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.
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.
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.
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.
One year ago on this blog:
Two years ago on this blog:
Three years ago on this blog:
On March 24, 1989, the super tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef -- a charted location in well-traversed Alaskan waters, a known marine hazard -- spilling nearly 11,000 gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Accounts list wildlife fatalities as high as this: 580,000 sea birds, 5,500 sea otters, 200 harbor seals and 22 orca whales. Fishing families lost their livelihoods, many marriages didn't survive this environmental, financial and community devastation. Think about the long term effects of that last part.
At the time, I was about to graduate from high school thousands of miles away, on the cusp of my own self-centered life, with television images shaping the memory of this thing I never experienced. 6 months later, I would meet my husband. 28 years later, we are bringing our children to this place. Still wild. Still seemingly pristine. But probably a shadow of what it once was. We are not a part of that collective memory. Our experience is in its infancy, this, only our 8th season on these waters.
We have been cleaning beaches for 4 of those seasons. 2 adults, 2 kids (sometimes a few friends), a couple of double kayaks or a dingy, and a roll of contractor-weight trash bags ready for unfurling, snapping and often re-use. We've found everything from rubber gloves to Happy Meal toys, rusted wheels to cargo nets to balloons and syringes, and more exploding styrofoam buried in moss and seaweed than I care to recount.
We've also found dead animals.
We clean up trash because it's there and because we see it. Does it make a difference? Not really. This year was our season to leave much of it behind -- our shore vessels too small to safely transport large objects back to our boat. Our boat too small or too full to safely haul objects back to the Whittier harbor for recycling or disposal.
This area (above) used to be a neatly stacked detritus pile above the high tide line on the east coast of Perry Island (outside of Day Care Bay), but it's a jumble this summer -- animals, weather and perhaps other well-meaning beach goers to blame. Despite the sprawl, much of it is bagged and contained, waiting for pick up...but we don't know who intends to do this work, where the money or man/woman/kid power will come from. We've watched it grow for 3 seasons. We remove what we can, when we can.
At other locations this summer, we've been the ones to haul and stack items above the high tide line. These are hiked-to beaches, reached through bog and mosquito forest, spilling onto rocky shores or weather/tidal conditions too unsafe to land a dingy or kayak -- a description that fits so much of Alaska's 6,640 miles of coastline. We've left bright markers (like that green plastic container), but don't know who to share them with or who will see them.
We tell ourselves we'll go back for retrieval. When it's safe. When there are more of us, or better, less of us on the boat.
We've found human forms. Mythical and unreal.
We've found evidence of celebration. And fragile, intact reasons to celebrate.
I've read that the spilled oil is still there, black sludge just a few inches below the surface on various gravel beaches. Of course it is. It has to be. I haven't dug for it, but sometimes I'm convinced I smell it.
But how do you distinguish one smell when low tide is such a combination of the beautiful and terrible?
30 years from now, this place will have changed again. My children will return, or not, but theirs will be the voice of recollection -- so much louder and insistent than my own. They will describe salmon streams filled with enough wriggling bodies to bump and lift their kayaks, family hikes with so many piles of bear scat and obstacles back to the boat that by the time we return, it takes an hour for the hair on the backs of our necks to settle. They see more animals in one morning out here, than some children see in a year or more. Their earnest childhood conversations are peppered with words like "juvenile," "sign," "habitat," "species," "identification." I was still breast feeding Astrid when we began the first tentative journeys into Prince William Sound. Our children are now 11 and almost 9.
Their perception of abundance moves forward from this point in time. It breaks my heart to know they will recognize a difference some day.
* * *
To view a NOAA timeline chart for post-spill recovering species and habitats, click here.
We aren't alone in this endeavor, here or elsewhere. There are a number of other people all over the world who also clean beaches. I follow some of them on Instagram. They are a mixture of scientists, biologists, wandering gypsy souls and artists:
@kittiekipper -- Ghostnet Goods
@joannaatherton -- UK coastline
@kellyalance -- Central California coast
@balloons_blow -- BalloonsBlow.org
To read more about our family commitment to clean beaches, check out the blog sidebar category
Beach Work, then scroll past this post, which will show up at the top.
One year ago on this blog:
Two years ago on this blog:
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 know, I know. I said I wasn't accepting anymore boxes of mystery after last fall. I know.
But...how do you say no to Judy Kirpich?
Look out folks, I'm going all Fan Girl here. If you live under a rock (probably next door to me) and don't know who Judy Kirpich is, then you need to look her up. I started following her blog, Un-multi-tasking, a few years ago after her work was chosen for the cover of the 2011 Quilt National catalog. She's a seemingly fearless slicer, insert-er (except that's so not a word) and mistress of scale. I personally think she's a really great person even though I've never met her, or spoken to her in person, or know her at all ... and that just goes to show there are internet stalkers out there all posing as amazing textile artists who I consider my "friends" because I'm just that naive...
but ... Judy Kirpich's box of mystery:
Thank you, Judy, for sending me an out-of-the-blue box of mystery, filled with delightful snippets of history from unknown sources.
Like these filmy trims of netting and machine-made lace.
And the sturdier trims of crochet and tatting.
The cotton eyelet trims, inset pieces and collars.
The square doilies.
