Maybe you remember a post from last summer, a sun-drenched afternoon on the deck with my girl, a mystery box from a friend in Upstate New York, a bunch of pointy bras, seamed vintage stockings and a couple of spying boys?
It is mid fall now and another box has come.
This time, from Sweden.
My friend Boel sent it after contacting me to ask if I'd be interested in embroideries and handmade linens from the local Pentecostal church's second-hand shop. I'm always game for this so I sent a list of ideas and colors, she responded with photos. On the day Boel visited the church (her name is pronounced BOO-elle), she said the place was filled with refugees shopping for their new homes.
Of course, old Swedish handwork is not useful for these families. They have no connection to this history; their own wounded history is as young as yesterday. They need shoes and pots and winter coats. They need space and shelters that angry people won't set on fire.
In the aisles of that church shop roamed the convergence of so many things:
Lives lived and histories abandoned.
The humanity of making and saving and surviving.
The hoarding, the discarding.
When Boel told the church volunteers she was shipping linens to an Alaskan artist of Swedish descent, they gave her an enormous discount. These ladies had taken the time to remove crocheted edging from worn bedding because this part was still good. The handwork was still beautiful and valued.
It's been raining here and all the trees have lost their leaves. The mornings are dark when the children go to school. My son slipped on black ice in the driveway not 20 minutes ago and hurt his hand. Anchorage is the same latitude as Stockholm, so I can imagine what it is like in Sweden right now; the darkness and the cold inhospitable to people not used to that northern climate. This week I listened to a Syrian doctor burst into tears in an interview on the radio. The man hadn't slept in four days and kept apologizing for weeping. I was in my studio stitching by hand and didn't realized how hard I was crying until the cat came meowing down the stairs to check on me. This doctor said all he could think about were the people he couldn't help if he took time to rest. He said his country was disappearing.
Sometimes we find rusted needles still embedded in old embroideries. Like someone put the work down and just walked away. At one point, the maker had hope and inspiration and will.
But there are a million things that dissolve hope.
80-year-old Greek grandmothers meet boats on the beaches of Lesvos, offering to hold babies and sit for hours with bewildered mothers, purchasing fruit every day for displaced children, and there are days when Alaska feels far away already, but standing in my doorway, signing for a blue box from Sweden, I feel removed and guilty for having so much.
I'm not going to create art about the world's refugees. I'm not going to pretend I have any answers or throw money in a direction that isn't helpful. But I am going to worry for them and continue telling my children stories about what is happening in the world so they understand that having to go to school or to swimming lessons is a privilege, not a torture, and certainly not everyone's right. That somewhere, somebody's art supplies and books and special clothes and animals all got left behind because their family's wellbeing was more important.
And because we can't directly rescue people today, we will rescue some unwanted things -- items that are the remnants of humanity's need to make and do and mark, remnants of resilience and will.
And we'll hold stories in our hearts. And we'll revere history. And mend what we can.
We'll work hard to be kind in this world.
* * *
My friend, Boel Werner, is an artist and a writer. We met in Los Angeles in 2004 at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators' annual summer conference and somehow never disappeared from one another's lives. We have one of her books about a pair of red pants that comes to life one night, escapes out the window and flies into the world to have an adventure. Flygarbyxorna is one of our family favorites. I'd hate to ever leave it behind.
But I would.
I would grab my children and I would flee.
I've talked about series work before and since I just sent this piece off to the Barrett Art Center in Poughkeepsie, NY (which feels very far from Anchorage, AK -- more on this in an upcoming post), I'm sharing process photos of how this piece from the Reliquary Series came about.
I spent a lot of time researching reliquaries and memento mori for this series, exploring them through writing and drawing and pattern making, and have every intent to continue along this path for quite some time. I have no connection to these religious items based on my own history, but I'm a collector and a master of highly organized hoarding (and the requisite purging). The impulse behind this work is the question: How do we honor the worthless?
The cloth, the stone, the unidentifiable bone.
And why would we?
And, should we?
