The Wall, The Whale, and The White Rose

Sometimes there’s a fine line between a spiritual quest and a self-destructive obsession

Amy Shearn


Jay DeFeo’s “The Rose”

“Only by chancing the ridiculous can I hope for the sublime.” — Jay DeFeo

There are Long Haul projects that end up taking much much longer than the creator intended — like Dorothy Richardson’s novel Pilgrimage, or, ah, my own intermittent studies of Long Haul projects. And then there are those that were always meant to take forever and/or however long it takes.

I think I know, a little, how you keep going when a project ends up expanding, and I know this because I write novels and novels take a really freaking long time to write. And the thing is: You take a leap of faith. You believe in the future. You break it into a daily practice or some other manageable, smaller sections. Maybe you scrum it! You get the idea.

But why take on a potentially endless project? This is a little trickier to answer. Sometimes I think a project like this gives you such a distinct and complete focus that it shapes your days, and this can feel really good — the way, I imagine, being very religious could shape your days and feel really good, and take away some of life’s guesswork, granting you a guaranteed sense of purpose. It’s the ecstatic joy of having a vocation, of investing in work that exists outside of capitalism — that special spiritual tingle of feeling “called.”

Tommy Caldwell scaling the Dawn Wall
Brett Lowell / Red Bull Media House

Tommy Caldwell is a rock climber who spent over a decade planning and training to scale the near-sheer Dawn Wall of Yosemite’s El Capitan. The actual climb took him 14 days. It was a climb deemed impossible by many, including Caldwell himself when he first saw it. But he did it. And how did he feel afterwards, when he summited, when you would think he would be riding high?

He felt as if he were in mourning. “It was my Moby Dick. The beauty was in the pursuit of it,” he told me when I interviewed him at the time. “I loved the way it made me live.”

Our days can feel so formless, or else so hemmed-in by limits — how do we find an in-between place, a way to make our lives feel meaningful? Sometimes, as Caldwell suggests, it’s about choosing an interesting way to bind yourself.

Moby-Dick / Gilbert Wilson

And what about Moby Dick? It’s become cultural shorthand for the Long Haul gone awry, the journey that devours rather than feeds, the quest that kills you. In order to avenge his gobbled leg, Captain Ahab famously seeks the white whale for years, prioritizing his outsized quest above all else, including the ship’s commercial earnings and his own family life. Ahab is a foundational literary obsessive, but tellingly, his focus on revenge leads to destruction and doom.

It’s a cautionary tale: Too much attention paid to the end result, and not enough paid to the way your life is lived along the way…I mean, it starts to sound like a fable about capitalism, doesn’t it?

The lower tip of Manhattan, from whence whalers like Ahab once launched, now bristles with industry that seems similarly rewards-focused. (Occupy Whale Ships!) In 2010 the remains of an 18th century ship were found while excavating the World Trade Center site — its skeleton as giant and spiny as a whale’s beached carcass— a visual metaphor for the layered history of capitalism made bare if ever there were one.

Melville wrote the book twenty years after the real-life events that inspired its plot, ten years after his own whale ship years. After a year and a half of full-time work on Moby Dick, he achieved his ambitious goal of creating his truly sui generis American novel… but (as every writer with disappointing sales can recite) the massive tome only sold around 3,000 copies in his lifetime. His writing career floundered, and soon he was working as a Customs Inspector in New York (not far from the World Trade Center site where the whaling ship was found), assuming his book had been forgotten.

Perhaps every Long Haul project has some elements of Moby Dick. Can you ever catch the white whale without it, eventually, catching you back? And once you catch it, can you go back to life before? Can you even remember what it was like?

Jay DeFeo in front of early stage of The Rose, 1961 / The Jay DeFeo Trust

Jay DeFeo’s The Rose (nothing to do with the shmaltzy Bette Midler song and I am very sorry if that is now going through your head, it’s like, the utter opposite of the painting) is nearly eleven feet tall and weighs almost a ton. DeFeo started the painting — which at various times was also called Deathrose or White Rose — in 1958. She was part of the Bay Area art scene, and her work was shown in galleries and in a group show at MOMA. But once she started working on The Rose, she became totally focused on the singular work. She worked on it steadily for eight years, applying thick layers of plaster-like paint with a trowel, until it became, in her words, “a marriage between painting and sculpture.”

Why did DeFeo work on this painting so singularly for so long? Her friend Bruce Conner said that as soon as she started it, it became “the only painting that she would do. She became totally obsessed with it.” It became her life, her identity. Since DeFeo was constantly chipping away at the paint in order to shape it, the room where she worked was covered in flakes of sparkling, mica-flecked paint —Conner described entering her painting studio as being like entering “a temple…almost alive…like walking on the back of a whale.”

Conner also noted that an “uncontrolled event” was necessary to force her to finish the work, suggesting that she might have continued forever. That uncontrolled event came in 1965, when she was evicted from her San Francisco apartment. By then the painting was so large and heavy that a window and part of a wall had to be removed in order to get the painting out of the second-story flat, via forklift. (Conner also implies that inhaling so much white lead paint had an effect on her sanity, and said that at the time he wondered if she would throw herself out the window with the painting!)

DeFeo always resisted any request to interpret or explain The Rose, claiming it was just the work itself, nothing more, nothing less. It’s an attitude toward making art that veers more towards the spiritual than the commercial. As John Yau wrote in Hyperallergic:

That DeFeo invested so much time and material into a single work is unparalleled. It runs counter to everything the economic wing of the art world holds dear. Paradoxically, by making an unwieldy work of such bulk, she comes to resemble a poet who spends a lifetime writing poems, which are essentially worthless. It also suggests why “The Rose” would achieve a legendary status in the artist’s life, as well as become her albatross. It is a marker of her belief, a rare commodity in today’s disbelieving world.

It was taken to an art museum and exhibited briefly, but then, oddly, hidden behind a wall in a conference room — too big, presumably, to keep moving around. Only recently was it uncovered, restored, and briefly exhibited again.

The Rose was DeFeo’s Dawn Wall, her great white whale, her spiritual quest. After she stopped working on it she didn’t paint anything for three years, and never embarked on such an ambitious work again.

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Amy Shearn

Formerly: Editor of Creators Hub, Human Parts // Ongoingly: Novelist, Essayist, Person