A Beetle on its Back
During the final few months before becoming a member of the graduating class of 1988 of my New England high school, I had a string of meltdowns some brushed off as 'senioritis'. If it was just that, if it was what everyone else was going through, why did I feel so alone in it? I'm not referring to finally going to a few parties after I secured a spot in a college somewhere. I'm not referring to the canoodling and silk-screening of protest T-shirts I did either. My blinding malaise had more to do with an interior affront to my legitimacy as a so-called artist about to try this identity on for size. I got the message from my guidance counselor that I would have to choose between creative writing and visual art, but I wanted both. They coexisted in me, so trying to extract one from the other felt like petting a cat the wrong way. Unconsciously trying to detangle the two realms, I began to add mixed media viewer-interactive sculptures to my A.P. Art course portfolio. I picked my subject matter from my own life story and the literature I was studying in my English and German classes. Looking back on the idea and the sources of inspiration, I see how prescient my attempts were. I am still on the quest to figure out how to tell my story. Sounds great. It is, in some ways, but first, let's take a closer look at what was roiling under the surface of my beleaguered artistic efforts of that year.
I was told it looked good on my transcripts to have all those Advanced Placement classes. While I ate up every savory tidbit of learning, I felt wholly unprepared to hold all of that information in my head at once. Not in terms of technique though, technique can be taught and our teachers did a great job at this. Our little misfit gang of hybrid Honors Nerd meets Art Room Freak ambled out of that school with an arsenal of skills and feathers in our graduation caps. What I lacked was the tenacity to go it alone. When it came time to devise the last few sculptures that would punctuate my A.P. Art experience, I had already gone to New York City for ten days to double-check that I could muster the courage to embark on an artist's life.
I stayed with an older brother and his cool friends, all poets, designers and filmmakers, and stayed stoned most of the time so as to bolster my amnesia.
The mental blur had begun to set in months before, at the end of December 1987, when we had been given the general challenge to make a 'Unique Self Portrait'. Despite having total creative freedom to interpret this prompt as I wished and the whole Christmas break to bring it to fruition, I struggled to decide what to do until a few days before the deadline in January. The pressure was on as this would be one of the last pieces to be included in my 35mm slide sleeves to be sent along with my university applications. What I assembled was an alternative book that appeared at first to be a tower, the four sides pasted with photos of me at stages of my youth. On one side, you can see a five-year-old me, snapped by my father. The point of view and my warm smile on my coyly tilted head help me to imagine Dad kneeling in the leaves and looking up at me. My squat figure looms against an unfocused background and seems to rise up out of the pile of leaves that buries my feet. In hand-me-down mustard and burgundy striped pants, my goldenrod colored cardigan, and the strawberry blonde wisps of my page-boy haircut, I'm as dappled as the leaves by the rays of sunlight that filter through the autumn scene. I have my lanky in hand. This was my term for any handkerchief pinched from Dad's top drawer that I kneaded into my nostrils while sucking my thumb. On the next side of the tower you'll find me again, age seven in all my glory, with white elbow-length gloves belting out a note as Really Rosie,
"I'm Really Rosie, and I'm Rosie Real - you'd better believe me 'cause I'm a great big deal. I'm Rosieeee, believe meeeeeeee".
I got the lead role in the third grade musical and this halftone still shot made it into the local newspaper. What was pasted onto the assemblage was a second or third-generation xerox copy that makes me grainy and disappearing in detail. It could be any girl really. The image on the next rotation of the sculpture eludes me, but it was probably from sixth grade when I felt pretty happy in my small town primary school, just before I was to become one of a few thousand in a labyrinthine secondary school. Turn the box again and there is another photo authored by Dad. It is from a weekend on Cape Cod and the last family trip that was taken by what remained of the clan still residing at home. We youngest three kids were all equally surly and destined for some creative reinvention of ourselves. In this image, I'm age fifteen and framed alone on the beach, set in silhouette against the diverging sun rays. The details of the contour show my rather successful attempt to emulate Roland Orzabal from the brooding British band Tears for Fears. The shape is comprised of a mulleted head of curls, the arced shoulders of an oversized men's trench coat, and pegged pant legs that stop at the top of lace-up boots. The profile looks out over the line where the sea meets the shore, seemingly unaware my picture was being taken.
The format of this totemic book structure is divided further into nine thick segments. You take hold of it with both hands and flip the left hand down counterclockwise and the right hand up clockwise so that the three blocks in each hand can be opened out like an accordion and set down to line up with the center three in a row. Once laid flat, this top layer is again unfolded first from the top, then from the bottom, which brings you to a large square collage, composed onto the flat faces of the nine blocks. It is also reversible. Can you picture this? Side A holds a collage composition which is an homage to my big family. The cut paper pieces weave and overlap to work as a whole square collage, divided into nine mini portraits devoted to each member of the clan. Every portrait bears a tilted image in black and white, nestled into a colorful patchwork of dissected greeting cards, and is stamped with a close-up of their signature nipped from a card. From the top left the tableau begins with a square dedicated to my mother, her youthful snapshot indented from the edge like the start of a paragraph, then it follows on to my father, the eldest brother, and so on down the rows to the last square framing my face. I'm fourteen with a short pouf of hair perched on my head and wearing round-rimmed sunglasses with mirrored blue lenses. This last section has an arrow indicating an invitation to fold and flip the box once again to expose the dorsal view.