I think a lot about what it means to revere objects that are old, discarded or unwanted -- especially things that someone once made, or chose, or lived with, or wore. And then I wonder about the combining of these histories and the shaping of an object with a new energy.
And alongside the mental journey, is the physical act of creating. The building, the repetition, the decision making, the standing back and realizing: Oh crap. I just made something that is too f***ing precious.
Then conjuring the cajones it takes fix that last part.
Because sometimes a slice is the only way to insert what is needed into an object. In this case, a soul.
What kind of cuts do we make to reveal our own souls? When do we put aside our deep embarrassment or fear or stumble through our lack of words in order to peel back the precious parts, the pretty parts, the smoothed over and gilded? How do we find the hidden spirit within an entity? Where does it hide?
A certain palette emerged in this series, and to see the work all in one room made me realize the power and meaning behind this limited range:
white: bone, history and the domestic
gold and amber: bile, bodily fluid and the gilt edge
black: ash and decay
flesh tones: the body
red: blood, the wound
orange: the soul
I spent 12 hours making French knots using wool from discarded crewel embroidery kits.
And the time it took to solve that design problem, offered further time to solve construction problems I knew were coming,
and allowed the recognition, despite the hours invested, that something still wasn't right. Either too literally portrayed, or just not fine enough,
and to know how to fix it.
All the while considering the sinister behind the beautiful.
The macabre within the gilded vessel.
The darkness behind the light.
The horrifying thing that happens when you pursue and then catch a butterfly.
I thought for a time that I needed to insert my artist self somewhere. Among quilters, none of my points are perfectly rendered. Among embroiderers, my stitches are narrowly defined or nameless. Among writers, I'm here blogging. Among fine artists, my work is defined as craft.
So I drift. Strengthening an intent that is honed through time, repetition, emotion and the narrative quality of a life. And the more I do this work, the less I care where it lands.
I will not be defined. I will not be pinned.
Among humans and butterflies, I am understood.
This is a link-heavy post. I'm to the point where this blog is coming together into ... I don't know ... something. Here's the list for those related posts:
The Traveling Eye 6: Reliquary
The dream of pioneers
Swallowing the needle
In the deep well of series work
"The most important benefit of working in a series is that it helps you learn how to work from your own ideas and discover your own unique voice [...] Become aware of the the work that excites you, intrigues you, and makes you back to look at it again. This is the kind of work you should be making."
If you've considered working in a visual series but aren't sure where to begin, you may want to take a look at Elizabeth Barton's book. Especially if the last series pieces you did were those enormous watercolor nudes in undergrad with the nipples that look strangely like bowler hats, which are a bit too graphic to hang on the wall now that you have small children (note that I am not including a photograph, this is a family blog here, people), and/or also, you feel perhaps like you've forgotten how to create anything in a series other than macaroni and cheese dinner out of a box.
A few months ago, I answered an interview question about one of the three series that I'm engaged in called Girl Story. I'm republishing it here since I'm thinking a lot about this series right now. I've got the fourth Girl Story on the wall and the 5th is waiting in the wings, with perhaps a 6th elbowing her out of the way back there behind the velvet curtain. If I don't attend to these ladies soon, somebody's going to get an eye poked or launched off the stage into the mosh pit.
But maybe that's a good thing.
This is question #4 from Kari Lorenson's interview at Knotwe: The Hub for Fiber, Textiles, Surface Design:
"Girl Story seems like a turning point in your work. When I look at Girl Story, it broaches a subject matter that is not talked about in the public sphere but it is an experience of womanhood. Quilts are interesting forms for art because of their multi-faceted history in the domestic/ private sphere to a unique history almost entirely dominated by women. The history as a social document is a rich history as well and there are many aspects about the quilt as an object that are interesting to explore. Did this piece have an impact on how your process and where your work is now?"
Girl Story, like Spontaneous Combustion, wasn’t so much a turning point as a direct response to where I am as a woman and a mother. If Spontaneous Combustion was the question my son asked repeatedly when he was four and my response to postpartum anxiety and the domestic role in general, then Girl Story and Girl Story #2 are the questions waiting to be asked by my daughter and my internal struggle with how to present a normal life process in a way that honors how menarche could be for her, while still acknowledging how it was for me, my mother, her mother, etc.
