Sweat and Blood Experience

ZiggyLuceSeveral months ago, I participated in a storytelling festival at NHIA where the fablous NHPR Host and Producer, Virginia Prescott, was MC. We hit it off instantly. I was feeling a bit vulnerable that night, having struggled to write a piece about my childhood in Northern Vermont (“As the story goes, I was conceived in the back seat of a Pontiac in Avon, Connecticut on prom night in 1964…”). Virginia’s not a runner, but on hearing that I was missing my running posse in Maine, she mentioned that she’s close with a devoted group of trail runners in Concord. It took me several months to follow up, but with the head space of a few weeks off, I finally connected with Kate and Julianne, and they invited me to a join a group run at the Oak Hill Trails last Wednesday.

I pulled into the parking lot and found a cluster of runners—some looked lean and fast, and others like ultras, geared up with water packs; they all looked like they were fully in the running game! I pulled in, hopped out, and was welcomed heartily by the group. At 6:05, around 14 of us headed into the woods. Some planned to do the Fire Tower Trail and others a more scenic, less hilly route. As we hit the trail, I decided I’d do the ConcordTrailRunners.jpghill, given my upcoming Greylock Road Race in September. The race consists of 8 paved miles straight up, so I need all the hills I can get. A small group of us veered left and headed toward the tower. I was relieved to find the pace comfortable and the group social rather than competitive. We chatted about running, work, and family. A few of them were just getting into the ultra scene, and were preparing to run the 32 mile Pemigewasset loop in a few weeks. I was intrigued, as I hiked those trails multiple times when my sons were young, but that was long before I developed my passion for running. The group got quiet and spread out a bit during the steeper part of the climb, but we all gathered at the top to chat and catch our breath. After a few minutes and some pit stops, we crossed the clearing and began to run down a back trail, which would complete a wiggly lollipop loop and take us back to the trail head.

It turns out that two of the runners, Michael and Jeff, had been doing the USATF trail running series, so we compared notes as we ran. It’s a tough series, but if you complete 5 races, you get an automatic pass into the annual Mt. Washington event. That race sells out in minutes, so it’s a good motivation to stick with the series. I’ve completed Sleepy Hollow, Pack Monadnock, Cranmore, and Loon Mountain, so if I manage Greylock, I’ll be rewarded with a pass to a brutally tough race up Mt. Washington in 2018!

As we ran, we started talking about the difference in training for road marathons versus trail ultras, and I was immersed in listening to the others tell their racing and training stories. The trail was pretty technical, and as we ran down a hill and into a dip, my toe caught a rock, and I hit the ground hard. I felt (and heard!) my head hit a rock, and quickly realized I wasn’t able to hop back up. The guys in front of me turned around to look. I OakHillTrailpressed my hand to my forehead and felt that it was wet. One of the guys took a look and said, “Uh oh, not good.” Michael handed me his buff, and I pressed it against the wound. I could feel the blood pumping and knew I had to get my heart rate down and get out of the woods. Jeff pulled off his sweat-soaked shirt and wrapped it tight around my head so the pressure would limit the bleeding, and we started walking out as a group. We were over a mile in so it took a while to trek out. I hadn’t blacked out or seen stars, but I had taken a hit to the head. I didn’t feel like I was getting loopy or about to pass out, but just in case a concussion was about to manifest, we exchanged some key phone numbers, and I let them know where my car key was. We began strategizing for how to get me to the hospital, as it was pretty clear stitches would be in order. Every person in the group stuck with me, offering support and distraction on the way out. Kate and I exchanged tales and started laughing about the ridiculousness of the situation. I couldn’t stop apologizing for interrupting their run, insisting, “I never fall!” “I run trails all the time!” “This isn’t my first rodeo!”

