If I were living, released from stretched coffin rigor,
eyebrows spray toothbrushed refusing death’s glower,
dry whiting-gray dismissed from throbless temples,
prickless chin neckresting toward autopsied chest,
honor medals jacketpinned in proper configuration,
skull stitches wrong-checked for coroner’s brain matter,
fitted gently on softing pillow’s settled satin rest,
thumb believe-pressed for life against embalming,
final seeking for blue, red veins under lashed lids lifted,
lips slack-wide into powder-rouged graying pallor,
lower half hidden under cherry grain’s already buried,
bruised ankles turned outward footholds ignoring,
black-blued chokehold under shirtstays pointing downward,
violent’s indifference kicking from a rug bound stepstool,
I would hear you cry oxygenlessly disbelieving,
“He is not my husband.”
Gagates was the name applied to Jet in ancient times, as stated in Chapter 34 in The Natural History of Gems or Decorative Stones, written by Charles William KIng in 1847. The gemstone was named after the no longer existing town of Gages in the city of Lycia. Gagates have been known to history since the times of Ancient Egypt and the Hittite Empire in the Late Bronze Age. The descriptive word, gagates, is thought to have originated from the Lycian language, an ancient precursor to Greek that we know ultimately became the foundation for our English alphabet.
It is a light, porous, and brittle stone that is black in color and described by King as closely resembling wood in appearance. He stated that, conversely, oil quenches it while water ignites it. An odd statement that may or may not be true, but adds to conversation about how written and spoken language along with their associative meanings transform throughout time. So, too, does visual language. The known roots of each of these kinds of languages, written, spoken, and visual, remains inside our vast and growing branches of knowledge and are undoubtedly interconnected in the experiences of most human beings.
As an aside, it had been that gagates, or Jet, was thought to provide six remedies to mankind due to its strong sulphuric odor and burning properties:
- the fumes emitted from it were said to keep away serpents
- it was described as being instrumental in keeping away hysterical affections
- it was used to detect tendencies toward epilepsy
- it was used to test virginity
- once boiled it was used to cure toothaches
- when combined with wax it was known to aid people with scrofula, a form of tuberculosis
Personally, I have only ever known Jet as a material used to make the buttons for mourning clothing that was predominantly worn by women during the Victorian Era. While in Boston, I found a collection of Jet, Jet with horn, and Jet with glass buttons in an antique store. Each one had been carefully wired to a brittle and fading paper-covered board. What struck me at the time was how no two buttons were alike. I pondered how they came together in that one small space. Had someone collected them from early generations of family member’s shredded silk dresses (over time Victorian silk fell apart leaving only hardware and decorative elements behind) or had they been purchased by a collector of grief relics. That no buttons were alike and that they must have adorned just as many dresses as they were in quantity represents to me the possibility of many, many deaths and years of sadness. Or at the least, they represented how women tolerated social conventions of the time. So much is lost in the memory of objects. The entire lifetime of a human being is gone if nothing has been written to fuel our curiosity or to feed our awareness. Just as interesting is my understanding that Jet buttons worn on widow’s dresses were not associated with any of the aforementioned “cures” of the 1800s, that I am aware of.
I view this collection of Jet buttons as an amalgamation of language that has changed over time, and a resurfacing of meaning based upon my singular knowledge about them as a form of personal identity. Not only can the buttons be perceived to represent one person’s collection of beautiful grief objects, they can be thought to represent the experiences of possibly 66 human beings who lost a loved one.
And to add to the perplexity of it all, the entirety of my antique store find was covered with a hair net.
“It’s true. You know, we’re limited little souls and we can only kind of throw ourselves against the wall…and hope to stick a bit.”
__Alan Rickman, describing his role as “M” in Play, written by Samuel Beckett
The works of Samuel Beckett had been in a fore position in my life for many years especially during a time in the early 2000s when I was working on a project about Ezra Pound. One could say that Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett do not mix, but of course everything is arguable. To me, one of the many major driving forces behind the works of Pound and Beckett has been the ways in which they handled language. Beckett’s language provided a respite from Pound’s language, and also gave me a sense of selfness while working so many long hours in support of another person’s artistic vision. Beckett became my man, as a counterpart to all of the Poundian ‘speak’ I was surrounded by in every aspect of business and the creative realm at that time.
