My most recent body of work—sculptures that hold my late father’s ceramics—began as a way of connecting with him. His ceramics were made in the late 70’s out of clay he would dig up from rivers. Near the farmhouse where he lived was a cemetery adjacent to a stream; he found that the clay was especially good in this stream and wondered if the nearby cemetery had any influence on this. I too find the dead influencing the materials I use in my practice; through a desire to protect my father’s artistic legacy I have focused on materials that can physically protect ceramics and am using those materials to build sculptures that hold my father’s work.
What I struggled with formally in making this work was wanting to have my father’s work be front and center in each piece. This was problematic though because my work, with its vibrant colors, grabs the viewers’ attention more immediately. Felix Gonzalez-Torres “Untitled” 1989-present deeply impacted my thinking with regards to artistic legacy and connecting my work to the work of my late father. In the piece “Untitled” 1989-present, Gonzalez-Torres uses moments of his own life in the text piece: the moments are personal, but they are not moments that the viewer would necessarily understand. Each time the piece is reinstalled, one of the moments from Gonzalez-Torres’ life is replaced with a current event. As the piece is displayed, the concept of moments in time being recorded by the piece remains, but the specific moments of Gonzalez-Torres’ life are little-by-little wiped away, allowing less of the artist’s personal life to be present in the piece. It serves as a memorial to the artist, but also comments on memorials, as over time they too shift in their meaning and are not fixed. This complexity in thinking allowed me to separate my father’s work from being contextualized by the 1970’s and ask what he would want for the work today. How would my father want us to collaborate? The Gonzalez-Torres piece reminded me of the importance of being able to oscillate between disconnecting from the mythos of the artist/my father and look directly at the work, and then look at the work as being intimately entwined with who my father was. In approaching the collaboration from this new perspective, I realized that both my father’s work and my work needed to be intertwined, creating new pieces that gives both artists equal attention.
Texture, color, and pattern all interest me in the work that I make. For this body of work, it was important to me to talk about my relationship to my father’s pottery and how I treat it as something that is so precious, despite the fact that the earthenware was intended for everyday use. I began thinking of using only packing materials to make the work. This greatly limited my color palette. To continue working within these parameters I started asking what are the different objects that could be used for packing pottery, not just what the standard ones are. Asking this question helped me to move beyond bubble wrap and foam and think of pillows or even insulation as possibility. Using the pillows allowed me to bring color into the work through the fabric choices that were available; but I continued to feel constrained by working with “ready-made” colors. I needed to have more control over the color that I was putting into the work and that’s when I decided it was time to break my own self-imposed rules and start using paint. After months of working within very specific material constraints, it was really liberating to get the spray paint out or dip pieces into house paints.
When sourcing the fabrics to make the pillows, I was interested in using some fabric that was already in my home and to my surprise also was drawn to fabric that reminded me of my paternal grandmother. The fabric that I used from my home was from clothing that I used to wear and a pillowcase—things that were physically close to me. Fabric that I bought had patterns that were similar to the sofa that was in my grandparents’ living room. For the 18 years that I would come and go from that living room, it did not change; the harvest gold floral patterned sofas remained in their same places; near one of the sofas was a picture of my father in his army uniform, approximately 18 years of age in the photograph. My father and the room remained fixed in a specific place in time. I was very close with my paternal grandparents (and while I have no memory of my father who died when I was an infant), I still dream of my grandparents. When I do we are together in their unchanging living room. I was not able to find a floral fabric that was in the shade of yellow that my grandmother’s couch was upholstered in, so I chose one with shades of pink and purple, colors that I’m fond of. I found a velvet fabric that was similar to the yellow I remember and made a pillow from that fabric.
During the time that I was making this body of work, I ended up breaking my leg by falling off a skateboard. My kids were disappointed that I got a walking boot rather than the traditional plaster cast, because they wanted to decorate the cast. It was at that time that I thought of bringing plaster in as a material for this body of work. I’ve long loved the art of Kintsugi, where the break in a piece of ceramics is repaired by using lacquer which is then dusted in gold, the idea being that the break in the ceramics ultimately makes it more beautiful. Thinking of my own broken bone healing, or of my heart healing from the loss of my father, the plaster casting became a way of talking about structures that hold something together while healing takes place internally. Though the plaster is not a packing material, it does fit with what I’m wanting to say about grieving my father: while losing him breaks my heart and will impact me for the rest of my life, it has also shaped me to understand that what breaks my heart does not have to break my spirit.
Each of three stacks of pillows holds a serving bowl. Each stack is a different height, and formed out of layers of pillows and strips of foam. The largest stack has sections of the pillows plastered over as well as a serving bowl that is at the top. Within the serving bowl is a roll of pink bubble wrap, which is echoed lower the piece with a roll of orange bubble wrap supporting the stack of pillows. All three towers of pillows look precarious, as though they could fall over. There is a sense of preciousness to the bowls that are placed on top of the pillows. I built the tallest stack of pillows to roughly the height that my father would be, perhaps a little taller. In this gesture of placing his work on these piles of pillows I am putting my father’s memory on a pedestal. I have resisted putting my father on a pedestal my whole life; I have deeply wanted to know him for who he was, flaws and all. What I have come to learn though is that grief puts every aspect of the beloved on a pedestal, and we miss even the flaws. In this desire to know both my father’s strengths and weakness is, in a sense, a way of idealizing him, thinking that I could accept all of his characteristics. There is a precarious nature to the pedestals that we build for those we love; new information or memories can make the structure fail; the piles of pillows with my father’s ceramics demonstrate that. While I long to know my father as a human, faults and all, this work is made from looking at his best work. I in turn have stretched into a new medium (sculpture) in order to make work that could be integrated with my father’s work. In a sense, we are both artists, bringing the myths of who we are to this project, yet I have never felt closer to knowing my father as person as I do now.