This is the final post about the most recent piece of public art I completed. "Dragon Flight" was originally created in 2003 for the Samson-Dimond Branch Library in Anchorage, Alaska. At that time, it was a 15-foot long, double-sided triptych that divided a then-new computer lab and a story-time/programming room. In 2010, it was moved to the children's area of the larger Chugiak-Eagle River Library, and in 2014 I started the process of procuring funds to expand the textile work to fit this larger space and add a community art component. A team of us wrote grants, and in the end received funding through the Chugiak-Eagle River Foundation, the Anchorage Public Library and Friends of the Library. This part took time, but we were patient and gratitude filled.
And I got a little thicker skinned in the process.
The first blog post in this 3-part series, "How to wake a dragon," provides the more important history of the work, as it was originally created in memory of a young woman named Jessie Withrow, who was killed by a drunk driver while riding her bicycle on an Anchorage sidewalk.
Every day, I drive past the white ghost bicycle I believe is erected in her memory, right there near the corner of Northern Lights and Minnesota Boulevards in Anchorage.
I brush past her.
The second post in the series, "How to tend a dragon," gives insight into the process of working with this piece once it came down at the end of October (if you are interested in using fire retardant on textile works, you might want to read this), and ends with those ropes dangling in my entry way after I cut it down and loaded all 6 double-sided panels in my car for the 30-minute drive to Eagle River last week.
I'm a melancholic. And part of this personality assumes that everything that can go wrong, will. I was pretty sure my house was going to burn down during the between-time of completion and installation. I was pretty sure I'd get in a spinning, icy car accident delivering it. I could hear the twang! of a cable snapping as we hung it. But the most likely scenario involved dirt, so I wrapped it in 2mm plastic sheeting and didn't remove it until we were positive of the positioning.
In 2003, I'd enlisted my husband's mad scroll saw skills to cut out 3 different sizes of stars in 1/4" mdf, which I painted and hung all around the small room at the first branch library. I'd forgotten how many there were after all this time, but someone had saved the stack and they'd been sitting on a shelf in the storage room at the Chugiak-Eagle River Library since 2010. I was so excited to see them produced last week -- they may as well have been made of gold.
It took just under 3 hours to hang, with the help of Bill, the gruff, yet lovable library facilities manager, who brought his super ladder. I promised chocolate chip cookies for his help and made good by delivering them the next day (despite the fact I only had 1/4 cup of chocolate chips in the house and had to secretly chop up a bunch of the kids' hidden Halloween candy because there was no way I was going to the store at 9 pm).
On Saturday, Dec. 10, 50 of us gathered to celebrate and tell the story of the now 30-foot, double sided dragon while children ran between the stacks squinting and pointing as they looked for "their squares" on the reverse. Some were dismayed to not find them right away, but I promise they're all there.
I'm not the same person who made the dragon in 2003. As a mother now, I have a different sense of community and how vital it is to nurture. My children, who saw this piece for the first time in 2013, aren't the little pudgy-armed sillies who posed for this photo back then, either. They weren't at all interested in posing for photographs on Saturday, but they are the ones who helped and helped and helped with the community art part ... my daughter, now 8, must be responsible for at least 15 of those star-studded squares.
And when it comes to raising dragons, even the smallest ones, I'd say there are a few important things to pass on:
For example, I'd want a dragon to remember that everyone is always welcome at a table.
And that every one of us deserves to make a lasting mark, no matter how small or imperfect, because we all deserve to seek and live with beauty.
And yes, of course there are some things you absolutely can and should go back and change, even years later, with the intent to make better.
And you should do this every chance you get, because there are too damned many things in life we can't change, or fix, or make better, ever.
I'd also want a dragon to know that there are people you'll never meet who still have an enormous impact on your life.
And because of all this, gratitude should be the first emotion you lay on the table.
Other public art posts:
The summer of 2003: I was between children's book illustration jobs, doing a swell job of simultaneously fretting about and ignoring my creative writing MFA thesis ("Hey look, I should teach myself how to knit..."), hauling my husband from one fika to another while visiting as many aging family members as possible in a 3-week trip to Sweden, and somewhere in there I was commissioned to make a really big dragon.
The work hung in the Samson-Dimond Branch Library in Anchorage, Alaska for 7 years, until budget cuts closed that space. Luckily, a manager for a library 20 miles away in Eagle River knew about the dragon banner and personally relocated it to the Chugiak-Eagle River Library where it's hung for 6 years in the children's area.
This public art installation was designed as a double-sided triptych, 15 feet long, made with cotton, wool, recycled clothing and various commercial fabrics. The original location was tight -- the tail faced a small new computer lab and the head faced the program/story time area. The suspended panels fit above computer stations and between small columns.
