The first class
Weighted with my bag of unconventional materials I took the M15 bus uptown to the art school. I was forty-five minutes early so I lugged myself and my bag up to Third Avenue to see if I could find a coffee place. For the first time ever in New York I could find nothing, so I walked down again to First, into the diner at the corner. I was sweaty with my load and coat and scarf and hat and the nervous energy that had been with me since I woke up. I was going to art school. I had enrolled in a sculpture course. Ten classes. I, who couldn’t draw, who found even drawing a cartoon-style house challenging. What had I been thinking of when, at Nonna’s cabin, I had suddenly whipped open my computer and enrolled myself in this class after a quick google search. Louise Nevelson was to blame. Barbara Hepworth too. My immersion in their worlds, reading, had opened up some new vista in me. I was excited, thrilled then, but now, as I sat staring at the gigantic omelette before me with potatoes on the side, I felt somewhat sick. What had I done? What was I thinking?
I opened the red door and went inside. And the air welcomed me. I do believe in energy, how the air and breath, stillness and movements, the histories and presences, displace the molecules, what is left behind for you to breath in when you step into the space. The class was in the lower level and when I stepped into that huge workroom my heart opened, lifted - here I was (me, me) in an artist’s work space - the long tables set out in a rectangle, the high stools, the adjourning room with the tools for our work (later the instructor took us new students on a tour of the school which occupied all six floors of the building - the two galleries - where my own work could be exhibited, the media-visual-computer lab, the workshop of large tools, the painters studio - how affecting I found the easels there, waiting - the library..). This was a beautiful, serious space. I was being treated seriously as an artist, a sculptor. The instructor had not found it preposterous at all that I would dare to be here. Surprised, yes, when she asked and I told her that I had no experience with sculpting, that I could not draw (you don’t need to, she said. I had to think of my own ways of visualizing the piece I wanted to make. I take lots of photographs I said. And later I worked out how I could use that to work out the patterning and structure of my piece - how I could use a maquette - oh how I was loving the language of sculpture), or that I was a writer. Ah she said, and now you want to express yourself three dimensionally. Interesting. And not a doubting, skeptical ‘interesting’, but an intrigued, optimistic one.
As I stood there, waiting for the class to begin, I watched as the room filled up, set at ease by the joyful, purposeful energy: one, two, three fellow students in work overalls no less, splattered with paint; a student pushing a trolley with her work, an intriguing wire form (she was coming from a painting class on the upper floors); another student with a larger form - roof paper she was working with she explained later; another talked about her current interest in antique traps, the idea of entrapment, who was trapped, and how she might express this in a steel sculpture - at her table she had two pieces, forms of fabric (organic cotton fabric, possible a t-shirt) stretched over a canvas which had an ethereal feel about them and while she worked on a long twisting rod she talked to me about how I was all in with ‘deconstructing’ my fresh direct bags and she showed me the large movable platform where I could lay out my deconstructed bags so that I could start visualizing the patterns, the shape and form, for my sculpture.
These are ‘my people’, finally, I’ve found ‘my people’.
I have never been a group person but the class, this class, was made for me.
Collaboration, our instructor said. No tutorials. Just open dialogue and communication. Exchange of thoughts, ideas, experiences. And work. That was the thing. Doing the work. I was in love. I had stumbled open a community where I could be as open or silent as I wanted/needed.
In the three hours the space was full of the pulse and rhythm of artists absorbed in their creations. Now and then a fellow artist would go over to another to talk about the piece in progress, offer or solicit advise, or share musings about some exhibit or something read, and as a group we talked about the Louise Bourgeois house and studio that we had visited a couple of days ago, exchanging our impressions. It was a beautiful, convivial atmosphere. After overcoming some timidity, I walked over to take a closer look at the sculpture that my fellow artist, who had been in this class for five years, was doing on a loom, using the silk threads from the silkworms which is usually discarded. I learnt that she had discovered this thread (she used unconventional materials in her weaving, like plastic) after watching a documentary about a Japanese artist who was using it.
How fortuitous and so glorious it was to find myself among this group of creatives, to have a teacher who was so easy, unpretentious and yet incisive and illuminating in her commentary about art - what it could do - what we should aim for - how we should approach our work with intention, query. While she talked the idea for my sculpture hit me, the form it would take, the intention of it. Inspired by Tracy Emin’s tent I would make my own tent from the fresh direct bags. An environment sculpture that spoke of the pandemic. The tent of brightly-colored fresh direct bags which promised 100% Happiness and Real Obsession - all of it Guaranteed.
I am a writer. I love words - and all good things in the pandemic - a respite in the terror - a daydream in the nightmare - a slice of heaven in the hellscape - a delusion in the reality. A tent could be a place of safety, but it could be attacked by bears, predators, storms. It could be a sturdy thing, or fragile in adversity, it had no locks or padlocks, its illusion of warmth and security could be crumpled away in an instant.
