Categories
Voices

A Fool’s Errand

by Sophie Jones | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Bridget Conway

Carol was beaten to death in her house at the edge of my hometown. There, the developments disintegrate into desert; empty lots and unpaved roads melt into furrows of granite, cheatgrass and manzanita creep back over property lines. When I was little, my dad and I often went exploring in the scrubby dells behind Carol’s neighborhood, tearing the surveyors’ tape off ponderosa branches and pulling their stakes out of crumbly soil. The small-town cops found her body tucked halfway beneath a tipped-over bookcase, as if there by accident. She was wearing a lavender camisole; she had eaten a salad for dinner.

Did my mom and dad sit me down to tell me about her murder, as they’d done with the other things parents are obliged to explain to their children; death of other kinds, divorce, sex? I lingered after dinner to hear the adults speculate, gleaning what I could before my mom ushered me away. I learned how to avoid the topic with her, how to pursue it with my dad. Alone in the privacy of traffic, riding in the front seat—a novel, grownup realm to which I had only just gained access—I calculated the right moment to turn down the radio and ask him a leading question.

Carol’s killer left no fingerprints, no DNA. No murder weapon was ever recovered.

The story of the murder is a good one; now, I tell it at parties. It is scandalous without reflecting too badly on me or my family, depending on which details I choose to share or withhold. Sometimes my delivery is too glib. I am too familiar with the facts of the case, or else in an attempt to prove detachment––from my hometown, my parents, the murderer, the victim––I let too much slip too casually. Both listener and storyteller find themselves too close to the crime to justify morbid interest any longer. That evening, Carol went for a three- mile run in the half-wilderness beyond her backyard. She texted her daughters, she called her mother. She sustained seven blows to the head. She did not feed her terrier dinner. The small-town cops discovered her corpse, wrapped it in a tarp, and transported it to the city in the back of the coroner’s pickup.

That evening, Carol’s ex-husband Steve went for a long mountain bike ride. He had a spare key to Carol’s house, their daughters’ childhood home. There was a club missing from his golf bag. He owed Carol alimony. There were incriminating Google searches on his computer; Steve claimed he was writing a crime novel.

Good true crime writing maintains distance. The writer must know how to tear some facts from court transcripts and police reports, and how to imagine others out of thin air. They must be able to deftly weigh these against each other so the reader never pauses to wonder how the writer could know such things. The writer must decide which details to include—that Steve’s younger daughter made her father a vegetable stir- fry the night of her mother’s murder—and which to omit—that my father and the murderer learned how to roll a kayak in the brick-red spring runoff of the Pariah River their freshman year of college; that the two remained best friends for twenty years until a final rift a few years prior to the murder.

Then, there are details about the case that I’ve almost certainly made up: that Steve entered the house before Carol did and unscrewed all the light bulbs. This can’t be true, because she was home for hours before his arrival. I must have read that somewhere else, about someone else.

Writers omit details about the murdered, or else, as readers, we skip over them. They are too frightening and too small. Get too close, and pain ceases to be palatable.

Steve killed Carol in midsummer, in the desert, in the evening. It might still have been light outside when she died. I imagine that Steve and Carol’s two daughters are the same ages as my sister and myself; they are several years older.

After Carol’s death, my dad began a true crime memoir about her murderer. In his writing, my father is a distant narrator; detailed catalogs of Steve’s skillful manipulation of the legal system, the media, his family, friends, and neighbors. His relationship to my father isn’t mentioned. This is true at least for the drafts I was allowed to read.

The true crime author’s authority comes from their closeness to the story. But if the writer neglects to maintain a strategic tension—allows slippage between what is real and what is embellishment, or confuses sordid details with truly sickening ones— they risk losing their reader. The writer is revealed to be a fabulist, or worse, a leech; simultaneously self-serving and -pitying. When the author becomes too close to the story, their credibility is threatened and they become a character themselves.

I was eleven when Carol was killed and seventeen when Steve was sentenced to life for the crime. I went to middle school and high school, and my dad stopped writing his book. A notable true crime author wrote a brick-sized paperback about Carol’s murder; my dad is quoted on the last page. My parents got divorced, and my dad moved back to the town where I was born, the town where Carol died. Like hers, his house is in a peripheral cul-de-sac that meanders into the scrub oak and granite dells, a landscape of eroded pink stone fractured by new construction. The town is bigger than it was when we moved away.

