“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:
This is the final post about the most recent piece of public art I completed. "Dragon Flight" was originally created in 2003 for the Samson-Dimond Branch Library in Anchorage, Alaska. At that time, it was a 15-foot long, double-sided triptych that divided a then-new computer lab and a story-time/programming room. In 2010, it was moved to the children's area of the larger Chugiak-Eagle River Library, and in 2014 I started the process of procuring funds to expand the textile work to fit this larger space and add a community art component. A team of us wrote grants, and in the end received funding through the Chugiak-Eagle River Foundation, the Anchorage Public Library and Friends of the Library. This part took time, but we were patient and gratitude filled.
And I got a little thicker skinned in the process.
The first blog post in this 3-part series, "How to wake a dragon," provides the more important history of the work, as it was originally created in memory of a young woman named Jessie Withrow, who was killed by a drunk driver while riding her bicycle on an Anchorage sidewalk.
Every day, I drive past the white ghost bicycle I believe is erected in her memory, right there near the corner of Northern Lights and Minnesota Boulevards in Anchorage.
I brush past her.
The second post in the series, "How to tend a dragon," gives insight into the process of working with this piece once it came down at the end of October (if you are interested in using fire retardant on textile works, you might want to read this), and ends with those ropes dangling in my entry way after I cut it down and loaded all 6 double-sided panels in my car for the 30-minute drive to Eagle River last week.
I'm a melancholic. And part of this personality assumes that everything that can go wrong, will. I was pretty sure my house was going to burn down during the between-time of completion and installation. I was pretty sure I'd get in a spinning, icy car accident delivering it. I could hear the twang! of a cable snapping as we hung it. But the most likely scenario involved dirt, so I wrapped it in 2mm plastic sheeting and didn't remove it until we were positive of the positioning.
In 2003, I'd enlisted my husband's mad scroll saw skills to cut out 3 different sizes of stars in 1/4" mdf, which I painted and hung all around the small room at the first branch library. I'd forgotten how many there were after all this time, but someone had saved the stack and they'd been sitting on a shelf in the storage room at the Chugiak-Eagle River Library since 2010. I was so excited to see them produced last week -- they may as well have been made of gold.
It took just under 3 hours to hang, with the help of Bill, the gruff, yet lovable library facilities manager, who brought his super ladder. I promised chocolate chip cookies for his help and made good by delivering them the next day (despite the fact I only had 1/4 cup of chocolate chips in the house and had to secretly chop up a bunch of the kids' hidden Halloween candy because there was no way I was going to the store at 9 pm).
On Saturday, Dec. 10, 50 of us gathered to celebrate and tell the story of the now 30-foot, double sided dragon while children ran between the stacks squinting and pointing as they looked for "their squares" on the reverse. Some were dismayed to not find them right away, but I promise they're all there.
I'm not the same person who made the dragon in 2003. As a mother now, I have a different sense of community and how vital it is to nurture. My children, who saw this piece for the first time in 2013, aren't the little pudgy-armed sillies who posed for this photo back then, either. They weren't at all interested in posing for photographs on Saturday, but they are the ones who helped and helped and helped with the community art part ... my daughter, now 8, must be responsible for at least 15 of those star-studded squares.
And when it comes to raising dragons, even the smallest ones, I'd say there are a few important things to pass on:
For example, I'd want a dragon to remember that everyone is always welcome at a table.
And that every one of us deserves to make a lasting mark, no matter how small or imperfect, because we all deserve to seek and live with beauty.
And yes, of course there are some things you absolutely can and should go back and change, even years later, with the intent to make better.
And you should do this every chance you get, because there are too damned many things in life we can't change, or fix, or make better, ever.
I'd also want a dragon to know that there are people you'll never meet who still have an enormous impact on your life.
And because of all this, gratitude should be the first emotion you lay on the table.
Other public art posts:
A month ago, I wrote a post about a current public art piece I've been finishing up. If you haven't read "How to wake a dragon," you could go do that right now.
