Back in May (goodness, that feels like a lifetime ago) I participated in Mothers, Eggshells, and the People Who Birth Us, a show that artist Kim Abeles curated at Keystone Art Space that brought together the work of 92 artists, poets, and performance artists. Abeles asked artists to explore mothers, mothering, being someone’s child, and birthing in whatever form that took. The show was so poignent especially with the horrific family separations which have triggered deep emotions. (It's been over 100 days since the children were taken, and even court orders aren't reuniting families. I am losing sleep, feeling sick and helpless. I will never see silver emergency blankets the same.)
In her statement about the show, Abeles writes:
We tend to simplify our relationships with her, always referring back to an incident or series of effects that hang on the shoulder like a yoke. As adults, we imagine a chance to reframe a new portrait for her with warm and fuzzy edges. I am not asking the writers and artists in the show to address their ill-feelings in public, but I am thinking about complex connections that were forged in the past. In this way, we might observe a multi-dimensional impression rather than hiding out in our memories.
The show consisted of artworks in a range of media from video and photography, installation, painting and sculpture. In addition to individual works of art, Abeles asked 52 artists (ranging in age from 10 years old to 90+ years old) to participate in a collective installation: Mother - Portraits in Petri Dishes. The concept of the installation is: to make a portrait in Flint glass petri dishes to express a portrayal of the mother-figures who influenced our path with complex connections that were forged in the past. with the theme of mother and mothering.
It was a deeply moving exhibition. Anyone that knows me, know that I was deeply affected by my mother's death when I was 24. (It will be 29 years on October 23.) I started writing poetry to cope with her illness. Abeles brought together works of art that show the complexity of motherhood and go beyond the usual maternal stereotypes, whether that is the all-giving mother or mommy dearest. Just by the shear number of artists, there were 92 different portrayals of how mothers and birthing can manifest.
The opening reception was on Mother's Day. It was packed- over 300 people showed up- and it was inter-generational. (I loved seeing kids in the galleries and playing outside.) Poets and writers (myself included) gave a reading, most of the writers wrote new material. (See below for my new poem.) United Catalysts made delicious mandala pancakes. Abeles had patches made with the word "child" embroidered.
Throughout the run of the show, Abeles hung out in the space, and would add a new "mothering-like" activity each day, like serving cookies, or handing out advice. On the last day: I'm serving tea, cookies, apples, giving haircuts (I have no training, but I have new scissors), offering advice for any questions about your life, handing out tarot-style cards for healthy living, I will read you a poem*, and sandwiches with chips will be served -- while they last -- at 12:30pm (or bring your own lunch) *poems are by the poets who read at the opening.
Of her painting, Tooth Fairy, Sandy Rodriguez says: "I created a Mexican magical realist vision of my mother [painter Guadalupe Rodriguez] as a tooth fairy. The oil painted scene depicts an exhausted tooth fairy reclining on a tooth throne sitting at a tongue table waiting for the rest of her colleagues to return from picking up teeth for the night."
This work of art by Patricia Yossen is part of a larger project. Yossen has been working on a body of work around a woman, Lola, from Yossen’s birthplace, a small town in Argentina called Recreo. Lola gave classes in embroidery, sewing, making lace, knitting and other handcraft to young women in the town. The classes became a refuge where they could talk about taboo subjects such as sex, politics, abuse. Yossen’s mother was Lola’s student and Yossen sees her own artwork as following Lola’s lineage. The work in the exhibition, “Pañuelos”, are handkerchiefs her mother made with Lola which Yossen cast in porcelain. She says: “Pañuelos” son inspirados en la obra que Lola hizo con mi madre. Ósea, es una triangulación entre Lola inspirando a mi madre y mi madre a mi. Pañuelos (Handkerchiefs) are inspired by the work Lola made with my mother. That is, a triangulation between Lola inspiring my mother and my mother inspiring me.
Alan Hiroshi Nakagawa’s petri dish portrait contains a turkey wishbone, wood and wheat. The word ofukuro, written in hiragana, appears on the cover and is repeated inside. On the bottom of the dish, Nakagawa painted a California desert sunset scene. Ofukuro is a term of endearment that an adult child calls their mother. Nakagawa says that his Japanese is childlike so he used the phonetic form of the Japanese alphabet, although he is addressing his mother as an adult. The wishbone, Nakagawa likes the shape and the symbolic meaning of wishes and hope, is from a past Thanksgiving, when his family gathered. The wood is from a fig tree in Nakagawa’s backyard that his grandmother planted. Nakagawa lives in a house that has been home to four generations-Nakagawa’s grandparents, parents, himself, and his children. (Wow- who says angelinos don’t have roots here!) The wheat circling the edges symbolizes the change in Japanese diet after wheat rations were sent to Japan by the United States after World War II. These items tell a tender story of Nakagawa’s family by conecting his ancestoral homeland to his current homeland.
On one of the days that I dropped by Keystone after the opening, I met Elizabeth Tinglof who made a petri portrait that encompasses both being a daughter and being a mother. The piece includes grapefruit seeds and unstrung pearls resting on beeswax. The grapefruit seeds are from the fruit harvested from a tree Tinglof planted in memory of her son. Tinglof found that she was unable to throw out the seeds and has been collecting them. The pearl necklace belonged to her mother. There is something so tender in the pairing of seeds and pearls. They are similar in shape in color. I imagine holding them in my hand, noticing the differences between them, weight, solidness, texture.
I'll end with a thought about eggshells. Eggshells keep a living being safe while they are vulnerable. If all goes as it should, the little one can break out when they are ready. And there's the catch, how often does life go the way we think it should? So we just have to figure it out with either a shell that broke too soon, or one that we can't break out of. Perhaps that is the spark to make art.
Quito, February 1928
Quito is built high in the Andes on the foundation of an Incan city, cradled on the foothills of an active volcano. Streets are cobblestone and narrow, houses have thick adobe walls, whitewashed and feel like stone. Courtyards and big trees. Dampness permeates. Rain every afternoon falls like whispers. Fog folds in at dusk. Buried deep underground lies the knowledge that the volcano could erupt at any moment. The fog, the massive Andean landscape feels like being shut in. In this, Quito is like Jane’s England and Federico’s Spain. A ruined girl, ruins a family. Abuelita is 19 years old. Of course, she is not Abuelita yet. She is a girl who lives with her mother and brothers who study medicine or law. Servants stir and chop, fold and dust, wash and scrub. Abuelita crochets. I can’t know any of this, really. My sister and I wonder about the how of our mother’s conception. My sister says she heard there was a military school across the street. We know he was an officer. I heard that he was invited to stay in the house. We know he was married. The Abuelita we knew is not a coqueta. Body carried stiffly, blouse buttoned. Una mujer seria who crocheted by the light of the TV’s blue glow. Does he show up in her bedroom, Don Juan style coercion? I just needed to see you. You smiled at me across the table at lunch, I knew you wanted me to come here tonight. I just want to talk. To hold your hand. No seas malita, dame un besito. Shhh. Relax. I won’t hurt you. Relax. Outside the branches of the eucalyptus tree tap at her window.