“How to write a sex scene:
I don’t remember completing the sex scene writing assignment. And despite ripping apart my file drawers, I couldn’t find my original notes (neither could my former professor, Jo-Ann Mapson, when I asked her for them over a decade after giving that lecture and assignment — no, we cobbled this list together a few weeks ago based on what we both recalled). And I never wrote a novel, even though I started one and abandoned it after 200 pages.
Nearly every writer has to come to terms with the sex scene, because if your characters are alive, they’re having — or at least thinking about having — sex. It's true. You’ll have to describe it if you want believable characters. The point of Jo-Ann’s lecture was this: make sure the style of the scene is indicative of the type of story you are writing.
Years later, she would send me an old yellow quilt -- not particularly well put together, not loved or cared for, but obviously used hard. Maybe like the unknown woman who made it, or laid beneath.
And it -- she -- spoke to me.
"Fatigue Threshold," made from that quilt, is my sex scene.
I can’t define the style. It’s hard core, but metaphoric. It’s specific, but oblique. Like the construction of the final piece, the style is layered.
But I can tell you this much: it was terrifying to create.
Not the slicing, or the construction or the use of fragile fabrics. Not the time I knew it would take, or all the ways it could go wrong. Not the technical finessing of a sheer border element, or the handwork.
No. What terrified me was releasing the work into the world and having people assume this character, this actual narrative, was mine.
I don't know why this bothered me so much. It happens to fiction writers all the time — readers assume a writer’s characters are autobiographical, and sometimes they are, but most of the time they aren’t, or at least wholly aren’t. Something similar happens with film actors and the roles they portray. It’s difficult to separate the maker from the made.
For me, the distilled quality of a piece and the choice to make what I make, relies on emotional truth.
Emotional truth is the reason why some non-fiction is better represented as fiction, and why some authors will complete one narrative only to repeat it in another genre (think Alice Sebold).
Sometimes the literal truth is too close to the surface of an idea, and it’s better to poke and prod at that fire from a distance, circling from a point where you watch all the sparks disappear into the night. You sense the full scope of flame. You see how it lights up the surrounding foliage.
Stand too close to a fire, and you blister your boots.
I thought about Amelia a lot while I worked on this piece. I considered the triangular bit of crocheted tablecloth Helen sent me for the Inheritance Project, that washing-machine-bleach-ruined scrap of a once larger work Amelia had made while incarcerated. I thought about calling the piece “Amelia.” I wanted to embed her crochet into the layers. I wanted to tell her story, or it’s myth. But I did none of these things, because every time I sidled up to the flames with my purposeful stick, I singed my arm hair. Amelia’s specific story was not only not my story, but I couldn’t even see what the story was while standing right on top of it.
So I found a longer stick, and I duct taped another stick to that one, and I whacked the coals from my vantage point somewhere in the trees until I saw the moment, that spark rising and becoming the wisp of a path to the emotional truth: a woman’s breaking point.
Her fatigue threshold.
“In the study of materials — iron, steel, wood, plastic — fatigue refers to a component’s failure after repeated and excessive loads. It is the crumpled beam, the snapped lever, the bowed wall. This piece explores the landscape of women’s work through the use of abandoned cloth, the female form and traditional handwork, to portray the moment before collapse. The burdens are emotional, physical, sexual, literal. We hoard, we discard, we mend, we make do because despite our destruction, some scrap of beauty can always be salvaged.”
"Fatigue Threshold" is about sex. It’s about abuse. It’s about a moment. It’s about a lifetime. It’s about one woman. It’s about all women. It’s about the monotony of tasks and burdens and the domestic realm and exhaustion and birth and life and despair and the slow death of something once precious.
And it is, to me, incredibly beautiful.
Working with old linens is tricky, because focusing on their beauty alone feels nostalgic. The alternative is to destroy them, but that feels self-indulgent and pointless to the work I’m trying to achieve.
I will always strive to balance the beautiful and terrible. It’s hard, and it’s always on my mind.
I’m one of 85 artists accepted into Quilt National 2017. I’ve never submitted before, but I have 3 hardcover catalogs dating back to 2011, so I’ve been following the exhibition for a long time.
