It’s always interesting to notice when I stop thinking of a sculpture as “it” and start saying “her” instead.
With this one, it started at the armpits.
This is how it always starts: heavier vertical wires taped to the form. Multiple layers of tape, because the wire does not want to stay put.
Then I go around the hips and attach a lighter-weight wire to each vertical wire. This part drives me crazy. Wires everywhere, trying to poke me in the eyes, making a little shivery sound as they brush against each other.
Here’s a close-up of one of the little wires wrapped around one of the bigger ones:
Fussy and barely manageable, like a newborn baby. It takes me a while to get into a groove.
Lately I’ve started casting torsos to make a series of sculptures about women’s bodies and the things that happen in and around them. This is gonna keep me busy for the next couple of years, I think.
Just before my last open studio, I sent a message to my mailing list saying that I was looking for more models. I got a whole bunch of replies. Some were just a little curious. Others were very keen to get started As Soon As Possible. I am so grateful to all of these ladies for their courage, their questions, their patience, their doubts, and their straight-up panic attacks.
I’ve not had a single casting session yet that has gone smoothly, and that’s okay. I’m learning so much!
This week, for instance, I was halfway through plastering someone’s back when she told me she needed to leave in an hour. I set a timer, and I was not even halfway done with her front when it went off (half an hour later). D’oh! I stopped adding new plaster, and got out a hair dryer to make sure what I’d already done was as dry as possible before I tried to take it off her.
While she got dressed, I propped up the two halves with bubble wrap so that they wouldn’t collapse. I wasn’t too worried about the back. I’d done that first, and it was nice and thick. The front was thin, though, and stopped just above her belly button.
I worried about it all through the next day while I rested my knees. I hurt them a few months ago, dancing with abandon, and now they complain about things like standing for ninety minutes.
Today I went back to the studio and was relieved to find the two halves dry and holding their shapes nicely. They went back together easily too. She wore a bra during the casting, and the straps made it easy to line up the shoulders:
Today was all about matching up the edges, attaching the two halves, and reinforcing some of the edges. Next time, I’ll have to start extrapolating her lower belly from the parts I’ve already got. I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to do it. Probably it’ll involve more bubble wrap, and maybe polyester stuffing and an old t-shirt.
It doesn’t have to look exactly like her. It just needs to look plausibly human. I’m pretty sure I’m up to the challenge.
I wear leather gloves when I’m working on my sculptures. The left glove always wears out before the right one. Here is what a glove looks like when it stops being useful to me:
The right one ends up filthy too, but much less ragged.
It makes me sad to have to throw both gloves out and buy a whole new pair.
This week I started working on my next sculpture. I’m building it around the plaster cast that a friend helped me make of my own torso. There’s something sweet about seeing my beloved loathsome body as a pure shape, without me in it. Maybe it’s a little like what an astronaut feels, seeing the earth from space. Everything that has ever happened to me, has happened in some version of that jiggling meat tower. Every tantrum, every smile, every orgasm, every panic attack. Learning to walk. Shingles. Trauma and healing.
The meat tower feels creakier than ever. Working is good physical therapy for my weak right hand and its aching wrist. It’s even good for my stiff hips: I set a timer while I’m working, and when the timer goes off I have to go lie on the floor and stretch. I do my stretching in the front room, looking up at these two:
I knock off early enough to go out for a walk. That’s good physical therapy too (as well as being important for long haul creativity). In spite of everything, the meat tower can still walk all day if provided with suitable footwear. Not too bad for something that’s pushing the half-century mark.
So I started. It’s coming out in the disjointed way that these stories do. Not a straight line, but a zig-zag lightning-strike path.
when i was nine, my mother got very sick
Last year E suggested that I write a question with my right hand, then answer it with my left hand.
Q: What are these panic attacks about?
A: they don’t want me they don’t want me they don’t want me
I woke up at 3 o’clock the other morning, having put the pieces together in my sleep. Suddenly knowing that “they don’t want me” belonged on this piece of canvas with the rest of the story.
Back in E’s office, after we finish laughing about the wastebasket, I pull up this picture on my phone. We pass the phone back and forth. There’s not much talking. I zoom in on the details, one after another, so she can see the whole thing.
it got worse. i decided to run away.
A list of the things I had in my pockets when I left:
Last, but not least:
i brushed my hair for once.
