In 1992, I started carving clay vessels and could not stop. This single form contained a powerful psychological potency for me. Eventually a “fleet” of thousands accumulated and I had to figure out where they belonged. Really, I was figuring out where I belonged, but that wasn’t clear to me at the time. In 1994, I began taking them outside into various spaces and letting them interact with their surroundings and, while I am not a photographer, my photos became the primary artifact of my experiences, although I also kept a journal of the incredibly revealing things onlookers shared with me as a result of our chance encounters around the fleet. That journal shall remain private because what the fleet evoked often was grief, loss, and the astounding vulnerability of human experience. The surprise of seeing the fleet in an unexpected location, coupled with anonymity between us (I stayed on a first name-only basis) led to this intimacy between strangers that I cherish as the single highest value and purpose of this work of art.
This is part of what I wrote about the fleet at the time:
The process of making these forms has been a kind of meditation for me. The repetitive forming process acts as a physical mantra or prayer by which I take time to listen for inner truths. The numerous forms infer a sense of temporality, the thought that experience is the sum of so many discrete moments in time, the sum yet greater than its parts. The forms also resemble mythical boats, and of course the boat has been a long-standing symbol of voyage, transformation, and spirit. Some people see them as teeth, or tusks. They can remind people of the end of life, in which they take on a double-edged quality. In their corporeal presence they can seem threatening, a reminder of the “tooth and claw” justice of biological life. Yet they are also a force of lightness and ephemerality, like petals fallen from a tree. The brilliant white color acts visually in the landscape as does the whiteness of migrating swans along the Mississippi, where I live. By the use of white, all other colors seem to me revealed and heightened. Sometimes the arrangements appear to visually “order” the seeming chaos of nature. The ever-changing and spontaneous arrangement in each new location is an indication of the flexibility required to refresh my vision. It is an optimistic acceptance that nothing, in life or in art, is permanent.
I took my fleet through five states, to the top of Mount Cadillac to greet the sun, to the depths of a limestone cave in Minnesota, to the sidewalks of urban jungles, decrepit and abandoned rust belt factories, to ride the waves of the aboriginal Effigy Mounds along the Iowan Mississippi riverbanks, to seats of power at state capitols, Burlington Northern and Soo Line rails criss-crossing the country, and even burned a large number in a conflagration of fire at my family’s raspberry farm’s autumnal “burning of the canes.”
I realize in hindsight that I was grieving the loss of some dream for myself, coming to grips with the limitations of one’s personality, temperament, and ambition. It was a young adult stage realization but without the gravitas of actual loss. I had been lucky. I must have known that some day actual, crushing loss would come my way. I saved the fleet, stored in totes in the backyard of wherever I was living, for almost thirty years. Occasionally I would give a small fleet to someone if they were grieving but it seemed the fleet was waiting for something bigger than any one person.
Then came the pandemic, and simultaneously a series of significant personal losses that rewired me permanently, along with the awareness that many others were experiencing variations of the same emotions, in concert. The whole world was a symphony of notes of fear, loss, and grief. It was like a crescendo of all the vulnerabilities evoked by the fleet so many years ago. It became obvious that the reason the fleet belonged outside, unframed, unbounded, unlimited, was that it represented emotions like grief that are so free-ranging, so unexpected in their popping up unbidden, that they cannot and perhaps should not be contained. They will repeat themselves in the music, along with high notes of lightness and beauty, theoretically endless. The repetition of forms is the visual equivalent of the musical score, of time passing, of impermanence, but also of rhythm and potential, hope and future. The handmade variety and imperfection of each vessel recalls the phrase “endless forms most beautiful” which was part of Charles Darwin’s closing statement in his 1859 book On The Origin Of Species, which to a biologist is the most optimistic interpretation of the future possible. In the larger scheme of life, each individual is the figure, and the network of interwoven relationships we call “nature” is the ground. Of course this binary is illusory because when the opposites require one another so integrally there becomes unity. Positive space/negative space, Apollonian order/Dionysian chaos, continuity/discontinuity, additive/subtractive, presence/absence, all is one.
A heartfelt thanks to the editors for opening up space for this necessary conversation. I don’t know of anyone who has not been traumatized or bereaved. I present two pieces produced from my inner dialogue with loss, grief, and trauma. The sculpture is called Stop. It addresses the complexities of my feelings about loss and grief, and the desire to pause. Passage is an interactive art installation based on a spiral, a form from nature that I identify with that embodies movement in time and space. These two artworks function both individually and collectively, rooted in personal experience and infused with nature and imagination.
