a moment of silence

A moment of silence? Let’s try 50+ years.

Before I was born, I had a brother who left this world before he even came into it properly. He left a perfectly Larissa-sized hole in the world. He left a hole in my parents’ hearts that I could never fill.

I didn’t know about him until I was 11. It took another 40 years before I had the nerve to ask what his name was. My father couldn’t quite remember. He left a hole so big, it swallowed his name.

I struggle with talking about my history. Because it is so tangled up with the story of my parents’ lives. Because I sometimes hate that I can’t separate myself from them and their story. Because I know they would rather I didn’t talk about it. Because they never talk about it, and it makes me feel crazy.

I used to say that I couldn’t stop picking at these holes in the skin of my family. It felt like there was something wrong with me, or maybe there was something wrong with them. But I’m starting to see this pain as something that I have a mysterious drive to Be With. There’s nothing wrong with that. And the more I learn to Be With things, the more I see how many things I turn away from, and the more I can respect my parents’ turning away from what feels like Everything That’s Important.

People sometimes wonder why my work is so slow. This is why: I go to the studio and make one cardboard wing and pin it to a sculpture. And then I am shaking and I have to sit down and just breathe for a while.

And then I hang a plastic replica of a baby’s skull inside the sculpture’s chest. And I am shaking again, and I have to lie on the floor and resource my butt off. And that’s enough for one day.

When you carry a child in your body, it is literally part of you. Everybody knows that. But did you know that fetal cells can stay in a mother’s body for the rest of her life? Did you know that they can make their way into a younger sibling’s body?

I have smuggled my brother out of our mother’s house.

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows

higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

-e.e. cummings

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.

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.

middle

I love this part. It’s like a satisfying novel, or a not-too-difficult puzzle. A little bit of work, but mostly just watching it unfold.

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The ends of the wires are still trying to pull away from the form, but if I can just control the next three inches everything will work out okay.

beginning

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.

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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.

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Here’s a close-up of one of the little wires wrapped around one of the bigger ones:

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Fussy and barely manageable, like a newborn baby. It takes me a while to get into a groove.

 

 

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.