Girl Story #3 veers slightly, and came about when I was working on the Reliquary Series. I began the piece assuming it was a Reliquary, but deep into it realized that it was my response to a loved one’s addiction and her inability to be a mother for her three children for a time. It was another Girl Story, another struggle related to womanhood made all the more painful by the fact that for all of us with children there are many moments — some of them fleeting — when we just check out and become unavailable. I think it’s a series I’ll work on for years. My role is evolving, so my work naturally will. This is a deep, deep well.
The fact that these pieces are “quilts” is important to the emotional quality of the work. We approach quilts and embroidery with a certain set of expectations and aren’t necessarily prepared to see embroidered menstrual blood on doilies or hear frightening questions from children. I don’t do this for shock value — I find shock value flaccid and annoying — I do this because they are living questions for me and therefore have value. If they are shocking, that’s secondary and something brought to the piece by the viewer’s own life experience.
Are you working in a series? Have thoughts about this process? We'd love to hear them shared here, so leave a comment. We're all about learning from others around this place.
Also, if you'd like to read more about the Girl Story Series, check out the previous posts "A history of pretty" and "Write a letter to your mother."
"It is okay to be an outsider, a recent arrival, new on the scene -- and not just okay, but something to be thankful for ... Because being an insider can so easily mean collapsing the horizons, can so easily mean accepting the presumptions of your province."
Here in Alaska, we have a word for the newly arrived: Cheechako.
It is derived from the Chinook word chee, meaning "just now" and chako, meaning "come."
Just now, come.
Think Gold Rush, think feverish wagon slog through waist-deep snow, think soaked cotton clothing, think new Pipeline hires and frozen metal zippers exploding off winter coats. Think unpreparedness. Think amazingly stupid ideas that turn out okay, or even great. Think trying to eat a PowerBar from your pack at -10 degrees and dislocating your jaw. Think cold, wet feet. Think masted ships trapped, then crushed in pack ice. Think bushwhacking through pushki and baring red angry scars on arms and legs for years afterwards. Think unsecured kayaks floating away in the middle of the night. Think unaware awe. Think, "Look -- a Mama moose and baby -- let's get closer!" Think, "If I spray myself with bear spray, it will repel bears!" Think rubber boots with high heels. Think Greenhorn. Think Tenderfoot. Think lost and needs rescuing.
Think lost and prefers it that way.
My husband and I left a robust coastal city of 2 million and came to Alaska in 2000. I'd worked in the fashion industry for 12 years (wait, I think I had a pair of rubber boots with heels ... what happened to those?) and sought major change, my husband found a job in Anchorage (but I thought you said you sent resumes to Seattle and San Francisco ...). My memory of arriving here that November after driving 2,195 miles, is of sitting at a stoplight in silence, staring at a plastic palm tree deflating in a snowy car lot, my new mittens filthy from changing a tire next to a dumpster behind a Chinese restaurant, two howling cats on the bench seat between us and the sinking weight of knowing, clearly, we'd just made an enormous mistake.
But I also remember the first time I heard a raven's Kla-wock! from a street lamp above: a dropping, dripping sound, like water hitting the bottom of an empty barrel. A sound that still has me snap my head around until I can find that glossy black body.
And I remember filling my lungs and thinking, Oh, this is what it means to take a deep breath. This is what it means to look up and see something enormous -- a horizon, a sky, a raven -- something beckoning instead of crushing.
When do you stop being a Cheechako?
When bald eagles stop taking your breath away?
When you finally have the right gear for every weather condition? (Rain jackets -- drizzle, downpour, mud or going out to dinner in sleet? -- snow boots, rubber boots, hats, gloves, vests, puffy jacket, sappy-work-in-the-yard jacket, wool coat, wool coat, wool coat. Down. Synthetic. Lightweight cotton-why-did-I-buy-this-useless jacket, rain pants, rain bibs, snow pants, ski pants, wool socks, wool socks, wool socks. Then multiply for every member of the family).
