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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Visiting Violet

Violet drawing

“She’s a bit shy,” Chris informs me. That’s OK, I am too.

Violet is eighty-six, and recently uprooted from a small English village to live with her son and his wife, both exhaustively busy local business owners here in the Hudson Valley.

I visit Violet two hours a day, three days a week. The list of companion-duties did not include anything I was not qualified for or squeamish about, so I stepped up to the plate. Besides, it’s right up the hill, a five minute walk away.

Her routine is not complicated. She sweeps and dusts her room and the downstairs of the two-story century-old house, and does light laundry for the restaurant. Mostly napkins. “Serviettes,” she calls them. She prepares her own simple meals and bathes without help. In the evening she watches “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” with her best friend Lola, the chunky and spoiled tortoise shelter cat. I have endeared myself to Violet if only because I talk to Lola as if she were my own, and scratch her at the sensitive point where her tail and body junction so that guttural moans and ferocious lickings ensue. As if I have some magic touch.

Mondays and Fridays I wash Violet’s hair. She leans over the kitchen sink, her head suspended like a dormant wrecking ball from a crane of stooped shoulders and neck. I test the water temperature and use the vegetable sprayer to wet the snow-white, wispy tufts. Exposed and pink, her skull is as mysterious as a dinosaur egg.

“Rub harder,” she urges, and I comply, scratching gently with my short fingernails. After a final rinse I gather up the towel caped around her sloping shoulders to pat her hair dry, give it a quick comb and side part, and two minutes later it is fluffy as eiderdown.

On Fridays I also paint her nails. “Nail varnish,” she calls the Sally Hanson Champagne Ice from the Dollar Store. Violet has large, handsome hands, and a pinch of pride dovetails with a bit of vanity to lend her a girlish aura that defies the worn and gullied map of her face.

Next she fixes a small pot of tea, and we settle into the day’s hour of recreation. Sometimes we work on a jigsaw puzzle, but we’ve exhausted our patience with the insipid Thomas Kinkaid themes, a 9-pack bought at a church tag sale. For Christmas she received a watercolor set and pad. We gather our supplies and sit at the yellow formica kitchen table in shared silence.

From a stack on her desk, she’s pulled a few This England country living magazines from the 1970s, and pages through them until something captures her fancy. Intently, she begins to slowly fill the sheet of paper with her line art. The paints sit on the side. “I’m working on shapes,” she explains.

I open my own pan of paint, dry for decades. I look at Violet, her concentration giving the illusion that she is a statue or still life. But she’s not really holding a pose; her head and hands shift and I try to remember how to simultaneously see and draw what is sitting right in front of me. It’s like riding a bicycle I gamely tell myself as my pencil scuttles across the page in fits and starts. But I am wobbly. My hand/eye coordination has not been called upon to work in such tandem in a long while. Developing a visual style upon demand and earning a living at it can molest what was once a pure process. I need a fresh well to draw from, not the dirty, used paint water from my past commercial life. Struggling, I wiggle and squirm, look at my watch and start over. And over. It all feels insincere, as if I have laid a sheet of tracing paper over the artist I once was and am trying to reclaim.

When the sun slants through the blinds to signal the end of the afternoon, I look at Violet’s page. Her pencil line is carefully chosen, tentative yet tenacious. Fresh. Newly hatched. I study my own sketches and know I would trade places in a heartbeat.
“Doesn’t look like much, does it?” she nods toward her efforts.

If she only knew.

Violet art

Violet’s page

Violet's legs

Under the formica table

Lola copy

“Princess” Lola

Images and words from last year or so. I still meet and paint with Violet, and will be posting more soon. 

She continues to inspire me.  And Lola continues to be spoiled.

Remembering Sheri @1953-1957

This gallery contains 9 photos.

“The photo album on the art table is for you,” my seventy-eight year old mother calls from her bedroom, with a strength in her voice that surprises me. She has had knee replacement surgery a week earlier, and, despite her … Continue reading