Saturday, December 12, 2009

"The Fabric of Our Lives" - memory embedded in material

"Bars" work-clothes quilt (ca. 1950) by Lutisha Pettway (Gees Bend quilter)

Double Dutch on the Golden Gate Bridge (1988) by Faith Ringgold

Quilting is an art medium that is inherently rich with memory - down to the actual material itself. The images above are examples of both material as meaning, and image as meaning. The Gees Bend quilt (above, top) is a simple assemblage of old work clothes, and the history and association of the material gives the quilt significant meaning. The quilt by Faith Ringgold (above, bottom) is just as much about the material as it is about the imagery that is painted upon it.

I come from a family of quilters, and I learned to quilt from my mom. There is something so special and comforting about curling up under a handmade quilt, especially when you know and love the person who made it. I have a patchwork quilt at home that is made from many little pieces of old fabric - some that look like they were once old clothes or bedsheets. I know someone in my family (a great-grandmother?) made it, and it is completely hand sewn...I know it is something that I should probably preserve or put away, but I love to be wrapped up in it. In response to a self-portrait project assignment in my photo class last semester, I took the following photo of my feet popping out from underneath this quilt:

Another quilt-related story I would like to mention is my experience this past year working with documentary quilter (and one of my professors at MICA) Dr. Joan Gaither. I have had the privilege to work with Joan on her quilts, most recently her "Black Watermen of the Chesapeake Bay" quilt. Joan's main focus in her quilts is to "tell the stories that need to be told - stories that are being lost". Every square inch of her huge (think 8x12 feet) quilts are covered in meaningful embellishments, photos, and text to honor and remember the people whose stories may not be known. Joan takes her work into the community to engage and involve the public with the work, as well as to gather information about the people and places she plans to memorialize through her work. Here is a photo of Joan with the "Black Watermen of the Chesapeake" quilt at the unveiling and dedication ceremony this past Wednesday at the Annapolis Maritime Museum.

The "Black Watermen of the Chesapeake Bay" quilt, along with the 6 other quilts in her "My American Series" will begin their national tour starting next week. For more information on the quilts and the traveling exhibition, go to

Friday, December 11, 2009

More memento mori

Memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning "Be mindful of death" and may be translated as "Remember that you are mortal," "Remember you will die," "Remember that you must die," or "Remember your death".

Memento mori objects and artwork are often used not only to remind the owner/viewer of their own mortality, but often to remember people that have passed away.

Hairwork Bracelet
clasp - 1”w x 1.25” l; bracelet - 7.5” l x .5” w

"Hair jewelry functioned as a keepsake of the dead and as a memento mori, a reminder that death was an ever-present possibility; the wearer was constantly reminded that she should lead a good life because death could strike without warning. Often a wearer would add more hair pieces to a glass-covered brooch when additional relatives or friends passed away. Hair jewelry was not always worn to commemorate the dead; lovers also wore pieces made from the couple’s hair."

from History of Hair Jewelry in Victorian America, curated by Amy Karoly

Polly Morgan
To Each Seed His Own Body
mixed media - taxidermy bird, bell jar, miniature chandelier, book

Found in Modern Painters magazine, April 2009 issue

Some questions and prompts centered around death/memory/time:

Design a reliquary to honor a special person, pet, or thing that you have lost. How will you design this piece of artwork? Will it be a momentous sculpture for all to see? Or will it be a small reminder that you can carry with you and keep private?

How do/did different people/cultures through time use their art to deal with death? For example, the Ancient Egyptians mummified their dead and built exquisite sarcophagi and shrines. The Mimbres people would place a decorative bowl over the face of the deceased that had a hole in the middle through which the person’s soul would travel in the afterlife. Research different traditions and then create your own “tradition” or ritual to honor the dead.

Create a piece of artwork that seems to set time still.

Loren Schwerd

Loren Shwerd
1812 Tupelo St.
Human hair, steel wire, fiberglass screen, thread; plaited, needlepointed onto screen, stitched
23” x 24” x 8”

Inspired by eighteenth-century memento mori hair art, this artist mourns the loss of homes in New Orleans by reconstructing them with hair extensions found in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (found in Fiber Arts magazine)

Some questions to think about and use to prompt students to think about topics of loss and memory, specifically related to homes in New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina:

How do you feel when you think about the effects of Hurricane Katrina? What are other events that can cause people to lose their homes or things that are important to them? What do people do when they lose everything?

How does your home make you feel? What are some memories or feelings associated with “home”? How do you define “home”?

What other kinds of “homes” can you think of? What’s the difference between a shelter and a home?

