Bake their Faces in the Oven, Harvest Moonlight from the Kitchen Floor
Phoetry: Bake their Faces in the Oven, Harvest Moonlight from the Kitchen Floor
Photography by Marcelles Murdock
Essay and Fiber Art by Nicelle Davis
When pursuing the writing life, how far should an artist-parent drag their child along that wild and often rugged road? I don’t know. I don’t. I know I have a kid, and that I have a need to create. I know I love both, but what cost is each one to the other? In many ways love is the divide—the line that makes gamblers or cowards of us. We walk a narrow path with possible destruction on either side in hope of maintaining our domestic-life and our life-as-artist. Yes, the two lives are different; however, if we are lucky the two converge and the world of parenthood and childhood become one.
When my father took the bet and became a full-time artist—choosing to be a ceramist and sculptor after years of owning a successful music store and producing rock concerts—my brother and I were teenagers. From the window of our comfortable luxury car, driving through the gated community Twin Peaks, Utah, our neighborhood at the time where people built loft spaces for their dogs, kids received BMWs for their sweet sixteens and indoor and outdoor swimming pools and basketball courts were common house accessories, he pointed towards a broken down truck; I remember him saying, “Well, kids, if I do this, that’s the car we’ll be driving.” Rather naïvely my brother and I chanted, “We don’t care, Dad—follow your dreams,” and other mindless prattle one says when they don’t know any better. The truth is, this world devours dreamers and breakdowns don’t end with our cars—uncertainty bleeds into every aspect of life and can poison us with self-doubt and intense insecurities.
My father is no stranger to risk and uncertainty; he opened his own store at the age of sixteen then sold it at eighteen to begin a career delivering “crates of meat and contracts.” Driving his “company” Cadillac from Ogden, Utah to Las Vegas, he would meet with “businessmen” in parking lots who would take boxed goods, sign papers, and send him on his way. Maybe it is best not to know too much about his phase of his life, but rather is better to note that eventually he thought this was a less than a legitimate venture, and—in the hopes of one day having a home and family—he bought back his original business selling music. My father gambled his way out of abject poverty and won; what was to make him think he couldn’t do it again as an artist?
The road of an artist is often rough; even worse, when that road begins to bottleneck and show signs of an ending, that initial excitement of the unknown turns to fear. After I left my home, my parents went through a series of moves, downgrades I guess you could say, from our hilltop home where I grew up. I remember one year, trying to return home from L.A. and spend Christmas with my family only to realize I didn’t know where my parents were currently living. My parents presently rent a little apartment near a ceramics studio where my father rents a room and kiln. They travel the U.S. selling my father’s work at art festivals; my father has won awards and prizes, but nothing that might afford him any long term comforts. Often, to make travel affordable, my parents sleep in the nearly broken down van they came in. I think, when they are in the heat of the journey, they are happy; but they return to constant worry over how to make the rent. My father faces a future without stability; he doesn’t always bear this burden well. It doesn’t help that there is a roar of voices ready “to tell him so,” and accuse him of choosing his troubles—but my dad didn’t choose poverty, not really. He acknowledged the possibility of being broke, but he thought he could out-craft disaster. It isn’t his fault that while the world appreciates art, it rarely values it. The generation who was taught to live for American dreams now must face the roadblock of internal and external limitations. By extension we, their children, are made acutely aware of the dangers of dreaming. It’s one thing to see a car break down, it’s an entirely different thing to watch a loved one’s hard fight to keep going.
Even more upsetting than my father’s situation is watching my young students walk with this same weight and worry upon them. They fear the future so much that they don’t delight at uncertainty. They, in fact, take drastic measures to avoid it. They cling to career tracks and test scores; the more defined their lives, the better. But I catch them dreaming—watch them try to hide how much they love music, painting, theater—those things that pay nothing and therefore must be worth nothing. Sometimes, in moments of bravery and desperation, my students will ask: Where is the map to guide a creative person to happy and prosperous existence?
Eh…? Well kids… ah?