Emin’s tent was store bought, a readymade; I will deconstruct my ready-mades and create my tent. What the tent is made of, how it is made, the form and design it takes is at the core, the essence, of what the sculpture is, can be, seeks to be. It is everything of the pandemic, the soul of it, inside and out. The pandemic still fresh and direct.
Would the tent be a fully functional one, the real thing, and what would the intentionality of that be? Here is this tent. You can use it, fully. It is an experience. It is here, in this indoor space but you could take it outdoor, escape in it, in its bubble. And what to make that my tent would be made of an atypical material - not nylon or cotton - but a plastic.
The instructor and I share concepts of what my tent could be like. We scroll through the internet. She suggests I visit a sports shop in Soho. What about the COVID testing tents? No, nothing like that. My tent has to be a homey tent, dome-shaped, snug and cozy. You can sleep in it. Lie awake, thinking.
The environment in the tent I was not sure of - yet - would inside be a safe haven, or a reliving of a nightmare - would it be therauptic or terrifying - would ghosts be laid to rest or would they rise again? Peace or war? Would it be carthatic? Would it become performance art? A ritualistic burning, destruction of the tent, videotaped - goodbye to all that - would the ashes give comfort or create unease - would a phoenix arise… or some terrible thing again. Would the tent be memorial, or living thing?
Erasure: a bonfire in the tent; a pile of firewood, a box of matches.
Sharing ideas with my instructor I grew emotional, the pandemic still ra - the memories still not the distant past - I spoke of what the environment in the tent might look like - audio-visual of sirens, video of the Empire State flashing red, audio of the defiant Black Lives Matter! cries… did I want to relive all that again - to sit in the tent and cry and wail and let it all out, the agonies of lockdown? The environment I decided on would determine what would go in the tent. I thought perhaps I might paint them all white, the unifying color giving the things inside a sculptural unity (peaceful? unsettling?). Could I give them a totemic quality like a Nevelson sculpture?
That first class, I deconstructed my bags, patiently taking out the stitching (with a long pointed stick in class, a fork at home) and as I sat in my space, getting up to laying them out, I felt that wonderful burbling inside which, when writing, creating a story, always let me know that I was onto something, and here I was now, that same feeling. Welcome, home, it said.
I am a writer. I love words. I love stories. And so, the rest of the week, I read about the story of Fresh Direct, the company - founded in 2002, huge warehouse in The Bronx, 2018, moved from delivery in cardboard boxes to the well-made, stylish-woven polypropylene bags, with the eye-catching and beautifully photographed panels (someone had done the work on what would appeal to shoppers on the East Coast), the politics of ‘reuse’ versus ‘recycle’, the fifty percent rise in customers during the height of the pandemic, the workers union denied, the juxtaposition and contradictions of commerce and charity… The reading, the stories, feed into the work of my sculpture, creates new meanings, new associations, new perspectives, widens and narrows the environment of the piece.
Inside this tent, stillness/quietness or a primeval scream (Munch); offering or sacrifice; sanity or madness - and bits and pieces of Inside (unpublished) come roaring at me:
I think of a tent with the eeriness, the unsettling quality of a Louise Bourgeois’ cell.
I am drawn to sculpture that has an abstract-realism quality; somehow my tent has to go beyond its literalness.
The one person tent I ordered arrives, it is to give me an idea of size and proportions After setting it up the tent I am all at once discouraged.
I’ve taken on too much! The tent is so big! How am I ever going to make one, from my woven plastic bags? I do what I did whenever I was stumped in my writing - a long bath. And it works! The tent becomes manageable as ideas for how I can arrange the bags, the patterns and forms. What inside will look like - ideas of using some of my old Christmas decorations - an EmpireState building ornament…
I take my pile of bags and begin making patterns, forms for each of the faces of the tent.
front panel (with door)
side back panel
folded into loops to hold the retractable poles
The practicalities of combining all the elements to make the tent are beginning to dawn on me. The idea of gluing all the parts seems a non-starter as my research reveals that polypropylene is the most difficult and resistant plastic to glue, which means that I will most likely have to sew - the last time I did any machine-sewing was at high school in sewing class and I was not very good at it. But, the truth is, I had always instinctively thought that I should/would have to sew my tent: firstly because for it to be real it had to be sewn, but what really resonates with me is what the action of sewing symbolizes: at the height of the pandemic there were so many stories about people learning new skills, baking, cooking, knitting, learning a new language… and I lamented my own stasis during this period… and so sewing for me is a reverberation of this time; it is so integral to the integrity and totality of the sculpture - something created with love, care and perhaps pain, and here it is now, a new skill to be learnt. Courage!
The artist has the privilege of giving voice to what others feel but cannot express, visually. Like writing, it comes to me, I am creating a narrative.