Or, there's a warp-speed version here: I made a public art piece for a branch library in 2003, a double sided triptych textile dragon, 15 feet x 44". When the branch library closed in 2010, the really nice librarians rescued it and moved it to another, newer branch library. When I saw it in 2013 in the larger space, I realized it could be better. 2 years ago I wrote a proposal to refurbish it with a community art component. Wrote grants with librarians, got rejections, got funding. Spent October conducting community art workshops.
There is so much more to this project. The why of it. The fact that the original budget steered me to use thrift store clothing for the majority of the fabrics, and this decision not only made the piece so much richer and varied in the end, but set me on a course with my personal work that I adhere to today. I still look to old fabric; I would rather take something apart and make it better than it ever was. I'd rather not start with all new.
This mindset is limiting and restrictive. But in the words of my wise, once-first grader, who surprisingly mourned the loss of the confines of the kindergarten play yard at his little school: "I don't like recess anymore. I don't like first grade. I don't have any freedom, because ... because ... because there are no fences!"
Something to think about.
Meanwhile ... dragon tending.
Step 1: Bring your dragon home.
Step 2: Mend your dragon's wounds.
After vacuuming each panel, I took them apart and added stitching over top of several tulle sections that should have had this before. When the work was handled at some point, there were a number of snags in the more delicate fabric, so I covered the damage with more stars.
The snags probably happened during transport and re-installation in 2010. Frayed cable ends were the culprit, so I finished these with small shrink wrapped sleeves so it wouldn't happen again. The shrinkwrapping looked so nice I wanted to shrink wrap everything all around me. Mainly I just wanted to use the heat gun.
These cables drop the piece 18" below the sprinkler heads. This is code. If you are engaged in public art, you will need to know building code. Or consult with someone who does. Or marry an architect.
When dismantled, the six panels are 2 different sizes: 2 are 90" x 44" and 4 are 44" x 44". This is a function of the original installation. The biggest panels were a nightmare to get under my machine with all the 3-D scales and padded dragon forms, but my 22-year-old PFAFF -- as usual -- was a champ.
Step 3: Control your dragon's flame.
The other thing I needed to address at this point was fire retardant. The original piece hadn't ever been treated with anything other than Scotch Guard (which is why it was unbelievably clean), and this had started bothering me a few years after it was originally installed. I used a Fire Tect product purchased through Dharma called "Fire-poof," and used the sprayer they recommended. The product safety guidelines recommend ventilation, eye protection, and gloves.
I worked in my heated garage, but this fire retardant is corrosive when it comes into contact with metal, so I draped cabinets with plastic to protect everything from overspray. If you use this product, test a series of fabric swatches first. It beads on some fabrics so I back brushed and swabbed those areas to force the liquid to penetrate. Because it leaves white specks if the product does bead, I swabbed the entire thing until dragon and I were fully soaked.
Then I freaked out because it looked like a sopping mess and I was pretty sure I'd ruined the whole damned thing.
Step 4: Support your dragon.
The reverse panels are comprised of over 200 community-created, star-themed squares, either 5 1/2" x 5 1/2" or 11" x 11". Much of this fabric came from cotton or linen clothing and required interlining for each square and a full cotton backing for each large section. I invisibly back-stitched along each seam by hand to stabilize, so the panels are heavy and structural without being "quilted."
Just an aside: this is not a "quilt." It never was intended to be and it felt important to adhere to the banner-like intention it's always had, hence no visible "quilty" hand stitching. I don't know why I think it's important to say this, but, well, there it is.
Step 5: Wrangle your dragon.
The banner's edges were originally bound, which had a tricky maneuver at the top to allow for a slat with eyelets punching through button holes. The technique made it easy to square when first made in 2003, and despite the fact I still had plenty of unused blue cotton duck to do this again, I didn't want to. The binding would have broken up the community art and I wanted a cleaner finish overall.
I stabilized the inside edges with twill tape following exact measurements so nothing would stretch, then I matched panels and sewed them together. This sounds easy. It was not. The layered fabric was heavy, the original dragon had stretched after hanging for 13 years and wasn't square, my iron was dying. I was pretty sure I was going to match the wrong panels together, so the inside is covered with Sharpie arrows and notes and descriptions of what goes where.