When even the most familiar landscape stops divulging its secrets?
When the palette of emergent seasons stops blowing your mind?
I'd argue that it's the inner Cheechako that drives us. All stupid mistakes and blind luck and a willingness to experience and see what should be met with awe -- no matter how simple and small or enormous and insurmountable. When was the last time you were in awe?
What have you dragged through the slush lately? Where have you gone in your creative work where you really had no business going, were completely unprepared for and were lucky you emerged on the other side merely wringing out your socks, tummy rumbling?
It's deeper than risk taking -- it's naivety. And it's not merely asking "what if?" -- it's the work produced from the mindset of, "I am going to make this happen/do this thing/make this real/go to this place."
I don't think it matters where you live. You probably have your own word for Cheechako, your own set of stories surrounding the arrival of bumbling newcomers, but when was the last time you let yourself be one?
Stand in front of your work and say this: Just now, come.
Dig up the will to climb it.
Hold some awe.
Wander after stupid ideas that might turn out okay. Maybe even great.
I say this to myself, not just to you: quit hesitating, quit collapsing your horizons, because if there's one thing you can be an expert at it's the blundering arrival of not knowing.
If you, too, have accounts of blundering arrival, your own versions of Cheechako stories, I'd love to hear them. They always make me feel better (oh, and that bit above about the kayaks floating away? Mine. Same with the second-degree burns from crashing through photosensitive cow parsnip).
See, don't you feel better now, too?
For more posts on Alaska, check out: "What we found, 2," "The traveling eye 8: Fool's gold," or "Drive. A love story."
"Yes, Mother. I can see you are flawed. You have not hidden it. That is your greatest gift to me."
In winter, in darkness, I sometimes pull my feet onto the bed swiftly. I feel the swipe of a hand just missing my heel, the blood flooding my heart despite the unfounded fear that something is lurking and hidden beneath where I sleep.
Summer is different.
We see the monsters, sharp in the light.
Sunrise, 4:24 am. Sunset, 11:41 pm. A total of 19 hours and 17 minutes of daylight. A loss of 1 minute and 11 seconds from yesterday.
The sun is persistent and we do not sleep.
A recent morning, this exhausted petty thing:
9-year-old boy, with sweeping gesture: "You aren't taking enough care with my breakfast."
Me: " ... ?"
9-year-old boy, with the gestures: "Your plate always has extra stuff on it."
Me: "Uh huh, like last night's brussels sprouts and kim-chi? Or maybe you're referring to the dietary fiber I'm sprinkling on my eggs."
9-year-old boy, with glassy eyes: "No ... you're food just looks nicer. You make it look nicer. Just for YOU."
Me: " ... "
6-year-old girl, turning to boy: "You're being mean to Mom."
6-year-old girl, turning to me: "I don't want fried eggs, I only like poached. Don't make me fried because I won't eat them."
I do not feel like defining the term "short order cook." I do not feel like cooking. I do not feel like eating. I do not feel like feeding these children. I do not feel like chasing after the stomping 9-year-old. I do not feel like resuming the school-morning breakfast schedule (M,W = oatmeal, T, Th = eggs, F = cereal). I do not feel like rinsing dishes. I do not feel that cold cereal every morning is the answer. I do not feel like being here. I do not feel like deciphering baby talk. I do not feel like being angry about this. I do not feel like being honest. I do not feel like I'm cut out to be a mother, the tipping point a god-damned plate of food. I do not feel like feeling all of this.
My creative work has stalled and I'm snapping and swiping at heels.
There is no satisfaction in my clawed-for bursts of production, in this hunt for artistic clarity, in what feels so selfish on my part. Time.
Tomorrow it could all just disappear. It has for other mothers.
I know this.
I fear this.
I lose my mind to darkness. I lose my mind to light.
Every year, twice a year.
Here, in this northern place.
I know this.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.