“How to write a sex scene:
I don’t remember completing the sex scene writing assignment. And despite ripping apart my file drawers, I couldn’t find my original notes (neither could my former professor, Jo-Ann Mapson, when I asked her for them over a decade after giving that lecture and assignment — no, we cobbled this list together a few weeks ago based on what we both recalled). And I never wrote a novel, even though I started one and abandoned it after 200 pages.
Nearly every writer has to come to terms with the sex scene, because if your characters are alive, they’re having — or at least thinking about having — sex. It's true. You’ll have to describe it if you want believable characters. The point of Jo-Ann’s lecture was this: make sure the style of the scene is indicative of the type of story you are writing.
Years later, she would send me an old yellow quilt -- not particularly well put together, not loved or cared for, but obviously used hard. Maybe like the unknown woman who made it, or laid beneath.
And it -- she -- spoke to me.
"Fatigue Threshold," made from that quilt, is my sex scene.
I can’t define the style. It’s hard core, but metaphoric. It’s specific, but oblique. Like the construction of the final piece, the style is layered.
But I can tell you this much: it was terrifying to create.
Not the slicing, or the construction or the use of fragile fabrics. Not the time I knew it would take, or all the ways it could go wrong. Not the technical finessing of a sheer border element, or the handwork.
No. What terrified me was releasing the work into the world and having people assume this character, this actual narrative, was mine.
I don't know why this bothered me so much. It happens to fiction writers all the time — readers assume a writer’s characters are autobiographical, and sometimes they are, but most of the time they aren’t, or at least wholly aren’t. Something similar happens with film actors and the roles they portray. It’s difficult to separate the maker from the made.
For me, the distilled quality of a piece and the choice to make what I make, relies on emotional truth.
Emotional truth is the reason why some non-fiction is better represented as fiction, and why some authors will complete one narrative only to repeat it in another genre (think Alice Sebold).
Sometimes the literal truth is too close to the surface of an idea, and it’s better to poke and prod at that fire from a distance, circling from a point where you watch all the sparks disappear into the night. You sense the full scope of flame. You see how it lights up the surrounding foliage.
Stand too close to a fire, and you blister your boots.
I thought about Amelia a lot while I worked on this piece. I considered the triangular bit of crocheted tablecloth Helen sent me for the Inheritance Project, that washing-machine-bleach-ruined scrap of a once larger work Amelia had made while incarcerated. I thought about calling the piece “Amelia.” I wanted to embed her crochet into the layers. I wanted to tell her story, or it’s myth. But I did none of these things, because every time I sidled up to the flames with my purposeful stick, I singed my arm hair. Amelia’s specific story was not only not my story, but I couldn’t even see what the story was while standing right on top of it.
So I found a longer stick, and I duct taped another stick to that one, and I whacked the coals from my vantage point somewhere in the trees until I saw the moment, that spark rising and becoming the wisp of a path to the emotional truth: a woman’s breaking point.
Her fatigue threshold.
“In the study of materials — iron, steel, wood, plastic — fatigue refers to a component’s failure after repeated and excessive loads. It is the crumpled beam, the snapped lever, the bowed wall. This piece explores the landscape of women’s work through the use of abandoned cloth, the female form and traditional handwork, to portray the moment before collapse. The burdens are emotional, physical, sexual, literal. We hoard, we discard, we mend, we make do because despite our destruction, some scrap of beauty can always be salvaged.”
"Fatigue Threshold" is about sex. It’s about abuse. It’s about a moment. It’s about a lifetime. It’s about one woman. It’s about all women. It’s about the monotony of tasks and burdens and the domestic realm and exhaustion and birth and life and despair and the slow death of something once precious.
And it is, to me, incredibly beautiful.
Working with old linens is tricky, because focusing on their beauty alone feels nostalgic. The alternative is to destroy them, but that feels self-indulgent and pointless to the work I’m trying to achieve.
I will always strive to balance the beautiful and terrible. It’s hard, and it’s always on my mind.
