Solstenen is a year-long project chronicling the process of learning about, and the making of, a new body of creative work. It will render visible the meandering exploratory process involved in creating fully-realized artworks that is often unseen, but a fertile ground that must be turned. For my artistic practice, that fertile ground is ‘learning, sharing, influence and confluence’. An overlapping strata of concepts layering and growing together like a kombucha mother, I need this to make my work and to direct my life. As an avid autodidact I am always seeking new paths for my work to take me on, more through lived experiences than theory, propelled forward by sparks of serendipitous connections and chance meetings that send me in an alluvial fan of directions rather than a rigid single line.
The word ‘Solstenen’ (sun stone) is the fabled Viking Compass from the Hrafns sagas, believed to be a mineral that was used as a navigational compass; probably the mineral cordierite (iolite), by polarizing skylight, it was used to locate the hidden sun, and might be one component of the masterful Viking navigation. It seemed only fitting to take on this word to name this journey-based project, one where I know my direction but don’t know the conceptual terrain I will cover to get there. While the traditional compass, interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field is fascinating enough, a compass that relies on a stone and the incredible observational powers of a sailor just thrills me!
I have been carrying with me for a while, like a stone in my pocket I sometimes touch, my reaction to an A.S. Byatt short story “A Stone Woman”, that I read in 2005. It’s a story of a woman numbed with grief and apathy, then finding herself more alive as her physical body becomes a part of the natural landscape. It’s so much more than that. But at the time, still a very new mother, I identified with the numbness and a heavy rigidity in my body. It’s something I’ll need to unpack over the course of exploring/building this work…why I identified so precisely with this metamorphosis our quiet hero Ines was going through. I have also always felt magnetically pulled to stories and fables of people pulled into the mysteries of nature, never to return (the call of the White Stag in SBMWP).
Far from knowing exactly why and how I’ll be doing things, thinking about things and making things, I am here at the vulnerable beginning of not knowing, but pointed in a direction. There will be many starts and stops, concepts and ideas discarded or cultivated till they flourish. That’s what I’m here to explore in this process project.
Byatt’s fairy tale-like story tells of a middle-aged woman who, grieving the death of her mother, finds herself having emergency surgery from a life-threatening mysterious stomach ailment. Numbed by grief and physical pain, seeing her small world in shades of grey and dust, she is intrigued to discover the hardness at her healing incision is actually veins of red stone spreading around her body, and sprouts of green minerals at her armpits. Resigned to death by petrifaction, as the multi-colored, brilliant and evolving minerals overtake her flesh, she meets and reveals her metamorphosis to an Icelandic stone carver. He takes her on a pilgrimage to Iceland — a geologically capricious land where stones are alive and with legends of humans becoming stone trolls – to find a place of belonging, dissolving into the vibrant life-force of an ever-changing landscape of magma, weather and time.
In my mind, my strong reaction to Byatt’s story has always been entangled with my feelings about the symbol of the Albatross seabird as a weighty penance for violence against nature from Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and also the central act of labor in the Greek myth of Sisyphus, eternally rolling the stone back up the hill (the last week of finishing an installation brings me there).
So with an amalgamation of literary influences, I plan to explore themes of weight, physical burden and labor as external symbols of internal self-transformation, the act of creating and becoming of a broader identity beyond the personal, metamorphosing into the environmental. I’ll also engage in a closer reading of all of these works, and the works they take me to – I haven’t read Ancient Mariner since high school but the image seems to haunt my work (especially during the awkward agony of sewing the skin around my giant Pelican), and though I love the Greek myth, I ditched Camus’ Sisyphus in college in favor of reading Walker Percy in the sunshine. It’s time to revisit.
