With eleven month old Thatcher Gray on my back, we meander our way though Chichicastenango’s Saturday market, awash in vibrant Mayan color and patterning. Starting with stone lithograph prints of rain forest inspired drawings, tracked with fresh tar then torn into squares, the process represents the fragmentation of Mayan land and culture. Atop this foundation, cultural persistence is demonstrated by Mayan traditional practices maintained despite Guatemala’s history of atrocity.
Inle Lake, Burma
These watermedia works on paper were created in Taos in the first year or so of Thatcher Gray’s life. They depict a meandering through the Intha market on Inle lake in Burma I took a decade earlier, when the country was considered to be on the cusp of genocide. Dominating the atmosphere is the official verbiage of Myanmar’s Military government, oppressing the space with the dingy palette of the newspaper. By 2010, I was hearing news of flat out genocidal acts being performed around the perimeter of the country by friends who were volunteering there as health workers. Their stories inspired me to reflect on the tensions felt by those who come from communities targeted; how it must feel to navigate this brutal society while maintaining an identity interwoven with traditional tribal practices. The expressions portrayed in the Intha Market series often seem tense, but as is the nature of markets, cultures may thrive in the face of oppression through the exchange and practice of culinary traditions. The ‘ghost’ paintings invoke a certain amount of freedom for me, and I consider them to be as important to the work as a whole, together with the sides I actively produced. The lack of newspaper and colors that drift unconfined by additional lines through the handmade paper acquired in the market. Some drawings contain the first scribblings of Thatcher Gray, who was just starting to learn how to hold markers in ways that he could imitate mom.
When I was pregnant, I had the opportunity to listen to one of the impassioned speeches given by Vrnda Noel in Denver. Mother of a combat medic in Iraq, she shared deeply emotive stories of what was happening there based on letters written home by her son. She had made him promise to write about his experiences in minute detail. Ultimately this ended up being cathartic for him as there were many traumatic situations that he was able to let go, and then forget. The speech she was giving was during an anti-war rally outside our local senators’ offices and I was struck by the expressions of love, sorrow and fear that passed through her delicate features. After his return to the US, they created a number of participatory creative projects that spoke to the impacts of war and the process of healing the mental wounds from it. Empty army boots and civilian shoes installed in Civic Center Park represented the growing death toll on both sides of the conflict. The combat paper project helped Vets transform by encouraging them to purge frustrations by destroying uniforms, then use the pulp to create artworks. Their practices inspired some aspects of the community work I’ve developed over the years since.
This series of portraits was included in the very first exhibition I had after Thatcher Gray was born. I created them while he was in my womb, and the process allowed me to consider this relationship between a mother and her war torn son. Shreds of oil paintings that I had torn apart with a shotgun were used as the base of a collage, which I then laid hot coals atop to produce a speckling of charred board across the picture plain. Pencil drawings depict the range of expressions that passed through Vrnda as she spoke with determination about her love for her son, and as an extension, all of the other sons affected by war.
A Contemplative Measure of the Gains and Losses of our Global Times
“Weave” is a collection of paintings reflecting the social, political and emotional manifestations of the ancient art of weaving.
These figurative paintings are the result of travels through China, Myanmar and South Carolina. Capturing weavers in their daily rituals, the paintings blend woman with machine in a celebration of the ancient art and a contemplative measure of the gains and losses of our global times.
The loud clang of industrial mass production is frequent in China these days. Well-known for its sweat shop style of labor, it’s an ominous forecast for the future.
Two years ago I was there and photographed a silk mill outside of Shanghai. Under fluorescent lights, the colors of steel and cement are cold, edges sharp. The women working the mill have their backs turned or their faces obscured. The fast and chaotic movement of the mass production is echoed through high energy brushstrokes.
In contrast, ancient forms of hand weaving are still practiced in places like Burma (Myanmar), where I recently spent time with a family of weavers. The experience left me with contradictions that I explored through paintings.
Their shop was the first floor of their home, stilted over Inle lake. The organic qualities of their massive hand hewn looms fill the room with the soft atmosphere of wood and cotton. They live under one of the most oppressive regimes today, which has resulted in a boycott of Myanmar by most countries. I wanted to reflect this existence of being completely cut off from the modern world by embedding the figures deep within the architecture of their looms. They are as visually separate from us, as they are culturally.
Closer to home, I explored the cotton mill in Anderson, South Carolina where my great grandmother was a spinner for most of her life. She took me there before she died, and I recorded the burnt out and collapsed structures as a perfect reflection of how manufacturing has continued to leave our borders over the years. The elegant brick structures have been abandoned for cheap labor and lower environmental standards found elsewhere in the world.