The other man in my life was my brilliant father who upon his retirement became situationally depressed (a first in his lifetime), received irresponsible and unmanaged healthcare, and committed suicide less than a year later. While I had a certain jaded take on the world by then, my personal experiences as witness to myself, and my loved ones, during that time were the strangest, by far. There was a disconnect of reason, a recurring disbelief occured, yet my body continued to propel forward to get back into the country, to take care of, to help with arrangements, to watch other people weep with dismay. I used the word surreal to describe the whole of it then. But no, it was absurd on so many levels. We were left in the dark with no answers, grappling at anything to bring together order from the aftermath of prior circumstances that ignorantly we had believed to be only a temporary disruption. We worked to make the ground steady under our feet once again.
At the viewing, which to me is an odd tradition, I found myself contained in my very own theater of the absurd that played out around the corpse of my father. As my shaking hands pinned his many medals onto his jacket, my memory seemed, at once, clear and blurred as I recalled occurrences in the last year. I had read Beckett’s works voraciously in-between every single thing I did each day. My cousin stood close by watching with hawk-like focus my unfruitful efforts to pin on the last two medals. Somebody, I cannot remember who, took over that task of preparation. I had gone to see Endgame again. I saw Krapp’s Last Tape for the first time. Back then, I recalled having read Martin Esslin’s Absurd Drama in my long ago beginnings at undergraduate studies in the mid-70s and read it once again. I noticed how my father’s nearly white bushy eyebrows had been frozen into place with the aid of hairspray and a toothbrush, perhaps; they seemed to want to take flight from his forehead. I had read Beckett, read about Beckett, read the criticism, and had written, read and written, read and written until I thought I had a grasp on the lot of it. But I realized, then, I never would wholly understand my favorites of his writings or his supremely complex mind. What appeared unattainable was in reality ideas about human condition set up in absurd mental and emotional landscapes, and yet again set against the realities of a complicated world. What I did not know during that Beckettian year, as I have dubbed it, is that the very writings that were so fascinatingly perplexing would be my strength during future trials. I overheard people I knew, my extended family members who were in- town from afar, making polite small talk as if it was just another day filled with repetitive dialogue, “I’m sorry for your loss”, and meaningless post-funerary expectations of food, “Yes. I like chicken real’ fine.” My thoughts wandered back to the time at the beginning of what we call his “illness” when I had asked my father to help me decipher one of Beckett’s literary experiments, Ping, thinking that it would help him get better if he exercised his fine mind in a taxing mental chore. Together we sat on the sofa as I prepared to read out loud. He professed that he wasn’t sure he could make sense of anything anymore, even his own body. I asked him to just listen:
“All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one square yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just. Traces blurs light grey almost white on white. Hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle. Light heat white planes shining white bare white body fixed ping fixed elsewhere. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white. Bare white body fixed white on white invisible. Only the eyes only just light blue almost white. Head naught eyes light blue almost white silence within. Brief murmurs only just almost never all known…”
Suddenly, I heard my mother wailing, “That’s not my husband. He is not my husband!” The room was filled with the dull clamber of feet as those nearby held her up and took her from the airless room; airless because I suddenly held my breath for a very long time. Sting’s amazingly articulated recording of Cold Song in all of its drawn out beauty and luxuriousness of symphonic strings and vocalizations repeated over and over in my mind. Like a slow-motion cinematic scene unfolding it occurred to me that her shock was a reaction to what I had already discovered in the handling of his body; an autopsy had been performed.
I was the last person he spoke to. He said at the end of our conversation, “Just remember I love you.”
After everyone had left, I was alone with his body. I spit on my finger and tried to remove some of the hairspray from his brows. I squeezed the flesh between his thumb and forefinger until it softened…finally. I whispered, “Dummy”, just as often as my mother later on that day whispered, “I love you”, as she circled and circled his casket.
