“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”
I recently heard/read that if you tell someone what your goals are, chances are that you are less likely to reach them. I'd love to document where I heard/read this, but I was probably burning the crap out of dinner while listening to NPR and didn't take notes. Based on this research though, the idea is that when we share goals with others, the brain is tricked into thinking we've already achieved them and are therefore less motivated to do the work it takes to actually see them through.
So you can understand why I hesitate to share something with you.
And you can also understand, perhaps, why I feel like I first need to drop some credentials here so you trust my capabilities as they relate to this project I'm about to divulge.
Like, how I used to be a pattern maker and still have some interesting tools.
And how I'm a little rusty, but those mad skills, man, they're all coming back to me.
Or that I've had the same sewing machine for 21 years and I'm a pretty good sewer. That's sewer, not sewer.
Also the part when an idea is my idea, I'm like some kind of pit bull.
I also appreciate high quality abandoned textiles and the handmade.
Right. Never mind. You knew that already.
I also love language and stories and voice, and believe old things have a lot to say, especially about the women makers who couldn't or wouldn't say what they needed to say, instead burying their pain or anger or fear with each stab of needle or hook.
I also believe in de-cluttering, re-using, mending, re-thinking and sharing knowledge so more people have the skills to do this.
Here's the goal:
An installation of up to 1,000 of these sculptural voices and a collection of the language that accompanies them, the makers, the origins, the details to give these unwanted items the voices they deserve.
Here's the reality:
I'd be happy with 50, but 1,000 is an awesome goal.
Here's another reality:
I probably currently have enough of the right vintage textiles to make 100-150.
Here's more reality:
I don't have a place to show 1,000 of these, but I'm working on that. Also, I'd love to say I have a grant to procure all of these vintage "grytlappar," "pan rests," and "lurid doilies" plus shipping costs to Alaska, but I do not right now. Also, I will be working on all of this for a very long time.
But, maybe you have these things and maybe they were given to you and you are storing them and "saving the best for never." Or maybe you saw them in a garage sale/flea market/thrift store and you recognized them as high-quality workmanship and just couldn't walk away so you've brought them home and now you're asking yourself why in the world you would have done such a thing. Maybe you've already used some for kindling as one friend has. If this sounds familiar, if you are interested in passing them on and your children/grandchildren do not want them (ask first), I'm happy to reverently and skillfully assist extending their lives within a whole chorus of voices.
Think about it for a little while. If you decide you would like to achieve Contributor Status within this project, I'm looking for the following:
1.) CLEAN (stains, ok) vintage embroidered domestic linens.
2.) Fancy clean, cotton crocheted potholders/mitts/grytlappar/pan rests. Someone offered to make new ones...such a lovely gesture, but no. This defeats the purpose of this project. I am only looking for older and unwanted.
3.) Doilies in various sizes.
4.) Unwanted/abandoned/unfinished cross-stitch, needlepoint, or embroidery.
5.) Any indication of the origins of these items. This could be as specific as "Dear Aunt Matilda from Las Vegas, 1920's", or as broad as "Alabama", or simply "Unknown." I plan to indicate at the very least where the items were found by contributors.
I will be blogging about the process and some of you are already familiar with the boxes of mystery that have already arrived here in Alaska (box 1 and box 2); they have been great catalysts for this project. Box 3 has already come and I will post about this next week. The women who have sent items to me have found joy and catharsis in the process and perhaps you will too.
Please contact me here for a shipping address or to ask other questions.
Just think about how much space you'll have. Just think about my poor husband being assaulted by a laundry room full of ... hang on -- is that lingerie? ... doilies when he comes home at the end of the day.
Then imagine a 50-foot wall of these, or some version thereof.
But I did not tell you my goal, right? Shhhh ... we're keeping it a secret from my brain so it understands that all this really hard work still lies ahead. Shhh ... see, it's listening to NPR and burning dinner and totally oblivious to us.
You can follow along on Instagram if you'd like: @amymeissnerartist, hashtag #inheritanceproject and #boxesofmystery
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.
Memory is a strange thing. It is fleeting, it is shaped by the retelling, it is and is not a shared experience. It can define a person's life. So much of memory is held in place by the details surrounding it -- the smells, the sounds, the tastes -- and yet the walls of this supportive container are just as malleable, a shape-shifting vessel holding an element that could be gas or liquid or solid or some combination, but never the same thing twice.
When I was nine, while waiting for a friend outside her house, I draped a blue camp tarp across my shoulders, swirling the extra fabric into the crooks of my elbows, fisting sturdy wads of it in place at my sides. We'd planned an elaborate fort -- our eye on a dense cluster of black oaks -- and I was impatient because she'd had to pee, again, the result of medication she took for a heart condition. Her mother had died that year and our friendship felt distant and strained. We couldn't talk about her family's loss, but we could play in the woods the same as always and I was looking forward to an afternoon of normalcy for the two of us, although I wouldn't have defined it as such at the time. She wouldn't be gone long, just a quick pee. I marched along the sidewalk in a long trailing blue straightjacket, waiting. Then I fell.
