Categories
Photography

Letters from the Woods—An Invitation

Dear one,

Have you ever been lost? I mean right properly lost. So turned around you can’t remember where you came from or what direction is the way back.  

It’s unsettling to say the least.

Do you know what your mind does when faced with profound uncertainty? Where do you go in your head? What coping do you use? Do you reach out to blame someone or thing? Bad map or a shit guide? Do you turn inward and blame yourself? Do you forge ahead in uncertainty? Or do you quit and sit down? How long can you “stay with the trouble” before despair sets in?

I had nearly forgotten what it was like.

I have really only been deeply lost twice in my life–lost to the point of despair. Once in the mountains of Costa Rica. I could not find my way and at one point believed that I might never get home. The second time I was profoundly lost was when my concrete notions of faith dissolved and I became agnostic. It was an agonizing three months that left me with thoughts of suicide due to the extreme feelings of meaninglessness.

Friend, I am lost again. This time, however, I am lost by choice.

This summer I entered the woods in order to abandon the known routes in my life. I wanted to leave behind all that is familiar—the status quo that is responsible for so many troubling structures. I do not want to only fix problems with band-aids or be a white saviour to the legacy of colonial and racist violence. I do not want my liberation lens to end at white feminism.

I do not want to die knowing I could have pushed harder to change the way I live had I just stayed with the trouble a little longer.

I want to be a better ancestor.

I want to take this life force, this energy, this star dust that is my body and run it as hard as I can into trying something else.

For me, this looks like getting lost in the woods.

‘becoming lost’ is really about losing the specificity of our boundaries, the intransigence of our anthropocentrism; it is about shapeshifting, colluding with plants and rocks and wind, and becoming fine enough to meet the challenge of a dead-end. Perhaps it is more about noticing that we are the dead ends we confront, we are the monsters on our path. It is about broadening our spectrum enough to see that ‘the way ahead’ is not as demanding and as exclusive as our frantic maps make it out to be, but a promiscuous field of threadbare possibilities wanting to be stitched.

Bayo Akomolafe

I cannot go back, and I do not know the way forward. I have no compass, no map, and it feels dark.

It is from this place that I invite you alongside me as I journey through these woods, real and metaphorical. In this time I am questioning everything. I am prying behind the structures I have taken for granted and asking what happens when I loosen the lines–or obliterate them altogether.

I intend to be here for the next five years. I intend to get comfortable not knowing, stumbling my way through this place.  It is sometimes scary, sometimes lonely, sometimes incredibly rewarding.

I know there are many paths through the woods, and the one I am following is maybe just for me. But I welcome your company, if you want to come alongside me through this beautiful, uncomfortable passage.

Your friend in the wild,

Alexandra

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Photography

My Life is My Art is My Praxis

I remember there was a moment in my studies at the School of Art where I realized that I would never not be an artist. It seems funny to say that now, but I think I was haunted by a productivity mindset that if I wasn’t creating something, ideally something of value, then my status as an artist could be revoked. 

Subconsciously I think I believed “value” to mean something someone would spend money on. Whether that is a product someone would buy, a work a gallery would pay me to exhibit, or an idea a granting body was willing to fund–my status as an artist hinged on that value. 

I had this moment of realization as I was working in the clay studio. It was joined in a string of thoughts that included the realization that I didn’t have to make mugs to be a clay artist, and that I was in love with the material itself and it was going to be a life long affair. Or, to paraphrase spoken word artist, Shane Koyczan, I found my voice and remembered I was an artist.

“Whether it is with food or building robots you will know your medium the instant you realize how in love you are with what it brings out of you”

Shane Koyczan

I will never not be an artist. 

Knowing I am an artist however, doesn’t solve the how to be an artist. With so many avenues, so many mediums and so many ideas, knowing I was an artist was only the first step into becoming one. 

As tempting as it was, I didn’t quit all my jobs. I did not want income to be the the primary motive behind my practice.  In the same way I am allowing myself the freedom to not let gallery exhibitions and grant funding be the primary motive behind my work. I am not opposed to either of these, and will likely submit my work for funding and for exhibits, but this is not my primary motive at this time. 

Instead I am giving myself five years in a tiny cabin to intertwine my life together with my art so that they become a single fabric. As I attempt to attune my personal life somewhere on the periphery of colonial capitalist structures, I am wanting to do the same with my art practice. 

I am curious if I can find value in my cultural labour outside galleries, and grants, and products? Is there is a way for my practice to be relational, tethered to life and less of a competition against other artists and makers?

My intuition tells me that the first step is to erase the hard line between art and life. 

I doubt my intuition even as I write, or at least I am unsure on what happens when you remove the structure.

