‘Our hopes lie in a time of alliances’

16 12 2018

Part of what made my recent graduate program so rewarding was the regular exchange of ideas with peers, across disciplines and countries. Near the end of my first year of the program, a colleague and I began an intentional sharing and debating of ideas that, in many ways, led me to the letter-writing and relational care that I would explore in my MFA thesis. Our exchange has recently been published, in a special issue, “On Correspondence,” of the Something Other online journal. It’s a long piece, wandering and exhaustive as we seek to talk / write together through the various meanings and iterations of handwritten correspondence. The introductory editorial calls it “a cornucopia of found quotation, private reminiscence, academic reflection, advice passed between artists and writers, confessions, invitations, and more. Illustrated with handmade collages, and postcards gleaned from flea markets, it has the feel of a carefully tended antique shop: it’s possible to dip in and out, but the longer you stay, the more dear delights might emerge.”

I’m sharing here just the very beginning of our collaborative essay and then a link to the full piece, for anyone who might wish to think through all of this with us.

“Our hopes lie in a time of alliances”: epistolary praxis and transdisciplinary composing

Rachel Epp Buller and Derek Owens

An earnest letter is or should be life-warrant or death-warrant, for what is each instant but a gun, harmless because “unloaded,” but that touched “goes off”?

— Emily Dickinson, letter to L. Norcross, 1880

 

In Muriel Barbery’s The Life of Elves, a mythical story of a world in danger, separate factions unite their interests in the belief that “our hopes lie in a time of alliances.” We, too, seek out alliances. We come from established backgrounds in writing and art history, yet at mid-career we both returned to graduate school, seeking out new peers in a transdisciplinary creative practice program. We found that working across disciplines offered fertile ground for our own practices while opening up new ways of being and thinking. Our intermedial experimentations and collaborations led us to the letter form. What follows is an edited version of our recent epistolary exchanges–an extended, sometimes meandering, hybrid meditation on how historical and contemporary forms of written interpersonal communication might act as a bridge between disciplines and, at the same time, embody a human desire for love and support.

Full text here.

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Taking Care at Upominki

14 12 2018

In mid-November, I traveled to Rotterdam for an artist residency at a project space called Upominki. Developed by Weronika Zielinska-Klein, Upominki (which means “gift” in Polish) is dedicated to the idea of hospitality – and so there were many threads connecting her founding ideas to my current project of Taking Care. During the weeklong residency, I spent 6 hours a day in the space, embroidering words of care from the letters that people have written to me for the project, sharing about acts of care that they have received. I so appreciated the opportunity to really focus on their words: often I was alone in the space (or with Funky the cat) and it felt like an equal exchange of sorts, really taking time to focus on the words and doing justice to their gift, their risk-taking in sharing an intimate story with me, by spending hours stitching them. I found that I could finish about 1 piece per day – which feels slow but also like a good rhythm.

One thing I learned from the time there is that this is how I would like the project to unfold, through dedicated times and spaces of stitching and listening. If I work on it at home, I want to be intentional about setting hours aside where I do only that. This isn’t the kind of project that I want to be fit in around other things. And it may unfold best if I continue to do short residencies of this sort. I don’t yet have an ending point in mind; it feels like the project will be ongoing.

Also while in Rotterdam I had the opportunity to meet with some groups of artists. One group, coordinated through Deirdre Donoghue’s m/other voices foundation, came to visit me on one of their “field trips,” where we talked about the Taking Care project in the context of my longer history of writing and making. On another afternoon, a group of graduate students from the Willem de Kooning Academie visited to ask questions about the project and to share about their own work. For some reason I was a little surprised by their engagement with the work, but then in thinking about my own students as well, I find it a reminder that we’re all seeking authentic human connections. Other artists and community members stopped by during the week, to visit or just to be in the space with me. One woman, a student from Spain, shared some of her poetry with me.

The culminating event at the end of the week was a performative reading of excerpts from my thesis, Dear friend. Weronika, Deirdre, and another artist, Barbara Philipp, joined me in the reading. It, too, offered a space of intimacy. Weronika made soup, the lighting was low, the space was cozy and warm, and we read my words from the correspondences across time.

I was so glad to be able to bring the family along for this experience as well. Both Deirdre and Weronika’s organizations are committed to supporting artists with families, and they were so welcoming to us. We stayed on a houseboat (a magical experience!) and we shared several meals together, of varied generations and nationalities. They made it feel like a home away from home, and I am grateful to them both.

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A letter delivered to the space
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Upominki hospitality





Listening Across Time

8 12 2018

While the MFA journey in some ways already feels long ago, it was lovely this fall to get to revisit it at the Regier Art Gallery by exhibiting selections from the different projects that I worked on over the 2+ years. Here is my exhibition statement-

In Listening Across Time, excerpted from work developed during the past two years, I explore letter-writing as an act of relational care, in past, present, and future contexts. Parts of this trilogy are represented here through varied works on paper and other media: photographs, artist books, and letterpress prints connected to letters exchanged between a trio of sisters from the past, considering the objects and emotions that we leave behind; sculptural book pairings and embroidery sparked by a series of present-day handwritten correspondences; and Letters to the Future, epistolary texts that find form here in drawings and audio recordings. In each part of the trilogy, I give thought to how both words and traditions of making are passed between generations, transferred between hands and bodies, in intimate settings. Through these many correspondences across time, I have come to think of letters not only as a way of exchanging thoughts and ideas but also as a form of active listening. Letters are an invitation to listen, an agreement to care for another person. I believe that such listening is directly connected to a slowing down, a taking time to take care, and this quality is what I seek to reflect in all parts of the work, drawing attention to the ways we care for each other with our words.

