When I say "boxes of mystery" here, what I really mean are "2 envelopes plus a gallon-sized ziplock bag of mystery," not as poetic, nor as mysterious, but still filled with treasure and history. The 2 envelopes arrived here in Alaska on the same day last week -- one from England, one from New York state, but the bag was delivered to my dark-morning door the other day by a local friend I was so happy to see. The fact that I'm connecting and reconnecting with women over handwork they are pleased to pass on is the best part about this little crowd-sourcing project.
This first piece of handwork has the longest story and the longest journey.
It took my breath away when I opened it:
This unfinished cross stitch came from fellow textile artist, Olga Norris, by way of Hampshire, England. Olga's art (as described on her website) is "figurative and marks emotional narratives. From small stories whole worlds can be read." She has shown at Quilt National three times and uses a digital process to manipulate her initial images, which are then printed on fabric and worked further with hand and machine stitch. If you aren't familiar with her current work, I encourage you to follow the link and learn more.
This cross stitch is very much a work of the past (her history used here with permission): "This is my last piece of counted cross stitch. It was designed by me, based on the paper patterns I previously used. It was started in my final summer en famille in Greece, immediately after graduation from Edinburgh University, just being engaged and about to be married the following year. It represents, in its unfinished state, my futile attempt that summer to remain the daughter/niece/grand-daughter everyone expected. Little did I know that this struggle would go on until just a few years ago when my mother died. I would like the piece, like me, to go on to become something more positive."
"My difficult relationship with my parents, and especially with my mother really formed a great deal of the kind of person I am. The work I do now is under my married name, the person I feel more as the ‘real’ me –- and all the cross stitch work was done by the child I was then (which of course was the foundation of who I am now)."
She said she felt that the work had "glowered" at her from the cupboard for decades, so, she sent it to me. And I am in awe of this work. It is perfect in its striving, its empty moments and in its release.
I can relate, in part, to a "glowering cross stitch" not because of a strained relationship with my mother, but because I had a childhood embroidery that also scowled at me for years: It was ambitious, colorful, I'd had to have that expensive kit (Unicorn + rainbow + heart? Can I , can I, please?) and my mom gave in, feeling that counted cross stitch was a good place to begin a proper embroidery lesson at age 7 or 8 or 9. (Yes! Let's start right now!) After locating the center of the Aida weave (Right, can we start now?), basting the center lines in contrasting thread (Except, when are we going to start?), organizing a-a-a-a-a-ll the embroidery floss a certain way so it doesn't ever get tangled (Why can't we just START? Let's do the rainbow first, no, wait, the unicorn. Unicorn first. I love its face), then steaming the Aida cloth with the iron (Mom, I just want to START!), then whip-stitching the edges by hand so they don't fray (Oh my god, can we just make this thing?), then learning how to read the pattern and counting up from the center point so I'd know where to begin my first stitches (But I don't want to make the top of the heart, that's so boring! I want to make its face), and learning how to count each square and then stitch a certain direction so the back looked just as nice as the front (No, I am NOT crying!), I finally completed about 32 tense stitches before giving up and going outside to swing.
Let's be clear, I in no way blame my mother for that invisible unicorn chomping at me for 30+ years. She is an excellent embroiderer and a good teacher. I did, however, think for a long time that I wasn't good enough to make this pattern, that I wasn't math savvy enough for all that counting, that I'd been greedy; my own little guilty conscious stabbed into that short curving blue line.
This feeling ended two years ago when I cut the damned thing up, incorporated it into a big piece of artwork, entered this in a show, won a prize, sold it to the Anchorage Museum for their permanent collection and launched this current body of work.
F***ing unicorn. F*** you. Enough said.
Release, I'm telling you. Release.
And, of course, understanding.
I, for example, understand that I have no patience for other people's patterns.
Now for something completely different:
These sweet confections came to me from Natalya Aikens, also a textile and mixed media artist (are you sensing a contributor theme here?). She was happy to pass them on to me, and while she couldn't attest to their provenance, nor did she have a weighty story to share, I think she was excited to know that I could use them. Oh, little primroses! Oh saccharine variegated chevron edge! Yes, please.
The last bundle of grytlappar (and these are authentic Swedish pot holders, I assure you), came to me by way of my Swedish friend, Inger, who contacted me right away to say she definitely had some to offer. We stood on my frosty front steps while she shared her "arrive with an empty suitcase" strategy for her family's various Scandinavian travels. She's got it down to a science. It was so lovely to see her on a dark Alaskan morning.
