PortfolioExhibitions – MatriArt Selections

Many thanks to my thesis committee – Dean Mogle, Beverly Semmens and Frank Herrmann – who kindly guided me past the fits and starts of this thesis paper and helped me to more clearly see my own work. I am grateful for the sustained support and thoughtful feedback during critical reviews with my perspicacious peers and professors in the 3D Graduate Studio group, who somehow knew how to be playful and serious at the same time.
A great boost to my imagination and craft skills came from three classes in the costume design department at the College Conservatory of Music, where Dean Mogle and Rebecca Senske shared abundantly their enthusaism for individual expression and use of innovative materials.
Finally, I am grateful to my husband for his thoughful consideration and tireless support of what I wish to do through my work. And I thank my daughters, who have helped me to become a bending reed when I might have remained a straight oak.

I returned to the university in search of a place for thoughful discussion of art and to connect with a broader sense of community. It has long been important for me to support the growth of our regional arts community. I was hoping that working on a masters degree at DAAP would be just the thing to connect my small efforts with A Greater Effort. And perhaps I would become a better painter, too.
What I didn’t bargain for was that my first two quarters would be full of persistent criticism of the very artwork that gained me entry to the program. My figurative iconic images were “too illustrative,” my egg tempera process was “too laborious” and would not let me create enough work. My langorous nude female figures were “boring and not at all representative of current thoughts about women.” One drawing professor insisted that the only way for me to “cross over into fine art” was to completely forget fifteen years of past illustration and design practice.

“The ego wants to be right, but in the dynamics of life and art we are never right, we are always changing and cycling…and we are set up for afflictive emotions: anger, pride, envy. This is especially true if the attachment to one point of view is based in unconscious drives or unresolved issues in our personal life…If I am obsessed by a thought of pain, the only way out is to go right into the source of the pain and find out what piece of information is dying to express itself….”
Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play; Improvisation in Life and Art,
(Penguin Putnam Inc., 1990) p 131.
So this is how I became the artist I never intended to be while at DAAP.

Beginning Again, Again

The year 2000 was a tumultuous time in my life. My eldest daughter had just entered college, my other teenage daughter was acting like a typical 15 year old renegade. Recently my mother, favorite uncle and remaining grandmother had died. My father had pulled back into a hermetic state, and although he was seriously sick, he refused any care from his two daughters. Five years earlier I had begun to draw and paint images specific to all of this emotional and psychological discomfort, mostly in the guise of family portraits. The symbols and signifiers included in these icons were highly codified and only a textual accompaniment would give a viewer access to content.

I had worked well in fall and winter, but in spring the MFA review panel members were unenthused about the work. It was clear that something would have to change if I wished to be accepted as an MFA candidate. Then during a conversation about painting, Frank Herrmann said, “What if you made paintings that did not look like you think paintings should look?” He was hoping to pry me away from the Renaissance triptych format I ‘d been using. So that week I returned to a favorite near-forgotten pasttime – foraging for interesting objects in junk shops. This change in my work pattern allowed me to move past confusion, away from depression and into play.

I began to accumulate things that suggested general personalities rather than to make sketches for specific icons. My first three dimensional devotional image was “Our Lady of Obsessive Compulsion” for which I collected a variety of signifiers of late twentieth century bad habits – beer bottle caps, 100 cigarette butts, wine corks, chocolate chip cookies and gilded plastic tableware. Baroque in its high relief and horror
vacuii, WomanMade Gallery in Chicago juried it into an international exhibition and purchased it for their
permanent collection – a wonderful boost to my drooping confidence!

“Craft is that discipline which frees the spirit.” Ben Shahn
I began to work in clay, creating a series of body mask forms in Derrick Woodham’s figure modeling class. Roy Cartwright welcomed me into his ceramics lab where I quietly stumbled along, groping with unfamiliar materials. He concurred that it would probably not be possible to translate most of my drawn concepts into clay. My previous process had been to work out ideas in my sketchbook, make detailed drawings, and finally to input sketches and photo references by way of computer scans, my tool of preference for sizing and assemblage. I would paint from these composite drawings. But the conceptual process for three dimensional work requires a more intuitive, open-ended kind of thinking. I came to understand that my clay work would have to grow out of the possibilities of the materials, and that could only come with experience with the medium. Patiently I worked though the multiple steps of clay process: modeling a positive form, casting its negative in plaster, and then building new forms in the mold with clay coils. The first gratifying pieces were the four body masks of “Mandala,” my distillation of feminine archetypes – Procreation, Domesticity, Seduction, Kali (Destruction / Regeneration). “Technique is the vehicle for surfacing normally unconscious material from the dream world and the myth world to where they become visible, nameable, singable.”(2)

