A LOVE NOTE TO HOME
BY MARIAH ANNE JOHNSON
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Fine Arts in Painting.
School of Art and Design, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2006
Since I began working as an artist, I have had an interest in storytelling, narrative, and memory. I am especially interested in the physical manifestations of these phenomena, such as how a particular story can get embedded within a much-turned doorknob, a chipped china teacup, or a painstakingly-stitched embroidery sampler and so remain present in the memory of the generations to come. My interest in these subjects stems from my having grown up in the South, a place where culture is focused on the past and family histories are preserved in language, objects, and gestures. As John Boles, professor of history at Rice University, points out:
“No other region of the nation has been as concerned with and as compulsive about understanding its identity as has the South (Boles, 583)…Rural, defensive, and comparatively homogeneous for generations, the South’s people created unawares a folk culture, an identification with place and family and religion and even gastronomic preference, whereby they understood and defined themselves without premeditation. Rural isolation and loneliness led the southern people to prize kinship…hardship and dislocation caused them to romanticize home and place; evangelical religion offered meaning and hope…simple, spicy fried foods provided sustenance; conversation, song, and folk recreation such as hunting and quilting that combined practical results with pleasure in the process brought joy into otherwise humdrum existence. …these values, habits of mind, and cultural preferences have long outlived their folk roots and become an integral part of a southern consciousness that persists even in the modern urban South. … Southerners still greet newcomers by asking where they are from, revealing that they expect others’ identity, too, to be somehow intertwined with their home place (Boles, 588-589). … Quilting, military reenactments, a fascination with genealogy, and a rich variety of family and church homecomings with dinner on the grounds, are but representative activities that offer contemporary southerners a connection to what is perceived to be a past that provides stability and meaning to their lives.” (Boles, 590)
I can recognize myself in Boles’ words. I, too, long for home, just as I crave fried catfish, fried okra, and pepper sauce when they aren’t readily available. And one of the first things I want to know about a new acquaintance is where she is from. What ties these quirks of my character to my practice as an artist is my personal connection to the experience of history. I return to this connection again and again for meaning, sustenance, and inspiration. I feel compelled to make visible the presence of the past in the present. And my favorite materials—used bed sheets and fabric scraps—are a tangible representation of that history in my art.
I draw from the disciplines of quilt-making and sewing as well as the conventions of painting to make my work. I believe that these two things are compatible because, as painting has taught me about line, color, and composition, my great grandmother’s quilts have taught me about the importance of saving scraps and the beauty of off-kilter juxtapositions. Through my knowledge of painting, I can understand her quilts as works of art that are infused with narrative, history, and metaphorical memories. I also root my work in ideas that I have snipped from many other sources: novels I read as an undergraduate English major; my own memories and daily life; contemporary art practices and criticism; poetry. Because of my disparate sources, the writing that follows is, like a quilt or like a memory, fragmentary. It is a series of anecdotes and essays that reads like a patchwork of ideas. It is a crazy quilt of language that explores the motivations behind and meanings of my work.
MEMORIES & DAILY EXPERIENCES
1. Cemetery Visits
Shirley Abbot begins her book Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South with the following passage:
“We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies. These spirits form our lives, and they may reveal themselves in mere trivialities—a quirk of speech, a way of folding a shirt. From the earliest days of my life, I encountered the past at every turn, in every season. Like any properly brought up Southern girl, I used to spend a lot of time in graveyards. … The graves had to be visited, the weeds pulled off them, the markers read aloud, the flowers renewed. It was a shame to the living if the dead lacked flowers, an almighty disgrace if the next-of-kin had failed to buy a headstone. …
In one sun-bleached old churchyard after another, the women would read the stones and recite the names and vital dates of those neglected souls who lacked markers. One or all of them would end up sobbing before we got back into the car. Somebody had to cry or else the afternoon would have been a waste. I always looked forward to the weeping. It broke the monotony. It was passionate and mystical. I loved it.” (Abbot, 1-2)
The similarity of Abbot’s account to my own experiences resonates deep within me. I have done the same things with my father, my grandmother, my mother, and my great aunts. My father and mother did it too, with their parents and aunts and grandparents. For my father it was an almost weekly ritual: drive out to Cabot on Sunday afternoons, eat a chicken dinner with the fixings (courtesy of Granny and the hen she had just killed), go out to Mount Carmel with Mamma and Granny and Aunt Sissy and whomever else to put flowers on Marie’s grave, and the baby’s grave, and the rest. For my mother it was an annual Homecoming on the edge of a lake, to mark and memorialize a flooded homeplace and those who once lived in it.
