From the Studio

thoughts on art and process in action from a contemporary artist

New Experiences, New Material

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Family at Disney

This photo represents one of the first bright spots in my new life as a disabled person. Last weekend was the first time in nearly five months I’ve been really able to move around outside the house and studio, thanks to finally getting a power chair that supports my neck and torso.  We went to Disneyland for my daughter’s birthday wish, and we did it to the nines.

I’ve been working on the next two installations (for the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles), with the assistance of friends. I know I will need to hire assistants for new projects, but I’m still feeling freshly vulnerable in this state and I need to adjust.  Also, while I love inviting strangers into certain phases of my process,  I’m very picky about who I let into other parts of my process. Thankfully I have amazing people around me.

With my current condition, half the people get better within two years, and most of the rest never do.  I made the mistake of waiting a year for my back to get better nine years ago, and until my muscles stopped working (and compressing my spinal nerve), it never did.  I am thankful to be out of that level of constant pain, though I know I would trade back the pain for mobility in a heartbeat.

So… I am not wasting time now.  My art is moving on, and I have a fire under me to make new work about this experience.  I am very aware that disabled or not, I am very fortunate.  I have good insurance, my husband’s job supports us, freeing me to do my art without the constraints of whether it will sell or needing another job to support it. We have enough money that my condition is not bankrupting us and I was able to buy the expensive chair that allows me to.  I have supportive friends, an education, the tools to self-advocate, and so much more.  But this has thrown into relief how if this is so hard for me, how much harder it must be for most people.

After my recent experience of traveling with a wheelchair, the systemic lack of consideration and ability to do simple things like take a cab with any reliability, get on a plane you were assured you could take your chair on, or arrive with that all-important chair in one piece have given me fire to push for awareness.

I knew I had been thinking about a piece on Access for a while, but I didn’t realize it had been this long!  June 2013!  Usually with something that scale and cost it really helps me to know it will have a space to show first, but I don’t care anymore.  I will build it, and I will find it places to show.  As soon as the next two installations are wrapped, this is my next project.   I have been thinking about it on and off this whole time, and developing it, but now I have new first hand experience of being confined to home and wheelchair to add.

All that said, this new piece isn’t only about disabled access, it’s about all kinds of invisible access- financial, educational, social, racial, cultural, linguistic, etc.  It is about making people aware of what they can do without even having to think about it, and where others are barring and struggling to get in.

 

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Written by marycoreymarch

September 29, 2017 at 10:13 am

Natural Dyeing for Sukkah Project

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I’ve been invited to inhabit the Sukkah at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (San Francisco) on October 8th for one day of the holiday of Sukkot.  They invited six artists to each take a day to create an open studio or installation project inside the frame of the Sukkah.  I decided to take the opportunity to do a new Participatory Installation piece within that frame entitled Refuge of Leaves.

Process

These are photos of the dyeing process for this new project.  These are the first three batches, using pomegranate dye, rhubarb dye and artichoke dye.  Each dye changes depending on if I scour the paper first, or if I add a mordant, or if I add iron.  I did every combination on four kinds of paper to get a wider variety.

As I’m going, I allow the paper to show some marks- wrinkles, the mark of the iron, irregularities, etc.  Showing their history, that they have been through something, a difficult process that may even damage them seemed like a perfect parallel to individuals seeking refuge, to people who had a story to tell.

About the Piece

Traditionally a Sukkah is a symbolic ritual space of refuge in the wilderness created for the holiday of Sukkot in the Jewish faith and tradition. “Refuge of Leaves” creates a Sukkah as a space for reflection where people from many backgrounds can reflect on and share their personal experiences of refuge from “wildernesses”, whether physical or metaphorical. As a Sukkah it symbolizes a liminal space of safety within the wilderness between worlds.

I followed traditional aspects of the Sukkah in using natural plant-based materials in the form of a variety of papers from different places and times, including papyrus as well as paper that could be put through a modern printer.  These are for participants to write responses to their choice of prompts on the subject of refuge.  I am hand-dyeing the papers with natural dyes to mimic the color range of plants one might build a traditional sukkah from. The dyeing processes also makes each piece of paper individual in color and texture, just like the people writing their responses.