Side B is dedicated to fun times with best friends and emblems of our inside jokes. Aesthetically, both collages are forgettable, they appear to be an agglomeration of the ephemera that was stuck around the frame of my full-length bedroom mirror, together with the contents that papered my shallow locker door at the high school. It was the complexity of the whole object that made it special, and confusing. I even made a line drawing of instructions to demonstrate how to manipulate the thing. Another memory I have about the piece was the response it got at the critique. I remember furtively taking it out of a plastic Blockbuster Video bag that I had set on the floor next to my stool, waiting for my turn, bleary from lack of sleep. I relished in the awe I detected from my classmates. There was a sourness to the big reveal as well. I thought back then that maybe I had cheated because one of my older brothers helped me to figure out the mapping and numbering of the many sides of the structure before I cut the wood and attached the collages. After I had been found grunting and flummoxed at the bar in our kitchen, my brother kindly and patiently lent me his brainpower for a spell.
Once I got a little yellow paper model of the design laid out and labeled, I spent all night building the unique self-portrait on the floor of my bedroom from the clipped bits of my role models spread out around me on all the sides.
The sour sensation becomes clear in retrospect. It was fine to ask for help, although I can't remember why I didn't feel I could ask for it a lot sooner. The sourness was more of a sickness brewing in my belly. This was a farewell letter, an awkward yet sturdy monument to the people I was preparing to leave after graduation when I would be too far away to look to them for cues anymore. It was multi-dimensional and complicated and couldn't be fully revealed until a pair of hands intervened. It had elements of a fold-out board game as well. The segments were connected with hinges made of strong paper lacquered in glue and made a satisfying dull clacking sound like stacking a child's ABC blocks. It was not so different from the big entertainment center Dad made as a Christmas gift to all us kids years before. This contraption was both a storage unit and an activity hub that housed a chess and checkerboard on the top, a side with a green chalkboard, a side that had a grid of nails to stretch rubber bands into patterns on, and a hatch door on another side that opened to reveal our stacked board games on the interior shelves. Just above the castor wheels was a drawer the length and breadth of the rolling unit. This was the zinger. Pulling out the drawer would reveal a double-layered geometrically cut puzzle of interlocking blocks that fit snuggly into place in ONE way. Let that sink in. I remember being told once I couldn't come to dinner until I put all the blocks I had dumped out back correctly so that the drawer closed properly. I was frantic on the cement floor of our furnace-room turned playroom, unable to mastermind the puzzle while I heard Mom upstairs griping at Dad that my food was going cold.
How was I going to follow this masterpiece? Making the mechanical book sculpture had taken so much out of me, my next move was not clear. To make matters worse, I got into two art schools, both offering scholarships I did not expect to receive and was convinced I did not deserve. I got in, now what? The terror was really sinking in around the time of my Advanced Placement exams. I sat those tests in strange carpeted rooms of the high school I hadn't seen before in my six years there. I fixated on the sharpness of my pencil tip while everyone around me wrote furiously without interruption. In a circuit I looked from my words swimming around on the exam paper to the lead tip they spilled from, to the crank pencil sharpener screwed into the cabinet across the room and then to the clock, its second hand ticking only for me like in Poe's The Tell-tale Heart.
How could I be ready to go if I wasn't even ready to be where I already was?
Near the end of the semester, I set out to create the follow-up to the self-portrait book and completely lost my marbles in the art studio one day. I convulsed with sobs, my head on folded arms and my snotty face hovering just inches from the desktop. I can imagine the fuzzy image of a plastic ruler with K-104 written on it in permanent ink, in my teacher's unmistakable calligraphic script. K-104 was our room. Our safe space. Our teacher. My teacher. He came to my rescue, never one to miss a sign of what was going on with us beyond the intermittent sketchbook maintenance and brainstorming sessions we were unleashed to attempt alone in that final year. I explained that I wanted to make a viewer interactive piece that would collect data from its audience. I wanted to find out how - and if - visual art can evoke multi-sensory responses, and if these would align with what the artist had intended. He assured me the idea was fine, gave me some options for approaching the construction, and said something like, "You got this - just do it."
The plan was to take Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, the novella I was studying in German class, and to elaborate parts of the story into a sculptural experience. Captivated by the allegorical tale of Gregor Samsa's existential crisis, I interpreted the emotional impact of select scenes in theatrical vignettes meant to be touched first, then seen. I wondered if physical contact with the shapes and textures alone could register the psychological tenor of the symbols depicted. I called them Sensory Boxes. The structure contained four scenes and included instructions and note cards for participants to fill out after slipping a hand in each opening and feeling around. I put the project on a table out in the corridor so teachers and non-art students could collaborate. I'm not sure what I planned to do with the data once collected, but I do remember destroying the piece at the end of the course.
