My lovely friend from France, Aude Franjou, sent this message to me today:
Dear Amy, I have read again your Instagram post of yesterday, and you looks so sad and lonely at this moment (...) I really hope every thing are for you, yours children and husband all right...no bad news?...no trouble?...
And while I had written an off-hand comment on Instagram about feeling lonely in my studio life, what she really saw -- if there was anything to see in this photo my daughter took -- was me grimacing while I worked, the crinkle in my forehead deepening, because for the last 3 weeks I've been in horrible pain.
When I was nine, I broke my two front teeth in an accident at a friend's house, and when I say it's the gift that keeps on giving, I'm dead f-ing serious. Most recently, my beautiful 10-year-old-finally-I-was-at-a-place-in-my-life-where-I-could-afford-it veneer on one tooth exploded, leaving me with a horizontal crack millimeters away from meeting in the middle and maybe/probably sloughing off. Like, you know, while you're on vacation. Did you know there are a number of dentists in Lihue, Kauai who specialize in dental emergencies? There are. I programmed their numbers into my phone before we left Alaska, but I never had to use them.
I talked about memory in another post called A History of teeth. How it is fleeting. Reshaped again and again. But going through this at 45 -- the shots (were there 3? or 4?) having my veneer and the crown beside it pried off, cracking and splintering, filling my mouth with shards and exposing the brown nubs beneath, then wearing a one-piece-double-tooth temporary affair, much like a rabbit tooth a few shades too white for two weeks while the "real" crowns were created -- it all returned me to my 9-year-old self.
Vulnerable. Wanting to hide. Unable to sleep.
And reminded me how the body, how pain, holds memory.
We've discovered that what remains of one tooth has a fracture disappearing beneath my gum, leading into the root. I may have 10 more years with this stub, or 20, or a handful of weeks. My dentist said if I feel intense pain ("You will know..."), we can't opt for a root canal on such a fragile shard, that it would be better to take it out completely.
A dental implant is a process, involving a number of frightening steps, and time. Suffering.
But for now, I have two new crowns. Lovely, ever so slightly different from the former, flatter on the bottom, a little too perfect, with a different curve along the backside that I can't keep my tongue off of. They are an unknown maker's idea of what my teeth should look like. This hand different from the one who fashioned them 10 years ago. Different still from what my natural teeth would have been like, if given the chance.
Working along the ghosts of women, other unknown makers whose cloth I use in my own work, makes me think a lot about the luxuries I have, as a woman, which they did not. 100 years ago, I would have broken my teeth at age nine and they would have remained that way, turning brown, decaying and eventually pulled due to infection. And I would have screamed for them to please pull the teeth, because this was the place I was in just 48 hours ago, before I returned to my dentist with my molded night guard mouth piece (I'm a clencher), which didn't fit the new crowns, and a plea for pain killers to take the edge off the ice pick that had lodged in my gums and was now probing my sinuses and reaching molars.
I'm not a pussy. I have a ridiculously high pain threshold. I had two natural childbirths, the second was frank breach. That's right. I delivered a frank breach daughter, the effect of crowning twice, with no pain medication, an anesthesiologist standing by in an operating room filled with flustered nurses and about 20 other people who'd never seen an actual frank breach delivery, also my husband, my midwife, a good doctor-friend and a perinatologist who was a BAD ASS, who'd done deliveries like this before and used her entire body to corkscrew that girl out of me in one elegant movement that my husband still demonstrates for friends. Ask him. He'll do it.
Did I mention I also had an undiagnosed 12 mm herniated disk in L5 at the same time, and my foot had gone numb 2 weeks before she was born?
It's still numb because I have permanent nerve damage.
The threshold. It's high.
This is not a good thing.
But this time, I was ready to ask the dentist to pull it. Pull. It.
Within 36 hours of taking antibiotics, it's now become clear I had an infection. That exposed crack a conduit for whatever bacteria wormed its way deep inside the root.
And isn't that the way? How pain starts as something humming with each heartbeat, then a pulsing hot throb and finally a snap of unspooled threads reaching far beyond the epicenter? And when relief comes, if it comes, it settles like an animal at your feet. Blinking and sighing.
So, Dear Aude, thank you for asking. I am fine.
I am fine now.
If you are interested in a sometimes-newsletter (I just sent out my first one even though I've been talking about it for over a year), please visit the contact page. I'm kind of excited by how many people subscribed already. Okay, blown away actually.