Sometimes, even 35 years later, I still wake to the sickening sound of my face hitting the concrete.
I remember thinking I should get up. I should be crying -- no, screaming -- or calling for help at least, but I was still tangled in the tarp and pinned to the ground. When her family found me, I'd somehow made it to the front door, but no one told me that my two front teeth were demolished, or that my lips were already swollen and bloody. I stared at her older brother, the boy who had once sealed our dollhouse animals in a Tupperware and tossed them into the middle of the pool. His face was slack and white, his eyes fixed on my mouth. The father took me by the shoulders, walked me down the hall into the bathroom and propped me in front of the mirror, never saying a word. My hair was in pigtails. I think the hall carpet was rusty orange, the bathroom wallpaper a repeated series of brown line drawings featuring naked people hiding their privates with cleverly placed towels.
The next memory takes place at my home, sobbing in our living room, tucked under an end table with a bloody cloth and a bag of ice while my mother spoke to the dentist on the phone, holding a triangle of tooth in a ziplock bag (the other, bigger triangle forever lost outside where my friend and her brother still searched). Strangers were replacing the carpet in our trailer, from matted mossy green to brown, the weeks leading up to this day punctuated with, "This brown shade? Or this brown? Or maybe this brown?" The man on his knees below the window by the TV, spoke Italian and I remember thinking he was probably someone's grandpa. He turned to me with a tool in his hand and said, "You have to be more careful." He shook that tool at me.
And that horrible smell of new synthetic carpet.
I didn't make this piece of artwork because my teeth broke off. Or because I still dream that they are falling into my hands, all bloody pulp and shards. Or because it's my worry for my own children when they spin out of control down sledding hills, or crash into one another on purpose with razor scooters. I made this piece because the words are what the muse whispered in my ear a year ago and it was up to me to figure out what it meant:
My teeth. My teeth. My teeth are falling out.
My work takes a long time to make. There are many steps, several ways to begin and abandon processes.
So I have time to think about and explore what each piece means.
This is, in a way, a luxury.
In other ways, it is haunting.
The meaning of my work lies in the materials I use: old fabrics, clothing, abandoned domestic linens. Scraps of a life that came before or existed parallel to mine, each bit a memory in its own right. And all of these fragments are fragile, each needs a system of support fabrics and inner structures or outer veils to keep them whole and safe and contained, keeping them alive just a little bit longer.
No one sees this part, this way of working that draws from years of making patterns, draping mannequins, building corsets for wedding gowns. You aren't supposed to see it. I rarely use adhesives or fusibles. When I have, I've been disappointed and wished I'd taken the time to solve the problem in a different way. But each case is different. Sometimes glues are necessary, but for me it is always a last resort. Is isn't a medium.
No one sees your memories unless you share them somehow. This, the problem for each of us to solve: whether or not to share. Does revealing memory lead to further understanding? Or is it more confessional, useless information that no one cares about?
So this piece is a reliquary for loss, and how the accumulation of every small loss in one's life begins to shape a person and forces us to make choices. We can curl into a sobbing ball beneath a table, or we can take these shards and try to form them into something beautiful and dark. This piece is the vessel for a memory, but the making has shaped that memory so it will never be quite the same as when it existed solely in my mind. This piece doesn't look like that day. It doesn't represent that day. But it is the culmination of all the days between that one and this.
I found out this week that the piece has been accepted into Quilts=Art=Quilts at the Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center in Auburn, New York. This is the second year I have submitted and been asked to exhibit. The first piece in 2014 was also perhaps difficult to look at and understand. For this reason, I'm incredibly grateful that the jurors chose to include my work each time. I wonder if they took a chance on its inaccessibility. I hope people will view it, wonder and come away wanting to know more. Hopefully they'll make there way here.
I lived with broken, poorly repaired teeth for decades: composite bonding materials always too yellow or too white, or that threatened to pop off (like in the station wagon on the way to the 4th grade Christmas play), or that had to be supported by pins drilled into the existing tooth. I've endured multiple root canals, dental surgeries, stitches in my gums. I remember an incredibly painful file getting stuck between my front teeth and my head being yanked off the dentist's chair again and again while he tried to free it, tears rolling down my temples and collecting in my ears. That was the week before I got married.
10 years ago, pregnant with my son, I dropped stacks$, accepted my vanity and had proper veneers made. Coming home from the dentist's office, I nearly drove onto the sidewalk because I couldn't stop staring at my new teeth in the rear view mirror. These were movie star teeth, fused to those fragile shards beneath. The right glue. The right color. The right shape. The right medium. Porcelain.
God damn it. I deserved them.
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 forces that shape the natural world — gravity, erosion, material fatigue and subsequent fracture, the smoothing pulse of fluid — are also found within the realm of the body. Veins course through rock, creating weakness but extreme beauty, and our bodies are similarly imperfect, yet perfect. I am mesmerized by that which topples our sense of strength, widens our fissures and defies our ability to heal — it’s real that something terrifyingly small could leave nothing left in one's world but stone."
