I come from a filthy home. I come from a home where creative production and personal leisure were valued above domestic labor. Home was filled with a mix of hand-me-down furniture, unfinished project piles, and valuable dumpster finds. Dishes crawled out of the sink along the counter and our dirty laundry was the domain of cockroaches and black widow spiders. The materiality of domestic life was at constant war with the materiality of creative production.
Other People had clean houses but We The Smiths were creatives. We were culture makers, trend setters and gifted visionaries. Other People spent their time mowing their perfect lawns and dusting their china, but We The Smiths recycled concrete sidewalks into mosaic pathways and made our own china. We didn’t have time for status makers like perfect houses or nice yards.
Creativity requires life energy. Energy to think, energy to feel, and energy to make. There is not enough energy to also spend on whether you clean the stove top after cooking.
Creativity requires space. Space to flood into the living room, kitchen and dining room table. Clean surfaces are for non-creatives.
Creativity requires you to put aside social norms and embrace a life of chaos.
The cost of creativity is domestic and personal neglect.
But if you can make yourself small in a home you can find tiny unclaimed spaces to inhabit.
When I had my first studio visit with Brenna George in December I had just made the decision to focus on personal narrative in my work for the year.
I should backup.
I applied for the Manitoba Art’s Network Rural Art Mentorship Program in September. This program, produced together with Mentoring Art for Women’s Art in Winnipeg, offers 5 rural based artists the opportunity to be mentored by a professional artist for a year. The program culminates in an exhibition of works in the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba.
The program has been phenomenal. It was everything I felt I needed right after an intense four years at the School of Art. With the pressures of academic deadlines gone, and a pandemic summer in full swing, I spent the months after I graduated recovering from the pace of school in my 30s. After four years of sprinting between classes, homework, nightshifts, family and some semblance of social life I took the summer off. I didn’t even plan to. I just found my motivation to work on much art was not there.
As fall approached I knew I needed something to pick up the pace. It was helpful to hear Brenna phrase it as a “vulnerable” time for my art practice. I think she is right. It’s that time when ideas, knowledge and skills are fresh, the pressure is off and there is a loss of structure to channel the energy. I had this sense if I didn’t connect with something I could risk letting my practice slide, and after a year of no exhibitions, talks or opportunities, the goal of becoming a professional artist slips away.
That hasn’t happened!
Instead, I was accepted into this mentorship program and over the last five months I have been mentored under the gentle and insightful guidance of Brenna George.
In the first section of the mentorship, usually a weekend intensive but during a pandemic spread over 6 evenings on zoom, we went over goals. Brenna strongly encouraged all of us to focus our energy.
Folks, this is a near impossible task for someone who thrives on stress and variety in life. I narrowed my topic, and refined my mediums.
Here I am. Next Monday I submit the first of my works for an online exhibition in April through Manitoba Arts Network. My working title is “My Roots.”
I am learning the ropes. Again. So many ropes to learn in art. I am learning how to balance life and art, how to set productive goals for my practice; how to be motivated primarily through intrinsic means rather than extrinsic structures; and I am also learning that my work is always in progress. I know that sounds cliché, and I should have learned that by now. Maybe it is just that as I learn to stand on my two art feet I feel the weight of it a little differently.
Over the next few months I hope to bring you into my studio and into my thoughts around my practice as I make my first independent body of work. It feels ridiculous to say “independent” because I am making it under the caring mentorship of Brenna George, and in the social context of a loving community around me.
Nevertheless, this is the first body of work that I am making, and I am excited to share the studio process. Today, I would like to introduce you to my working title. Are you ready? Have I already said it out loud? Whatever.
The working title for my first body of work is My Roots.
Folks, I am not a production potter. I tell you this with great pride and a twinge of sadness. Potters are so damn cool. I am in awe of people who can develop, create, and reproduce their stunning works. I thought for a while I would try to be that. I really want to be cool and I thought I could join the ranks of hip artists.