When I visit my hometown, my dad and I still hike in the dells but rarely pull the surveyors’ tape, it’s a fool’s errand– the houses will go up regardless. One late afternoon, halfway up Granite Mountain, my dad pauses in the shade to consider the sheer, patinated cliff face above us. He and Steve used to rappel there, crack climbing up and then lowering each other back down over and over until backing off the precipice was second nature, until the trust was absolute. He points to a jumble of house-size boulders at the base. Steve could easily have clambered to some anonymous crevice and secreted his bloodied clothes away.

I peel off my shoes and socks and swish my feet in the shallows of a dammed reservoir outside of town. I can feel the ominous sucking current of the dam’s spillways. A year after the murder, the city dredged this lake for the missing golf club and found nothing. My dad and I climb to a fire look-out on top of nearby Mingus Mountain. Directly below us, nestled in the ponderosa, a nameless pond shines like a silver dollar. My dad thinks it is more likely Steve disposed of the weapon there.

Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Eva Kocher

interviewed by Bridget Conway | Visual Processes | Spring 2019

Works by Eva Kocher

Bridget Conway for Wilder Voice: Give us a brief introduction to your art. What themes and ideas do you work with? What materials?

Eva Kocher: Since starting at Oberlin, I’ve really been driven by my identity. I have been making work that relates to my Blackness and my struggle to find a place as a biracial person who comes from a displaced Black heritage. But my personal story is what I usually tend to draw my inspiration from. Dealing with these different struggles, I’ve had to find my own voice in art history and I think a lot of when I first started making work I was doing all the photography and making art that spoke to that very explicitly.

In my junior year, I decided that I wanted to take a step back from creating images that felt a little bit too obvious or heavy-handed. I wanted to go back to working with my hands and try to evoke the same sort of visceral reactions that I was trying to do in my photography through physical objects. Finding this abstractness in this relationship to Blackness. When I was first beginning to make work I related it to my history, my Blackness and my identity as a woman of color, specifically a biracial woman, and existing in this world, but also in Oberlin College––I felt like I really needed to prove myself as an artist.

There’s just so much pressure to create work that talks about my identity, so I wanted to step away from that and create work that just spoke to me. I trust that it all has to do with who I am and the experiences that I have, but it isn’t trying to prove anything to anyone else. It’s more about an experience of catharsis for myself, a rebuilding and recontextualization of my history and where I exist in history. I began making more sculptures and, in my junior year, I started working a lot with hair, as you can see here. I am going back to that this year which I’m really excited about. Hair for me has always been this very charged thing.

My mom is African-American, my dad is white, blonde. I always was told that I grew up with “good hair,” that’s just a term that’s used a lot in the Black community. Being biracial, I had looser curls and I was told to love my natural hair. There are all of these ideas of class and gender and femininity wrapped up in hair. My mom has a lot of struggles, a lot of internal conflict. She grew up in an upper-middle-class Black family, so there are all of these things that she hung on to. She was trying to live vicariously through me, her light-skinned biracial daughter. Me and my mom are super close and so I always hung onto every word that she said and I really wanted to always be the best for her. Once I came to college I connected to the Black community here and found myself in that community in a different way––separate from my own family. I was thinking about ways in which I could exert my own autonomy by changing my hairstyles: getting boxed braids and getting extensions with synthetic hair and using that as a way to connect myself to this culture that I was always told I couldn’t be a part of.

My work is very process-based and a lot of the work that I make comes out of a very long contemplative process. Creating work and going through the ritual is doing these certain things which will then ultimately lead to the final production. So, I started off doing a lot of braiding with various materials––I was using a rope, I was using synthetic areas, using real hair and making these long braids. I was doing that because the ritual of braiding felt very important. It felt very connected to this history of braiding in the Black community, which is something I wasn’t really exposed to in the same way that a lot of other Black people were. But not having done that disconnected me from something. I started doing that and was creating a lot of different sculptures with hair. I created a few prints using hair and seeing how I can insert myself this thing that I wasn’t really a part of.

I also did a photography project with my mom during junior year where I had her dress up in different traditional styles, like hairstyles that are a part of Black culture. I had her wear a wig, I had her wear a durag, I had her hair natural, I put a scarf on her head and wrapped her hair, and took these portraits. They were these very raw depictions of her. That was really important for me moving forward this year. Work in the past has often been very emotionally taxing for me––constantly making work that is meaningful. I was kind of trying to step back from that, so I started doing a lot of drawing this year, going back and making things that were more abstract.

