Portraiture

Tub Series #3

Lately I have been spending more time alone, and it’s driving me back towards self-portraiture.  I’m not sure what I’m going to do with these shots—they aren’t really something that has a home.  I’m trying to escape the idea of audience though, and not let the worry about where something belongs stop me from making it.  I find that watercolor collage work is too small and peaceful.  Frankly, I’m not in a peaceful place, and I do a drawing and I just want to give it away as fast as possible.  Self-portraits are different—there’s a sense of absurdity to it.  There has to be. First of all, the selfie. It’s ridiculous and narcissistic.  It is also steeped in history, from the self-portraits of Francesca Woodman to Cindy Sherman, from Man Ray to Frida Kahlo. I’m not saying I’m in any class of theirs, but maybe I’m somewhere near the same conversation. Secondly, there’s the process itself. I’ve worn masks that tip and snag on everything, I’ve caught myself blurry, I’ve wound up completely out of the frame, I’ve been in the most unflattering positions possible.

My most recent series was inspired by a portrait I found a while ago from Bex Finch of a woman floating in water.  I wanted to see what I could do, so I filled the tub, set up a tripod, and dripped my way through a series of strange floating images. Out of the night, maybe three of them worked.

As always, my collaborator and best friend Tim Shannon was all support and cheering squad when I sent him the results.  Last night I got home, and while Tim had said he was sending me another camera, I didn’t really realize the magnitude of his awesomeness. (In general, yes, because he’s my homie and I will always always love him. As far as the camera, I was blown away by his generosity.)

In addition to his camera, I have a grocery bag full of fabric from a yard sale this weekend, from potential backdrops to lace overlays. I’m not sure how to turn my apartment into a photo studio yet—I need to find better lighting and use what I remember from the Heroes photo shoot at Greg and Bond’s apartment to visualize what can move and what can be used. I’m not good at spatial reasoning, and I’m sort of feeling like I’m a tumbling disaster zone who’s just going to accidentally break a table by trying to stand on it, or be overwhelmed by the messiness in my life.  Photography pushes all of that to the edges though, and I think that’s what I need.

These portraits are for me—as I regain strength, as I figure out what my body is capable of.  As such, they aren’t really suitable for most audiences.  It’s foolish to think I can put a nude or semi-nude shot up somewhere and have it received as just art.  I don’t know how to dissolve the line between potentially sexual and just form… just ask anyone about Stone Nudes.  I have friends who see body as form, and friends who see body as sexualized, and that’s just the way it is. I might need to find an anonymous forum for these—remove it from self-identification and also from meandering across the screen of someone who wants to know me and not see more of me than they bargained for. A few will make it up on here, but I don’t know about the rest. And I’m not worried about it.

Body is a tricky thing. It’s both intimate and not intimate at all. A body is simply a body, a functional machine made of tissues, muscles, and blood.  And then, in a different light, it’s intimate and something to be carefully shared.  I vacillate between feeling the preciousness of intimacy and feeling the functionality of form.

Now I have lenses, and filters, and a whole new set of things to play with, thanks to Tim Shannon.  I am so lucky in my life, to be loved unconditionally. And so I’m going to explore the vacillation. I’m going to see what I can do.

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Cello and the German Forest*

What have I done, into the darkness? Into the place of fear and terror? Into that place of uncertainty where you aren’t quite sure you’ll make it out alive?

There is a reason I give my watercolors away. They are dances, they are whimsy.  There is no danger in my collage work, pierced with thread as it may be.  There is nothing scary about an insect drawn in ink and watercolor, captured by tissue overlay.  There is peace, perhaps. There is beauty.

Art should be dangerous. I don’t mean that the result should be terrifying or risk actual injury— and maybe this is where I’ve been going about it wrong.  But something in the process should scare the creator. You should find yourself in a dark room, unsure if the oxygen is leaking out. You need to risk.

I remember writing the phrase risk everything in my notebook on the first day of graduate school. I wrote recklessly, I used anything that was part of my life to thread through text.  Everything was fair game.  We risked, yes, but we risked safely, to an audience that was with us, telling us, this risk is something I am doing too. I am with you. I wrote recklessly, and I published, and in the time it took for a collection to take hold and for it to be in my hand, I’d left a man I loved, but there was still love. Until he called me and said how could you?

