Tackling Trauma with Art

Next Saturday, I’ll be speaking at Kean University about the work in my exhibition conceived and connected with the realities of violence against women. I have included my words for anyone interested:

Chines hemp

Chinese hemp paper

prah

Paper made with phragmites, abaca, clay and gelatin.

This body of work began with a fundamental element of civilization. That element is paper. Making paper was pivotal in feeling that there was something to be said with the artwork, the right medium for an ex-journalist/artist to manipulate.

Initially the cook in me responded to fiber such as kozo that requires a strenuous series of acts to prepare it for a machine called a Hollander. It beats it into pulp that is then formed in a mold and deckle. But paper is more than the making of it. It has an almost magical ability to transform itself with the help of a great deal of water and the chemical structure of cellulose.

I am passing around three types of paper made and used in this exhibition composed of Chinese hemp, tamale corn husks, and phragmites from the Meadowlands in Kearny: very individual paper that differs not only because of these separate products but because of different additives, Hollander heights and beating times. All this complication achieved something that presented another aspect of civilization: Violence Against Women – a reality older than paper.

The book called “Invisible” began as a prototype. Since the narrative about my brush with death during a rape (in 1996 when a man stabbed and nearly strangled me to death) was important I felt it needed a treatment to raise the bar of accomplishment.

Firstly, I made many images by covering my fingertips in black ink wash, conjuring up how I felt about the rape, hitting the paper with force. This allowed vehement splashes and imprints suggesting the moment. Later I picked one and made it into a transfer – a Photoshopped image printed with black toner on acetate exposed for the silkscreen process. Consistency makes for a proper edition. Black Chinese silk, a luxurious book cloth, graces the front and back cover.

I worked in three studios: Kean, Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale and the Center for Book Arts, the two latter in New York. The front side of the accordion fold has red ink letterpress text along the bottom of the page giving the gist of what I call the big media the event. Blind embossed text (without ink on the metal type) appears on the back side of the book; understated but not lesser sexual violence that does not make the news. A stiff leaf binding gives the book its structural strength.

Since this was not an easy story to bring to the page, making all these elements work was an improbable undertaking. The title was hot stamped by a professional and now friend at CBA, Biruta Auna. The endeavor involved a widening series of cohorts. If it was not for these connections and the funding and physical space from Kean University, it would never be realized. Instead of a book, this is an arsenal of voices, voices that ebbed and flowed during the book’s progress.

Art has an extraordinary ability to transcend trauma and leave a thing of beauty in place of its terribleness. Book art is where we, the people, have our say. The book is not dead as so many will tell you with electronic medium taking full force. It is a malleable combination of things that work in concert with the times. It was the electronic medium of the Internet that lead me to Aesha Mohammadzai’s story. Her face and that of many other women appeared in Google images when I missed the last word and typed only “violence against.” I came to an unspeakable page; one I could not digest myself since I saw in her eyes my own forgotten look of terror. But come back to it I must, and that is how the two other books evolved; through pain and interest, through wariness and idea.

The idea for bosses as you see in “The Price of Freedom” came from a small education in medieval manuscript covers from my Twitter account. Scholars of the book and time period posted links to digitized collections. You can see the first boss I made yourself to know how these things begin, what they look like in the raw.

boss

Brass boss before polishing

My life as a practicing artist/writer comes to fruition in this work. The notion of metaphor used in GWB (that’s not George Washington Bridge or George W. Bush) but Giant Water Bugs came from reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book of biological intensity that creates images from words unlike any other work I know of. The link was immediate when she describes how the insect dissolves and sucks life from its prey leaving only the skin intact. A woman raped, disfigured or assaulted in any violent way becomes a creature whose body you can see but whose interior life disappears in a vortex. Invisibility persists because no one wants to talk about it. They want you to forget. My family has ever uttered the word “rape.” I have said it many times but there has been no discussion and little acknowledgement. Such is the taboo. A fierce piece of history becomes a part of you. It is generally incomprehensible except, in my case, to law enforcement or veterans of combat. They understand the nature of violence in a decidedly different way but a common ground generates that is not found in polite conversation.

These are some my reasons and methods for creating the work you see in the James Howe Gallery. I hope you will pick up the books and read them. You may even engage with The Price of Freedom book as others did by writing your comments on the pages that fold out. No one may ever see this work again but those who have left their messages will travel with me where ever I go. They will attest to the fact that we lived and met here under the circumstances of life and art.

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