The man standing in the foreground, successfully cuts off the distant horizon line we can see to either side of his stooped shouldered, lanky frame. He is either chewing on a fingernail or picking his teeth with it in an attempt to clear a particularly stubborn piece of food.
While his body is in profile his head is turned slightly away from us, and what he is looking at is unclear. Truth be told there doesn't appear to be anything to look at aside from stubble poking through fields of snow that surround the frozen dirt road his sneakers are perched on. Moreover, you feel like something isn't quite right. Has he survived some horrible shock? Is he the veteran of one of America's wars, one of the forgotten who have come home damaged more by what they've seen or had to do than any physical scars can bear out?
The sky is as white as the road he stands on, but endless. In one of those weird tricks of light or perspective it looks like it might end at the mountain range in the background. For a moment it makes it look like the man on the road is girded in by walls and a ceiling. But that thought is ridiculous, so it can be dismissed easily, although the next time you look at the image it comes back to you again just as strong.
The picture I've done my best to describe is the cover of a book by David Newsom simply called Skip. Perceval Press has published this loving collection of images of Newsom's brother living a life freed from the confines of the institutions. He tells of how when his mother died, his older brother and sister had taken Skip to Iowa where they had land and settled him in a group home.
Skip had never lived outside of New Jersey, never outside of an urban area, and now he was in the wide-open spaces of the Teton Valley in Iowa. On his first visit in 1994 when he and his mom came out he seemed to fall in love with it. In 2005, after Skip had lived there four years, David Newsom reports that his sister wrote to say that at first she had been scared of him wandering town on his own – but now, she jokes, he's "mayor".
It's like when they were kids again because she is known once more as Skip's little sister. She ends it on a note both funny and touching. "Skip can be trusted to take the (4) dogs around the thirteen acres without any of them disappearing. Now if he could just learn to brush his own teeth before he turns sixty…"
This isn't a book filled with words about living with an adult with the mind of a child and what heroics the brothers and sister have performed for their brother. Or of how Skip is something more then what he is – an almost 60-year old man living with that mind.
There is no romance in the images Mr. Newsom has shot of their lives in the Tenton Valley. The sky is huge and full of beauty, and part of that beauty comes from the wildness that is also a threat. Black storm clouds shot with colour as the sun breaks through in one last feeble attempt to stave off whatever danger is building. This is world of stark realities where there is no place for illusions.
If Skip were at risk because of his health, or put anyone else at risk, you know it would be a different story. But he has managed to make a place in this world for himself. The author makes the comment while observing a thistle — a plant considered such a threat and a pest in the valley that orders exist to exterminate it on sight — that like the thistle his family are strangers here, but some of them have found a home.
The dogs respond to Skip when he calls them to heel, Skip knows when it's time to return to his sister's yellow house for supper time, and Skip isn't behind the walls that at 23 he never wanted to return to. The picture on the front cover makes sense now when you go back and look at it again, but for reasons different then what I had first assumed.
This is one of the most beautiful books I have ever had the privilege to hold in my hands. It breaks your heart with its honesty while making you laugh at the bittersweet nature of life. The author in his acknowledgment states that these images prove that his brothers and sister were and remain his heroes.
Without any cheap sentimentality or "heart-warming" bullshit, he has indeed created a beautiful homage to three remarkable people and an equally beautiful landscape. In this day and age of fake emotion and false idols, this book should be required reading for every person in North America.