You must go and call out the names. You must be told again how they are related to each other and yourself. You must cover yourself with Deep Woods OFF! and still know that you will go home and take a hot shower, despite the summer heat, to kill the chiggers before they burrow into your skin. The air in these places is thick and golden with the dust from the unpaved roads, the dust from the dried up ground that is so hard to stick your plastic flowers into. You need to wet it first, or bring a sharp stick. You wish you could cover your sweet grandparents (and great grandparents) with a carpet of wild violets or petunias, but the cemetery rules don’t allow this. They can’t mow the grass that way.
The names of these burying grounds are permanent fixtures in my imagination: Mount Carmel, Mount Tabor, Greenwood, Shady Grove. The words themselves have become symbols for me of the processes of grief and remembrance. There’s Whitley Cemetery, without a burial for over 80 years. The stones are toppled and ornate, bearing poems and verses and creeping green lichen. The back third of this cemetery is without markers, only slight undulations in the ground if you look carefully; these are said to be the graves of slaves. Pleasant Hill is shaded by cedars and holds the bones of the woman I was named for: she disowned her daughter for marrying a Yankee soldier but lies next to her anyway. Two wives (also sisters) of my great great grandfather rest here as well. He came home from the Union POW camp in Illinois to find one dead, so he married the other. But he is buried at Walls (just up the road), next to his third wife Delilah Alabama, and near his stepdaughter Thomas: when those of us who know are gone, she will appear from her headstone to have been a man. I know these stories now because I have heard them again and again, graveside; I will pass them on the same way.
Shirley Abbott continues her introduction to Womenfolks by saying, “You cannot spend your summer afternoons in such pursuits without learning that the past matters” (Abbot, 2). You learn that the past lives and breathes right along beside you in the present. I know, because I have done these things too.
2. Sifting Through the Possessions of Dead Grandparents
Like many Southern families, mine loves to recount its history. We compile detailed genealogical charts, attend reunions, and preserve old cemeteries. We take drives around town or out in the country and recall events that occurred in specific locations. We go out and look for the house foundation, or the muscadine vine, or initials carved into a tree that will remind us of who did what where. We connect the facts to the landscape around us as a way to help those of us who are younger remember the doings of those of us who have gone before.
However, this kind of verbal/spatial/intellectual knowledge cannot be compared with the visceral, physical knowledge I gained about my relatives by actually picking up and handling, even making decisions about, their belongings. I lost my grandparents gradually, when I was between the ages of 10 and 25. As I grew older, I became more involved in the process of sorting, cleaning, saving, and discarding that accompanied each death. This special kind of sorting and sifting revealed to me a more complete picture of my departed grandparent than I ever had when he or she was alive. From the food that was left spoiling in the refrigerator to how socks were folded and stacked in a drawer, I learned more about his or her daily life than I was ever able to gather from visits when I was the center of attention.
My maternal grandmother was the last to go, just before Memorial Day in 2004. She died in her sleep, at age 86-and-a-half, in her apartment in the retirement community in which she lived her last two years. Because she had moved recently, my mother and I had already made decisions about the bulk of her possessions. We had already sold the spare bedroom furniture and donated the out-of-fashion teacher’s clothes and unwanted knick knacks. We had already sorted through old letters, baby clothes, photographs, and books. These easy, nostalgia-infused tasks were complete. What faced us when Grandmother passed away was far more quotidian, bodily, and difficult.
