I love the transitional weeks of late December and early January. A chance to reflect, assess and plan. Katherine and I just returned from two weeks in Southwest Texas, another memorable trip, more on that later. The final quarter of 2018 was a whirlwind and I feel a strong sense of accomplishment and personal success. 2018 was such a crap year on the national and world stage. But in my own small life I felt like it was a very good year. When I started this journey away from teaching I had the first six months planned and then assumed I would be pounding the pavement in search of a job. Eighteen months later and I am still putting one foot in front of the other as a full time artist. Some opportunities have panned out and others have not and I somehow continue to tread water. I owe so much to Katherine for her support both financially and emotionally, but I also met my (very modest) financial goals and received an overall very positive response to my work. Enough to keep me pushing forward.
My exhibit at the Scrap Exchange exceeded my expectations on all levels, but especially the community engagement that occurred. The interactive map of “What’s Your Migration Story?” was so full of interwoven threads and the conversations that took place in front of that map were inspiring. People want to tell their story! I am grateful for the opportunity to have had that space and time to share that work.
I sold work at five craft markets during the holiday season. It’s been fifteen years since I have done the craft market scene and I was concerned that I would not enjoy it as previously I really struggled with being confident about selling my work. What a pleasant surprise to discover that I enjoyed the markets a great deal! I loved talking to people about my work, why I do what I do and why I think it matters. Selling at markets is not easy. If an artist is dependent on that money to pay bills the unpredictability is stressful. But I found the work to be very satisfying and after being in the relative isolation of my studio, it was a nice change to talk with people. I enjoyed talking with other artists and hearing about their experiences. I especially loved being next to the wand makers who have created a business based on pure love for a story (Harry Potter) and the imagination of readers!I am planning out my calendar for 2019 and am already excited about selling my work and meeting new people. I finished the season buzzing with ideas and grateful for the positive feedback I received.
As I mentioned before, Katherine and I headed off to Texas on Christmas eve. This was our third big trip out west during the Christmas/New Years holiday. We doggedly hold onto the mistaken idea that it will be warm in the Southwest at that time and we are always wrong. It was freezing most nights. We like to start with a loose idea of where we want to go, bring our backpacking and camping gear, rent a car and go from there. This year we had hoped to camp in Big Bend National park, but, thanks to the gov’t shutdown there were no permits being issued for camping. So we adjusted and found ourselves in other places which were just as inspiring. Much of my work over the past year has been focused on migration and it was interesting and intense to be back in the borderlands area. We spent some time along the Rio Grande and then spent three days in a very remote area of Big Bend Ranch State Park, accessible only by 4x4. It was just us, the dark skies, the coyotes and every plant that was designed to puncture our skin. The desert has a way of clarifying my thoughts. The enormous space, the density of the stars, the extreme conditions all conjure me to a very essential mental place. I can expand my thinking in the desert. Humans are not big in the desert but it is a great place to ask big questions. The idea of any kind of wall in this landscape is puny and ridiculous. As we traveled around the area, there was evidence of resistance to the wall and yet at the same time- folks were just living their lives on both sides of the border. There is such deep history and culture in the borderland area that rivals the complexities of what we have here in the Southeast. Everywhere is evidence of human activity from now, back through the 17th-20th century to thousands of years ago and then back to the dinosaurs. Big Bend is one of the best sites in the country for the study of dinosaurs. We spent a day and night at the McDonald observatory where we toured the Hobby-Ebberly telescope among others and learned about the incredible research that astronomers there are doing on stars using spectrographs. Using the light of stars to look back ten billion years, asking where did we come from and how did it all begin. I struggled to truly understand that and at the same time felt an overwhelming sense of awe and joy at the brevity of the scientist’s questions. We looked at the nebulous of Orion through a telescope, formed mainly from stardust, remains of dead or dying stars and the substance from which all matter is made. The Texas dark skies allowed us to see the Milky Way and the billions of stars and galaxies in the universe. All of which lead me to the conundrum of “ how am I significant when I am soooo insignificant?” I’ll be chewing on that for a long time.
We also spent a day in Marfa TX, the town that Minimalist artist Donald Judd rebuilt from a dying railroad and ranch town in the 1970’s. I have always been a little skeptical of Minimalism and really didn’t know much about Judd’s work. After visiting the Chinati Foundation which is where Judd permanently installed some huge sculptures of concrete blocks in the desert, I have a much better appreciation for his work in the context of the environment. Also- you are required to work to interact with the art. The blocks stretch for almost a mile and to see them all requires a hike that, in the desert sun, is challenging. We fortunately were there on a cold winter day. I left thinking about materials, especially concrete and it’s place in our built environment. I thought about human created debris. I also thought a lot about art that functions as a conduit to higher connections. Places like Stonehenge and Easter Island and ancestral mounds. It seems to me that Judd was trying to transcend the idea of art as individual expression and connect us to a more profound communal place. I certainly felt that. Plus, after being at the observatory and already full of big, universal questions- it was easy to see this artwork in a very elemental way. I have a lot of thoughts about Minimalism as white male privilege as it ran counter to the Identity art of the 1970’s but that would be another post and probably someone else has already expressed those thoughts better than I. Despite that, in the environment in which I experienced the work, there was a completeness that I found very compelling.
There were many more noteworthy occasions on this trip. Conversations with locals about water rights, segregation, racism, gentrification and history. One woman told us about her dad, who grew up in Marfa and wasn’t allowed to speak Spanish and was conditioned to be biased against Mexicans, even though he himself was Mexican. Border Patrol checkpoints- just a way of life there but for me an uncomfortable reminder of the insignificance of my individual outrage against the state machine. Which made me feel like crap. There was the obvious pollution of El Paso, seemingly coming from Juarez factories and the headlines that hotel occupancy was up this year thanks to families of migrants staying in local hotels. This was touted as a good thing. But little news about the migrant camps in Tornillo, just outside of El Paso, where thousands of children are being detained. A lone sign outside of Terlingua “Resist the Wall: rednecks for Beto” And then in the airport, the large groups of adolescent, Hispanic boys, all dressed the same, with matching string backpacks, headed on flights to- where? I naively assumed they were school groups until Katherine suggested that they were migrant children being moved by the government. What is going on?! I left El Paso trying to sort out all of the complexities that our trip had revealed to me.
Now I am back in Durham, filled with gratitude, truly, for home, safety, community and feeling tasked with finding ways to do better by the world in whatever way I can. I deactivated my social media accounts before my trip. I feel more alert and present without them. It may be a challenge to keep my work as visible without social media but I think it is healthier for me to step away from Facebook and Instagram. I think I have a better quality of life without so much chatter. I hope to see folks out in the world and look forward to a new year of growth, health and art making! Happy New Year!