Alas, I am made of different stuff.
The honest truth is: I just don’t care to reproduce things. It gives me deep despair when I think of making work over and over again. I will even go so far as to say I am mentally and emotionally incapable of producing the same thing. By the time I have made three of the same thing I am ready to move along.
Just so you know, I did try to produce things once. In the summer of 2019, ah those beautiful ignorant days when I thought pandemic was interchangeable with epidemic, I set out to make many of the same things with slip casting. I will save all the gory details for a Failure Friday post, but suffice it to say, it’s just not my thing.
Folks, I am a conduit of chaos. She is my mother tongue, my jam, my alma mater. I was forged under her fire in childhood and now, as I am emerging my art practice and my own visual language, she is ever at my side (please note the bandaged finger in the photo); she finds her way into my process, my materials, and consequently in my products.
So, today I am articulating something I have learned over the last few years. I am stepping into the fact that I am not a production potter. I will keep making mugs, but I will not reproduce them. I will not have a line of mugs that I make efficiently and flawlessly. Go to the cool potters if you want those. They are mighty.
What you will find from me are my experiments. I can tell you with almost absolute certainty what I make today will be different tomorrow.
“Did you mean homeschooling?” is the usual response I get when I tell people I was unschooled. No, I mean “unschooled.” With the exception of 6 months of private school in Costa Rica, I never went to school before I entered college. My parents believed that institutional education will stifle your intellect and that life will teach you everything you need to know. My sisters and I were taught to read and write, and by grade 4 we were told that we would self educate, and that “life was school.”
I did self educate. And unschooling gave me a robust sense of self in the world.
On the brink of my 11th birthday I knew who I was. I was a gymnast who knew Morse code and hieroglyphics. I was a belly dancer, bangle cat breeder, and pet sitter who could slip cast ceramic molds. I knew the first 11 elements of the periodic table along with the multiplication table up to 10 by heart. I could sing the Ancient Greek alphabet, and could skateboard to and from gymnastics. I vaccinated our cats even though I could not spell vaccine. I knew I was missing subjects but I also knew I belonged to a rarefied class of humans who had very specialized important knowledge that could be helpful to archeologists and radio communication during a war. We did not waste precious time on things regular people did, like cleaning the house, or going to school.
On January 1st I turn 36. It is a significant year for me as it is my “equalizing” year–it is the year that means I have lived away from “home” as long as I had lived at “home.”
I left my family at 18, bought a one way ticket to Scotland, and went to the Highlands to become a nun. As a back-up plan I bought camping equipment and thought I would live off that until I figured out my next move.
I did not make a good nun. I didn’t even make a good hiker. I crash landed in Manitoba in 2004 and stumbled though my 20s.
Another important thing that happens in my 36th year is that it becomes the year where my rate of moving average drops. Currently I sit at 35 moves, but come January first, I will average less than one move a year.
I’m getting all rooty.
Something I have noticed about living in a space for a relatively long time, like, over a year, is that you can unpack. There is time to organize your space. And something I noticed a few months ago after unpacking the last box, is that my brain feels more organized. Almost like moving is disruptive to your external life and your internal life.
I think it is these thoughts and realizations that have culminated in my decision to devote the next year of my art to exploring my personal narrative. I have a lot of shit to cover.
I thought I could make my work about cool things like chaos theory, or environmental extinction and the emergence of new ways of adapting…but no. My personal narrative keeps coming up and I think that if I don’t get to it, then it will eventually overwhelm my work and come out anyway.
As COVID continues to disrupt the already extreme isolation that being a rural Manitoba artist affords me, my mind has kicked into creative overdrive to to find ways to exhibit, stay local, and keep pushing my practice. I think I found a weird little path to pursue.
If you’re not familiar with rural Manitoba, saying we “lack gallery space” is an understatement.
Unless the ditches and alleys functioned as artist run public gallery spaces. Then we would have miles and miles of gallery spaces.