I reduced it to a mere shoebox diorama, not too far off from the ones that had granted me artistic merit as an eight-year-old, certainly not at the level of someone bound for the Big Apple.
Reflecting on this moment, I conjure the impotence of Gregor Samsa as well. In the novella, a conscientious young salesman who works for his family business wakes one day to the slow realization that he has been transformed into a massive insect. He struggles to manipulate his new limbs and to communicate with his shocked family and coworkers through his bedroom door. I imagine him scuttling on his back, spiny legs akimbo, like the large matte black beetles I see overturned on the road sometimes. When I encounter them, I gently place my finger just above the soft spot in the belly which triggers the creature to grab hold momentarily so I can set it upright. There would be no such divine intervention for Gregor. Despite his desperate efforts and gestures of compassion from his sister, he is never able to let them know that his mind remained intact, despite his grotesque verminous state. His father, seeing him as a threat one day when Gregor ventures out of his quarters, lobs apples from the fruit bowl at him. Gregor cannot dodge the onslaught as his proportions prohibit him from maneuvering out of the line of fire. Furthermore, the sinking shock that his father was hurling the fruit causes an emotional paralysis to set in.
"These little, red apples rolled about on the floor, knocking into each other as if they had electric motors. An apple thrown without much force glanced against Gregor's back and slid off without doing any harm. Another one however, immediately following it, hit squarely and lodged in his back; Gregor wanted to drag himself away, as if he could remove the surprising, the incredible pain by changing his position; but he felt as if nailed to the spot and spread himself out, all his senses in confusion."
Franz Kafka, from The Metamorphosis*
The noxious wound created by a single rotting apple, out of Gregor's reach and line of sight, is what eventually pins him down for good. He dies of exhaustion, dehydration, and of, I suppose, a broken heart.
I destroyed my sculptural homage to Kafka's Gregor not merely because I felt it wasn't good enough, but somehow it brought me shame. When I sat down to write about it, my memory served it up as a clumsy jumble of scrap material, slapped together at the last minute. Curious to test my powers of recall, I rooted through fat faded binders of slides wedged in the back of my studio closet and located my 1988 portfolio clamped within. I found the clumsy piece, but it was not the Metamorphosis-inspired Sensory Box project, but a theatrical set design prototype. A figure of twisted copper wire sits center stage faced by two flats on stage right and left. These show cut magazine images of the requisite teen-angst motif, person-holding-head-in-hands with a lightning bolt in the background, and on the other, an equally pitiful figure pitted against a backdrop of some other weather event. The only interesting part of this presumably procrastinated purge of ideas was that the scene, from the audience's point of view, was entirely obscured by a façade propped up like an old Western movie set. It was a framework of more collage images, and some windows of yellow acetate tinting the view to the barren space behind, where the twist of copper coils sits unaware of its voyeurs.
As I unstuck more sleeves of the slide archives, there it was - the Kafka piece. Thanks to my art teacher's inviolable documentation skills, this emblem of my own pestilent existential crisis had been preserved. Although my middle age myopic ogling can't make out all the details, the broader effort communicates one thing clearly - it wasn't so bad. I get out my loupe and examine the slides at closer range, pressing them to my window against the overcast Sunday light. The color palette is selective: mostly white on white with some silver, red, and green accents. The structure is cleanly constructed from foam-core board and has four bays open at the front and a space on the top for the instructions. Recessed in a space next to the guidelines sits a pencil and questionnaire slips. The compartments are simply appointed. Starting from the left, the cavity is filled with a soft bed with a grid of nails (spray-painted golf tees) puncturing the fabric. Compartment two contains a miniature green chest of drawers and is crisscrossed with red wires like laser security beams. The third is the least compelling with three wooden figures that look like petrified versions of Burl Ives as the MC of the Frosty the Snowman cartoon. In the foreground sits the contour of my hand formed in twisted wire like a flimsy gate at the entrance. The fourth space holds a bed of gravel with an insect sitting tentatively over it on thin wire legs and a body the shape of a violin, covered in silver foil. This was a nod to the kindness of Gregor's sister, Grete, whose music seeped through the door she left ajar and which represented Gregor's dwindling contact with what used to be his home.
I can't recall what was said at the critique but many years later my best friend would say that all my artwork seems anatomical. Nor can I test the tactile efficacy of this particular sculpture, but peering into the slides I see a sociological study that masked an apt portrait of the state of my senses at the time. I clung to the edges of my world in muffled terror as the imminent farewell left me fractured, segmented, the weight of big apple fear on my back. I collected samples of emotional reactions from others, perhaps to capture the answers to unspoken questions, like a litmus test of my viability as an artist. You tell me what to feel. Is it worth the risk? Was I worth the risk? Can something I make help you make sense of me? Can something I make free the partitioned emotions dwelling inside me?
Perhaps this is why they call a portfolio a body of work.
Below: Narcissus by the well, 2015 (30x30cm, ink and gold leaf on wood) @lauriepearsallartist
The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
Translated by David Wyllie.
Source: Project Gutenberg EBook
File name 5200-r.rtf or 5200-r.zip