Last spring, I was feeling the absence of my dog and mourning the death of a dear friend. Somehow, pruning lilacs and maples in the warmth of the sun, I could feel both sad and comforted simultaneously. I realized that physical activity helped me decipher these profound emotions. I moved my studio outside. I set up a worktable in the dog run, in the shelter of an enormous spruce, where I felt the presence of both Luna and Jeannie. Working in this setting, with meaningful materials, helped me to process grief. It started with an urge to make logs. I gathered more than a dozen pruned saplings and wrapped each one with paper strips dipped in water, flour, and salt. The paper was repurposed.
It came from letters that my departed friend had written along with calendars she had made by hand. I also used pages from my dream journals and project notes from my art installations. When the paper layer dried I painted it. When the paint dried, I applied another layer of paper and repeated. The process was emotionally charged and freeing. For colors, I used red, yellow, white, blue, and green as they make reference to ephemeral aspects of nature in Buddhist and Taoist traditions. After several layers accumulated, I cut a few lengths to see if what I envisioned was actually happening. The cut logs revealed the pattern of colorful rings, like the annual years of a mature growth tree. As summer ended, I finished the layering process. In early fall, the rest of the logs were cut, split, and stacked, similar to seasonal chores for preparing firewood. I finished the rest of the sculpture by making paper pinecones, assembling a wooden stretcher-like structure, and standing three upright saplings in plaster root balls. During a time of reflection, I realized the familial analogy with the pinecones, saplings, and logs, along with a sudden desire to freeze the moment in time. The sculpture looked like a funerary procession for firewood. The saplings, dressed/painted in black, carry the structure. The seasoned logs arranged on it are held by the saplings. A circle of pinecones rests on top while other ones seem to have rolled under. Stop became a sculptural snapshot unifying generations together, capturing the fleeting and uniqueness of phases in life. An enigma of presence and absence, of complex and interrelated parts, in this interrupted memorial of the human continuum.
Before Passage, I was going along in life at a good stride when a chain of unfortunate events occurred: I fell, was in an auto accident, couldn’t work, my parents died, my in-laws died, and depression moved in. Years later, I returned to physical health and built an art installation. Passage was an enclosed walk-through double spiral made of cardboard. I built it in a large mill studio that had a high ceiling and a wall of windows. For a few months, I collected used cardboard on weekly recycling days. The piles became overwhelming, like the feelings I experienced with trauma. But as I sorted the piles and organized them into smaller groups, the emotional heaviness lifted. I envisioned what kinds of cardboard shapes would go where. I made cuts, folds, and tabs for interlocking the pieces to make a whole continuous structure. After laying out a floor plan for the double spiral, I enclosed it, forming a winding tunnel. When completed, I walked through it. I started from a spacious light-filled area, followed the path, and entered a tall, dark, and narrow opening. The path continued. It led me through the darkness. I went around, out the other end, and into a new spacious bright area. What an experience to build Passage and walk through it. I felt transformed. I moved through the feelings of grief and they moved through me. What had begun had ended. I gained an awareness of spiral patterns which in nature repeat, like a chain of events. The flowing of space, the forming of matter, and the persistence of time continues on.
(Note from the editors: MAJ editors apologize for a mistake in the submission guidelines for the Winter 2023 issue. We omitted the standard notice that limits Members’ Showcase submissions to once per year; because of our oversight, we have accepted the above submission.)
The concept of “Absence/Presence” of a loved person, animal, place, thing, or caused by the loss of bodily function or psyche/soul, is the essence of human life.
In order to understand loss or grief we must deal with it first by trying to comprehend it in our mind.
In 1969, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote her book On Death and Dying, which outlines the fluctuating stages of grief that humans and I believe animals experience: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These five stages allow us to process the grief/loss and accept the new reality.
In my works of art I represent this process by using techniques of layering and fracturing to denote that the grief process is deeply internal, but can come to the surface at any time when triggered by an image, memory, or date. In my works I use old photographs to make images that denote loss of people, animals, sense of self (soul), and body functions.
I manipulate photographs, add layers of laminated tissue paper, and create repeated images to depict the loss I am working on (coming to terms with). The loss is sometimes buried deep inside me and sometimes rises to the surface when triggered by life experience.
Sometimes I work on large panels so I can laminate many layers, and am able to press down and add objects that help with memories. Or I make wall-size pieces made of laminated tissue paper in order to trap images of the memory between the layers. The memories of my losses are trapped inside me waiting to come to the surface, triggering a minute or two of sadness or sometimes sending me to bed for the day.
Image at top: Kelly Desrosiers, Fleet Under Flowering Crab, installation photo.