I was so gratified by the reception of the show. For work that has been so personal and intimate, and is all connected inside of my own head, I wasn’t entirely sure that others would necessarily see the connections as well. But they did, and I was surprised to find that the ideas brought a lot of emotions to the surface for some viewers. I had not anticipated the tears. Clearly, this is a theme that resonates, and it’s one that I won’t be done with for some time to come.

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Photographs from What We Leave Behind and letterpress prints from Dear Sister

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Taking Care, a participatory installation of letters and thread

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Dear friend: a thesis in / of letters

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hand-word drawings and audio recordings from Letters to the Future

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a selection of artist books related to correspondence and collaboration

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(apparently the spotlights function strangely in a panoramic photo)





Thank you, dear colleagues!

23 10 2018

Being recognized by one’s peers in the field is an honor second only to receiving warm words from one’s students, because they’re the ones who really understand the blood, sweat, and tears that go into this labor. I’m so thankful to my fellow art educators in this state for giving me an honor that could equally go to so many of my colleagues. Many thanks to Kathy Schroeder for nominating me, to the artists who put on such fabulous professional development workshops (I made many sheets of plant-based paper at the conference!), and to the KAEA board for selecting me for this award.

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co-a-lism

20 10 2018

More catch-up…

In August, my cohort in the MFA program – ten artists representing seven countries –  realized a major project together, a group exhibition at Flutgraben, an artist space in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood.

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During our January residency together in Mexico City, we decided on the theme of co-a-lism – merging our interests in coalescing across boundaries of geography and media, our belief in the importance of coalitions, and our playful reference to the many -isms of art history. (Modernism, Expressionism, why not co-a-lism?) We worked with that theme for the next seven months, thinking together across time and space, and coordinating so many logistics. Jo+Michelle Piper designed the exhibition catalogue, for which two stellar colleagues, Susie Quillinan and Elena Marchevska, wrote essays. We printed the catalogue but it is also available online.

The experience on-site was so much greater than I had anticipated. We spent time together and we helped each other with installation. I spent many hours embroidering in the space, surrounded by my peers and by the recorded voices speaking my Letters to the Future. And the public exhibition opening, as well as our public MFA defenses and dialogues, were so well-attended that we were very pleasantly surprised. It was a day of surprises and emotion – a surprise engagement, a performance that nearly resulted in an arrest, a graduation celebration after the exhibition, and the joy and adrenaline and exhaustion that accompany such monumental efforts.

Since I returned to work 2 days after returning home from Berlin, I’ve hardly had time to process the experiences. But I am eternally grateful for the ways in which this MFA program transformed my work and my thinking, for the relationships that were forged through the process, and for the doors that it opened and will continue to open. I miss these people dearly and eagerly anticipate our next steps of working together.

mfa cohort

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Patterns in our Hands workshop

29 09 2018

Catching up after a whirlwind couple of months and the beginning of the semester… but these ideas are still percolating and I expect to keep exploring them in the months ahead.

In late summer, I had the opportunity to run a workshop for 25 international artists in Berlin, on the theme of “Patterns in our Hands.” I continue to be interested in the ways that we share knowledge through our bodies, and how such embodied knowledge facilitates ways of learning that break down boundaries of gender, age, personality, and language. Donna Haraway, in Staying with the Trouble, conceptualizes string figures, or what I grew up calling string games, as a process of “giving and receiving patterns, … of relaying connections that matter, of telling stories in hand upon hand…” String games, this “rhythm of accepting and giving,” becomes a form of collective knowing, of learning and knowing together.

The International String Figure Association collects string figures from all over the world, laying out in detail how such patterns are used by children and adults, to bring good luck, or bountiful harvest, or safe passage to the afterlife. Their books, however, are full of diagrams and remarkably complex instructions for how to create each figure. How much easier, then, and more satisfying, to share the patterns hand upon hand.

So after some discussion of ideas, we turned to sharing patterns – and the joy and concentration and openness were so much more than I had expected. I saw artists rediscover knowledge in their hands from decades earlier. I saw artists who struggle with a common language learning from each other. And I saw the patterns open up space for knowledge sharing in unlikely pairings.

Thanks to Flutgraben e.V. for the space, to Kate Hilliard for her assistance, and to Jo+Michelle Piper for the photos. 

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Dear Friend: a thesis in / of letters

10 07 2018

With this MFA nearly completed, I took time last month to work on the visual presentation of the thesis. My MA thesis and PhD dissertation are both hard-bound in library style, doubtless identical to every other thesis and dissertation on the shelves next to them. But this MFA thesis, about letters and care and listening and attunement, called out for something greater, something more thoughtful, more care-full.

After much deliberation, I hand-bound two copies into a Japanese stab stitch binding, which are now housed in a clamshell box. The historic stamps on the cover represent the locations of my grad school residencies – US, Germany, and Mexico.

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(For anyone interested in reading the thesis-in-letters, I can send you the PDF.)