The following is true for most of my art. I will write about the sculpture I call Tilly, named after my great Aunt Tilly. Tilly began when I acquired a writing desk box and a silverware box. These make up Tilly’s body. The interior space created by the containers is still being developed. Tilly’s spine is made up of milk cartons turned into tenement housing. These houses have interiors which are made to look like cozy dwellings. My Mom grew up in tenement housing. Two metal wine goblets rest on Tilly’s head like antennae. They turn into roses where a small sparrow puppet is inserted with which to interact. The sparrow is made of pages of books and cardstock. Tilly’s theme song is “Eye on the Sparrow.” Tilly is on the wagon. Paper mixed with chain and other hardware make up Tilly. She is also made of paper clay.
On Tilly’s tail rests another puppet. His name is Uncle Moon. He plays piano. My mother’s family would gather and sing together. My Mom was fond of this time of her life. Uncle Moon is made of paper clay, plywood and foam. Most of the materials are free, and recycled. Details and textures on the houses are made with cereal box cardboard, popsicle sticks and match sticks. For some of the smaller details like a candlestick in the house, I use polymer clay. The hardware and gobs of glue, which are left to view, connect everything. This reveals the artist’s existence. Most of the materials I use are a guide for me. They help tell my story and convey hope, inspiration, and connection.
Sometimes however, I challenge the materials like building crooked houses, and crooked chimneys. Acrylic paint is used to integrate the different materials and also used to transform things like milk cartons into structures that are sided with bricks, clapboards, and shingles. The materials I use help tell my story metaphorically, without judgment. Tilly shelters and feeds children and animals. Tilly is also an interactive game using the theater of imagination to discover Tilly’s interior and exterior spaces. The start of Tilly’s story goes something like this:
Her spine was made of tenement housing, a place where her mother grew up. Homeless children and animals on Earth are sheltered and fed here. No one is alone with Tilly . . .
With these easy-to-come-by materials, and the stories they help tell, it is my hope that it makes a deep connection with the humanity in all of us.
At the height of the pandemic, I became re-connected with my woods and began collecting birch bark. I was fascinated by the different surfaces, qualities, shapes and multi-colors of the bark. From smooth to highly textured and contorted, depending on when it had “shed” the tree, each piece was unique and intriguing. It became my muse.
The sculptural forms of the bark inspired an assemblage of a woman: a goddess, a warrior, a survivor, a healer, a Birch Mother. For this painter of fifty years, this was an exciting and challenging material to explore.
Using wire as an armature, I formed a torso, covering it with burlap, and began placing and fitting and gluing pieces of bark. As each piece conformed to her tree-like anatomy, she emerged and transformed into something splendid, imposing, elegant, and powerful. Her torso sits atop an old chain barrel, which miraculously was just the right width, and it became her trunk/attire. Sought-after roots, acknowledging the connection and nourishment from the earth, were screwed into an old toy “hassock” and actualized the creation.
Something I didn’t realize, until after completion, was that every material I used was either found or recycled, except for the glue, and that made me happy.
I take a deep interest in symbology and discovered birch represents new beginnings, renewal, rejuvenation, and a cleansing of the past. In some cultures it has a strong association with feminine energy. It is also considered a pioneer tree in that it adapts to difficult environments and can regrow in places of tragedy. I find this particularly interesting, since I started this project at the beginning of the pandemic and have come through personally, as has much of the world, with determination and resilience.
When I got back into visual art a few years before closing down Beyond the Proscenium Productions (the theater company I founded and ran for fifteen years,–2009) in Sacramento, CA, I did mostly photography, graphic design, and digital art. I was showing some of the digital art in light boxes, like the photographer Jeff Wall did in the late 1970s. I was concerned with the materiality of the digital work. I had already shown my Power Series as (mostly) prints on canvas at the Asylum Gallery in Sacramento (2008), not only because I have a difficult time matting and framing prints, but I didn’t like the idea of just making prints of what I now call Digital Alchemy, in which one image is combined with others to create a different meaning than the images did individually. I wanted to present them in a different way than photography, which was seemingly always exhibited as framed, matted prints. I wanted people to see what they looked like as I was creating them on the computer screen.
This was before I had a pigment ink printer (they were still VERY costly and large) in my studio. So I was trying to achieve some kind of UV protection for the work with various sprays and at times coating the pieces with acrylic medium ( that claimed to have UV protection) when I did make prints. But I liked the work best if I had the images printed on a special film (duratrans) and put them in a light box. The only problem was that the printing was expensive as were the light boxes themselves. On the West Coast I found a printer in San Francisco to make the prints for me. But here in Maine, when I moved here in 2011, there were no companies that did this kind of printing.
I suppose I should be looking for grants so I can get some kind of small tablets to display the work, especially for the new series of work I’m about to embark on which happened while I was greening my studio practice. I don’t like the idea of washing acrylic brushes and dumping the water down the drain because of the damage the micro-plastics will do to the ground water.
So now, I just dump the cleaning fluid (using a special non-toxic liquid brush cleaner called Angelus) into an aluminum tray. The patterns made with each different color I was painting began to fascinate me, and I took double exposures of them with the Hipstamatic app on my iPod touch. Then they were brought into Photoshop and processed. They reminded me of the NASA photography of distant galaxies but seemed to want something else. So I experimented with putting AI-generated birds and trees and even old engravings from the 1700s into them. The Small Universe series I hope to show in some form, even if it is on gallery-wrapped canvas.
It still amazes me that I can take mathematics-based software and create on a computer screen and then upload the data to a website and a few weeks later see the work printed on a canvas and ready to hang on a physical wall. In some strange way it reminds me of the spirituality of modern dance, as a practice that involves using your body to transcend it in performance. I guess it’s the transformative quality of working in the material world.
Image at top: Val Porter, Uncle Moon, detail of Tilly, paper clay, plywood, hardware.