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
I'm currently working with old and discarded textiles: half-embroidered canvases, linens, leftover or unused wool from embroidery kits older than I am.
Someone once felt compelled to make these things, knew inspiration, motivation. Had an opinion and a standard of beauty. These women buried themselves in the making and the work of the work.
Some of these women I know, or knew. Most are strangers.
Some of the work is fine. Some is not.
But according to the academics and critics, all of this work -- no matter the quality of the stitching hand -- falls under the title of "Craft," not "Art."
I, and this group of ghostly women whose smells still linger on these fibers, made the choice to pick up a needle instead of a brush or a chisel. So there you are.
"Amateur" means, roughly, "lover," from the Latin amare (to love), and one of the hallmarks of amateur activity is a lack of critical distance from the object of desire. If modern art ... is grounded in searching self-awareness, then amateurism is a form of creativity that can never be integrated in to this model ... hobby crafts are on a par with such activities as stamp collecting and weekend sport -- activities done in a spirit of self-gratification rather than critique.
According to Adamson, one of the principals of the definition of craft is its "amateur" nature.
I've talked about labels before and figured I was over it. But it's yanking at me right now.
So I'm reading. A lot. And I'm trying to be open.
And I get that the line between art and craft is blurring more and more. And I acknowledge my shallow moments -- like when the spanking new copy of American Craft arrives in the mailbox -- when I think "craftsperson" is an incredibly hip title and "artist" is just so "everyoneisanartist" and where did I put my monocle, and my mustache wax anyway?
But then I return to these ghost women's hands, and realize most of them never had the luxury of even considering a choice between artist or craftsperson, or reading about their amateur status, or getting all hung up and depressed for two weeks when really they were probably quite "supported and satisfied" to have a moment to themselves at the end of the day to lose themselves in handwork.
But if you're like me, if there's something out there in the world, something you might ingest that could make you feel terrible, or sick, or kill some part of you ... then shouldn't you learn everything you can about it? Because maybe you'll form an opinion, emerge hairy-militant and ready to make a change, or maybe you'll come all the way 'round to acceptance, or form a new stance altogether. Maybe you'll learn to avoid it, or make a point to always flip it over to scrutinize the fleshy underbelly before kicking it to the side. But at the very least, shouldn't you be able to make a positive identification and say, "Oh yeah, that's that thing."
You don't have to get all professional on us or anything.
I mean, crap, just be an amateur.
Things worth keeping go in this pile, here. Not in that pile by the door. That's all getting loaded into the back of the car. Yes, of course it will all fit. No, you can't look at what's in there ... hey, don't get into that stuff now! No, really, please don't open those bags.
Okay, you can keep the dinosaur head with the trigger-stick thing, but that's it. Yes, I see its teeth. Fine, yes, keep it, just please stop snapping it in my face.
I know, I know.
Things worth keeping are things I've considered. But I've also moved swiftly through those thoughts, like the unnecessary quick-before-dinner-no-it-can't-wait-until-tomorrow trip to the thrift store's drop bin just so I won't have time to change my mind. I'm clearing floor space. I'm clearing my head. But mainly I have to make room for all these ice skates and helmets and backpacks and extra booster seats in the back of the car.
Things worth keeping don't directly contribute to my suffocation at the end of every year. Maybe it's the velvet darkness of a northern winter that fills my lungs. Maybe it's because I need to wet a rag and wipe glacial dust off my ceiling and walls and holy-crap-would-you-look-at-those-windows? And I need to do the filing. And what's all this junk piled up on the ... why in the world do we still have the book shelf you made 25 years ago in undergrad?
Things worth keeping should not be kept out of guilt. That should be a rule. Ask, Will I feel like crap if I get rid of this? Then do it. But some things have grown long heart strings. Like that shelf you built with the borrowed hand tools, sawing away inside that teeny apartment ... I know ... the little place where you asked me to marry you.
Things worth keeping are useful.
Things worth keeping are beautiful.
Things worth keeping are also sometimes frivolous and completely unnecessary, but might come in handy someday.
