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.
When my son was 3, he slipped a penny into the space between a hallway nightlight and the outlet. The coin melted onto the metal prongs, blew a fuse, shot a cloud of black smoke up the wall, and set off the hardwired fire alarm system.
I, of course, was just getting out of the shower.
Even at 8 years old, he sometimes can't fall asleep because he worries about his Lego pieces melting together if the house catches on fire. He knows my dad's house burned to the ground when he was a boy, that there are strict rules in our house about running through the kitchen when the stove is on ("No helium balloons! No silky banners! No uncombed hair!"), he knows the story of a good friend who landed hands-first into a campfire as a toddler ... and I wonder if I've shared too much, if the fear he has is healthy or if I've imposed it.
After the penny-in-the-night-light incident, The Question came: "Mama, what in this house can catch on fire?" I answered, "The curtains, the carpets, paper, wood." Then he asked again a few days later, and I answered. Then he asked again, and I answered. And so it went, and went, and went.
I tried to be patient. I tried that sort of reassuring gentleness that Maria VonTrapp would offer through song and dance and bouncing on her knees on the bed, but frankly, I was nursing a new baby, I was exhausted and was getting really frustrated because this had gone on for weeks now. I told him I needed "a question break" (I still need these). And then he asked again.
Let me just say that it's very difficult to be attentive all day long. If you ever hear anyone say they love this aspect of caregiving, they are lying. Or more likely, just not really being attentive. Or you are speaking with Mother Teresa and that would be awesome ... on many levels. But, when you do pay attention, when you do get down on your knees, look a child in the eye and really listen and try to understand, then the Muse will sometimes alight on your shoulder. The Question was not, "What can catch on fire?" The Question was, "What in this house can just -- clap! -- catch on fire, all by itself, you know Mama, just suddenly have a big fire inside it and we can't put it out?"
What in this house can Spontaneously Combust?
Yes. I do know.
When you have been a professional, a creative, a motivated, educated woman and then you are handed your first inconsolable infant whom you assumed you'd just stick in a backpack and keep right on painting/writing/insert well-thought-out career plan here and Whoa, that didn't work out AT ALL, then, something that-you-thought-was-sturdy-but-surprise-is-actually-fragile starts unraveling inside. And you can mourn the loss of who you were (which I did) and you can be bitter (which I was) and disappointed with the way things turned out (yup), and then after 20 minutes you need to get over all that because someone small inevitably needs help on the potty. And not only this, but it's self-indulgent. And at some point you need to start piecing all those bits together and figure out what it means to be who you are right now.
I spent a lot of time (more than 20 minutes) convinced I couldn't pursue my art because of my children, that they were keeping me from something important. And alternatively, I couldn't be the mother I wanted to be because I was distracted in a way that felt completely unfair to everyone involved. I was being attentive but not paying attention. When The Question was answered that day, something became clear: I can't create the art I need to right now, without my children.
Not the same art I'd been making, but something different:
And from The Question arose an answer. I drew a grid, did some math, cut out and glued letters by hand, repeating the design, making it fit. You are thinking: "Why didn't this pressed-for-time woman just do this on the computer?" Right. It is very hard to be attentive to small people when there is computer involved (right now, for example, my children are asleep). However, when everyone at the table has a pair of scissors, some paper and a "job," some projects are more manageable. Besides, wobbly, imperfect letters on paper gave me a sense of what a hand appliquéd end result would be. The cutting and pasting forced me to slow the pace of the day, consider the next steps, the materials. I think if I'd had a computer-generated pattern to work from, there would have always been that sense of disappointment that the handwork wasn't perfect.
Did I mention that other than hand stitching miles of lace onto wedding gowns in a former, former life, I hadn't done much hand appliqué at the beginning of this project? That's in part 2.
You've got the history, the first part anyway.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.