Pathways to a Self, introduction

Pathways to a Self (exerpt),  Introduction by Carter Ratcliff

In March 1969, Bill Beckley went into his George Washington phase.
It didn't last long but it kept him very busy.
A few months earlier, he had drawn a line across a field in Pennsylvania.
In the early morning, when the sky was orange, Beckley used orange paint.
Later, under a blue sky, he switched to blue paint and then back to orange as the sun set and the light again changed.
Next, he tried to draw a line across the Delaware River, stepping from the bank into the water with a can of paint strapped to his belt.
As he advanced, he dripped paint from a brush into the running water.
Suddenly, there was nothing beneath his feet and he felt the current pulling him under the surface.
Scrambling up to the light and air, he ditched the paint can and made for the opposite bank.
Hauling himself out of the water, he noticed a plaque.
It was here that George Washington had crossed the Delaware.
This was news to Beckley, who hadn't intended his performance piece to retrace a historic itinerary.
Simmering in his imagination, the coincidence prompted him to launch a series of George Washington works.

To resemble, as closely as possible, the figure in Gilbert Stuart's portrait of Washington, he dressed up in formal clothes and sprinkled talcum powder in his hair.
Then he made a photograph of himself.
To commemorate all the places the first president is supposed to have slept, Beckley spent a night at the George Washington Motel, on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
He chopped down a cherry tree.
With these performances, Beckley evoked the iconic Washington who used to hang on the walls of American schoolrooms; the Washington driven hither and yon by the vagaries of war, always in need of a good night's sleep; and Washington the epitome of virtue, who could not tell a lie.
Of course, it's untrue that the young George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and then confessed, declaring, "I cannot tell a lie."
The episode was the early nineteenth-century invention of Mason Weems, who included it in a book of uplifting stories for American children.

Read for decades as history, Weems's fabrications were eventually debunked.
By contrast, Beckley introduced his impersonations as flagrantly transparent masquerades.
"Obviously, I wasn't George Washington," as he remarked earlier this year. 1
Obviously.
What is not so obvious is why Beckley played Father of His Country in 1971.


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Carter Ratcliff