When you say you'll take a box of mystery, you relinquish control over what will be sent. You also relinquish control over old memories you thought were long gone, like that memory about playing at Annie Comstock's* house, and how you kept asking to go back and play, despite the way she ignored you at school, despite her older brother's Stretch Armstrong toy that extended across the hallway and whipped heavy when thrown at you, despite her mother who wasn't as warm as your mother (or very warm towards your mother), despite the birthday party when all the other 2nd or 3rd grade girls held you out of the locked-arm-circle game. Despite all this, Annie had a sun-filled pink bedroom, with a white-framed bed and gingham cover and canopy, a white dollhouse, expensive toys, and a Barbie "bed doll," so you knew exactly where to go hide during the mean-girl birthday party.
You probably also forgot about the student art show in undergrad when everyone spent a lot of time considering all the melted Barbies in the toasters, liquified in blenders and paninied beneath domestic irons. That experience was, after all, utterly forgettable.
What isn't forgettable is that this Friday, September 30, 2016, I will no longer be able to accept items for the Inheritance Project. Now, it might seem like I'm still accepting Boxes of Mystery since I currently have 4-5 unpublished blog posts stacked up like Barbies on a wood pile and they'll be forthcoming over the next couple of months. But really. After the 30th...no more quizzical looks from our mailman.
Below are the contributors to the 17th boxes of mystery for the Inheritance Project, all electrified probes for my own memory:
Many makers in the family
Thank you Lynette Fisk, for the large box of mystery and for taking the time to document the provenance of each item. I love that your mother saved all these things, all created by the women in your family. I'm honored that you've shared this with me for my work.
Thank you Debra Steinmann for the linens left by your Grandma Eva Baker, I'm so happy you've been able to use her handwork for your own creative work as well. I'm also touched by what you wrote about the linen sleeve you included in the box of mystery:
"The sleeve with crocheted trim is from a wedding gift purchased by a friend's brother in Istanbul, Turkey (...) the wedding was between my friend Martha and her partner of decades, Anne. Love is love is love...
Thank you Nancy Frazier for sharing your family history with me for this project. Nancy is the only grand daughter of southern aunts, grandmother and a great grandmother, so she inherited "a great treasure" of crocheted items. Her lineage also includes a "courting quilt" that her great great grandmother and grandfather worked on in the mid 1800's (pre-Civil war) in the hills of Arkansas (it's stunning, she shared a photograph with me via email). She tagged almost everything with red tags.
I am so grateful for everyone's willingness to ship items to Alaska, to a complete stranger (me). The outpouring of generosity far surpassed anything I ever envisioned a year ago and speaks to the reverence we have towards the women who paved the way with flying fingers and poor lamp light.
If this September 30, 2016 deadline sneaked up on you, despite the fact that you were considering contributing to the Inheritance Project, I apologize -- but I have more than enough material after a year of gathering. I hope you'll continue to follow and see where this work goes from here.
On that front:
One of the works I created from a box of mystery has been invited to Quilt National, 2017 (!!!) and it wouldn't have happened without this old cloth and the unknown women's work that inspires me so. Big gratitude from Alaska.
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*names have been altered to protect mean 3rd grade girls.
In 2013 I entered "Spontaneous Combustion" in Earth, Fire & Fibre XXIX, a biennial exhibition at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. I'd missed the deadline 2 years prior, when my children were 3 and 5 years old. At the time, missing a deadline had felt like one of so many small failures.
I'd sobbed on the living room floor and told my husband I felt some train barreling towards me and the greatest fear wasn't that it would run me over, but that it would pass right by. Melodramatic? Yes. Hormone induced? Yes. Authentic? Totally.
So I drove all of that emotion into this piece.
And entered two years later.
And won a prize.
And the museum purchased that work.
I waited 13 years to have children. I had two careers, completed three degrees, read all those birthing books before they came into my life.
But no one could tell me how sleep deprivation would affect me personally, or what part of the hormonally-laced spectrum I would slide along after giving birth -- a froth of postpartum anxiety with a sprinkle of postpartum OCD? That sounds about right.
It's all here, in every stitch.
My parents hadn't seen the piece in person and this was the third time I'd made an appointment to bring them to the museum for a visit. I cancelled the first visit when my mother returned from Sweden with pneumonia and couldn't travel to Alaska from the Lower 48. I cancelled the second when my grandmother in Sweden passed away.