I’m one of 85 artists accepted into Quilt National 2017. I’ve never submitted before, but I have 3 hardcover catalogs dating back to 2011, so I’ve been following the exhibition for a long time.
I recently traveled to Athens, Ohio for the exhibition’s opening. I’m incredibly honored to show with such a talented group of artists.
The work will travel until September 2019, so I won’t have this piece for my solo exhibition, which is a shame since it’s an important component to the Inheritance Project. But more people will see it this way, and hopefully they’ll be moved. Maybe they’ll contact me.
If I had to write that sex scene now, at 45 instead of 31 or 32 years old when it was originally assigned, I’d opt for balance. Some raunch, some metaphor, some matter-of-fact language.
Zero cute names.
And I'd do the assignment.
Elsewhere on this blog:
I know, I know. I said I wasn't accepting anymore boxes of mystery after last fall. I know.
But...how do you say no to Judy Kirpich?
Look out folks, I'm going all Fan Girl here. If you live under a rock (probably next door to me) and don't know who Judy Kirpich is, then you need to look her up. I started following her blog, Un-multi-tasking, a few years ago after her work was chosen for the cover of the 2011 Quilt National catalog. She's a seemingly fearless slicer, insert-er (except that's so not a word) and mistress of scale. I personally think she's a really great person even though I've never met her, or spoken to her in person, or know her at all ... and that just goes to show there are internet stalkers out there all posing as amazing textile artists who I consider my "friends" because I'm just that naive...
but ... Judy Kirpich's box of mystery:
Thank you, Judy, for sending me an out-of-the-blue box of mystery, filled with delightful snippets of history from unknown sources.
Like these filmy trims of netting and machine-made lace.
And the sturdier trims of crochet and tatting.
The cotton eyelet trims, inset pieces and collars.
The square doilies.
And others -- probably antimassacars -- of unusual shape.
And here's the thing -- I've had that pale pink rope (from the first image) hanging in my studio for a couple of years. My husband once made a tasteless joke about me hanging myself from it ... or that might've been my gross joke ... but I've been saving it because I knew when I salvaged it off a beach in Prince William Sound that it would someday be something.
I'll keep you posted here on serendipity as well as all the other work I'm completing for Inheritance. I have one year until my solo exhibition. Hang in there while I freak out repeatedly.
A real internet friend would hold my hair while I throw up.
* * *
For other posts about the Inheritance Project, click on the sidebar categories Boxes of Mystery or Inheritance Project (and scroll past this one, which will show up first and make someone like me think I've done something wrong).
One year ago on this blog: PechaKucha
Two years ago on this blog: Strange Beauty
This post is part of the Inheritance Project -- the last of 23 posts in the gathering phase. Please follow that link if you'd like to learn more about this year-long crowdsourcing project, its inception and how it grew through the generosity of Contributors and Makers all over the world. This feels like a pivotal post. It feels final, but it's really just the beginning.
Below you'll find the final Boxes of Mystery. No, really.
I'm not kidding.
No more messing around.
But first, I have to go all data on you:
13 months crowdsourcing vintage linens
93 people contacted me -- and I replied to every single one, sometimes twice. (If you sent an email and feel I didn't respond -- yikes -- it's possible I've been hanging out in your spam filter).
23 boxes of mystery posts
20 known or presumed countries of origin
23 known or presumed US states where items originated or were found
300 - 350 makers -- mostly unknown (this, based on the number of items)
63 hand written thank you cards with teeny tiny doilies
20 minutes to make each teeny tiny doily
2 scheduled museum exhibitions
1 upcoming public art project planned through the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center (this is new news -- not to be confused with fake news -- and more on this gets rolled out in a few months)
4 works in process
1 grant received from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, supporting ARTISTS AND WRITERS WITH CHILDREN. (Can I shout this from the roof tops?! This is my second time applying for this grant. Don't. Give. Up.)
1 grant in process (I find out in May)
1 Final Inheritor: me (but there's some sharing that'll happen...)
I've been up since 3:30 am AK time, because this is when I wake up now. I should be a stock broker. Except, I'm an artist. And sometimes a writer.