I started thinking about the other ways I’ve been empowered as a woman of color. I started thinking about sports: expressions of aggression and movement and music. I was forcing myself to trust my intuition and trust that all these things are a part of me. Creating art as a woman of color in itself is a revolutionary act, and Black abstraction is not something to stray from. In a lot of ways, it has been even more empowering to be able to make work that is inherently tied to who I am but doesn’t have to speak explicitly to my experience. Or translate that experience for the viewer and create work that feels good and is coming from a very real place.

Coming into my final thesis exhibition, I wanted to go back to making work that didn’t speak very explicitly to my experience. I’m working a lot with generations. Something that was a huge part of my family history was tied to Martha’s Vineyard. My mom’s family was one of the first Black family to own property on Martha’s Vineyard and my family’s been going there for the past seven generations. I’m the seventh generation, and so the number seven is coming up a lot in my work. A huge part of my displacement and disconnection from the outside of my family is because there’s a complicated history resulting in my family having to give up a lot, and not really being able to continue that connection to Martha’s Vineyard. A lot of family trauma has been caused by that and that has been like a really really difficult experience that I’ve grappled with for a very long time. I’m trying to go back through it and recreate my own, I don’t want to say history, but try to create a future that feels less tied to trauma and more about rebuilding in the way that I know how to. I am trying to focus less on the things that I feel detached from and I tend to dwell on the negative parts of my history. But I want to focus on my history in a way that’s meaningful for me and not for anyone else.

BC: I’m really intrigued by your charcoal drawings. Can you explain what you’re referencing and your process for them?

EK: I’m really inspired by the work of David Hammons. He’s incredible. He’s a Black installation artist, activist and performance artist. He has these pieces that are whole-body prints. In some of his earliest works, he covered certain parts of his body in oil and printed basketballs and stuff like that. That’s a body of work that is really inspiring to me, especially when I was first working with hair. So I have had these boxing gloves for a while. As a woman of color, I often feel like I’m defending myself and having to find ways to feel empowered within myself. I’m working with the ideas of protection and femininity. I am also thinking about the exertion of anger. I’m highlighting the beauty and light in anger and aggression- -not just as a woman, but specifically as a woman of color. I am thinking about that a lot. There are lots of associations with boxing and African-Americans. So I have these gloves, and they are making me think about a lot of things.

Outside of that, I was really fascinated by how they’re cracking. It reminded me a lot of human skin and self-preservation. I was wondering how I could I find a way to print this because I really wanted to use this texture. Originally, I was going to paint a page and print it. But then I realized that wasn’t going to work. I was like, maybe I could use charcoal. So I covered that original piece of paper with charcoal and tried to put my fist to it, but it didn’t show up. Obviously, it didn’t work out at all. But then I wondered how I could get the charcoal off of my gloves, so I punched another piece of paper to just try to get it off and I really was fascinated by the way the charcoal came off of the paper. When I punched it, it just felt really beautiful. It felt like a performance in a way that felt really empowering to me. So I started making these prints, and I was like, what if I was able to capture this action on a piece of paper? And what if you were able to see the vibrations and see the power that I put into this, and find some sort of like beauty in that? So, I started creating all of these prints, and every time I did it, I would do a different combination. They feel really serious, but they’re also very playful. I was like, okay, I’ll frame them to give them this reverence, but in this very playful way. Every time I did a different combination, I would write what I did. I was thinking of the titles as a way to explain the way that each one made me feel. I decided to tie it back to who I am rather than the actual icons of boxing because boxing is something I don’t really have any experience or history with. But this act was really meaningful and a huge part of my process and my thought process in this whole project that I’ve been working on like this whole body of work it just felt really essential. I felt like there is a need to sort of just like put my own personhood into the pieces and it’s kind of like what the newer titles are related to.

BC: Could you talk about the various pops of color around the studio? How does color figure in your work?

