After a fitful night on the redeye from Los Angeles, I took the train from the Philadelphia airport to downtown, then got on a bus to a coffee shop where I regrouped over a delicious breakfast. I dragged my suitcase to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where I was immediately irritated about being asked to open it for inspection when I walked in the door. I’m not sure what that was about, since there was no actual “searching.” I have a difficult time understanding our culture of security, it seemed to me that the idea was less about seeing what was inside my bag and more about having the museum visitor understand the idea of authority. Perhaps it was performance art. In any case, I grumpily opened my backpack and suitcase, then took it straight to the coatroom where it was safely stowed away.
I beelined to the room at the end of the European section where the works of Marcel Duchamp are squirreled away. I got there in time to watch a school group arguing whether or not his piece “Bicycle Wheel” was art or not. It seemed to be a high school group, accompanied by a a museum educator who had asked for volunteer students to stand up and present their two opposing viewpoints to the class. While I waited for what I was hoping would be a heated argument to erupt, I wandered into the darkened room that houses Étant donnés. A dude was in there looking lost and asked me, “is there anything in here?” I pointed to the door and he wandered over to look through the small peepholes. “I don’t see the waterfall,” he said.
Back at Bicycle Wheel, a young man stood up to say that it wasn’t art because it was a bicycle wheel and that it wasn’t beautiful and that other things in the museum were obviously art, but this is not art. The rebuttal was made by a slim girl with a stripey shirt on who gave a compelling argument about how it was art because beauty is different for everyone and maybe “Marcel” had gone on a bicycle trip or had written a poem about a bicycle. The museum educator then asked everyone if they would think about this piece when seeing bicycles in the future and some said “maybe” and others said “no way.” Meanwhile, during their dialogue, the dude had brought his dude friend over to peep in the peepholes in the small, dimly lit room. They were giggling and wearing big dayglo stickers which I think identified them as parents to a group of very young children who were making art with fabric strips in another room while the parents were all taking pictures of them with their cellphones. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is a very lively place on a Thursday morning, crowded with visitors.
Sometimes you have to pack it all in. A weekend last month taught me a perfect triad of new skills. On Saturday I began the day with a crew of spinners. In the afternoon, I went to acting class, then home for a mellow walk to a neighborhood bar and video store. An early bedtime prepared me for a Sunday morning of tactical handgun training in the mountains. The weekend ended with gourmet ice cream. Los Angeles is a magical world.
The weather was beautiful all weekend. Sunroof open, I drove to a West Side church where the Greater Los Angeles Spinning Guild was having their monthly meeting. These aren’t the kind of spinners riding stationary bikes. These are primarily ladies, and they’re equipped with spindles and wheels and loads of natural fibers that they draw into long, even strands for weaving and knitting. The technology is old and new. Wheels are made of plywood or hardwood. Some are plastic. Spinning wheels can be small and mighty, large and rangy, or somewhere in between. Members sit on folding chairs and spin. I am attracted to spinning as a witchy past-time; I like the idea of spinning the future. I am a new member of the Guild.
The program was about spindles. Guild members stood up to talk about various types. Some are supported, by spinning on the floor or on a table, and others drop down as the yarn is formed by the spin. Anita showed examples of suspended spindles, top whorl and bottom whorl. Andrea demonstrated how a Turkish spindle allows the newly spun yarn to be wrapped around the spokes. Support spindles spin like tops, sometimes in a small bowl. A Navajo spindle is large and spins on the floor. Sheila took off her shoes to operate her kick spindle. At the end of the demonstration, she said it was for sale. It was sold almost immediately.
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As I write this, there are 25 half-naked and sweaty people in Michael Parker’s shared studio space climbing in and out of a large, egg-shaped steam chamber. The only bottom-entry steam egg of its kind (patent pending), or at least the only one we’ve seen in these parts, was built by Parker. It’s covered in small mirrors, which causes people to comment that it looks like an oversized disco ball. Eight people can fit inside tightly; it’s better when there’s just a handful of folks. It’s wet and sticky in there. Perspiration combined with steam results in drips and rivulets. You get to know people in that egg. Conversations are hushed or boisterous, and sometimes people hoot or sing just to see what the sound does as it echoes off the curved walls inside.
The steam is made in four electric tea kettles, linked together with copper pipes that bring it into the egg. It’s low tech, but efficient. It heats up quickly and stays incredibly steamy. If it gets too hot, some of the kettles can be turned off. The only downside to this system is that it requires vigilance. Michael’s running around much of the night with a funnel and pot of scented water, making sure nothing dries out.
Each week, a different DJ provides sounds to accompany the steam and an “HerbJ” brings smells to scent the steam. Most of the smells come from local plants. Tonight’s HerbJ, Amanda Ackerman, permeated the air with the scent of California sagebrush. A sign on the door regaled visitors with the benefits of this plant, among which is “lets you release the dysfunctional parts of yourself.”
