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Saturday, April 21, 2012

More on Understanding and Labels: Brooke Atherton's "I Feel Free"

Brooke Atherton "Twenty Feet Deep"

In my last post, I wrote about how artist statements/labels can bring us to a deeper meaning, and that sometimes having someone "interpret" the piece brings greater understanding.  At the same time, sometimes the message which the viewer receives is just as valid, although different, than the artist's intent.

At the Art Quilt Elements opening at the Wayne Art Center, I over heard two women puzzling over Brooke Atherton's "I Feel Free."  I am familiar with Brooke's manner of working and, in true Lisa form, felt I had to share that Brooke's works often spill off the walls.

The artists statements (which to my mind is sort of a I usually think of the artist statement as explaining in general why they do what they do, whereas a label is the explanation or statement about the individual piece) were limited to 100 words, basically the length of the first two paragraphs I have written here.  Brooke wrote about her piece as showing resilience in the face of destruction and references fires, and tornados.  The yellow dress which gives  you the feeling of blowing away in a tornado is the matron of honor dress Brooke wore at her sister's wedding, and she told you about that in her statement....but that was about all.

Brooke Atherton, "I Feel Free"

I asked Brooke to share with me the details of "I feel Free", and was moved by her eloquence and the deep meaning which it held.  Her response was 1,450 words....I struggle with this as I know that many people wouldn't bother to read this much, in fact, you might not, but I encourage you to do so as it is a wonderful story.  I also understand that it is expensive to produce hard copy catalogs and labels on the wall.

Perhaps Susan Lenz really has the right idea when she spoke of having a link to a webpage identified by a QR (quick-read) code.  I have pondered this as I don't like the idea of excluding people who don't have the tablets or smart phones to read them.  I've puzzled over how galleries could provide "loaners" to be able to read the QR codes...but maybe a few hard copies would solve that problem. Certainly, linking it to a webpage would be quick and inexpensive as Susan pointed out to me.

So, here's Brooke's story about this piece, "I feel Free" and the "long red one" at the top of this post which is "Twenty Feet Under."

"I Feel Free" Detail

“I Feel Free” is a companion piece to  “Twenty Feet”, which was a device constructed to measure the depth of floodwaters in New Orleans after the Katrina fiasco.  It quickly evolved into a commentary on news coverage (repetitive, meaningless, and obscene—those reporters were getting off on being in the middle of total destruction), the rapid breakdown of the social order, and a measure of grief and despair.  To the base layers of that quilt, I started adding measurements.   I walked through my house measuring the heights of things I care about, things I would miss if they floated out of my life.  When I added in my own 5’6 ½”, I was barely a fourth of the way to the twenty feet deep that the flood waters reached in places. (We duck taped it to the apex of our house roof to get a full length photo when it was finished—about 1 ½ feet of it still laid on the grass.  I would have lost everything I have carefully surrounded myself with. The piece actually measures 16 inches W x 21 ½ feet tall)   At that point it quit being a game, and the enormity of the destruction began to sink in.  At the time I was working on this, two of my friends were diagnosed with stage 4 cancer (colon and lung), one in Ohio and one here.  They never met, but emailed a bit about treatments, etc, building a relationship that made me feel left out at times.  The day I caught myself actually wishing I had cancer so I wouldn’t feel excluded made me realize I was measuring and cataloging things of Biblical proportions.  The age old lament “Why have you forsaken us?” was swirling around and around in my head, so I burned it into fabric, stitched it in, and eventually the words deconstructed into pure marks—stitches of different colors, different threads repeated over and over into a black cloud of total despair, anger, and terror, like a black cloud overhead.  At that point on the quilt, the stitching was so dense I made holes in my fingers from trying to push fat needles through the layers.  Using a thimble seemed like cheating—with so many in so much pain and despair, how could I not add a little of my own blood, tears, pain, literally. 

“Twenty Feet” was shown in a special exhibit about the Katrina flooding that Laura Cater-Woods put together for the quilt show in Lowell , Mass. It came home with three (3!) Judge’s Choice ribbons (from Martine House, Joe the Quilter, and Susan Carlson), even though it wasn’t in the judged portion of the show.  Over the years, it’s also gone to a handful of other venues, but the size made it impossible to enter into most shows.  So I NEVER thought I’d make another one ….

