I had absolutely no idea what I’d be getting into. But I adore Patty and I love the word “free.”
At the moment we were chatting and being jostled in a former furniture factory repurposed as an art gallery, during a yearly fundraiser that combines getting original art on 8 x 10 canvases with the frenzied stampede of traders on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange. “Art as a contact sport” is how I often describe it. I look forward all year to both donating my photographs and picking up a few canvases for myself and birthday presents. It’s raucous, sweaty (end of July), colorful and convivial. And I was having a good night because I’d scored two of Patty’s lovely painted silk scarves in the annual melee.
And so I took Patty’s suggestion and tracked down Xoe Fiss, the lovely young lady from the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, and gave her my card. Months later, I stepped into an entirely new universe.
First, a word about Patty’s art. To say that she paints on silk is to offer that Michelangelo liked to sculpt. Her silk panels and banners and scarves are ethereal washes of color and designs, both natural and abstract. Just as I’ve never stood looking up at a statue by Michelangelo and puzzled “how did he ever get that nostril just right?” I’ve only stared and gaped at Patty’s creations with the same sense of wonder.
Truth be told, I often have to fight back the feeling that I’m an imposter in this community arts organization, showing photographs that owe so much to my smart phone for being in focus, while I am surrounded by people who use their hands to actually paint with brushes, and sculpt, and build, and…create!
As a starting exercise, we were each given pieces of plain white silk stretched taut over circular frames. We dutifully traced outlines on the silk, choosing from various templates, and then drew over those outlines with a thick liquid that quickly hardened. And then it was time to dip our brushes into pots of paint and then transfer the paint to the silk.
Oh, this was IGNITION!! As the brush touched the silk, color flowed from the tip into the fabric and then meandered and bled and combined as though a sinuous, capricious, living thing. For me, the sight was absolutely mesmerizing. So this was how magic happened! I filled in my circular practice piece. I’d picked what I think was the partial outline of some jointed crab legs. If you turned it upside down, it looked more like a Tarantula floating on a sea of blue.
No matter, it was fun! I proudly sent photos of my silk-painted crab/tarantula to my kids. “How old were the kids in the class?” one of them asked, thinking that this had been done by a second-grader. I suddenly felt like Rodney Dangerfield.
I stewed on this charge for days, but finally came up with an idea that combined a Hummingbird hovering between some ferocious waves and a clutch of Morning Glories. I turned to the hundreds of templates in class to find an image of a Hummingbird to trace and work from; worked from a famous image in Japanese art for the waves; and drew the flowers from photos I’d taken with a group of local photographers at the nearby and fabulous Christopher Farm and Gardens.
As the Friday classes rolled on, it was fascinating to see what different forms everyone’s images had taken. Given an assignment of making something as simple as a leaf, we all would have created images as far removed and unlike as the planets. It was an awe-inspiring, and energizing and heart-warming and imagination-sparking.
Eventually, we took a short break so that we students could get better acquainted with each other and introduce our works. The ladies who arrived at my table each showed off and explained their projects. There were images of birds, trees, rivers, and references to happy thoughts—friends, family history, strength, community, nature.
And then it was finally my turn. I held up my silk work-in-progress with the bird and the waves and the flowers and explained “well, this basically tells you that Mary really needs therapy!” They laughed. I was serious.
And so I explained the multi-layered and sometimes tortured symbolism in my design. I love to watch birds, and am enchanted by Hummingbirds with their gleaming throat patches and their wings nearly invisible as they beat so swiftly. But on the other hand, it represented the fact that I have only rarely in my life felt as though there was any firm ground beneath my feat. More often, I have felt myself teetering on the edge of disaster, keeping my anxieties to myself with a brave face, and staying just a few wingbeats ahead of a crash coming up from behind. There are reasons for that, I have come to understand more recently. When I was nine, and again when I was sixteen, the world as I knew it vanished overnight—home, school, friends, security, routine…and in one instance, even a shared language. And apparently it has left some residual marks.