In 1987, one month after my 16th birthday, a baby disappeared down a well.
Her mother wasn't much older than I was -- only 18 -- and while babysitting 6 other children in Midland, Texas, she'd run inside the house to answer the telephone and left them all playing outside. My youngest sister was almost 2 then; the baby who'd slipped through the 8-inch mouth of a well, Jessica McClure, was 18 months. My dad was a water well driller, as was my grandfather and my uncle. We lived in a dusty desert landscape, probably not unlike West Texas. My parents always dropped everything to answer a business phone that rang in our home, whether at 6 am or noon or 8 pm. I was the neighborhood babysitter. The odd parallels weren't lost on me then, and they aren't now.
For days, we watched rescue efforts broadcast from Midland, and the whole time I imagined my littlest sister's legs forced into the splits 22 feet down a narrow casing, a shelf of crumbling rust and alkali the only thing preventing her from sliding into the soft water 45 feet below. I saw myself leaning over the hole, calling her name while neighbors and strangers descended on our own scrub-filled Nevada yard, women hauling shovels and rope, men wondering where to park a useless backhoe. Could I have done much more than stumble over the generator cables powering floodlights and camera equipment and heaters pumping warm air into the hole? I could envision my dad standing backlit in the night, wearing his blue well-drilling uniform and cap, solving this problem with the expertise of decades of drilling for water. At 16, I could see all this. And I'm sure I judged that teenaged mother for losing her child down a hole barely 2 fists wide because she'd turned her back to answer a stupid telephone.
Nearly 30 years later, I play out this last part the most, because now I have children. I have someone, not just the idea of someone, behind me when I turn my back.
And I do turn it. Every mother does. At some point.
Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes something does.
My family followed the news for the 58 hours it took for mining engineers, firefighters, paramedics, drillers, jackhammer operators, police and other support to finally reach the baby -- the efforts of at least 50 people. I wanted to believe my dad would've been the one to know what to do if he'd stood there in that dusty Texas backyard -- pointing, gesturing, stern and focused above the chaos -- but there in our living room some 1,400 miles away, staring at the television screen with elbows on knees, he didn't have the solution. His rig, an Ingersol-Rand, drilled 6- or 8-inch diameter holes, not wide enough for tools to bring more than mud and water out of the ground. The process wasn't fast enough either -- holes took days or weeks to drill. There would be no rescue with the equipment he had at hand.
If one of his wells never produced water, even I knew he couldn't just leave a hole in the ground like the one the baby fell into. It was illegal in Nevada; anything could contaminate ground water if it seeped far enough. He'd nervously phoned a radio station during this time, gave a local perspective on the dangers of illegal wells, offered to fill and cap them for free, no questions asked. One improperly abandoned well he knew of -- a rusted casing jutting from the ground -- was just a block away from a school bus stop. But no property owners ever contacted him for his help.
Once, after watching an episode of Dallas, I told my dad I hoped he'd strike oil so we could be rich. He had the wrong rig, he'd explained, and besides, the oil would belong to the property owner. Nothing seemed fair about that. Finders keepers. I couldn't picture the differences between oil rigs and water well-drilling rigs then, but I knew what a drill bit was -- it looked like a snake head -- and I knew they were expensive to replace if the hole caved in or if they snapped off at 600 feet.
The mining engineers tried to reach Jessica with a rat hole drill -- used for boring 36- or 48-inch-diameter column holes -- breaking huge drill bits worth thousands of dollars on the prehistoric strata. In the end, they cut through bedrock with high-pressure water, worrying the whole time it might shoot through a small fissure and cut the baby by accident. They finished tunneling to her with pneumatic jack hammers. She sang in the darkness, cried to let rescuers know she was still breathing and gave everyone a reason to think she'd died when she napped for 6 hours.
In interviews, fifteen years after the event, she claimed she didn't remember a thing. But my parents and I still do, and 2 of my 3 sisters who were old enough also remember fragments and shadowy images -- a baby in a hole like Dad drilled, flashes of a young crying mom who blamed herself and that name: Baby Jessica.
None of us had ever had the word "Baby" put in front of our names. It hinted at a fragility that tried hard not to exist in our home. Still, the event in Midland took the ordinariness of our daily lives, the things we knew intimately -- an insistent telephone, holes in the ground, babies, moms and dads and children, the dust and mud of work -- and twisted them all into something strange and deadly and utterly comprehensible to a well-drilling family.*
* * *
Watching the following news clip, now as a mother, touched something far deeper than it did when I was a teenager. Does anyone else remember where you were -- who you were -- when this happened? I wrote about this in 2003 and 2004, thinking I had it all emotionally tidied up in a piece that explored the relationship I had with my father then. Revisiting this scene now, places me on very different ground.
The impulse behind the Vein Series begins to inch closer to a deeper emotional truth about the fragility and strength of stone, of life. These memories are a small part of that larger picture.
*Edited excerpts from the 2004 essay "Lifeline," part of my MFA thesis.
Images are of quartz-veined beach rock in Prince William Sound, Alaska.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.