To celebrate the fifth anniversary of Katrina, the show “Still We Rise Again” sent out a call for work related to it.  They were looking for things of a spiritually uplifting, positive nature.  I read about the show and knew I needed to be part of it.  I needed to honor those friends, who were my cheerleaders—the ones who’s faith in me and my work kept me working when I didn’t see the value in anything I had to say. ‘ Relevance’ was a big issue to me when I reentered the art world.  Who would be interested in anything a white, middle-class, middle-aged woman had to say?  ( Since then, there have been studies about the ‘Grandmother Factor’—the theory that civilization and human development were able to take a giant leap forward because we began living long enough for menopause to kick in, and that having non-childbearing women around to help nurture and teach enabled language, art, etc. to flourish.  I’m sure I’m misstating this, but the idea made me reevaluate this stage of my life.  We rule!)  So, with about 2 weeks to develop an idea and build the piece, I dove in.   
I had some of the fabric elements left from “Twenty Feet”, so dug them out and started there.  The next day we had our art quilt (WAV) meeting, and someone there brought a nasty-looking plastic baggie.  She lives on a ranch in WY, and said they had a trailer fire on their property years ago and every now and then goes over to check on what’s left of it.  She said it’s finally looking ‘Brooke-ish’!  So, she brought the bag full of broken pottery, metal…things, etc., all charred and dusty.  I thought—how cool, and wanted to work them into the bottom section of “I Feel Free”, the part that represents destruction.  We have learned through the years that it’s okay to keep to our regular schedule (we meet every third Sunday of each month) even if it falls on Father’s Day, because most of our husbands and sons really don’t mind.  So, that’s how I know it was in June.  After I got home from the meeting, I sorted through the bag to see what I could use (Parris was golfing, so I had it spread out on the dining room table).  And that’s about when the hail storm and tornado hit.  Our neighborhood was hit hard by the hail, but the tornado was at the bottom of the big hill, and followed Main St. up the hill, so I didn’t know about it til later.  Main st. is the busiest street in the entire state of Montana , supposedly, so that was a major event.  The tornado landed squarely on the Metra center, which is where all the big events are held, from rodeos to concerts.  If it had happened the night before, thousands of people would have been there, but on Sunday evening no one was inside.  Parris had to walk home from the golf course because they wouldn’t let cars through the flooding.  Men on foot were okay, though—go figure.  We spent a year rebuilding, re-roofing, etc.  I used a couple pieces in the quilt from my huge red ware bowl that now has 2 perfect half-moon holes from the baseball-sized hail.  So, I was able to include something of my own! 

The next day, my youngest sister called from Ohio , to say that she had kicked her boyfriend of many years out.  He is an alcoholic, as was her husband before him.  I asked her to please get counseling, for herself and her daughter, and find out why she’s drawn to guys who drink too much, and she has thank goodness.  The dress is the one I wore as her matron of honor, and never wore again because it’s a color that looks awful on me.  But it looks great on the blue-dye painted Lutradur I had laying around…  So, there were all the major elements, presented to me over a two-day period.  I asked my sister what she thought about me cutting up the dress and using it.  She laughed, and said “I would be honored for you to use my sucky life to make art.”  So this became a message to her daughter, my 13-yr old niece, about strength and resilience.  Even the choice of the word ‘resilience’ is part of the story now.  A little over a year ago, a friend’s house was pulverized when a several-ton boulder rolled down the hill and destroyed it.  I hate ‘pitying’ anyone—that’s so demeaning—so I was delighted to watch them rebound.  They will soon be moving into an old factory building in the trendy, artsy, downtown area, that has been re-designed as a house/studio/gallery!  How could I have had so little faith in them?  Anyway, ‘resilience’ is the word she uses a lot now, and I asked her if I could borrow it.  She graciously actually gave it to me.  (She’s the one who is instrumental in getting the Live Well grant for the new group she started here.  She’s been active in using the arts in hospitals for years. She’s my new hero.) 

One thing that both quilts share, other than size, is their structure.  The bamboo sticks aren’t just decorative.  They are the system for folding the fabric back and forth (then are tied together) so they can be displayed in different configurations and sizes.  Who has walls tall enough to stretch them out?  In my dreams, Oprah or Brangelina will buy these two pieces and permanently install them in a library or other public building in New Orleans , in giant plexi boxes.  They’re the only people I know of who care that much about NOLA, and can afford that much plexi. 

I love what Brooke had to say....a friend of mine was taken with her comment "How could I have so little faith in them?" saying that we often don't give our friends and relations the credit for the inner strength which we all have.

Certainly, Brooke has given us a lot to think about, and people who are able to see "I Feel Free" would benefit from reading this remarkable story, especially after they too have looked at it and listened to what it had to say to them individually.