When my mother and I got to the apartment, Grandmother’s body had already been taken to the funeral home. But what was left in her wake was delicate and heart-breaking: the dirty glass in the kitchen sink with a lip print on the rim and a bit of leftover liquid in the bottom; the used Kleenexes tucked into pockets; the Bible full of place markers, its cover scummy with rubbed-off hand cream; the notes scribbled on the pad by the phone; the face-down book about angels on the floor by the bed; the turned back covers where they had taken her out; the hair in her comb; the clean underwear on the drying rack in the bathroom; the length of toilet tissue she wrapped her hair in every night, still curved to match the shape of the back of her head (I guess the paramedics removed it and left it by the sink before they took her); her teeth.
These objects, though ordinarily repulsive to eyes and fingers, seemed to be imbued with a mystical, otherworldly aura, each one more than precious. They signified Grandmother’s physical presence: the actions of her body, her touch, the way she had occupied her space. The things she thought about, and what was important to her. I could trace the outlines of her last day through these ephemeral tokens. I knew they weren’t things to be kept, I knew we had to clean up or throw out most of them. Yet a good chunk of me wanted to preserve it all, just as she had left it, as if she had only run down to the cafeteria or over to the mall and would be back in an hour or two. As if keeping the tissues and notes and underwear as they were would allow her presence to remain in that place just a few moments longer, while I could still smell a trace of her powder and mothballs.
Of course, we did clean up and move on. We threw out the tissues and donated the books and underwear and bed covers. The objects we kept, the letters and photographs and lace handkerchiefs, are valuable to us because they record a moment in time and are pleasing to look at. These things encapsulate memories, but not physical contact—this is too fleeting to preserve. I suppose that what I learned from this experience is how hard it is to hold on to someone. This is why we tell stories.
When I was six years old and about to start first grade, my parents decided to give me a weekly allowance. In return for 50 cents, I was required to make my bed every day. My mother showed me how to tug out wrinkles, how to gently lift one layer over the other, how to fold the sheet hem back over the blanket in a crisp line, and how to arrange pillows invitingly on top of it all.
My mother is a proactive person; she believes in doing something to make oneself feel better instead of wallowing in negativity, which is often my approach. She once told me when I was a teenager feeling sorry for myself that making the bed, this one small gesture towards tidiness, could change the whole atmosphere of a room. She said that making the bed could therefore change my outlook too. I have carried this idea with me to dorm rooms and apartments as I have gradually moved away from home.
According to Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space, “We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection” (6). He also says that “daydreams that accompany household activities…keep vigilant watch over the house, they link its immediate past to its immediate future, they are what maintains it in the security of being” (67). I know exactly what he is talking about, because I continue to make my bed every day, usually right after I get out of it. I still pull up covers and smooth out wrinkles and arrange pillows like my mother taught me to do when I was six. This is a kind of ritual I must perform before I can get started each day, and I know I will feel slovenly or unkempt by the evening if I don’t. I suppose that on a subconscious level, I need to make my bed because it is a way of keeping my safe place warm, clean, and unblemished.
In bed is one of my favorite places to be. It is my most ultimate sanctuary. I love to sleep, and I love to be in bed, especially on a cold winter night when I have violet flannel sheets, a pile of blankets, and a hot pink hot water bottle. I can sleep away the night and a good part of the next snowy day under these conditions. But I also like to just be there under the deep, heavy layers of covers, to read for an hour before I drift off, or to lie still after I wake up and watch the patterns of sun and shadow filtering through the curtain onto the ceiling and walls. To luxuriate in the feel of soft, nubby knit against my skin. To bask in the light of my green swan lamp and relish the golden glow it casts on my lavender sheets. To hit the snooze button one last time so I can stay cocooned in my own collected body heat for nine more minutes. To mentally redecorate my apartment as a minimal loft or shabby Parisian walk-up. To think about breakfast toast and tea, or the swingy chandelier earrings I saw in a shop window, or the glimpse of bright color beneath someone’s dark, heavy coat.