If you have subscribed and didn't receive a newsletter last week with exhibition and Inheritance Project updates (shit's happening, some of it I can't even tell you about yet), please check your spam filter and mark me as non-spammy. Because, I'm not. Nothing makes me feel better than an empty inbox.
Well, other things make me feel pretty good, too.
“I hold with those who favor fire.
I'm going through photographs, sorting them into themes -- Fire, Ice, Blood & Bone. These images and words pull me into contemplation for the work that lies ahead. Some of it is literal, but the deeper work is personal. This far North, at this time of year, I descend into myself. Every time.
It's a seizing, clamping rhythm.
But it's seriously productive.
Most of these images are somewhere in my Instagram feed. Follow if you're hanging out there, too.
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:
This afternoon at the Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA) conference in Philadelphia, 24 artists participated in 3 rounds of PechaKucha talks. No, not a Chupacabra, not a puh-chaw-kuh-chaw, not a pitchy kookie, not a picky kackie ... a PechaKucha.
(A concise way of presenting, which allows each speaker only 20 slides, shown for 20 seconds each. After your last slide, you shut up, sit down and let the next speaker speak).
The experience was moving, vibrant, inspiring and I'm thrilled to have been a part of it. Many thanks to Maria Shell for her persuasion and hard work putting it together.
My PechaKucha talk is below and clicking on an image will take you to other posts related to the work featured, its process/history or sister pieces. If you've never visited my blog before, this might be a good introduction.
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In Defense of Doilies: An Artist's Relationship to Materials.
My name is Amy Meissner. I'm an artist in Anchorage, Alaska. My work explores fear and loss, motherhood, womanhood, and the fleeting quality of memory. While I don't always work in the quilt form, I do hold intention to work within the boundaries of abandoned cloth.
I come from Scandinavian women. I am the 12th first-born daughter to a first-born daughter, a line extending to 1642. My son severed this lineage; if born a girl, that daughter would've been the 13th.
I don't know what kind of inheritance that would have been, but I know mine.
Part of my relationship to cloth comes from a heritage steeped in making. Of bent necks, rough hands and stabbing needles. Swedish women have sent me linens my entire life -- I filled a trunk with doilies, tea towels and pot holders. Unwanted -- by me-- for the most part.
But when I had children, I sensed a shift. My living questions encompassed thoughts like, "How do I escort my daughter into womanhood with grace and joy and strength?"
"How have my own experiences shaped me as a mother?"
"How do I gather the tools I still need -- to get it right?"
To have a relationship with one's materials is to be open to the narrative power of voice. Not just your own echo, but in my case, open to the ghosts of prior generations, who still have something to say.
Whether or not you want to hear it.
Whether or not you think it pertains to you.
Whether or not it is "contemporary."
Or even beautiful.
Because an artist's job isn't to make people feel good, it's to make people think.
Materials are persistent, demanding you question their use if you are to find the heart of a piece. Have you questioned your materials lately? Can you say what you need to in another medium? Why use cloth when paint or wood or paper may be the better entryway? I ask this all the time.
In Mary Karr's book, "The Art of Memoir," she writes: "One can't mount a stripper pole wearing a metal diving suit." That visual is worth remembering, so I'll repeat it: "One can't mount a stripper pole wearing a metal diving suit."
So, what does she mean?
Don't wear armor for a job that requires one to be naked, raw and vulnerable in order to seduce an audience. Also, you're going to need all your muscle strength to hang upside down from a pole so get rid of all the extra shit you're hauling around.
Or, figure out how it can support you.
For me, this meant embracing a heritage I often found confusing and foreign in ways beyond language and custom.
I spent a lifetime shoving linens in a trunk, so turning to them with joy hasn't been easy or even visually interesting at times.
In my defense, the 12-year old me didn't want a table runner for her birthday, or embroidered tea towels for Christmas ... again. I associated these items with disappointment, with a family's unwillingness or even failure to really know me.
These were the outpourings of distant Nordic women on the other side of the world, whose warmth towards me I questioned the few times we'd met. I didn't understand that their love was held in the physical act of making. That this was a vital way to nurture.
Perhaps they thought filling my trunk would prepare me. But, for what?
Early mornings at a stove?
Late nights hand washing, starching, ironing and mending?
I'd been taught to navigate the domestic realm, but I didn't want to then and don't want to now.
Ironically, this is exactly what I'm doing. Laundering these items late night, slithering around my stripper pole, confronting questions of mortality and fear and disappointment and loss. Circling and circling until I find the entryway. Until I find the voice.