It was a long walk out, and when the parking area came into view, I thanked everyone and got into the passenger seat of my car.  I was eager to get to the hospital to assess the damage. Kate got behind the wheel, taking a quick back route to Concord Hospital, and Julianne and David followed in a second car. The waiting room was pretty full, but given that I had a head injury, I was brought back quickly for an assessment. The steadfast Kate accompanied me, capturing a few shots of the the wound reveal. The major cut was on my eyelid, just below the eyebrow, and I was told that I was lucky it had clean edges; it must’ve been a sharp rock! After my initial vitals were taken, the nurse fast-tracked me to the doctor.  Kate, wonderfully determined to make sure I wasn’t left alone, stuck with me until it was time for stitches. As we waited in the procedure room, the ER nurse, Becky, came in to say that the doctor, “Jon Snow,” would be in shortly.
Kate and I looked at each other, exclaiming, “Jon Snow? No Way!” and in unison, “Game of Thrones!”
The nurse chuckled, “he doesn’t look much like that Jon Snow.”
We cracked up. Actually, we spent a good part of the time in the hospital laughing and telling each other tales, noting how one of the best things about running is how it generates stories and comradery. This was certainly going to become one of those stories. As the doctor came in, Kate took off to get back to her family and relieve her babysitter. I thanked her for being so amazing–we’d gone from total strangers to good friends in the space of a few hours.
As Doctor Snow gathered his needle and thread, I asked, “You’ve done this before, right?”
“A few times,” he replied. When I looked at him askance, he said, “A few times tonight!”
He went on: “I don’t know if it’s the coming eclipse that’s causing gravity to work extra hard, but I’ve been sewing up cyclists all night who’ve been coming in from the  Highland Mountain Bike Park.” He brought the needle to my eyelid, saying “okay, this is going to be the worst part.” After a few shots to the lid, all I could feel was pushing and tugging as he cleaned out “quite a bit of dirt and grass,” then the tugging sensation of the 5 stitches. I hadn’t developed a headache or gotten too loopy, so it looked as if I’d avoided a concussion. In addition to the cut and black eye, my hip had a serious bruise HipShinerand I’d sprained 3 fingers on my left hand. I was banged up, but cleared to drive home.
I felt pretty out of it but managed to navigate my way back to the condo in Manchester. I stayed up for a few hours, trying to relax and catch up with myself. I would occasionally have a falling sensation out of the blue, and I could tell that my body was in shock. I finally fell asleep thinking with gratitude about how caring and generous this group of strangers had been, and how I can’t wait to run with them again. They’re imprinted on me through the shared sweat and blood experience.

Hate has such a loud voice in the world right now, and I feel sheepish sharing this story, as if it’s myopic to devote words to a small personal mishap. It’s essential to be vigilant in using our voices to witness what seems to be a growing or resurgent sociocultural sickness, but I would suggest that witness to small kindnesses–to the essential goodness of people–should stand alongside the larger witness against racism, sexism, xenophobia, and hate. I’m grateful to have felt such unequivocal support and care from a group of former strangers. These small miracles give me hope.

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X Marks the Spot

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Aerial Mapping II, graphite, colored pencil, and watercolor on paper

On July 12th, I completed an interactive “garden intervention” at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. The intervention was the culmination of work I’d been doing in Ogunquit for a few months. Preparation involved researching the town’s history, on-the-ground exploring, and meeting with some of the long-time residents, all of whom were overflowing with tales of Ogunquit, from the late 19th century to the present.

As is true with most of my current work, the project took multiple forms but was grounded in drawing. On the day of the intervention, museum docents introduced visitors to the project by showing them three of my aerial map pieces. Each drawing included 3 pink “x” marks indicating the 3 dialogue sites on the museum grounds. Visitors would begin by choosing a site, then meeting me at my drawing table.

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photo by Larry Hayden

We’d start with a brief chat about the performative nature of the project and how they were embarking on a collaboration. Then we’d walk to the site they’d chosen. I’d begin by sharing some of Ogunquit’s social and artistic history, such as the tensions between Hamilton Easter Field’s Summer School of Graphic Arts and Charles Woodbury’s Ogunquit School of Drawing and Painting. Henry Strater, the museum’s founder, came to Maine to study at Field’s school in 1918. In the 1950s he purchased land on Narrow Cove, from the Woodbury family, and had the museum built on the water’s edge. Ogunquit has been a magnet for a wide range of known and unknown artists (Hartley, Hopper, Homer, and many more), and passions for the town and its history run deep. In my preparation, I heard as many stories of raucous parties during prohibition and wild theater galas as I did the more somber tales of artistic growth. What came across in all of my research conversations was a profound sense of community and a hunger to hold on to that intimacy in a world that is much more frayed, digital, and dispersed.

During the intervention, I shifted each dialogue from the historical to the personal. I pointed out how place lives in our very cells. Our cells pull toward or react against the places and people that formed us. I shared stories about some of my places: my grandmother’s driveway, the ferry landing in Blacks Harbour, the lower east side of Manhattan, and then I’d invite them to share a story in return. In every case, the conversations quickly dove deep, and I was blown away by the stories people shared. Below you’ll find condensed fragments of the 16 conversations.

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photo: Larry Hayden

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Cellular Places and Narrative Fragments

Hampton Beach
Lawrence, KA
Bangor, Ellsworth, MDI
Naples
Point Pleasant, NJ
Stonycreek,  PA
Ogunquit
Steel Country, OH
Kennebec Valley and the Belgrade Lakes
Portsmouth
The NH coast
Auburn
CBGBs
Newfoundland
The Cove
Disneyworld
Ottawa, Canada

The  piers, before Hurricane Sandy buried them, and before the “Jersey Shore” was a thing.

Five miles from home there’s a place where the fields go on and on, then there’s a sudden valley. In the valley stands a 300-year-old oak, thick and knobby. You can hide a car behind it. 

In the winter, during the depression, there was a pond and a willow in the yard. No one was happy.

It feels trivial, but being a teen-ager on the beach, chasing the girls.

Always returning to the water and rocks. Scrambling over the rocks at ten, trying to decipher mysterious writing rising out of the hard, etched surface.