EK: In my house, there is a lot of African art. My great aunt was a figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She had a lot of pieces with a ton of color in them. That was my first inspiration and my first example of a successful Black female artist. I think just having these big pops of color have always kind of like brought me back to that. I’m thinking about the history of African art and work from West Africa. I was also inspired by the colors we considered in class with Matthew Rarey. So I started doing a lot of investigation of that. I was also part of a group called Dance Diaspora which is West African dance. It was one of the many ways that I was able to really find community here among other students of color. I was very inspired by the prints that we wore in the performances. Those colors are important to me. The color red has also always been important–it’s in the American flag, and to me it symbolizes blood and pain. It’s also in the Swiss flag. I always go back to red. I’m always attracted to red. With the black and white, I don’t really know if there is a reason. I’m really attracted to like very simplistic things, and there’s always been this like cleanliness and order associated with like just like black and white images for me.

BC: Who or what do you count as inspiration for your work?

EK: It’s hard to say, honestly. I have so many inspirations. My first and foremost inspiration is my mom. She’s a part of everything I do, every work I create. And by extension, my grandma (my Nana), who passed away when I was eleven. She continues to be a huge part of who I am. And then my dad, and my family in general. I’ve always been really really close to them and they shaped me into who I am. They are behind everything in terms of my artistic inspirations. I am also inspired by David Hammons, as I mentioned earlier. One of my hugest inspirations ever. And he continues to be. And Johnny Coleman is one of my greatest inspirations and mentors. There’s like a lot of different artists I’m inspired by that I haven’t mentioned. I kind of go in waves of who’s inspiring me at the moment.

In my house, there is a lot of African art. My great aunt was a figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She had a lot of pieces with a ton of color in them. That was my first inspiration and my first example of a successful Black female artist. I think just having these big pops of color have always kind of like brought me back to that. I’m thinking about the history of African art and work from West Africa. I was also inspired by the colors we considered in class with Matthew Rarey. So I started doing a lot of investigation of that. I was also part of a group called Dance Diaspora which is West African dance. It was one of the many ways that I was able to really find community here among other students of color. I was very inspired by the prints that we wore in the performances. Those colors are important to me. The color red has also always been important–it’s in the American flag, and to me it symbolizes blood and pain. It’s also in the Swiss flag. I always go back to red. I’m always attracted to red. With the black and white, I don’t really know if there is a reason. I’m really attracted to like very simplistic things, and there’s always been this like cleanliness and order associated with like just like black and white images for me.

BC: Who or what do you count as inspiration for your work?

EK: It’s hard to say, honestly. I have so many inspirations. My first and foremost inspiration is my mom. She’s a part of everything I do, every work I create. And by extension, my grandma (my Nana), who passed away when I was eleven. She continues to be a huge part of who I am. And then my dad, and my family in general. I’ve always been really really close to them and they shaped me into who I am. They are behind everything in terms of my artistic inspirations. I am also inspired by David Hammons, as I mentioned earlier. One of my hugest inspirations ever. And he continues to be. And Johnny Coleman is one of my greatest inspirations and mentors. There’s like a lot of different artists I’m inspired by that I haven’t mentioned. I kind of go in waves of who’s inspiring me at the moment.

Categories
Poetry

5:15 Monday Morning

By Grace McAllister | Poetry | Spring 2019

Image by Bridget Conway

1010 WINS makes me sicker in a tunnel, canned voices grate

the same way as the too-fast orange lights.

My dad drives in quiet sympathy.
Everything seems too fast and too slow at once

Or not too slow, but too fast and too empty,

Like leaving town gives every detail an unearned gravity

Which makes the face of each passing building so overwhelmingly rich
That I know I’ll remember none of it.

Before dawn, the whole world gleams

like wet pavement, and every light is the diluted reflection of a light.

All weak and watery

Categories
Parallax

The Second Sex: A Translation of “Le Deuxième Sexe” by Simone de Beauvoir

by Simone de Beauvoir | translated by Julia Peterson | Parallax | Spring 2019

Image by Bridget Conway

Translator’s Note:

Why keep reading (and translating) The Second Sex?

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, a massively significant early second-wave feminist book, turned 70 years old this year. As I have worked closely with this text over the last two years, I have become very aware of all the ways that this text shows its age, from its eager explorations of ideas that feminists have largely discarded or moved beyond to language that we would no longer use today. I am also a strong believer in reexamining the literary canon—just because something was once significant does not mean that it is still important for us to study it, and remaining married to the texts that we were taught or what our teachers were taught means that other, perhaps more worthy texts are left o the syllabus. at said, I think that The Second Sex remains a text that should be read, studied, and re-translated by contemporary and future feminists, largely because of the way I have come to believe that it is structured to require reader interaction.

