This winter I was honored to be asked to create a series of small works to be presented to four recipients of the Governor's Awards for the Arts and Humanities here in Alaska. The awards ceremony was held last week in Juneau, and while the idea of giving a recipient a piece of artwork instead of a laser-engraved object is exciting on its own, an even more exciting idea is giving textile-based artwork. And even MORE exciting than this, is presenting textile artwork from TWO different artists: myself and good friend, Maria Shell. Maria wrote about the pieces she created for the awards in a recent blog post: Memento. Her work is intricate, vibrant, lovely, intense. I've been a fan of hers for a long time and happy to say we've been friends for a long time, now too.
If you've followed this blog for a while, you'll know my family cleans beaches in Prince William Sound during the summer. This isn't a paid gig. Nor is it official. Nor is it helpful when we accidentally clean monitored beaches (sorry, it had junk on it, we didn't know you were counting exactly how much). It also isn't pleasant. But the reward is generally a pocket full of rocks. We never take anything from a beach unless we've cleaned it, and most of the time we don't find anything interesting unless we've cleaned it first, anyway. We've been known to cruise back into the harbor with a couple hundred pounds of ghost nets, rope, and too many plastic water bottles to count. We recycle what we can, dispose of the rest. Twice, my son has found the coveted Lego Piece. Once, I found a fairy tea cup.
It's a treasure hunt.
The requested dimensions for the awards commission was 12" x 12" or smaller, so I used 10" x 10" x 2" cradled board, which I pre-finished with 2 coats of polyurethane. I use an upholstery technique on the reverse, which I receive great joy from because I get to use a hammer and beautiful nails called cut tacks, plus it's a clean finish. The materials for this small series are an amalgam of the Reliquary Series and items sent to me for the Inheritance Project. The grey linen is new, but the rest is not. The materials include vintage shantung drapes and heavy taffeta, vintage unfinished needlepoint, crocheted doilies and trims (which I dyed) and beach stones from Prince William Sound and Nome, which are the oldest thing of all.
Four of the works were selected for awards, a fifth will remain in the permanent collection of the Alaska Humanities Forum. They are lovely as a collection, but strong enough to exist on their own.
I think a lot about language and titles, expecting them to work hard and be clear. "Vintage," for example, is anything over 20 years old, while "Antique" is over 100.
Some words I do not use in the lexicon of my current work: "upcycled," "recycled," "stash." These words are tired. They are a contemporary attempt to turn something that frugal women have always done into something new and exciting. These words make me feel like someone is about to sell me something I don't need.
I'm the stoic daughter of an American water well driller and a Swede raised on a farm by grandparents so "Work" is a word I use a lot. "Play" is a word I use, but never in my studio.
I know, I know, but "Play" is different from "Challenging."
And "Fun is different than "Pleasing" or "Satisfying."
Why does any of this matter? Because words matter. There is a difference, for example, between an "Art Quilter" and a "Quilt Artist" (something Maria Shell brought up just the other day). A person can be "crafty" like a fox or "crafty" with popsicle sticks, while the elements of "Craft" versus the "crafting" of a work all have different weights and meanings.
(And also, before it was called "Craft," it was called "Work" and everyone did it, every day, for various reasons and with varying degrees of skill. It took an Industrial Revolution before the idea of Craft was even a thing.)
This is not an argument for Art versus Craft. This is an argument for Language and using it in a way that evokes clarity, yet opens a door for further interpretation.
Are these actual fossils? No. I probably need a permit to remove fossils from an Alaskan beach. But they conjure the idea of something rare and hunted for -- or stumbled upon -- evidence of a life before our own. Titles have to work hard. They are the extra narrative layer that pushes a piece beyond what you see visually. Titles can reiterate a piece (and I've certainly got a few titles I wish I'd spent an extra week or year considering in order to avoid this), but please consider the rich narrative difference between "The Doilies and Rocks Series" versus the "Fossil Series."
I personally want nothing to do with the "Doilies and Rocks Series."
And then there is Dada.