Cheryl Mendelson writes in Home Comforts that the bedroom
“is for sleeping, lovemaking, dressing, and undressing. Not so long ago, it also held the chamber pot. Thus it is a room reserved for all acts that are, or may be, done naked. … not only do you cast off your social security number and your tie or your panty hose, you go to sleep and cast off the part of your mind that grasps the difference between past and present, here and there, real and fanciful.” (654)
For me, the bedroom is a place to daydream, to piece together tiny details of the day before into one beautiful image, to fill my head with reverie before returning to reason and reality.
MAKING & MEANING
1. Why Sheets?
My recent work with sheets has grown out of my thinking about my mother’s effort to maintain aesthetic order in her home. She also makes her bed every day, and she wants her linen closet to be beautiful when she opens the door, even if the rest of the house is in chaos. With my mother’s habits in mind, I began to make constructions from bed linens, particularly sheets and pillowcases that I purchase from second-hand stores. I fold and pile the sheets on shelves, swaddle them around chairs and other pieces of furniture, and drape them across the floor in expanses of color and pattern.
Because I am using the sheets outside of their usual domestic context, my constructions—soft sculpture? three-dimensional painting?— are formal and material investigations that can fascinate a viewer’s senses of sight and touch. The interactions among color combinations, printed patterns, and folding systems, as well as the evidence of my hand in creased, draped, rumpled, and wadded forms, invite the viewer to look closely and become involved in teasing out the narrative of my creation process. This embedded process narrative relates my work to abstract expressionist or minimalist art. However, my constructions differ from these because they are not stable or fixed like a canvas on the wall (Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning) or a grid of metal plates on the floor (Carl Andre). With one wave of my (or the viewer’s) hand or kick of my (or the viewer’s) foot, a piece of mine returns to being just another pile of dirty laundry. In this, my work is related to the “fallen paintings” of Polly Appfelbaum. I, too, am “engag[ing] the opposing pulls of opticality and tactility” (Sandler, 50), enticing my viewer to look closely at color and pattern, inviting touch through my use of familiar, soft materials, but refusing both at the same time because of the mutability of my work.
I also hope to engage my viewers’ storytelling capacity, so that my sheet pieces can be a stimulus for their imaginations and own propensities to create stories from small scraps of information. Because my raw materials—these sheets—have been used by other people, they carry with them a history of the bodies and habits of their previous owners. In this way, the sheets function much like the scraps in a patchwork quilt. But since these previous owners are strangers, there is no great-aunt or grandmother to tell us the story associated with the object. We, me and the viewer, have to decide for ourselves what kind of person slept every night in a jungle bedroom with lion faces and zebra herds; who purchased the slinky shiny pink nylon satin and what they expected from it; who chose flowers; who chose stripes. We can re-imagine and piece together all these lost narratives into our own satisfying version of fact or fiction.
The physical nature of my materials—their color, pattern, texture, and flexibility—combined with their connection to the domestic realm and our everyday lives, allows me to address many different topics at once. In my work, I can talk about painting and storytelling, reality and reverie, color and memory, all at the same time. Like Appfelbaum in her work, I strive to have it all: “…color, drawing, structure, formlessness, systems, chaos, thinking, doing, painting, sculpture, geometry, mess” (Schaffner, 40).
