Feeding the ghosts

“Are they your relatives?” People ask me that all the time, when they see all the old pictures in my pieces.

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The answer is “no”. I don’t have many very old pictures of my relations, because they got left behind in Cuba when my family fled. But these are not them, in any case. These people are hungry ghosts. A concept in Chinese Buddhism that refers to a spirit who has no living person to venerate and feed them.

They have no history or context when I find them. Sometimes there will be a name, date or location somewhere. Handwritten on the back or embossed on the front by the photographer. But more often than not there is nothing. They’re strangers, piled in a box or basket at a flea market in dusty stacks. Forlorn and forgotten.

I find it indescribably poignant that these were people with stories, once. The invention of photography has given a depth to the idea of people that never existed before the ability to capture the true to life image of a thing. Sure, you know that humans have been alive for millennia. Feeling, breathing, living humans. But the advent of modern photographic technology gave us the ability to give that concept a face. Posture. Dress and adornment that expresses an individual’s taste and preferences. Their wealth or lack of it. Their features, and the expression in their eyes. Little details that make people real. These people had conversations and aspirations and foods they hated and people they loved. And pets. And hats. And favorite songs. And now, nobody knows who they are.

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So I give them new stories. I take my boxes of junk and bones and broken things and I knit together a story and put them in the center of it. I make a spirit house for them to live in. Someplace to come to on All Souls after they visit their burial place, maybe. Someplace for candles to burn near, so the light can guide them back. Maybe my customers don’t know they’re feeding hungry ghosts by looking and thinking about the story. Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t care. That’s fine, too. They’re self sustaining ghost houses. No maintenance required. Just look. Just brush your eyes across the picture and the art does the rest.

But I know. I like to think all those hungry ghosts are sitting there, patting full bellies, wandering no more.

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“Where do you learn all this stuff?”

I’m a reader. That’s answer I give to this question, which I get at shows all the time. Usually after an excessively rambling account of the way Catholic and West African beliefs combined in diaspora religions, the history of the term “burking”, popularity of postmortem photography in the Victorian era, or the feeding habits of corvids and their relation to mythological traditions in northern Europe. Or, “I’m a nerd”. This is very true. When other kids had video games, I had a library card. Well, I had video games too, but after I won Contra I lost interest in the whole thing and never picked up a console again. My very first book was called “Misty and Me”, a feel good little bit of fiction geared towards that age group in between Cat in the Hat and Miss Peregrine, about a girl and her puppy. And I picked it out at the book store at the age of six, after convincing my dad that I was ready for a “real book” as I called it. That is, one without pictures and huge type. Dad didn’t believe me, which, fair enough considering my age, and asked for a book report when I was done. Then I started making my way through Nancy Drew, and they never argued with me about my reading habits after that. I think they were disappointed that I didn’t turn out to be some genius prodigy, but I guess that’s a parent’s lot in life sometimes.

Since Misty broke the seal, I’ve been – consuming, is really the appropriate word to describe it – literature at a high rate. I never don’t have a book. If I can’t find a good book I will read a crappy one, but I have to be reading. SF/fantasy, biography, comic books, poetry, history, biology, anthropology, religion, memoir, physics, criminology, field and survival guides, sociology, chemistry, fiction, huge ass picture books of art, entomology, big, sexy word combinations with hyphens like socio-biology and ethno-botany. There isn’t anything I won’t read. If it’s crap and I have options, I won’t finish it, but that’s about the only deal breaker. Genre doesn’t matter a bit, so long as the writing is tasty or the subject so interesting the writing isn’t an issue.