Thank you, Karla Carpenter, for agreeing to meet me at Alaska Pacific University last September and deliver your bag of mystery in person.
I was there to take down my part of a group show, Fragments of Time, which felt fitting when Karla arrived with her items -- all literally fragments of time. Most boxes of mystery have arrived in the mail, so I've rarely had an opportunity to look someone in the eye and say "thank you." This is probably a good thing since I get all weepy, and the wobbly chin, and the snot...
Most of Karla's items came from households of women in her family, but it wasn't 100% clear as to who made them or when, so some descriptions remain unknown.
"I understand that you will take old textiles to use in your artwork. I have about a dozen pieces, some with embroidery, some lace, some just beautiful old fabric. I would love to pass them on to you."
There are a number of constants across cultures, food and family seem obvious, but also handwork. This piece below is unique to Paraguay, a type of needle worked, loom stretched lace called "Nandutí" in the Guadaníi language. In English, this translates to "spider web." In 1969, Karla's friend purchased this stiff and fibrous piece in a small town outside Asunción. At the time, the weaver explained it would need to be returned to the loom for any cleaning, but that never happened.
The baby dresses and doll clothes came from Karla's mother, and accompanied her doll, Richard. It's hard to tell from these photos -- since they all appear to be the same scale -- but Richard's clothes are incredibly small. Pulled from a frothy jumble of linens, there is that staggering moment of fragility -- Could this have been a baby's? But no, not a real baby.
The following domestic linens (lace tablecloths, bureau scarves, pillow cases, dish cloths, apron) are from the households of Karla's grandmother, Helen Brewster Allured, and her great aunts Caroline and Gertrude Brewster.
One piece Karla did know intimately was this mid-20th century Persian lamb coat, purchased with her mother's very first paycheck. Her mother loved it and wore in in the way a young woman would, and Karla wore it as well. It's incredibly fragile now, no longer wearable, mended with hand stitches, metal staples and bunch of hope. Before she gave it to me, Karla removed a monogrammed fragment from the black crepe lining. This was all she wanted, needed.
I've always admired Persian lamb garments, and certainly understood they were made from lamb pelts, but didn't realize that the most choice pelts are derived from nearly full term fetuses. This is because within days of birth, the pelts begin to darken.
I tell you this, not as a political statement, nor as a judgey turd. I live in Alaska. Fur is a common thing born of cultural and elemental necessity; I own an Alaska Native made sea otter neck warmer that makes me sweat at 0 degrees F. No, I tell you this because sometimes the backstory of an object is the great impetus for creation. Narrative is the driver.
And when there is no narrative, there is myth. I sometimes think about all this material as the slivers that could create memoir, except for all those vacant expanses and failures of memory. It's an opportunity for a fictionalized version to get so much closer to a narrative truth.
The ways she is remembered.
My heartfelt thanks to Jan Livingston, for delivering this piece from her Slovenian-born grandmother, Johanna (Jennie) Dolinar Usenichnik, and for providing gorgeous photos from this woman's life. I've known Jan for many years, our connection knitted by our children (her's full grown, mine young) and a commitment to their small school. This doily is the last item officially accepted for the Inheritance Project.
"After losing four of her brothers to WWI, she emigrated to the US with a cousin, Marija Dolinar, traveling aboard the ship, "La Savoie," from its port in France to Ellis Island in March of 1921. The ship's manifest noted that they had no money at all (...) the cousins made their way to the coal-mining railroad town of Rock Springs, Wyoming."
I leave you with this tender photograph of Johanna Dolinar Usenichnik. I received hundreds of items labeled "Unknown," but this woman was known well. She was loved, and loved deeply in return.
As it should be.
* * *
My gratitude to every person who took the time to send me an object, a box of mystery, a label, a letter, a comment. The work I'm currently engaged in would not have happened without the work of previous generations of women, literal, physical and emotional. I think about and am shaped by them all.
* * *
For a comprehensive list of ALL the boxes of mystery, their senders and the contents, please visit the Inheritance Project page. Documentation was an important facet of this project and I worked hard to approach it all with reverence.
