The first snow of the season fell on a Saturday evening, December 10th, 2017. The weather was mild, and it was an easy and eagerly awaited start to the coming winter.
That night, I received images of SELF TCELFER (pronounced “self self-er”), an outdoor sculpture I had created that summer for a seaside installation at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. The piece was now situated amongst trees in a land-trust managed forest as part of an alternative arts event in rural Maine. Although the event had taken place in the fall, the work had remained installed so images could be taken after the first snow.
Our family had just finished a celebratory meal of vegetarian meatballs and pasta with garlic bread (heavy on the garlic) to mark what would have been my father’s 67th birthday. The snowfall felt like an acknowledgment of his passing. The images of my work, situated within woods my father would have walked during his time at college, in the small town where he and my mother fell in love, felt like the completion of yet another circle. Life expanding outward and then circling back to pull us in under the same sky.
Two days earlier, I had met with the director of a small museum to discuss placing SELF TCELFER on their grounds for a two-year period. It would be my first long-term placement of a work at a museum, and my first significant commitment outside the state of Maine.
In order to feel confident about situating the work outdoors for a full two-year period, I needed to transport the piece back to my home studio, to study it through the winter and make any necessary alterations before its journey to the museum in August of 2018.
On December 11th, the day after the first snowfall, I made arrangements to move the work, scheduling a 26-foot truck, and coordinating with the curator to wrangle interns to assist with takedown. SELF TCELFER was a large work, comprised of seven 7’ x 7’ modular panels that could be joined together to form an open-ended octagon. I hired an engineer to help design the work so that two people could easily transport it without compromising the presence of the fully-installed piece. The surface was sculpted from mirrored Mylar, bent and formed to create psychedelic reflections that moved and breathed with the wind.
There is no simple way to describe the work and investment that went into creating the piece. Anyone who makes anything as part of a core practice will understand. I can rattle off the numbers – the monetary cost of making the work, and talk about the grants I wrote (and won) to help fund the piece. I can tally up the hours spent envisioning the piece, researching, sketching, creating mock-ups, and then designing and constructing the work.
What are more difficult to quantify are the moments and expanses of time that imbued the work with deeper meaning and greater significance. Watching my daughter walk across sheets of mirrored Mylar outdoors on our deck on a gorgeous summer day, looking down into the Mylar to see a crystal clear reflection of the sky, and then seeing herself bending that perfect reflection into fractal-like manipulations of sky, trees, cloud and flesh. That is harder to account for.
Or the time my daughter, my mother and I spent crouched around panel after panel, hammering hundreds of tiny nails into the surface, working together to ensure the aluminum sheeting wouldn’t buckle, cut anyone, or shift out of alignment with the frame. A multi-generational investment peppered with laughter, frustration and sore muscles in the strangest places. Or the effort my best friend of 30 years expended, driving eight hours to help with the installation, arriving to find me in those final hours of working 18+ hour days for weeks with no clear idea of how the hell we were actually going to transport the piece without damaging it. How she figured it out. A crazy, impossible scenario that worked. Brilliantly.
The path of creation and those unquantifiable moments give the work a meaning and value beyond any number on a sheet of paper. The knowledge that the work would travel, as originally intended, actually finding a new home and marking my first significant placement in a museum. The physical incarnation of a concept that had been slowly and carefully mined from serious, long work tuning in to that quiet inner voice and coaxing it to speak louder and louder until something worth making emerged. The soul investment.
It was Saturday, December 16th when I received the phone call. I was driving to attend my daughter’s winter dance recital. A cold, wind-whipped rain was making it difficult to drive. The curator of the alternative arts event where SELF TCELFER was situated, a phenomenal friend and my first gallery mentor, was on the other end of the line. She was concerned. She had something important to tell me, and thought I should pull over. I did.
At first, I had a hard time understanding what she was saying. She couldn’t get the words out clearly without choking into a mix of speech and incomprehensible sound. SELF TCELFER had been destroyed. It was gone. I remember sitting in the car, dressed up (which annoyed me), staring out the window at a Burger King sign as the wipers continued to shift water around the windshield. I watched the lights as they played off the streaks left behind. Trails. I kind of blipped out into shock and disbelief.