There’s a spot in the woods where we go that’s filled with green light. There’s a mound of moss surrounded by trees; it’s like a fairy land. One time there were hundreds of cairns in the stream. We’ve seen giant spiders skimming on the water. Even that was magical, and I’m terrified of spiders.

Losing my virginity at the family camp and returning to reconnect many years later.

The cove, a handsome man, and a missing oar. The place, and the man, cast a spell over me.

Working with a group of women, storytellers, where all the screwed-up family history and related questions of identity were dropped. It was a place where I became open. Where I felt what it was to be loved completely.

What it was to leave steel country and go to Maine, where your eyes can go for a walk and your brain with it.

Genetic imprinting of place is a thing, and Maine is in my cells. Maine is home, unlike the cannibal forest of the west. That forest holds the fears of being eaten and more. In Maine, as a girl, I walked in the woods like I was part of it.

Actual home is too dysfunctional–Disney World feels special and more like home to me. Family feels right when we’re there.

The family summer house with the pine floor, under the Tsuga hemlocks. There’s only boat access, and you can anticipate the tactile sense of the place while you wait for the trip over.

Places with stones, to do deep work in. Nature is alive, the stones are conscious. I’m drawn to places where there’s no dramatic crutch, existentially or artistically. Thoreau and a twig, not Acadia. The twig is the cosmos; Acadia does too much work for you. When I work, everything has to be right, and when it is, the wind and the clouds work with me.

The shamans in Peru.

In my adult life, I’ve been recreating my grandmother’s porch and its familiarity because it’s the safest space I’ve ever known: a white house with black shutters, hollyhocks, and the warm musty smell of a porch that puts you to sleep.

A stone grotto at the end of a field, with statues—the Virgin Mary with lambs. I love the Virgin Mary.

I was a dancer in New York, but now I need to go north…to Newfoundland…as far North as possible. I need austerity. I need to not be distracted from experience and to know a place by physically knowing it.

As each conversation closed, I ritualized the exchange by walking back to my table to draw a homing pigeon. I added each bird to a growing flock on the side of the museum wall as a way of honoring the stories shared and allowing myself a momentary quiet space where I could live in the world that had been shared with me.

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In closing: Thanks to Andy Verzosa for inviting me to perform the intervention, in his role as Interim Director of OMA, and to Michael Mansfield, the current OMA Director for his continued support of the project.

On August 29th, at 6:00 pm I’ll be offering a Totally Tuesday talk at the museum: Tracking Narrative: A Contemporary Approach to Landscape .  I’ll share more about the project, including some of the local lore I collected, while offering some examples of the artists and artistic movements that have influenced my work.

 

 

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An Escape and a Sharpening

A challenging race is a mind and body recalibration, and after this last year, with mapmultiple new jobs, border running, a solo exhibition, and the holidays, not to mention the excruciating political season, I was overdue for a re-tuning. Taking the body to its physical limits strips everything else away; it’s an escape but also a sharpening. After wrapping up the NHIA MFA residency in mid-January, I flew out to Tucson with my son for a family visit. I like to look for destination races when I’m traveling, and if there’s something interesting, I fit it in. With a quick web search, I found a new ultra-trail running series in Oracle, and I signed up for the half-marathon.

On the morning of the race, I woke up in the dark, forced some oatmeal down, and hopped into the car with my mother to make our way up to Oracle, about 45 minutes from the Tucson foothills.  A few miles from the park, we made a Circle-K pit stop. It was 6:45 a.m., and the place was hopping with runners and hunters–the runners on route to experience the wildlife refuge and the hunters heading elsewhere to “cull coyotes.” We made our way to the Justice Court and picked up the shuttle to Oracle State Park. The park covers 4,000-acres in the Catalina Mountains, and serves both as a wildlife refuge and as a center for environmental education (watershed, geology, topography, wildlife, etc.). We scrambled out of the van, breath in frozen clouds. Organizers were just starting a fire and had an outdoor propane heater cranking.  I quickly picked up my timing chip and headed for the warmth. My fingers were already turning white with Raynaud’s syndrome, and I held them out to absorb the heat. The welcoming fire, with a big stack of wood that would last through the day, was the first sign that this would be an organized event, and it was, from start to finish.

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As the sun rose, Mom and I chatted around the fire. Most runners were layered up, but I stripped down to ¾ length tights, ankle socks (for cholla and prickly pear defense), a light tech t-shirt, arm warmers, gloves, and a lightweight hat. This turned out to be perfect–adaptable as the sun started heating up the more exposed stretches of desert. I took off for a quick warm up, then to the road to gather with the other racers. The ultra series was sold out at 300 runners (10K, half, 50k, and 50 mile), and there were about 100 clustered on the road for the half.