I find “autodidact” to be a clumsy and ugly word, but it’s what I have been since the alphabet began to make sense to me, and I never looked back. College was a nightmare of intellectually stifling maze running for this rat accustomed to following her nose over hill and deep into thickets of connected subject matter, wherever the path, beaten or otherwise, seemed to most interestingly lead. The problem with a system like the educational one for a person like me, is that they want your brains to function on a track, like a well managed freight train, while mine is…not. It’s like a thing that wanders around quite a bit. Insert preferred metaphor here. A brook, butterfly, squirrel, jabberwocky, nargle. Whatever makes you happy. That’s my brain. A wander-y thing that is very VERY hungry and has to eat information constantly to stay content. I have in my bookshelf subjects as diverse as the history of table salt and its effects on the development of cross continental trade routes and human culture, and a boxed set of Bunnicula books. Does this make me a better artist? I dunno, but it does make me a hoot (or a nightmare, depending on the sorts of guests you have and how easily they are made uncomfortable by discussions revolving around the finer points of dermestid beetle feeding habits) at dinner parties and an epic pain in the ass in an argument. It makes me take a very macro view of human culture in my time and place. A mixed blessing, that I won’t wander into here because time management. I’ve been called smart, but I don’t know that I’m smart, or just have a super absorbent brain. Like a Sham-Wow. Things that stimulate me lodge in my skull and become part of my world. My brain is a nomad before colonialism threw arbitrary borders on the map. It goes everywhere. It sees all the things. And it gets nutso if it has to stay still, overgrazing the same territory and contributing to desertification. Alright, maybe I took that particular metaphor further than makes sense, but you get my drift.

So next time you’re in my booth and somehow the conversation turns to coming of age ceremonies in Pacific islands tribes or why fortune cookies are so ubiquitous, and you’re all, “How the hell did we get HERE?”, now you know.

 

 

Year End Blog: Salutations, thank yous, Things!

Hello, and a merry Whatever Holiday You Celebrate If Any. This is my end of year ramble, which is not going to be about all the shows I did this year, because mostly I did the same ones but for a couple. I can sum those two up thusly; Bucktown,ugh. Not remotely worth the pain in my ass. Chicago Art Girls, holyshityay!

Finally it seems I’m finding the shows, the audience, the mojo, that I need to find. We makers of things all do. We need to not just find our audience, but also find our shows/galleries/wherever the rad people come to experience what you make and hopefully let you make a living making. Making a living making is more than just selling the work. It’s also the connections and the community that you find while you’re at it. The importance of that can’t be remotely overstated. So, THANK YOU. You are so freakin’ beautiful and weird and awesome that I can’t even. There’s no doing this without you and I treasure your presence and participation. Those of my friends and rennie peeps who were among the first to follow the Facebook page, fellow artist/sans/makers, and those of you who just hopped on at the last show, or however you found your way here, you’re all in my black little heart and I love you. Like, for real.

2016 has been…challenging. To say the least. I am, like everyone, dealing with that as best I can. But speaking from a strictly shows and art life place, this season has been wonderful. I haven’t done the numbers yet, so I don’t know if I mean that in a financial sense, but this job isn’t exclusively about paying rent. This year stands out for having many bigger pieces finding homes, and many of those homes being with people who have bought from me before. I have collectors y’all!! That tells me something important. It tells me I’m connecting with people. I’ve talked before about how art is a desire driven purchase. It serves no practical purpose, and there’s no good reason to budget for it from a cost/benefit standpoint. We’re not looking at psychological stuff. Pure nuts and bolts I’m talkin’. So when people are spending on something with no purpose other than to be looked at, it’s speaking loudly and insistently to something rooted in their guts and souls. And that’s an artist’s freakin’ JOB. I am doing my job! And I appear to be doing it passably well. I probably can’t properly articulate how exciting that is for me. I have never comfortably referred to myself as an artist, because I never really thought of myself as one. That whole imposter thing is a thing. So for me, it’s beyond dope that I feel like I’m doing the job of making art. You did that! Give yourselves a cookie, because you made someones day.

In the coming season I want to build on that momentum and sense of growing community. That’s going to mean exploring new venues. New shows, always and of course, but also open studios and funky spaces of all sorts that support the artists. If all goes well you’ll find me right back at the shows you found me at this year. Glenwood, Lakeview, Edgewater, Craft and Relic, and Art Girls. Because those all continue to rock. Not Bucktown. Yes, that one turned out ok in the end, but the vibe was wrong for me, and I’m learning to trust my gut when it says “nope”. I hope to extend a tentacle into Logan Square this time around, so that should be interesting. Indiana will wait til next year because of family stuff, but it’s on the radar. There are some events in Milwaukee I’m eyeballing too.

