Family history creates and burdens us at the same time. We look back when we should look ahead, but it's this backward glancing that propels us, forces change within the self. As a piece of artwork, "Spontaneous Combustion" reaches backward and forward at the same time, somehow maintaining solid footing in the present through the physical work, through the constant watching and listening to my children, through the processing of their and my fears for us all. What in this house can catch on fire? What has already burst into flame and threatens to burn out of control? What do I need to do as a mother, a woman, an artist to find the person I need to be right now?
I'd never done a piece of art like this before, and while I'd made a few bed quilts, this approach was different -- something blurring the line between memoir and time capsule, something so intensely personal that maybe no one would understand it, or even care. And the time involved ... I couldn't even think about that part. So I gave myself structured parameters: use family textiles, learn how to hand appliqué really well by making myself do it, use traditional hand quilting techniques and keep moving forward even if I had no idea where the end was, or how long this project would take.
I hauled out the tea towels and doilies and domestic cloths my Swedish mother, grandmother, and great grandmother had made and then I cut them up.
I cut up my husband's shirts.
I cut up the abandoned cross stitch I remember hating having to learn as a child.
I cut up my wedding handkerchief, an embroidered pillowcase border, an old quilt (none of this done maliciously -- ok, maybe that damned cross stitch).
I'd never hand appliquéd on this scale before and I wasn't very good at it. I still find rejected A's and W's kicking around my studio (M's were the trickiest, all wiggly armed and hard to keep straight). I made letter stencils to trace with disappearing ink, then followed these lines as I tucked and stitched, tucked and stitched; I used silk thread, wool suiting for the letters and appliquéd on whole tea towels and tablecloths: M, M, M, M, M, M, R, R, R, R, R, T, T, T, T, T. Later, I centered the letters beneath a clear rectangular stencil and cut the blocks by hand. This technique was efficient and spared the more fragile fabrics from fraying as I worked.
I appliquéd on airplanes, on road trips, watching movies at night and could work in one-letter increments while the kids were content. 25 minutes at first, then eventually 10 or 11 minutes per letter. I got better and faster and the words slowly accumulated on the wall.
When the blocks were assembled and I was considering the border, I commented to a group of friends that I was manifesting a huge crocheted tablecloth, thinking of mounting the blocks somehow. One friend spoke up, "Oh! I have one ... please take it!" How fitting that one woman's lifted burden should become the border for another's.
The last thing I added, when the top was finished and it all looked too precious, were my children's marks. It cried out for the Sharpie on the wall, the ball point pen used to carve your sister's name into the Danish coffee table, the forbidden but permanent defacement. We were here. This happened. My children each drew on the quilt and I embroidered all of their responses to what it meant to be a child and to be heard and be seen.
To be honored.
"Spontaneous Combustion" took almost 3 years to complete. Not working every day, not even looking at it every day. For 9 or 10 months the letter blocks just hung in my studio because I needed answers to materials, composition, time. I missed a juried show deadline in 2011. My children got a little older.
In 2013 I entered the piece in "Earth, Fire & Fibre XXIX," a biennial show at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center and it won the Juror's Choice Award. The museum purchased it for their permanent collection. It happened that fast. I couldn't have imagined a response like this and was absolutely blown away. People asked if selling the work was difficult, if letting go of years of work, my children's marks, my grandmothers' textiles and handwork was hard.
Because if you honor history and time, if you treat the work of others with reverence and acknowledge the burden of safe-keeping, then release it all, the muse will again alight. The luckiest will see that the muse has moved right in. She's spread around her Legos and her finger knitting projects on the floor and left her balled up socks on the couch. She's asking for a snack. She keeps forgetting to flush the potty.
But the muse has a lot to say. Just listen.