On GO, the mass of us started down the blacktop toward the trail head. After about 20 yards, we ran single file onto a trail overhung with mesquite trees and juniper bushes. I passed a handful of people when I could, and ended up locked in with a group of 5, three women in front of me and two men behind. I was worried that the hilly course and technical footing would wipe me out, and I was happy to find a race posse that would rein in my early pace. The five of us chatted—each of us using the conversational pace both as a strategy and to pass the time. About a mile in we came over a rise and down into a frost-licked dip. At the base, I noticed a set of huge cat prints in damp sand. “Fresh tracks!” said one of the guys behind me.

“Bobcat?” I asked.

He chuckled, “That was a puma!”

A little further in we saw javelina tracks, then smaller cat prints, and scat was visible along the trail throughout the race. It was a lively desert refuge, and clearly the path was convenient for all species!

The course was hilly from start to finish except for a few stretches in the middle and one near the end. A few miles in, the pace was still comfortable, and I pondered whether to pass and pick it up. Given the challenging trail, I decided to just hunker down and reassess in a few miles. The terrain changed frequently, and it was pretty hard to find a groove. I’ve only run one Southwestern trail race (the McDowell Mountain frenzy in 2013), and I fell forward hard in the last mile of that 10-miler. Since these trails were slippery with frost, mud, sand, pebbles, and  diagonal rock waterbars–even one patch of snow–I stayed hyper-focused on placing my feet and not letting the growing aches in my legs make me sloppy. On the longer climbs, everyone in sight walked with quick steps, and I followed suit, trusting the more experienced trail racers.

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About 4 miles in, we were on a grassy open plain, The trail had turned from dense cacti, creosote bushes, and palo verde to gorgeous grassland—golden light stretching out in all directions. One of the guys in back passed and took off. I followed  his lead, a bit slower, passing 2 of the 3 women in front of me and locking in behind the leader of our pack.  We ran together for a mile or so. She said I was helping to push her pace, but when we came to a relatively straight downhill stretch, I decided to pass and let the hill carry me down. I like to let it rip down the hills, though I’m guessing that’s why my legs are so sore post-race! Around 6 miles in, I ran down into a wash where I found the first of 2 aid stations. I was running with two water bottles and some Honey Stinger chews in an Amphipod belt, so I cruised by, turning right to climb on to a frost-covered trail. The trail eventually lead back down to the wash, which offered a mile and a half of flat, beachy  sand. At that point I was completely alone in the race. I heard some rustles in the hills and glanced around a few times, remembering the lion tracks at the start. Eventually, the trail bumped back up to the left, and the rise and fall of hills started up again.

At 10 miles, the hills and technical running started to catch up with my legs.  Even in the flat sections, I was entering survival mode. I’d be just hanging on for the rest of the race. At one point, a woman locked in behind me, sticking close through mile 11. I asked if she wanted to pass (the trails were often thin, rocky ditches surrounded by cacti). She answered, “Nope, you’re my pacer, and you’re fast on the downhills.”

“We’ll see how long that lasts,” I mumbled back. By the time we came finalhillto the last wash, I felt like I was shuffling, just willing my legs move. She passed me at that point, keeping a slightly steadier pace than I could muster. I caught up to another guy in the wash. We’d passed each other a few times, and I felt sure he’d drop me, but he ended up falling back. Finally, the trail dipped down into a small picnic area, and I realized we must be getting close to the finish. I could hear cheering in the distance and determined to run up the last hill. As I came over the rise, I could see the finish line. I was so relieved, I thought I’d start crying. I stuffed the emotion down and stretched out my strides to the Oraclefinish.jpgfinish. I was beat!

 

 

They handed me a finisher’s medal–a horseshoe on a leather thong–and asked if I was okay. I didn’t understand their concern until I saw photos of the finish. I youalrightlooked like my legs were going to give out any second! With difficulty, I hoisted my sneaker on the bench so they could cut off my timing chip, then greeted my mom, who had gotten into her role as pit crew, maintaining the fire throughout most of my 2:20 on the trail. After grabbing a drink and banana, I looked at the results and was shocked to see that I’d finished fourth for the women overall. The first three were in their 20s and 30s, and unfortunately, there were no masters awards (40 and over). Still, it was a great event with great energy and something for everyone—from the 10K first timer to the ultra-fanatic.

Writing these play-by-play race reviews reminds me of why pushing my body to its limits feels like a release—everything is reduced to the choices, relationships, and narratives of the experience. A group of runners finds each other based on pace, and they talk about mountain lions, racing, beer, the landscape, and running strategies. Then there’s a stretch of solitude, where the sensations, sounds, and smells take over, where the runner focuses on her movements, assessing the state of exhaustion through each quadrant of the body: mind, legs, lungs, core, arms, feet… And then there’s survival, where she simply thinks about the diminishing time and distance, asking legs and lungs what they have left in the tank. She thinks about things that inspire her, of coaching wisdom, and occasionally her mind wanders, but mostly she just lives in her body and takes in the view when she can. Particularly given the precarious state of the world, I’m grateful that places like Oracle State Park exist–monuments to nature’s diversity, to human care that stretches beyond greed, and to the opportunity that such a place offers to experience one’s limits in the face of the wild and unexpected.