Re-re-reading Martin Esslin’s introduction last week, watching Beckett’s End Game, and spending some time with Beckett’s Six Residua once again caused me to re-remember many events associated with my father’s death. Esslin wrote that absurdist playwrights “…no longer believe[d] in the possibility of …neatness of resolution. They are indeed chiefly concerned with expressing a sense of wonder, of incomprehension, and at times of despair, at the lack of cohesion and meaning that they find in the world.” Further, he stated that in a world that had become absurd, the Theatre of the Absurd was the most realistic comment on, the most accurate reproduction of, reality. That is true, from my perspective and obviously from the creative viewpoint of many other artists.
In an effort to hear another person’s take on grappling with how to balance the acts of creating artworks that are very personal I asked our visiting artist how she dealt with that issue as she went about her academic career and art practice. We spoke together about that fine line of finding different approaches to expressions of storytelling and visual personal narratives through artistic means. She explained how for her it is a constant balancing act between closeness to the subject matter and detachment by necessity. Early on while performing her public engagements, she learned from mistakes. Nothing is wrong at all with any method of creative discourse if it gets a person to an important point and alters for the greater good another person’s perceptions.
She and I agreed that it is very possible, and she has found it to be very true, that there are more people than one might imagine who have had the same life experiences. So an artist ought to just make the work anyway when they are compelled to do so. We, also, agreed that neither of us has created our art as a call for sympathy or as acts born out of a sense of victimization, but only to find understanding—and most importantly to create. There is a hope, too, that somehow the work is viewed universally thereby offering to each viewer a unique message that is larger than the artist’s actual experience portrayed in a single piece, a series, or an installation. One difference between us is that she works directly with people who have gone through the same or similar life experiences to hers. For the most part, I have worked with and by myself.
From that good, long conversation and through our other readings, re-remembrance, and the performances of Francis Alÿs and Mary Reid Kelley, I surmise that all of the multi-symphonic languages we speak as artists are actually, even from within the realm of unreality, harmonious to one another by virtue of the fact that we are immersed in the human condition. Because of the ways in which my mind conjures fragmentary memories and how I move toward and away from experience and its potentiality, I feel a kinship with the absurdists.
 Martin Esslin. Introduction. Absurd Drama. [Harmondsworth, Eng.]: Penguin, 1965.
Readings About Absurdism:
- MacAdam, Barbara A. “Francis Alÿs: Architect of the Absurd.” ARTnews. 15 July 2013.Web.<www.artnews.com/2013/07/15/architect‑of‑the‑absurd/>.
- Martin Esslin. Introduction. Absurd Drama. [Harmondsworth, Eng.]: Penguin, 1965. Print.
- Hugo Ball. “Dada Fragments//1916-17.” The Artist’s Joke. Ed. Jennifer Higgie. London: Whitechapel, 2007. Print.
- Jenelle Porter. “History Painting” from the Mary Reid Kelley Exhibition Catalog. Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art. 2013. Print.
For this project, we were asked to choose three of our artworks and write twenty-five different title possibilities for each piece. It was a challenging exercise, one that I think would be important to do for all of my art in the future. Parsing through words and phrases in relation to an artwork opens an artist’s mind to expanded viewpoints, increased personal perception, and viewer affect. We were also asked to choose one piece and describe why we chose that particular title.
Love Letter to C (Original Title)
• All He Could Think About • Resolution Never Comes Easy • Trying To Tell You Something • Settle Down • Blind Hope • Good Tools Make All the Difference• Living Pathway • Not Straight • Best Guidance • Hope’s Best Chance • This Is What Open Looks Like • Conversation Between a Man and His Mother • Summoning a Different Occurrence • Concerning Our Departure • 6 or 16, What Does It Matter? • Memory’s Failure • Linear Differences: A Non-Linear Point of View • Alternative Manner of Recollection • It Will All Be Clear • Paradox’s Ballad • Sightless Toward Inevitability • Growth Position • Learning Again What We Already Knew • Never Whispered Word • Everything and Nothing Until Something Changes
Video Still From Slow Memory and Charge of Affect (Original Title)
• Intrigue’s Unfolding • Discovering the Un-Discovered • Her Uncovering • From Out of the Seam • Unearthing a Line of Language • A Particular Patois • Slowness of Intentionality • Action Hole • A Tardy Precursor of Not Much Left • Embodiment of a Recollection • Three Knots • Remembering Georgia’s Hands (After Alfred Stieglitz) • Doing Her Part • Memory’s Measure • Spontaneous Un-Assemblage • Cooperation Between Five Parties • Attending to an End Result • What Was Left for You • Sensuality of a Secret • Entangled Threes • Gradually Un-Admitted • Ties Amongst Three Women • Magnitude of a Wavering Opening • Ship Speed: 141 Feet 9 Inches, Compressed (Based on 19th century knot increments measurement-space between knots equaled 47 feet 3 inches : time measured with a 30-second sand glass) • Are You in There Joseph Beuys?
