Saturday, November 03, 2012

bark and fungus, improvisation and bones

Okay, I guess they don't look that much like anemic zebras.
The hurricane blew the leaves off most of the trees, which makes the birch trunks, with their anemic-zebra bark, stand out. Yesterday a man came by with a leaf blower and blew the leaves from one part of the meadow to another. If you want to talk about work that’s never done, watch a guy with a leaf blower tackle three hundred acres.

One of the visual artists invited me to come see her studio this afternoon, since I’ll be leaving before she gives the official tour. She’s been enjoying the birch bark too. She does a lot of site-specific work with found objects. Those are the kind of terms—site-specific, found objects—that lose meaning quickly when you overuse them. In this case it means her work is her studio and her studio is her work. She’s staying in Alexander, an old stone building that looks like a chapel. Initially, she said, all its fussy parts threw her off: the big bulletin boards, the arched doorways, the twin bed with the green blanket.

Then she hung empty wooden frames—stretchers without canvas—and started filling them with little things she brought from her home in Mexico City and found here. Rocks, chunks of asphalt, a fungus blossom. Birch branches. She connected the holes in the bulletin board with wire and made constellations. She drew one line drawing of a rock each day and date-stamped it. Each rock is lined up proudly next to its portrait along the forest-facing window.

“The bed is starting to call to me,” she said, a little worried. She wasn’t sleepy; it wanted her to make something out it. “It’s just right there, so long and….”

Her work is very improvisational. It’s a different way of life. Say you drive into Keene with her and have to be back by two. There’s a very good chance you might miss your Skype date, because look, there’s a yarn shop and she’s always wanted to learn to knit.

But when you see the sensual interplay between textures in her studio—the photos of paint splatters, the stone rubbings, the big flakes of lead she collected from the crumbling roof of a nearby studio—you kind of want to see what she could do with a ball of yarn.

All of this could add up to a scrapheap, but the beauty of it is the organization. She likes to think of her work as a “cabinet of curiosities,” and it’s as much about the cabinet as the curiosities. It told her that walking into her studio felt like walking into a map. (Not coincidentally, she’s been tracing pieces of bark on the wall, and the result looks like an archipelago.) You feel intrigued and calmed at the same time.

I asked her if she had a plan. It sounded sort of wonderful to just wake up every day and go trolling for funky-looking sticks. Also a little scary.

“I came here to work on paintings, but my canvas hasn’t arrived in the mail yet, so I do this,” she said. “For now, I see what happens. But after a while, not having a plan, I begin to feel very anxious. So then maybe it’s good to have a plan. I don’t get too lost. But I’ve been doing this for many years. I know that even when you’re lost, you find things there too.”

Okay, so it wasn’t so different from writing a novel after all: You improvise until you can’t stand not having a plan. Then you build some frames to hang your improvisations on. Sometimes you have to dismantle the frames and start over.

“Even we have frames,” she pointed out. “Our bones.”

I left her studio feeling inspired to write or draw or hang a chip of slate from a binder clip on my wall, just like her. I’m so glad MacDowell is interdisciplinary. Sometimes I learn more from hearing how other artists approach their work than writers—there are just enough differences and similarities. I miss the rest of my life, at least the people and cats, but I’m also going to miss its absence, and all the things that have filled in the space.

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