 

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Bedrock and Lousewort

 

Opportunity has taken many forms this last year, and time for writing has been scarce! I’ve been fully absorbed in preparing for an exhibition that opens tomorrow, (January 19th, 2017) at Common Street Arts in Waterville, Maine. This exhibition is a book-end of sorts, concluding the year of grant-supported research and exploration (gratitude to SPACE Gallery for providing support for Tracking the Border through the Kindling Fund). There will be more written reflection to come, and the border work will continue through 2017; in the meantime, I’d like to offer a virtual introduction to the work in the exhibit.

 

The dialogues with my collaborators show up most literally in the 10 mixed media drawings in the show. Lousewort and Bedrock 1, for example, references bedrock geology maps of Maine, which I was introduced to by geologist, Chris Dorion. Since distinguishing between natural and artificial borders was of primary interest to me, the consideration of geology was essential. The St. John River is an obvious natural border, in contrast, for example, with the slash, which is a literal cut through the forest that delineates the national divide. As I researched the river, I learned about Furbish’s Lousewort, the perennial herb represented in the Lousewort and Bedrock drawings. The endangered plant, with its modest flower, is difficult to find. It exists on the US and Canadian sides of the St. John river, and its habitat requires the scrape of ice along the river banks as the seasons shift. This seasonal freeze and thaw, and its relationship to the flow of the river, keeps the banks clear of shrubs so the plant can flourish.

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Bedrock and Lousewort 1, graphite, color pencil, and watercolor, 14″ x 10″ 2016

Borders over Pie: Passamaquoddy Bay reflects a conversation over pie with Newell Lewey, a Passamaquoddy Native, and Francesco Cantu (Paco), a former border patrol officer and writer from Arizona. Speaking from very different border experiences, Newell and Paco shared some of their perspectives. My drawing and redrawing of Passamaquoddy Bay in this piece creates a shifting border line, signifying my interpretation of Newell’s feeling about the national border: “It’s a white Thing.” He was raised with a more traditional Passamaquoddy understanding of the land, where the tribal community would relocate based on sustenance, moving for deer or fish, for example, as the availability of different resources shifted location.

The rough-hewn frames for these drawings are hand crafted from  Northern White Cedar, which was milled near Pembroke, Maine.

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Borders Over Pie: Passamaquoddy Bay,  graphite and watercolor,    14″ x 10″, 2016

As the work for the border project developed, I began looking for ways to bring the physicality of my process more powerfully to the work. My drawings from the last 5 years have grown out of the intersection of my life as a runner and an artist, and I wanted to experiment with different strategies for bringing the tactile experience of my body more emphatically to the finished pieces. This first emerged in three site-specific Border Walls. These installations are documented in a slide show in the exhibition (most images by photographer, Peter Cunningham). I wanted to play with the idea of marking natural borders, taking time and energy to build these nonsensical borders, which I could then easily walk across or through. In the first border wall, for example, I marked the line in the intertidal zone where rockweed begins to grow. After a day of building, I stepped across the wall, and then let the ocean, over subsequent months, re-sort the stones across the beach.

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Border Wall II, site specific installation, Photo: Peter Cunningham

The border project led me to desolate areas of wilderness, such as my navigation 7 miles into logging woods in Coburn-Gore in an attempt to view the “slash.” I was often alone in the woods, in some cases acutely aware of my vulnerability. I began thinking about personal borders and boundaries, re-focusing on what gender and identity have to do with my project. These questions became increasingly important as the misogyny in the US political discourse became more overt and offensive. In thinking about site specificity and the landscape, I reconsidered land artists Robert Smithson and Richard Long, as well as key feminist artists including Ana Mendieta and Carolee Schneemann, who so powerfully embodied issues of gender and identity in their performance work. I became interested in questions of representation, wondering if there is a way to shoot the female nude in nature in the current cultural moment, without simply creating a window for the gaze that echoes the history of the female nude in the landscape. The series of 12 archival photographic prints live (earnest and chuckling) in the gray area of this question. In terms of process, I shot nudes portraits on the border, printed them, hand altered the prints, mounted the altered prints back in the landscape, then printed the photo of the original photo on location.

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Lines: Site 2, archival pigment print, 19″ x 13″, 2016

The CSA exhibit includes additional works, including Green Blazes, a window installation of trees upholstered in black velvet, as well as mixed media pieces, Artifacts and hand altered photos, which offer a glimpse into my process over the last year.

As I suggested in an earlier post, I had imagined my border exploration as a chronological march from West to East along the Maine-Canada divide, but I quickly realized that my navigation should be led by the conversations with my collaborators. I also realized that each dialogue was going to lead to many others. I decided to scrap chronology and simply jump from point to point around the border, tracking the narratives that emerged out of each dialogue, and letting each conversation expand as far as I could track it. The imagery in the work was drawn from my experiences along the way. The conversations and the work will continue.