The word “leaves” in the title functions in a number of ways.  The individual leaves of paper in a larger book, the plant leaves that form a traditional Sukkah, and the nature of a this kind of refuge as a temporary shelter (not a home) that eventually requires one to leave.  The structure is very literally a refuge made of leaves that each participant leaves behind.

As part of this project I will be there from 10AM until 4PM to discuss my work and facilitate the process.  Please join me.

Overcoming Challenges

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It has been a while.  I have two pieces going up in museums shortly, and there will be another post for that, but I wanted to tell you what has happened to me recently.

For the past four months (since May 20th) I have been pretty much incapacitated.  It started as suddenly feeling odd, tired and wrong at Maker Fair (while hydrated, fed, cooled and well slept).  By the time I got to the car I was too weak and tired to move my arms without effort.  There were many tests, and for over two months, no consensus on what was wrong.  As a woman with a hard to diagnose medical problem (a group classically ignored and patronized by doctors), one doctor told me it must be psychosomatic (though thankfully he was only one out of six and the others did take me seriously).  It turned out to be CFS/ME, a condition that many derided as not real.  Thankfully Stanford finally developed a blood test that shows it is in fact a real thing and published just this July, and NIH has begun taking it seriously with research and funding the last two years.

So… even typing while lying in bed with my head propped has been difficult.  Holding my head up has been a effort that left me sore like an intense workout (and as a competitive gymnast, 15-year martial artist and circus person I know what that feels like).  I was not sleepy ever- my mind was fully awake, but my body could do almost nothing.  It turns out this probably started over a year ago when I had a severe virus that sent me to the ER for _four_ bags of saline.  They told me I was lucky to be alive, and I haven’t felt quite right since, with random bouts of weakness.

With this going on I have not been actively looking for shows and commissions, but when the Contemporary Jewish Museum asked me to do an installation I could not turn that down.  I also kept with the other museum show at the San Jose Quilt and Textile Museum I was already signed up for because I knew I could do it with assistance.  And I am.  I will be there with my art even if I am in a wheelchair, and my art will not suffer for it.

For a while there was no sense of any time recovery might happen (if at all), but for nearly three weeks now I have been on an experimental antiviral treatment that seems to be helping, so fingers crossed.  Not knowing was very hard, but today I am hopeful.  If nothing else the experience gives me more empathy for those in similar situations.  In good news, my back hasn’t been in pain every day for the first time in nearly nine years! Apparently the muscles are too tired to tense enough to squash the ruptured disk.  Little victories.

Written by marycoreymarch

September 3, 2017 at 1:56 am

Posted in access, Uncategorized

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Between the Lines (experience exchange)

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Here are the pictures from Between the Lines (experience exchange) at College of the Redwoods. The piece has already moved from the library at the Eureka campus to another campus for the next two weeks. Sadly when I install a participatory work and then leave it I don’t get to see it fill up with responses, nor do I get to photograph later responses myself.  Here are some of my images from Between the Lines (experience exchange)  before I left.

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To recap the action:  Each participant responds to a personal question related to experiences in the book (Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates).  They write their response on one of the 600 individually painted Pages.  They then drop their response in the box and take someone else’s response to hang in the frame they feel it belongs in.

starting table.jpgThe images below are the subjects for the Frames.  Each one is two sides of a major theme in Coates’ book.  Because I was told that some of the students (and certainly the public) would not have yet read the book I had to make certain things differently than if they had.  For example, one of the major themes of the book is “The Dream”, which might sound positive if you haven’t read the book, except in context it is an almost fictional, fenced-in privileged world built on oppression which other people are excluded from, the false promise of which which keeps people from addressing the systemic problems.  Since people wouldn’t know that, I used “Privilege” instead.  I also put quotations from the book around each major theme to contextualize it.