2. Big Muddy
Big Muddy began when I was at the Salvation Army in September, 2005, digging through the household linens bin. I try to do this at least once a week. I’ve been in there so many times that Doreen, the cashier, and I have struck up an acquaintance. I found these dirt-brown jersey sheets, the kind that are supposed to feel like your favorite old t-shirt. They were about the color of river water. I wasn’t going to buy them at first, because those things are awful to try to get into a neat fold. But, my take-it-anyway-just-in-case instinct kicked in, and so I plopped them down on my pile. When I got the sheets back to my studio, I stuck everything in the cabinet and went about my business. But the color and drape of those sheets stuck in my head. Over the next few days, I started thinking more about water:
1. Catastrophic floods that I know about: the biblical flood that wiped the earth clean; the 1927 flood along the lower Mississippi River when the levees broke; the 1951 controlled flood caused by the damming of the Ouachita River for electricity and recreation; the hurricane-induced floods and destruction over the previous few weeks all along the Gulf Coast.
2. What is it like to lose all you have by water?
3. What is it like to have your home, and the homes of all the people you know, completely covered over so you can never go back?
4. Is the water like a swirling hand of God that changes everything in an instant?
5. Is it like a too-heavy blanket that drags you into a deep sleep?
6. Does the water motivate you to get the hell out or make you feel resigned to whatever will come next?
7. The water is awful, muddy sludge. But can it also be fascinating as it crashes through the streets, peaceful as it flows over the earth, or sleep-inducing as it gently laps against the sides of a house?
In the studio, I forgot all these questions and thoughts about water. I forgot about Doreen at the Salvation Army, and I forgot to wonder about who slept on lions and who slept on plaid. I pulled out all my brown sheets from the cabinet. I thought about the basics of design and composition: color, pattern, line, texture, shape, rhythm, value, volume. I kept in mind my mother and her beautiful stacks of sheets in the closet in the upstairs hall.
I worked by instinct, spreading the first layer of sheets out on the floor in a serpentine shape. I started the curve in the far corner of the room and drew it out into the middle of the space. This first layer is like an underpainting: it’s a mish mash of all the misfit sheets that are too many colors and must be tempered with more sedate fabrics.
I began to bunch and weave and layer the brown sheets over the top of this armature, trying to unify the busily patterned sheets with the solid flat ones. I worked on my hands and knees, or on my stomach or side to be at the right angle for smoothing out edges and tucking under corners. I worried about whether it looked like a flowing stream of color and texture or just a pile of sheets on the floor like somebody’s unmade bed. I knew I had to create spots of order and intention, as well as evidence of my hand at work, for this clump of sheets to be understood as an art piece. So with the tips of my fingers I creased ridges and folds into place, creating rhythm and movement and pathways for the eye to travel the length of the shape. I tugged nearby sheets into place around these ridges, so that their stripes would shadow the folds and form a counter rhythm cross current. I folded pillowcases like paper fans and inserted them in the gaps between larger sheets to add pops of ochre, olive, and tan. I pulled a carefully placed ruffle straight up to form an unexpected eddy in the big S-curve.
As I worked, the thing grew and fanned out into a delta as it crept toward the door. It flowed gently across the floor and flooded the room. And to me at least, it looked like a painting I could lie down in and go to sleep, a place to daydream away my afternoon.
1. Quilting is Creative Reading
One of the last English literature classes I took in college was taught by Dr. David Minter, professor emeritus at Rice University. The class focused on four novels by William Faulkner and on Dr. Minter’s idea about a process he called “creative reading.” Creative reading, Dr. Minter said, was how we should engage work like Faulkner’s: the author wanted us to actively participate in the creation of the narrative and encouraged us to do so through his use of language, punctuation, and multiple storylines. We, the readers, must tease out for ourselves the connections between these stories and the clues the author gives us in his convoluted sentences, many layers of parenthetical statements, and italicized paragraphs.
I realized part of the way through that last semester that one storyline in Absalom! Absalom! is an illustration of the act of creative reading. The narrative of Quentin and Shreve provides a framework for the rest of the novel, as the two young men try to sort, catalogue, explain, and understand the different versions of a story that Quentin has grown up listening to.