And, Patreon. Is going. To happen! In the coming months, in addition to making All of the Things, I will be shooting video and giving a serious think on rewards (exclusive blogs! live chats! dinners! classes! art!) and whatnot for the various patron levels, so that I can make this happen. If you, oh hive mind, have any suggestions on such things I welcome your input. I don’t know what someone who pays me whatever, say $5 a month, to make art would like to have access to, so I’m open to ideas.

The opportunity this vehicle gives artists to connect with people all over the world is incredible. And the opportunity it gives people of modest means to be part of supporting the arts is mind blowingly awesome. I love tipping buskers. My dollar isn’t much in this day and age, but it’s not the only dollar in the hat. The hat contains many dollars from many people like me who want to be some part of that artist’s success. Patreon is the hat for people whose art doesn’t translate to a busking sort of situation, or a busker who wants a way bigger stage. A global hat to pass, with the opportunity for real interaction between artist and patrons. I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to that, but I have no idea what I’m doing in general, so I’ma just do it and see what happens.

Thank you thank you for being here my lovelies. 🙂

Here’s to a safe and sane (or insane in a really great way) years end.

 

 

“Doesn’t it suck if people don’t get into your art?”

It used to. I mean, it still does on a large enough scale, because this is how I make my living and if an entire show goes south that’s me having a pretty bad day. But on an individual level, like a person not getting into what I make, not anymore. At first I was really sensitive about it. I think that’s normal. I don’t know anyone making any kind of art that isn’t emotionally invested in it. But I feel like if you’re going to do this full time you need to disentangle your feels from the business end of selling your work.

The difference between opinion and critique is an important one. Lots of both will get thrown at you if you do…anything. Anything at all. Someone is going to have something to say about it. Some of it will be right on and some of it will be dookie. Some of it will be either/or, depending on where you stand. If what you’re doing is something you’re emotionally invested in, it gets even more complicated.

I started out as a crafter, so I’m no stranger to being told how wrong I’m doing something. You can’t learn to do a thing without screwing that thing up a few times, and your teacher is going to tell you about it. If they’re not a jerk they’ll do it pleasantly, but either way, you get used to being told what you did wrong and how it needs to be fixed. Opinion really didn’t factor into it. I was manufacturing someone else’s designs, and once I started doing it correctly, nobody had anything negative to say to me about it.

That all changed when I started making my own thing, and that thing was something with a subjective definition. I had to learn the difference between an opinion, “This sucks” and a critique, “The glue is sloppy”. And how to not get butt hurt about either one.

Opinions are awesome when they’re nice and hurtful when they’re not, but ultimately something I try not to get hung up on. I mean, I’m selling stuff, so I want to cultivate good opinions of me and my work, but I don’t let that be what validates me. The part I focus on are the happy customers. I’ve had customers say some of the most utterly humbling words to me about the effect my stuff had on them, or someone they love (and in the case of one therapist, on his patients). The kind that make ya almost tear up, and you’re all, “They are talking about someone much cooler than me”. That is life affirming shit, and will carry you through many “Is that supposed to be art?” kinds of interactions. Making art exposes some part of your inner life to the world for it to look at and judge. That’s just how art works. It feels very weird to have people treat the puzzle pieces of your heart like they’re shopping for tires or picking out a new set of highball glasses. Not everyone will, obviously. Some people will totally recognize heart parts. Some people’s own hearts will squee or cry when they recognize them and that’s an amazing thing.

Critiques on the other hand, are always useful, even when they’re off, or not applicable to whatever thing. It gives me a reality check. Makes me look at what I’m doing and reassess whether I’m doing it to the standards I want to be at. If someone has technical advice for you, listen. You don’t have to act on it if their advice isn’t useful, but listen. They may save you from reinventing the wheel at some point. Opinions though, you can learn to take or leave as you like.

 

“What’s with all the death?”

I’ve explored a large number of spiritual traditions. As a youngster, I was trying to find a god that didn’t offend me with its misogyny and bigotry. As an adult and an atheist, out of curiosity about how different cultures deal with the big scary issues facing a living, sentient being. One of the biggest, scariest issues is, of course, dying.

