Cabinet of Childhood Curiosity

I recently submitted a proposal and was accepted into a curated group exhibit for Women’s History Month at the Howland Cultural Center, here in Beacon, NY. The topic was enticing: Girlhood. Oh boy, was this ever custom-meant for me and my kind of personal art! One foot is always in my girlhood.

Girlhood overview

Looking back all these years, I assume that I asked questions from the time I learned to talk—what child is not curious? My nuclear family really was perfect, so I know when the answers stopped coming. My father simply disappeared from my life, in 1957, and my big question was Where’s Daddy? What I remember first was being in our linoleum-floored kitchen with my grandparents and asking Why is Mommy crying?  I have no memory of having his death (electrocution on the job as utility pole lineman) explained to me, or going to a funeral, or ever being comfortable asking questions or talking about any of it with my mother. Not until lately.

With the recent escalation of a nuclear pissing contest between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, I found myself having a bit of PTSD. Childhood fears are being resurrected from the Cold War. I grew up in the era of “Duck and Cover,” and here we are again. Of course, ducking and covering was a joke, but the threat itself was very real, and still is. The idea that we could simply hide under our desks to avoid the blast—who knew how ludicrous that was back then? Answer: A lot of people in high governmental positions. But that’s the propaganda pablum they fed us. And I was very frightened, especially when Nikita Krushchev thundered on our black-and-white television sets: WE WILL BURY YOU!

GH 2

Old electrical manuals and my civil defense booklets from the 1960s, a charm bracelet with the ten commandments, glitter, some toys, and my childhood art

Where did I find solace and a sense of safety? That is what makes up this installation. Sifting through a lifetime of personal archival material, as well as trinkets I’ve collected for my assemblage art (that connected me nostalgically to my childhood), I address my unanswered questions, my fears, and how I navigated my girlhood—steeped in family love, but also loss.

GH 3

More vestiges of growing up in the 1950s & 60s along with a very early book of poems

GH 4

Prayers weren’t working for me, so I switched to Mighty Mouse. “Here I come to save the day!” Gauges and gee-gaws. My childhood bank. A buddhist prayer flag with my questions.

At the center of the installation is my first assemblage art done in 1996. That was when I began to seriously address my past and how I became who I am today. No longer afraid to ask questions. Now I also write poetry to make peace with what I may never find out.

Insulating Materials

 

DEFENSIVE MEMORY

I ask now what you remember.

For me:

Air raid sirens pierce arithmetic lessons as we

practice for nuclear war.

My classmates and I scramble

under wooden desks:

girls’ plaid skirts tenting pale knees scabbed at recess and

even the boys are quiet.

Spitballs at a cease fire.

 

You say you don’t remember much.

A hint:

Did you ask me what I learned in school that day and did

I already know not to

disturb you with my fears?

I almost forgot:

Got a hundred per cent on a spelling test and

Mike Clark ate a red crayon.

And I can’t sleep at night.

 

Copyright Sharon Watts 2018

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Reclaiming My Studio (& Pappaw DeWalt’s Dirt)

Halo-lit by the setting sun, a hulking cumulus cloud looms in the sky like a bulbous atomizer for the Fishkill Creek. The funky summertime fragrance fills my nostrils as I soar down Tioronda Avenue on my bicycle. Along dormant railroad tracks, encroaching development in the form of luxury housing spreads over the abandoned industrial landscape like a modern pestilence. The lambs ear and sumac and occasional dumped sofa are standing their ground for now—and I am rooting for them. (Well, not the sofa.) A whip of wind and gnats and honeysuckle helps to create a miracle: my sixty-four-year-old body is still able to reclaim that giddy feeling of endless summer.

I have been reacquainting myself with my art studio for the last week—a 1920s brick garage that was a large part of the reason I moved upstate from New York City nearly seventeen years ago. It’s been a constant battle with the carpenter ants who have had squatters’ rights since time began. A recent tar-and-patch on the roof’s perimeter has given me the (most likely false) hope that maybe this time I can get the upper hand.

squirrel & tar

So, I am back to assemblage art. I wanted to start small, both in scale and concept. While the setup was initially an homage to my paternal grandfather and the workshop he kept in his basement, this summer I am feeling the spirit of Pappaw DeWalt, my mother’s father. He had built a small, seasonal cabin (known as “the cottage” for some reason, but let’s not envision cobblestones and roses!) out of scavenged Stroehmann’s bread billboards. My dad and uncles would cart the building materials to the island in the Susquehanna from the tiny hamlet of Cly before my memories of summer even began. By the time I was nicknamed “Peapicker” by Pappaw, matching his motorboat, I was happily ensconced in that simple, idyllic setting.

Cottage - me on boat

It was less than a half-hour drive, and yet a world away from our suburban backyard and asphalt playgrounds (where we could easily crack our heads open with one faulty swing on the monkey bars). The cottage was at the very end of the island, which felt like the tip of my entire world, as I spread out on a doll blanket and memorized picture flash cards with all the butterflies and birds, or read the latest Nancy Drew. There was a small dock for the boat and jumping off into the chilly, murky river. Wooden steps led up to a screened-in porch where I loved to sleep on a metal cot, but the rustic interior I barely remember at all. Maybe an enamel-top table, an arm chair—but who wanted to be inside during summer?

 

Me at the cottage

*****

Nana & Pappaw picnicing.jpg

Pappaw and Nana DeWalt had traveled—camped!—across some of the United States, and he always brought back a souvenir for me. A fossil, some fool’s gold, and from one trip in 1957, samples of dirt. Sixty years later they are lined up in my studio, their masking tape labels still legible: Wyoming, Cedar Rapids Iowa, Hinkley [sic] Illinois, and “50 MI west of Omaha Lincoln NEB.” To christen the rebirth of my creative workspace, I decided to give them a little more of a presentation, using materials that evoked feelings of the cabin on the river, and of a time when feeling dirt underfoot and memorizing Latin names for butterflies was really all a girl needed to pass a long, summer’s day.

Dirt on shelves

3 removed and mounted, 4 to go

Samples in progress

experimenting with backgrounds to mount the dirt samples

Linoleum in driveway

a nice sheet of aging linoleum that evokes the cottage, warming up in the driveway

Linoleum on masonite

cut down to the size of pre-cut masonite (done years ago by Pappaw Watts . . .for what?)

Dirt__Lincoln Nebraska

One sample assemblage ready

Dirt__Wyoming__Mike

This one goes to Pappaw DeWalt’s great-grandson, Mike, and his wife Charlotte, who live in Wyoming. Passing the dirt!

Peg O’ My Heart

This gallery contains 11 photos.

My grandfather on my father’s side, “Pappaw” Watts, was a foreman at PP&L (Pennsylvania Power and Light) and Renaissance man: a self-taught musician, poet, photographer, and beekeeper. He also was a Depression-era poster boy for saving things that he might … Continue reading

Hallmark Had Nuthin’ On Me

My grandmother or maybe father helped me choose this typical store-bought card from the late '50s

This gallery contains 18 photos.

My mother downsized last year, and “returned to sender” a pile of homemade cards I had given her over the years, starting when I was around five years old and ending before I went to art school in 1971. While … Continue reading