“…the two of them creating between them, out of the rat-tag and bob-ends of old tales and talking, people who perhaps had never existed at all anywhere, who, shadows, were shadows not of flesh and blood which had lived and died but shadows in turn of what were (to one of them at least, to Shreve) shades too) quiet as the visible murmur of their vaporizing breath.” (Faulkner, 243)
Quentin and Shreve are engaged in creatively reading the oral history of the Sutpen family. They are trying to decipher the truth by applying what they know of human nature to the bits of information Quentin has been told. I have often thought that the story of Quentin and Shreve, the act of creative reading, and the act of quilting are very similar. All three processes use scraps of material, be they intellectual or physical, to create a new whole. And from this whole, the viewer or reader can decipher a kind of truth by making connections, noticing similarities, and interpreting patterns.
I myself collect fabric scraps and remnants, but I don’t always know who generated the scraps or what they may have been used for. I am free to make my own inferences about a particular polka dot or plaid, to juxtapose it with a synthetic satin or velour, and to obscure them with the marks of my own hand. I use abstract forms to tell the narrative of my process and recognizable images to suggest patterns. I am not trying to create a reliable record of events. Instead, I want to hint at the rich fantasy that can grow from a small swatch of leftover calico or brocade. While my artwork may not always resemble a quilt in its finished form, it does resemble a quilt metaphorically. I use scraps and previously slept-on linens to invite viewers to creatively read my work, to decipher their own version of the story I am trying to tell.
2. The Pattern of a Daydream
In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard describes spaces and places in terms of their capacity for inspiring reverie. For him, a space that is intimately inhabited becomes a place in which we can daydream in absolute security. By referencing literature and art history, he implies that reverie is a necessary component of the creative act. Perhaps I make this connection because my own artwork is built on daydreams of patterned fabric, much like the kind of pattern-based fantasy described in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (minus the negative psychological outcome).
In Gilman’s short story, an elaborate wallpaper drives the narrator into madness. The paper is covered with “one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin” (Gilman, 26). The narrator studies the pattern constantly, trying to decipher its design; instead, she loses herself within it. She anthropomorphizes and animates its fragmented parts in her attempt to untangle it. Her descriptions of the pattern become infused with her fantasies, so that we, too, can be engulfed by the writhing yellow walls.
“I lie here on this great immovable bed…and follow that pattern about by the hour. … I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion. … Looked at in one way each breadth stands alone, the bloated curves and flourishes—a kind of “debased Romanesque” with delirium tremens—go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity. But, on the other hand, they connect diagonally, and the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase. The whole thing goes horizontally, too, at least it seems so, and I exhaust myself in trying to distinguish the order of its going in that direction. … It makes me tired to follow it. I will take a nap I guess.” (Gilman, 31)
The narrator finds in her wallpaper a space to project her imagination into, a space that can inspire her to reverie. For her, curves can be bloated and flourishes can waddle; outlines become seaweeds that wallow and chase. Yes, the daydream does ultimately drive her insane, but it also drives her to tell a tale about the experience.
For me, the loops, swirls, gaps, and faded spots in a piece of patterned fabric have the same oneiric capacity that Bachelard saw in a drawer or a corner, or that the narrator found in her wallpaper. So a baroque floral becomes a garden carpet, a paisley becomes a creeping vine, and dots become jets of bubbles from the deep. The patterns on my swatches, scraps, and sheets are another example of “centers of condensation of intimacy, in which daydream accumulates” (Bachelard, 29). I want viewers to come with me into the paisley, as Bachelard suggests:
“For the beloved curve has nest-like powers; it incites us to possession, it is a curved “corner,” inhabited geometry. Here we have attained a minimum of refuge in the highly simplified pattern of a daydream of repose. But only the dreamer who curls up in contemplation of loops, understands these simple joys of delineated repose.” (Bachelard, 146-147)
3. Some Thoughts on Beauty
In an earlier section of this paper, I mentioned my mother’s insistence on having a made-up bed every day. I also related her neatly-kept linen closet to the beginnings of my own work with bed sheets. My mother’s engagement with these small tasks has always signaled to me her understanding of the importance of housekeeping. She knew, and still knows, that maintaining some sense of order creates an atmosphere of safety, security, and comfort. Cheryl Mendelson writes:
“I first learned that housework has meaning by observing my grandmothers. …they knew…that the way you experience life in your home is determined by how you do your housekeeping. …This sense of being at home is important to everyone’s well-being. If you do not get enough of it, your happiness, resilience, energy, humor, and courage will decrease. …Housekeeping creates cleanliness, order, regularity, beauty, the conditions for health and safety, and a good place to do and feel all the things you wish and need to do and feel in your home. …it is your housekeeping that makes your home alive…” (Mendelson, 7)
I relate this passage, as well as my mother’s habits, to my own art making because of the centrality to it of the idea of beauty. In my mother’s and Mendelson’s estimation, the need for beauty is equal to both cleanliness and the conditions for health and safety in promoting well-being. Beauty is a characteristic of Home.
