Honor Diaries

As you know, my current work focuses on violence against women, often in the Middle East. One piece in particular concerns ghastly trials and impressive strength of Afghan Aesha Mohammadzi. Here is a poignant video of the family who took her in and the odds she faced for recovery after in Talibanland her husband and father-in-law cut off her nose and part of her ears: http://nbcnews.to/1kxGXZu

Also there is a new movie Honor Diaries, which is playing in AMC Loews Theater in East Hanover NJ on June 26. Melanie Gorleick of the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking emailed the information. You can follow on Twitter and Facebook. See http://www.honordiaries.com/. Another place to connect about the serve oppression of woman is a helping outreach site: http://www.girlforward.org/.

These small postings may seem like a drop in the bucket but the more rain falls the bucket becomes full.

Detail of Metalsmithing from 2014 Kean University exhibition.

Violence has nothing to do with honor.


Do You Want to Go Against the Grain?

In the book arts you generally don’t want to go against the grain but the point can be made just as well.

I thought I’d allow the exhibition I’ve featured on this blog (It has become known as The Terror Room) a bit of a break. The last post was the most meaningful response to the work; to have someone in painful isolation not feel alone. The entire premise for my thesis began with the book called ‘Invisible.’ I made the first edition at The Women’s Studio Workshop last summer with book artist extraordinaire, Maureen Cummins (http://bit.ly/1iJUTyx). We spoke at length about whether I could create the sense of fear/terror during a rape with book art. Or any art for that matter. I believe it was the ensemble of prints, books and text shown in a small gallery inside the larger rooms that negotiated the beauty of book art with horrific content and imagery. After many objects of beauty on the walls in the rest of the gallery, some of which had existential subtext, the viewers came to the last collection of work unprepared for its intensity. Many found it “unpleasant but could not turn away.” Others said it allowed them to experience the violence; some responded to situations familiar to them as far as sexual abuse in everyday life that resonated. This kind of horror is at the tail end of the female experience. Not every woman has encountered it but far more than you would think have. The book Giant Water Bug has stories lifted from news feeds about such instances around the world. In the end, I can say ‘Mission accomplished.’

The question becomes, “What next?.” Currently, the Center for Book Art in Manhattan is keeping my spirits and skills level buoyant. I began a bookbinding course last night and it is delightful to learn how to do what I, by the seat of my pants, just completed. The goal is to tighten up the skills. Lee Marchalonis, (http://bit.ly/1hTPjc0) a graduate of the legendary University of Iowa Center for the Book, is a wonderful and seasoned teacher. I am also enthralled with the atlas fold techniques taught by Pam Spitzmueller (http://bit.ly/1hXJI0d) at CBA last March. If you are in the area, you will be very pleased with the Center if you decide to take a class.

So much for name dropping. I have a few of atlas books planned for the coming months. (One concerning Ripper women, the other poems of Catallus) I’m not a fast worker since I have other areas of interest where I research and always feel the need to think about things. I’d like to end with this historical film from Oxford University Press to pique your interest. It was made in 1925 to show how books are assembled. After 10 minutes into the man-filled video, women appear at the folding stations. We may still be folding but now many of us make our own books without an institution behinds us by the use of our wits and skills. If you are interested in going against the grain, as it were, and becoming involved in nontraditional fields, you are in good company. If you are like me and enjoy words, think about learning letterpress. This bit of video encouragement was initially seen on a post by http://ladiesofletterpress.com/.

Not Alone

A recent entry into The Price of Freedom book art at Howe Gallery.

A recent entry into The Price of Freedom book art at Howe Gallery.

The responses left in The Price of Freedom book, which encapsulate the body of work as a whole excites and encourages me to continue. This latest entry is especially heartfelt since it reflects the truth about violence against women. You feel completely alone. If my work reaches one person so they know that there are others out there whose life changes immeasurably because of rape or any other abuse, success walks with me.
Write anonymously about rape and sexual assault on http://brokennarratives.tumblr.com/.

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


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.


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.

Wax Ear & Brass Nose

Beautiful, chained but now free. That's the Aesha I made art for.

Beautiful, chained but now free. That’s that the Aesha I made art for.

