I used to make art out of a passion to tell a particular story, a long complicated story, years in the telling: about when Sheila was locked up, or when I worked at Woodlands, or those long, brutal arguments about porn. By 2009, I was working on an art-story about the dead bodies and political posturing of war. Then my young friend Tempest Grace Gale was murdered. Soon after another friend, Catherine White Holman, died in a plane crash. Then my girlfriend, Della, had a series of small strokes and a fall that fractured her back.
Funerals and medical tests were suddenly the order of the day. My time horizon shrunk down to today, do this day today to day to day. Working on my art, I couldn’t tell the war story anymore. Instead, it became all about what was in front of me: this piece of driftwood (drowned like Tempest was drowned); these wings (like Catherine falling from the sky); this broken hinge (like Della’s fractured spine).
This body of work is built of overlapping splinters of meaning: disability, the femme gaze, dead friends, racism, endless rain – all at once, as these things act on us all at once in our day to day lives. These layered meanings are reflected in the phrases spanning the edges of the panels – not defining a single piece or grouping, but opening questions and evoking alternate understandings of the series as a whole.
I was heavily influenced by the sculptures of Tempest Grace Gale. She made figures using junk collected from the same beaches, forests and recycling depot where I find my junk, which she combined with gleefully deconstructed dolls. Eventually I added wood carving to the mix of my media, and Della brought me Barbies from the recycling depot, which I dismembered and re-membered, as Tempest had done.
Barbie is excellent, because she is so ubiquitous and mundane. She is also in a constant state of normalized change: changing from one set of clothes to another is her central meaning. In these pieces, the transformation of her body instead of her clothes juxtaposes normalized change with deviant change. As humans, we are always transforming from state to state. Some transformations are socially constructed as unremarkable; others are seen as peculiar, disturbing, tragic. Everyone who lives long enough will become old: this change is considered natural. Everyone who lives long enough will become disabled (or disabled in a new way): this change is considered unnatural.
In Western culture, disability is not accepted as a normal part of life. Society does not expect it, build around it, or embrace it within our daily lives. The unexpected construction of these figures questions the way society frames disability as a fracturing of ordinary life, rather than as an altogether ordinary part of it.
When an artist makes a figure, it’s never just a figure. Social meanings have been attached to our bodies so firmly, so relentlessly, over such a span of history that we mistake these socio-political constructs for immutable reality. We don’t see bodies, we see moral imperatives: disability is tragedy, race is biology, and our rowdy genders are made to march in binary formation.
These figures are awkward and fit together from broken parts, not because we (we people, we strange, ordinary people whose bodies defy the default) are broken, but because we are human – and the human condition is awkward, contradictory, stitched together from disparate pieces. The figures also reflect power and beauty, not because we have transcended our pain, or in any final way freed ourselves, but because we have strength, grace and wonder, inseparable from our grief, confusion and anger.