Through her efforts to keep order, my mother was expressing to me this personal theory. I think she would agree with Dave Hickey’s definition of beauty as “that agency that causes visual pleasure in the beholder” (Hickey, 16), because a moment of pleasure is what she wanted me to create for myself by teaching me to make my bed. One moment of visual pleasure can change the mood of any setting, because it influences our perception of its surroundings. A messy bedroom looks neat if the counterpane is pulled up, because this creates a large, smooth, uncluttered patch in our field of vision.
Because a major component of my current work is arranging bed linens, it is also materially connected to this idea of beauty in the home. I take my mother’s practices to the extreme with my articulated piles of sheets and pillowcases, and in so doing I point to the importance of visual pleasure in domestic life. However, I have taken my materials out of their usual, domestic context and put them in the world of the studio, gallery, and museum. By changing their surroundings, I can use the sheets to hint at the role of beauty in human life as a whole. As Robert C. Morgan has written, “beauty…offers us a sense of being connected to the world as mind is to body” (Morgan, 82). Beauty, wherever it is found, contributes to our well-being, to our feeling of being at home no matter where we happen to be.
4. Women’s Work
In my introduction to this document, I said that I am interested in storytelling, narrative, and memory; and that my interest in these subjects “stems from my having grown up in the South, a place where culture is focused on the past and family histories are preserved in language, objects, and gestures.” I believe that these histories are often tended, preserved, and passed on to others by women; women are the “carriers and conservators of a culture of their own” (Abbott, 7).
It is the women in my family who save pretty buttons and dusty disintegrating dresses; who labor over the lovingly-stitched quilt; who squirrel away the silver, china, and family Bible; who remember the plastic flowers for the unmarked graves; who teach each other the unwritten adjustments to generations-old recipes; who trade secrets in the kitchen over a sink of dirty dishes while small ears listen. These casual, unorganized methods add a different kind of information to the genealogical charts and courthouse records. They embroider family lore and gossip into the fabric of textbook history.
In their 1977 essay, “Waste Not Want Not: An Inquiry into What Women Saved and Assembled—FEMMAGE,” Miriam Schapiro and Melissa Meyer define a work of Femmage as containing at least half of the following elements:
1. It is the work of a woman.
2. The activities of saving and collecting are important ingredients.
3. Scraps are essential to the process and are recycled in the work.
4. The theme has a woman-life context.
5. The work has elements of covert imagery.
6. The theme of the work addresses itself to an audience of intimates.
7. It celebrates a private or public event.
8. A diarist’s point of view is reflected in the work.
9. There is drawing and/or handwriting sewn in the work.
10. It contains silhouetted images which are fixed on other material.
11. Recognizable images appear in narrative sequence.
12. Abstract forms create a pattern.
13. The work contains photographs or other printed matter.
14. The work has a functional as well as an aesthetic life.
Schapiro and Meyer go on to explain that “women have always collected things and saved and recycled them because leftovers yielded nourishment in new forms” (Schapiro, 153). The process they outline covers many activities, from quiltmaking to scrapbooking to, perhaps, the preserving of histories I described above. The products of my current studio work are connected to the feminine process of recording history, as well as to this definition of Femmage. As I collect, sort, save, sew, fold, record, paint, and print, I am stitching together works that illustrate the remembering and forgetting, piecing and cutting, revealing and concealing, narration and decoration that define both types of feminine practice.
