If you've followed this blog for a little while, you know my family spends summer weekends in Prince William Sound, Alaska. This is our 7th season boating -- by Alaskan standards this is green -- and there is no amount of preparedness that makes me feel totally safe on the water. Last weekend, for example, we awoke at 2 am when a 22-foot KingFisher aluminum boat dragged anchor and T-boned our bow (no harm done, unless you count their ego and our good night's sleep). Not only this, but we are lousy fishermen, spending a lot more time picking up marine debris from remote beaches than catching anywhere near what one might call a limit. Last year at anchor, the silver salmon my husband reeled in off the swim step was met with much squealing, petting and naming, until it was bonked on the head. After this, the children burst into tears and refused to speak to my husband for the rest of the afternoon, still glaring at him with red-rimmed stink eyes at dinner, all hiccup-y as they scarfed heaping plates of grilled salmon. We are nurturing these soft hearts while gently redirecting their intensity because, hey, we all like eating wild salmon and recognize the importance of understanding where one's food comes from. At the same time, it's the insistent, curious heart that saves lives of all kinds.
And while it's important to know where your food comes from, it's also damned important to know where your garbage goes, because, people, it's all connected. And in the words of my wise younger sister: "You say you're throwing something away, but there is ... no ... away."
On a trip to the Grand Canyon a few months ago, we stopped for breakfast in Flagstaff, and before we'd even finished our sit-down meal, I was complaining to the manager about the 4 plastic kiddie cups with lids and straws the staff had produced (unasked for) as well as all the other wrappers and disposables that came with our non-fast-food breakfasts. While my husband squirmed and my kids thought we were about to be escorted outside, I explained our sensitivity to garbage, how completely unnecessary this waste was (FOUR straws that no one wanted?) and how we find this exact debris on our beaches in Alaska.
This, the manager's parting comment:
"I will definitely take your thoughts into consideration. Trust me, I don't like spending money on these cups and lids either, but kids always spill. And I personally GUARANTEE this trash won't end up on your Alaskan beaches! Heh, heh." (Feel free to insert the term "Little Lady" anywhere in here, adding a pat on the head, and you'd be right on tone).
Okay. First of all, teach children how to drink out of a cup, America. Cleaning up spilled water and milk is a vital part of raising small, capable humans -- right up there with wiping ass and actually speaking to one another at the table instead of staring at your electronic devices.
Secondly, Mr. Personal-Guarantee-Arizona, you have no freaking idea how far the crap on our beaches has traveled.
While the polar regions are experiencing massive shifts directly related to climate change (ever heard of a Pizzlie? How about a Grolar? If not, you should check out that link), there are other changes afoot that are unexplained. Along with finding a modest amount of trash last weekend, we discovered more seabird carcasses than we'd ever seen before. Biologists have been tracking a huge common murre die off that started this winter, and while I'm no bird expert, I can definitely identify a dead one. We easily counted 30 on one beach outside of Surprise Cove alone. Cause of death? Unknown.
I realize no one wants to see these images. I didn't either and I still don't. And I always thought the last thing I wanted to hear on a beach was my kids yelling, "More plastic!" but now I realize hearing, "Another dead bird!" is worse.
The whole point of this blog is to wrap my head around the things that inspire me, frighten me and force the living questions to the surface, which then begin to inform my work. I'm not on a soap box here, but it's easy to dismiss issues that feel incredibly far away ... I know this because I'm guilty of it, too. But if I show the world a problem that is part of my family's life, maybe small simple things will start happening, like folks might start requesting no straws. (Yes, the restaurant wait staff will look at you like you have a horn growing out of your head, but if everyone started to learn to drink out of a cup like we used to, maybe we'd all do some other things differently as well). Living in a world that so easily disposes of things, leads to the easy disposal of culture, places, wildlife and people. And while trash doesn't go "away," animals certainly do, places are and people will.
Do I dispose of things? Yes. Do we burn diesel to get to these remote beaches? Yes. I am not without conflicts of my own. But environmental conflict has partly shaped my decision to use old cloth. To purchase used clothing. To carry a dented metal water bottle. To darn wool socks. Mend holes. Gather other people's trash. These are small things, but some of my children's personal choices of the future will be made based on what they see me do now. Other choices we all take for granted may simply disappear.
I'm not looking forward to finding a strangled seal carcass, but it might be inevitable. If I thought my children's howling over the silver salmon was bad, I can only imagine the wobbly chins and before-bed discussions that will ensue based on a meaningless death, but at least they'll have seen these creatures alive in their lifetime. They've watched whales breaching, Dall's Porpoises chasing our wake, curious seals circling our anchorages, Stellar Sea Lions hauled out on rocks, black bear pawing the water's edge. They've sat in the dinghy at the mouth of streams filled with so many jostling salmon that the boat has lifted.
They have counted and petted and named all of those silvery, slippery insistent heads. They remember places based on what they've seen, picked, eaten or found. They will go forth in the world with pockets full of stories and stories and stories.
