“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:
I don't travel alone much, but recently spent time in Lincoln, Nebraska for the SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Associates) "Creation to Curation" conference (I'm a regional co-representative in Alaska with Maria Shell). Despite the 3-hour time difference for me, I was still up at 4:30 or 5 am each day.
Once of the people who stumbled into that Early-Morning-Inbox-tapping-quietly-so-I-dont-wake-my-roommate space was Christine Chester.
She asked a question, which I'm sharing with her permission, and while I'm no expert, I gave her an answer I wish someone would grab me by the shoulders, look me in the eye and give to me.
Just to be up front -- this isn't an advice column, nor am I clear on what the hell I'm doing MOST of the time. I'm not a how-to guru and pretty sure I'm no teacher, but Christine had questions about work I felt I could answer since none of these concerns are new to me. I think about them all the time with regards to an artist's choice of materials, my unanswered questions and a deep respect for makers known and unknown.
So I responded with the letter I'd want to receive, and Christine graciously allowed me to share our private early morning correspondence.
In short, this lady is no slouch. I can't believe she wrote and asked me ... well ... anything. I'm totally honored to be a part of her world and her sensibility.
* Portrait photography by Sarah Gawler of Sarah Gawler Photography. Other images courtesy of the artist.
Also on this blog:
For other artist profiles, click on the sidebar category: Find Your Teachers (then scroll past this post, which will appear there, too).
One year ago: Unicorn Heart
Two years ago: Soul Fever
I sent one out mid April, and a second one especially for contributors to the Inheritance Project. If you signed up and didn't receive one, please check your spam/clutter box. If you'd like to receive a pretty newsletter with links to blog posts and upcoming news (maybe once a month ... maybe), you can sign up for it here. I promise I'm not spammy.
I recently updated my artist statement -- that challenge of fitting in every idea you have about your work into about 1000 characters -- a small piece of writing, but one that refines the point of why you're compelled to do what you do.
Or at least kicks your ass in the process.
It's a version of the first artist statement I wrote in 2014. Not much has changed. But it still kicks my ass.
I should probably whittle it further.
But I'm not a poet.
And although I'm in my head most of the time, I'm not that smart.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”
But I'm a really good seamstress. And maybe a little mysterious.
I'm shuffling through images, grouping themes to spread on the table as I move forward with this work, honing edges and abrading excess, waiting for the surprises that shouldn't be surprises at all. (Related theme-based posts are Ice. and Fire. and Bone.)
One thing that is a surprise, is that this blog was recently listed in the Top 60 Textile Blogs on the Planet. Yup. This one is #29. Huh. This, despite the description of, "Frequency - about 1 post per month."
Hey, go easy. I'm a busy woman.
About a year ago, a curator and artist from Pakistan named Samina Islam emailed to ask if I'd be interested in participating in a fiber art exhibition -- the first of its kind -- in Karachi at the VM Art Gallery. It was easy to find information on the gallery -- a non profit, in operation since 1987, with a stated intention that aligns with my own:
"Arts and crafts have always been a significant part of any culture and society around the world and artists are integral to its well being, creativity, diversity as well as innovations of any community; artists are people who make a contribution not only to the world’s cultural heritage but also to their country."
But I still had questions, not about sending my work to Pakistan, specifically, but about sending my work overseas in general. This was my first international invitation and I wanted to ensure my decision to participate wasn't clouded by my own giddiness. Luckily, I have a Pakistani friend here in Anchorage, Shehla Anjum*, who I've known for over 13 years. We met in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Alaska Anchorage and our paths have woven like a braided river ever since. When I was first contacted by Samina, my friend Shehla happened to be in Pakistan visiting family.
What are the chances?
"This show is meant to introduce the public to a variety of ways textile and fiber can be used to produce works that go beyond their aesthetics and raise a voice to incite a discourse on a range of issues effectively – a strengthened position that may not have had equal impact through other media.
Shehla wasn't able to meet face-to-face with Samina, but they spoke on the phone in Karachi and discovered they have a mutual friend, Masuma Halai Khwaja, also an artist, and this was probably how my name was thrown into the global mix. Shehla indicated that Samina's enthusiasm for the curatorial effort was contagious and she passed that confidence on to me.
I'm honored to be included in such company, some of whom I've followed for years, such as Sue Stone, and others whose names have more recently been appearing in various publications, such as Richard McVetis, or illustrator Manica Musil, who will soon publish her textile illustrated children's book with Oxford University Press, Pakistan in English and Urdu because of this opportunity. Other contributing artists have reached out to me, across oceans, across cultures, and now we're connected in this small way.
During a time of global uncertainty, this exhibition has a fitting title -- when caring for cloth, you often need to unravel the damage before any mending can begin. I know Samina Islam worked incredibly hard to bring all of us together, and she didn't have to.
But she did.
I sent the first "Girl Story" piece. It's won two awards and exhibited widely, so if she gets lost coming back to me, then that's part of the story.
But she won't.
I couldn't attend the opening, so Samina asked for a video. I think I was more nervous about making this than sending work overseas. So here's what I sent, shaky voice and all. Many thanks to my sister, Erica, for putting this one together.
Here is a list of the other contributing artists with links to their sites. I hope you'll seek them out. I hope you'll cross that bridge.
Rosie James (UK)
Richard McVetis (UK)
Sue Stone (UK)
Lyndsey McDougall (Ireland)
Manica Musil (Slovenia)
Samina Islam (Pakistan)
Numair Abbasi (Pakistan)
Roohi Ahmed (Pakistan)
Asad Hussain (Pakistan)
Masuma Halai Khwaja (Pakistan)
You can read critic Rabia S. Akhtar's review of the exhibition in Art Now: Contemporary Art of Pakistan.
*And back to my friend Shehla Anjum -- she was one of the contributors to the Inheritance Project, and you can read about the cloth I inherited from her in the post The 12th boxes of mystery. She is a writer, question asker, world traveler and generous human, and despite calling the US home for decades, she is also feeling the emotional effects of being born in a Muslim country. Connecting Samina and I has become a glimmer of silver, which she recently wrote about in an opinion piece for the Alaska Dispatch News.
If you are interested in other exhibitions, click on the sidebar category Gallery Shows and scroll down since this post will come up first.
A collection of images and words that hum in this after-solstice but still-so-dark season. The companion post to Ice.
Holding the Light
for it’s not only our
it all comes down to this:
with compassion and wire.
* * *
Thank you Stuart Kestenbaum for permission to use this poem and to Juno Lamb for sharing it with me in the first place. These words continue resonating with these collected images, working toward making sense of my work's next turn.
I could just as easily apply them to my hopes for the world.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.