Memory is a strange thing. It is fleeting, it is shaped by the retelling, it is and is not a shared experience. It can define a person's life. So much of memory is held in place by the details surrounding it -- the smells, the sounds, the tastes -- and yet the walls of this supportive container are just as malleable, a shape-shifting vessel holding an element that could be gas or liquid or solid or some combination, but never the same thing twice.
When I was nine, while waiting for a friend outside her house, I draped a blue camp tarp across my shoulders, swirling the extra fabric into the crooks of my elbows, fisting sturdy wads of it in place at my sides. We'd planned an elaborate fort -- our eye on a dense cluster of black oaks -- and I was impatient because she'd had to pee, again, the result of medication she took for a heart condition. Her mother had died that year and our friendship felt distant and strained. We couldn't talk about her family's loss, but we could play in the woods the same as always and I was looking forward to an afternoon of normalcy for the two of us, although I wouldn't have defined it as such at the time. She wouldn't be gone long, just a quick pee. I marched along the sidewalk in a long trailing blue straightjacket, waiting. Then I fell.
Sometimes, even 35 years later, I still wake to the sickening sound of my face hitting the concrete.
I remember thinking I should get up. I should be crying -- no, screaming -- or calling for help at least, but I was still tangled in the tarp and pinned to the ground. When her family found me, I'd somehow made it to the front door, but no one told me that my two front teeth were demolished, or that my lips were already swollen and bloody. I stared at her older brother, the boy who had once sealed our dollhouse animals in a Tupperware and tossed them into the middle of the pool. His face was slack and white, his eyes fixed on my mouth. The father took me by the shoulders, walked me down the hall into the bathroom and propped me in front of the mirror, never saying a word. My hair was in pigtails. I think the hall carpet was rusty orange, the bathroom wallpaper a repeated series of brown line drawings featuring naked people hiding their privates with cleverly placed towels.
The next memory takes place at my home, sobbing in our living room, tucked under an end table with a bloody cloth and a bag of ice while my mother spoke to the dentist on the phone, holding a triangle of tooth in a ziplock bag (the other, bigger triangle forever lost outside where my friend and her brother still searched). Strangers were replacing the carpet in our trailer, from matted mossy green to brown, the weeks leading up to this day punctuated with, "This brown shade? Or this brown? Or maybe this brown?" The man on his knees below the window by the TV, spoke Italian and I remember thinking he was probably someone's grandpa. He turned to me with a tool in his hand and said, "You have to be more careful." He shook that tool at me.
And that horrible smell of new synthetic carpet.
I didn't make this piece of artwork because my teeth broke off. Or because I still dream that they are falling into my hands, all bloody pulp and shards. Or because it's my worry for my own children when they spin out of control down sledding hills, or crash into one another on purpose with razor scooters. I made this piece because the words are what the muse whispered in my ear a year ago and it was up to me to figure out what it meant:
My teeth. My teeth. My teeth are falling out.
My work takes a long time to make. There are many steps, several ways to begin and abandon processes.
So I have time to think about and explore what each piece means.
This is, in a way, a luxury.
In other ways, it is haunting.
The meaning of my work lies in the materials I use: old fabrics, clothing, abandoned domestic linens. Scraps of a life that came before or existed parallel to mine, each bit a memory in its own right. And all of these fragments are fragile, each needs a system of support fabrics and inner structures or outer veils to keep them whole and safe and contained, keeping them alive just a little bit longer.
No one sees this part, this way of working that draws from years of making patterns, draping mannequins, building corsets for wedding gowns. You aren't supposed to see it. I rarely use adhesives or fusibles. When I have, I've been disappointed and wished I'd taken the time to solve the problem in a different way. But each case is different. Sometimes glues are necessary, but for me it is always a last resort. Is isn't a medium.
No one sees your memories unless you share them somehow. This, the problem for each of us to solve: whether or not to share. Does revealing memory lead to further understanding? Or is it more confessional, useless information that no one cares about?
So this piece is a reliquary for loss, and how the accumulation of every small loss in one's life begins to shape a person and forces us to make choices. We can curl into a sobbing ball beneath a table, or we can take these shards and try to form them into something beautiful and dark. This piece is the vessel for a memory, but the making has shaped that memory so it will never be quite the same as when it existed solely in my mind. This piece doesn't look like that day. It doesn't represent that day. But it is the culmination of all the days between that one and this.
I found out this week that the piece has been accepted into Quilts=Art=Quilts at the Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center in Auburn, New York. This is the second year I have submitted and been asked to exhibit. The first piece in 2014 was also perhaps difficult to look at and understand. For this reason, I'm incredibly grateful that the jurors chose to include my work each time. I wonder if they took a chance on its inaccessibility. I hope people will view it, wonder and come away wanting to know more. Hopefully they'll make there way here.
I lived with broken, poorly repaired teeth for decades: composite bonding materials always too yellow or too white, or that threatened to pop off (like in the station wagon on the way to the 4th grade Christmas play), or that had to be supported by pins drilled into the existing tooth. I've endured multiple root canals, dental surgeries, stitches in my gums. I remember an incredibly painful file getting stuck between my front teeth and my head being yanked off the dentist's chair again and again while he tried to free it, tears rolling down my temples and collecting in my ears. That was the week before I got married.
10 years ago, pregnant with my son, I dropped stacks$, accepted my vanity and had proper veneers made. Coming home from the dentist's office, I nearly drove onto the sidewalk because I couldn't stop staring at my new teeth in the rear view mirror. These were movie star teeth, fused to those fragile shards beneath. The right glue. The right color. The right shape. The right medium. Porcelain.
God damn it. I deserved them.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.