This week I’m down to the wire, getting ready for this show that I’m really excited about down at the Robert C. Williams Museum down in Atlanta. (By “really excited,” I mean simultaneously thrilled to be invited and also feeling like I might throw up because there are only 144 hours left for me to finish these pieces.)
I had the hardest time figuring out what body of work to make for this show, but when I was teaching at Penland back in the spring, I stumbled on an idea while working on a collaborative piece for the auction. (More backstory on that here.) I made about 200 sheets of paper while I was there, and found myself staring at the large stack, hoping for a lightning bolt moment. I knew I wanted to use my handmade paper for this project, but none of my ideas were sticking.
The book I made for the auction dealt with a collection of images from nature that I’d once been homesick for. I was interested in how parts of our surroundings contribute to our identity and sense of belonging. I knew I wanted to explore those ideas further for this project, but couldn’t think of the right way to do it. I made a list of all the flora and fauna that were familiar to me––the ones that I’d missed so much when I was not living in the South––and started using those drawings to make patterns that hinted at the repetitive way these images occurred in my memories, and how those memories bound me to place and time.
That’s the thinking behind all the drawings––wrens, luna moths, ferns, and so on. They are not just parts of a landscape, but fragments of memory and place that make me feel rooted to the earth––and not just any old spot, but the place I was raised where we say “yes, ma’am” and drink sweet tea while watching lightning bugs in the dusk of summer. I made printing plates from the drawings and as I started printing, I liked the way the patterns emerged, and the ways the images overlapped. Certain ones came to the forefront, and certain ones fell into the background while still providing information––much like the way memories about place behave in my own mind. I liked the potential, but ultimately I still found the page a bit boring and flat.
Because I liked the way it worked in the book form, I started cutting away patterns that allude to the cellular structure of plants. This was interesting to me 1) because it layered another pattern, and 2) took things to a microscopic level. (Also, I always get a little too excited by the addition of science. I’m geeky that way.)
I’d used this combination of techniques in the auction book and liked the results, but as wall pieces, these were still lacking. I started thinking about sewing: specifically, how one of my students at Penland had hand-stitched patterns over some prints that she had made. I’d come in the studio one day to find her sewing little dots and dashes onto buildings she’d printed and thought it was genius. (She was into quilting and said she was suffering withdrawal and just had to sew something. Still. Genius.) The raised patterns gave her prints just the kind of liveliness that mine were now lacking.
I thought for a while about sewing. Patterns of stitches. Then I thought about topo maps, which I have a serious fondness for. And I thought some more about what maps record with these lines, and what those lines might record for me. So this happened.
Sewing topographic lines gave me a way to tie in a macro view, which I particularly like. Did I mention how I like layers? Layers of imagery, layers of memory, layers of mystery? These aren’t particularly mysterious, but I liked that the stitching added texture, a little relief (pardon the map pun) and another allusion to place. This project was finally coming together, and the best part was that I loved working on it. The sewing soon became my favorite part.
To finish these pieces off, I stitched them into frames. I didn’t want to use glass, and wanted them to hang in a way that allowed some play between the cutaway parts and the wall where they will hang. I found some inexpensive wooden frames, painted them white, and used heavy duty staples to create sewing hooks along the inner part of the frame. And behold, the finished pieces––gallery-ready with no glass and no shipping worries:
Now I have one left to sew into place. Then I’m touching up frames and driving these babies over to FedEx. There are 10 in total that will hang in a grouping (that planning is a whole ‘nother discussion).
The best thing about this project is that it allowed me to play with depth and surface treatments in new ways. The operative word there is play. I feel like I haven’t had a lot of that lately, and it’s that unknown element of this kind of operation that allows for discoveries to be made. The feeling I had through this whole project––the not knowing where it would lead or how it would turn out, and the fear that it would be an absolute failure––is what has reminded me that play should really be a part of every process. I don’t have to have things planned from beginning to end, but can allow myself to make some reactionary decisions along the way. Sometimes they flop, but other times they let magic happen.
Check back in September for pics from the gallery opening––I know I can’t wait to see the other artists’ work, and I’ll share all the details here.
Check out the Robert C Williams Museum of Papermaking calendar to see current and past exhibit details, and check back soon for information about the Paper Narrative exhibit, which opens Friday, September 11.