I’ve been thinking… If 4 people in Giroux see an installation in a ditch that is 4% of the population of that community. That is the percentage equivalent of a Winnipeg audience of 30,000. If 5 people in Mitchell see my work in the back-lane the percentage equivalent of a Winnipeg audience is about 1,500.
4 is an incredible audience out here.
I’ve been thinking… If a gallery is a space for viewing art what isn’t a gallery?
If there is space and there is viewing it is a gallery.
I’ve been thinking…. about “exhibits.” What is an exhibit? Reduced to its most basic function, the act of displaying.
If there is work on display it is an exhibit.
I’ve been thinking… a ditch is a gallery, and my work is on display in it.
A gallery is a ditch is an alleyway // An exhibit of works by Alexandra Ross // On view until snow or vandalism end it
I take a lot of pictures of weeds. Mostly weeds growing in urban settings, but I’m open to all manner of weeds. I am devoting a lot of mental energy to them atm.
Dandelions in particular have taken on a symbolic force in my mind.
Probably because everyone hates them. Well, not everyone. Children and bees love them for their beautiful flowers whimsical wish granting abilities (children for the later, but maybe bees? naaa, they are too busy dancing to make wishes.); they have more nutrients than spinach and their roots are medicinal; and yet adults hate them: we wage a chemical war against them, judge people based on the amount in their lawn and will even report you to authorities if the number exceeds some invisible tolerance line.
Somewhere I read that dandelions take over because they grow in impoverished soil.
When I hear “impoverished soil” I think mostly of grass, but also mono-culture and “developed” spaces. The intersection of earth and capital.
In other words after capitalist interests have exploited all the microbes and chemically burned off any residue from the nutrient rhizome layer of roots, dandelions grow down deep and begin making new soil.
So, basically, dandelions and all their weedy comrades are fighting against environmental degradation brought on by capitalist greed.
What a thing.
When I am hopeful for the future it is because dandelions. Damn right I honor them and all rebel weeds in my art.
Four years ago things were looking up, so far up. Obama was still president; I was excited that we Americans would likely see our first woman president; I was trundling off to a semester of art school followed by two years of teacher school, to become a dependable, respectable, contributing human in this world and to devote the majority of my time to teaching art to adorable children.
Ha, four years ago. What an age has gone by.
The Obama days are so long gone, and no, we did not elect Hilary, in case you didn’t notice. I am definitely not a “contributing human,” and instead of choosing the respectable stability of a school teacher I am now a certified artist and work three different non-art jobs while I begin the task of “emerging” my own art practice amidst a pandemic.
I did not go for my BFA Honours. While completing the honours year would have theoretically helped me craft a well thought out artist statement and graduate with a body of work, I opted out of my honours year–I thought going back to school for a second BA in my 30’s was extravagant enough and it was time to reintroduce myself to my husband and friends.
In lieu of that honours year, I am going to hash out my process and ideas here here on my blog over the next academic year. I know myself enough to know that left alone I will quickly melt into a hyperactive ball of chaos and accomplish a lot of very little, so I am setting some direction to my creative energy.
Speaking of chaos…
Here is what I know so far about my practice. I am a little obsessed with the theme of order and chaos, and more specifically, the edge between them where you find the weird, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes beautiful emergence of new forms. I love Dadaists, and specifically Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. And yes, I think Duchamp ran with her idea and now gets all the credit for the first conceptual piece of art. Oh, and I reeeeeallllyyyy like multimedia installations. Ann Hamilton is another hero of mine. Just think about it! She left UCLA to live in Ohio. She makes me believe that I can be a contemporary artist based in Mitchell, Manitoba. Also, she has pigeons and choirs as part of her work. What is not to love?
So that is my starting point.
That is, in fact, where four years of art school left me.
I look forward to where this road takes me, even if it’s four more years of… dare I say it? I can’t. no, it won’t happen again, surely! Ugh, I’m still bummed that Bernie dropped out.