 

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The History of the Body

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I spent last weekend on the Maine-Canada border, exploring forested land in Coburn Gore and trying to get my eyes on the “Slash.” The Slash is a literal cut through the forest that marks the divide between Canada and the United States. The International Boundary Commission tends the cut, which runs through 1349 miles of wooded land along the 5525 miles that make up the entire border between the two countries. It was an inspiring weekend which I’ll share more about in the future; in this post I want to describe the last stop on the journey: Amy Stacey Curtis’ 9th solo-biennial project, Memory, at the Bates Mill complex in Lewiston. When I arrived, I was exhausted from the weekend of border exploration, but I was determined to see the final installation in Curtis’ 18-year project. I’ve followed the solo-biennial work for years, and participated asc2(gathering and contributing soil for a previous biennial), but this was the first installation I was able to see in person.

The emotional impact of Curtis’ work sneaks up on you, given its analytical, ordered presence. Even the viewing process is controlled; the viewer is instructed on how to proceed step-by-step through the exhibition. These directions are one key to the installation’s success. I’ve often shared the film The Five Obstructions with my students. In the film, filmmakers Jorgan Leth and Lars von Trier are shown remaking Leth’s famous short film, The Perfect Human, 5 times with 5 sets of obstructions. The film provides an engaging example of how structure, with its implicit limitations, creates the space for creative work to take shape successfully. As I progressed through steps 1 – 9 in the Memory biennial, I noted the lean formal structure, but even more important, the control the artist exerted over my movements, as viewer. That control became an essential part of the content of the work.

There is no question, as the viewer takes a position in front of the video segment (step 2, as I recall), of how much time he or she will commit the video. The viewer’s interior question,”Will this be an exercise in dutiful patience or will it draw me in?” is replaced by simply following Amy’s directions and standing in front of the piece as instructed (until the voices in the video reach “100”). Amy’s instructions are unambiguous, and because the format is so clear, the viewer trusts the artist and stays put without the distraction of self consideration. The mind doesn’t bother with, “How does Lucinda view a video in an art installation?” (thinking of The Perfect Human: “Look, the perfect human moving in a room,” “How does she lie down? This is how she lies down, like this.”). Following Amy’s instructions feels necessary, as if the viewer will miss an opportunity if he/she disobeys.

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Part way through the exhibit, after reading instructions asking me to make a certain number of marks in a huge slab of clay, my emotions caught me off guard. I pressed my fingers into the clay, and found it to be harder and fleshier than I anticipated. Amy has written about her work as a means of processing traumatic experiences she’s lived through, asc4and that knowledge—just as a context, without awareness of any specifics—caused me to feel my body in the space in a conscious way. And given the current wave of people outing their stories of abuse, as a way to speak truth to the dark misogyny of the Republican Presidential candidate, I found the simple act of pressing my finger into clay to be emotionally difficult. And from that mid-point in the exhibition, I entered some liminal state where the history of my own body moved through the space with me.

The tears came as I entered a space filled with desks, each with a dated journal, where the viewer was asked to a pick plot point of memory, find the appropriate year/desk/book, and write that memory down. I sat down at 1972 and flipped to a blank page, skipping over others’ anonymous stories as I searched. I was surprised to catch: “The birth of my daughter–still an angel” and “The year I met the man of my dreams.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me to go to the brightest points of my life when asked to remember. Remembering the darker passages seemed to me to be the point, but of course, in that perception the work was showing me something about myself, as its participant.

In the 9th and final piece in the installation,  I stepped though 9 frames, going through a process of intentional remembering in each one. As I moved to the final square, I stood within the frame determined to slow down in a memory of excessive pleasure. I stayed there for a few minutes, letting my body linger in that space.

As I moved toward the exit, I realized I was still trying to stuff my sadness. I found Amy closing up the space and realized that I was trying to squelch my emotions because I didn’t want to burden her, or the carefully articulated space, with messy feelings. At the same time, I was aware that my very sadness was true to my participation, to the work Curtis created, and it represented my shared authorship of the work, as viewer. As we chatted about the impact of the installation, Amy shared that the piece had inspired a lot of emotion and that more than a few of the viewings had ended in hugs and tears. Memory is so clean and clear a piece, the sentiment so stripped away, that what is left is a large, open space for an authentic response. The response depends on what the viewer brings into the room.

Memory closes on October 28th. Until then it’s open every day, noon-5:00.  More Info

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Tracking Narrative

 

It became clear early this year that my current project, Tracking the Border, would become a tracking of narrative as much as a navigation of the Maine-Canada divide. When I began to share news that I’d won a Kindling Grant (part of the Warhol Foundation Re-Granting Program), every casual chat seemed to inspire a personal story about the border: childhoodamericasfirstmile memories of swimming across, horrible border crossing tales (lots of those), cultural experiences that question the border altogether, and family immigration stories, among many others. I quickly realized that rather than following the 611 mile map along the Maine-Canada border, I’d be jumping around from point to point, following people’s stories. The idea of privileging chance process over a pre-established order felt creatively right as well, and so I’ve spent the year engaging in dialogue with a wide range of people from around the state, all with very different understandings of border and boundary, both conceptually and in terms of the Maine border.  The spirit of the Kindling grant is collaborative, and the granting agency holds an expanded understanding of audience and venue; my shift in approach also seemed more deeply aligned with that vision. This approach to process continues to lead me into inspiring pockets of coincidence, and coincidence is what shows up when a creative project finds its roots.