Still From Untitled Video Performance
• Memory Pacing • Recollection’s Recompense • What You Get For Thinking • Extent of Coverage • Input Intervals • Intervening in the Region of Time • Between Us • Relational Linking • Syntactic Conveyance • Memory Transferal • I Cannot Keep You With Me • Unmarked Viewpoint • She Reminded Me of Whistler’s Mother • Responding to the Lives of Others • Anthem of the Repeatable • Broadcast of the Evasive • Slipperiness of Memorization • Evidence of a Faulty Design • Comprehension: Out of Order • Felt Refrain • Recall Capacity: Volume Level 50 • Imagining Your Life, Mother • Interference • Input: Impossibility of Knowing • Perception Dripped From White Fingertips
Thoughts About the Best Title for Love Letter to C
Even though a number of the other titles could function well for this piece, I still prefer the original title. I am very interested in the ideas brought about by this exercise with regard to a single artwork, and too, how multiple titles in one installation or a series of works can add to meaning and understanding overall. As we know, language is imperative between us as human beings, but sometimes hyperbole used as a peak of expression simply is not necessary, although it is a ton of amusement (hyperbole intended) in all seriousness. Certainly a title that incorporates a play of words that points to the layers of content in an artwork or that expounds on its connotations can be very useful and oftentimes vital. I, for one, lean in that direction of communication not only as a creative and expressive mechanism, but to keep myself engaged with what I am doing. Because Love Letter to C is a private message, or rather a summary message born from a life-long positive conversation that exists between my son and myself, I do not want the title to be different than it is. Let there be some mystery for the viewer, if that is the case. Taking a chance of sounding like I am copping out on the piece (which I am not), I want it to lend itself to the viewer’s unique experience and keep my own to myself outside of what is suggested through the visual narrative.
Many of my fellow students and two of our visiting artists have encouraged me to continue to explore some of my personal iconography, to see how I can push the boundaries of their meanings within my personal lexicon. Artists have long considered hair to be an essence of being, an identifier, a self-portrait, of sorts. Here, sewing with hair is a performative act meant as a ballad to the women of my family, and one that works similarly to how memory is recalled time and time again. The pricking of fabric with the needle, the looping of hair, and the practiced hand’s motions at craft are never the same, yet somehow familiar each time the actions are carried out. Eventually, the pinch pleated line of hair becomes entangled into itself…much like a life experienced.
One professor described the video as “…a stitched scar line, stitching shut a wound that cannot be seen, disturbing a decorative space with a displaced hair, and refusing to reveal or sum up the full image, scene, or narrative.” At first, I refused the singular notions of “scar”, “wound”, “displacement”. However in fact, these descriptors are true for everyone to one degree or another. And now, after giving the whole of the summation deeper thought, I relish my professor’s wisdom and ability to reflect through the lenses of broad viewpoints about the affect of our visual subject matter. The best of my experiences with my professors over the years have at times been akin to a surprising pinprick of knowledge! My ears are ever turned in those good directions.
Homo Faber, a brief poem by Frank Bidart
Whatever lies still uncarried from the abyss within
me as I die dies with me.
