My Grandmother, fostered a deep appreciation in me for the significance of dreams. I listened to her nightly stories of her childhood memories and dreams before falling asleep in her bed.
Her stories and truth took hold on my young heart and rooted to my emotional experience.
I would burrow beneath a stack of puffy quilts, stretching my arm under my pillow to feel its coolness, and listen to the nightly sounds of our home canyon. In my mind I imagined that I could float above the coyote families who communicated to one another across the canyon from opposing knolls. They yipped back and forth to each other throughout the night.
I could see them in my flyovers lit only by the moon as I flew above the cap rocks of Peacock Canyon. Flying was just another experiment in perspective.
There were nights I floated above our tiny little rock house, unable to sleep because of Grandma’s whistling snore and the midnight breeze, sounding restless chimes from the old gate and cowbell.
Growing up on my Grandmother’s ranch I had just enough freedom that I could roam around, in a limitless way, drifting from one dream to the next in my imagination.
In December of 1989, I had a routine surgical procedure that led to the most bizarre dreams of my life as I fought for my life. In the months preceding this surgery, I had been in unbearable pain from a tumor on one of my ovaries. The procedure was supposed to remove the tumor but the ovary and the tumor were too involved, as the surgeon described, so an oophorectomy was performed. I was 27 years old.
In the hours following the surgery, I was fighting for consciousness. I was only aware that things were taking longer than the out-patient guidelines had described. I was bleeding to death and no one knew why, exactly.
The worried face of my little sister, Jeanalyn, was how I measured the seriousness of my predicament. She kept reassuring me that Mom was on her way, unexpectedly, on a last-minute flight from Amarillo, TX. Mom was the only word I could say in my pain-induced whispering utterances.
Whatever was going on with me must be pretty bad, I thought. Am I going to die? I kept asking but no one understood my mumbling. I squeezed my sister’s hand, trying to communicate my worry.
I was aware that my she was lying on the bed next to me that night. I was so deeply fatigued. I could feel my body falling through the hospital bed because it was so heavy–too heavy to stay with me.
I dreamt of Grandma’s bed and the way the moonlight flickered through the elms and into her windows at night. I could hear the frogs croaking down near the pond, like they do after a rain.
The landscape of home is a familiar place for my dreams. I dreamed of climbing the red rocks, arrowhead hunting and the road home–the last seven miles in fine detail. I saw the old owl perched in the dead pinion on Peacock Hill, watching me. I tried to fly.
Each time I tried to make it to the hole in the ceiling where I could escape, the nurse would come back into my room and I would slam back into my body.
The next morning, I was prepped for an exploratory surgery. It revealed that there was no single source as I was leaking blood from every membrane wall. A hematologist later determined that a single aspirin taken nine days prior to the procedure had poisoned my platelets and so I was bleeding profusely internally and on the verge of bleeding out of my skin. This was the turning point in long path back to my good health.
My first night home, one week later, I had a vivid dream that I was a landscape photographer. In the dream, I was making images using a large format view camera–something similar to the large format cameras used by black and white photographers like Ansel Adams. This was not familiar gear to me. I had only read about it and understood the technique in theory.
In my dream, I was taking my time with each image, setting up the camera and tripod, focusing under the dark cloth, very precisely and then carefully removing the dark slide for the exposure. As I was doing this, I was approached by a curious horse who nudged my elbow in a familiar way. He reminded me of a horse from my childhood.
In the dream I kept trying to shoo the animal away and eventually I started to follow the horse. Unbeknownst to me, the horse or some part of him is in all the images I attempt to make that day.
I follow him over the landscape until it comes to a transition to a more urban area and this is where the dream cuts to a darkroom. In the darkroom as I am hanging up the sheet film to dry when I notice that every image has a part of the horse in it–his head, tail, ears or ass-end.
It was a dream that made me laugh when I awoke. I pondered its message of intricate detail and sense of place as well as how the character of the horse embodied so many familiar themes of play from my childhood. He reminded me of Navajo, a horse with whom I had a special connection as a girl.
I called my little sister who at the time was a race horse trainer at Bay Meadows and told her about the dream.
“I don’t know what it means but I think I have to recreate the setting somehow and photograph it. There’s some kind of message in it, I think. Can you help me?”
A week later, I met her at the track. She loaded a couple of horses into a trailer and we took off for the Tilden Park in the Berkeley Hills. She knew of an entry gate where we could ride in, so that I could carry my gear on my horse and we could find a hill overlooking an area that resembled what I had described to her in my dream.
We rode in a few miles up to the summit area and could see both the Oakland Bay Bridge and Golden Gate from that perspective. It was a spectacular day. She removed the saddle from her horse and I started shooting.
I knew as I made the images, they embodied the feeling of discovery and hope in my dream. It is a knowing that photographers have when they are in a flow of content, context and timing.
When I inspected the film as it dried, I thought it showed a mastery beyond my abilities at that point, in my personal craft. The nearest to perfection, in articulating the images in my head and heart–technical execution that had been unproven until now.
The first print that I made from this roll was of the next image. I enlarged it to 16 x 20 inches and I remember watching it develop in the tray, tears streaming, dripping into the hypo, while I agitated the fixer tray and carefully washed the print. It had a magical dynamic tension that was so compelling to see for the first time as a large print.
The first thing I noticed was the line through the horse’s body. It is a figure eight at an angle–infinity, forever. That spoke to me, symbolically confirming that I was on the right path in my life as a photographer. I saw the backdrop of the sky as another symbol of infinite possibilities.
This is my truth from this experience.
Images or a life, are alike in that they are abstractions from our intentions and context. They are outcomes. We have no control over how they turn out or how they are judged.
When I study the Horse Dream images today, over twenty years later, I still see perfection of technique and artistic execution. I feel the dream was a message sent to me, from me. The dream was told from my older wiser self. It was demonstrating the difference between intention and attention in the moment. It is a fine line we walk as artists.
My work attempts to capture moments of deep reflection in the single subject–the day dreamers. They inspire me.
I could devote an entire essay to Navajo, the copper color stud, who ran wild with a brood of mares until he was five. My Grandmother, thought he needed to be tamed and so she paid some cowboy to “break” him. I am still trying to figure out why his spirit seemed to fit the dream messenger so completely. I may never know.
Navajo and I had a special connection. I identified with his true and restless spirit and deep down I really did not yearn for him to be tamed. What I dreamed as a girl was that he would have a life of no fences and be allowed to remain completely wild with one human friend–me.
When I watched him as a girl, I thought about the nature of his existence, his sense of his world– his life. I imagined seeing his world through his eyes and pounding the red dirt at a reckless breakneck speed.
In my dream, Navajo lives forever.
2013 Copyright Marquita Alcartado