Most of the original handwork in this piece came from women in Sweden -- great aunts, a grandmother, a great grandmother -- all gone now. To cut into their work felt sacrilegious one second and cathartic the next. My son and daughter drew all of the images around the border, easily four generations of my family have contributed to this piece.
It's a time capsule.
It's held in the safest place it could possibly reside.
It's hidden from light, from temperature and humidity fluctuations, from my future teenagers who will decide to have a house party featuring all shades of vomit. It's rolled, right side out, around a cushioned bolster wrapped in Tyvek -- a paper-like, polyethylene olefin material that repels moisture and dust, with a slick surface that won't snag fabrics or degrade over time. Since we're nerding out here, you should know that Tyvek can be sewn into bag forms or wrapped around costume hangars or furniture, too. (If you are interested in this material and how conservators use it, you can learn more about it in a post by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which describes the four-year-long rehousing of their costume and textile collection. You could also purchase a 50-yard roll of Tyvek through University Products if you have a little froth of anxiety or sprinkle of OCD, yourself.
As a woman, it's difficult to talk about my early mothering experience without feeling judged, but as an artist, I mine this cave to its depths.
Frankly, artists get judged all the time ... and sometimes they win prizes.
Mothers -- parents -- should receive more prizes, too.
* * *
If you want to learn more about the process of making "Spontaneous Combustion," you can read A history of fire, part 1 and part 2. The Histories category in the blog side bar will take you to a series of other process posts about my work, with a smattering of visual how-to.
Now, go order some Tyvek.
If you are new to this blog and these posts about the Inheritance Project, please take a moment to go back and read a post from a year ago: A second box of mystery. This is a post devoted to one box from Sweden, back when the Inheritance Project wasn't a project with any sort of shape, or a name even, but a series of generous gestures, my thoughts about old cloth, and my gratitude to the senders. I re-read it today and was reminded of that initial impulse, and even though I don't dive as deeply on the page with these later posts, I still go there in my mind. I still wonder about all of these objects and their makers and owners. I still fear for the state of the world. I'm still equally inspired by the thoughts and stories the contributors have sent as I am to the old linens. I still hear voices. A friend of mind said she was worried for me -- for the way I was taking on all this energy -- and if this feels a little too "whoooo-hooooo" to you (insert wiggly fingers here), then think of it as a project with a beginning, a middle and an end.
The beginning, therefore, is nearly ending. After September 30th, 2016, I will be unable to take any more contributions. You may contact me to find out how to get items to me before then.
Below are the contributions belonging to the 16th boxes of mystery, wiggly fingers and all that:
Thank you Jan Teztlaff, who I met in Philadelphia at this year's SAQA conference. We shared a shuttle downtown from the airport and then back again, finding ourselves (I think) on the same airplane heading west. We were 2 of the 24 Lightning Talk presenters at the conference (Jan's talk was called Looking for Line). She and her daughter recently unpacked an antique trunk, which had belonged to her husband's grandmother, Juanita Masterson Millsap:
"...Most (treasures) we kept -- the handmade romper my mother-in-law wore as a toddler and the satin nightgown she wore on her honeymoon. We will treasure the impossibly small and tight wasted white eyelet dress Tom's grandmother wore, along with the minuscule boots."
I'm haunted and a little guilt-ridden by textiles of another era, these bits of cloth so vital to the domestic realm -- the antimacassar, for example: intended to protect the arms and backs of upholstered furniture from the oils of hand and hair. When was the last time you purchased a sofa with the intent that it would survive 60 years? And to what lengths are we now willing to go in order to preserve our possessions? I say this as I angrily stare at the downstairs sofa-sectional-slash-scratching post. Am I happy about this tiny domestic massacre in my home? No. But am I willing to de-claw my animals? No. Am I willing to shroud the sofa in an enormous antimacassar?
Huh. Hang on a minute.
The piece from Jan's collection that is most haunting is the hand stitched child's gauze face mask worn by her mother-in-law around 1900.
..."Maxine survived polio, typhoid, scarlet fever and influenza. She died a decade ago at the age of 90 of 'tired blood.'"
The final item is an embroidery kit sent in the mail from The Pricilla Needlework Co. in Boston to Orland, California. The printed pattern is pale blue on the silk, perhaps a child's smocked dress or christening gown. It cost 1 cent to mail, but the postmark doesn't indicate the date. One could make it today and it would be just as luminous and beautiful as the day it arrived in Orland.
Thank you, Jan, for such gorgeous history.
