So, I stood there, in the workshop in North Branch, and like a dope, I said, "Sure, I'll have work ready for that show in April."
"In fact," I went on, "I'll have three pieces..."
The show in question will be in Teaneck NJ, and it's featuring works of the group with whom I'm spending as many Sundays as possible -- the Combat Paper project. April 21st is the opening for the exhibit. I'll be there earlier, to help with installation. But, as of now, I have exactly zero work of my own to contribute. Zero. As in, nothing. Not a single thing. Zip.
We'll leave the question of why I would make such an outrageous declaration for later. Right now, I want to lay out the challenge as it currently appears to me. You, poor reader, may go slowly out of your mind, but remember, you can always just switch off your computer, or go have a cheeseburger. Lucky you. I'll be wrestling with this, whether you're paying attention or not. Lucky you.
My original idea was to find some of the blown glass pieces I made, during my second residency at Wheaton Village and the Creative Glass Center of America. This particular period of artistic isolation happened to begin on Sept. 11, 2001, and while the other artist-in-residence and I were being filled in on when to put out our recyclables, someone came into the conference room and mentioned that a small plane had hit the World Trade Center. Things quickly went downhill from there.
Beth, my co-resident, managed to leave Millville for her newly-wed husband and their home in New Hampshire, getting on the road early enough to avoid the turnpike shut-downs that followed. I was left by myself, in the house residents shared, sitting in front of the TV set. I wanted to turn it off, but the local workmen, who were repairing the washing machine in the basement, and painting the stairwell, wanted to watch the world collapse while they worked. So I sat, watching the world collapse. The next day, I managed to rent a van, and got myself back to Jersey City (towers, not of steel, but of smoke, marking the city horizon as I came north over the hills), to pick up John and his harp and bring them to Millville with me for a week.
But I still had to work. I still had to make glass. It just seemed so stupid. But I had to do it, because... that was why I was there. Plus, we had a new tankful of wonderful white glass, and it would be a crime to let that go to waste. So I started, and made very small pieces -- little white glass objects you could fit into the pocket of a good winter coat. And these white things had patches of red or black on them, and little 'X' marks, made of strips of fiberglass cloth. Like bandages. Over and over, I made these little things.
Now, eleven years later, I thought I would dig out those little forms, and create some sort of uniform-like covering for them, from the Combat Paper. Uniform to paper to uniform -- the cycle continues, I thought. Knowing all the while, of course, that I really shouldn't think about my art at all.
But of course, as with so many other things in my life -- a pair of jeans? A tool? A box of books? A copy of my grad school thesis? -- I can't find those little glass things. Who knows where they are? In the garage? In the Newark studio? Still hidden under a tarp in the driveway for these two years? I've already searched the basement, with no luck. I might be able to wrench myself from the house, and make a stab at finding these evasive things in the space on Emmet St. But I don't hold out much hope.
Besides, I think this is a bad idea. Like most of my ideas.
What I have managed to do though, that seems to be somewhat promising, is to play with the expandable foam that lots of artists have been using for years now, but which I've only just recently allowed myself to investigate. I've had four or five cans of the stuff for at least a year, as a matter of fact, but in a way, like the food I hoard, this material didn't seem to be for my use, really. Then about ten days ago, I threw caution to the wind, made some loose vessel-like holders for the foam, and just went a little crazy. Filled several small plastic baggies (only to learn that the material needs contact with air in order to cure properly); filled an old sock with a hole in the toe. Cursed and swore, trying to get some foam into an A-shirt that I'd tied off at one end -- as I spurted the foam into the opening, the shirt kept collapsing in on itself, and I didn't want to come into contact with the goo, it being wickedly adhesive. i finally just gave up, grabbed the cloth and tied another knot, and hung the whole mess up, like a new cheese.
The next morning -- voila! A terrible new form had emerged. That underwear thing had swollen to look like the heart of some terrible beast, covered in a crude dirty bandage. I liked it so much, I took it to my Tuesday night critique group, and everyone was a little grossed out, which is the best news possible. Which meant, of course...
Four more cans of foam. A table set up outside, in today's eerily bright sunshine. Swathes of cloth of different sorts, whipping about in the wind. Bits of paper, likewise. Wire and scissors and twine -- the usual conglomeration of tools. I still don't quite understand how much the foam actually expands, so I just used my (poor) judgement, and created another seven or eight shapes, all a bit larger than the one I liked so much from my earlier experiments. They're all hanging in the basement now, to achieve their final hardened shells. By this time next week, I may have no undershirts, but I'm surely going to make some more of these shapes tomorrow. How they're going to relate to Combat Paper, I still have no idea at all.
I do have one notion I think I can pull off. I found, somewhere or other, a heavy woven wire tray, a long low rectangle, maybe 18" by 8", and 3" deep. I'm thinking of filling it with oddments, shrink wrapping it in place, shellacking it, and then applying a layer of paper over it all, using small sheets wired together like an insubstantial skin. With luck, the shellac will seep through the paper, staining it from the back. I may throw some coffee over it all, to make things a little more depressing. Who knows? I want the paper to be both obviously itself, and also to have an active task -- in this case, holding things. Like a uniform does, come to think of it.
This, I'm afraid, will be bad art. The thing I'm most interested in is the self-supporting stand I want to make, to display these oddments. This is likely to make a bigger impact than the objects themselves. I may also want to create a similar stand for the open tray piece, if it works out.
I don't know. Maybe my real interest in the Combat Paper experience is just the sense of purpose (even if, as I've already mentioned, I really feel somewhat ineligible, and alien. A life problem), and the companionship of others whose experiences seem so much more gruesome and wrenching than anything I've ever experienced as an adult. Maybe I just like to be busy with my hands. Maybe I'd really need to have about fifty thousand sheets of paper, instead of fifteen (which still seems like a wealth of material, considering the amount of work going into their creation). Maybe I need to use this next few days, wide with my much-beloved 'unstructured time', and simply (?) potter about like crazy, to see what these materials do, when put into contact with each other. And to see whether, with the experiments barely dry, I can manage to pull things into something that seems to make some sort of gut-level sense.
But beneath this immediate creative quandary in which I find myself, lurks a darker impediment, something ponderous, that makes even walking down the stairs to the work space seem an exertion. And that is the feeling that, in terms that may only make sense to me, my life is in fact already over. That, when I succumbed to the poisonous miasma of academia, I stepped out of the track of usefulness, and that now I'm more or less a relic, hanging around out of sheer animal stupidity and lack of wit. Very little seems to be of much importance to me. I certainly don't harbor the old fantasies that drove me, earlier on (even though, I probably worked harder on failing than I ever did on achieving even modest success); maybe this is why this current experiment -- even with the added incentive of the Combat Paper element -- seems so flat. I feel as though I'm putting myself through some stupid mime exercise, knowing that there'll be no audience to speak of, so it won't really matter if, from time to time, my hand seems to go through the invisible wall.
© 2012 Walter Zimmerman