My first trip to the border was in March of this year, to Presque Isle, Caribou, Van Buren, and Fort Kent. Though I’ve done most of my traveling solo, I was fortunate to have the company of friend and artist, Rebecca FitzPatrick, on the first adventure. The motivating structure for the trip was a story that artist Julie Poitras Santos had shared about her grandparents’ illegal crossing  from Canada to the U.S. in the 1930s. It turned out that Poitras Santos’  exhibition, O Time Your Pyramids, was opening at the Reed Gallery in Presque Isle in early March, and she invited us to join her for a celebratory dinner, where I’d have the chance to ask her father, Ron Poitras, about his parents’ experience. We decided, in preparation for the conversation, that we’d head up to the Van Buren – Saint Leonard crossing, which was the spot her grandparents had supposedly trekked into the States. As I’ve since come to expect, the discoveries began well before we arrived in Van Buren.

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Heading up Route 1, between Houlton and Presque Isle, Rebecca and I began to spot planet sculptures. We screeched to a halt on spotting the first, not noticing the cop behind us, who quickly pulled over behind us to make sure we were okay! From signage on the site, jupiter3we learned that all 9 planets were placed along Rt. 1 in a 40-mile scale model of the Solar System: one mile along Rt. 1 equalling one astronomical unit (the distance from the Earth to the Sun). I remembered hearing about a road race that coincided with NASA’s New Horizons’ Pluto mission, and realized that this was that stretch of road. I decided to read up on the race when we got to our bed and breakfast later in the day.

My plan had been to run along the border in Van Buren before dinner, so I could get a tactile sense, before meeting her father, of where Julie’s grandparents had crossed into the States. It was March, and there was still a fair amount of snow, which made the road the only option. I headed northwest along Rt. 1 borderrun3toward Madawasca, with the plan to have Rebecca scoop me up when I was finished. With unyielding trucks and slippery footing, it was a rough run, but I was able to witness the way the river creates a natural boundary between the two countries in that section of the border, and I could imagine people dreaming across the divide, in both directions.

After the run, we cruised back down to Caribou and checked into The Old Iron Inn Bed and Breakfast. We began chatting with owners Kate and Kevin McCartney. We mentioned the solar system models, and it turns out that Kevin was instrumental in the development of the project (from 2000-2003), in addition to being one of the organizers of the New Horizons road race. He told us about working with Evan Graves, an accomplished Maine runner, who symbolically travelled the speed of light by running an 8:20 pace over the 39 miles of the Rt. 1 Solar System, mirroring the New Horizons’ 3 billion mile, 9 1/2 year journey to Pluto!  MPBN and Runner’s World, among other sources, covered the event in detail. Using running to inspire community, education, and dialogue, Graves and McCartney’s project struck me an important reminder of why collaborative, cross disciplinary work can be so effective. It was time for Rebecca and I to head to Presque Isle for Julie’s exhibit, but before we could get out the door, Kate mentioned the Can-Am Crown, a 250 mile dog sled race that would start in Ft. Kent the next morning. Since the race would occur along the border, and I wanted to consider how the rules of the border are contextual, I determined we’d add that to the plan…that I’d continue to let each new story and question lead the journey.

jpsantosJulie’s exhibit was powerful, based on Borges’ “The Library of Babel.” I’ve loved Borges since I read Labyrinths in college, so this seemed another appropriate coincidence.  Julie’s work powerfully inspects language and meaning, storytelling and the experience of the body, the cerebral and the sensual, what is known and unknown (and the mysterious space in between). Truly multi-disciplinary, the exhibit incorporated text, performance, sculpture, and collaborative engagement, and provided another point of inspiration for my own project, particularly in thinking about how I would eventually represent my experiences in the form of art objects.

At dinner after the exhibit, I learned that Ron’s parents had come across the border in mid-April in the 1930s because Ron’s uncle had promised them work in CT. The couple walked across the river in water up to their knees, among ice flows. I thought back to my run in Van Buren–it’s a long walk across the water, and it must have been incredibly stressful. As Ron said, they were running “away from their lives” and toward the possibility of work. There were many Canadian immigrants coming to the United States in the early 20th century, largely because of a complex mix of economic and social factors, and the difficult balance of agriculture and industry in the two countries that lasted through the two World Wars and depression, until the explosion of new industry in the mid-twentieth century. The tense post-war relationship between Canada and Great Britain also contributed to a period of instability and high unemployment, and affected the emigration numbers.