When I was a 27-year-old graduate at the University of California, Riverside in 2008, I turned to poet and teacher Juan Felipe Herrera for advice. I’d just had my son and was in the throes of the baby blues (if not postpartum depression); my question and timing were inappropriate, even unfair. But these are the kind of questions we bring to our heroes—those who seem to have mastered the art of being artists. Truth is, there is no mastery of anything—there is just wilderness amongst wilderness. What makes a person a lifelong artist isn’t necessarily success, but a tenacity and determination to face the unknown while knowing that it could come to nothing—nothing. Teaching has taught me there are things beyond teaching. I asked Juan Felipe for the impossible, and I’ll never forget how he tried to meet me halfway. I asked him to show me the road; show it to me and I’ll walk it—I’ll walk it no matter how difficult. What could he say to that—to me, so full of fear and hope? He was slow to respond, but finally he told me to spend more time watching babies learn to walk. Then he reluctantly admitted, “There is no road.” I left his office in tears—not that easy sort of aching, but the sort of sobbing that feels like looking into a fire, a blinding sort of cry.
Finally, I came to with the realization that every artist makes their own road. That road (for me) is defined by fire. On one side there is a rage that runs hot and steady and is fueled by a frustration at how the world discounts the dreams of those who came before—on the other side of me is a stream of heat that sparks with the friction of how the dreams of those to come are being squelched by convention.
I guess not feeling bad is the new feeling good. Because of this, uncertainty has become a diseased word; something to avoid at any cost. But we are biological creatures, made for fever. Fever is its own sort of transcendent fire—full of visions and dreams—a humbling experiences that helps us understand our place in the world—a grand adventure where all is seemingly out of our control—a fun and wild ride—unless it’s your kid who is sick. Once your child is ill, uncertainty quickly loses its appeal. The first time my son had a fever I would have traded every word in the dictionary for his comfort, but there were no words that could help him, there was only the long and uncertain night. That night I didn’t give a damn for books and art—I only wanted to keep his perfect moon-shaped face safe. This is to say: I understand why people give up the writer’s life—the artist’s life. We all want is what we love to be safe, even at the cost of our own dreams. It’s difficult. For love, we’re becoming increasingly at risk of eliminating risk from our culture.
Risk is another word laden with negative connotations. I’ve spent most of my life working with “at-risk youth.” At risk of what? I often find that the only thing at risk is social conventions. Some of these kids having nothing to lose which is unheard of in the mythos of America, yet this social freakishness makes them perfect candidates for the writer’s life. But they are street smart not book smart, and it is difficult to have either side recognize the value of the other. And here again I feel both sides of my path heat up—that hot anger over a lack of understanding. When I dream, I dream of reaching my hands in opposite directions, of letting the fires of both sides consume me—to be a bridge of light. But I don’t have time to catch on fire; I have a little boy to feed—his dreams to protect. As much as I want to keep him safe, I do hope my son takes risks—that he dreams—he shines in his own invented way. My son, who comes from a “broken family,” is at risk—like my students. Just as I keep high hopes for my students, I hope being “at risk” gives my son the ability to risk more—though I know this might mean catastrophe. At least, I tell myself, it will be their catastrophe, rather than the predictions others have put upon them.
So, what can I say? I’m a romantic who knows better. At best, I’ve glossed over many complications regarding art, uncertainty, and risk in order to allow for the existence of a writing life—in other words, I’ve lied to myself. At worst, I’ve lied to you, my students, and my son—there might be no room for the artist. I’ll risk being my worst if it means some kid gets to do what they love—to be as they identify—even if it leads to nothing. Don’t think I don’t know how ugly the end can be; I’ve seen it—it can be devoid of all grace and yet: I can’t seem to stop myself from walking that road—from bringing my son along for the ride.
I can see my road and it leads nowhere—I’ll take my son with me until we come to that crossroads where his own path is formed by whatever internal forces guide him. I can only hope that when the time comes and he asks out bravery and desperation for guidance, that the person he turns to will be honest enough to tell him: there is no road other than the one he makes for himself. I hope he walks it, no matter how freakish, despite the stride of his freakish mother.