I'm sending thank you cards, of course (mail for mail), and now I have also started making a teeny tiny doily to slip into each card as well (doily for doilies). No one should be without at least one doily in their life. I hate to think I've cleaned anybody out completely.
If you, too, have a piece of unfinished needlepoint, cross-stitch, or other embroidery that is glowering at you, or festering, or just plain taking up space and you'd like to see it move on to become something else in this world, bringing all its stories with it, then consider contacting me. If you'd like, I'll feature your website here, make sure you get a proper thank you and something handmade in return (which will take up just the right amount of space as a place holder in your favorite book).
If you are brand spanking new to the blog and have sort of an idea of what is going on but would like more information, please check out the following links:
Splitting open the idea and the various posts under the sidebar category Boxes of mystery.
Around this time last year -- Solstice in Alaska -- I posted this: Into Darkness.
If you've never been to Alaska or another northern locale in deep winter, it's something you should consider. I've spent 15 years wrongly believing I needed to get used to it. Now I believe I'd rather get used to to being in awe of the earth and its hearty inhabitants instead.
“If you're too open-minded, your brains will fall out.”
I'm not an early adopter. It's not my personality to grab the latest technology or technique, and by the time I'm ready to try something new I'm racing to catch up with everybody else who's been using it for years. I used to think this meant I was a weenie, too scared to take risks, too set in old ways of doing things like drawing with actual pencils and writing letters on actual paper. But I'm easier on myself now and realize I'm less "weenie" and more "suspicious-questioning observer." When I'm not absorbed in my own mire, I've got one eye on the work in front of me and one eye on what everyone else is doing.
Or has done.
So here's the thing I'm questioning in my studio practice lately: glue.
(I know. That's really boring and I'm sure if you give me 20 seconds I'll come up with another mind-blowing concern equally important to humanity. You can totally stop reading now if you want to get back to blogs about world peace and sustainable living and global warming and I'll catch up to you eventually. I'll be a little sweaty and disheveled when I arrive, but don't call me a weenie because I care about those things, too).
But, the glue.
And the fusibles.
All the sticky stuff -- temporary, semi-permanent, or permanent (or the temporary that inadvertently becomes permanent and visa versa). I'm wondering about its longevity and I'm wondering how often I re-e-e-ally need to use it. And while there's a time and place for these wondrous affixers of textiles -- allowing for accessible community art projects, say, or for proper tailoring, obviously, or doing things like this -- I am constantly looking for the work-around in my own art.
I use a number of other stabilizing and affixing techniques, many learned from years making wedding gowns, just so I can bypass the glue. Did we use fusible interfacing in the atelier? Yes. Did we use fusible webbing? No. Did we have commercial equipment to affix the high-quality, supple interfacing we did use? Yes. Did it sometimes kill the fabric? Yes. So we often chose to interline delicate materials with other, equally expensive and equally delicate materials, supporting these fabrics using old techniques.
Remember the science of chemical reactions? Acids? Off gassing? Deterioration? I know, I sometimes forget about it too, and I even went to school for this about a million years ago, but until you work with old textiles every day, it's easy to forget the effects of age -- the yellowing and disintegration caused by light, moisture, time, untreated food stains, body oil, acid and glues. Some of it doesn't even emerge for decades.
I've picked at ancient Pellon, crusty masking tape, brittle white glue, flaking bits of who-knows-what and while all of it is slightly different and the removal is met with varying levels of success, one thing remains the same: the makers all did this with the best of intentions.
Maybe they thought they were increasing longevity or enhancing the finished quality of their work. Perhaps they were following manufacturer's instructions. Maybe they were just taking a short cut to be done with this damned thing already. I can understand and have experienced all of this, too. And, of course, the glue-like products are better now.
So my suspicious questioning of glue leads to a bigger picture: here's where we need to ask questions in our studio art practice and make sure we aren't bounding towards some technique because everyone else is using it or someone is marketing it to us. Make sure the product and its subsequent use are really part of what makes a medium your medium.
I found a long-term study on the effects of light and aging from the textile department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It's a good read and looks at various products on the market. There are some answers here, but no one knows with certainty what will happen with these products in a century.
I also recommend you seek out and find a textile conservator at your local museum if you're so lucky to have one. Take him or her out to lunch. Ask a lot of questions. You'll get a straight answer about what it takes to create textile work that will still be around in 100 + years, because likely this person has seen it all and can tell you what not to do. I did just this (the lunching). I'm going to do it again, too, because I still have more questions and I happen to like the person who is the textile conservator at my local museum. I also like going out to lunch.