Ron went on to say that his parents had come to the States wanting to farm, but that his father had ended up working in the logging industry, and after years of moving through different kinds of work, and back and forth between Canada and the States, he attained US citizenship and developed a successful career in the electrical business. In the midst of these experiences, Ron was born in Caribou, Maine, as an only child. As the evening wore on and more wine was poured, everyone around the table began to jump into the conversation, and we began talking about boundaries and edges in the abstract. Ron made the point that everything happens on the edges of things, and we talked about the nature of language and its relationship to borders and edges (the whole family is still bilingual in French and English). Julie mentioned port cities as centers of complex, important content because of their status as edges. Rebecca brought up the magic of nature–how where land meets the sea, nature’s dialogue is at its most rich, active, and magical. By the end of the meal, I was exhausted and amazed at what can emerge out of the simple structure of gathering a group of people together around a story.

The next morning Rebecca and I were tempted to call the adventure quits, but the possibility of seeing the dog sledding was too enticing. I wanted to explore the idea that depending on context, a border is more or less permeable. We spent the morning enjoying the dogs and their courageous mushers, and hit the road when the parade of vintage snowmobiles started spewing smoke. The parade was a high point for the crowd and the big cameras started coming out as the older rigs went by! The smell of a Skidoo always brings back memories of my childhood in the dairy farming culture of Northern Vermont, but my creative head was already over full, and it was time to head South and sift through everything we’d experienced.

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What If?

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November 14, 2015, the day after the terrorist attacks, Paris was locked down. I was sequestered in the Hotel Henriette, tracking the unfolding events on TV. Throughout the day, details of the attacks slowly emerged, with updates about the ongoing hunt for the remaining terrorists, and warnings about the threats in the metro and at tourist sites. Eventually, the news came out that French President, Francois Hollande, would be closing the borders of France in order to block the passage of violent extremists in or out. It didn’t occur to me at the time that closing the borders to a country in the European Union, which no longer maintains borders or border checks as it used to, would actually have been impossible to undertake that quickly, but at the time, I was struck by the narrow vision of that decision and the catastrophic effect it would have on refugees from Syria and Iraq. The news got me riled up, and since I couldn’t go into the city, I started writing.

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Luxembourg Gardens

On November 13th, the day of the attacks, my mother and I were wandering Paris. That morning, I’d run from our hotel around the Luxembourg Gardens and back. In the afternoon, wanting to explore a bit further afield, we walked northwest from the Seine up the Rue de Turbigo toward the Place de la République. About a block from the square, tired from a long day of exploring, we started looking for a café. We were disoriented, so I turned on my Endomondo app so we could track our route and get our bearings. We turned down the Rue du Temple, heading back toward the river and away from the events that would unfold.

Sitting in the hotel watching the news the next day, it was impossible not to think about Bataclanwhat might have happened if we’d gotten tired ten minutes later, or if I’d seen the marquis at the Bataclan and realized that the Eagles of Death Metal were playing (I’ve wanted to see them live for years and wouldn’t have missed it if I’d known). But I wasn’t there, and to fret about what if feels self-indulgent in the face of the hundreds of people who did stop for a glass of wine, or did see the marquis, and who were either killed or lived through horrors I can’t imagine. Nevertheless, the memory of that walk keeps showing up for me, and I’ve drawn the Endomondo map many times, incorporating it into multiple drawings–the simply looping line of our Paris walk signifying an unknowing turn away from horror.

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Paris II, 22″ x 30″, mixed media drawing (all lines represent movement through the city, and the dotted line is the “simply looping line” referred to above).

I wrote all day and into the night at the Hotel Henriette, and at midnight I submitted a grant Henrietteapplication. It seemed clear that my previous studio work focusing on the borders and boundaries of farms and watersheds would shift to a consideration of national borders. A month after my return to the States, I learned that I’d received a Kindling Grant through the Andy Warhol Foundation, to support my Tracking the Border project.  Throughout 2016, I’ll be exploring the 611 miles that represent the Canada/U.S. border in Maine. Dialogue and collaboration are the heart of this work, and in the conversations I’ve had so far, it’s evident that getting to know the border intimately requires following the unexpected narratives that come at me. Every conversation has led to another, and to a new location to explore. I’m beelining toward different sections of the border, finding conversations and exploring the dividing line on foot, by boat, by snowmobile, and more. The definition of a border varies dramatically based on each person’s perspective, and I’ll be blogging the insights and stories that emerge out of my conversations with a geologist, a native Passamaquoddy, a forester, and a border patrol officer, among the many other rippling conversations that are expanding my understanding of what defines, and disrupts, a border.

This post launches the written component of Tracking the Border, and I’ve decided to start at the chronological beginning, in Paris, since that was the point of the work’s genesis. Though I am interested in framing the ways that a border is sometimes a construct, the work for Tracking the Border is not overtly political. What brings me back to Paris as the first plot point is a desire to remember the power and narrative that a looping line can hold.

Before leaving Paris, I went to the sites of the attacks to pay my respects. I’ll close with those images, and will be back soon to share a bit about my first adventure to Ft. Kent, Maine.Cafe

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