Everything dies, even mountains. So why is it so terrifying? Some Native traditions refer to death as the Great Mystery. That about sums it up, doesn’t it. I’ve had plenty of people in my life go off into that mystery. Relatives of great old age and friends of great tragedy or accident. Nobody has come to tell me what happens next, if anything. So I’m left to deal with the idea of non-existence in whatever way works best for me. We all hope to live long and fabulous lives, but the truth is that death is walking next to all of us, all the time. We don’t know when she’s going to put her hand on our shoulder and say, “Come now. It’s time.” And that’s kind of terrifying.

Even with the wonderful pragmatism of Buddhism in my pocket, it’s a hard thing to give space to in my consciousness. I don’t hold all Buddhist beliefs to be literal truths, but plenty of them hold symbolic water with me. Reincarnation for example. I don’t believe my spirit, if such a thing I do possess, will go anywhere when I die, but I will be in actual fact reincarnated. My body will be broken down into its individual elements by a host of fascinating and necessary creatures and fungi collectively known as “decomposers” and be taken up by the grasses and trees whose roots have found my remains below them (I’m a green burial advocate, so I mean, for all intents and purposes, to be composted), which will then be preyed upon by whatever eats them, and in turn by whatever eats them. So maybe “recycled” is a more accurate term than “reincarnated”, but whatevs. This, to me, is right and proper. I was borrowing those elements from the universe, and I must return them when they’re due. Like a library book. My elements aren’t mine to keep, but belong to the universe collectively, and in time must be loaned out to something else. I could be a nebula someday.

I’m not the first sentient being to deal with things like Life! Death! Universe! symbolically. Art has a long history of being a coping mechanism and method of expressing Shit Too Big To Deal With. So to be honest it always kind of surprises me when people ask me what’s up with all the death. I want to ask them how they deal with it. Not in a judgy way, but I’m legit curious. It’s not even really death, exactly. Just because there are a lot of bones and carrion birds (don’t get me started on bird mythology, because we will be here all night) and whatnot doesn’t make the story specifically about death. The story I’m almost always telling is about transition and in-between-ness (“liminal” is the dictionary word for those people or things in between two states, which spellcheck refuses to believe is a word, but it totally is, you can google it). Dying happens to be the big one for a living thing, so it shows up often, but there are many other liminal states to be meditated on though the medium of art. There is no such thing as an end, only a shift. People don’t cease to exist, they cease to be people. What they are next is pretty open to interpretation depending on your belief system, but the transition part is non-negotiable.  A mountain, when it’s no longer a mountain, is dust, sand, magma. It hasn’t disappeared though. People don’t. Planets don’t. Because Library of Universe. Many of my materials are well along the path to returning their elements to it, and I’m there to help. Like a good little decomposer/recycler/agent of karma.

For whatever reasons, people like to make huge, complicated ideas that belong on a continuum into either/or equations. I’ve had to deal with this personally as a card carrying mentally ill person. People like to categorize me as balanced or unbalanced, but the fact is that I’m both, either or neither, depending on the day (or the hour). Sometimes, when my chemistry is chill, I’m very normal. For years I refused to discuss my malfunctioning circuitry with anyone, choosing instead to pretend so hard to be balanced that no one knew what to do with the unbalanced me when it happened. It wasn’t a good way to deal, though it left me with a valuable skill set. To this day I pass so well nobody knows I’m whackadoo unless they’re around me a fair bit. I’ve learned not to have the inside conversations in my outside voice. I’ve learned to respond to being touched like mammals are supposed to instead of flinching, and stopped organizing the pasta alphabetically. Sometimes though, I’m laying on the floor talking to the people that live in my brain who aren’t me, or not being able to leave my house because, AAACK! WORLD! That effort needs expressing somehow, too. The things inside you can’t let off their leashes but that can’t stay inside indefinitely or you lose touch with the difference between subjective reality and the one we all more or less agree is real (don’t get me started on quantum theory or we’ll be here all night).

I’m also a first gen. My parents came here from somewhere else, and like lots of immigrants, they wanted their kids assimilated like, now. So I didn’t grow up with a strong sense of either place. My family was very different from the other kids I knew, but also not like any Latino family I knew either (which, growing up in a very homogeneous suburb, consisted of my Puerto Rican friends from summers in San Juan, so maybe I didn’t have a great representative sample for comparison). I sit between two cultures and don’t feel fully a part of one or the other. People who feel rooted in their culture express their feelings for it all the time through artistic mediums. People who don’t feel rooted though, also have feelings that need dealing with. Feelings of in between-ness and dislocation.