Five years ago, I was introduced to The Second Sex in a French class that I was taking back in my home province of Quebec – it was my first exposure to feminism in an academic context, and I was enthralled. Since then, especially as I have immersed myself in this work from a translator’s perspective, my ideas on how this book should be read have evolved. First, I have learned that The Second Sex is so much more fun than I gave it credit for, five years ago. Back then, I was trying to read it as just another dry academic text, but that does not do justice to the joyful tumult of lavish literary prose that de Beauvoir wove through her academic arguments. She was not just curating information about feminism in an ordered list; I have found that her prose revels in the moment between proven fact and extrapolated conclusion. The life cycle of an ant becomes high tragedy, the history of pervasive societal myths become poetry, and the authors of sexist arguments become the targets of her laser-guided snark.

I have also come to believe that The Second Sex is not trying to definitively answer the question of ‘What is a woman?’ – if de Beauvoir had thought she had the answer, I don’t think she would have buried it in a 700-page text. Instead, I think that this book is a debate looking for a debate partner. In two volumes, de Beauvoir presents all the information she could find relating to women and essentially invites readers to go to town, to push back on her weaker claims and cut away the dross until only the most valuable arguments remain.

For me, this is why this book remains so worthy of study and translation, and I think will remain so for a very long time; because we are invited to bring our whole selves to this debate. I read and translate The Second Sex as a Jewish woman, a queer woman, a young woman, an Oberlin student, and all of these aspects of who I am are engaged in my interactions with this text. When it comes to the marriage between this text and its readers, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and I believe that this 70-year-old text can still be a valuable tool in helping us shape the feminism of the future.