Consider, the difference between "Dada the Cat," being named after an art movement (so cool), versus "Dada the Cat" actually being re-named when my 2-year old couldn't yell "SIMON!" at the sliding door, but he could yell "DA-DA!" (the reality). My husband is "Papa," so, zero confusion on that front.
Does this change your perception of Dada? Of course not, he's still just a Siamese on a diet. But you've got to love a double meaning. Even still, it took 8 years for us to admit to the vet that this fat animal's name isn't "Simon" and it should be updated for their files.
Sometimes weighty titles are personal. Sometimes everybody gets it.
A year ago on this blog:
The final boxes of mystery. (except they weren't, because they still keep coming...)
Two years ago on this blog:
Three years ago on this blog:
“How to write a sex scene:
I don’t remember completing the sex scene writing assignment. And despite ripping apart my file drawers, I couldn’t find my original notes (neither could my former professor, Jo-Ann Mapson, when I asked her for them over a decade after giving that lecture and assignment — no, we cobbled this list together a few weeks ago based on what we both recalled). And I never wrote a novel, even though I started one and abandoned it after 200 pages.
Nearly every writer has to come to terms with the sex scene, because if your characters are alive, they’re having — or at least thinking about having — sex. It's true. You’ll have to describe it if you want believable characters. The point of Jo-Ann’s lecture was this: make sure the style of the scene is indicative of the type of story you are writing.
Years later, she would send me an old yellow quilt -- not particularly well put together, not loved or cared for, but obviously used hard. Maybe like the unknown woman who made it, or laid beneath.
And it -- she -- spoke to me.
"Fatigue Threshold," made from that quilt, is my sex scene.
I can’t define the style. It’s hard core, but metaphoric. It’s specific, but oblique. Like the construction of the final piece, the style is layered.
But I can tell you this much: it was terrifying to create.
Not the slicing, or the construction or the use of fragile fabrics. Not the time I knew it would take, or all the ways it could go wrong. Not the technical finessing of a sheer border element, or the handwork.
No. What terrified me was releasing the work into the world and having people assume this character, this actual narrative, was mine.
I don't know why this bothered me so much. It happens to fiction writers all the time — readers assume a writer’s characters are autobiographical, and sometimes they are, but most of the time they aren’t, or at least wholly aren’t. Something similar happens with film actors and the roles they portray. It’s difficult to separate the maker from the made.
For me, the distilled quality of a piece and the choice to make what I make, relies on emotional truth.
Emotional truth is the reason why some non-fiction is better represented as fiction, and why some authors will complete one narrative only to repeat it in another genre (think Alice Sebold).
Sometimes the literal truth is too close to the surface of an idea, and it’s better to poke and prod at that fire from a distance, circling from a point where you watch all the sparks disappear into the night. You sense the full scope of flame. You see how it lights up the surrounding foliage.
Stand too close to a fire, and you blister your boots.
I thought about Amelia a lot while I worked on this piece. I considered the triangular bit of crocheted tablecloth Helen sent me for the Inheritance Project, that washing-machine-bleach-ruined scrap of a once larger work Amelia had made while incarcerated. I thought about calling the piece “Amelia.” I wanted to embed her crochet into the layers. I wanted to tell her story, or it’s myth. But I did none of these things, because every time I sidled up to the flames with my purposeful stick, I singed my arm hair. Amelia’s specific story was not only not my story, but I couldn’t even see what the story was while standing right on top of it.
So I found a longer stick, and I duct taped another stick to that one, and I whacked the coals from my vantage point somewhere in the trees until I saw the moment, that spark rising and becoming the wisp of a path to the emotional truth: a woman’s breaking point.
Her fatigue threshold.
“In the study of materials — iron, steel, wood, plastic — fatigue refers to a component’s failure after repeated and excessive loads. It is the crumpled beam, the snapped lever, the bowed wall. This piece explores the landscape of women’s work through the use of abandoned cloth, the female form and traditional handwork, to portray the moment before collapse. The burdens are emotional, physical, sexual, literal. We hoard, we discard, we mend, we make do because despite our destruction, some scrap of beauty can always be salvaged.”