What makes you tick, what floats your boat? What do artists look at for inspiration? I asked L.A. artist Alyse Emdur to toss over a few images that rock her boat, and she sent me five zingers. Her current project examines portrait photography studios in American prisons. She’s interested in how scenes of landscapes and cityscapes are used as backdrops for photographs of inmates. Currently, she is working on a book, Prison Landscapes (Four Corners Books, 2012), that includes both portraits made in prison studios and photographs she made of backdrops in the visiting rooms. Alyse draws inspiration from images and ideas that humanize political struggle through self-empowerment; here are some of the ones she shared:
I visited Daniel Marlos at the Mt. Washington Slavic Bakery, which is also his home and garden, where he made pirohi and sauerkraut soup for lunch. Daniel teaches photography at Los Angeles City College. He makes photographs, breeds fish, ferments sauerkraut, grows vegetables, and creates incredible quilts. He is also the Bugman on the infamous Whatsthatbug.com website. Daniel learned to make pirohi as a child, when he accompanied his grandmother to the Ukranian church in Youngstown, Ohio. They made pirohi each week.
Daniel is now an expert in the art of preparing pirohi and it takes him nearly no time to whip up a batch of succulent doughy goodness. When I arrived, he had already made the filling, a mix of cheddar cheese and mashed potatoes, and it was my job to shape them into balls while he prepared the dough.
I spent a couple of days this week in Las Cruces, New Mexico, visiting New Mexico State University, where the school mascot is a mustachioed man with a handgun named “Pistol Pete.” My explorations of Las Cruces were limited, but I did get an opportunity to visit Kenny, who sells used wheelchairs, shower stools and walkers out of the back of his pickup truck in front of one of the local churches. Kenny told me that he gets the gear from San Antonio, because locally they just cut it up so that people will have to buy it new. He pointed out the different kinds of shower stools, one that will hold a person weighing up to 250 pounds and another to hold a 400 pound person.
The art program at NMSU is fairly large, with around 200 undergraduate art majors and a small group of graduate students. They have programs in metal-smithing, ceramics, painting, photography, conservation, print-making, art history, and drawing, and the students I met were generally dedicated, inquisitive, and hard-working. In two short days, I spoke with eleven students about their work and saw a crosscut of concerns, ranging from pink slime to apocalypse. Many of the students were interested in exploring identity through their work, and several of the women were specifically interested in feminism and ideas about women’s place in a larger society.
On Tuesday, we set up a table in front of the art building and showed students how to spin wool fiber into yarn at a “Spin-In.” Spinning is a very simple process that is a bit tricky to master. I learned to spin last year, on a wheel. A friend taught me the basics. Spinning is magical and witchy, and the action of spinning is helpful for understanding both the structure of yarn and the history of worldwide textile production. Without spinning, we’d all be naked or clad solely in animal skins. The ability to twist fibers into something that can be woven transformed humanity. It’s impossible to imagine a world without thread, and, when learning to spin for the first time, impossible to understand how this small action could be responsible for the miles of textiles that surround us daily.
It’s unclear exactly where the next two weeks of guest blogging is going to go. Most likely, it will go where I do, weaving alongside my own paths through the near future. I’m always in the middle of things, the swamp of possibilities mucks wide in all directions, and most of my own work grows out of the murky waters of humdrum everyday existence. The day-to-day is inspiring and endlessly exciting, and if it’s not, I’ll pretend (at least for the next couple of weeks) that it is. I’m going to treat this blog as a scrapbook of sorts, a cataloging of what’s up, what’s new, what’s going on. It sounds boring when I say it like that, and maybe it will be, or maybe boring’s just in the eye of the beholder.
Yesterday, while visiting Chicago, I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) with my grandmother. She’s 96 and awesome, but I was a bit shocked by a comment she made about one particular photograph showing an object sitting on a counter. I don’t want to go into the particulars, as they aren’t important really, but her comment stuck with me: “How can that be in a museum? It’s so…. ordinary.” Her other comments about my messy hair and the fact that my orange hat didn’t match my red jacket didn’t bother me quite so much, but the comment about the ordinary struck a nerve. I find nothing ordinary about the ordinary.
The particulars are where the poetry lies; the devil is in the details. A closer look reveals meaning. Clues to narrative are everywhere, and everyone loves a good tale. Joan Didion brilliantly begins her essay “The White Album” by writing, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
To live and to be immortal. This sampler by Hannah Howard, made in 1793/94 says, “When I am dead and in my grave, when all my bones are rotten; when this you see, remember me. Let me not be forgotten.”
Hannah Howard was sixteen when she made this sampler. According to the wall text at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I saw it in the current exhibition Fabric of a New Nation: American Needlework and Textiles, 1776-1840, Howard was the great great grandmother of Ruth Burns Lord, who was married to A. Russell Lord. In 1968, Mr. Lord donated the sampler to the Art Institute in memory of his wife, thusly ensuring that neither Hannah nor Ruth shall be forgotten.