I’m only now re-emerging from that question, trying to step away from the guilt.  Writing is exposure.  To write, you burrow down into your body and flay it open.  The problem is—fair game.  To love me means to risk that knife at your skin.

What is my terror? My fear is to be forgotten, to be nothing.  That’s every writer’s fear—that we have nothing of us left behind.  That we go gentle into that good night. We want to rage, we want that fire to be seen.  What happens when we’re also afraid of fire, when we sit with buckets to douse, in fear of the flame overcoming? In fear of the flame immolating not just our own bodies, but those of the ones closest to us?  We go a little quieter. I go a little quieter. A friend told me you are like a fishbowl without the glass.  A friend told me you crave too much attention. A friend told me you finally found your voice, I want to read it all.  The problem with a fishbowl is that it’s supposed to be made of glass, it’s supposed to keep some things inside.

Tonight I tried to tell my aunt about exhaustion, about the performance of exhaustion. I’ve been sleeping a lot, I’ve been moving slowly.  I’ve been so tired.  And so, then Exhaustion Performancewhat? There needs to be something generative from this place, this thinness, this transparency.  I keep thinking about a performance in college, where the audience was with me, against me, and then with me again as my body flushed and shook, as my muscles gave out. The problem, I said tonight, was that I was too strong. I didn’t see the performance through to the point where I had no choice.  That night, the recording ended and I dropped my arms, the dictionaries clapped to the ground and the performance slammed shut as I buckled my knees and slumped to the floor.  I fell because I chose to, not because I had no choice.  After the smattering of applause I stood up, I cleared the stage.  I could still move, I was not yet exhausted, I was performing at exhaustion, I was performing at surrender.

I don’t know that I have the strength to surrender choice.  This is why I am scared to lead climb—I am scared to fall.  I push to the edge and then back down to safety.  Down climb to where the rope will hold me instead of surrendering to the air.  Maybe this is why climbing has become my poem—I can physically approach that terror. I can touch the edge before backing down.

I am trying to trust my body more. I am trying to trust words more.  A friend asked me if I considered myself a good writer. Sure, I guess, I shrugged. Would you say you’ve mastered writing? he asked.  Not at all! And he ran through numbers until, cornered by science, I admitted slowly, in stages, that I’m good at this thing. A man came up to me at a bar and said How was the gym tonight? and when I was confused said, I know you, you’re one of the strong women who climbs at Stone Gardens. No, I’m not. Those are the other people, the ones I learn from, the ones I am nowhere near touching.

That internal editor. That little censor.  That voice telling me you don’t know enough, you aren’t strong enough, you should edit again, the line is shaky, the composition off.

This fall feels like a good time to head into the scary forest, to see what I’m capable of. It’s a dangerous place, and it’s scary and there will be tears and there will be terror and there will be a hell of a lot of you can’t do this, retreat to safety.

What have I risked of myself lately for art? Not enough.

*The German Forest is what the folks at Radiolab call the terrifying place when a story is lost.  The phrase comes from an experience during an investigation into Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Thanks to Jad Abumrad and Zoe Keating for “Embracing the Gut Churn” at Benaroya Hall (9/30/14).

Formation

“Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.”

– Viktor Shklovsky

 

I am turning into wind, I am studying the empty stage. I don’t mean to giggle at theory—but the artfulness of an object. The inherent joy of an object losing it’s objectness into artfulness. My body an object turning into wind even as it curls against a sturdy futon mattress, beneath a woven blanket that felt grass and sun through summer, spread at a park, a Frisbee flying between bodies, a dog curled in the shade.  The rain outside falling falling. Ice in my glass melting and the glass sweating against a coaster, as if the coffee table is worth protecting. My lips taste like lime.