Here are some of the experiences which were exchanged…

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Written by marycoreymarch

March 14, 2017 at 12:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

At College of the Redwoods

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img_1958Today Between the Lines (experience exchange) went up with the help of the head of the Black Student Union and the Professor heading the Book of the Year project. There are always hiccups, but now it looks exactly as it did in my mind and even though the official opening isn’t until Thursday it already had some participation.Some of the students who will get to participate are taking correspondence courses from prison, and I’m so glad I was able to get something of the piece to them, because having a place for their stories to be told is important.

My interview for the local NPR member station is here.  It doesn’t have the image and specific link yet, but it is the Feb, 21 one.

The piece works much like Scales did. Participants write a response to a writing prompt on a hand-painted paper and exchange it for someone else’s.  Then they read that person’s response and tie it to the frame which they feel it belongs most to (Repression, Expression, Privilege, Opportunity, Love, Hate (fear), Resistance, Compliance, Accepted, Suspected, Hardness, and Openness).  Being asked to place it not only gets them to read someone else’s experience, but it also gets them to think about it in the context of the themes in the book.

I wrestled a lot with the themes and questions.  I had to tailor the themes and questions for people who might not have read the book yet (half the students read it in the second semester), and also to make it approachable.  So much of what is wrong with the world that we need to change is things we cannot bring ourselves to engage with.  My job is to engage people, so I find myself walking the line of bringing up difficult issues in such a way that people can approach at their own speed, even in a way that seems fun and colorful.

I’ll show more about this new work later when I have more pictures of participation, but tonight I’m thinking about the screening of 13th at the college and the thoughtful, powerful discussion moderated by the Black Student Union afterwards.  The students I have met here have been wonderful and I am honored to be here.

in-process on “Between the Lines (Experience Exchange)”

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sprectrum-side These are the first set of “pages” for participants in Between the Lines (Experience Exchange) to write on.  The materials are translucent acrylics on vellum with bookbinding thread sewn into the tops to tie them into the structure.

The piece was commissioned by the College of the Redwoods for their annual Book of the Year celebration.  This year’s book is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The structure of the piece is a large sculpture created a s a physical framing of some of the book’s core concepts  (I saw them, but also based  on interviews with the author, reviews, and discussions with other people).  The questions also derive from the book, and will ask participants to respond with their own related experiences.

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Bubbles, narratives, identity, and empathy.

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bubbleMy work is often involved with narrative.  I am interested in how we describe ourselves and each other, and especially in challenging those definitions.  I like to lead people into a space and thought process where they encounter things in themselves and other people they don’t expect, or where something puts them in a position to realize that something they had defined, perhaps without even thinking, is not actually so simple.  It never is.

I love liminal space.  It is that space between things- ideas, places, definitions, roles… We usually think of it as transformative space, the way a journey is often transformative, or a ritual space like college (where you go apart from your normal life with the express intention of growing and changing).  It is uncertain space.  Undefined space.  It can be scary, and many people don’t want to go there.  They want things understood, defined and nailed down.  …but it is where we must to go to grow, because growth by definition is not nailed down, and never the same.  There are some people though, who like to live there, and we often make art, and we often make people uncomfortable because we cannot be nailed down.

In the past few days I have encountered a barrage of voices talking about a set of related ideas dear to my heart which I have held for as long as I can remember, most especially the danger of staying within our own boundaries- staying within our own circle of understanding, and the importance of stepping outside of it to achieve empathy and new perspectives.  The first was a moment of Barack Obama’s farewell speech about how fortified we are in our bubbles and how we cannot be if we want society to function together as a whole.  It made me think about a favorite TED talk by author Elif Safak, but searching for that, I found another TED talk I had not yet heard by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  It held overlapping messages.  One in common was the way writers who are not straight white males (and I will add artists, filmmakers, musicians, playwrights, dancers…) are pigeonholed into telling a story about an identity the world already thinks it has nailed down- a flat identity.  “Tell us the story of the Subjugated Middle Eastern Woman” (because as a Middle Eastern Woman, that will be “authentic” for you).  “Tell us the story of the poor starving African” (ditto).  If you try to tell a story that doesn’t mirror the narrow box you are believed to occupy, then it must be “inauthentic”, precisely because we only hear single, flat narratives about what is perceived as a “group”.  Today on the radio I heard an interview with an artist I have long admired the work of, but never heard interviewed (Yinka Shonibare).  In a flight of serendipity, he was talking about the exact same thing.  I suggest listening to all of them.  Each is eloquent in their own way and addresses different perspectives on the issues.