If you are curious about our Alaskan beach excursions (not all of them this rant-y, but hopefully still thought provoking), check out the following posts:
Someone online left this comment recently: "But, what IS the Inheritance Project?" Which means a.) this person never opened the link, b.) didn't read deeply or, my worst fear, c.) I'm not being a clear writer. And it's probably all three, because a.) social media is a lousy form of distillation and b.) it's been difficult to be clear while I've been rolling around in The Not Knowing for a number of months. And while The Not Knowing is an integral part of my process, as it is and should be, for many other writers/artists, it is boring for onlookers to see, let alone read about, and could be misread as flakiness. However, now is the time for clarity -- right here, right now -- because after several weeks of writing, then even more weeks of waiting, I can finally announce that my proposal for the 2017/18 Patricia B. Wolf Solo Exhibition Series at the Anchorage Museum was accepted.
"Inheritance: makers. memory. myth." will be a solo exhibition of contemporary mixed media work created from donated/abandoned/rescued/crowdsourced domestic linens, which I've been willing to inherit if no one else will. It is an exploration of my own literal inheritance and relationship to materials and makers. It is a vessel for emerging themes such as valuing the valueless, honoring the hand and revering the fragility of memory. It is an interpretation of the narrative of inherited cloth, and because so much of this history is unknown, much of it is myth.
"Project" indicates that it involves other people, and it does, all of whom will be accounted for in some way beyond the thanks they've already received. When the small exploration of my personal collection of domestic textiles started running down the road without me, a "project" framework helped define its boundaries without shackling it to the post. I already use old linens for my work, but I didn't predict the power of the relationships that would emerge from this act of inheriting and corresponding.
The Inheritance Project is the gathering and documenting of narratives, objects, materials, with the most unexpected gathering being that of (mostly) women from all over the world, who feel they have no one to pass these items on to. Can I take something unwanted and make meaningful, contemporary work from it? The effort is the Project. The journey is the Project. The questioning is the Project. The act of inheriting is the Project. The Not Knowing is the Project. And now an exhibition will be the culmination of all this.
Here's an update on the 11th Boxes of Mystery -- the name I attribute to the items I've inherited. If you are curious about the other 10 posts, check out the Boxes of Mystery blog sidebar category. The shipments are mysterious in that I never know what each parcel will contain, who has made them, or why. Sometimes they are mysteries to the contributors, but sometimes the only mystery is what they will become.
* * *
Grandmother and granddaughter.
When I lived in Canada, my husband, his brother and I spent several years renovating a 1927 bungalow in East Vancouver, British Columbia. We almost didn't buy that sad little house because it was a tear-down, but many others hadn't bought the house because they were superstitious: the address was 2666 Trinity Street. But we figured we'd have both Heaven and Hell supporting us if we started that project, and obviously that's some serious back up.
Our Swedish neighbors at the time, The Grebergs, were renting a basement suite one house over and their little girl, Rebecka, then 5, was allowed to walk down the back lane and visit when I was in the yard, often appearing with no warning, a halo of white-blonde hair and rapid-fire Swedish, hands gesturing, eyes sparkling. "Rebecka," I'd say, looking over the fence towards her house,"does your mother know you've come visiting?" We'd point and name the colors of flowers, compare the sizes of birds, describe all the good things cooking for dinner. My Swedish still exists within the realm of home and childhood; hers was the taut line that slowly pulled the language from the depths of my memory.
Rebecka visited us in Alaska last summer, at age 20. Her parents and I have kept in sporadic touch over the last 15 years with Christmas cards, Facebook and a visit in 2003. These Swedish grytlappar were made by her great grandmother, Alfhild Brogren. Rebecka and her grandmother, Marianne -- who knew about the Inheritance Project from Instagram (!) -- were going through old things and wanted to contribute. I am deeply grateful for their thoughtfulness.
Rebecka and I still hold a taut line to the past, to memory, and now one that extends into the future. In 10 or 15 years, I'll be sending my children, alone, to visit her in Sweden.
Lunch and a green tub.
A large number of contributors to this project are artists, specifically fiber artists, and Anchorage-based Susan Schapira is no exception.
"It is fascinating to me how even a fragment of cloth can evoke the soul of a culture; the way in which, in the midst of their struggle to survive, a people can produce utilitarian objects of a beauty that transcends their function. It is a testament to the universal need to create beauty in one’s life and to the spiritual connection that comes from making art."
Susan invited me over for lunch -- a visit that could have (and should have) lasted about 5 hours because we had so much to discuss and learn about one another. We've had pieces in in shows together, but I was unfamiliar with her full body of work, which is rich, exotic, layered, reverent and meaningful. She has shown extensively, with pieces in the permanent collections of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, the Anchorage Museum, the Alaska State Museum and the Alaska State Council on the Arts. She has taught fiber technique in Anchorage and Australia, and she also makes a damned good quiche.
Before I left to pick up kids from school that afternoon, she slid an enormous green Rubbermaid tub my way, filled with mysteries. I later hired a Studio Assistant for a dollar an hour to sort its contents, and over a weekend that 7-year-old girl cleared 5 bucks.
