swarm

I’m not sure when I started her.  How can I say when these things begin?  Is it when I start taking steps towards making a tangible object?  The earliest photo I have is from late 2018, but by then she was pretty far along.  Is it when the idea first appears in my head, having arrived from who-knows-where?  I was writing about her in late 2017.

And what about when it begins as one thing and turns into something completely different?  What then?  Who’s to say she wasn’t always a swarm of smaller sculptures waiting to happen?  She had a name, but I have forgotten it.

It was mid-February when I started taking her apart.  I’d moved everything into the new studio a few weeks before that, and had finally done enough unpacking to begin to feel at home.  I was grieving, like I do when something ends.  Like I do, for longer than most people would say is reasonable.  Like I do, even when it’s been over for years and life is actually not so bad.  I sometimes think that when-life-is-not-so-bad is the best time for grieving.

Anyway: I was enormously sad, and I started taking her apart.  Here she is, without her lower half, without her back.

I made a couple of smaller sculptures with the wire I salvaged, plus other things I found around the studio – a handful of blue beads, an assortment of washers and springs, a worn wire brush that someone left behind after cleaning a furnace.

And I started to feel a little less bereft.  And I made a couple more.

And then we were in the middle of a pandemic.  Remember the year you thought you were going to have?  Kiss it goodbye.

I kept making little sculptures until I had used up all the salvaged wire.  As I worked, it seemed more and more appropriate to be giving up the thing I had thought I would be doing.  They had names, these smaller sculptures.  They had names, but I have forgotten them.  By the time I finished, I wasn’t sad about the same things I’d been sad about when I started.

People sometimes ask me how long it takes to make a sculpture.  The answer is: however many years I’ve been alive when I finish it.  This swarm of little sculptures took me 52 years.

it’s like this

I’m here.

I’m here, and it’s like this:

Last month I punched one of those talking gas pumps because it wouldn’t shut up. The screen turned orange and displayed an error message. I don’t know how difficult it was to fix. I wasn’t sorry then, and I am still not sorry. Citgo and Gas Station TV can kiss my lumpy white ass.

This morning I went for a walk, and there was a baby robin in the road. So I stopped and googled “what to do if you find a baby bird.” And I read that most birds people find are fledglings and they probably don’t need our help. So I didn’t go back to the house to get gloves and a box and call someone who knows what to do. But this bird was sitting in the road and I didn’t want it to get run over. I took another step towards it and asked it, “Can you move?” And it squawked, and it hopped and flopped into the weeds by the side of the road. Good enough.

I walked away and left it. I’m sure it was terrified. And I thought: maybe some people are like that. Maybe they cross our paths to scare us away from something worse.

Halfway up the hill, a neighbor’s dog came out of the woods to walk with me. She followed me home, and she is still sitting on my back step enjoying the day. On my way into the house, I called her by one of our cat’s nicknames: KittyCake.

We’ve had this cat for four months. It’s been about five months since our old cat (Tiki) died, and this is the first time since then that I haven’t accidentally called someone else’s pet Tiki-Teeks. It felt like a milestone.

KittyCake is not happy about the dog.I don’t know the neighbor’s phone number, and I threw away most of our phone books last summer when our house was overrun with mold. Oh well. The dog is not hurting anyone, and at some point she’ll get hungry and go home.

I’m trying to get together enough people to hold a grief ritual soon. This morning it occurred to me that a grief ritual is like a sculpture with a lot of moving parts. I don’t have much formal training in making sculptures, or in facilitating grief rituals, but that never seems to stop me.

I have not been able to settle down and work in my studio for a good long while. Part of it is that I have come to hate a lot of things about the studio. Another part is that I seem to be undergoing some kind of internal remodeling.

Last year I finally gave up on the studio and started building a new one across the street from my house. It’s almost finished.

Maybe I’ll say more about that someday. For now, it seems like I need to break the silence by chattering.

Hi. I’m here.

lumpy crossing

Over the winter, I finally made another sculpture.  I call her “lumpy crossing.”  She’s full of spray foam insulation, which I added during a severe cold snap that left people nervously watching the gauges on their propane and oil tanks.  Adding the foam was a very slow process: if you add it all at once, it blorps out all over the floor.

The name comes from a story about the name of a place in the Northern of Ireland, Corrymeela:

Corrymeela is often translated from the original Irish as “Hill of Harmony” or “Hill of Sweetness.”  But there is another and more probable translation.  The name comes from a neighbouring townland, Corrymellagh, in the parish of Culfeightrin.  Culfeightrin means in Irish “The Corner of the Stranger.”  Corrymellagh means “The Lumpy Crossing Place.”

Perhaps the latter etymology is more apt for us: a place where differing groups, strangers to each other, are offered the opportunity to cross over into another space.  And the crossing is “lumpy,” not easy, full of pitfalls.

