Thank you to the San Jose ICA for including me on their latest Collector's Tour. While I've participated in so many open studios events, never have I ever had such a group of focused, interested art lovers draped so warmly around my creative space. I spent the days preceding their visit writing down my thoughts, but in the moment decided to wing it and talk from the heart. I do wish my heart was a little more organized, but people understood.
It’s hard for me, oddly, to talk about my art. I don’t have an academic background in visual art, so I never had to talk about it from a critical perspective. For me, it’s all about the action of art-making and experimenting with materials and seeing if I can build something that is true to the ideas in my head. I’m trying to make a diamond, or a tomato, or a cloud. So, the meaning behind my work lies mostly in my love of building something from nothing, preferably with materials that don’t mean much to most people.
But more than trash and found objects, I make my art from fabric. While it’s not always material that’s been cast away, it is true that the fabric arts have not been held as dear in the art world as big STEEL and CONCRETE and BRONZE. It feels a little like sneaking in through the back door using a medium that is so at-hand. But would I feel that way if we could rewind the world and avoid patriarchy? Can’t do it, sorry. So that’s how it is.
I work accompanied by the ghost of my maternal grandmother, a true fabric artist making clothing and costumes and toys for her children, but not acknowledged as such. You won’t find her name online, except for census reports and the wedding announcements for her many children, grand- and great-grand children. So, Cerise Hartness, here’s a little SEO for you.
Cerise Hartness (nee Moody), born 1913 in Mississippi, was orphaned at a young age and brought up by the Cavendish family. She married an electrician and had 10 live children in the Mississippi Delta. I was 11 the year she died, and I was only able to learn a few things about her life at the time, namely that she really didn’t like Michael Jackson and really enjoyed wrestling (the dramatic kind with costumes). I would read old Reader’s Digest magazines in her spare room while she kicked back in her Lazy Boy recliner. But this isn’t about me. It’s about Cerise.
She sewed. A LOT. My mom was the 10th child (12th technically, but it is sad to get into) so the fact that Cerise was still working her sewing machine to make her velvet cloaks and prom dresses is astounding. It’s at this point that her husbands dies of lung cancer, and my mother (the last child living at home) is sent to live with her eldest sister, my Aunt Kay. And Cerise (known to me as Mema) goes west to visit her sister for an extended stay.
At this point, childhood trauma and a Baby Boomer propensity to gloss over unpleasant memories prohibits me from understanding the journey that Cerise went through. I know what it meant to my mother, the uprooting and loss and hardship, but what did it mean to Cerise? It’s much easier to entertain thoughts of her sudden freedom, even from certainly sad circumstances, pushing out west with no children, no husband, just the vast space between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean to roll around in. I wouldn’t bat an eye if I found out she didn’t miss her sewing machine. It is possible to do something you love so much that you might never need to do it again.
And that is where I feel like I am able to commune with her ghost. I am a divergence from the path, still sewing, but sewing under my own guidance with no one to tell me what to do. I am the page under hers, jumped forward decades. Do I wonder what she would make of my trash quilts and amorphous soft sculptures? Oh hell yes. But will I ever know? Of course not. But I come from a line of women who didn’t get much credit for their beautiful minds, so I’ll speak up and wave my garish colors around.
And look at that— I guess I had something to say after all. I