Alison Schwabe said...

1400+ words is dauntingly long , containing way too much specific information. I read through it all just so I could comment here, but in real life, coming across this in front of a work in a gallery I'd opt out at the mention of friends with cancer, as I'd then sense this was probably very cathartic to write, but know I didn't need all specific details to appreciate the work. In our own pain or grief it is easy to feel that no one else could possibly understand what we're going through; but from experience I know every person, every family, has at least one of these problems or had a similarly shattering event happen somehwere in their own orbit. Even for this profundly emotional work, I think it is possible to construct a brief statement whose key words offer a pathway for emotional connection between artist and viewer. The title Brooke chose is an excellent starting point, and a statement of 100 words max could be perfect.

Brooke Atherton said...

Please understand that the above is NOT an artist's statement--it was an email exchange after Lisa asked for the stories behind the work. I believe firmly the work should stand on its own. Period. When I read another artist's statement I appreciate ambiguity--it's a 3-way conversation after all, between the viewer, the work, and the artist. I do have two 25-word statements that go with the above works, neither of which talk about cancer or Katrina--that would limit them to a specific time and place. As a critic has said about my work "We don't have to know the specifics to recognize that each mark has a meaning, and a reason for being there."

Lisa Broberg Quintana said...

Yes, Alison...I'm sorry if I didn't make it clear, I thought I did about it being an email between Brooke and I. This post is a follow up to my previous post about artist statements and work standing on its own and speaking to the viewer...just that! Both the artist statement and the viewers understanding and personal resonance are valid and important.

My point here was that Brooke description was moving, enlightening and brought greater understanding....of course whatever the viewer brings to it is still's just that sometimes an artist statement, rather than just a label with artists, and title can make a difference in the interaction.

We too often dismiss something which makes us uncomfortable, or doesn't please our personal aesthetic....and often learning more or looking more deeply will change our minds or open our minds to greater possibility.

Jeanne Marklin said...

Thank you to Brooke for writing and Lisa for posting this. It's good to read what Brooke was thinking about when she was working on this piece. In this case, knowing the back story to the piece makes me appreciate it more. Knowing the details helps me understand the feelings that were being expressed during the process. They are all feelings that I can relate to. I don't have to look at it and remember the details, I can feel that we share those aspects of human life, and the processing of feelings through Art.

Brooke Atherton said...

So, to sum up (in the words of Larry, Darryl, and Darryl): Artist's Statements--"can't live with 'em; can't put 'em in a burlap bag and hang 'em from a tree."

Pam Geisel - For Quilts Sake said...

If you did put them (the artist statements) in a burlap bag and hung them from a tree, would you need to post an artist statement about it?

(Very sorry, couldn't resist).

For most labels I want to see the title, artists, date completed, materials and techniques. Several exhibits I've been to recently didn't even have that information.

If I'm drawn to a particular piece then a short paragraph about the inspiration is interesting to read. If that info isn't posted with the art I might look up the artist on-line to see if I can find out more about the art.

Vivien Zepf said...

Thanks to Brooke for sharing this.

Lisa Broberg Quintana said...

Ah, but Pam, Brooke doesn't have a website (neither do I for that matter), and I respect that because she does rather than writes about it. (She's been the Artist in Residence at the Yellowstone Art Museum and has been doing a lot of art outreach programs. She also spearheaded a project a few years ago where you made quilts using the waste from cutting-room floors and the garment industry with Cynthia St. Charles and I forget who all).

So, if you wanted to find out more, there's a few articles which were published on some of her works, but very few (if any...I forget) goes into any detail on her work. I've written several times about her because I really love her work.

Donna Stuber said...

I was introduced for the first time to Brooke's work last week at Elements, and found it profoundly moving. Now, reading her story, my appreciation is deepened and more nuanced. Thanks, Lisa and Brooke, for your efforts and talent.

Gail Segreto said...

Thank you for making this insight public. I did not take the time to read this when you first posted. But then yesterday I met a woman who lived through Katrina. She was one of the people who spent 4 days on the roof of her house. She could have been rescued sooner, but she refused to leave without her dearest friend, a little Dachshund. As I heard her story and how she lost absolutely everything, I was brought to tears thinking of how I would feel if I was in that situation and then asked to leave behind my loved one. Such cruelty from nature followed by the cruelty of am impossible choice.
Coming back to read about this work and how it had touched the artist was a wonderful insight on how we can express these strong emotions.
Thank you for sharing.