Schapiro and Meyer’s definition is subject to being labeled essentialist. Yet this same kind of broad argument is still being made 30 years later. In response to a question put to her in 2003 about why she uses embroidery in her paintings, Ghada Amer says simply, “I wanted to find a woman’s way of painting” (Millet, 31). Like her predecessors of the 1970’s, Amer unquestioningly accepts the needle and thread as inherently feminine tools for mark making. She goes on to classify painting, especially that of Abstract Expressionism, as inherently male because “it was invented by men and had been used by them for centuries” (Millet, 32).
Why do we continue to need to divide ways of working by gender, and what does, if anything, separate feminine practice from all other practices? Perhaps we do this so that we can lay claim to the accomplishments of the 1970’s feminist artists. Norma Broude and Mary Garrard state that 70’s feminist art’s revolutionary nature was the result of “artists’ insistence on prioritizing experience and meaning over form and style [which] was itself a challenge to the modernist valorizaion of ‘progress’…” (Broude, 10). And in his foreword to Feminist Art Criticism: An Anthology, Donald Kuspit wants us to recall
“…a kind of golden age of feminist thinking…in which the communication of information was not separate from the communication of emotion, in which the analysis of art was informed by intense advocacy. …This is altogether novel for art criticism, which supposedly ought to be impersonal and limit itself to art, itself supposedly impersonal (‘autonomous’).” (Kuspit, ix)
Experience over form, emotion over style, the personal over the impersonal. I believe that the breaking-open of the possibilities of art subject matter that these writers describe is still important for artists like me today. To paraphrase the famous slogan, my personal experience is now acceptable fodder for public display. So to make my art, I can delve into my recollections of my great grandmother’s quilts and my great aunt’s canning room. I can draw on my memories of being taught to tie French knots, bake a cake, and fold a fitted sheet by my mother. Are these activities feminine because I have been socially conditioned to think so? Maybe. But I will treasure them and wield them regardless, because they are my inheritance from the generations of women before me, as is my ability to incorporate them in my art.
I do not know how to put a binding on my patchwork of a thesis, how to finish it off neatly so someone can lay in on their bed, hang it on their wall, or stick it in the back of a file cabinet drawer. But I do know that I do not want my work to be a challenge, a force, a push, or a pull. Instead, I think of it as a quiet chat, a tug at the elbow, a whisper in the ear. It is a small heartfelt gesture from one person to another. It is the delight of a child sifting through the contents of her mother’s button jar: she doesn’t know what larger thing these small leftovers once belonged to, so she takes imaginary play pleasure in conjuring up the fancy coat, be-ribboned dress, or silky blouse that left these bits behind.
My work is a love note to Home.
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Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on The Yellow Wallpaper, ed. Catherine Golden, 24-42. New York: The Feminist Press, 1992.
Hickey, Dave. “Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty.” In Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetics, ed. Bill Beckley with David Shapiro, 15-24. New York: Allworth Press, 1998.
Kuspit, Donald. Foreword to Feminist Art Criticism: An Anthology, edited by Arlene Raven, Cassandra L. Langer, and Joanna Frueh. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.
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Schaffner, Ingrid. “Having It All: Polly Appfelbaum at ICA.” In Polly Appfelbaum, exh. cat., 21-43. Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 2003.
Schapiro, Miriam and Melissa Meyer. “Waste Not Want Not: An Inquiry into What Women Saved and Assembled—FEMMAGE.” In Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, ed. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, 151-154. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.