The figures in my installation Back & Forth & Back Again began to take shape, literally, when I put the right material in my hands, in early 2012.
This material is a humble one, that speaks directly of the island where I live - Deer Isle, Maine, a real place of intense beauty, clear air, changing tides, forests and fishermen. The muslin bags are clean cotton sacks where sea-scallop divers put the meat after shucking it from the shell. I dye the side-stitched bags in various non-toxic natural dyes.
In this group of sculptures I mainly used a dye from Japan called kakishibu, made from fermented persimmons, and used for centuries as an insecticide, as a wood preservative, as a way of strengthening cloth in industrial processes, and as a dye, I see as the color of the earth. When dyeing the scallop bags, I tie, clamp, and twist them, applying various shibori techniques. The resulting patterns enliven the surface and help call forth the story within the sculpture that emerges.
Besides the cotton bags, I dyed other cotton cloth, silk lengths, and jute twine. Some of these got color from my dyeing them in solutions I made from the twigs, flowers, and leaves of local plants, such as golden rod, bayberry and mountain ash. When I see the cloth take the dye in its dye-pot, I am touched to be able to see the color of life that courses inside these familiar plants and trees. It's almost like I am privy to their gossip and stories and responses to their world.
Another humble material used in many of my figures is jute twine. I wrap with it, stitch and stabilize and tie it. Sometimes the tied ends become lines in the sculpture, like the torso and head-dress of a heron. Sometimes I use the twine as wrappings that bonds an intimate duo. Shellac, like the twine, lets me add color as well as strength to surfaces. In many pieces there is a tension between construction methods and surface details, using the same material, that helps tell the inside story of the figure on the exterior.
I build the figures from the inside out. The basic form emerges from the scallop bags in my hands, then stuffed with used newspapers. Local news stories are unseen but present nonetheless. Once stuffed, the crumpled newspaper can be molded, added to, and shifted, as the form demands. Next come wrappings and stitches to stabilize the shape and to add detail that tells more of the story. I may get a certain shape that remains on the worktable for days or weeks before I know how to finish it, as I await inspiration.
Then other materials from my environment, my history and my hands are included. For example: bit of redwood fiber my daughter brought me from California; pieces of the fur coat my mother gave me 30 years ago, a knitted cloak I made from the jute twine; a remnant of fabric I dyed in a workshop many years ago. Then I stitch. I stitch parts in place; I stitch through layers of cloth to secure the shape; I stitch in specific patterns to decorate the bodice of one woman figure and to define the lines in the tail of a bird figure.
Maya Lin said in her book Boundaries "I think with my hands" and tells us her models are "made instantaneously," an "automatic act that takes place after many months of letting the project sit in my head." I too do not plan a figure but let it appear as I twist the cloth, fill it, pin it and then stitch for construction and later for surface design. My mind is turned off and my hands take over, as my inner voice takes the lead. These sculptures reveal interior narratives, with their context felt more than defined.
They also reflect my research, history and interest in cultures and spiritual art of other cultures once called "primitive." The Inuit of the Arctic, the tribes of coastal Africa, Aborigines in Australia, the Pueblo people of the Southwest, and American visionaries who make art because they are compelled to. I have had a chance to see some of these cultures and people first-hand, others only through images in books and on the web. I see the spare lines and shapes, hear their stories, and call them storytellers, as I call my own figures.
The materials I use reflect my deep sense of place, of community and creatures, of memories and dreams. The colors come from nature, and the processes learned from inspiring teachers. My figures emerge from my meditative journeys, back and forth across the landscapes of my imagination, with stories of pain and joy, detachment and love, intimacy and solitude, and journeys with stops. starts, revisions, re-visions, dances, songs, words, wings, and wind.