One would think I could fit the last 4 boxes of mystery into one post, but there are too many beautiful images, so I'm splitting this into 2 parts. Unfortunately, I've already used the juicy words "antepenultimate" and "penultimate" otherwise I'd apply at least the latter here. So the next post, the 23rd, is really, really the final.
If you are stumbling across this blog for the first time and wondering what the hell is happening, I'll re-route you to the Inheritance Project page, where you can read more and find links to peruse the contents of the other 21 boxes of mystery sent from contributors all over the world, complete with narratives, histories and lots of question marks about the many, many makers unknown.
I offered to be the final inheritor (or the sin-eater, as one woman called me, except -- while dark and interesting -- I don't really want to be one of those). I offered to hear the stories, many of them very sad, but others full of vibrant, creative lives well lived. I offered to take on the burden of generations of handwork too precious to use and too guilt-laced to throw away. And when people responded, I gave my time in return -- I crocheted teeny tiny doilies, I hand-wrote letters of thanks, and laundered and documented and showcased these domestic linens here for a year and a half.
And now that part of the project is ending.
From these raw materials -- discarded, rescued, contributed -- I'm building a body of work that celebrates the uncelebrated, values the valueless, re-uses the useless. I'm exploring the mythology of unknown makers through collective memory and the recurring narrative themes of loss, ideals of beauty -- real, imagined or unrealized -- and power of womanhood.
I've received one small grant that allows me to work on this project and am applying for another. My exhibition proposal has been accepted by two museums. I just signed a 12 page contract with the first one.
Shit just got real.
And believe me when I say this work would not exist without the work of other women. Not a moment passes when I don't remember this fact, and I am immensely grateful.
Below are the contents of the 22nd boxes of mystery.
Long distance neighbor.
If you've never been to Alaska, please understand that it is enormous. Anchorage is the largest city, with nearly half the population of the state living in it, so when folks come into town, they plan their trip, spend the night, see people, and get a lot done. Linda Robinson lives 4 hours away from me in Homer (one of my favorite places in Alaska aside from Prince William Sound), so dropping off linens at my home and meeting me in person happened to be on her Anchorage to-do list. Some of these items were made by her grandmother, Cora May Torrey, who died in the mid 1970's, others have been acquired elsewhere and are of unknown provenance.
Many thanks, Linda, for the pit stop. I loved meeting you in person even though it was a super quick visit. When I'm in Homer next, I know we'll spend more time together. I'll make sure it's on my to-do list. I appreciate your effort to bring me these beautiful items.
Boxes inside a box.
My deep gratitude to the very creative Lara Ferguson, who sent items to me from California and took an incredible amount of time attaching descriptions and personal responses. She sent the cigar boxes to "keep treasures in," which is so sweet since I have some of my Grandpa Wayne's mid-century cigar boxes, too. Some of her thoughts are as follows:
"It seems like you can tell the age of the piece by the size of the thread: the skinnier, the older. I've crocheted a vintage pattern with #30 thread -- how did they have enough light for that kind of work?"
"Lace, tatting, beading ... they don't seem to be from the same maker ... but they all came in the same box."
Lara made a number of the items she sent and shared her creative process.
"I was working through pattern books and practicing stitches and technique. Using ecru thread made me feel like I was crocheting antiques."
"I crocheted a rainbow version of the mandala that is hooped and hung in my bathroom, for my 2-minute tooth brushing meditation."
Hang on. I clearly need a tooth brushing meditation.
"I hope the things I've included inspire you in some way, even if they don't make it into your pieces. I feel like I got a deeper understanding of your work going through this exercise..."
I love that last statement. When was the last time I immersed myself in thinking about another artist's work? It's been a long while and this was a good reminder to get out of my head and do that more.
Thank you Lara for sending these things and telling me all their stories.