“What do you mean?” I remember saying. It was clear that the curator couldn’t quite comprehend what had happened, herself. An individual who should have known better had taken it upon himself to take his tractor, attach it to SELF TCELFER, and drag the sculpture out through the woods to a clearing where he then broke it apart, took the pieces home and subsequently destroyed them, dumping all remnants at the local recycling center where they were then pulverized. The destruction began on December 11th, the day after the first snow. The curator was not notified until days later. By the time I learned of any of it, the work was literally non-existent.
In the moment, I couldn’t feel the gravity of the destruction. I was blocked. I went logical. I remember I kept asking about materials. They were valuable. Thousands of dollars. No. Nothing. Gone. “But … I can use those materials, even if they’re partially destroyed,” I kept saying. No. Nothing. Gone.
I spent much of that initial phone call wanting to comfort the curator. She was so clearly in a state of shock. She felt responsible, even though it was not her fault. This was an incomprehensible act. I remember saying I would have to press charges against the man, simply because of the cost of materials. I recall mentioning that it was supposed to go on to a museum. My first long-term placement.
I got off the phone and drove to my daughter’s concert. I sat, stunned, as girls in elf costumes danced to something. And then watched my daughter … her beautiful lines and evolving ability in dance. I watched. I did not cry. I was numb and grateful to be amidst a crowd of strangers, all focused straight ahead.
At this point, I have to be very careful of what is communicated in print. As part of the settlement I came to with the man who should have known better (TMWSHKB), I cannot reference him or the details in any way that “an intelligent person” might be able to figure out his identity. So, some details will remain tucked away.
I spoke with the curator regularly. I cancelled the truck and she notified the interns (scheduled for December 18th, two days after I received the call). And I drank. Wine. Whiskey. More wine. More whiskey. I was admittedly a wreck.
I moved through a series of motions each day. I put down the wine and whiskey, for the most part, and returned to yoga. I sought out a counselor. I called around to see if anyone could recommend a good lawyer. I spoke with a few close confidants to try to make sense of the senseless. Violence. It felt violent. And I was raw.
With the help of the curator, I filed a police report in the local town. She gave a lengthy statement. I submitted a statement. The police did no notable follow-up investigative work (the man had admitted, in print, to destroying the work), but weeks later I received a letter stating there was insufficient evidence to charge TMWSHKB with a crime.
I hired a lawyer. I remember sitting outside “the British store” in Freeport on a freezing cold bench, talking to my new lawyer via cell phone, just before Christmas, while my daughter shopped inside. I recall trying to explain what had happened. Like every other person I would tell the story to, I found myself having to reiterate that he would not be able to make sense of what had happened, that logic just didn’t apply. Don’t bother. Just accept the facts we have and help me. Please. Can you help me?
He agreed to take the case on contingency. He was an insurance lawyer (try finding a lawyer for the arts in Maine). He wanted to argue the case as if I had left my car in the woods and someone had destroyed it. He wanted to go after the insurance companies. Conceptually and emotionally, this was incredibly difficult for me to take in. I told him about the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), established in 1990, which essentially makes it a federal crime to destroy a work of art. He hadn’t heard of it. He said he would look into it. I found myself feeling further depleted.
We spent hours conversing. Going over the details. I was sensitive to the hundreds of dollars each conversation cost. He reached out to TMWSHKB to no avail. He contacted insurance companies. I waited. Stewed. I had a meeting with the director of the small museum who was anticipating receiving SELF TCELFER in August. I tried to pitch the idea of another work for their grounds. She wanted SELF TCELFER.
I figured out the finances I would need to remake the work in time to study it through the winter so I would not lose the museum opportunity. My lawyer shared that figure with TMWSHKB. Nothing.
I lost the museum opportunity.
By this time, I felt the continuous physical presence of a vast, dark emptiness growing inside me. It could have swallowed up planets. It was like an inner galaxy of pain and longing. I shit you not. And, it was swallowing me. Each day.
My lawyer was very clear that I should discuss the case with no one, not even my fiancé. So, as this galaxy attempted to absorb me, I needed to remain silent. I managed this most of the time, but found (like anything repressed) the story shoving itself out of me at inopportune times. Once the first few words were spoken, I was on an hour-long descent. Usually, the listeners were stunned. Confused. Again, I would have to explain that logic should be discarded. There simply was none. “Was the work offensive?” people would ask.