The work honors a young woman named Jessie Withrow who was killed by a drunk driver while riding her bicycle on an Anchorage sidewalk. She loved the library and fantasy books, so we made a dragon for her. When that little library closed, a piece this large could have disappeared forever into storage.
That is the short history of a multi-layered, important story, which involves a lot of people, their support and a willingness to hang on to memory.
Sometimes the very best stories go to sleep for a while, when they have a cozy place to dream. They probably deserve that rest.
But then something wakes them up.
And here's where this piece of artwork rises, after many years, to becomes a story again.
In 2014 I approached the library with some questions -- was there any interest in re-configuring this piece to better fit this new space? If it became a 6-panel, 30-foot dragon...would the library support an expansion like this? And what if we pulled together as many library users as possible -- children, moms, dads, grandparents -- to help make the reverse panels in a multi-step community art project?
What if we unfurled this whole story so it soared over the top of the entire children's section? What if we invited people to be a part of this kind of magic? Would they come? Could we teach them a new skill they could also do at home?
It took 2 years of grant writing, but the "Dragon Flight" project took wing and this month we started a series of community art workshops to create the reverse panels. If any of you follow me on Facebook or Instagram you've probably seen some of the images from these workshops and my studio ... and not a whole lot else. Even the Inheritance Project has been put on hold.
I've never used Wonder Under before. I'm not a super star stitching with monofilament thread (but I've gotten pretty good). And releasing 200 pre-cut squares to eager hands who've never done this kind of work before has been serendipitous and fulfilling.
The third and final "Sky Full of Stars" workshop is on Saturday, October 22, 2016 from 3 - 5 pm at the Chugiak Eagle-RiverLibrary. The large workspace is in the back of the children's area (you get to walk beneath the current dragon to get there). At the end of the month, the dragon banner will come down and I'll take it apart. All 6 new double-sided panels will be installed before Christmas, 2016. More on that to come in a future post.
Dragon on the front, party on the back.
My immense gratitude to the Chugiak-Eagle River Foundation, Friends of the Library and the Anchorage Library Foundation and to all the hands who've made this project possible. I'd like to thank fellow SAQA regional co-representative, Maria Shell, for posting about her experience working with a community on a large-scale textile art project. I'm not going to lie, I learned a lot from her post and you will, too.
Lastly, my heart extends to the family of Jessie Withrow, lover of libraries, reader of books, vessel for deep imagination. Muse.
Other posts about public art:
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.
I've lived in Alaska for 16 years, almost half that time with children. I know how this place has shaped me, but I have no life comparison for them. The North is all they've ever known.
Earlier this summer, I got it in my head that my daughter and I needed to slog through some workbooks to bolster her reading and writing skills. One of the first worksheets -- a "which-one-of-these-items-doesn't-belong-in-this-list" affair -- featured an illustration of a bear rolling out his sleeping bag at the top of the page. A wilderness theme, logically.
So, which item doesn't belong?
fire, candle, radio, flashlight.
She chose "candle."
According to the test creators, my daughter's answer to question #1 would've been wrong.
But her logic was this: "I'd need the fire to stay warm, the flashlight to see in the dark, and the radio so I could call for help."
Ah yes. That kind of radio.
Hers was the answer that would keep her -- maybe even us -- alive.
This morning we hiked a mile downhill to a beached humpback whale lodged at the edge of Kincaid Park in Anchorage. I've written about finding things on beaches before, mostly in Prince William Sound and sometimes elsewhere, but we didn't stumble upon this morning's find; we traveled to the whale with intention.
My son, age 10, had a theory as to why the whale's side had split open, spilling guts into the silt.
"It's probably all the gases expanding. Like that one time when you put the red lid on the sourdough batter and it blew right off."
Their filter for the world is connected to their sense of place.
You are probably wondering what kind of olfactory experience that whale was, and the four of us can say, for the rest of our lives, with authority: "Smells like a long dead whale." Now we know.
There are times when I ask myself why we would ever choose to live here. Why, as an architect and an artist, my husband and I aren't willing to return to an urban hub, to a different kind of exposure or set of opportunities in some other place, one not so remote.
I wonder, why at one time we turned our backs on just such a place and walked so far away.
Without the naivety of the first lesson -- the false assuredness, the bumbling, the sliding -- the second lessons are different. After you've learned from something, you'll never experience it the same way twice.
Maybe the deeper lesson is knowing you don't want to.
