My mother died, at age 85, shortly after she fell and broke her hip. During her last days, the whole family was back and forth to the hospital constantly. The whole time, from hip breakage to death, was less than a month, but felt like an endless campaign. On one of the many long drives back and forth, my mind slid to the Bayeux Tapestry...
The Bayeux Tapestry? Hey, it's how my mind works. But the image of all those figures involved in a major struggle, the confusion, so much happening....it allowed me to make visual sense of what was happening, I guess. So after she died, I sewed some other kitchen towels into the Illness Campaign, 4 panels, each 26"h x 27"w
Medical Battle #1: the staff. Let's start at the bottom. The dark figures here represent the lowest paid personnel - the ones who clean the floors, empty the bedpans, the modern serfs holding walkers instead of pitchforks. Above them are the nurses, unfairly pictured as stone figures holding medical tools (and an angel holding open the book). The 2 doctors are seen here as wise men, literally top of the structure. Floating above their heads is the flayed figure of the patient. It seemed totally appropriate to picture her as a skinless victim.
The words along the red borders are just random selections of the conversations, along with all the random, meaningless numbers.
Medical Battle #2: waiting. The flayed figure here is imprisoned in a cage of crutches, IV stands, etc. The faces behind her all come from a very old photo, taken at a funeral in Poland. I can only imagine that a funeral would be a time when the whole family was together, so it was recorded. Here, they stand vigil over my mother.
Medical Battle #3: choices. Before she died, there was a time when a long term recovery was a possibility. Here, each member of the immediate family is pictured, along with clothing care labels, representing the many different opinions. A poorly focused photo of my mom is semi-hidden in the center, surrounded by a maze of wheelchairs. Here's a closer look:
And the flayed figure is struggling to get out.
Medical Battle #4: time. At one point, a doctor came in and asked my mom if she knew what day it was. I realized that I didn't know. If the days had all jumbled together for me, I couldn't imagine how she would know. So here we have a calendar falling apart, days coming undone. A closer look:
A couple of notes: the devices held by the doctors and nurses in the first battle are ones used in diabetic care. I am embarrassed to admit that when I googled medical equipment/devices, they were the ones I could find, and I carelessly used them. My mom was not diabetic. Although family members had varying opinions, there a remarkable lack of animosity. Although they have been pictured ruthlessly here, most of the doctors and nurses were fine, helpful people. This is an impressionistic battle story, not an accurate medical record, OK?
This piece was exhibited at a one woman show at St Peters Church Gallery in NYC. One of my critique group said that I was 'airing dirty laundry' so that's how I displayed it.
Some people say that their mom is their best friend. My mother and I managed only a grudging tolerance of each other. But my grandmother was an illiterate peasant (born in a thatched hut in Poland) my mom had to drop out of high school to help support the family, and I worked my way through the local state college....so we're doing a little better with each generation. While my mom and grandmother struggled to survive, I have the leisure to analyze my family story, and sew it.
Altering the Family Fabric is one of my early efforts, which a friend (rightly) labeled 'creepy'. Here's what's going on:
The vintage photo in back shows my grandparents with a few of their eleven children. My mother is the little girl sitting near her feet. So...I picked up my mom, turned her around and sat her in her mother's lap, wrapping her in her mother's arms. And sewed smiles on their faces. Look - see? Happy Family.
In the newest version of Photoshop, you can electronically lift up mouths into smiles. Not as an artistic effort, but as an Orwellian rewriting of family history. THAT really IS creepy.
My Mother (28"h x 18"w) Constructed with a few beautiful vintage linen dishtowels (I found a big bunch of them at a garage sale for $1. They had never been used, and the original starch had turned brown, making them look awful. But they were easily washed ).
Now, you need to know something about clotheslines to appreciate this. Old clotheslines were hung on pulleys, and had devices to keep the upper and lower sections from pulling too far apart. I only know the Polish word for these things, thriska. In this picture, there are 2 thriskas holding the line:
Thriskas can be metal, plastic or wood. I used an old wooden one, gently white-washed, on the top of this piece.