But again on the plus side! I drew my inspiration for my threatening, menacing, reaching waves from the famous 19th century woodblock print “Under the Wave off Kanagawa” by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, who was about seventy years old when he began his legendary project of creating three dozen exquisite woodblock prints of Mount Fuji. Talk about optimism and second acts! I have found his later-in-life example to be incredibly uplifting.
The flowers, I’m happy to report, were just flowers! I try to keep my face to the sun and find the beauty in the road ahead, so there were no deeper meanings to be culled.
The pandemic rolled in just as we finished our classes, putting all thoughts of art shows and mingling somewhere off to the future. But I was grateful and astonished at the opportunity to learn this new thing, and to realize that for all the words I had written over the years—in essays, in short stories, in journals—this was the first time I had ever taken the contents of my subconscious and disgorged them into a picture! It seemed like a pretty important leap!
It was invitation for a “virtual” art class via ZOOM through the Kohler Arts Center that was geared once again toward seniors and learning. This one involved polymer clay. Was I interested? Is the Pope Catholic? The thought of learning anything new in a group setting, even one where we all participated from our own homes, was irresistible.
Our little group of five was basically the test case for setting up this kind of class in a virtual environment. Since we couldn’t meet at the art center and use the equipment there, we all were gifted a box of supplies for the project. Our instructor, Amy Mester, was actually located in St. Paul, Minnesota, 300 miles away. We would “meet” virtually for two hours a day, for five straight days.
As the day to start the classes approached, my anxiety level ratcheted up a few notches. Polymer clay is a three-dimensional medium. I am entirely a two-dimensional thinker. I write, typing words on a flat keyboard that upload to a flat screen and print on flat paper. Writing by hand has the same result. I take photographs, which are printed up on flat photo paper. Sketching…same thing.
Looking back on all those years of playing with Playdoh when my kids were growing up, I had shown absolutely no gift at all. Mostly I made little Playdoh snakes by rolling the clay between my hands. Occasionally I tried to pinch the Playdoh into an animal shape, but I don’t recall anything being identifiable…or even able to stand up.
So a few days before the classes I started to binge-watch “how to” videos on YouTube to learn how to work with this stuff. I joked that I felt like Keanu Reeves’ character Neo in the first Matrix movie, getting kung-fu programming uploaded straight to his brain. I was ready…I thought!!
Well, the Matrix had better writers and a longer time to write the script!! Amy’s classes and instruction were incredibly stimulating, and we all watched raptly and imitated her with enthusiasm as she chopped, and kneaded, and squished, and rolled out polymer colors into waves of designs. She showed us quite a few of her earlier projects, and we were mesmerized both by her skill and by the possibilities.
Early on, we knew that “birds” were our class theme. Amy modeled an adorable, small, squat fanciful bird she’d created with a core of crumpled aluminum foil covered with “feathers” she’d made by rolling two colors of clay into a jelly roll and then slicing it. It sounded so easy!!
I showed Amy a sketch I had drawn of a Sandhill Crane. Sandhills are some of my favorite birds, with elegant wings in the colors of smoke and ash and rust, and a primordial call that clatters overhead and in the surrounding marshes, reminding the listener that wild nature exists and is glorious. I just pull over to stop and stare every time I see them, and hope that traffic following behind me has the presence of mind to drive around.
I made a roll of what I thought would look like feathers when I sliced it, but the slices looked ridiculously like miniature pork chops and so I picked a different theory of making feathers. Once I’d built the bird and shoved it in the oven, I found that some parts burned to different colors and so I had to buy some acrylic paints to fix the damage.
I finally finished my Sandhill Crane days after the final class had finished and emailed Xoe and Amy a photo, a "virtual" show and tell.
Given the realities of the pandemic, will this ever actually get into a little art show of our “senior learning” art projects? Maybe. Did I train my brain to make three-dimensional art? Not exactly…but I’m happy that I learned as much as I did! Would I jump at the chance to take part in something like this again?
And I hope you will too.