Recently I presented a preview of my novel-in-poems In the Circus of You at an L.A. salon. This book has several characters based on historical accounts of sideshow freaks. These “freaks” help the protagonist deal with her issues of being “other.” The sideshows are patient with her gross acts of appropriation, but eventually they demand to be set free—for her to go free and create her own existence—to make her own road. During the Q&A, an audience member asked if I am a freak. I explained there are many forms of “freak” and while I’m not all freaks, yes (trying to keep things simple), I am a freak. His follow-up question was, “how do you hide this from your son?” I was quick to respond, “I don’t.”
The automatic response to this question surprised me because I’ve suffered for years with how to protect my son from me, his mother. I would like to keep what I love safe. Maybe that explains why I make casts of my students’ faces, hands, and feet? (I know, freaky.) Please, let me try to explain. As a maker, it is important to me to turn impulse into artifact, to act out and face what scares me—what I fear most is harm coming to those I love. So I can’t keep them all safe; I can’t protect my students from heartache and failure—I can’t stop my son from getting ill. But with art, I can keep the image of them safe—wear who I love with pride—physically acknowledge all who have made me. It’s only when I’m making art that I can resolve the past and the future—that I can feel both hands in the flames that guide me and an illumination from their meeting. What once felt like rage turns to hope—only when I’m making. Even better is when I’m making with my son.
Let me try to better explain the process: I have my student hold their faces, hands, or feet in a pie tin filled with plaster of Paris. I learned to make casts by working on molds my father; I catch myself sounding uncannily like him as I warned my students, it’s going to get hot, but, most likely, it won’t burn you. Using plaster of Paris casts, I pour a mixture of glue, latex, and glitter to create replicas of their faces, hands, feet. Yeah, it’s a little creepy, but the result is something oddly lovely; I end up with a fabric that resembles sheets of plastic. This material holds light well—as if there is a fire burning within the replicas. I then assemble the entire piece into one mask—a face of many people. Sure, it’s freakish, but the students seem to like it—it gives them a physical sense of being remembered—of lasting—which is the comfort of art. The work is brittle, so to increase its permanence I asked my dear and talented friend Marcelles Murdock to take pictures of it.
For the photo shoot, I wanted to make a dress to match the mask, and so poured this same mixture of glue, latex, and glitter across my entire kitchen floor. (We are talking six gallons of Elmer’s glue all over my floor.) My son and I had to eat out for three weeks while we waited for it to dry. I felt terrible, imagining all the awful things he must think of his crazy (freakish, even) mother. But when it came time to peel the strips from the floor, and the light caught just right on the material, my son turned and said to me, “Mom, we are harvesting moonlight—we are harvesters of light.”
I have no way of knowing if he will always think of our time together with the same amount of poetry. Because the world rarely monetarily values poetry, I assume my son (who likes to be right and the world to be defined) will soon abandon his job as a light harvester; soon he may think of his mother not as an artist, but a freak. I don’t know. What I do know is there are moments when life and art intersect—when watching babies learn to walk meets the honor we hope to pay those who came before us; there are times when the two sides of my anger and anxiety over the past and present unite to create a light that cannot burn—only illuminate. I see my father in me and myself in my son; we are the convergence of all we have known and loved—art helps me see this. It remains uncertain if the world will ever give value to art—that artists will be paid for their efforts of exploration—that my father will ever know his “worth” or my son will ever be proud of what his mother creates. I do know that I have a dress made from those I have loved—and the pictures that document this effort to love—dare I say it—make something beautiful—an image that shows how to harvest moonlight from our bodies. Isn’t that worth walking the wild line of uncertainty?
Marcelles Murdock is a Californian artist with a love for analog photography and a great desire to expand into the world of instillation art. When set free from the confines of the daily grind, Marcelles enjoys exploring the the beautiful desert valleys and mountains that surround his home. Although his artistic endeavors grow at a sluggish pace, he revels the sublimin the idea of all the beautiful earthen creations he and his friends create.
Nicelle Davis is a California poet, collaborator, and performance artist who walks the desert with her son J.J. in search of owl pellets and rattlesnake skins. Her most recent collection, The Walled Wife, will be available from Red Hen Press in April 2016. In the Circus of You is available from Rose Metal Press. She is the author of two other books of poetry, Becoming Judas, available from Red Hen Press and Circe, from Lowbrow Press. Her poetry-film collaborations with Cheryl Gross have been shown across the world.
Originally Publishes at LunaLuna