What can I say about this last year?  Not much.  Except, maybe, that it has been a lumpy crossing.

her

It’s always interesting to notice when I stop thinking of a sculpture as “it” and start saying “her” instead.

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With this one, it started at the armpits.

plaster surgery

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:

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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.

the thing with feathers

I think we had been working together for about six months, and I had mostly been feeling better. But suddenly it was fall, and I was feeling apocalyptically bad. I couldn’t stop crying.

“This is what healing looks like,” said E, very gently.

I kept crying. A great sodden pile of tissues filled up the wastebasket between us. At some point I noticed that she was smiling. “Why?” I asked. “Why are you smiling like that, when I’m so miserable?”

“My heart is singing,” she said. She was looking at me like I was a very new baby who had just done something totally amazing, like maybe unleashed a tiny little belch.

I cried all the way home. When I got home, I got in the shower to avoid having to explain to Dave why I was crying. I couldn’t explain it. It just kept happening. So I cried and cried and cried in the shower. I wondered how I was ever going to be able to stop. And then I remembered E telling me that her heart was singing.

“Would it sound like a robin?” a voice in my head wondered. I was so surprised by the thought, which didn’t even seem to be mine, that I stopped crying. And I started thinking about my next sculpture.

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I always knew that someday I would make one with a bird inside it. I didn’t know until that moment that the bird would be E’s heart.

Before I placed it in its cage, I took it to her office to show it to her. She held it and fussed over it for a long time. It was her turn to cry, and my turn to grin until my face almost fell off.

Everything she said about it was something I might have said about her. It might have been the best moment I’ll ever have as an artist.

the light inside the dark

More moths. Not every day, but at least once a week. I’ve taken to leaving the light on in this lady 24/7, because the moths like the dark.

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It occurred to me recently that I hadn’t photographed her with the light on since last year’s great moth-proofing effort. So there she is: several layers of acrylic fabric stiffener over felted wool, over doilies crocheted from fingering-weight yarn, over rusty wire, with an 11-watt compact fluorescent lightbulb hanging in the middle. More than the sum of her parts (as we all are).

I just finished reading The Light Inside the Dark by John Tarrant, and I’m feeling inarticulate. I had to take a break from the group I was reading it with. They weren’t having any of the seventeen conversations I wanted to have, and I felt unable to start the conversations myself.

Maybe I already said a lot of what I could say about that book anyway, before I even read it, with this sculpture.

Maybe words are overrated.

Recently I seem to have become the kind of person who’ll dance in public, and not necessarily in a polite and sedate way. “With some people, you can tell they’re holding back,” someone said to me last night, after the music had stopped and we were getting ready to go home. “But not you.” Old Me would have been deeply embarrassed. New Me shrugs and says maybe I’m old enough to start experiencing the Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck.

Tarrant says:

We need the patience to bless even our weakness, this odd weakness that seems to come not when we are helpless, as it does in the darkest night, but when we are full of strength and rising.

Last time I saw E, I cried for half an hour before I was able to say anything. She said she respected my bravery. “You’re the only person in the world who ever says anything like that to me,” I complained. “What the fuck is wrong with you? What are we turning me into? How am I supposed to be in the world like this?”

“I love you too,” she said. I hated her so much in that moment.

I am a hot mess, but not so most people would notice. I put on my boots and drive my car to the supermarket or the bank or the hardware store. I stand up straight and I smile, and it’s not an act because I really do feel pretty good a lot of the time.

And I also feel shitty and toxic, and I wish I could explain how it’s possible for the two states – light and dark – to exist at the same time and in such close proximity, and not cause some sort of explosion.

I feel like I outgrew the loneliness I was born with, and traded it in for a bigger loneliness. I’m constantly tripping over its hem and discovering odd things in its pockets: a blue bug, a red car, a long-forgotten granola bar, the sound your mother made when your head popped out of her.

aftermath

The new girl (“the burning bridge“) is finished. I hung her in the front room next to one of the old girls (“changeling”). This is a view I see a lot, from close to the floor with bad lighting:

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E says she likes the way they turn towards each other. I point out that the changeling turns towards anyone who hangs next to her.

Twelve years ago, the first of these wire ladies announced that I had to leave my therapist. This one, with some help from the last canvas print I made, said I needed to leave the Artist’s Way group that had been meeting weekly in my studio for the last couple of years.

I reclaim the studio inch by inch, the way I reclaim my body: working and cleaning in the back room, practicing yoga in the front room. Breathing and stretching while the sculptures look on.

Sometimes the sculptures tell me things.

“Look at my right shoulder!” says the changeling:

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Nobody needs to tell me to look at this shoulder hanging next to it:

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It wasn’t a conscious decision to have that flap folding over the changeling’s shoulder like an alien paw. That’s not what she was about. But she came out of a period of time when, among all the other things that happened, I had chickenpox. And all of it led to me having shingles, which led to the burning bridge.

They never end up being about only one thing.