From the Studio

thoughts on art and process in action from a contemporary artist

Posts Tagged ‘personal

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

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.

 

#DadaTaroT @ open studios

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I did a less formal version of the #DadaTaroT piece at this fall’s open studios.  I am really enjoying this piece!  A lot of people asked some pretty intense questions, and many interesting interpretations and conversations arose.

A few odd things keep happening:  out of the (4?) times people have asked about Trump winning the election (the piece was made during the primaries), Elvis has been drawn three times out of the nearly 100 media cards.  What is one to make of that?

Another thing that has happened at least three times is that pairs of friends have picked the same card after the entire deck was shuffled.

Two groups went as three people together instead of a pair.

In this iteration, a questioner asked about the nature of the artist as a child, and the person answering was actually quite right.  Another person made an offhand comment that the questioner would get a tattoo on their hand… which it turned out they already had.  A surprising number of people asking about their own mortality.

Narratives upon narratives.

Apologies… the notes on the  two responses seems to be lost.  I’m working on recovery and will post them when and if I get them.

Stepping Back (in)

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mirrorI’ve been away from being public about my art for a little while now.  I’ve only applied to a single program, I’ve written no blog posts, showed no work and even turned down a few shows.  I needed a break where I could think my thoughts without offering them to the world.

Years ago I might have pushed on, and possibly had a breakdown.  I’ve learned better.  During the course of my recently completed MFA program six people I love died.  Three of my four grandparents, one of whom was like a second mother to me.  Two mentors.  One friend and fellow artist to suicide.
Just on their own MFA programs are difficult, intense cauldrons of emotion and ego and challenge and intensity of ideas and beliefs.  They are the crucibles that forge us… those of us who don’t crack.  The ones that did crack were measured in the bulging mailboxes and empty studio spaces at the end of each year, and there were more than a few.  We put ourselves on the line, our ideas, our thoughts, our work, and those of us who are willing, our loves and lives and beliefs too.  Of course, the current fashion is cynicism and snarkyness (which doesn’t call on people to put themselves out so far) but for me being on the line it is what makes the art have a soul,  and while Soul doesn’t matter to some, and there is some good purely intellectual/aesthetic art, it matters very much to me.
After the thesis show I had immediate offers for shows and commissions- wonderful opportunities,  but not the breath of air I needed.  For a full year after it I was busy, during which there was another death, the final grandparent. They all lived full lives, all died over 94, but the loss is ours and never easy.  The situation of being in constant physical pain was one factor I had throughout all three years, as was being the main caretaker of my young daughter during a period where my husband was so busy he rarely even got weekends off.  There were other significant pressures I won’t list.  It was a hard three years.  It was also intensely productive and important.

At the same time I was incredibly fortunate.  I didn’t have to pull my hair out over money.  I had love and good friends and whether I wanted a break or not I those commissions and shows just dropped into my lap- nearly every vacation during the MFA program as well as after it.  I didn’t have to look for a single show after I graduated- I didn’t have time for any more, but when I saw the pause in the stream, I took the break instead of hunting for the next one.  I shut down the blog and set out to take care of everything in my life that had been held together with sealing wax for three years. I did things for the fun of them, I saw the people I love, I experienced new things and got new ideas.
Like many artists, I have depression.  I have anxiety and panic attacks.  It is almost a cliche that artists are tortured souls and some of us think we can’t work without that (I disagree, but it is different).  Chronic pain adds its own layer to one’s process.  Most people looking at me would have no idea about the first two and many would never know about the pain either.  There were many classes and critiques where I was clenching my fists not to scream from the physical pain in my back and concentrating hard on keeping a normal face.  I have many strategies for dealing with it all.  I kept on, put one foot in front of the other, did all the things I needed to do and held everything together and met every deadline, did my best work… and when I had an opening I did the sane thing I would not have done 10 years ago, and rested.

 

You see two other people died during that time, acquaintances, but each with a compelling message.  One was another suicide from depression- someone who worked himself into the ground and didn’t acknowledge the care he needed to take of himself, he pushed himself too far.  The other was a car crash, a terrible random thing that could take any of us at any moment.  When I resurfaced those deaths reminded me again not to take a moment for granted, and not to put taking care of myself last.  I even discovered something to help my back and for the first time in seven years I’m having multiple days without serious pain.  I’m breathing again.

 

So here I am, back at work.  My mind has been plotting new art, my hands have been busy, sketches and ideas form.  It’s time to step back in to show my work and share my thoughts again.    I leave you with this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on creative genius and depression.

 

***Addition:  Wonderfully, when I moved on to check my email I found an invitation to include a specific piece in an exciting museum show in another country waiting in my inbox.  A well-timed confirmation to stepping back in indeed.