In recent years I feel like one of the casualties of the very important struggle to honor the different experiences of different people (especially marginalized people whose many stories are not told or are not heard enough if they are) is that we have divided ourselves into smaller and smaller groups and categories which do not communicate.  There is an idea that people outside each group can never understand… and a chilling subtext that we shouldn’t even try because it isn’t possible.  In such a climate saying one might even begin to understand is seen as dishonoring and invalidating the experience of the other person instead of an act of empathy.  In addition from being discouraged from these kinds of engagements of empathy is the idea that we cannot comment, we cannot respond… which means we cannot communicate about these ideas.  I know this is a correction swing from the voices in power’s “comments” and “responses” actually being about silencing, distorting, talking down, and even taking from these stories without the credit where it is due.  We cannot let that false dialogue stand, but if we go so far that we cannot genuinely communicate across boundaries in both directions and allow each other to imagine what it is to be on the other side, then we are on the path to widen those divisions and build higher fortifications.

In an absolute way, no one will perfectly understand another person’s experiences in exactly the same way as that they do.  No one has the exact same life experiences and identity.  When you cut the experiences and definitions fine enough, you end up with a “group” of one.  No one has your experience.  But we do have common human experiences.  We do have feelings in common, and more importantly, we have imagination.  That is the currency of the arts.  When an author writes from the perspective of someone of a different age, gender, nationality than herself, or even creates characters unlike herself, she is engaging in an act of empathy and imagination.  When she does this she is creating a bridge for others to follow that empathy, to imagine themselves as that person, to step into their skin, to find common ground.  This is as close as we get, and it brings us closer together.  If we look at the plethora of social psychology studies on the subject, it also makes us more likely to help and not harm people the more we understand them and realize what we share in common.  This is essential work.  It does not steal experience, it multiples it.  

Right now I am creating a Participatory Installation in response to the book of another author Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) at a college to try to help students connect to the book and to each other.  Like other work of mine it will invite the students to share their own experiences within the frame of the piece.  In this case the frame of the piece is taken from my interpretation of the book’s major themes and stories.  I almost turned this commission down a number of times.  I have lost sleep over it.  You see, I am a white woman, and in this cultural climate I am not supposed to engage these topics because they are outside of my bubble.  More fairly, artists of color are underrepresented and should be sought out first.  Knowing this, I asked if they hadn’t considered asking an artist of color first (they looked, but didn’t find the kind of work that I do, which is what they were excited about), or having the author come speak (they did, he’s too expensive for their budget, though I am glad to say they are having someone from the local NAACP speak).  They came to the conclusion that what they needed wasn’t an artist who matched the demographic of the author, but an artist who specialized in getting people to connect and understand each other, who worked with narrative and identity, whoever that artist was. They came to me because of seeing Identity Tapestry, which does all of these things.  I took the commission in the end because I don’t know someone who fits the demographic box of the author and does the work kind of work they want, and more importantly, I don’t believe in boxes.  I believe in bridges. My art is all about making them, and I like to think that makes me someone who can answer this call.  The project is about responding to this book and getting the students to connect with it.

Response must be open to everyone.  The attempt to understand, to empathize, to connect and to imagine must be open to everyone.  It must be or we cannot break these barriers.  We can’t have a separate set of rules and dialogue for art and expression for “white people” and other set for “people of color”.  One set for “men”, and another for “women”, for “queer” and “straight” and on and on, cut more and more finely…  Who is to say what each “group” is and who fits there?  We need dialogue that passes through the boundaries and boxes and bubbles and definitions to our shared human experiences, our empathy, and our imagination.  That is where we grow and learn. That is the crazy liminal in-between space.  That is where hope for connection and understanding is.