There is a difference between entertainment-theater and theater-art. I never thought about the way theater migrated from text. A writer, not thinking about the migration away from text? Even as I find words limiting, even as I push words out of my body to feel the motion of my bones again. My mind moving away from text.  A teacher and friend from graduate school, reading on a stage. He tells me after, as I stand in line to say hello, you’re smiling more than I’ve ever seen. Keep climbing. That’s your poem. He turns to my friend, see how happy she looks? I remember clapping my hand over my mouth in the middle of the evening to stop a burst of laughter. One doesn’t laugh at a poetry reading. And then releasing the sound into the darkness, because JF was laughing too. Poetry is more than a page. Let’s move away from text. I mean to say, this thing on a stage is more than entertainment. (That thing? I read a story on the shores of the ocean, between a teacher and student. This and that. How this is an intimate gesture, including an object into your own world rather than pushing it into that. This stage.)

I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable around theater. This is despite the way I found myself on a stage, my arms covered in air vents, or my hair bright blonde and teased into a Blonde Character, or kneeling as a fence post in a children’s theater production of James and the Giant Peach. I’ve been in plays, I’ve sung the songs, I’ve danced in black heels made for dancing.  I clapped coconuts together and put on my best Monty Python accent. Are you suggesting coconuts migrate? Cue laughter, because I know this script, and we know the way it plays. I’ve never been able to commit.  Fear of losing myself, fear of the way a self needs to dissolve away into someone else. Self-aware fencepost. Robot with human heart. Cloak of uncomfortableness, settled around my shoulders.

I read about theater as audience becomes actor—the tricks of the Dada movement. Put glue on a seat. Liberally distribute itching powder. Audience begins to act. To react, the audience breaks the wall because they cannot sit still (or they can only sit still, glued as they are.)  I read about Marina Abramović and the audience finally intervening, covering her with coats, carrying her bleeding body off. I imagine myself in the audience—would I move forward to stop something that is Art? I imagine myself Marina. Would I slice a star into my stomach for Art?

Nox- Anne CarsonI am shocked that I haven’t returned to Anne Carson yet—the queen of my heart. The way she plays with space—beyond page. A poet who forces the page away. The text is not privileged. I am laughing at theory, curled on my couch, and Anne sits on my shelf, pressed into pages. How can one read about a movement away from text? Giggle. Take a sip of gin. Read more about how text is unimportant, how the movement matters. Read movement.  Are instructions for a performance the same thing as a performance? A friend sends me Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure. “Press as much of the front surface of/your body (palms in or out, left or right cheek)/against the wall as possible.” I read and feel the wall. The futon against my back. This is my performance, for an audience of self, for a quiet, gin filled audience, giggling into a rain filled night.

The problem with reading is the way research begins to spider web. I begin one book and now have Rilke and Viktor Shklovsky, Carson and Marina. I have a collection of short stories and a dance performance. My table is stacked, my gin has run out. This isn’t a finished thing, there isn’t a curtain to drop, I’m not sure who the audience is or when s/he will come wheeling in to cart me off.  This is the fun part of a project, the formation.

 

My Summer Project

It’s only the second week of April and already my body feels that summer is in full swing.  I’ve spent two weekends in the bright sun at Vantage and I’m headed, in just under an hour, towards Smith Rock.

I’ve been struggling to find a way to bring art back into my life– I don’t write poetry with any regularity, I’m not reading theory or novels, and I haven’t been focused on visual work in a long time.  In short– I’ve been in the climbing gym a hell of a lot, I’ve been working to help start SheRocks and I’ve been (gasp) working at my job.  Other people find ways of keeping at art, but I’ve let it slip.  That is, until recently. Sometimes it just takes one person to look at you a different way and call you something you used to hear regularly to reawaken. I’m not sure how exactly my art background came up when talking with G at first, but it did, and then it didn’t stop. We ended up spending a day climbing at the gym and then working on art together and I stumbled into my next project– an attempt to combine rock and art.

I’ve been doing block prints for a long time, but never for anything serious.  I usually contribute a design for the beer labels when I brew with B, and I make my sister’s holiday cards, but I can’t really remember the last print project I took on for myself.  This summer– I’m going to document my climbs. I’m still working on the parameters, but for now, every weekend that I go climbing I will make a print based on the location.  My end goal, at the moment, is to combine all the prints into a hand bound book at the end of the summer.