I am grateful for every person who witnessed my movement through this time without deciding to forever walk away. I was admittedly unhealthy. Emotionally rocked. Mentally rough.
I stopped making work.
Well … I did make one small 7” diameter mirrored Mylar puzzle that TMWSHKB’s lawyer attempted to cite as proof that my studio practice hadn’t suffered. I have finished no other work since the destruction. My heart constricts and it becomes hard to breathe just thinking about this.
I let my first lawyer go when the insurance path appeared fruitless and found another, a woman with experience in copyright law and a basic familiarity with VARA. I went through the story again. And again. We embarked on a legal process that felt disgusting. Difficult. I wanted to take the case to federal court. To set a precedent for other artists. I wanted to win, on principle. Every other person wanted me to focus on finances.
The gallery season began. As the co-director and curator of the Corey Daniels Gallery, I am enmeshed in the business of art, regardless of my own productivity. Once the season began, my inability to produce new work became even more painful. My winter (usually intense studio time) had passed without a single new work. Now, summer arrived with nothing of my own to show or sell. The previous year, half of my income came from the sale of my own work. Not this year.
In August of 2018, I agreed to a mediation session with TMWSHKB, his lawyer, his lawyer’s assistant and three insurance company representatives. It seemed TMWSHKB’s lawyer liked the idea of going after the insurance companies, as well. We convened in a tiny conference room that barely fit the table we were seated around, let alone seven or eight additional bodies. One insurance representative was projected on a large screen at the end of the table, joining us via Skype.
TMWSHKB’s lawyer was slick. Measured. Sharp. My lawyer was comparatively not. A bit scattered. She had made it clear she was not a litigator. I wish I had understood the implications of what that meant at the time. In her opening remarks, she read from a series of notes she had taken while we chatted, ten minutes earlier. As I sat beside her, in a room with TMWSHKB for the first time, surrounded by people in pressed suits with shuttered souls, I felt mortified by how my voice was represented.
I had fucked up. I should have sat down with my lawyer, in person, before this moment. (We had never met face-to-face.) I should have listened to myself every time a tiny red flag went up during our phone conversations. I should have been more strategic about vetting people, instead of just choosing the only lawyer in Maine who seemed to have any visual arts experience. I had settled. And now, I would have to settle. There was no way I could bring this to trial.
Essentially, mediation was a series of negotiations that revolved around a set of numbers written on a tiny slip of paper. These numbers shifted dramatically depending on who was suggesting them. We went back and forth, each side situated in separate rooms, with a very kind mediator moving between. The mediator opened our first private conversation by telling me how much he liked the work, and that he was sorry to hear of its destruction. I broke into tears.
After four hours, it became quite clear we were not going to reach the figure I felt comfortable walking away with. It was also clear I did not have the legal representation I would need to win my case. I had spent nine months in the throes of this experience, and it was eroding something within me. Before turning down their final offer, and steeling myself for one to two years of additional legal battles, taking the case to trial, I asked to clear the room and “phone a friend.” I called my fiancé. He had witnessed the process up close, day in and day out, whether I was openly talking about it, or not.
“Take the offer,” he said. “You need to heal. It’s time.”
I did. I thought about my daughter, with two more years of high school left before she heads off to college. Those two years would be spent with me enmeshed in a legal battle? No. I thought of my son, at home for just a short time before striking out on his own. Did I want to be caught up in this shit during the last months he’d still be living at home? No.
I took the offer.
I demanded a formal apology. I also demanded the right to write about the experience. Sadly, it did not help to see TMWSHKB stand there, with his lawyer and assistant, hands wringing, saying he wished he could turn back time. I wish it had. But, it didn’t.
Weeks would follow with more ups and downs. Problems with the settlement agreement. Bullshit loop holes and issues TMWSHKB’s lawyer needed cleared before we could proceed, including bringing in third parties and requiring releases from people who weren’t even present at the mediation.
So. Much. Bullshit.
I received a settlement check and paid my lawyers October 2018. A celebration would have seemed misplaced. I have yet to make work, but on December 11th, I intend to start.