Last year my son began collecting spent wooden matchsticks. They came from the story time candle his teacher lit every day, one by one squirreled into his empty lunch containers, his pants pockets, the mesh pouches of his backpack. He helped himself to the forbidden ziplock bags from my kitchen drawer.
The matches ruined laundry, one sooty head at a time. I flipped pockets inside out, searched. Threw my hands in the air. Slapped my forehead. He had no project in mind, no answers for me. I asked him to stop bringing them home. He asked me to stop throwing them away.
We could agree on one thing: keep the plastic bags sealed. Pinch the top, slide your fingers and listen for the snap. There. Shake-shake. All good. No black stuff.
Many of one thing can be beautiful, even coveted.
Many of one thing calls to the thief in us. The hoarder. The pick pocket.
I'm not ashamed to say I answered that call.
I have stolen my son's year of fire.
For more process images from this series, follow it on Instagram: @amymeissnerartist
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.
I've talked about series work before and since I just sent this piece off to the Barrett Art Center in Poughkeepsie, NY (which feels very far from Anchorage, AK -- more on this in an upcoming post), I'm sharing process photos of how this piece from the Reliquary Series came about.
I spent a lot of time researching reliquaries and memento mori for this series, exploring them through writing and drawing and pattern making, and have every intent to continue along this path for quite some time. I have no connection to these religious items based on my own history, but I'm a collector and a master of highly organized hoarding (and the requisite purging). The impulse behind this work is the question: How do we honor the worthless?
The cloth, the stone, the unidentifiable bone.
And why would we?
And, should we?
I think a lot about what it means to revere objects that are old, discarded or unwanted -- especially things that someone once made, or chose, or lived with, or wore. And then I wonder about the combining of these histories and the shaping of an object with a new energy.
And alongside the mental journey, is the physical act of creating. The building, the repetition, the decision making, the standing back and realizing: Oh crap. I just made something that is too f***ing precious.
Then conjuring the cajones it takes fix that last part.
Because sometimes a slice is the only way to insert what is needed into an object. In this case, a soul.
What kind of cuts do we make to reveal our own souls? When do we put aside our deep embarrassment or fear or stumble through our lack of words in order to peel back the precious parts, the pretty parts, the smoothed over and gilded? How do we find the hidden spirit within an entity? Where does it hide?
A certain palette emerged in this series, and to see the work all in one room made me realize the power and meaning behind this limited range:
white: bone, history and the domestic
gold and amber: bile, bodily fluid and the gilt edge
black: ash and decay
flesh tones: the body
red: blood, the wound
orange: the soul
I spent 12 hours making French knots using wool from discarded crewel embroidery kits.
And the time it took to solve that design problem, offered further time to solve construction problems I knew were coming,
and allowed the recognition, despite the hours invested, that something still wasn't right. Either too literally portrayed, or just not fine enough,
and to know how to fix it.
All the while considering the sinister behind the beautiful.
The macabre within the gilded vessel.
The darkness behind the light.
The horrifying thing that happens when you pursue and then catch a butterfly.
I thought for a time that I needed to insert my artist self somewhere. Among quilters, none of my points are perfectly rendered. Among embroiderers, my stitches are narrowly defined or nameless. Among writers, I'm here blogging. Among fine artists, my work is defined as craft.
So I drift. Strengthening an intent that is honed through time, repetition, emotion and the narrative quality of a life. And the more I do this work, the less I care where it lands.
I will not be defined. I will not be pinned.
Among humans and butterflies, I am understood.
This is a link-heavy post. I'm to the point where this blog is coming together into ... I don't know ... something. Here's the list for those related posts:
The Traveling Eye 6: Reliquary
The dream of pioneers
Swallowing the needle
In the deep well of series work
One of the first quilts I ever made was from a block pattern called the "Mississippi Wheel of Fortune." It was paper pieced, fussy cut, long arm quilted and before I gave it away as a wedding gift, it won a big purple ribbon at the Alaska State Fair in 2006 and I had a hard time retrieving it afterwards because I had a brand new baby, and at that time in my life, I had a hard time doing anything.
It was a period when I thought I'd probably never do anything well ever again.
My cousins from Sweden visited soon after the baby was born. When we showed them the quilt and the ribbon, someone commented, "That's beautiful, but this is the same kind of ribbon they give the pigs. You should have had a nicer ribbon."
I'm thinking about this quilt right now because it's State Fair time.
Because my thoughts are with the woman I gave it to.
Because I still have two sister pillows kicking around that need retiring.
In the process of trying to find pictures of this original quilt, now 9 years later, I ran across images of cats who are no longer living.
Of a bedroom I no longer sleep in.
Of a baby who is now a little ... no ... a big boy.
Of a man who has a lot more grey hair.
Of marriages that lasted, or didn't last, and others that will always need mending and ongoing care.
This quilt is gone from my life. All I'm left with are patterns dutifully followed and plans that drastically changed, all bits and scraps and the fragility of life.
The ultimate prize.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.