About this time I had the good fortune to see a retrospective of the work of Julie Taymor at the Wexner Center. Taymor is an artist who defies catagorization: she spins together diverse talents in mythology, costume design, sculpture, creative movement and collaborative team building. It is all delivered to the audience in fascinatingly animated human scale via theatre and movies. Seeing her virtuosity at all of it made the addition of sculpture to my creative tool box seem like a spring board to more exciting and thought-provoking projects. My attitude morphed from muddle to moxy. Although I could not explain what my new art all meant, I was delighted to be making it and delighted to be experiencing new materials and processes. If I could cast clay, well, I probably could cast paper and fabric too. And why not synthetic hair, then? Some days were filled with weird science. Tea staining handkerchiefs accentuated the tear stains of my mother and grandmother. I could hang those on a wire screen torso form as a shrouded figure. The figure became implied instead of illustrated. Experimentation led to discoveries which generated new concepts. My process was now completely reinvented.

Creating new forms and harvesting found objects, I began to combine things in real time with no preconceived concept, adding and subtracting as a child builds with wooden blocks until the tower suits her. I learned to not push the medium into meaning, but instead to discover the message through the medium. The combination of clay, fiber and found objects presented technical challenges: how to create unity both aesthetically and materially while maintaining variety? This required an intuitive sorting of subjects according to materials I’d actually found. I let the materials speak, virtually letting the art “become itself.” Making art this way informed my parenting processes at the same time, creating an essential shift in my perception of what I should and should not do to “form” my children.

My daughters would say, “Thank God that art informs life!”

Practicing Personal Archaeology
I think of a work of art as an idea that has moved into stages of decomposition. Once an idea is born in mind, it instantly becomes a memory. Memories are art’s basic element. I abstract the subject, dismantle and examine the components, distinguish outer veneers from inner workings. I try to identify what drives choice and passion, both conscious and unconscious. I acknowledge my own biased personal filter through which the memory has been preserved. My success at conveying these memories to an audience depends upon the decipherability of the signifiers I choose and on the viewer’s cumulative knowledge. This is the practice I call “personal archaeology”.

Against everything I ever learned in Sunday School (which insisted that, like the sundial, one should “record only the sunny hours”), I seek some kind of enlightenment by combing through the rubble of my family’s history. Peeling back a lifetime’s worth of juxtaposed incongruities is fascinating. Now as I catalogue everyone’s idiosyncracies, I can acknowledge the previously denied darkness and integrate it to the whole. Things begin to make sense.

When my father died this past February it was sobering to realize that all of my elders are gone. Though I have been fully independent for thirty years, I find myself feeling unexpectedly vulnerable. As I clean out my father’s and his mother’s homes, I salvage significant belongings. I wash, mend and iron these things, and am transported by the textures and weight, the odors of each previous owner. The memories that accompany these sensual connections provide me renewed access to my family. And as I’ve reflected on their particular predicaments, the women in my family have become somehow sacred to me.

Why Just The Women?

It is true that what we choose to know is greatly defined by what we choose not to know. A difficult relationship with my father erupted when I was 13 and did not change much up to the day he died. When I was a teenager, my impulse was to distance myself from my mother’s and grandmothers’ ways. Now I seek connection with them through making art. Now I understand the gifts they quietly brought to our family as they cared and crafted and cleaned and cooked.

These women taught me to sew, knit and crochet. Candace Wheeler, the first recognized American professional woman interior designer said, “Who creates a Home creates a potent spirit which in turn doth fashion him that fashioned.” (3) Wheeler worked to elevate women’s needlework to fine art status. In the late nineteenth century she created a social organization to promote the sale of women’s handiworks, allowing thousands of widowed upper middle class women to make a living. This validation of creative processes and energies, often dismissed as “just women’s work,” is important to me. The use of women’s handiwork materials and techniques in my sculpture expresses the idea of time spent quietly, working out problems simply, not with sophistication but with creative intuition. There have been questions about why I use 1950 and 60’s vintage signifiers like aprons, gloves and handbags to interpret my view of American feminine experience. Am I being nostalgic? Am I protesting? Is my art feminist? What message does it hold for today’s audience? Miriam Shapiro blazed the trail for women artists to speak through art of their own experiences without apologies. My discovery of how she stopped trying to satisfy the taste of her New York male colleagues was thrilling. Her unwaivering employment of a new language authentic to women’s lives and concerns reassured my own need to move away from the formal criticism which had weighed so heavily on me during my first months of study. I could use yarn and embroidery floss as worthy materials in my new work.