My thanks to you, Susan. I owe you lunch and a visit here.
Beer lover's dinner.
Why yes, I did met Nancy Gehm at a Beer Lover's Dinner, while a very friendly cat was draped over my neck and several samples of local beer were lined up in front of me. Before the night was over, Nancy was offering to drop off a box of embroidered pillow cases made by her paternal grandmother. Beer. I love it.
Many thanks to Nancy, for the conversation, the linens and for taking the floppy cat from me at one point (I think ... I think it was Nancy who took the floppy cat. I'm a little hazy on that).
Don't take Your Love to town.
Also, you might suggest that Your Love steer clear of that antique shop on the main drag in Wickenburg, Arizona, where she'll not only find an array of woozy taxidermy staring at her from the shelf and a ROOM filled with floor-to-ceiling vintage cowboy boots -- sting ray! ostrich! python! -- but she'll find a few pot holders too, and she can't resist because someone named "Ruby" made them (or is at least trying to off-load them for 4 bucks a piece). Your Love's Studio Assistant, who is accompanying and is happiest looking for small horses in antique stores, will offer full support, so you cannot win.
The resulting conversation might go something like this:
You, waiting in the hot car with the boy: "You bought potholders? On vacation?
Your Love, with Studio Assistant, each carrying a small bag out to the shade-less parking lot: "Hey man, give me a break, it could have been a mule deer or a Little Bo Peep lamp."
Studio Assistant: "...and her calves were too fat for the red snake boots, so you should be happy, Papa, because they were made from real snakes!"
If you are interested in being a part of the Inheritance Project, you can contact me here and I'll send you further information. I'm also interested in your stories. Please leave a comment about your connection to old cloth, the makers in your life, and your memory -- even if it is myth. I'm sure you'll find many kindred spirits among readers here.
To subscribe/sign up for the quarterly newsletter that I may/will someday send, enter your email address into the box on the sidebar, or contact page.
Thank you, everyone, for your effort, your Boxes of Mystery, stories, emotional downloads and support. This is one of those "started-out-small-and-got-big" kinds of things and wouldn't have happened in the same way without you.
I used to be a painter.
At least this is how the thought sometimes rings in my head. In the same way I used to make wedding gowns, or used to live one place or another, used to have hair that was a lot less ... curly (?), used to not have to wear glasses to read street signs or recognize faces across the room, or how I used to have childhood walls plastered with unicorns.
Last year, the City of Wasilla, Alaska commissioned me to create a piece of artwork for installation in the children's section of their new library, slated for completion this June.
That initial conversation went something like this:
Me: "What sort of work do you have in mind? I work a lot with textiles."
Them: "No. No textiles."
Which is understandable. The perception of textiles in the realm of public art could easily go to a sooty, difficult-to-care-for place, populated with dust bunnies and light damage. And while a vacuum cleaner with a wand attachment will do a lot to vanquish at least some of those foes, when I saw the architectural drawings for the space and the wall they envisioned for the installation, it was clear this artwork would inevitably be touched -- loved on, even -- by small hands.
Them: "Our librarians are familiar with your children's books. We would like a painting."
Me: " ... "
Them: "... something 'filled with joy."'
I took this to mean they wanted a page from a story. I wanted this, too, as well as an image that reflected the library's wooded surroundings, the magic of childhood, my reverence for imagination and a deep love of reading and children's books.
I submitted a concept sketch, expecting some dialogue -- that back-and-forth dance I used to have with art directors -- but they accepted the proposed design and dimensions right away.
In February, I commissioned the construction of a biscuit-joined maple frame and a 40" x 40", 1/2"- thick MDF panel. The panel pops out of the frame so I can work on it, and is designed with pre-mounted French cleats, so none of this has to get fussed with after the the work is complete. The finished painting screws into the frame from the reverse through pre-drilled, counter-sunk holes -- super clean, super strong -- leaving a 1/4" reveal between the painting and frame. This is what happens when an architect husband and a trusted cabinet maker/finishing carpenter put their heads together to come up with a beautiful structural design and solve all those problems in advance. I have a huge issue with otherwise gorgeous artwork in a slapped-together frame, and in this case, the frame is the cradle for the finished product. It won't fall off the wall, and the edges of the work are protected from book cart bumps and dings.
I've found a lot of joy painting this piece. It still needs around 8-10 hours of shadow and highlight work plus several clear coats before framing (the color on-screen is a bit wacky because this shot was taken with my phone), but I've even had the luxury of taking a week off from it to pursue another project and allow it some breathing room. My husband confided he'll miss this one when it's gone. I've been staring at it on my studio wall, getting a little lost in its stories.
Part of that story is that I'm still a painter, and despite the darker subject matter I explore in other work, I can still conjure a bit of whimsy and have been so grateful for the opportunity to do so.
I'll post installation images when it's all finished.
To see this work installed:
More public art:
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.