We’ve been working together for more than five years, but I’m not sure I’ve ever told her that before. I’m not sure I could have said it aloud.
E looks up at me. We’re both crying.
Some things can never be fixed, but maybe you can find a way to stop being alone with them.
Words have been hard for me lately. There’s so much going on, and so little that seems worth saying about it all. And yet, silence also feels … not quite right.
I’ve been reading Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn. The introduction says:
Original nature has no opposites. Speech and words are not necessary. Without thinking, all things are exactly as they are. The truth is just like this.
Then why do we use words? Why have we made this book?
According to Oriental medicine, when you have a hot sickness you should take hot medicine. Most people are very attached to words and speech. So we cure this sickness with word-and-speech medicine.
So here is an attempt at medicine for whatever sickness I’ve got. I imagine I am not the only one. May we all be cured.
Some words that I keep hearing my head, an echo from 30 years ago: j’en peux plus. Translated from the French, they mean roughly “I can’t take it anymore.”
It’s not just words that have been hard. I have come to a couple of places recently where (oh, mercy) I just can’t take it anymore. For the good of all beings everywhere – for you, for me, for my poor therapist, for that confused bastard from out of town who is stuck in traffic in front of me – it has to stop. I cannot keep doing this dance. One of those places is in the studio, with the moths.
But how? A carefully worded letter to the moths will do no good. The moths are just exactly as they are, beyond words.
And then, a miracle: it occurred to me that I could take the guts out of “i know what i know.” I could cut the guts open, remove the felted wool balls, replace them with something less delicious. I could coat the wool in “bad signal” and “butterfly soup” with something both less toxic and more permanent than insecticide.
As I got used to the idea, I grew to love the process and the added layers of meaning. I am not afraid of work. These changes are a language that the moths will understand.
It turns out that the guts have a surprising amount of structural integrity, even without their wool stuffing. Maybe they will go back into the sculpture just as they are, light and empty. Maybe I will have to give the sculpture a new title. Maybe “i know nothing”?
After experimenting with some smaller felted sculptures, I settled on an acrylic-based fabric stiffener to coat the pieces that can’t have their wool removed. Will all that liquid make the wire rust? Oh yes:
Rust is rust. Change is change. Let them be exactly as they are.
Most of my large figural sculptures begin as ritual objects, driven by a need to transform my relationship with some difficult fact. The repetitive process of building the figure is meditative, and the making and placement of “innards” and other embellishments is something I put a lot of mental energy into.
This latest piece seemed like it might be especially fraught with meaning and pain. Not just because of the difficult facts I was wrestling with, but also because hanging it would necessitate moving one of the older sculptures to the back room.
But as it happened, the ending was as surprisingly easy as the beginning. The very first sculpture I made went into the back room without a fuss. I think it helps she’s still visible from the front room. This photo was taken from the steps:
Bad signal ended up hanging next to I know what I know. They are not identical, but I think of them as twins.
You can’t really see her “heart” from the floor, but it’s worth seeing so here’s a close-up:
Part of the ritual of this piece was cutting a single wire in front of the hole in her heart every day. There were four wires covering the hole, so it took four days. Every time I cut a wire, I’d think about things that I’m needing to let go of. The letting go is not without difficulty and pain, but it’s not as bad as I feared. And wonderful things are afoot (I hope).
I’m almost finished with bad signal. I’ve been rolling the IV stand around the studio and studying her from different angles while I read and practice yoga and goof around. Here’s an angle that I found particularly pleasing this morning:
Sometimes I love looking at her on her own, but all of my newer work is uncomfortable for me to see next to the old work made with Serena. Even padded, Serena is tiny compared to me. The hardest part of the work, these days, is hanging it up in the front room when it’s finished.
This afternoon I came home and found this juxtaposition of the average American female mannequin vs. the average American flesh-and-blood female body in my newsfeed:
It’s from a photoshoot for Cosmopolitan Latina by Victoria Janashvili. The model’s name is Denise Bidot.
And then Clarissa Pinkola Estes reminded me:
“Seventy-five percent confident will do nicely. Seventy-five percent is a goodly amount. Remember, we say that a flower is blooming whether it is in half, three-quarters, or full bloom.”
Good enough, then. Thank you, everyone who helps me stay at seventy-five percent.