Sunday, May 10, 2020


(Above:  Pandemic. 29" x 29".  Antique child's sailor suit shirt mounted on a vintage Carrom board with hundreds of assorted nails, screws, and various small objects.  Click on any image to enlarge.)

The little sailor suit shirt was in the stash that went to the Rensing Center in 2018 when I made my installation The Cocoon.  For some reason, I didn't use it.  It went to Springfield, Illinois earlier this year when I started my current installation, The Clothesline.  It just didn't find a place there either, but I thought more about it ... wondering why I wasn't using it ... wondering what sort of thoughts went through my mind at the very sight of it.

(Above:  Pandemic, detail.)

Cute little sailor suits remind me of the Romanov girls on summer holidays before the Russian revolution and their execution.  They remind me of wealthy English families sending their kids to boarding school and the Vienna Boys Choir on faraway international tours.  They make me think of beloved children who died of the influenza flu of 1918, the year my 101 year old grandmother was born.

When my grandma was six years old, her elder sister Alma died suddenly of spinal meningitis.  It was a week or so before Alma's sixteenth birthday. Perhaps this sad occasion compelled my great-grandma to have more photos taken of her three younger chidren, including a studio sessiond uring which my six or seven year old grandmother wore a little sailor suit, complete with faux insignia on the sleeve. Maybe in the recesses of my mind, I assoicate the sailor suit with the sadness that haunted my great grandma? 

(Above:  Me holding reproductions of my great-grandma's pictures.  I had these copies made back in the early 1980s, before digital photograph.  Each one was captured by a SLR camera on a copy stand and printed on sepia toned paper to best emulate the look of the original.  I paid a small fortune for them ... on the salary of a waitress.)

COVID-19 created an environment that seemed right for the sailor suit shirt. I thought about my great grandmother who was pregnant during almost all of 1918.  (Grandma was born in December).  I thought about my grandmother living through the polio scare, worrying about her son and daughter, my uncle and mother.  During a recent telephone call, I asked grandma about it.  She admits to being scared and remembered donating the the March of Dimes.  The history of modern day pandemics became quite close.  The sailor suit shirt became quite visceral.  The fear of the unknown, the time waiting for a vaccine, and the precautions against infection fell into a timeline shared by parents of all ages and all cultures and all times, especially today while we all face the COVID-19 crisis.  (Grandma is doing well but aware of the virus.)

 (Above:  Unusual animal inspired fetish figure in the collection of the Louvre in Paris.)

I started seeing the sailor suit nailed as if a fetish figure from the Congo. Most of these wooden sculptures depict a human-looking form.  They are covered in nails that western cultures mistake for some sort of evil voodoo and ways to cast witchcraft spells on other people.  The origin, however, speaks as much to the desire of individuals and tribal communities trying to ward off evil.  (For more information, CLICK HERE for an excellent article from the V&A.)

 (Above:  Pandemic, detail.)

Because COVID-19 is a global crisis, I thought about different cultures and their history and fears and how smallpox nearly wiped out much of the Native American tribes in the late 18th century.  I thought about the Black Death in Florence in 1348, a subject that was pivotal during my years earning a degree in Medieval and Renaissance Studies.  There are all sorts of rituals and ways people attempted to ward off illness and death.  Creating a fetish figure from a little sailor suit seemed appropriate even though I worried about "artistic and cultural appropriation".

(Above:  My three hammers.  Each one came in handy!)

Finally, I could no longer resist the idea of transforming the child's sailor suit shirt into a fetish symbol.  Hammering nails into it proved to be an excellent way to symbolically "fight back".  It took days and a sore left thumb (yes ... I missed the nails' heads more than once) to finish the project.

(Above:  Pandemic, detail from an angle.)

Once I decided to act, the pieces fell into place.  I forgot I owned a vintage Carrom board, but it seemed to appear just at the right time.  I forgot just how many nails and screws I owned, but they seemed to appear at my fingertips.  The back of the sailor collar was cut away and made to look like a bow.  Clock gears, keys, rusted square roofing nails, scissors, an ice pick, a fishing sinker, a spring, and a faucet knob were added almost immediately.  I found a scrap of fabric stitched from vintage men's ties to rough cut into a heart shape.  Strange nails with ceramic beads nailed it into place.  I got those nails from Ellen Kochansky at the Rensing Center.  My stash also revealed an old Jiffy peanut-butter jar of used upholstery tacks that outlined the garment.  My newer tacks went around the outside edge. 

(Above:  Pandemic, detail.)

Because most fetish figures from the Congo contain an enclosure with a mirror, I added a very small metal container.  The interior is a very shiny silver.  The reflection is almost as good as a tiny mirror.  Inside are several items "for hope and luck".  There's a flattened penny and three religious charms, one of which has a prayer for health and happiness.  On the outside is a souvenir charm featuring Sacajawea.  I distressed the outside a bit.

(Above:  Pandemic, detail.)

I am very, very pleased with this work.  Making it was therapeutic. Each pound of my three hammers felt like "beating back" the COVID-19 but also a prayer for a better world.

Those who probably will criticize me for culture appropriation ought to know that I was inspired, not trying to usurp something that wasn't cultural mine.  During a pandemic, the world ought to be together.  Any approach to warding off evil should be respected for the hope and prayers offered not by the origin of the concept.
(Above:  Pandemic, detail.)

Using nails appeals to me for an important reason.  I love the symbolism of a nail.  To me, nails represent two things in the minds of my cultural upbringing:  Christ's crucifixion and construction.  To me, both interpretations are BITTERSWEET, my very favorite word in the English language.  Why?  Well, Christ's crucifixion means salvation but it is a really horrible and painful way to die.  In construction, nails pierce materials ... which is an awesome way to start building anything but neither piece will ever be pristine again.  Bittersweet.  Like keys and wooden thread spools, I've need using nails in my work since the beginning.

(Above:  Wrapped old nails, a piece I did in about 2004.)

I've wrapped literally thousands of old, rusty nails.  Once wrapped, nails look like miniature adults:  a strong spine, a soft middle, the patina of age, and an actual head.  Perhaps the people in the Congo felt the same way about the nails they used.  Perhaps people everywhere have similar relationships to their materials and symbols because we all sure have  hope that this pandemic will soon be something in the past ... until the next time.


Ann Scott said...

Wow, (do I start every comment with that?), such thought provoking pictures, materials, and words. You seem to put as much thought into each piece as you do time and labor. I appreciate the link to that very interesting paper. I had no idea about 'fetish', figures.
I wish I had been into assemblage art before my dad died; he had great bits and pieces that my brothers either took or were tossed. He and I would have had such fun searching out and finding treasures like some of what you have used.
Thanks for sharing and yes, let's hope things get better soon.

Ann Scott said...

Forgot to mention that I remember your residency and installed at The Rensing Center. I really enjoyed The Cocoon video.

Margaret said...

Me too: Wow! A powerful piece -- and I appreciated the explanation, if only because without it, I wouldn't have understood or appreciated the piece as much. Thanks!

Catherine - Mixed Media Artist said...

In agreement : WOW ...