It feels a little vulnerable. Like having my body altered in a performance. Maybe it is a social practice I am after, or a five year performance, or a five year site specific installation. I am not really sure. 

Blurring the line between “real life” and “art practice” with no clear picture feels risky.   

But I am too curious not to try. 

So here I go: five years in the woods. Five years to inhabiting a liminal space. Five years of practicing something different with my art. Five years where my life is my art is my praxis.

Categories
Photography

The Idea

Last year I set out to “unsettle” myself by planning to live in a tiny house on wheels on land I did not own. My core thesis was that how we regulate land regulates ourselves. I wanted to explore this idea through site specific installations and intentional living practices producing a body of works at the end of the 5 years as well as a collection of personal reflections on the experience.

I have had to shift this whole project, however, learning that it was not possible to build a tiny house on wheels under current regulations. I won’t go into the details, but at this point living in a tiny house on wheels on land I don’t own, is just not possible.

So, instead I am living in a tiny cabin in the woods on land I share.

This summer I bought a ½ acre in Woodridge. On this land there was a hunting shed and work space. Over the last three months I have worked to renovate the shed into a tiny cabin, and the workspace part of the structure I am turning into an unheated studio.

My intention is to cultivate a seasonal studio practice where over the winter months I move my work indoors, spending time in reading, writing, sketching and dreaming. In the warmer months I move my practice into the studio where I am able to produce the work I have mentally cultivated over the winter.

Like my original intentions, I am exploring my relationship to land, to self and to community. I am interested in how my relationships to each of them have been shaped by exploitative colonial and capitalist power structures and whether I can divest myself of these and the privilege that comes from being a white American.

By taking on the work of disrupting convenience in my daily life and cultivating a seasonal life, I am hoping to surface the ways these colonial and capitalist structures are present in how I live. I am widening my circle of community to include the soil, the elements, the fungi and bacteria, the plants, insects and animals who cross my path, as well as the humans who are a part of my life.

I am uncertain what this body of work will look like. Currently I am moving towards a clay practice that is ephemeral, a print practice that is illustrative, and a photography practice that is documentary.

As uncertain as I am, and as unsettling as this past year has been, I am, nevertheless, looking forward to the work ahead of me.

Categories
Art Unsettling

Unsettling myself: a five year art project

My dry pottery wheel slowly being covered by the pallets I am ripping apart for Tiny House cladding.

These past few months my art practice has been placed on hold while I have made very big changes in my personal life. Over the past four months, while “My Roots” have toured Brandon, Pinawa and Neepawa, I have started a business, left my marriage, and am now planing to build a Tiny House that I can live in while I divest myself of land ownership and question everything.

Art has the power to transform a person. I knew this before I started on “My Roots” but I really didn’t know. I had no idea just how powerful surfacing personal narrative was, let alone what it would mean for me.

In my Brandon performance, where I broke open the closed vessel in order to access my print “narrative fragments” I could feel the power of the metaphor each time I slammed the ceramic pot on the floor and the ground shook. I felt like it was my own soul that was breaking open.

You can see the performance if you follow the link attached to this video.

I planned this performnace as a metaphor about my decision to say my childhood experiences outloud through narrative and visual art. I thought about how telling personal narrative and owning your experience publically sometimes requires you to break unspoken rules. In my performance it was only by breaking the vessel that I could access my narrative.

What I didn’t realize, was that those same structures that contained my childhood and young adult life were also holding together my personal adult life. When I shattered the vessel I gained access to a self I feel like I have never met. Someone who is unbound, a bit wild, and with great capacity of inhabiting unsettling spaces.

In my 5 year art project I am embarking on I intend to live in an off grid Tiny House on land I do not own. I will explore my relationship to land as something that cannot be owned. I will ask how my relationship to the structures that “own” the land I inhabit shape my relationship to self, land, and community.

For my art practice I will install a moveable shed which will be my seasonal studio. I will be working with clay, print and photography to explore the topics.

If you’re interested in this project you can follow the process behind it on a blog I have started: https://alittleunsettling.wordpress.com/

In the meantime I hope to pick up my practice again, finish My Roots by May, and begin my new body of work I am calling “A Little Unsettling.”

Maybe I’ll even make a mug or two.

Probably not.

Categories
Photography

She’s a self made man

I did not want my body.

Female bodies were weak bodies. My body was not weak. I was strong. I had immense capacity.

Female bodies were targets. There to be viewed, groped, harassed, and assaulted, female bodies belonged to people with power. My body wanted power. I learned to fight and to disgust. I could burp louder than a man, eat just as much and knew how to kill with a well placed hit to the jugular. I wore my camo pants and flattened my chest. I was no one’s girlfriend: I was a comrade.