Thank you Ágnes Palkó, for sending linens from Sweden. The reason I sought out that second Box of Mystery post from a year ago, was the memory of other shipments that included scraps of cotton sheeting with crocheted trim. I have some still intact in my own linen closet -- the work of my Great Grandmother, Nanny. The work is so strong, it outlives the sheets, which have been bleached and sun-dried so many times they fall apart long before the loops and knots of tight-hooked edging.
Ágnes also sent a beautiful cross stitched tablecloth, used and used. Some of the crosses have disintegrated in areas and I can't imagine counting linen threads to make such a perfect pattern...with low lamp light and exhausted eyes, no less.
I am happy to receive such things. They smell like Sweden.
Thank you Ágnes.
Still Life, Pond.
Thank you, Beth Brennan, who found me on Instagram (you can find her at @still.life.pond) and sent a box heavy with the literal and emotional weight of memory. She wrote:
"...Use what you can. Feel free to dispose of anything you don't want, in any manner you see fit. I only wish my own inheritance had come with that disclaimer."
"It's a little hard for me to look at all the work that went into this. The stains must have been heartbreaking, but at least this tablecloth was used, unlike many other things folded safely away until they fell apart (...) This still smells like my mother's buffet where she stored her linens."
"This was one of those needlepoint canvases that had the design pre-stitched, the maker then filled in the background. I vaguely remember helping pick out the canvas design and yarn color for this when I was young (...) It was intended to be a chair for me, but (...) I have no desire to follow through with the original plan or make a pillow from it (...) I can see my grandmother too clearly in it."
Beth's thoughts on the cap, which both my daughter and I have tried on, yet it fits neither of us:
"I had never seen it until after her death. What is is? What did I mean to her? Is it a modest head covering from long, long ago? Is it some kind of death shroud? (...) Please set it and me free from each other. Things are meaningless without their stories."
Yes, things are meaningless without stories.
Which is why we have myth.
Inheritance: makers. memory. myth. will be a solo exhibition at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, May 2018. Last week, I submitted for a solo show elsewhere. And I will continue to submit proposals.
Many thanks to the contributors and makers (the list can be found here). I couldn't do this work without you.
No. Not that kind of mount -- although it would be fun to watch (and no, not that other kind of mount either, which is totally inappropriate here) -- I'm talking about installing artwork.
Last week, while my parents visited us in Alaska, we loaded the commissioned painting that's been finished and sitting in my studio since June -- just waiting for flood/fire/riot/acts of god/small children screaming past on yoga balls to ruin it before I could get it installed -- and drove north from Anchorage about an hour to Wasilla.
The Wasilla Public Library's grand opening is at the end of the month. Librarians are stacking shelves, carpenters are finessing details and this was the last piece of public art to be installed. We chose to wait since it hangs in a higher traffic area and we didn't want it to accidentally get dinged by tool belts/new shelves/book carts/children screaming past on yoga balls.
My dad wouldn't let go of the top of the painting while we were rolling it in and sometimes it's clear where I get my everything-that-can-go-wrong-probably-will-go-wrong-all-hopped-up-on-worry-prickly-sweat personality. It was great to spend that hour in the truck with my parents, despite all of us feeling nervous about moving the piece, installing it and hoping everyone would be happy after we drove away. We had some good chuckles about all the unicorns I used to draw when I was the same age as my children are now. Thank you Mom and Dad for keeping me sane that morning.
Thank you architect husband and trusted finishing carpenter friend for hashing out the details on the design and execution of the maple frame and panel, which was created as a complete unit before the painting even began. I removed the mdf panel to do the work, then reinserted it when complete. A double row of French cleats holds the piece flush to the wall. The frame is super clean, all biscuit joined with a 1/4 " reveal around the work -- basically a custom piece of furniture that happens to have a unicorn painted on it. Painting, schmainting. This frame is freaking gorgeous.
"Lost in a Book" hangs at the entrance to the library's childrens' section. It echoes the birch forest that surrounds the building and the materials used inside. It looks like it was made to hang on that wall.
(Because it was).
Below are more images from the children's area (note the Narnia lightpost in the courtyard outside, just waiting for the first snowfall). The librarians are all smiles and you would be too if you got to come to work in a space like this.
Lucky, lucky folks in Wasilla who deserve a lovely library. I'm honored to be a part of it and looking forward to the grand opening.
The Ribbon Cutting and Open House is on Thursday, September 22 from 2 - 6:30 pm if you're in the area -- all are welcome! A shout out to Cornerstone (general contractors) and ECI (architects).
I'm about to start working on a big dragon. More on that below.
More posts about children's book illustration and other illustration:
More posts about public art:
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.