Things worth keeping have a history that is meaningful, but not burdensome. Realize sometimes these qualities shift, the same way priorities do. Sometimes all that deep meaning dissipates and leaves you wondering, Why is this broken stick/chipped vase/rubber lizard still on my windowsill?
But burdens also accumulate as silently as years, layered and thick. Sometimes the smallest item is the largest in the room. So you have to ask, I mean really ask: how heavy is this thing?
Things worth keeping should bring joy when you see them.
Things worth keeping should make you feel like, you.
Things worth keeping shouldn't be confused with things that should really be given to someone else. Like the gold hand-painted Italian Christmas ball, so precious it never hung on the tree, never left its segmented plastic case that even the 6-year-old knew to steer clear of while rooting around for the dough ornaments -- why would you teach her such a thing? Do not keep this precious item. Weep, only a little, when you wrap it for a dear friend's birthday and have the fleeting, ridiculous thought: Oh God, what if the person who gave this to me 20 years ago ... DIES?!
And then, realize that of course no ornamental ball will ever replace that person.
And then give it away. And feel lightness.
Things worth keeping are worth asking this, a friend's touchstone question: Am I keeping this for never?
Because if you are, you need to find a road and send that thing down it.
"Imagination is woven into the child's drawing. This reveals the close connection between the forces of memory and the child's own experiences. Imagination is born after the third year and from now on it adorns everything .... Soul experience now becomes pictorial presentation. Children's souls 'play' with what they have experienced and what they remember, and it is lifted up into their imagination."
Children are natural creators, myth makers, capable of World Building and existing in that somewhere-realm between spheres of physical and spiritual.
Sometimes the only "guidance" required is the space to move their bodies, the time to do so.
The most luxurious part being our own awareness, as adults, to grant this time and space. And to remember to do this for them:
to let them just, be.
When was the last time you were so lost in work, any work, and able to exist between the physical and spiritual? Was it this morning? A decade ago? Do you even remember the feeling: Time is gone. Form is gone. Logic is gone. And what one is left with is what some call freedom, some call bliss, some call nirvana. A stillness of the mind. Through creation.
When did this concept become a luxury?
And while it seems like everyone is searching for such a thing, and people want to sell you such a thing and entities want to help you attain such a thing ... really it could be society's act of de-valuing it in the first place that has placed such a high value on it now.
It is the soul experience that makes us human.
Children know this, without knowing.
"The soul-spiritual nature of small children is primarily engaged in the process of bodily incarnation. They build the bridges of life between body and soul. In their diagrammatic pictures, that which is engaged in building the body rises to the surface of visibility. They are as it were, the sand washed up out of the ocean of organ-formation, out of the subjectless and objectless 'No-Man's-Land' of life processes."
As adults, can we retrieve it? This mystery?
As artists, this is the constant journey. The living question. The fierce will. The World Building. The space to move our bodies. The time to do so. The re-valuing.
The soul experience.
Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
I recently spent 4 1/2 hours cleaning a kitchen with a friend. This kitchen isn't mine and it's not hers and I won't say who it belongs to, but I will say that I've cleaned this kitchen before and have always been dismayed at its state. There is nothing like a common enemy to bring two women closer together as friends, and in this case the common enemy was filth ... and something that looked an awful lot like bird poop on the dish drying mat, which remains a great mystery to us both.
While we wiped drawers and hauled dented pots and pans from deep, deep cupboards, we both agreed on the following: stay on top of your cleaning so that this (arms spread, looking at the kitchen) doesn't happen. Do you wipe down the stove after every meal? Yes. Clear the counters at the end of each day? Yes. Wipe behind appliances? Yes. We both love the hum of the dishwasher in the evening when we turn out the lights. This is order. This is predictability. This is entering a clean kitchen in the morning and pouring yourself a lovely cup of coffee.
In a clean mug.
With no bird poop.
I know. Bizarre.
I come from a Swedish household and still refer to my mother's style of housekeeping as "Swede Clean." Her baseboards/door trim/decorative plates will always pass the white glove test. Mine? No. But this is why I don't display decorative plates or wear white gloves.
This friend and kindred spirit I spent hours cleaning with had a different impetus for an orderly life:
she grew up in chaos.
But that's not my story to tell.