Part of an installation concerning Aesha Mohammadzai

Part of an installation concerning Aesha Mohammadzai

As you can read on the image from yesterday’s post, Afghani woman Aesha Mohammadzai had her nose and ears cut off by her father-in-law after she was released from a Taliban jail. She spent five months there because she wanted to leave her husband. This installation was created for a masters thesis at Kean University. There are five 10 x 13 inch sheets of Chinese hemp paper I made from hemp Jim Croft had cooked with wood ash and water in a large cauldron outside his Idaho home. At that time neither of us knew where the pulp we processed would end up. The hemp fiber was sun dried for a week and my portion came back east where it was beat at Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale New York the following March. I pressed the sheets there and took them home to New Jersey. It wasn’t until after I cast a brass nose in Jen Crupi’s metals studio at Kean University and made a wax cast of my ear (that’s how the nose was made; through lost wax process poured with ancient brass in a centrifuge machine. The mold was made from dental putty.) to accompany it that the project began to evolve. I wanted to cast a nose ever since I saw a post by Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris otherwise known on Twitter as @ChirurgeonsAppr on her website: http://thechirurgeonsapprentice.com/2013/02/14/syphilis-a-love-story/. My interest in medical history merged with trauma and connection.
The final result of hanging hemp paper referenced Most Wanted posters as well as the Shroud of Turin. I wanted a kind of shrine for Aesha since her bravery is astounding. I printed an image of her face sans nose in gray ink through an intaglio method. I rusted iron nails over 9 months and used them in five perforated holes to hang across the wall where the book stood on a pedestal. The text and images in the resulting book were also photo intaglio. These were the processes available to me so that is what I used. Within the book are comments she made in various newspaper articles. After a long and painful process, Aesha recieved a new nose that was created through intensive constructive surgery. Her most powerful message was, “I want to tell all women who are suffering abuse to be strong. Never give up and don’t lose hope.” Parts of the story can read here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2323274/Aesha-Mohammadzai-Fearless-Time-cover-girl-Aesha-just-MONTHS-away-getting-new-nose-mutilated-Taliban-husband.html and here: https://uk.news.yahoo.com/bibi-aisha-afghanistan-woman-nose-and-ears-cut-off-reconstructive-surgery-102835830.html#3csOLXE (Note: This is not for the sqeamish).
The wonder of the Internet is that all of these seemingly diverse connections can converge to make a statement that draws them together in passion, compassion and the creative spirit. Perhaps Aesha received so much attention because she is beautiful. Many of the women on the page I mentioned in an earlier post were not. Sometimes this is how people are drawn into a heinous scenario. I made the artwork luxurious to get people to look at it. Once they were in, the fearful reality of the pieces made itself known. Fold out pages allowed viewers to write their reactions. It is marvelous to see the comments multiply over time. If at least one person gave thought to what I presented, then my act of art was successful.
Viewers responded to the art within the art book itself becoming part of the piece.

Viewers responded to the art within the art book itself becoming part of the piece.

Violence Against Women in Art

A blind embossed page from a book on my own rape

A blind embossed page from a book on my own rape

While researching material for my masters thesis, I came across some of the most disturbing images I have ever seen. Oddly enough when I mis-Googled ‘violence against’ instead of VAW, I was connected with images of women across the world who were disfigured in one ghastly way or another. I was particularly struck by women who had their nose and ears cut off by their in-laws of husbands for trying to leave them. While on a particularly hard to digest page of outrageous pain, there was a split second where the look in one of the women’s eyes shook me to the core. I recognized myself in those eyes. The reflection of the brutally raped women that was me in 1996 a few months after I finished a 5-year undergraduate degree in architecture with honors and had one week before received the job of my choice at a large architectural firm in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I left the page quickly to remove this from my mind. A few days later, I decided that this was, after all, the nature of said thesis and I would get point blank real in an at once luxurious but biting way. Creating work of beauty that I am inclined to do but leaving a hard narrative of truths most people want to ignore became the goal. I used these other women’s incidents because I myself got through a violent attack that almost killed me by putting it on a global scale. When the darkness of pain and isolation directed me toward the bad end of the only two roads possible to take after such a crisis held my head down I was able to lift it back up. By knowing there was larger traumas out in the world that women were surviving so could I.

Interior of book art from exhibition

Interior of book art from exhibition

The exhibition was a success, and in one of the books I made, I left blank pages that unfurled so that viewers could write reactions. it was the most encouraging thing I could have done since I found out first hand that many were moved by the various narratives: my own and that of women in the world. Since I am at a library computer I cannot upload more photos than I have with me and for my next post I want to talk about someone who became a focal point for my exhibition: Aesha Mohammadzai.