This weekend a friend commented, "I didn't know you were so dark." Well, yeah. We all have to travel to the dark in order to find the light. The key is to know when to emerge again. These "Traveling Eye" posts are about my process as an artist -- what I look at, where I find inspiration, how I feel and react to what I have seen. Thank the amazing Diana Vreeland for the quote:
"The eye has to travel."
We do this in order to be frightened:
In order to be mesmerized.
In order to consider.
In order to collect.
In order to slow one's pace.
In order to find
the bravery to begin.
My mother was raised by her grandparents in Sweden, surrounded by old things. On a farm, you will always need a blade, a cloth, a jar, a bag. You repair, wash, save. You honor the time it takes for someone to make something, anything, because it's time away from harvest or animal care. My mother's most memorable clothes had once been an aunt's or a cousin's, remade to fit. She helped weave rag rugs on a Glimakra loom, shuttling strips of clothing into the next phase of usefulness. A favorite breakfast was a slice of the previous morning's congealed porridge, fried in butter.
This is in me. This I have been taught. So I save.
It's a form of highly organized hoarding.
And I think the reason why I'm having a difficult time starting the next project is because I'm looking at this:
And I can't help but feel like not getting through this chore is somehow not tending my family. I think, "If I can just patch the holes, just stretch the life a little more, then .... what?" Does a 5-year old appreciate a knee patch? Does an 8-year old even notice? Can I make them notice? Can I make up for working, head down, palm extended towards them, all summer and asking them to make their own snacks, or to play outside for another 10 minutes, to accept pancakes for dinner, again? (Despite my son's, "This is the best dinner of my entire life!" and the fact that it may have been the best summer of their lives, too, in that free-wheeling-1976-golden-toned-first-glimpse-of-independence kind of way, I still feel guilty for being so distracted).
The artist and sculptor, Louse Bourgeois (1911-2010), said "You repair the thing until you remake it completely," and, "The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn't get mad. She weaves and repairs it." Mending this pile feels like emotional mending, and while I tell myself I'm tending my family, I know I'm tending myself. Something needs repairing. I feel it. Winter is coming.
If we can teach our children this, that mending and saving are acts of honoring, that old things, even some old ways, should often be revered, not shunned or tossed out, then maybe they'll consume less later. Maybe they'll re-think longevity and usefulness in their own lives. Maybe they will be useful people with useful ideas. Maybe I will still be useful to them as they grow older. Maybe they'll figure out how best to tend their own spirits and know exactly when this work needs to happen.
Maybe they'll spend their 20's and 30's hauling around old textiles and doilies out of a sense of guilt or responsibility to family history, grumbling the entire time about how no one uses these things anymore, wondering why it was all created in the first place, mad because they've been saddled with the burden of all this "stuff," wondering what to do with it.
And then maybe one day, they'll get through the mending pile, put all the clothes away neatly, brush the threads from their thighs, turn to the next task ahead and say, "Oh. Of course. Now I know what to do with this."
Because it will be in them to know.
"Finally, among the drawbacks of illness as matter for literature there is the poverty of the language. English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache ... let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the inhabitants of Babel did in the beginning) so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out. Probably it will be something laughable."
My dad has an appointment with a neurosurgeon next month, so on the phone tonight we compare back pain. I say, "You mean the-ice-pick-in-the-butt-cheek pain?" He says, "Yes. That's it exactly," and seems relieved to have been handed this description to use for himself, too. We move on to the business of nerve damage, the numbness and the tingling, I say, "It's those three outer toes. I thought I'd treat myself to a pedicure in Mexico, but had to practically peel myself off the ceiling. I bit my cheek to keep from howling." He says, "What about when you're lying in bed and the sheets just barely touch your foot?" Wow. I don't know that one. That's some intense pain, Dad.
30 years ago he and I used to talk about archery: cams, anchor points, quivers, nocks, fletching, sights. When did we lose that language and acquire this new one? When did pain become the conduit for this, our new connection?
And my home is no different. The stack of medical papers for the last 2 years are the record of a broken ankle and subsequent surgeries, a sinus surgery, migraines, vision therapy, physical therapy, chiropractic treatment, and a host of other procedures that are way too personal for sharing and way too boring to hear about. But here's the thing: our language changed. And then our children began to speak it.