Step 6: Suspend & protect your dragon.
I hung the finished panels in my entryway for about a week, then the night before delivery, we lowered the ropes and wrapped each panel in plastic (a brilliant move, which I'll share in the next post). This multi-day suspension allowed all the fibers to breathe and move and relax, while the weight of the inner slats encased at the bottom edge straightened everything.
Step 7: Cut your dragon's bonds.
Yesterday morning Brian helped me cut all the suspension ropes and load the car for the transport back the the Chugiak-Eagle River Library.
I was nervous.
Also, it was -2 degrees F outside.
* * *
I'll post soon about the installation and upcoming celebration, which is this Saturday, December 10 from 3-5 pm at the Chugiak-Eagle River Library. You're all invited, of course.
I hear there will be cookies.
Other posts about public art:
For related posts on this dragon, please see:
For other public art, please see:
The summer of 2003: I was between children's book illustration jobs, doing a swell job of simultaneously fretting about and ignoring my creative writing MFA thesis ("Hey look, I should teach myself how to knit..."), hauling my husband from one fika to another while visiting as many aging family members as possible in a 3-week trip to Sweden, and somewhere in there I was commissioned to make a really big dragon.
The work hung in the Samson-Dimond Branch Library in Anchorage, Alaska for 7 years, until budget cuts closed that space. Luckily, a manager for a library 20 miles away in Eagle River knew about the dragon banner and personally relocated it to the Chugiak-Eagle River Library where it's hung for 6 years in the children's area.
This public art installation was designed as a double-sided triptych, 15 feet long, made with cotton, wool, recycled clothing and various commercial fabrics. The original location was tight -- the tail faced a small new computer lab and the head faced the program/story time area. The suspended panels fit above computer stations and between small columns.
The work honors a young woman named Jessie Withrow who was killed by a drunk driver while riding her bicycle on an Anchorage sidewalk. She loved the library and fantasy books, so we made a dragon for her. When that little library closed, a piece this large could have disappeared forever into storage.
That is the short history of a multi-layered, important story, which involves a lot of people, their support and a willingness to hang on to memory.
Sometimes the very best stories go to sleep for a while, when they have a cozy place to dream. They probably deserve that rest.
But then something wakes them up.
And here's where this piece of artwork rises, after many years, to becomes a story again.
In 2014 I approached the library with some questions -- was there any interest in re-configuring this piece to better fit this new space? If it became a 6-panel, 30-foot dragon...would the library support an expansion like this? And what if we pulled together as many library users as possible -- children, moms, dads, grandparents -- to help make the reverse panels in a multi-step community art project?
What if we unfurled this whole story so it soared over the top of the entire children's section? What if we invited people to be a part of this kind of magic? Would they come? Could we teach them a new skill they could also do at home?
It took 2 years of grant writing, but the "Dragon Flight" project took wing and this month we started a series of community art workshops to create the reverse panels. If any of you follow me on Facebook or Instagram you've probably seen some of the images from these workshops and my studio ... and not a whole lot else. Even the Inheritance Project has been put on hold.
I've never used Wonder Under before. I'm not a super star stitching with monofilament thread (but I've gotten pretty good). And releasing 200 pre-cut squares to eager hands who've never done this kind of work before has been serendipitous and fulfilling.
The third and final "Sky Full of Stars" workshop is on Saturday, October 22, 2016 from 3 - 5 pm at the Chugiak Eagle-RiverLibrary. The large workspace is in the back of the children's area (you get to walk beneath the current dragon to get there). At the end of the month, the dragon banner will come down and I'll take it apart. All 6 new double-sided panels will be installed before Christmas, 2016. More on that to come in a future post.
Dragon on the front, party on the back.
My immense gratitude to the Chugiak-Eagle River Foundation, Friends of the Library and the Anchorage Library Foundation and to all the hands who've made this project possible. I'd like to thank fellow SAQA regional co-representative, Maria Shell, for posting about her experience working with a community on a large-scale textile art project. I'm not going to lie, I learned a lot from her post and you will, too.
