As I’ve recovered from surgery, I’ve found my way back to teaching art to my beloved friends at Thomas Circle Retirement Community. I decided to teach the technique of assemblage. So I set out to make a piece as an example and document the thinking and the process I took along the way.
I didn’t intend it to be personal. I must have forgotten that art is healing and healing is always personal.
I’d asked participants to bring a photo of themselves in their youth and a box to the first class. In the example that I started to create for them, I chose a picture of myself and my mother taken in 1967 that I’ve always loved. The flash above my head, the light that creates bars across our bodies, the iridescence of the shiny pattern in the old couch — such a beautifully bad photo my father took one morning in Baltimore. The flash above my head, the light bands across our bodies and the reflective fabric details initially brought to my mind the miracle of genetic code that is inherited from our parents.
A chemistry textbook written in 1941 and downloaded genetic sequences took way too much of my time as I tried hard to make a statement about my inheritance. I rejected the result as too heavy-handed. I also spent a long time with micro twinkle lights that made the piece a gimmick. I was relaying the surface, the concept, but not the real meaty stuff of legacy.
When I paused in frustration and concentrated on the few things I can remember about this time in my life, the year before my brother was born, I had a breakthrough. There was an old chest with tall Queen Anne legs, the bottoms of which were claw and ball. Mom had painted it a cheery yellow. The two doors of the cabinet had brass lion pulls — the rings were in their mouths. Perhaps these were memorable because they were right at shoulder level for me. When opened, the cabinet revealed a red velvet flocked wallpaper — shocking even to a 4 year old in its ironic juxtaposition of school-bus paint and musty Victorian interior. On many occasions I bent into the cabinet, my belly on the nubby paper and the smell of chemical glue in my nose.
This memory led to my choice to use the box top painted bright yellow to involve the viewer in the reveal of cool darkness inside. I have an old circle pin with Mom’s married initials on it that I’ve attached to the brass pull — making this more of a memorial to her in my mind.
The inside of the box top is part of an old housecoat (I guess I got this from her –I can’t imagine who else would have given me a housecoat!) memorializing a time and place that embraced the aesthetic of monogrammed circle pins, this piece of furniture, avocado colored kitchens, sculptured wall to wall carpets, bouffant hair dos and brightly colored housecoats.
As I worked with this piece, I laid down, once again, in that cool dark interior and allowed my vision to adjust, something I couldn’t allow myself to do this summer as I went through surgery for stage 1 breast cancer. I couldn’t add another heartbreak to my losses. There in the darkness I remembered a conversation I had with Mom in the Weinberg Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins after her surgery for pancreatic cancer. She took my hand, squeezed it and thanked me for coming every day to see her. I love you mom, I said. “If it were you in this bed, I’d sleep on the floor,” was her reply. The love she had for her family was so bright it still shines on me; it was so bright it was captured in the flash above my head in 1967.
Her parents loved her as fiercely as she loved my brother and me. As people who were born, raised and are buried in the Appalachian mountains of Eastern Kentucky, they are most likely responsible for the lyrics of the old Carter Family song that came to me as I painted and glued the final parts of the box:
Well, there’s a dark and a troubled side of life,/There’s a bright and a sunny side too…/Keep on the sunny-side, always on the sunny-side/Keep on the sunny-side of life…
The song brought me back to summer mornings in the kitchen in Harlan, KY listening to my Mom and her mother talk and laugh as they put up vegetables from the garden for the winter in their brightly colored housecoats.
My intention was to demonstrate a process of collecting, assembling and evoking a memory, dream or concept for my class. The universe reminded me of my legacy, the darkness and salty taste of grief, and the comfort and warmth of the light of love. I am so grateful for the healing that comes from the yoga of art-making.