If you've followed this blog for a little while, you know my family spends summer weekends in Prince William Sound, Alaska. This is our 7th season boating -- by Alaskan standards this is green -- and there is no amount of preparedness that makes me feel totally safe on the water. Last weekend, for example, we awoke at 2 am when a 22-foot KingFisher aluminum boat dragged anchor and T-boned our bow (no harm done, unless you count their ego and our good night's sleep). Not only this, but we are lousy fishermen, spending a lot more time picking up marine debris from remote beaches than catching anywhere near what one might call a limit. Last year at anchor, the silver salmon my husband reeled in off the swim step was met with much squealing, petting and naming, until it was bonked on the head. After this, the children burst into tears and refused to speak to my husband for the rest of the afternoon, still glaring at him with red-rimmed stink eyes at dinner, all hiccup-y as they scarfed heaping plates of grilled salmon. We are nurturing these soft hearts while gently redirecting their intensity because, hey, we all like eating wild salmon and recognize the importance of understanding where one's food comes from. At the same time, it's the insistent, curious heart that saves lives of all kinds.
And while it's important to know where your food comes from, it's also damned important to know where your garbage goes, because, people, it's all connected. And in the words of my wise younger sister: "You say you're throwing something away, but there is ... no ... away."
On a trip to the Grand Canyon a few months ago, we stopped for breakfast in Flagstaff, and before we'd even finished our sit-down meal, I was complaining to the manager about the 4 plastic kiddie cups with lids and straws the staff had produced (unasked for) as well as all the other wrappers and disposables that came with our non-fast-food breakfasts. While my husband squirmed and my kids thought we were about to be escorted outside, I explained our sensitivity to garbage, how completely unnecessary this waste was (FOUR straws that no one wanted?) and how we find this exact debris on our beaches in Alaska.
This, the manager's parting comment:
"I will definitely take your thoughts into consideration. Trust me, I don't like spending money on these cups and lids either, but kids always spill. And I personally GUARANTEE this trash won't end up on your Alaskan beaches! Heh, heh." (Feel free to insert the term "Little Lady" anywhere in here, adding a pat on the head, and you'd be right on tone).
Okay. First of all, teach children how to drink out of a cup, America. Cleaning up spilled water and milk is a vital part of raising small, capable humans -- right up there with wiping ass and actually speaking to one another at the table instead of staring at your electronic devices.
Secondly, Mr. Personal-Guarantee-Arizona, you have no freaking idea how far the crap on our beaches has traveled.
While the polar regions are experiencing massive shifts directly related to climate change (ever heard of a Pizzlie? How about a Grolar? If not, you should check out that link), there are other changes afoot that are unexplained. Along with finding a modest amount of trash last weekend, we discovered more seabird carcasses than we'd ever seen before. Biologists have been tracking a huge common murre die off that started this winter, and while I'm no bird expert, I can definitely identify a dead one. We easily counted 30 on one beach outside of Surprise Cove alone. Cause of death? Unknown.
I realize no one wants to see these images. I didn't either and I still don't. And I always thought the last thing I wanted to hear on a beach was my kids yelling, "More plastic!" but now I realize hearing, "Another dead bird!" is worse.
The whole point of this blog is to wrap my head around the things that inspire me, frighten me and force the living questions to the surface, which then begin to inform my work. I'm not on a soap box here, but it's easy to dismiss issues that feel incredibly far away ... I know this because I'm guilty of it, too. But if I show the world a problem that is part of my family's life, maybe small simple things will start happening, like folks might start requesting no straws. (Yes, the restaurant wait staff will look at you like you have a horn growing out of your head, but if everyone started to learn to drink out of a cup like we used to, maybe we'd all do some other things differently as well). Living in a world that so easily disposes of things, leads to the easy disposal of culture, places, wildlife and people. And while trash doesn't go "away," animals certainly do, places are and people will.
Do I dispose of things? Yes. Do we burn diesel to get to these remote beaches? Yes. I am not without conflicts of my own. But environmental conflict has partly shaped my decision to use old cloth. To purchase used clothing. To carry a dented metal water bottle. To darn wool socks. Mend holes. Gather other people's trash. These are small things, but some of my children's personal choices of the future will be made based on what they see me do now. Other choices we all take for granted may simply disappear.
I'm not looking forward to finding a strangled seal carcass, but it might be inevitable. If I thought my children's howling over the silver salmon was bad, I can only imagine the wobbly chins and before-bed discussions that will ensue based on a meaningless death, but at least they'll have seen these creatures alive in their lifetime. They've watched whales breaching, Dall's Porpoises chasing our wake, curious seals circling our anchorages, Stellar Sea Lions hauled out on rocks, black bear pawing the water's edge. They've sat in the dinghy at the mouth of streams filled with so many jostling salmon that the boat has lifted.
They have counted and petted and named all of those silvery, slippery insistent heads. They remember places based on what they've seen, picked, eaten or found. They will go forth in the world with pockets full of stories and stories and stories.
If you are curious about our Alaskan beach excursions (not all of them this rant-y, but hopefully still thought provoking), check out the following posts:
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.