the composition. First, there is a head composed of over 1500 cast aluminum letters. The head is both androgynous and a composite of world racial and ethnic types. The second segment is a spiral passing through the center of the piece. It is a metaphor for imagination and creativity. The third segment is the ambient symbols floating throughout the piece. Within the piece there are twenty-five references to world sculpture and twenty-four intentional words. There are several Evanston images, including leaves of trees that grow in this area, the Grosse Pointe Lighthouse, and a map of the community.”


I took photographs of the sculpture starting from the fourth floor and worked my way down to the ground floor.  It was fascinating to look at Ghost Writer from so many angles and vantage points. Seeing people walking on the stairs added an interactive aspect, as if they were ‘getting into the head’ of the overall form and not just spectators watching from the desks beyond. The image reminded me (variously) of an Escher print the way the stairs crisscrossed around the dangling pieces ; a spring rain shower and how it can be fun to play in the warm wetness without any fear of lightening; a swarm of locusts descending in biblical proportion; how it might look to approach a giant spiderweb. I found a row of birds sitting on an imaginary wire, one of several group figures.

Schechter shared some insights about some of the other figures.  There are references to historical events and figures and childhood games like Rock Paper Scissors.  The sculpture in total is a tribute to knowledge, learning, and the development of ideas.  One of the individual pieces is a milk splash, a metaphor for the ‘ah-ha’ moment of discovery, which ties back to the photography and research of a beloved professor from MIT, Harold ‘Doc’ Edgerton, whose work and creativity continues to inspire Schechter today.

One final anecdote: Karen Danczak Lyons, Library Director, shared this story about how the library staff cleaned the sculpture a year ago. “Underneath the sculpture on the first floor, staff suspended a large, plastic tarp and stood ready with a wet vac. Another staff member gently sprinkled the sculpture with a light but steady stream of water so that all areas were washed but the sculpture neither moved nor tangled.  The sculpture then air-dried as the water collected on the first floor was vacuumed up. Each day as I pass by the now sparkling clean sculpture I admire the piece of incredible art.”

Celebrate National Library Week, April 14-20, 2013 by visiting your local library.  The next time you visit the main branch of the Evanston Public Library, I encourage you to look up and take in the view of Ghost Writer.  What do you see when you really look?