There are a couple of things that really excite me about this.  First, it’s going to be a challenge to work with the same location multiple times.  The basalt columns of Frenchman Coulee are beautiful, but if I go there a few times, I don’t want the same column image.  Second, I get to play with inking to bring out additional details. Third, I know, logically, that I had a lot of adventures last summer.  It still feels like I barely got outside.  At the end of this summer I will have a stack of prints that are irrefutable proof that yes, adventure happened.  I’m writing the location, date, and the company I was with on the back of each plate, and I might add the text to the images for the final presentation.

Anyhow. That’s my plan. It’ll change, I’m sure, but that’s the plan so far.

Here are two of the images from the series so far, rough test prints.

Zig Zag wall with Gavin, Chloe and Brad.

Zig Zag wall with Gavin, Chloe and Brad.

Millennium Wall with Sarah, Dyan and Max

Millennium Wall with Sarah, Dyan and Max

A Lantern To Guide You

So much, so much.

I confess, I am a little overwhelmed by things these days.  The new job is similar enough that the differences are frustrating and confusing.  On the plus side, when I am feeling underwater I can walk out to the balcony and listen to the actual water of the shipping channel that’s only a dock-length away from my new building. AWP is coming into town, and I haven’t even thought about the readings and panels I want to go to. So much.

So of course now is the time I choose to start a new project.  I’ve been playing with the idea of self portraiture for a while now, but I haven’t actually done anything about it. Something about the intimacy of portraits seemed important to me, and with my temporary roommate again in Hawaii I found myself alone in my place, rattling around a space suddenly too large, craving contact.  A good session at the climbing gym helped, but I still came home wanting exposure.  I still haven’t gotten around to putting artwork up in my room and while cleaning I found the tripod my roommate left behind.  White wall, tripod, camera. Go.

While I am comfortable in my own body, I am incredibly uncomfortable in front of a camera. I put on music, grabbed the nearest thing to my bed (an old train lantern I bought to replace the one I remembered from childhood), set up the camera and jumped on my bed to get the white wall behind me. I wasn’t intending to strip layers, but the jeans were too bulky in the first test shot and I looked bundled and hidden.  This project is about exposure and intimacy. Off came the pants, using skin to contrast the black sweater I had on and to match the white wall and bright point of light. I haven’t done anything with photography in a long time so there are a few misfires with focal ranges that are way too small and shutter speeds that blurred things just poorly enough to look out of focus but not intentionally so.  The camera display is much brighter than the resulting images, and I have to re-learn how to adjust f-stops and shutter speeds while testing it on the blank nothing my body will fill in the space between a shutter and the 10 second shutter delay.

I’m including a few of the original shots here, unedited, and some of the final edits.  I’ve been published the better results on Instagram, and you can find that whole stream with the hashtag #lanternseries or #lampseries.

These were taken across two nights, and I realized that as much as I like the idea of self portraits, I might need an assistant.  At first I tried to balance the lantern on my feet– crashing disaster, and I’m lucky I didn’t scorch myself with hot wax or catch anything on fire.  I switched to a camp lantern after that and while the luminosity is better, I don’t know if I’m happy with the aesthetic.  One costume change into a black lace dress that I have (everyone has a black lace dress, right?). I’m only just beginning this series, and I’m excited to see where it goes, though I don’t really have an outlet in mind.  It’s nice to be pouring into art again, in between climbing, skiing, a new job, remembering to cook dinner…. And it’s giving me something to do in the hours between darkness and sleep that feels intimate and exposing. I suspect as I get more comfortable I’ll strip these images down more, and then I really don’t know where they’ll be able to end up.  I’m sort of ok if it isn’t anywhere– it’s the process that’s interesting me right now.

Enjoy!

LaternTest1

LanternTest2 LanternTest3

 

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Happy Holidays from the Vergalla ladies

Last year my sister asked me to make holiday cards to send to her clients– this year I decided to document the process a little better. So here we go: holiday prints 101. 