"Fatigue Threshold" is about sex. It’s about abuse. It’s about a moment. It’s about a lifetime. It’s about one woman. It’s about all women. It’s about the monotony of tasks and burdens and the domestic realm and exhaustion and birth and life and despair and the slow death of something once precious.
And it is, to me, incredibly beautiful.
Working with old linens is tricky, because focusing on their beauty alone feels nostalgic. The alternative is to destroy them, but that feels self-indulgent and pointless to the work I’m trying to achieve.
I will always strive to balance the beautiful and terrible. It’s hard, and it’s always on my mind.
I’m one of 85 artists accepted into Quilt National 2017. I’ve never submitted before, but I have 3 hardcover catalogs dating back to 2011, so I’ve been following the exhibition for a long time.
I recently traveled to Athens, Ohio for the exhibition’s opening. I’m incredibly honored to show with such a talented group of artists.
The work will travel until September 2019, so I won’t have this piece for my solo exhibition, which is a shame since it’s an important component to the Inheritance Project. But more people will see it this way, and hopefully they’ll be moved. Maybe they’ll contact me.
If I had to write that sex scene now, at 45 instead of 31 or 32 years old when it was originally assigned, I’d opt for balance. Some raunch, some metaphor, some matter-of-fact language.
Zero cute names.
And I'd do the assignment.
Elsewhere 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.
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Well, other things make me feel pretty good, too.
In 2013 I entered "Spontaneous Combustion" in Earth, Fire & Fibre XXIX, a biennial exhibition at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. I'd missed the deadline 2 years prior, when my children were 3 and 5 years old. At the time, missing a deadline had felt like one of so many small failures.
I'd sobbed on the living room floor and told my husband I felt some train barreling towards me and the greatest fear wasn't that it would run me over, but that it would pass right by. Melodramatic? Yes. Hormone induced? Yes. Authentic? Totally.
So I drove all of that emotion into this piece.
And entered two years later.
And won a prize.
And the museum purchased that work.
I waited 13 years to have children. I had two careers, completed three degrees, read all those birthing books before they came into my life.
But no one could tell me how sleep deprivation would affect me personally, or what part of the hormonally-laced spectrum I would slide along after giving birth -- a froth of postpartum anxiety with a sprinkle of postpartum OCD? That sounds about right.
It's all here, in every stitch.
My parents hadn't seen the piece in person and this was the third time I'd made an appointment to bring them to the museum for a visit. I cancelled the first visit when my mother returned from Sweden with pneumonia and couldn't travel to Alaska from the Lower 48. I cancelled the second when my grandmother in Sweden passed away.
Most of the original handwork in this piece came from women in Sweden -- great aunts, a grandmother, a great grandmother -- all gone now. To cut into their work felt sacrilegious one second and cathartic the next. My son and daughter drew all of the images around the border, easily four generations of my family have contributed to this piece.
It's a time capsule.
It's held in the safest place it could possibly reside.
It's hidden from light, from temperature and humidity fluctuations, from my future teenagers who will decide to have a house party featuring all shades of vomit. It's rolled, right side out, around a cushioned bolster wrapped in Tyvek -- a paper-like, polyethylene olefin material that repels moisture and dust, with a slick surface that won't snag fabrics or degrade over time. Since we're nerding out here, you should know that Tyvek can be sewn into bag forms or wrapped around costume hangars or furniture, too. (If you are interested in this material and how conservators use it, you can learn more about it in a post by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which describes the four-year-long rehousing of their costume and textile collection. You could also purchase a 50-yard roll of Tyvek through University Products if you have a little froth of anxiety or sprinkle of OCD, yourself.
As a woman, it's difficult to talk about my early mothering experience without feeling judged, but as an artist, I mine this cave to its depths.
Frankly, artists get judged all the time ... and sometimes they win prizes.
Mothers -- parents -- should receive more prizes, too.
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If you want to learn more about the process of making "Spontaneous Combustion," you can read A history of fire, part 1 and part 2. The Histories category in the blog side bar will take you to a series of other process posts about my work, with a smattering of visual how-to.
Now, go order some Tyvek.
"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.