Now. Am I an expert? No. Am I doing everything right with the way I'm handling my work? No.
But I'm trying really hard, and I know you are too.
Fabrics live and breathe. They also die. They need to move and settle into new environments. If you suffocate a fabric in an attempt to create something that is stiff and hangs on the wall like a board, maybe you need to question why. Maybe you need to be suspicious of yourself and your choice of materials. Ask why you would chemically stiffen fabric when maybe you should be working with paper or or wood or metal.
It's just a question.
I'm all for pushing boundaries and materials -- this is where the work is most alive for me -- and I make a lot of mistakes. I've ruined things and felt really sad about it. I've also done stupid shit like grind away at rusted metal using a wire brush and a Dremmel at the kitchen counter wearing eye protection, a face mask, an apron and -- get this -- a cashmere sweater. Yes, that idiot was me. I am still picking hair-fine wires out of that sweater and spent a week pulling them out of my family's feet with tweezers. It's kind of like forgetting your sleeping bag on a multi-night Alaskan camping trip. You only do that once.
(In my defense, it was really cold in the garage, I was excited to use a power tool and the kitchen was sunny. Also that cashmere sweater came from the thrift store, but still).
So be suspicious of products and their claims for longevity. Be suspicious of yourself and your inclinations. Push and push, and strive to understand your materials, their properties, their limitations or you might end up with a mess you can't undo.
Or a really expensive rotting shark.
I'm just saying.
Last week I received two parcels filled with vintage linens for my project. This work is without a name, which isn't unusual since titles often don't come until I'm deep in the process, but it would be helpful to refer to it as "The (insert brilliant title here) Project." I sometimes call it "The (expletive-expletive) Mouths," which they sort of are, but this project is more than kinky body reference and me being annoyed that I can't totally immerse myself in this one yet (also -- can you believe it -- "The Scream" is already taken. Drat). This project, like much of my work, is about voice and reverence, the created and the discarded. It's about history and narrative and distance and time and effort, it's about what is beautiful and what is hideous. And why. It's about work and process and destruction and rebirth. I've been meditating on it as I fall asleep each night, sure that by morning the Muse will have whispered a name in my ear, but so far she's silent. And this is fitting, because right now the items I'm collecting and the old handmade things women have sent all remain silent as well.
When you are a discarded thing, perhaps you become this way. Maybe you give up your voice, or lie dormant, or close your eyes and die. I've written about spirits dwelling within objects before.
This project is going to rattle them awake.
But first they are finding their way to me.
And we are receiving them with great curiosity and joy.
All the smells of lives lived and meals cooked, all the energy and spirit of the women who have made these things, all the lurid and the vivid and the obscure spilled into the room the night we opened this parcel from my Swedish artist friend Boel Werner. It's her second shipment to Alaska. I think she's having fun.
These are Swedish grytlappar -- very fancy cotton crocheted oven mitts and hot pads. Have they been used? A few of them, but most look pristine. As my good friend Oona always says: Save the best for never.
Some are created with layered doilies, some incorporate 3-dimensional flowers.
Others ... they are completely ridiculous. And charming. And from such a different era, constructed with leftover bits of this or that.
But the strangest discovery within the two latest parcels of mystery, was finding that the most "authentic-looking" Swedish grytlapp didn't come from Boel's shipment, but from the one my friend and fellow textile artist Roxanne Lasky sent.
You know, from the Scandinavian hinterlands of South Carolina.
Roxanne was beyond pleased with her bad self when she found this in a charity thrift shop. Can you blame her? Of course, we don't know if it truly originated in Sweden, or if it was really made in 1940, but I'm 99% sure. We think it's commemorative, so if anyone knows more about this, I'd love to have that information.
(My daughter, age 7, below: also pleased with her bad self. Of course you should make a rainbow. Of course.)
I hesitate to reveal the second item of interest that Roxanne was also pleased to send, because this is, after all, a family-friendly blog. However, it's just too hilariously crass to not share here:
Whoa. Just, whoa.
My 9-year old boy, mind blown, said: "Mom. Why would somebody ... make that?"
Indeed. Luckily there are plenty of outhouses in Alaska (and that, my friends, is not an open invitation to send more toilet seat covers, I'm officially cutting that off), however I have other big plans for this item.