And maybe it's because our children, these little spirits, have finally landed within their physical bodies, suddenly aware of ache and pain (and the attention it brings), that prompts the, "My leg! I can't walk!" or "I just really feel sick, I don't know how to describe it, maybe it's in my tummy. Or my head. Or my knee." Or maybe everyone is suddenly incapacitated because I've instituted a Chore Chart, but I keep thinking about the moment of awareness. Was there a moment for the acquisition of this language, or was it formed gradually? Did we model this response for them? And when did we acquire it? When did everything hurt all of a sudden? When did it become just really hard to lean over and pull on my socks in the morning?
It's the artist's role to question and then to respond. Answering the question is not necessarily our job, but when a question is living within, the response reverberates in all we observe.
The forces that shape the world -- gravity, erosion, the smoothing attributed to fluids, the grinding of surface against surface, the stress and then subsequent fracture due to material fatigue -- are all found within the world of the body as well. Compression, blood, bone, ligament, suspension. A friend recently explained, "Once you're aware of this, you'll begin to see the same forms again and again. Everything in nature is shaped by those same forces." On our last trip to Mexico (agonizing pedicure) I tiptoed around on a moonscape of beach, so alien and raw and severe it frightened me. Something here was going to hurt me or my children: pufferfish spines, scorpions, thorns, stinging rays in the shallows. But nothing did. And what seemed like bone and carcass washing up on the beach was often just shell and wood and stone, shaped and molded into forms that were foreign but recognizable at the same time. Forms of the body. Soon enough, I could carry the dehydrated hammerhead shark carcass, flip the sputtering pufferfish back into the shallows and collect and collect and collect along the bleached shoreline. The question living within -- how do we live with pain, how do we talk about it, how has it become our language -- began its churning, meditative response to what the natural world offered here.
If I tell you that you are looking at bone, but I show you shell or rock or wood, how long will it take your brain to know otherwise?
Do you need to touch it? Do you need to look at everything else around it and decide? Or will you just believe me?
If I show you one bone, or two, will you believe that an entire collection is bone? If I show you a quilt, but it is covered in bone, and a litany of words and ideas that no one will discuss -- do you still see a quilt? Quilts are safe, do you still feel safe? Or do you feel flayed, do you feel raw, do you bring your own uncomfortable history to what you see:
Because if you do, then I have done my job as an artist. I have offered a language and a response -- parts of it beautiful and parts of it terrible -- a landscape that shifts and grinds, soft against hard, pain in one hand and a lump of pure sound in the other, but it is the truth of a life nonetheless.
I feel it. I speak it.
A show I just submitted to gave photo requirements that said something like: "No hanging rods showing, no feet, no garage doors in the background. Hire a professional to photograph your quilt." Having taken my fair share of crap photos, this is a no-brainer. I don't have proper lighting. I don't have a tripod. I couldn't tell a shutter from a soft box if one bit me on the aperture. I'm not proud of this. I also don't know how to land an airplane or weld or make artisan cheese. These are the things that make me feel inadequate.
So when it comes to hiring professionals, I'm first in line.
Brian Adams and I have a little joke about him being my "official photographer." It's very generous of him to even make the suggestion because he's the official one and I'm the neophyte fumbling my way through The Art World. Last week he waited very patiently while I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to straighten a textile piece on the wall. He'd shoot it, preview the shot and say, "What do you think? It still looks crooked." Then I'd dink around with it some more, then he'd shoot it, and it was still crooked. Eventually we both agreed to accept that it's fabric, not a board. That was freeing. I appreciated his patience. Here's how else you know you have the right photographer:
1.) He gives you a hug when he shows up at your door and is genuinely happy to see you.
2.) Your super shy cat thinks he's the bomb (he moves very slowly, is very quiet, unlike small children ... this is intriguing):
3.) He makes your work look like this, even though you didn't know it could:
4.) He gives you the confidence to look like this even though you didn't know you could:
5.) He's serious about the pursuit of his personal work (Brian's stunning work) and is equally serious about yours (see comment about crooked quilt):
(Did I mention his incredibly talented wife is also a photographer?)
Invest in good materials, tools, photography and books. Invest in relationships and friends. Hire the professionals.
Some of these things will remarkably overlap.
"The eye has to travel."
In order to observe.
In order to consider.
In order to learn.
In order to execute.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.