Offering an intimate portrayal of life in a “mill village”, I appropriated excerpts from my grandmother’s letters into burnt drawings of the mill. They reflect the difficulties of life during the industrial era and remind us that we are not so different from people elsewhere.
Their shop was the first floor of their home, stilted over Inle lake in Burma. The organic qualities of their massive hand hewn looms fill the room with the soft atmosphere of wood and cotton. They live under one of the most oppressive regimes today, which has resulted in a boycott of Myanmar by most countries. I wanted to reflect this existence of being completely cut off from the modern world by embedding the figures deep within the architecture of their looms. They are as visually separate from us, as they are culturally.
Weave: Silk Spinning in China
The loud clang of industrial mass production is frequent in China these days. Well-known for its sweat shop style of labor, it’s an ominous forecast for the future. In 2005 I photographed a silk mill outside of Shanghai. Under fluorescent lights, the colors of steel and cement are cold, edges sharp. The women working the mill have their backs turned or their faces obscured. The fast and chaotic movement of the mass production is echoed through high energy brushstrokes.
A journey through northern India included a visit to Bodhgaya, where we found a tree considered sacred because it had grown from the tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment. We also spent time in Varnasi, along the river considered sacred in Hindu traditions. I was deeply moved by people’s interactions with the river as they performed cleansing rituals and completed daily chores along the ancient Ghats. At the time we were there, the river was receding, leaving the huge stairs caked with piles of mud. These were steadily cleared back into the river by teams of workers, steadily completing this annual task amidst those who were laundering, praying and mourning. It is believed that if one dies here, they will be re-born at a higher level in the caste system, so there are many people who come here to die and many who mourn their lost ones. I retain a poignant memory of a half burnt corpse submerged with the remnants of ceremonial fabric; firewood is expensive on the burning ghats, and if a family doesn’t have enough, the half burned remains are strewn into the river. Struck by how polluted the river was, we were surprised and delighted to see the rare fresh water dolphins from a boat floating in waters lit quietly by the dawn. We went on this journey in 2005 to celebrate 30 years circling the sun. I created this series of watercolors the following year.
This imagery also inspired The Making of Dust, a mixed media painting created in response to the poem of the same name by Drew Myron
In 2005, Burma was on the cusp on Genocide. The country was just opening up to tourism, but it took a lot of attention to travel in a way that did not directly support the oppressive government. We visited the ancient temples sprawled across the plains in Bagan and were left in awe of the structures. This series of portraits are of women found on the streets, in between temples and tucked inside shrine rooms. They are shy in an environment steeped in fear.
This painting was inpired by the poem The Making of Dust by Drew Myron. It was created for an invitational exhibition at Weilworks in Denver, in which all artists were asked to create a work inspired specifically by this poem by Drew Myron. Integrating imagery of cracked earth and a woman immersed in prayer from Varanasi, India, the work was drawn into paper which had been printed with fresh tar using a pickup truck.
The Making of Dust
The car roars past the turned face
no burning regret
no slow moving sorrow
this the near-miss noticed
the ledge trembles still we hold
We are this secure, this fragile
a marriage of disconnects
confessions comforts a faint
This is the making of dust
a layer tangible as grace
the earth cracks
soundless beneath our feet.
Torched Angels from Havana’s Graveyard
We had the opportunity to travel to Cuba in the winter of 2000. I was inspired to paint this series based on the feelings I received from meeting artists, exploring Havana’s International Art Biennial, discovering the coutryside and convening with a Santaria Priest. The layers of history, emotion and social relationships are complex. There is a great deal of pride and frustration both. The portrayed figures come from photographs I took through Havana’s main cemetery. For me, the series of white stone angels and portraits of the Virgin Mary were charged with a similar range of emotions I felt while meandering through the various urban neighborhoods and landscapes there. There is a great deal of loss held by community members yet they continue to hold strong to the qualities that define them as uniquely Cuban.
The works were created with a blowtorch. I burned layers of collaged materials then painted the portraits of the cold marble figures atop of the charred works. At this time in my creative evolution, I was exploring ways of conveying resilience in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. I remember a particular conversation with a group of musicians in Pinar del Rio about how my process integrated destruction into the textual layers of a work. I had shown them a series of works from Cambodia, where I had portrayed icons from Angkor Wat atop layers of wood I had torn up with a shotgun. They questioned the order in which the works were made, asking if I was mutilating these figures in an aggressive way. I told them than no, indeed I was not. The figures grew as representations of an enlightened state out of the fields that were pieced together from the violent process of literally tearing it up with a shotgun. The conversation made me acutely aware of how process contributed to the meaning inherit in this kind of work.