But back to these oven mitts for a second:
I've been told the Brits call these "pan rests." So, what do you call them? The language is the other emerging piece to this project that feels vital, so please comment and let me know where you're writing from.
If you are new to this blog and wondering what in the world is going on here and why my home is overrun with doilies and toilet seat covers and why my husband is throwing up his hands every time he opens the mailbox, please pour yourself a cup of tea and check out a little backstory:
Box of mystery.
A second box of mystery.
A third box of mystery.
Splitting open the idea.
If you, too, would like to contribute to this effort, please contact me and I will send further specifics.
And lastly, a year ago I wrote this post: Better.
It's a good one. I should probably re-read it.
This fall I spent a lot of time sitting at my computer submitting work to shows, applying for grants and answering questions. And while it's not necessary to have a creative writing background for these things, it does take the edge off, kind of like when your husband hands you a gin and tonic over top of the bickering children and the smoking pot on the stove. (That's a terrible simile, implying that while one doesn't need a drinking background to parent and cook dinner, a person may find it helpful).
One of the more creative computer-bound opportunities I did have was for Mabel Magazine, who asked if I would write about creating art in Alaska for their "Living..." segment. This is the first time my writing and textile art have appeared together in print, and I was beyond thrilled when my copy appeared in the mail this week.
Mabel was founded two years ago by Liz Kalloch and Stefanie Renee, two creative San Francisco Bay Area women committed to print and creating a magazine that offers "real stories about real issues that people face with their creative endeavors, with their businesses and in their lives."
The current issue's theme is "What's Next," and these well-written essays explore all the ways creative women have come to terms with what is next for them, whether it's rebounding from a work layoff, losing a loved one, staying open to the unknown or committing to staying right where they are.
I'm honored to be in such good company.
Mabel isn't available to read electronically (on purpose), but you can certainly order your real copy online. I showed it to a friend of mine yesterday and she said the same thing my husband said when it arrived, "Oh! This is such a nice magazine!" It really is. The writing is thoughtful, the photographs are gorgeous, the paper is lovely, the layout is beautiful.
I'm really thrilled to be a part of something so well conceived and executed.
I hope you'll check it out, lots of inspiration here:
It's a 5-minute drive from my house to the Anchorage Museum downtown, 7 minutes if you include the time it takes to park and walk in. So my family spends a lot of time there, especially in the winter, and this proximity is one of the perks of living in a small town that has some Big Town feel to it. Half the state lives in Anchorage, so it's all relative: in Alaska, we are the Big City.
And we have a world class museum with excellent exhibits.
And we have our own set of world class concerns that rival those of other Big Cities.
Last night, to commemorate World AIDS Day, 9 blocks of the AIDS Memorial Quilt were on display in the museum's atrium, courtesy of the Four A's (Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association). 12 of the 72 3' x 6' panels making up these blocks commemorated the lives of Alaskans who have died from this disease.
The iconic yellow stars from our state's flag made it easy to find some of them.
Other panels were composed using iconic Alaskan symbols: mountains, Native imagery, the Pipeline, fur.
The ubiquitous insulated Carhartts.
Many held the objects of a life that make us all human.
When this crisis was in its fullest and most devastating momentum, I was in high school and early years of undergraduate school. Too young to lose my community, but old enough to have my shoulders rattled into fear and made to feel like I needed to behave myself accordingly or suffer the consequences. I've talked to friends and family members only a decade younger than I am who don't carry this unease in the same way. If I am half a step removed, they are a full step removed. There is a type of forgetting that occurs when one hasn't fully experienced a horror.
I only obliquely knew a handful of people who died from HIV/AIDS. One was the sweet and gentle man who made all the bouquets for my wedding 22 years ago. Another, an artist.
I didn't take my children with me to the museum last night. A fact that perplexed them, but only momentarily while they dug tunnels in the hard-packed snow in our dark yard and I backed out of the garage, waving. There were a lot of bobbing headlamps and reflective gear out last night -- people running and walking dogs on dry sidewalks. Normally, we have more snow this time of year, but the environment is changing. People call Alaska "Ground Zero," or "the canary in the coal mine."
The world is changing.
The conversations are changing.
Some of these conversations are clever, but so real and contemporary and arresting.
A part of the conversation here can be attributed to the State of Alaska's Wrap It Up Program, developed in conjunction with the Department of Health and Social Services STD/HIV program, the HSS public information team and Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium HIV/STD prevention program. These condom packets are crass, funny, cool and a conversation starter.
More importantly, they'll probably save lives.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.