* * *
The next post features the last boxes of mystery, for real, and before contacting me with contribution queries, please know I'm unable to accept further items. Seriously. The gathering phase has been wonderful, but overwhelming and I'm ready to be fully immersed in the making. These blog photos are lovely and organized, but I don't launder or sort items until after I've blogged about them (along with a million other rules I've manifested to maintain control), so it gets a little hectic for my Virgo mind.
What I'm saying here is don't be fooled by blogs and the supposed lives of others. This is the cutting table I get to tidy up now. Yup, I'm all full up with the doilies.
The exhibition, Inheritance: makers. memory. myth., is scheduled for May 4 - Sept. 16, 2018 at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, then will immediately travel to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau for November. Some of you have already contacted me to say you're coming to Alaska for the summer of 2018.
I'm actively seeking other venues and would love your ideas. Maybe you won't have to travel so far if this can come to you.
These are the penultimate Boxes of Mystery. These photos were taken in September and I hope this second-to-last group of contributors hasn't given up on me, thinking I wouldn't share the contents of the packages they took time to send all the way to Alaska. I have an excuse and it's 30 feet long, double sided. I also have 2 other excuses, they aren't nearly that big, eat a lot more and grow out of clothing faster than I can mend knee holes.
But, back to the business of Inheritance.
Possibly the Owens.
Thank you, Jill Isakson, for rescuing these hand made items and sending them my way. My daughter, age 8, has commandeered the red, green and yellow Christmas doilies after helping organize in my studio. Sometimes they are under the Christmas tree, other times under the cats. She's promised to return them to the "colorful doilies" bin, but I know her and she'll smuggle them in to the Christmas box come January's Holiday Dismantle. I hope you don't mind.
Something tells me you won't.
"... I believe they are from her mother’s side of the family, which would be the Owens. Wish I had more information...”
Continuing a Story.
Thank you, Denise Elaine Mongeau, for the heavy box of linens, wool tapestry needlepoints, the tiny hard bound needle case, the embroidered tea towels and all that pristine embroidery floss worthy of a 1940's sewing basket.
I'm sure there are very few of us who, at age 17, know what will be important to us 30 years on. It would be impossible. I'm honored to hold your mother's memory in my thoughts.
Make Mine Vanilla.
Last June, Marolyn Cook sent me an incredible collection of 33 linen handkerchiefs (these are documented in The 14th boxes of mystery). She has since sent this Clarks/J & P Coats instruction booklet, “Handkerchief Edgings” c. 1949.
There are a number of things I love about this:
First, the idea of crocheting the edging of my hankies is charming. It also bends my mind. Second, I think somebody in copyediting had a good time appealing to a certain woman at a certain point in time with those pattern titles. Third, all those stylized doodles along the tops of the pages -- an atomizer, kid gloves, a paint palette, a fan, a violin, an hourglass, a ribbon that says "dreamy" another "le billet doux" (love letter), a quiver with arrows and a heart -- tells me this isn't just the instruction book for edging your hankies, its the secret recipe for filling your hope chest.
So, that certain woman was perhaps a young woman.
Also, Iove that it cost 10 cents.
Spirit of My Heart.
Thank you, Tammy Hennessy, for sending this lovely parcel of linens from your mother's collection. I know that going through these items has been emotional and challenging.
Tammy first contacted me two years ago, after creating a painting inspired by one of my blog posts. At that time she was challenging herself to paint a portrait a day and my work inspired #70. You can see her work on her blog, The Seared Blue Hair Comment, an exploration of her artistic pursuits and all things that move her. She's also on Instagram as @myartofhearts. Her portraits are intense and have a way of burning into the viewer.
I know from our conversations it was important for Tammy to send some of her mother's things for this project, and that the relationship with her wasn't always easy. I, too, have linens made by women in my family who -- distance aside -- I rarely felt close with or understood by. But as many of us come to realize decades on, the love was there in the creating.
These items are part of Tammy's tangible inheritance, objects she spent over a year going through after her mother passed away.
"... I learned things about my mother that I never knew, really, and it was heartbreaking to me to discover how much we had in common, and how many things we both loved as much. I never knew this ... we never got to share those things together."
"... I have her entire sewing room."
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.