Around the edges, I embroidered some of my mom's admonitions, seen in this composite photo:
These sentiments sum up her attitude toward life, and they frame this piece.
In the very center is a photo of my mom (about age 65?) Her arms and legs - her abilities - are flooded over by the minutiae of her life. How can you run or reach out when you're overwhelmed by the many tasks of daily life? And all that is tightly bound up in a rosary (for any young atheists reading this, a rosary is a loop of prayer beads used by Catholics. You had to say a rote prayer on each bead). The Catholic church was the foundation of her life, but it also kept her walled in.
At the bottom, 2 crocheted gloves represent hands folded in prayer, holding the end of the rosary. Instead of a row of candles, we have a row of clothespins. And a small photo of my mom...
I can almost hear her telling my Dad "Oh Ted, not NOW!" She's standing by our back door, hanging laundry. Right under the pulley, you can see the clothespin bag. Every mother had one. They were all shaped like little dresses - you can just about make out the ruffled bottom edge. There was a big opening in the middle, so you could reach in and grab clothespins. Like these:
One other thing. The Newark Museum has a wonderful Tibetan section - go see it, if you can. I loved their Thangka scrolls, like these:
When I first saw them....they reminded me of my mom's clothespin bags. What can I say? Something about the shape, the widening at the bottom, and the one I liked most had a round image in the center.
Anyhow...now you understand the thinking behind this piece.
This is the first in a series of pieces I made about my mother. More coming!
Disclaimer: this information is what I understood at the time. New research, different spellings and better information are certainly available.
Years ago, when I was teaching art to small children in Paterson, I realized that my art education at Montclair State had included very little information on African art. Since my students were mostly African American, I figured I better learn more, and quickly. The bronze bas relief sculptures, the stylized wooden animals, and the ancient masks were all great hits. The kids loved making Romeare Bearden colleges. One of the things that really sang to me was the Nkisi Nkondi: wooden figures with all sorts of nails and shards hammered into them:
As I understood it, the nails were hammered in to release the figure's power.
Some years later, I came across a very different cultural figure: the Sheila-na-gig. A truly ancient figure once found carved into buildings in Ireland and England, they fell out of favor when Christianity came in. These stone figures had the body of an old, usually skeletal women, with her vagina held wide open. I was told that this represented mother earth, welcoming all inside.
The two Sheila's on the left are off the internet. The two on the right I photographed in Ireland.
Somehow, it came to me to wonder "what about a female Nkisi Nkondi? What if a Sheila had pins (instead of nails) pressed into her to release her sexual power? She would look like this:
She's sewn onto a bright red damask napkin (it came red! No dyeing needed!). The face was inspired by a similar face on an ancient Chinese carving. The hands are huge to show her abilities. I meant for the figure to show true, assertive female empowerment...and be just a little scary.
In the same vein, I created the Three Menses (not the lovely Muses - this is a different type of inspiration):
a detail photo:
Might as well finish this post with Small Red Quilt:
I have the information on this one somewhere. It's about...2ft square? Crammed with beads, buttons, angry red knots. And the back is a tightly sewn white patchwork of bra straps and girdles.
Garage and estate sales are the modern equivalents of an archaeological digs: you hunt through an awful lot of junk to find anything interesting. Sometimes, you make an unforgettable find. This was inside an estate sale on Sargent St, in Clifton, NJ:
This is the linoleum on the kitchen floor.
This is the coal bin in the basement. Yes, people shoveled coal into their furnace for heat.
It looked like nothing in this house had ever been updated, remodeled, changed at all. The image of the kitchen dish cabinet made it's way into several of my pieces. I did make a piece focused on this particular house, but didn't capture the feeling at all:
Wouldn't you just LOVE to see what the new owners did with the place? Did they save any of the history? Did they just gut it?