What We’d Imagined vs What Is
Young women in the late ‘60s and ’70s felt they were above the menial domestic labor they watched their mothers repeat daily. We had bigger thoughts to think that would keep us out of that domestic rut. We would be professionals. We would have business cards. What we did not prefigure was that we, too, would have homes to keep and many of us would have children to raise. Just who did we think would be doing the housework? Sensitive new age guys did not even show up until the ‘80s. And how could an evolved professional woman be satisfied to keep company with a stay-at-home dad who simply replicated the patterns of her own mother?

This disjunct of what we imagined and what really happened needs consideration. My way to think about it is to define it in art. The art I’ve made is a psycho-archeology of the the mid-twentieth century housewife, created as some kind of penance. I’d expressed disdain for the vocation of homemaker and my mother (a very traditional woman) was aware of my opinions. My lack of consideration became one of my greatest regrets as I raised my own daughters. Supermoms of the ‘80s and ‘90s did and had it all, and our kids watched as we scrambled. Imagine my dismay the day that my 13-year-old proclaimed that she would be “a stay-at-home mom like Martha Stewart!”

Spiritual Motivations for Artmaking
The making of art is a prayerful act, one that engages and employs the human mind at its highest level and requires the best of our manual and intellectual skills. Pascal said, “ ’The heart has its reasons, which reason cannot know.’ Feeling has its own structure, just as thinking has its own structure. There are levels of feeling and levels of thinking, and something deeper than both of them, something that is feeling and thought and both, and neither.” (4) This is an excellent description of a mind which is receptive to revelation. It can be experienced during the moments of waking from a restful sleep when the mind is astride the conscious and the unconscious. It can happen while ones hands randomly “play” with tools and materials on a workbench towards the resolution of a design or function problem.

In 1998, I travelled to Morocco for the first time. There I discovered women making art to communicate profound intentions to family members, both immediately and for generations to come. The daily practice of textile and ceramic creation within Berber and Arab households is emphatically an act of worship, a tribute to the highest divinities in their belief systems. It protects their families from evil forces and encourages well-being and happiness. “As well as being a creative process, the act of decoration and fabrication is considered a meditative practice, effecting the same quality in the end product.” (5)

Why do these women artists think that the crafting of an object can carry real power that effects the lives of others? Because of their belief in the power of baraka. “Baraka is similar to Western perceptions of aesthetic ideals – the artist attempting to reach a higher self through artistic expression and thus instilling the work with a power that goes beyond the time and place of its creation…(sometimes the artist is) trying to attain baraka for both himself, through the experience of making the object, and for the object itself. In both cases, the pursuit of excellence involves knowing when to stop once a level beyond which no further work can improve a piece has been achieved…There is also a term used by Berbers and Arabs called ‘blanc coeur’ (the white heart) which signifies the amount of love and labor they put into their work of creation…” (6) If we accept the idea that the creative act is full of positive power, we can make artworks because we wish to uplift our own minds, purify our own hearts, and attempt to insure the well-being of our families and friends. These are the same ends sought in spiritual study, meditation and prayer.

Working Towards Mastery
“The freedom of being an artist comes with a huge responsibility to be self-balancing. This requires the individual to be alert and sensitive to slight choices and corrections in self navigation. It is a continuous dance of self-correcting play through the power of mistakes.” (7) “Mastery means responsibility, ability to respond in real time to the need of the moment. Intuitive or inspired living means not just passively hearing the voice, but acting on it.” (8)

If the making of art is a spontaneous natural act of prayerful expression, what can be considered a state of its mastery? Certainly technical experience and ability are measurable. But there is a compelling suggestion, more in line with the idea of the Tao, that art is simply life expressed, and is unencumbered by all of the rules accumulated and discarded through human history. Art is the record of a moment, proof of the transcendent and of humankind’s need to be creatively expressive. Ambiguous, moving from dark to light and back again, issuing from and interweaving all nameable philosophies, situated in time but timeless in essence, sometimes beautiful and terrible all at once, art is the phenomena of spirit made concrete. Art is practiced daily in performance without audience, without applause, and usually without salary. The making of it frees our spirit and yet grounds us. It sometimes breaks us, but it also rebuilds us.

The DAAP MFA program has afforded me the opportunity to discover a new creative process and develop new technical skills. Making sculpture has dramatically broadened my options for self-expression. I believe that three-dimensionality can heighten the presence of an idea, giving one an object to handle rather than simply a picture to view. There is more immediacy with less remove. The necessary shift in conceptualization and process has allowed me to investigate thoughts and feelings which had previously gone ignored or been avoided. I am happy to continue my art life as a sculptor as well as a painter. It is something I never thought would happen to me. But then, I never thought that I would be a mother, either.