Lastly, my heart extends to the family of Jessie Withrow, lover of libraries, reader of books, vessel for deep imagination. Muse.
Other posts about public art:
A few months ago I had the privilege of being interviewed by a woman named Sue Ann Gleason, culinary nutritionist, nourishment guide and marketing strategist at Conscious Bites Nutrition. She was drawn to the textile artwork I'm creating with crowdsourced vintage linens and sought out a conversation, which had nothing to do with food, but everything to do with nourishment.
She has a special project of her own: Luscious Legacy, a writing course that focuses on shaping collections of family recipes and stories. She will use our synergistic interview with her writing group --both of us on the road to discovering how aligned we are in terms of object, memory and reverence for the maker -- a west-coast/east-coast, multi-time-zone conversation that could have lasted much longer.
There is audio from the interview, over an hour long, but we worked together to edit the transcript into a much shorter blog form. An excerpt from that interview is below, but you can find the entire post on the Luscious Legacy site, including the audio link. I hope you'll poke around on her gorgeous website and look into her various inspiring projects while you're there.
Sue Ann: I am deeply curious about what we keep and what we pass on, be it tangible or more spiritual in nature. When I happened upon your Inheritance Project, I was captivated. First, because I saw in it such an honoring. Here you are collecting these pieces of handwork as a vehicle to explore voice and history and narrative. Where did it begin? When did these mystery boxes start coming?
Amy: Family members in Sweden have always sent me linens and handwork, but I’ve rarely used any of these things for my home. They’ve been stored in my trunk for years until I started using the cloth in my artwork. Then I received an email last summer from a woman I’d never met in upstate New York who really wanted to send me a collection of vintage linens. I have to admit the alarm bells went off, but I wrote back with my address and said, “No anthrax, no fire bombs.”
When the box came, my daughter and I opened it on the deck, and inside were all these vintage pointy bras and seamed stockings, linens and doilies. She and I had the best time going through it. Her brother had a friend over that afternoon and she was feeling a little left out, and it was also a time when our relationship felt strained. She was starting first grade and had a lot of fear that manifested in snotty remarks towards me and lashing out at her brother; just this really unsettled presence about her. But that afternoon felt really pure. We tried on bras and held up stockings, and then we caught the boys spying on us through the sliding glass door and we laughed and screamed. It’s just this lovely visceral memory I hope she’ll always have.
I don’t know the woman was who sent this to us or who had owned the items before, but we made up a lot of stories and we guessed and wondered. I felt strongly that the experience was informing the next phase of my work. It felt important.
After I blogged about it in a post called “Box of Mystery,” other people contacted me and things started arriving and I realized right away I had to keep track of everything. These were objects that deserved and needed documenting, spreadsheets, proper thank you cards and shaping.
I also realized I’d need to put parameters around the project if I didn’t want people emptying out their cupboards and sending all their unwanted things to me, so there’s a formal list of items I’m looking for. I’m also asking for information: who the maker is, what the origin is and what the circa is because I feel like this also needs honoring. For the most part, all three of those things aren’t readily known, and that in itself feels so powerful to me. I keep envisioning this list of makers of which 95% will be labeled "Unknown."
This process of collecting, documenting and corresponding with people is vital to what I now call “The Inheritance Project.” I’m inheriting things originally inherited by others. And there’s an understanding that very few of these items are going to remain intact once I begin working with them. People are okay with this. If they’ve spent time looking at my artwork at all, they understand I’ll make something else out of the linens they send. Up until this point my work has been really personal, like memoir, using moments, experiences or fears and transforming them into a piece of artwork that then people bring their experiences to and have responses based upon their own history.
Now, I’m feeling a shift and want to explore the fictional aspect of these items. I’m curious about the mythology generated by this vast pool of artifacts that have little or no history. I feel a connection to these unknown makers, and the narrative gurgling up is something I’d like to explore through the next series of work I make from these items. I’m still shaping it and unsure what the end result will be, but I’m envisioning an exhibition with a written component and a combination of two-and three-dimensional work.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.