J’ai longtemps hésité à écrire un livre sur la femme. Le sujet est irritant, surtout pour les femmes ; et il n’est pas neuf. La querelle du féminisme a fait couler assez d’encre, à présent elle est à peu près close : n’en parlons plus. On en parle encore cependant. Et il ne semble pas que les volumineuses sottises débitées pendant ce dernier siècle aient beaucoup éclairé le problème. D’ailleurs y a-t-il un problème ? Et quel est-il ? Y a-t-il même des femmes ? Certes la théorie de l’éternel féminin compte encore des adeptes ; ils chuchotent : « Même en Russie, elles restent bien femmes » ; mais d’autres gens bien informés – et les mêmes aussi quelque-fois – soupirent : « La femme se perd, la femme est perdue. » On ne sait plus bien s’il existe encore des femmes, s’il en existera toujours, s’il faut ou non le souhaiter, quelle place elles occupent en ce monde, quelle place elles devraient y occuper. « Où sont les femmes ? » demandait récemment un magazine intermittent. Mais d’abord : qu’est-ce qu’une femme ? « Tota mulier in utero : c’est une matrice », dit l’un. Cependant parlant de certaines femmes, les connaisseurs décrètent : « Ce ne sont pas des femmes » bien qu’elles aient un utérus comme les autres. Tout le monde s’accorde à reconnaître qu’il y a dans l’espèce humaine des femelles ; elles constituent aujourd’hui comme autrefois à peu près la moitié de l’humanité ; et pourtant on nous dit que « la féminité est en péril » ; on nous exhorte : « Soyez femmes, restez femmes, devenez femmes. » Tout être humain femelle n’est donc pas nécessairement une femme ; il lui faut participer de cette réalité mystérieuse et menacée qu’est la féminité. Celle-ci est-elle sécrétée par les ovaires ? ou fi gée au fond d’un ciel platonicien ? Suffi t-il d’un jupon à frou-frou pour la faire descendre sur terre ? Bien que certaines femmes s’efforcent avec zèle de l’incarner, le modèle n’en a jamais été déposé. On la décrit volontiers en termes vagues et miroitants qui semblent empruntés au vocabulaire des voyantes. Au temps de saint Thomas, elle apparaissait comme une essence aussi sûrement défi nie que la vertu dormitive du pavot. Mais le conceptualisme a perdu du terrain : les sciences biologiques et sociales ne croient plus en l’existence d’entités immuablement fixées qui définiraient des caractères donnés tels que ceux de la Femme, du Juif ou du Noir ; elles considèrent le caractère comme une réaction secondaire à une situation. S’il n’y a plus aujourd’hui de féminité, c’est qu’il n’y en a jamais eu. Cela signifie-t-il que le mot « femme » n’ait aucun contenu ? C’est ce qu’affirment vigoureusement les partisans de la philosophies des lumières, du rationalisme, du nominalisme : les femmes seraient seulement parmi les êtres humains ceux qu’on désigne arbitrairement par le mot « femme » ; en particulier les Américaines pensent volontiers que la femme en tant que telle n’a plus lieu ; si une attardée se prend encore pour une femme, ses amies lui conseillent de se faire psychanalyser afin de se délivrer de cette obsession. À propos d’un ouvrage, d’ailleurs fort agaçant, intitulé Modem Woman : a lost sex, Dorothy Parker a écrit : « Je ne peux être juste pour les livres qui traitent de la femme en tant que femme…Mon idée c’est que tous, aussi bien hommes que femmes, qui nous soyons, nous devons être considérés comme des êtres humains. » Mais le nominalisme est une doctrine un peu courte ; et les antiféministes ont beau jeu de montrer que les femmes ne sont pas des hommes. Assurément la femme est comme l’homme un être humain : mais une telle affi-rmation est abstraite ; le fait est que tout être humain concret est toujours singulièrement situé. Refuser les notions d’éternel féminin, d’âme noire, de caractère juif, ce n’est pas nier qu’il y ait aujourd’hui des Juifs, des Noirs, des femmes : cette négation ne représente pas pour les intéressés une libération, mais une fuite inauthentique.Il est clair qu’aucune femme ne peut prétendre sans mauvaise foi se situer par-delà son sexe. Une femme écrivain connue a refusé voici quelques années de laisser paraître son portrait dans une série de photographies consacrées précisément aux femmes écrivains : elle voulait être rangée parmi les hommes ; mais pour obtenir ce privilège, elle utilisa l’influence de son mari. Les femmes qui affirment qu’elles sont des hommes n’en réclament pas moins des égards et des hommages masculins. Je me rappelle aussi cette jeune trotskiste debout sur une estrade au milieu d’un meeting houleux et qui s’apprêtait à faire le coup de poing malgré son évidente fragilité ; elle niait sa faiblesse féminine ; mais c’était par amour pour un militant dont elle se voulait l’égale. L’attitude de défi dans laquelle se crispent les Améri-caines prouve qu’elles sont hantées par le sentiment de leur féminité. Et en vérité il suffit de se promener les yeux ouverts pour constater que l’humanité se partage en deux catégories d’individus dont les vêtements, le visage, le corps, les sourires, la démarche, les intérêts, les occupations sont manifestement différents : peut-être ces différences sont-elles superficielles, peut-être sont-elles destinées à disparaître. Ce qui est certain c’est que pour l’instant elles existent avec une éclatante évidence. Si sa fonction de femelle ne suffit pas à définir la femme, si nous refusons aussi de l’expliquer par « l’éternel féminin » et si cependant nous admettons que, fût-ce à titre provisoire, il y a des femmes sur terre, nous avons donc à nous poser la question : qu’est-ce qu’une femme ?

L’énoncé même du problème me suggère aussitôt une première réponse. Il est significatif que je le pose. Un homme n’aurait pas idée d’écrire un livre sur la situation singulière qu’occupent dans l’humanité les mâles. Si je veux me définir je suis obligée d’abord de déclarer : « Je suis une femme » ; cette vérité constitue le fond sur lequel s’enlèvera toute autre affirmation. Un homme ne commence jamais par se poser comme un individu d’un certain sexe : qu’il soit homme, cela va de soi. C’est d’une manière formelle, sur les registres des mairies et dans les déclarations d’identité que les rubriques : masculin, féminin, apparaissent comme symétriques. Le rapport des deux sexes n’est pas celui de deux électricités, de deux pôles : l’homme représente à la fois le positif et le neutre au point qu’on dit en français « les hommes » pour désigner les êtres humains, le sens singulier du mot « vir » s’étant assimilé au sens général du mot « homo ». La femme apparaît comme le négatif si bien que toute détermination lui est imputée comme limitation, sans réciprocité. Je me suis agacée parfois au cours de discussions abstraites d’entendre des hommes me dire : « Vous pensez telle chose parce que vous êtes une femme » ; mais je savais que ma seule défense, c’était de répondre : « Je la pense parce qu’elle est vraie » éliminant par là ma subjectivité ; il n’était pas question de répliquer : « Et vous pensez le contraire parce que vous êtes un homme » ; car il est entendu que le fait d’être un homme n’est pas une singularité ; un homme est dans son droit en étant homme, c’est la femme qui est dans son tort. Pratiquement, de même que pour les anciens il y avait une verticale absolue par rapport à laquelle se définissait l’oblique, il y a un type humain absolu qui est le type masculin.