Step 1: Befriend crazy and wonderful backcountry skiers. They will fill your head with stories about mountains and bring you back beautiful snowscape photography from their adventures.  The first print I made was from a photograph taken by my dear friend B. Through him I had the good fortune to meet Kyle Miller.  Kyle’s proven to be one of the kindest people I’ve ever known and he’s given me full reign of his photographs and instagram feed. Last year’s image was of Nason Ridge, here in the Cascades.  This year Kyle is traveling in Australia and New Zealand for Eddie Bauer. I asked my sister to look through his photos and she picked an image of Mt Cook/ Aoraki from the end of September. 

SuppliesStep 2: Get your supplies ready. I printed Kyle’s photo, in reverse, for reference.  I use a soft rubber plate for the print and generally use a linoleum cutter that’s hooked rather than straight.  I find it easier and it seems to have less stabbing danger. 

First cuts

Step 3: Use water soluble markers to draw the image on the plate. I tend to draw the positive, not the negative, and indicate with squiggles where I’ll end up being somewhat free-form with the blade.  

test image

Step 4: Test print and readjust. At this point I usually hide the reference photograph.  It doesn’t really matter what the image is supposed to look like, work with what you have going. I ended up smoothing out the river banks and adding some illumination to the band of mountain that’s not yet snow-covered.

ready to print

Step 5: Ink it up and get printing.  I use water soluble inks– they’re just easier to deal with.  They aren’t water-safe but cards aren’t, by their nature, water-safe. 

cards drying

 

I printed up as many cards as I had card stock and they will be winging their way towards Philadelphia by the end of the week, with a few set aside for Kyle when he gets back to the US in late December.  

Next printmaking project: the peaks of the Pacific Northwest for B’s beer labels. So much to do, so much to do. 

 

Arbitrary Decisions and Fishbowls

Climbing in costume

I love starting my week at Stone Gardens with some of my best friends. (Full confession, the photo above is from The Seattle Bouldering Project, on Halloween, not tonight. But it’s a gym photo, so I thought it fit).  It was after one of our climbing nights that a friend described me one of the most accurate ways I’ve heard so far, saying that I live my life like a fish in a fishbowl, minus the glass.  I’ve tried, in the past, to keep this blog very Art Focused, but I think that’s also one of the reasons I stopped writing for so long.  I didn’t want my personal life to come into my Artist’s Persona– I wanted to keep an academic sense of distance.

Monday NightI’m just not that kind of person. I don’t keep distance, I don’t shy away from personal stories.  My Monday night crew knows this, perhaps better than anyone.  They hear my stories about bad dates and good dates, co-workers and  family.  My life is open to my friends, perhaps too much so. I’m not about to start using this space as a confessional, but I think that it’s okay to let some personal life blur in, especially if it means I’m writing more.  

This weekend I spent a lot of time by myself, and it’s something I need to do more of.  In that effort, I decided, somewhat arbitrarily, that I don’t get to date until I can climb a 5.11+ cleanly or make it to the top of a 5.12- at Stone Gardens.  It seemed a good stretch goal– I’m climbing 5.11-s clean these days, but it took me weeks to get to the top of a 5.11+ and I’ve never made any real progress on a 5.12.  There are, of course, men who are on a list of exceptions– there have to be loopholes. But for the most part, I want to focus on getting stronger without the distraction of does he like me, am I being too eager, do I like him, when will I see him next… Setting a climbing goal seemed like a good way to do it.  Becoming a stronger climber means more yoga and meditation, more mental focus, more complete body strength.

Except- new routes were set a few days ago that I hadn’t accounted for, including a really fun 5.11+.  My first try was a complete shut-down, as I expected.  And then, when I came back to it— it just made more sense. It wasn’t easy, but it made sense. I didn’t finish it clean, but it’s within my grasp.  So much for a stretch goal.  Does that mean I’m ready to date? I don’t think so– I think I need a better goal. Because the thing is– dating is great, but so is the space I’ve found recently. This space has given me back writing and art, in addition to a stronger body.  I’m going to get the 5.11+ clean, hopefully in the next few days.  And I’m going to find another goal, to keep my heart open.