I’m not sure at what exact point I decided that this medium was a good one for expressing All of the Things. The weirdness in my head, my feelings about non-existence, the ways of being in between two sharp points in the world and still feeling authentic. But I did, and it works for me. And I have the huge compliment of being told at every show how well it speaks to other people. People who are liminal people, people who are members of one or another counter culture, but also people whose freak flag doesn’t fly very high at all. People who work with death, grief, or mental illness as part of their jobs. People who occupy places society doesn’t explicitly approve of, or that aren’t well defined. It’s satisfying as hell. I’m really just sitting in my basement playing with glitter and junk and wondering if anyone is going to get this, and it seems that, yeah, they do. Not everyone does, but that’s fine. Not everyone likes shrimp or BMWs.

We all have to deal with Shit Too Big To Deal With in some way or another.

 

 

Anthropologists, I beg you

Hire a ghost writer. Please.

When I first went to college, believe it or not, it was as a science major. I wanted to go into forensics. Not because I thought Abby Sciuto’s job was in any way realistic, but because I’m fascinated by the field. I read college text books on criminal profiling and medicolegal death investigation for fun (which, I promise, will always get you plenty of elbow room on the train). But I quickly realized that the school I’d chosen, the one I could afford in the city I wanted to live in, was not going to give me a good education for that particular life path. And because I’m one of those people who is not driven by one single passion, I simply chose another path. The path I chose was anthropology.

Culture is hilarious. No, it really is. Once you get outside of it and start looking at it like a story someone is telling you, the plot holes are epic and nothing the characters do seems to further the story. It’s a Shakespearean farce with a tragedy chaser. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a compelling one. The art, the music, the languages, religions. It’s all such poetry. Surrealist poetry, but poetry all the same. I’m a poet at heart. Even my mixed media work is a poem. It’s just not one that uses words. It’s a poem of objects in juxtaposition. And cultures are the same.

In my totally unasked for opinion, it is the job of anthropologists to interpret those poems so people living in other stories, other cultures, can understand each other. So maybe the people on this little experiment hurtling through space all alone (or are we…) can, I dunno, respect each other and the planet. Maybe. Just for yuks.

So. Imagine my DISMAY as an actual, living, breathing culture story interpreter in training, when I realized that anthropologists didn’t share my notion. At least insofar as making themselves even remotely accessible. I had to read dozens of ethnographies (200 or so page breakdowns of a particular aspect of a culture) in the course of my brief life as an anthropology major. Not a single one of them was even a tiny bit penetrable. Some because the language was so jargon-y and dense, and made important references to 600 other books that if you hadn’t read you would be at a loss to understand, but some were just flat out crap from a literary standpoint. In other words, they sucked the poetry right out of the thing they were describing. Broke it down to such a molecular level that it ceased to have meaning. And this is SOP. Anyone not making culture read like stereo instructions was deemed a dilettante, not a serious scientist. Which, ok if you’re talking biochemistry or whatever. Molecular level makes sense there. But a culture’s parts only make sense in relation to each other and if you excise them from the rest it has no meaning. The word “red” is just a word without the “rose”, “love” et cetera. I don’t even like Robert Burns, but I can recognize it’s a poem because context. It’s not a remotely good poem, but that’s neither here nor there and totally a matter of opinion.

I answer the question “What inspires you as an artist” with “everything”. And that’s vague AF but also true. The reasons we strive inspire me. The reasons we grieve. The reasons we create and love and work. Not, we in this country and people of my cultural background, but the capital We. All of us as a singular species that have taken what nature programed us to do and made it so mind bogglingly complicated and diverse. And yeah, stupid, too. We’re amazing and pitiful and our poem reads not like stereo instructions, but like an opera. And I personally think it’s criminal that an entire branch of science works to deaden it into something only a few can digest, leaving the rest of us to fail at a comprehension that could make all of us so much richer for the understanding.