I have long hesitated to write a book about women. The subject is irritating, especially for women, and it is not new. Enough ink has been spilled on the topic of feminism and the discussion is nearly exhausted: let’s stop talking about it. Yet we continue to talk. It seems that the large amount of arrant nonsense produced during the last century has not shed much light on the problem. And—is there a problem? What is it? Are there even women? Certainly, the theory of the eternal feminine still has followers; they whisper, “Even in Russia, women are still women”; but other well-informed people—sometimes the same people—sigh that: “women are losing their way, women are lost.” We don’t know if any women still exist, if women will always exist, whether we should wish for their existence or not, what place they occupy in the world, or what place they ought to occupy. A periodical recently asked “Where are the women?” But first: what is a woman? “Tota mulier in utero”: she is an incubator, one might say. However, when speaking about certain females, people decree that “they are not women,” though they have a uterus like the others. Everybody can agree that there exist females of the human species; today, like in the past, they constitute approximately half the human population; and still we are told that “femininity is in peril” and we are urged to “be women, stay women, become women.” Therefore, a female human is not necessarily a woman: she must participate in this mysterious and threatened reality that is femininity. Is femininity secreted by the ovaries? Does it fall out of a platonic sky? Is a frilly skirt enough to conjure it up? Although some women work zealously to embody it, the model has never been precisely defined. We willingly describe womanhood in vague and shimmery terms that seem to have been borrowed from the language of prophecy. In the time of Saint Thomas, femininity appeared to be an essence as clearly defined as the soporific effects of the poppy. But conceptualism has been losing ground: biological and social sciences no longer believe that there exist immutably fixed traits that define the essential character of people such as women, Jews and Blacks; they consider character to be a secondary reaction to a situation. If there is no femininity today, it’s that there never was. Does this mean that the word “woman” is meaningless? This belief is strongly championed by the enlightenment philosophers, the rationalists, and the nominalists: that women are simply those humans to which we have arbitrarily applied the word “woman.” American women in particular think that ‘woman’ as such does not exist; their advice is to go get psychoanalyzed to rid yourself of this obsession. Concerning a particularly irritating book titled Modern Woman; a Lost Sex, Dorothy Parker wrote: “I cannot be just to books which treat of women as women… My idea is that all of us, men as well as women, should be regarded as human beings.” But nominalism as a doctrine is somewhat lacking, and anti-feminists have a challenge in proving that women are not men. Certainly, women are, like men, human beings; but this is an abstract statement. The fact is, every human being is always singularly situated. Refusing notions of the ‘eternal feminine,’ the ‘Black spirit,’ or the ‘Jewish character’ is certainly not denying that, in today’s world, there exist Jews, Blacks and women. Denying this fact does not represent a liberation for the concerned parties, but an inauthentic escape. Clearly, a woman can only pretend to be above her sex in bad faith. A few years ago now, a well-known female writer refused to allow her picture to appear in a series of photographs dedicated to female writers: she wanted to be shown among the men. But she used her husband’s influence to obtain this privilege. Women who claim to be men do not receive the same respect and praise as men. I also recall a young Trotskyist—she was standing on a platform in the middle of a boisterous meeting and was preparing to punch somebody despite her evident fragility: she overcame her feminine weakness; but this was for the love of an activist that she wanted to be equal to. The tensely confrontational attitude held by American women proves that they are haunted by the feeling of their femininity. Truly, one only needs to walk around with their eyes open to understand that humanity is split into two categories of individuals whose clothing, face, body, smiles, gait, interests and professions are obviously different: maybe these differences are superficial, maybe they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that, for the moment, there is undeniable evidence for their existence.