My story is that I've spent the better part of 40 years fearing chaos, and in turn, holding the sad belief that if I remained tidy, I couldn't be an artist. I believed that artists live in stirred spaces where inspiration circled them at all times and if you took the time to sweep beneath and around their things you'd scoop away all that artistic energy and ready it for the curb and the Tuesday morning garbage truck (but do not roll it out on Monday night because the bears will get into it and spread it all over the damned driveway and that's just a nasty mess).
My last mentor in the clothing industry, Manuel, was a true artist and a craftsman; a master tailor from Manila with so much creativity swirling around him he created his own weather system. He used to write in the appointment book with the purple disappearing ink pen we used to mark wedding gowns (Appointment? What appointment? There's no appointment here.). He preferred delivering a gown to the bride at 11 pm the night before her ceremony (Nervous? Why are you feeling nervous?). He loved putting off and then solving the engineering challenges of a corset 3 minutes before a client was due at the door (Sew faster!). He loved dancing. And singing. He loved the beauty of women. And spontaneity. And chaos. And he loved me like a daughter.
He used to call me Booger.
And it was, at times -- for a tidy, methodical person like me -- utterly maddening to be with this kind of energy, especially when I let it dictate how I expended my own.
It took a lot of mental capacity to remain pulled together -- myself, the shop, the cutting, the appointments, the fitting, the sewing, the clients, the logistics, the dancing, the singing, the deliveries, the 20+ custom wedding gowns some months generated in an atelier mostly comprised of one seamstress, one tailor, one Manuel and one me -- I was the oldest 26-year old you ever met. And then I finally had a break down, I blew out my creative energy and had nothing left to give. I weighed 105 pounds and migraines seemed manageable compared to this idea that I wasn't inspired, ever, and perhaps never would be. That part was debilitating.
What? Booger, how can you not be inspired? I'm inspired every day of my life.
And this is when I started thinking that really being an artist meant belting out "The Girl from Ipanema" while busting out some Bossa Nova moves. And never worrying about tomorrow. Or schedules. Or disappearing ink. Or the challenges of the next client. Or caring when you finally made it home from work at night. Maybe I wasn't working hard enough. Maybe I wasn't loving life enough.
Maybe I never would.
Maybe something cold and Scandinavian and stoic and bleak was too lodged inside of me.
I left that career before I turned 30 and walked away from 12 years in the clothing design industry, something I'd wanted since I was 13. I didn't believe in myself as anything more than an assistant and I didn't want my own shop, my own line, my own label, my own runway shows. I just wanted out of chaos.
A different career altogether separates me from who I was then and who I am now (I'm taking a longish exploratory break from it, I say). But the lure of continuing to use my hands in the way I was taught initially is too great to ignore.
Manuel died two years ago. And while I know that rainy, silent day will come when I hear a Stan Getz horn or Astrid Gilberto sing off key and I'll finally lose myself to uncontrolled sobbing, I continue to think about my mentor. Can you be so good at something, so confident, that the only way to maintain your inspiration is to generate chaos? I wonder.
Or, can a quiet confidence in a skill well earned eventually offer one ... freedom? Did I misinterpret chaos as artistic freedom? Could it be that there were so few problems Manuel couldn't solve that sometimes he needed self-generated problems to stay alive and creative? Or, was he just simply sanguine and I, always the melancholic, am still reading too deeply into a situation and a relationship, despite years removed, that ultimately helped define me as an artist and a maker?
Maybe that's enough.
There is a German word: sitzfleisch. It means to be persistent in your work, despite obstacles. Like the good old: Ass. In. Chair. And I was this, all through my 20's, until I had to scrape that chair back and walk away. And among the myriad of lessons Manuel taught, perhaps the biggest and most unintended was to recognize where my own threshold for chaos resides. My work will be original and violent, but my counters will be wiped. My threads will be trimmed, my corners mitered.
Booger, are you sending this out the door? It looks like the dog's breakfast. Figure out how to fix it.
And for every screaming temper tantrum I never had, for every chair I never threw, the Swedes also have a saying, about persistence and discipline and a fair sprinkling of violence as well.
Translated, it means:
"You have kicked your way here."
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.