What do people in different cultures do to remember or commemorate something or someone? What is something or someone you have lost that you feel should be remembered or commemorated and how?

Create an art piece that commemorates, celebrates, or remembers someone or something important to you. What materials do you choose and why? What imagery or form do you choose and why?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Living many little lives

My boyfriend and I moved into our new apartment in April of last year, and because that time happened to be in the middle of the spring semester, there were a lot of boxes that just never got unpacked. Also, my parents recently went on a cleaning spree, and asked that I clean out all of my old stuff from their basement - I had boxes full of stuff from high school (over 10 years ago) and from my undergrad time in Boston (5 years ago). On a recent visit to Maryland, my parents unloaded a few of these boxes, which sat with the other unpacked boxes for a while. Until the other night. I needed a break from homework and so I decided I would bring a box or two up from the basement to unpack. I figure if I unpack one or two boxes every few days, I can get through the pile in a few weeks...although I am realizing now that it won’t go that quickly if I work at the pace I did the other night...

Inside the boxes I found old photos, sketchbooks, journals, letters, planners, and other traces of what I like to think of as some of the “little lives” I have lived through the years. It was almost like an archeological dig as I found evidence of my lives from the past - many things that I didn’t remember...or had forgotten about until I had them in my hand again. I was overwhelmed with all sorts of emotions, but all of it was veiled with a kind of sad, nostalgic feeling. Why is it that many people (at least I know I do) experience melancholy emotions when we are reminded of times gone by?

Do you ever feel like you have lived many “little lives”? I have lived in so many places, and with so many different people...I have been to different schools, been in different programs, worked in the “real world” in different capacities, had different roles and responsibilities...I watched my family change, watched my younger siblings grow up. And through all of this, although I have remained essentially the same person, my identity has changed as well. I am amazed by the fluidity of identity, and am reminded of the phrase “the only constant is change”. It is amazing to go through boxes where I could see how and when I changed and why. I relived happy and sad times, and by the end my “walk down memory lane” (that is, reading old letters/journals and looking at old pictures) I was exhausted.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Fabricated memories

Memory is so fluid and can be so is a blurry version of the truth, and often times is not truth at all. I have found that I have fabricated childhood memories of times growing up with good friends, when in fact, I didn't meet them until later in my life...I forget who said what in arguments, I have things I believe to be true about myself (or others) that were lies I told when I was young. It is so interesting to me that we base so much of what we know to be TRUE on memory - something that is not truth (and something that changes and that often time we lose). Our identity is reliant on memory as well - how we remember growing up, how we make decisions and live our lives based on what we remember about decisions and results/consequences in the past. Even perceptions of intelligence are based on how much a person can remember...

from Louise Bourgeois' "Ode à l’Oubli" (Ode to Forgetfulness), 2004

Louise Bourgeious created (or "fabricated"...haha) a fabric book full of prints and sewn images and text and called it "Ode à l’Oubli" (Ode to Forgetfulness). The image above is of one of the pages of the book, and I think it is really beautiful and truthful in its honesty. This is usually something that people (at least adults) don't want to admit - that they are losing or fabricating false memory. The book is filled with images of patterns and shapes - it almost reminds me of flash cards or one of those memory games you find online - something to teach you or remind you about something you lost or forgot.

If you want to see a slide show of all of the pages of the book, click here:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sand painting performance artist Kseniya Simonova

This video is of a contestant on Ukraine's version of "You've Got Talent" (I believe she was actually the winner) who uses sand and a light table to create her performance art. With these materials, she (Kseniya Simonova) creates a constantly changing "sand animation". In this particular piece, she recounts Germany conquering Ukraine in WWII. When I watched this video, I noted the reactions of the judges and audience - many people were cheering and crying and emotional in reaction to this work that referenced events from over 60 years ago.

I guess I posted this piece to illustrate that kind of collective memory that groups of people possess. These kinds of groups can be connected in many ways - perhaps by familial bonds, religion, ethnicity, country, or by shared experience - in any instance, there is a shared or collective memory among members of a group. I find the strength and power of that kind of shared memory really fascinating. In the end of the performance she writes "you are always near" and "1945" and the crowd goes wild...

(I will warn you, in the normal TV-talent-show format, it does get a little cheesy with the judges crying, but I think the way this artist works is really amazing - I've never seen anything like it. Enjoy!)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The MEMORY exhibit at the Exploratorium

The Exploratorium
(the museum of science, art, and human perception in San Francisco) had an exhibit on Memory in 1998, and still have the website from the exhibit up here. The website has a lot of different content - from an exploration of the anatomy of memory (comparing human brains to similarly structured and functioning sheep brains - see photo above) to games that deal with memory in relation to perception.