September 6, 2009

Retrospective: Poetry and Process

Over & Over / Breath (Diptych). 2005.
Stitching, stains, pencil, and found objects on paper.

I cannot walk an inch
without trying to walk to God.
—Anne Sexton

This is an excerpt from my undergraduate senior thesis, which describes my attempt in 2005-2006 to clarify my spiritual path by making art about it.

…In a moment of anxiety and desire to work on a low-pressure project, I decide to make a mess, to get my hands dirty and just play. I steep several teabags in water for an hour or two and then pour and drip the dark tea onto a large sheet of heavy paper, the kind of paper that can take a lot of abuse. Later I begin smearing wet coffee grounds over the paper, in some places rubbing the grounds heavily into the surface and in others letting the wet grounds sit in clumps on top of the paper. I give it a day or so to dry thoroughly and then shake the coffee grounds into the trash. And then I don’t know what to do with this messy, cryptic piece I have begun, so I set it aside. It sits in my studio, propped against a wall, for weeks.

Then another day of anxiety occurs. I want to work on something safe, something that doesn’t matter much, some kind of action to calm my mind. Looking at the messy piece, I notice that one strong curving tea stain dominates the tangle of suggested images formed by my staining and wiping. I take out a brown colored pencil, two shades darker than the stain itself, and begin to trace one edge of the dominant stain. The sweeping line of the stain becomes a bold dimensional shape because of the contrast of the dark pencil line, which forms a kind of shadow illusion. It seems to me that this strong shape wants to be a frame or container for some important element…

A brief excerpt from Mary Oliver’s poem “Sunrise” has been ringing in my heart for several days: “What is the name / of the deep breath I would take / over and over / for all of us?” I don’t understand it, but it stays with me. It’s difficult to discern what she means by “deep breath” or why her question is how to name it. But it’s clear that it happens, or must happen, “over and over”—every day, every new moment, for the duration of a life of undetermined length. Whatever the poet meant by these words, to me it speaks of prayer, the attempt to pray despite not knowing how to do it or who might be listening. I find it striking in the context of this poem that the word “spirit” comes from the Latin root spiritus, “breath.” And it touches me that Oliver expresses this desire for an enveloping nurturing gesture in the form of a question. Like the poet herself, I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, but one moment at a time I continue creating whatever it is, something that I hope will be “for all of us.”

...The bold container shape, then, is there to highlight a word: “breath,” the offering to the tormented world. I write the word in pencil, drawing it reverently as if inscribing the briefest of prayers. But it isn’t enough to have placed it there in the container; it needs to be bolder than the dark line surrounding it. I thread a curved needle with yarn, a dark olive green hue, and sew “breath” onto the paper, following the pencil line. It’s a slow process, piercing the heavy paper with the needle tip and pulling the fibers through, front to back and back to front, one stitch at a time.

I have now reached an uncomfortable crossroads in this work. There is no unifying image in the piece as a whole. How can I unite the strong curving “breath” segment with the rest of the stains and smears? With some trepidation on my part—it’s scary to tear a work-in-progress in half—the piece becomes a diptych… the “breath” segment and a second one with an echoing subtle curve. To this second segment, I add text to clarify “breath”: “deep breath,” followed by “over and over.” This text undergoes the same stitching process as before, using two new colors.

…Other poems have been burning in my consciousness. I search my journals for lines that connect…With colored pencils in various shades of brown and olive, I begin to add text to the diptych. Text becomes texture as I use the words to fill in a space here, to visually extend a line there. If Mary Oliver’s key ideas are the centerpiece of this work, then Adrienne Rich provides the anchor—I carve a slice from her lines and lay it repeatedly across the shape that encloses “breath,” so that breath/spirit and words/communion are intertwined and interdependent.

…I walk around my studio space, picking up one by one natural objects that I have found on long walks—gingko leaves, stones, small metal objects. I pause when I come across a dried hydrangea blossom, the color of a tea stain but perfectly formed. I found it on a walk six months ago and have kept it in my studio ever since, not knowing why it was important. Petals from this blossom become the final addition to the diptych, waterfalling downward. Weeks later, a visitor to my studio tells me that the color of hydrangea blossoms vary, blue or pink, depending on the acidity of the soil.


  1. Wow, this blew me away! The emergence of art from mess and stain is very powerful, I think. Also, I have a thing about embroidered words :-)

  2. Thank you! I'm always amazed at how such a chaotic process transforms into a cohesive least eventually!