Syntax Issue 10
Denver Syntax

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There are many kinds of heroes and the greatest of those is the solitary one who looks so shuddered away from success that the next thing may topple him. This taciturn heroís existence was always debatable for him as much for us because he was so lost in thought he forgot to ever tell anybody about his magical powers. But, to be heroic means that one needs to do something monumental, right? Perhaps our beige culture, our society of the spectacle, has it wrong.

Because if somebody like Keith Slaby has any say, the pedestrian life and rote tasks can become beautiful again. But, how is this possible?

Because of the hero of the mundane.

And now, because of Keith Slaby, our most favorite, uncommon man has a name: Zachariah.

It doesnít begin romantically: our hero wears a yellow hazmat suit. He is mowing the lawn. Shoveling dirt. Tuning the radio. Looking at box of crackers. Reading the paper in his lawn chair. At first, heís not succeeding at much and you try to empathize with the germaphobe, or whatever is going on, but you canít hear what he is saying under his mask.

And this is precisely where our hero begins: Zachariah in his hazmat suit canít connect with the outside world.

Keith Slaby is a Rust Belt Baby. Or, he was. Now heís a Denverite, going back to the Rust Belt to marry his girl. Heís a painter whose first love was and is printmaking. Sorry girl. At least you/she get to see the inside of his hazmat suit. Yes, Slaby owns a hazmat suit. But no, heís not Zachariah. Again, the boy in the hazmat suit is a hero. Keith Slaby is a painter. First love, printmaking. Born Cleveland, Ohio. Resides Denver, Colorado.

At first itís not so romantic. The hazmat suit protects one from the disasters outside. It makes somebody not-hurt. Slaby came to the idea whilst in an extended bout of seclusion that relied on work day lengths of watching news television during a great year: the days of brutal Mideast fighting with Hezbollah. California fires. Darfur. Saddamís execution and even more terror plots. North Korea successfully detonated a nuclear rocket.

Instead of a bomb shelter, Slaby spent $600 on a practice hazmat suit, took reference photos of himself in the suit and began making survival pamphlets for his friends around the country. With his tongue in his cheek, he created the content and the covers. He sent them out.

This was before Zachariah was a hero.

Slowly, this has grown. This whole idea. Now Slaby is seven years into it.

Zachariah came to Slaby as a character from a book that he read as a child: Z for Zachariah. Itís about the apocalypse where a girl survives and leaves her home valley to go find and save her friends. She begins at the beginning of the name alphabet and ends with Z, for: Zachariah. The last man. The one she identifies with most. The last man. The same one Slaby identified with.

Zachariah is not Slaby, but he helps his creator understand himself. In this Zachariah is not a self portrait, but he is self reflective. He is a tool for meaning.

And this is where the hero is born: During those tasks of mowing the lawn. Shoveling dirt. Even, listening to the radio.

Mowing your lawn and keeping a pretty sidewalk is a civic duty. But imagine yourself in the clippings. Slabyís kind of deconstruction descends like such: What sense is in this kind of civic responsibility at all? Why have I been mowing my lawn for the last thirty years? I hate gardening. Then, deeper: Why do I live on this street? In this city? This house? Why a house? What is a house? Wait, who am I?

For Slaby this is where the beautiful things happen. Behind the lawnmower. In the shower. As the door is closing.

Keith Slaby has admitted some things to himself in the last couple of years. He is a bit reclusive. He sees and understands the world but has difficulty connecting with it. Heís not dissociative or anything. He can connect, it just takes him a little while to peel-off his hazmat suit and feel the breeze cool the beads of sweat on his skin. Here he is like Zachariah. Here, he uses him too: as a vehicle for clarity. For understanding.

Slaby began this series back in 2007 and then started exhibiting it. Then it escaped him. The meaning wasnít fresh anymore. So, he stopped adding to the series. He stopped seeing Zachariah. Unbeknownst to him though, for a year and a half while he was away, Zachariah continued growing up. Life intensified for Slaby and he and his fiancťe moved to Denver and then he saw Zachariah for the first time in 18 months. The kid was bigger. His meaning, his direction, his opportunities had changed. But the vehicle was the same and he and Zachariah remembered each other. So, Slaby got back in Zachariahís car and the boy in the hazmat suit immediately started taking him places again. Heís a bit existentialist like this: Slaby likes taking himself to places where he can ask a good question. Then, live it. When mowing the lawn. Walking to the store. Shutting the door.

Over these last seven years, since he gave birth to Zachariah, Slaby has learned many things. Through the creation of simple rules. Quiet, singular observations. Isolated assessments. Solitary questions. Take, for example, Slabyís two rules for these paintings: the background can only vaguely elude to something and Zachariah can only interact with one thing at a time.

Because of Zachariah, Slaby learned this: Each single interaction helps him better understand the world and his place in it. The tasks are a moment of self reflection, not anymore just a civic duty or a rote chore. No, itís here in these spaces where a man can re-remember that he too can live a meta-cognitive life. He can find wonder and enjoy this simple question: Why? Why am I doing this? Why do I feel compelled to do this?

If youíre doing something epic, the meaning would obvious. On the sidewalk of a pedestrian life is the true test. To have an act set-out before you, the options are simple: you either climb the mountain with the village on your back, or you donít. The meaning within that is buried much more than when Zachariah mows the lawn. Or when Slaby brushes his teeth. In that meditative space, our protagonist has a choice that is mired in the mud of brilliance, the darkness of liberty. Here the meaning is not clear Ė it needs assessment in multitudes of layered steps. Here the meaning is born somewhere in the abstract ability to formulate a strong question at all.

Keith Slabyís relationship with Zachariah will continue to unfold. It will morph with meaning. It will change. They may not talk for periods of time, but there is something here that is not completely clear. And for that, we are thankful. For the virtue is not in the clear beach sea, but rather in the untouched murky waters of the backwoods.