Along with me on this journey is my husband, artist Paul Margolis, who will travel with me to Iceland (along with our son) in 2012. But before that, I will begin by making us clothes. I will be making mantles of stones for Paul and me to wear, created by crocheting nets of fabric and by spinning Icelandic wool around stones collected from my environment, and minerals based on the encyclopedic taxonomy of minerals described by Byatt from Ines’ transformation, weaving these stones together into a massive garment to be worn and woven into my hair and his beard. This will accompany a kind of ‘hair-shirt’ Albatross gown made from thousands of handmade feathers of countless variety of found and dyed gray fabrics; a gown large enough that it could, say, even accommodate a large boulder in the sleeve.
Reflection and refraction of natural imagery, revealing hidden patterns, is a critical theme in my work, and will continue with the making of mirrored wearable sculptural elements that will be worn with the stone and feathered clothes to created kaleidoscopic reflections in performative photographic and video work. This desire to continue probing refraction and reflection comes out of my 2011 installation The Honey Moon Chamber, where a massive jewelry box of mirrors around a golden erupting chandelier seemed to reveal an endless hidden world I wanted to blend into (and seemed to already…there were so many of me already behind the glass).
A Physical journey as well:
Reading the Byatt story compels me to travel to Iceland, to see if I can know what part of her description is idealized, or even if that’s possible. I also long, long, long to work quietly and steadily in one place in a landscape, until I notice the subtle daily changes, like I did creating my environmental installation Mater Matrix Mother and Medium in 2009.
So in Summer/Fall 2012, we’ll be journeying to a series of rural residencies during 5-weeks in Iceland with my husband, Paul, where we’ll use the massive garments to immerse ourselves in the radically dramatic landscape, explore our themes, creating works of eco-installation, performance, photography and video. And to just be, to see what happens, discard what doesn’t work and allow discovery.
Laboring together in the landscape– performing Sisyphean extreme exertion – we’ll un-pack notions about our life’s work together; the metaphor of the heavy body pulled to earth is one avenue to examine the progression of creating a life, then losing it as the body ages. As collaborators on building a life together, the natural and desired end is that we would experience together the inevitable passage of our bodies back to earth.
We will all three, as a family of artists, be working on developing performance-based videos, photography and environmental interventions/installations, together and intuitively. This project is about putting myself as an artist in a radically different place than my comfort zones, using my own body and our private family culture as medium, blending our roles as artists, parents and partners. I’ll also, along with Paul, work together to develop our abilities at creating experimental movement scores and how to capture them on video, and develop new media work. Neither of us are dancers or really performers, but locating our bodies at the center of this work, we are attempting to confront, repair and heal rifts in our lives that have both made our artistic life together possible and also strained it to near-breaking.
Our work will also be to learn about Icelandic mythology, clay and pottery, Icelandic wool and fiber arts, and how this history of traditional arts funnels into Icelandic contemporary art practices. My work as a multi-media artist has always been informed by deep haptic pull towards traditional crafts arts, particularly fibers and traditional costume. With the Icelandic sheep that grows a fiber like nowhere else on Earth, and a culture that respects the hand-arts of women to the point where they put it on their money, I have to explore this. I’ll be engaging with contemporary and traditional makers in Iceland as part of a series of interviews I’ll be doing for this blog, which will begin first at home with artists I admire and want to learn from.
The beginning and end of this project takes place a Seattle’s, The Project Room. I initiated the Solstenen project with a 7-week open-studio residency from July 14 – September 1, 2011.
I began the first stitch of this project at TPR, inviting community participation through hands-on workshops – namely the crochet parties that have been part of my process for the last few years, open studio hours, and other happenings – including interactive activities with guest artists during August 2011.
As part of The Project Room Question, Why Do We Make Things?, this two-part program bookends this question as its first and final presentation.
The Guest Artists and You:
The Project Room will be asking Why Do We Make Things? in a variety of ways over the course of 2011/2012. For my part, I feel asking this question by myself for 7 weeks– just in the space sewing/researching/crocheting — really makes no sense; I need the “we”. In August, look out for a variety of activities involving artists whose brains I want to pick, get advice from and explore things that are new to me. And come learn from me; the most simplest thing in the world is a crocheted chain, but like most simple things, it can fractal out and in beyond imagining. I’ll show you!