Female bodies were ill bodies. They bled, got sick and stayed in bed. My body was not a sick body. I could push through any pain, fight through any illness. I found my physical limits and challenged them. I leaned into pain.

Female bodies were subservient. Made by God to be “help meet suitable” they were weaker and more susceptible to sin. I was born under the authority of a man.

There was nothing I could do about that.

I told God he had made a critical error when he made me a woman.

Wasted opportunity.

Much later, in the violence and ruins of a crumbling belief structure, I came home to my body.

Categories
Photography

Today I put on a terrible strength

I memorized the breastplate of St. Patrick while on my way to the International Christian Youth Group in San José. I carried the ancient prayer in the side pocket of my camo pants along with traditional Gaelic songs, ballads of middle earth and Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot.

I worked hard to unite what my unschooled mind knew about science and what I knew about Christian ontology. I knew Jesus was true because I understood how the space time continuum functioned on earth.

I knew that I moved in the intersection between the 3rd and 4th dimensions and that all life was only a shadow of the real. In a spectacular union of theology, medievalism, romanticism, and Eurocentric idealism, I came up with a formula for how to know if something was true. If it felt good, it it was beautiful or held a hint of what the German romantics called Sehnsucht, it was core to reality. In other words, it was a “shadow of truth” suspended in space and time for eternity.

Aslan is Jesus is King Arthur is Aragorn.

If you couldn’t see it, you weren’t looking hard enough.

“Today I put on a terrible strength
invoking the Trinity
confessing the Three
with faith in the one
As I face my Maker”

I mumbled the words as the bus headed south to the city. Protection against the supernatural forces that tore at my soul trying to disrupt my task as a spiritual warrior.

I left the compound in Costa Rica when I was 18 to discover what kind of warrior bard God had called me to be.

I surfaced as an ordinary human somewhere between cups of tea and chopping onions for supper at L’Abri.

Categories
ceramics

What’s in a pot

I pulled her from the kiln yesterday. What a moment. 13.5 months in the making, 2 years of an idea peculating, and she has finally made it into existence–all to be shattered in a performance in a few months from now.

This makes me so happy.

I think a very helpful and formative part of an art degree is the time pressure you are under to produce ideas, refine your craft, and generate finished work. It hones in your skill, helps you build stamina for deadlines and pressures, and forces you to sharpen your vision into a singular focus. But I think these same qualities can be unhelpful, and at times I think I have to un-learn these habits and learn it’s ok to slow down enough for an idea to surface.

I would never have produced this pot in a university.

I learned how to make it, how to mix glazes, and I was exposed to some of the traditions, ideas and methods of pottery making. But the amount of time it took this pot to surface in my psyche and practice would not have met any deadline within a course, or perhaps even a degree.

Let me walk you through what is in the creation of this pot…

1985

I am born on a small apple farm in Georgia… just kidding. I won’t go all the way back 😉

2016

November, midway through a semester of art classes I realize I do not want to be an art teacher. I want to be an artist. I scramble to sign up for the remainder of my foundation year and choose the only available materials class that works for my schedule: ceramics with Grace Nickle.

I dislike ceramics. I had early life exposure to it and have pegged it in my mind as a bit tacky, mostly functional mugs and chunky figurines. Maybe some porcelain paintings of portraits and flowers. Boring. But I sign up for the class thinking at least its an easy A.

2017

My mind is blown. Grace Nickel introduces me to a world of clay that I had no idea existed and my art life will never be the same. I build my first narrative vessel about moving 35 times in my life.

2018

Through the encouragement of the Clay Club and funding from SOFASA I am able to attend NCECA in Pittsburg. My mind is further expanded with the potential for clay. That summer I am given an Undergraduate Research Award and spend my summer mentored by Grace Nickel. Part of this award includes a studio all to myself and access to the entire clay barn. I develop my material and ideas about chaos and produce a work that I consider my first actual work of art.

2019

NCECA is in Minneapolis and I can’t not go. I take in Djinnaya Stroud’s presentation on Daisy Makeig-Jones’ Fairyland line. There are many amazing things from this lecture I still think about and will probably make it into future blogs, but relevant to this post was her summary “takeaways.” Specifically her encouragement to “draw from your own visual landscape” (23:49) I begin asking myself what my own visual landscape looks like.

2020

I graduate during the upheaval of a pandemic and slowly decompress after the intense stress of a degree. I begin hand building a vessel to practice my clay skills.

It takes months.