So, Clifford Geertz, Huntington and Metcalf, and all the rest of you thick tongued, long winded, pedantic as fuuuuuck jerks, I’m saying to you, learn to do this species justice or gtfo and stop torturing us with your writing. Hire someone who can tell a good story. There’s a world of unpublished talent out there who would probably love a shot at getting paid for what they do that, even if they’re only good at potato chip fiction, will tell the story of humans better than you can.

/end rant

“Where do you find all this stuff?”

Number two question I get asked at shows. The answers, in order of preference, are:

Flea markets! I love me a flea. It’s the best of all possible junking solutions. It’s not necessarily the cheapest, but here’s why that’s ok. I could spend my every weekend going to all the estate sales in my area in order to acquire for the least possible dollar amount maaaaybe trunkfull of items I might be interested in, or I could let the pickers do it for me, hit them all up in one spot, and pay their (usually) very small markup, which you can negotiate down anyway (you’re not being mean by haggling, pickers expect you to haggle and work it into their price structure because it’s all part of the game at a flea). I consider it a convenience fee and I’m happy to pay it, because I’ll spend less in gas and time, and come out ahead overall. It’s the same reason I’ll go to “hip” second hand stores. Because they’ve done all the legwork of going to every single Goodwill in the city and dug through the piles of polyester and whatnot, to find the cool stuff for me. The prices aren’t that much higher and I only have to go to one place. Plus, some pickers do it for a living, but some do it because they’re born scavengers and it’s a compulsion not unlike popping bubble wrap, and there are enough of those just trying to make back what they spent that you’re gonna get it so cheap it’s practically dumpster diving. They’re in it for the love of the hunt. I can relate.

Estate sales! When someone dies and their family (or whoever, if they have none) doesn’t want to deal with cleaning out their house, they hire a company to catalogue, price and sell everything. Estate sales usually happen Fridays through Sundays. On Friday, you’ll get the best selection of stuff, but the prices are way higher. These companies work on commission, so they’re motivated to get top dollar. On Friday they won’t haggle with you and they won’t give you a bundle deal. On Sunday however, they absolutely will, because it’s their last chance to make any money. On the last day of the estate sale, prices are usually down by 50-75%, they’ll take less, and they’ll bundle. The down side is you’re usually picking through dregs because all that’s left is the stuff that’s on its way to Goodwill or the dumpster. If you’re an artist, this doesn’t matter too much. If you’re a picker, this is not your day.

Yard sales, Goodwill, etc! You can find some awesome junk at these places. They’re my least favorite because you usually have to hit up many, MANY of them before you get anything like a worthwhile trip out of the adventure. The exception is church rummage sales. Like a flea, there are multiple contributors to the overall junk selection, but because it’s basically 30 households or so having a yard sale in the same place, the prices are low. Downside is it’s mostly kid stuff. Which, if you have a kid is great, but if you have an art project is a bit limited.

Lastly, because it’s an opportunistic act rather than something I do because I need junk for art, is dumpster diving! I don’t dive on the regular. It’s more of a magpie thing. If I happen to see shiny I investigate. Now at a flea market, don’t be too proud! There’s great shit in those dumpsters (stay AWAY from the ones near the food vendors though). I’ve found doll heads and vintage books all for the bargain price of free because someone decided there was no money to be made with them and chucked ’em (pro tip: the pickers at the flea check the dumpsters too, and many have admitted to putting what they find on their own tables and selling it). But mostly I just keep my eyes open on trash day because you never know. One day I was walking the dog and found two child sized chairs sitting in the alley. Good quality ones, too. If you’re following me on the Facebooks, you’ve seen what they turned into. I’ve found an old chippy, peely cabinet, antlers off a 6 point buck that are at least 50 years old, anatomy and neurology text books from the 60s, broken dolls and various and sundry awesome rusty shit, all in my tiny neck of the woods. A friend in New Orleans once found a huge, hand made Indonesian mask! People throw out the damndest things, so don’t let those opportunities pass you by.

So, that’s where I find all this stuff. Any other junk lovers out there are welcome to hit me up if you want someone to go junking with. I go to Grayslake just about monthly, and I’m always up for company. Just don’t mind the weirdo caressing an old, rusty piece of farm equipment or a half decomposed accordion, mumbling “My preciousssssss”. That weirdo is me.