There may not be a one of us who has not heard the old adages, “busy hands are happy hands” or “idle minds (or hands) are the devil’s workshop”. My influences as a child were mainly from the women on the maternal side of my family. They were raised in a textile mill culture in North Carolina–namely that of Cannon Mills in the city of Kannapolis, which is where I was born. My mother and her three sisters lived with their parents in a mill house that sat in a neat row of other small houses that were all exactly the same amidst many, many rows of houses that were the homes of other mill workers and their families. So, working hands were an important part of their lives even if as girls they did not formally understand all that working hands connote or have any inkling about craft. What they responded to the most was the affect of hardship.
In the prologue for his book, The Craftsman, Richard Sennett described Animal laborens and Homo faber through the lens of his mentor, Hannah Arendt. He wrote, “Animal laborens is, as the name implies, the human being akin to the beast of burden, a drudge condemned to routine.” He further stated that Arendt described Homo faber as the “image of men and women doing another kind of work, making a life in common”.  While not much was spoken to my generation about working in the cotton mill or what the Cannon mill house culture was like, I can surmise that life for my grandparents, Beatrice and William Ballard, fit right smack into these two Latin descriptors for human condition.
Beatrice worked various jobs until finally settling to work as an edger, which was described on record as a “semi-skilled operative”. William worked in textile line production in the beginning and moved over to spend the rest of his tenure at Cannon Mills in the graphic design department as a text and sign painter and package designer. My family says, although there are no formal records of the fact, he designed the Cannon Mills logo; he painted the company’s first sign. Neither Beatrice nor William thought of themselves as artists in spite of the fact that their hands worked long shifts at repetitive motion that in spite of themselves were fine rituals of craft. Before I was born children were no longer allowed to labor (thankfully) or even set foot inside the mills, so I never got the opportunity to watch my grandmother at her work station. However, I did become witness to her fine sewing of dresses and quilts. I did get the chance to see my grandfather paint letters and numbers with perfection. Both of my grandparents worked with great economy of movement and sensitivity to their tools and media. So to me, artists they were in spite of the drudgery of their long days of hard labor and raising four girls in the North Carolina mill culture.
After retirement and in spite of having hands with gnarled fingers bent all in one direction from years and years of pushing washcloths, towels, sheets, and pillow cases through her sewing machine, Beatrice took to painting what she called “pretty pictures”. Her formal draughtsmanship excelled in the years before her death. That lady could draw, I tell you! Sadly, in the years before her death a series of strokes left her with nothing more than the ability to try to use Crayolas to color inside the lines of a children’s coloring book. Needless to say, I have an affinity about the toil of women and what remains for them in living.
In Helen Molesworth’s, Work Ethic, she discusses how early artists influenced by feminism were challenged to figure out, inside a world of increasingly commodified art wherein the traditional labor division of manager and worker did not apply to domesticity, how to combine their artwork with housework and child rearing. As one example, she described the work of Martha Rosler whose art I have long admired. In Backyard Economy the artist trained her video camera upon herself as she performed the unpaid labor associated with her life, thereby doing “double duty” to her life’s chores and her art. I am reminded of something my grandmother self-effacingly said on occasion, “How many years have I been so unproductive?” It was a stunning statement considering all that she did accomplish, but I suspect she was referencing her newfound love of painting and drawing against the years of toiling in a cotton textile mill.
In my work, to touch upon in some way the words and experiences of my family members, particularly the women, has become a stronger precedent that I wish to explore albeit not as literal enactments per se. My mother’s generation of women is dying or they are in their twilight years and unwilling to be curious enough to aid in my endeavors, and time is escaping our favor. Sometimes I think about the clichéd Southern aphorism that was meticulously cross-stitched onto cotton muslin by my grandmother and hung on the wall above her kitchen sink, “Kwitcherbelliakin!”
 Richard Sennett. “Prologue”, The Craftsman. (2008) New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
 Helen Anne Molesworth, M. Darsie Alexander, and Julia Bryan-Wilson. Work Ethic. Baltimore, MD: Baltimore Museum of Art, 2003.
Readings About Craft:
- Helen Anne Molesworth, Darsie M. Alexander, and Julia Bryan-Wilson. Work Ethic. Baltimore, MD: Baltimore Museum of Art, 2003. Print.
- Richard Sennett. “Prologue.” The Craftsman. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008. Print.