I recently traveled to Athens, Ohio for the exhibition’s opening. I’m incredibly honored to show with such a talented group of artists.
The work will travel until September 2019, so I won’t have this piece for my solo exhibition, which is a shame since it’s an important component to the Inheritance Project. But more people will see it this way, and hopefully they’ll be moved. Maybe they’ll contact me.
If I had to write that sex scene now, at 45 instead of 31 or 32 years old when it was originally assigned, I’d opt for balance. Some raunch, some metaphor, some matter-of-fact language.
Zero cute names.
And I'd do the assignment.
Elsewhere on this blog:
As an artist living in Alaska, I face some challenges.
But. As an Alaskan of over 16 years, I consider myself one among a resilient, capable, hearty -- sometimes a little scrappy -- population, solving problems with duct tape and slip knots and a freezer full of moose meat and last year's salmon. We're those people who, when told they can't do something, go god-damned do it anyway. Sometimes with a back hoe.
But I'll tell you right now, all scrappiness aside, what sets the tone for art and artists in Alaska is the class act support of the Rasmuson Foundation. In 2016, they awarded $14.6 million dollars in grants spread across various programs -- from environment and research, to arts, culture, humanities and organizational development.
(You can learn more about the history of the Rasmuson Foundation here.)
In your artistic search for nation-wide grant opportunities, perhaps you've noticed there aren't many individual artist awards out there, and this is a shame. Because we need them. Not because we're lazy, or don't want to work (do you know any artists who don't work their asses off?) or because we're asking for a hand out. We need support for the same reason artists for centuries have needed support -- because there is rarely a price appropriate for creativity, and it's easier to breathe when someone's hand is resting on your shoulder.
This year, 450 Alaskan artists applied for this type of individual artist award through the Rasmuson Foundation and 35 artists received them. I'm beyond honored to say I was one of those artists, receiving a $7500 Individual Artist Project Award in support of the Inheritance Project. This year's $18,000 Fellowships fell into the disciplinary categories of Choreography, Crafts, Folk & Traditional Arts, Literary Arts/Scriptworks & Performance Art. While a number of good friends received Fellowships (and Project Awards, too), I was thrilled three of us happened to also be members of Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA). This trio includes Maria Shell and Beth Blankenship and me.
So, not only were we honored for our work as artists, we were honored for work as textile artists.
I'm incredibly grateful and blown away by the support I've received for the Inheritance Project -- strangers, friends, the Anchorage Museum, the Alaska State Museum, the Sustainable Arts Foundation and now the Rasmuson Foundation. That's a lot of skin in the game for something that didn't exist 2 years ago.
Elsewhere on this blog.
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I don't travel alone much, but recently spent time in Lincoln, Nebraska for the SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Associates) "Creation to Curation" conference (I'm a regional co-representative in Alaska with Maria Shell). Despite the 3-hour time difference for me, I was still up at 4:30 or 5 am each day.
Once of the people who stumbled into that Early-Morning-Inbox-tapping-quietly-so-I-dont-wake-my-roommate space was Christine Chester.
She asked a question, which I'm sharing with her permission, and while I'm no expert, I gave her an answer I wish someone would grab me by the shoulders, look me in the eye and give to me.
Just to be up front -- this isn't an advice column, nor am I clear on what the hell I'm doing MOST of the time. I'm not a how-to guru and pretty sure I'm no teacher, but Christine had questions about work I felt I could answer since none of these concerns are new to me. I think about them all the time with regards to an artist's choice of materials, my unanswered questions and a deep respect for makers known and unknown.
So I responded with the letter I'd want to receive, and Christine graciously allowed me to share our private early morning correspondence.
In short, this lady is no slouch. I can't believe she wrote and asked me ... well ... anything. I'm totally honored to be a part of her world and her sensibility.
* Portrait photography by Sarah Gawler of Sarah Gawler Photography. Other images courtesy of the artist.
Also on this blog:
For other artist profiles, click on the sidebar category: Find Your Teachers (then scroll past this post, which will appear there, too).
One year ago: Unicorn Heart
Two years ago: Soul Fever
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Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.