above: Cynthia J. Ahlstrin, 38 Special – A Bullet Bra, Repurposed book pages, repurposed binder’s board, 6.5” x 38” x 11”
My most cohesive origin stories can be found within my artist’s books – in both the traditional book forms as well as in the altered books. My stories include lessons handed down from past generations, tales of memory, of love, of abuse, and of hope. They express views of childhood and the process of growing up and viewpoints based on life experience and maturity.
When I started making artist’s books, I found it very easy to begin by telling the stories of my forward-thinking, teetotaling English grandmother and the influence she lovingly placed on my young life. It started by growing up in a seemingly “proper” middle class home in Connecticut, the roof of which barely kept the lid on the three generations of independent individuals contained within. The youngest of the family, I found myself in need of an anchor. Fortunately, my grandmother scooped me up into her life and became my staunchest ally. Born into this world prior to 1900, she was from a distant generation that endured the many hardships of World Wars, deadly flu epidemics, and the Great Depression. But she also enjoyed women gaining the right to vote, the beginnings of women’s healthcare, and the ability of some women to start their own careers. She was always industrious with her thoughts and with her time.
One of the places she chose to teach life’s lessons was in the warmth of her kitchen where cooking was one of her grand talents. To her, food equated to love and happiness. My story starts here by investigating the age old tradition of cooks measuring out dry ingredients by their hand. Amounts were gauged and valued by how they looked and felt in the palm of the cook. Recipes were rarely written in full (if at all), adding to the mystery of cooking and to the guarding of “treasured” family recipes and secrets. To this day there are still a few recipes that even I guard, only to be passed on to those “within the family”. I collaged sugar, salt and flour sacks with recipe cards to detail the potential of sweet things to come. On the front side of my accordion book are the illustrations of the lessons of love, patience, meditation, healing remedies and self awareness – all of the life lessons passed on to me in-between the mechanics of making a great meal. Those keys to self-happiness are illuminated with colors as saturated as the memories and feelings they invoke inside of me.
Another story I tell involves the lessons learned about sewing. A professional seamstress, my grandmother had some very concrete ideas about how things were to be done. She created clothing for her regular clients and made costumes for actors on Hartford and New York City stages. My use of color speaks to the memories of our trips to the fabric store searching amongst bolts and bolts of beautiful fabrics to find the right cloth to make a creation sing. My story tells of the lessons of patience while laying and pinning pattern pieces so accurately that the leftover scrap cloth was miniscule. “Waste not, want not” was a common refrain. My grandmother worked her magic at the sewing machine in a beelike dance, moving back and forth from machine to table and back again. Her lessons of thrift, craftsmanship, energy and individual expression have swirled into memories of admiration for her mastery of the many parts of a woman’s life.
The last story of lessons learned while growing up materialized in a humorous piece titled Isn’t It Fitting? The happy recipient of lovely handmade bras, it was hard for me to wear commercially produced foundation ones, but once I decided that this was “what all the girls wear”, there was no turning back.
So my story here delves into the spreading of wings in an attempt to try something new, move away from an old tradition and perhaps take the first steps towards growing up. It is also a story about the ability to fail, admit a mistake and still be loved.
My story reveals that all the instructions and diagrams in the world were not going to correct the fit of ill made garments. Measurements and cups sizes were designed for the “average woman’s breast size”…and who has those? The beautiful bras I was searching for ended up being the ones made out of paper and ink. The craziness of the looping measuring tapes equates to my young self throwing up my hands in frustration and realizing that no matter how much we yank and we pull, those damn bras were just never meant to fit. And that some lessons you learn cannot be improved upon until we are ready to mature.
My approach to creating altered books originally began as a way to solve a creative challenge. I was given a stack of National Geographic magazines. Who doesn’t have difficulty parting with these? My task was to look through all of them, find a story that resonated with me and then make a piece in response to it. My found story was one that included luscious images of shoes throughout the history of humankind and what information could be gathered from them about the person who wore them. I was inspired to make my book based on the premise that every shoe really does have a story to tell about us. My shoe story investigates the use of color and the recycling of discarded objects. Through the placement of specific words and images, my book also tells a story to the viewer asking her to consider the impact of excesses of human choices and the use of genetically modified seeds on our environment.
As my experience in making altered books has grown, my approach to my story telling has changed as well. My newer work began to tell stories of a different part of my life, a crossing over from the lessons of childhood to those from a more mature perspective and garnered from some unfortunate personal experiences.
I need a great deal of paper for each piece. I began sourcing book pages from discarded books and romance novels I found at the library or in the book box at the transfer station. I chose my materials randomly based on the weight, color and feel of the paper. During the process of cutting the pages from the book block, I naturally began to read passages from various pages of the found books. This is where I began to notice the large amount of violence perpetrated against one or more of the female characters within each novel. Often times, the violence was not even remotely connected to the main plot – basically it was just gratuitous. My thoughts on this unnerving occurrence demanded that the individual stories needed to be identified, those of verbal and physical abuse, prostitution, murder, rape and in some cases mutilation. My own personal experience with certain types of abuse causes me to empathize with all the female victims.
My stories have manifested themselves in the form of 1950’s women’s foundation wear and boudoir apparel. Style-wise they are beautiful as well as cage-like and constricting. This era of fashion is from a time when women in our society were dressed immaculately within the confines of society’s concept of perfection. Each piece invites the viewer to read selected sentences or word phrases which are meant to illuminate this troubling pattern of violence. My hope is that the beauty of the structures creates an interesting juxtaposition to the violence expressed in the printed words and causes the viewer to consider the stories that women continue to experience in our current society.