Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Not too long ago I didn’t want anything in my life that wasn’t created by me or the people I’d chosen around me. When I went back to visit my father before he died, I realized oh, these stuffed animals I had as a kid, they make me feel light and joyful, sad too but also bright and filled with possibility. So I took them with me, or asked my mother to send them, and she eventually did. My high school yearbook and literary magazine too -- I was the editor of the yearbook and coeditor of the literary magazine, but I’m not sure I wanted either near me before then. Also, some of the seashells I used to arrange in the bathrooms of the house where I grew up, a clay bird I bought in Mexico as a teenager, a glass panda from a relative I only remember seeing once.

Before then, I asked my grandmother to send me some of her collages -- I’d always loved her art, but wasn’t sure whether it would just make me sad to look at it on my walls, trapped. Sad that she could make this beautiful work, but refused to try to understand mine. Trapped by childhood when everything was a trap. But actually the art made me happy, I could stare at it and just imagine, kind of like a kid I guess, which is maybe what I like about all of this.

Now I have so much more -- all these things I’ve accumulated from my grandmother’s house -- tons of her art now -- a few oil paintings, lots of collages and several handmade paperworks, even a few sculptures she made at one point. Lots of the minerals she used to display around her house, the minerals that inspired her in her artwork, she would study the patterns and color combinations. Now I do. I even have her metal tic-tac-toe set, colored plastic blocks, small tables she collaged, dishes from her kitchen, drinking glasses, silverware, towels. All of these things are beautiful and inspiring, or at least practical, but they also make me feel a bit self-conscious, like where did I get all this? With the art I wanted to make sure that I had pieces from as many periods of her work as possible, I value her work in this way, the history, and mostly these are small pieces, the larger ones are in the University of Maryland collection or in storage near my mother’s house or sold for nothing by my mother at auction. Sometimes I actually want more of this work, just to preserve it. This feels important to me, but also in my self-conscious moments I wonder what people think about these things arranged in my apartment, beautiful things that relate to me but came from someone else. What does that mean about me, about my history, about my sense of vision and beauty?

I arrange these things, and rearrange them, trying to find the perfect place for everything. Like my grandmother, I guess. Although she would never hang art on a purple or pink or green wall, only neutrals she believed. She would never put several pieces right next to one another, contrasting in the way that I love. But now I have all these things -- artwork from a few of her friends too, and from a student of hers too, photos of my father from high school, the list he made of all his bar mitzvah presents. This stuff about my father, or from my father, that I keep away from direct view, but I’m sure I’ll want to look at it at some point -- for a different reason, nothing about my father feels comforting, just jarring. Sometimes jarring is important too.

I wonder about this space I’m creating with all my grandmother’s things around, this space that I already love and I’m sure she would see my apartment as cluttered, even now when it’s barely arranged. She would never range contrasting thrift store sofas or chairs together at one table, or laminate photos or propaganda and put them all together on one wall, my art, and I don’t know exactly what any of this means. Kind of like when I look out my window and there’s some guy walking around in a tank top. It’s 30 degrees out, and he’s hot! I mean he is hot, but that’s not the point.

Or, not like that. I’m looking out the window at details. My grandmother liked details too, sometimes she only liked details, the ones she could create on a canvas, control. If she could’ve arranged all of us, well then I’m certain she would have. You too, even. She hated this piece of assemblage art made by one of her students, 1967, a threatening hairbrush, bristles destroyed, facing us. Surrounded by broken machine parts, all painted hues of black and brown and gray. Early feminist art, I would say. I always loved it. My grandmother hated it, but kept it on a wall in the hallway of her basement, where I would look at it. She must’ve liked the student. Now that piece is here on my wall next to a silkscreened mirror art piece by a friend of mine in San Francisco, white and red images of ODYSSEY and that first space flight, James Brown behind bars, one of those vans people would drive around and live in, maybe a Gulfstream? Airstream? Something like that. Both pieces reflect that same time period, actually, and it reflects out at us from the purple wall.

I think the next piece to go up on that wall will be a black-and-white drawing by my grandmother from around that time period too, maybe earlier, a gold frame. My grandmother would never use a gold frame. I mean she framed it that way, but when? 1958 it says at the bottom. It looks great, actually, but if my grandmother were going to put it up anytime in the last 20 or 30 years, she would’ve had it reframed for sure. I love the way the painted gold frame will reflect one of the images from the mirror.

My parents only trusted one person to decorate their house, and that was my grandmother. Although as a kid sometimes I was allowed to make additions, adjustments -- everyone always said I had my grandmother’s eye, and maybe that’s what made her so resentful of me later. I mean that it wasn’t her eyes I was looking through. As a kid I saw so much through her eyes, but as an adult all she gave me was judgment and betrayal, she showed me the way someone so enthralled by dreaming could still refuse to allow her grandchild, me, to dream in my own way. To challenge her dreams, which I realized still centered around upper middle-class attainment, status, respectability -- all the things I hated. Especially her dreams for me -- she could choose freedom, but here I was the overachiever high school student ready to outdo all of them, and she resented me so much for refusing the whole package, creating my own way outside of their norms. What does this mean, then, to display her creations in my house, what does this mean for our relationship? What does this mean for me, and my relationship to the world? I’m asking these big questions because I’m asking these big questions.

But when I feel self-conscious maybe that’s part of it -- that upper middle-class attainment that I learned as a child meant an interior death, a legacy of abuse, a propensity to hide it, to hide everything except that veneer of success and keep moving, keep moving up. So I wonder if, when I’m hanging this art I’m participating in that illusion. I do have a certain kind of stability now that I haven’t had before, financial stability, because of my grandmother’s death and what she left to me. How do I make sure that kind of stability doesn’t lead to the violence I grew up with, the violence my grandmother could never leave, even as she arranged and rearranged her beautiful art? In my own arranging, what more can I rearrange?


kayti said...

I hope this new stability makes you less vulnerable to your mothers abuse.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Well, I'll admit I'm still waiting on much of this new stability, so it's still in my mother's hands at this point, oh my!

Love --