"She played bridge, tennis, smoked and needlepoint. She thought Tang was a good source of Vitamin C. Those are things I remember about her. And she loved the Lord. Of all those things, her needlepoint is all that is left in the tangible world, but the rest must be inherited in another way."
Diana Weymar, Artist, Writer, Curator and Vintage Linen Contributor, describing her Grandmother in The 14th boxes of mystery.
How well do we know anyone, even people we see everyday?
And how can we possibly know people who've left us, especially if they never allowed us know them in the first place?
And then, the impossible task of knowing someone who remains unknown because history has failed to attribute her time, her marks.
We can gather our scraps.
We can pick through memory.
We can re-consider.
We can collaborate.
We can create a new mythology.
Last spring I received a Rasmuson Foundation project grant in support of the Inheritance Project. A portion of the grant allowed me to complete a special workshop series this fall at the Anchorage Museum; "Needle & Myth" was designed as five, 2-hour sessions for small work groups of artists, makers, museum members and the public, with a 6th session added at the end. The work generated in these work sessions will become a large community piece installed in May with the exhibition Inheritance: makers. memory. myth. My gratitude to the Rasmuson Foundation for the gift of time, to the Anchorage Museum for the gift of support and space.
I originally prepared 45 or 50 panels, we completed 80.
Over 70 people participated. My deepest gratitude goes to them.
I asked registrants to consider the following prompt before arriving: "She was ____." or "She is ____." This single word or short phrase was then embroidered onto a prepared panel, a linen handkerchief mounted on sheer silk organza. (I received around 85 hankies during the crowdsourcing portion of the Inheritance Project. One Contributor sent me her entire collection of 33). I also asked participants to bring a small, lightweight object, which we then mounted or embedded between the cloth layers. The sheer panels are numbered, and when hung together begin to form a more complete picture of a complex woman, of ourselves.
"...harlot, always making things beautiful, an artist mother, brave, powerful, powerless, rooted, tough as nails, sew much love, too attached, happiness, iguapaeterei, je brule, the matriarch, my only comfort, worth the time, unknown, clever, a weather pattern..."
When was the last time you spent a full two hours considering a handful of words? Hand stitching forces you to slow and consider a needle's placement to achieve a certain curve or line, but this is a small technical thing. What I hoped this project would do was create a 2-hour space to honor memory -- some of it pleasant, some of it painful.
"...These handkerchiefs have probably found their way to countless libraries, golf courses, and trips both across the country and abroad. These everyday items wear the lives of my grandparents."
Kathleen Probst, Artist and Vintage Linen Contributor, fromThe 18th boxes of mystery.
"...daring and original, once mine, into thy hands, everything, graphic, judgmental, a hearty babushka, one of those mean-mean-mean girls, paying attention, the only one, brave, busy, patient, fearless, the tie that binds, a red head, our treasure (hunter), happy, enough, a survivor, tall, an artisan..."
Five men attended. And two children. Six languages are represented.
When one woman told the story of her beautiful mother's two abusive marriages, the entire room fell silent. When another woman shared her mother-in-law's journey from China to Peru to the US with 10 children in tow, the same thing happened. And again, when a woman explained how she'd created the panel for herself, her mother-in-law and the four babies they'd lost. When another woman furtively shared that her mother sometimes stole things, "maybe just a little," we laughed, but then retreated inwards to consider this. Not to judge, but consider. Because aren't we all guilty?
And aren't we -- aren't women -- all worthy of awe?
The safety of a space like this is generated when a task is on the table. No one has to make eye contact with storytellers, no one has to respond directly. There is a reason why the tradition of gathering for handwork has remained so strong for generations.
"...resilient, authentic, finding herself, a complex woman, covered in glitter and dancing like a fiend, ancestral, a smoother of roughness, a Kansas City girl, heartbroken, trouble, delightful, beautifully strong, beautifully hidden, so much more than I ever knew, far from home, grieving, an oasis, told to be quiet, an artist, mom..."
After the workshops, one of the participants sent a link to this TED Talk. It put a lot of things into perspective and gave a broader language for what I was, and am, trying to do. Perhaps it explains why so many people came, sometimes more than once, to such quiet gatherings.
"...enough, unknowingly lonely, frail, gentle, kind, in my heart, still full of wonder, my very first sewing role model and idol, so witty, a twin, a mother trucker, bright, my rock, mother, a sailboat captain, a birdie, mujer mexicana migrante, a fairy with strong wishes, love, a stout woman, persistent...."
I'm now in the process of finishing: taking up the stitches left undone, considering the panel order, planning their mount. I've been asked many times if this will be a quilt. It will not. I can tell you it will suspend and hope viewers will be able to journey around each piece, because the messy b-sides are just as valid as all those pretty facades.
Maybe more so.