Another irony, is that I am being sent more domestic linens now than ever before. Through my recent crowdsourcing effort called the Inheritance Project, I've received packages from all over the world -- England, Canada, Sweden, Australia, the US -- people are considering the history of cloth, judging its weight, then letting it go.
Sending it to Alaska. To me.
And I am accepting and shaping it. I'm holding the time, the material, the work it took someone to create something from nothing. For every maker I can name, there are 20 or 30 items that come labeled "Unknown." Same with origin, same with circa.
Inheritance. It's a weighty thing.
And it's forced me into a correspondence and documentation effort that far surpasses the time I have available, but this is an integral part of the work I'm compelled to do right now. The handwork of the past and the lingering hum of history simply become another material.
And I know it's the right material, because I continue to ask myself if so. And also because of its persistent nature. The raw material continues to arrive at my door, along with stories from strangers, about strangers. And I keep circling, looking for the entryway, considering the living questions.
I'd always thought it was funny to force a man -- in from the field and starving -- to wade through a sea of doilies to get to his hot dinner. But here's that last irony. At 6:00 I hear the side door open, the scrape of shoes and my husband say, "Ugh, what's all this laundry stuff hanging everywhere? --Wait -- is that lingerie?"*
To breathe new life into the discarded is to hold a deep relationship with materials. Even if it means confronting vulnerability, questioning beauty and becoming a vessel for the work and time of others.
Even if it means defending your past, defending memory, defending doilies.
Thank you for listening.
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*Now, a quick note--my husband would actually never say this...although he did admit to thinking briefly that a certain red batch of doilies looked an awful lot like some really sexy stuff hanging there. No, what he always says, without fail, is this:
(Insert his version of a Swedish accent) "Oh. So many beautiful things."
What a guy.
"Inheritance" is currently on exhibit at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts in Princeton, New Jersey. It's one of four works I shipped for the fiber art invitational "Every Fiber of My Being," curated by Diana Weymar and including work from Maira Kalman, Cassie Jones, Caroline Lathan-Stiefel, Danielle Hogan and Katie Truk. Let's just say I'm blown away to be in such company. Check them out.
This post is a brief exploration of the visual dynamic and thought process behind the making of "Inheritance," which I started in the summer of 2015, abandoned for many months, then completed in the winter of 2016.
Plus, I'll explore some misunderstandings.
Like this one: old, dated, even poorly made items of unknown origin and/or maker aren't worth salvaging.
Here's another misunderstanding: imperfections in one's handwork should be ripped out and re-sewn.
And this is what I do understand, deeply: Sometimes we have to circle around the heart of a problem many times. Sometimes the right words aren't the first to come. Sometimes you have to put work aside and be patient.
Then one has to figure out how to apply those words to a situation, and this can take a long time, too.
And then there is the misunderstanding of the words, themselves. Like when your daughter, age 7, has worked out the language on the wall and comes to you all wobbly chinned and eyes flashing, fists at her sides, hissing: "You made that art because of us, didn't you?"
And then one has to clear up the misunderstanding of voice: "I could say this to you, right?"
"You have," she says, wiping her nose.
"Okay. But what if you said it to me?"
"What if a man said it to a woman, or to an old woman?"
"What if a child said it to an old man?"
And then, "What if I said it to the cat?" she says.
There are messes she can't even conceive of. And misunderstandings that lay in her path, hidden, waiting for her to stumble over.
And the fears I have as a mother, the things I possess and need to pass on to my children -- the tangible and intangible parts of myself and my history, the living questions and my own misunderstandings, that Inheritance -- how can all this be best shaped for clarity?
How can my intent and my will be made relevant?
How do you create a work -- a body of work -- that prods at this from all angles while striving for purity and emotional resonance?
And how do you use old fabrics, old skills, in ways that feel contemporary and vital? How does the valueless become valuable?
And here's a final misunderstanding: How do you convince people that the needle really is supposed to hang there like that on the finished work? I picked up this piece from the last gallery and some well-meaning art connoisseur -- or a very tidy sewer -- had stabbed it into the canvas.
Mess. Even the idea of it provokes the muscle's response.
If you are interested in other posts like this (note that I don't lay out step-by-step how tos because I believe we're all really smart people around here and can figure things out visually) please scroll through the How To or Process categories there in the side bar. Any of the posts in the Histories category will take you to other artistic backstories if you're curious.
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Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.