on reclaiming the erotic

I love pussy willows. The bareness of the long branches, the otherworldly softness of the catkin tufts, the contrast between the dark branches and the light, almost iridescent catkins, and that they signal (and perfectly embody) the end of winter and the beginning of spring. They are, in some way, sensual and erotic. I had some hanging out in a vase from last spring and well into summer. By fall, I had popped all the catkins off and placed them in one of my small ceramic bowls on my alter. There they sat for a few more months. I knew they would work their way into my art, but I wasn’t sure how.

And then one day (in December) I knew. I found the roll of metal mesh my mother had given me and got to work. I draped a piece of cloth along the bottom edge to protect my arms from scrapes, with my left hand supporting the work underneath while my right hand worked above with the small needle-nose pliers and catkins. The work reminded me of embroidery, and what Ann Hamilton has said time and again about her own work:

“My first hand is a sewing hand. A line of thread drawn up and down through cloth influences how I think about the confluence and rhythms of space and time. . . . Drawn, sewn or written, a line contains all the attention present in its moment of making, the rhythms of breath and body, the weather of hesitations and the stutter of the hand orbiting in the body’s immediate periphery. Folded, cut or accreted, the line’s incessant horizontality returns to itself and takes a circular form. It is simple work; it requires the body to be slow.”  

Ann Hamilton

Remembering that led me to listen to these lectures by Ann Hamilton about the process of making and her body of work:

Ann Hamilton at the National Gallery of Art on September 16, 2011
Ann Hamilton at the National Museum of Women in the Arts on March 29, 2017

Sometimes I work in silence, sometimes I watch/listen to movies or shows while working, but most often I will listen to lectures by or about artists. I don’t remember everything I listened to in the course of making this particular sculpture, but here are a few others:

Kiki and Seton Smith in conversation with Lynne Tillman at Seton Hall University on December 6, 2016
“My Louise Bourgeois” lecture and conversation by Siri Hustvedt at Haus der Kunst on September 6, 2015
“Uses of the Erotic” by activist and poet Audre Lorde at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women at Mount Holyoke College on August 25, 1978

I listened to Audre Lorde‘s “Uses of the Erotic” three times so far. I highly recommend it. So many powerful and still very relevant ideas.

The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.

Audre Lorde

About three quarters of the way through this sculpture, I realized it would be a good idea to more carefully choose the catkins, so I emptied the bowl to spread the catkins out in front of me. That’s when I saw it. The interior of the bowl (which I made several years ago) had the same color and pattern as the catkins in the mesh, and I felt something that can only be described as a full-body gasp. It was a visceral reaction, and to be honest I started crying. Just a little. But I didn’t dwell on it for too long and finished the work last night, the end of the first day of the new year.

When I first started making visual art, I was surprised to see that my work across mediums (ceramic, wire, textile, drawing, sculpture) was coherent and of a piece. At this point, it’s kind of freaking me out. The same patterns keep showing up, and it’s not intentional or done on a conscious level. I’m processing something, but I don’t know what.

And I love this work, this sculpture. I don’t just like it or really like it; I love it. I want to hug it, but I can’t. I want to understand it, but so far I don’t. This is a new opportunity for self-awareness, and I’m excited by it. I can’t really name all of these feelings, but I think they might be touching on joy, on the erotic that Lorde speaks of.

For the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing. Once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors bring us closest to that fullness.
The aim of each thing which we do is to make our lives and the lives of our children richer and more possible. Within the celebration of the erotic in all our endeavours, my work becomes a conscious decision — a longed-for bed which I enter gratefully and from which I rise up empowered.

Audre Lorde

I can’t really name all of these feelings I have about this new sculpture, but I think they might be touching on joy, on the erotic that Lorde speaks of. So here’s my wish for 2020: May it be a year of erotic exploration, of little leaps of the heart, of making and doing, of understanding and self-awareness, of poetry in all its forms.

One comment

  1. Elwood says:

    This reminds me of the idea that poetry is writing which isn’t fully understood in the first reading. It gives us a chance to go back, reread, meditate and find new significance. It’s value, in part, comes from not being understood. I wish I could remember where I read that. Please keep making your art.

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