And others -- probably antimassacars -- of unusual shape.
And here's the thing -- I've had that pale pink rope (from the first image) hanging in my studio for a couple of years. My husband once made a tasteless joke about me hanging myself from it ... or that might've been my gross joke ... but I've been saving it because I knew when I salvaged it off a beach in Prince William Sound that it would someday be something.
I'll keep you posted here on serendipity as well as all the other work I'm completing for Inheritance. I have one year until my solo exhibition. Hang in there while I freak out repeatedly.
A real internet friend would hold my hair while I throw up.
* * *
For other posts about the Inheritance Project, click on the sidebar categories Boxes of Mystery or Inheritance Project (and scroll past this one, which will show up first and make someone like me think I've done something wrong).
One year ago on this blog: PechaKucha
Two years ago on this blog: Strange Beauty
Anyone who has followed this blog for a while -- especially in the summers -- knows my family cleans beaches in Prince William Sound, Alaska. We don't do this in an organized manner. We aren't part of a fleet, or a crew. It's just the four of us and a 29' Ranger Tug, sorting what we can and hauling it back to shore to recycle or chuck. We've messed up the trash count data on monitoring beaches (sorry guys, the sites weren't marked, but we're eager to help in a way that's more beneficial to all parties) and we've annoyed weekend fisherman by adding jetsam to the the dumpsters in Whittier (maybe you could break down your beer boxes and haul empty cans back to Anchorage instead of getting pissed off at a couple of kids and a mom dragging 50+ lbs of net ... also, we got permission from the Harbor Master a long time ago).
So, because of this connection to remote Alaskan beaches/fragile northern ecosystems and their proximity to the North Pacific Gyre, we rarely hit a beach without a trash bag. Even a warm beach.
We spent spring break on the east side of Kauai where we found plastic every time we walked our little swath of beach, plus a few people mildly surprised someone was cleaning it up. Some visitors remarked they hadn't even noticed any trash, and others assumed we would leave our sorted assemblages behind to wash out to sea. Some strode toward us with authority, maybe to tell us not to collect the local coral or shells, but then sheepishly changed direction and averted eyes when they realized we fisted handfuls of plastic.
Don't get me wrong, this was a lovely clean beach. But we found we could perform this ritual every morning, on the same 50-foot stretch, and not run out of material. A sifter would have been helpful.
Among micro plastics, we found 6 golf balls, a tee, a pencil, the brim of a visor and the laundry basket.
We found 32 pieces of plastic tubing, all cut to the same dimensions, in black, grey and green.
We found a pair of men's size 13 tennis shoes near the hauled out monk seal.
We found red bits from gasoline jugs, pink from toys, a mess from styrofoam and rarity in purple.
We found the objects of work and domesticity and excess, objects of hard use and of uselessness.
We found a frying pan, handsome locals and half a green plastic easter egg.
We found other, more beautiful things people left on the beach.
We found handles of razors and toothbrushes, worn to fine picks. We found that not all beach glass is created equal and despite the million times I've asked my son not to, he still fills his pockets with hazards.
We found that my son will always build. My daughter will always embellish.
We found folks poking through sand, looking for kahelelani or Pupu O Ni'ihau -- tiny shells barely bigger than the ball-head of a pin -- which, when strung with monofilament line, are used to make fantastic jewelry. After tales of a necklace allegedly priced at $50,000, my family began looking as well, and now have a sandy ziplock bag with 5 or 10 kahelelani and grandiose plans that far outweigh such a meager haul. But we further understand the worth and importance of such an historic and culturally based undertaking.
We found that a $15 Hawaiian print dress can make a girl forget her sunburn and her sullen brother and their clashing ideas about the built form.
We found new ways to be brave.
And found that a begged-for $4 reef chart might turn out to be the catalyst for a lifetime of self motivation and discovery.
We found that the quest for perfection might eventually make a person sick.
We found that a few days away was enough for some of us to forget the North's pale rhythm, when one morning I commented I didn't think the kids had ever watched the sun actually pop up. My daughter looked at me, insulted, and said, "Of course I've seen the sun rise. I watch it rise over the mountains every morning on the way to school or from my classroom window."
I also found that I wasn't motivated to work much.
If you ever feel a call to arms you could always get in touch with a formal beach clean up crew in your area or in places you visit in the future. Surfrider has several chapters and one on Kauai (not in Alaska). Unfortunately, we missed one of their beach clean up events by a few days. There are other efforts, other organizations.
You could also follow the Meissner Beach Rule: "5 pieces of trash, NOW, everybody....here's the bag...now 5 more..." Be safe and watch for needles and broken glass. Also, don't touch the capped plastic bottles half filled with amber liquid unless you're wearing gloves.
For other posts on cleaning beaches, follow the sidebar category Beach Work and scroll past this post, which will show up there now, too.
Lastly, there are other things to do in Hawaii besides clean beaches. For a Top 100 List, you could check out what the folks at Your RV Lifestyle put together. We don't have an RV in Alaska, but I grew up with one. Our boat feels like one sometimes, but that's only because it's the only time our kids get to eat marshmallows and the kitchen table becomes a bed. Good stuff.
* * *
One year ago: The 9th boxes of mystery.
Two years ago: The shortlist.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.