I also begin to work out a symbolic “knot” I use as a metaphor for chaos. Applying this to the vessel with slip and sgraffito, I land on what feels like my “visual landscape” that I have been pondering for a year.

As I am working on this pot I am awarded a position in the Rural Artist’s Mentorship Program with mentor Brenna George.

2021

Akiko Hirai

I stumble into a “moon jar” by Akiko Hirai on Instagram. I fall in love with the way she does the surface of these jars. I plunge myself into researching her practice. In doing so I learn about the Japanese aesthetics of Wabi Sabi. I feel like my own aesthetic leanings have come home.

I find a glaze recipe attributed to Akiko and replicate it. The first fire of the vessel with Akiko’s glaze is less than ideal. I re-glaze the vessel and fire again.

Yesterday I pulled what I feel like is my first vessel from the kiln. It’s been a long journey to get to this moment and I have a long adventurous road ahead.

Anyway, I just wanted to share a little history of what all went into this particular pot.

Categories
Photography

Work in Progress

Last night each artist presented about the work we have done over the past year for Rural Arts Mentorship Program. Brenna encouraged us to make a short video about our work. It was a great way to condense my progress and ideas around my work into a short introduction. I am nowhere near complete, but by now I have a really good sense of the direction.

Also, I now have a YouTube channel!

Categories
Photography

Jessamyne Polson was my closest friend in Costa Rica

Jessamyne Polson was my closest friend in Costa Rica/ Alexandra Ross/2021/digital photograph

Jessamyne Polson was my closest friend in Costa Rica. I don’t know what normal teenage relationships are like, but teenage friendship in isolated zealous Christian expat communities in the mountains of Costa Rica was intense. I was an isolated unschooled American expat living on a family compound in the Mountains of San Isidro de Heredia. Jess was a homeschooled Canadian MK living with her family in the missionary compound a forty minute walk away.

We entangled each other in the webs of our primary social circles and forged our own tangled friendship. She was my closest friend and comrade against the constraints of family, but she was my fierce competition when it came to establishing my social identity.  

Sometimes I think about what my relationship with Jess would have been if it had been safe to be friends. I play the what if game.

What if I had seen examples of healthy relationships?

What if it had been safe to be intimate?

What if we had lived outside a patriarchy?

What if it had been safe to inhabit my body?

What if it had been safe to be vulnerable?

What would friendship look like in that context?

I try to imagine our friendship in that context, but I can’t. It’s an impossible task for my cynical imagination that only knew one reality.

I play a reverse game what if game:

What if you only see abuse of power in relationships?

What if intimacy is used to control?

What if you believe women are the cause of human ill?

What if you believe your body is sinful?

What if any vulnerability is exploited?

What would friendship look like in that context?

I can tell you.

You come away with intense moments of beauty, and painful moments of regret, and a shit ton of dissociation.

If you’re lucky, you meet a friend who, throughout the tangled web of life, is resilient as fuck and can cut through the knots of teenage friendship and see its core intention.

Jessamyne Polson, you are one brilliant, beautiful, resilient woman.

Categories
Linocut Personal

Daily Practice

Cultivating a daily practice is possibly the most challenging thing I am trying to accomplish with my art. The only thing I do daily is have a cup of coffee. I don’t even sleep everyday.

I am tackling a giant multipiece linocut. With over 150 individual pieces and measuring 42″ in diameter, the only way completing this by July is possible is with a daily practice. Everyday I sit down and carve 1 to 3 pieces, and little by little I make it through the work.

I have set out an impossible task for myself. I might as well go find gold fleece.

I have tried really hard to keep my work in frontline crisis and trauma training separate from my art practice. I dislike it when I am at work and people find out I am an artist and jump to the conclusion that I am or want to be an art therapist. I also don’t want the goal of my art practice to become my personal therapy. I want a clean lines between art, work and my personal life. This time, I want nice clean orderly boxes.

But these days my trauma informed training is seeping pretty heavily into my art practice. Working so closely with my personal narrative I am applying all the skills and tools I know from my frontline training on myself as I piece together my past. My intention of cultivating a daily mindfulness practice coincides with my attempts to cultivate a daily lino carving.

In the mentorship program Brenna walked us through goal setting and “habit stacking” as a way to achieving goals. I drink a cup of coffee everyday when I wake up. I stack a mindfulness practice to that. I stack a linocut practice to my mindfulness practice.

In this way, my daily linocut is stacked together with my coffee and my mindfulness. This has an unintended effect of placing my art practice into this nebulous realm of the personal and therapeutic.

Exactly where I didn’t want to it to be.

But exactly where it has to be.

Good thing I am practicing nonjudgement observation. I am mindful of the tension.

Transformation is a bitch.