If the designation of ‘female’ is an insufficient definition of what woman is, and if we refuse to explain it by the “eternal feminine,” but if, despite this, we provisionally admit that there are women on earth, we must then ask ourselves: what is a woman? I find that this formulation of the problem suggests an initial response. It is significant that I must ask this question. A man would not have the idea to write a book about the particular position that males occupy among humankind. If I want to define myself, I must first declare “I am a woman.” This truth is the base upon which I can construct all other affirmations. A man never begins by positioning himself as an individual of a certain sex: it goes without saying that he is a man. It is only in formal matters, on marriage registers and other official documents, that masculine and feminine appear to be symmetrical. The relationship between the two sexes is not like it is between the two electricities, the two poles: man represents both the positive and the neutral, to the point that in French we say “man” to designate humankind, and the particular meaning of the Latin vir has been conflated with the general meaning of homo. Woman appear so completely as a negative that all of her unique characteristics are defined as limitations, without reciprocity. In abstract discussions, I have sometimes been aggravated when men tell me “you only think this because you are a woman;” but I knew that my only defense was to respond that “I think it because it is true,” eliminating my subjectivity. There was no question of replying “and you think the opposite because you are a man,” because it is understood that the fact of being a man is ordinary. A man is in the right in being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong. Practically, just as the ancients had an absolute vertical by which they defined the diagonal, there is an absolute human type—the masculine.

Categories
Voices

Being You is Also Nothing

by Francesca Mansky | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Bridget Conway

Editors’ Note: This piece contains descriptions of sexual violence.


July is when, feet pressing against the moss, I tiptoe to the coast. Peripheral sketches of trees on the horizon line, Prussian blue fractals sway with the wind. The reeds are sharp and I’m bleeding from my feet when they slip through the water. My skin seems to melt off my arms and legs with the sunscreen, and I smell like grease. The cool water laps at my calves and takes the sunscreen with it. Kaleidoscope oil spinning away from me, the surface of the water is repelled by my body. I would also like to spin away from my body but I don’t because lunch is almost ready.

I feel like a plucked goose, covered in oil and baking in the sun and melting and rotating slowly. I can’t stand the smell of myself, and I can’t stand the feeling of myself against myself. The feeling is hairy and greasy and hot. The sun is everywhere: on the water, on the grass, on my hair.

I have watched a seal all day—a seal which looks like a black sea bird. Maybe it is a bird. Sometimes it dips below the surface with a splash, and the water around it flips like a deck of cards switching hands. A pair of white gulls sew themselves against the tree line farther and farther until they are sky. I call my sister to see the seal, and she sees its black, oil slick head. It flies away, turning to sky as well. My sister and I are hovering too, sunspots above the dew covered grass.

We blink at each other and return to our bodies. Her body tells me everything and nothing. She is fourteen. She is hiding, she is hypervisible. (Helena crying, Helena slamming her bedroom door, Helena, what’s up? Helena: Nothing!, Helena covers herself, Helena: Don’t look! Helena crying.)

I watch my sister yelling at my parents and getting yelled at by my parents and am disgusted and ashamed of myself (my mother assures me: I was much worse). The hormones in my body at fourteen seemed to manifest in about a million screaming cells which I wish I could retroactively have told to be quiet. To pat each fourteen- year-old Francesca cell and say, It’s okay, what happened to you is okay, being you is hard, but being you is also nothing. But I can’t because those cells died and made way for new, slightly less angry cells, or slightly-better-at-hiding-it cells. Some of my cells are still angry, swollen, yelling. I can feel them fuming after eight years. I can also hear some of them crying. But all of Helena’s cells are screaming and red. I want to shhh them. At the same time, in the moments after she slams her bedroom door, I want to turn into a bird, and carry her off to a mountain, and take her away from her body and the bodies of others. And maybe feed her worms and nest together.

My body is marked by time, and by moments which have torn that time away from me. These moments hurled through my history at lightning speed and destroyed my timeline. Things obviously from my childhood lodged themselves into last week, breakfast was a year ago, and explanations don’t paint the picture of this wobbling, unreliable record which sits smugly in my mind.

Pockmarks in the body of my life, as I run my hands along this body, they get caught against the scars and impression lines of moments which still won’t heal. I have a horrible memory, made worse by my constant assertion that I have a horrible memory. But unlike everything else, these marks won’t fade as years go by. Instead they deepen and discolor with exposure to the sun. I don’t really know what happened, because I can’t remember, and I am alone with this non-memory. But with each day the non-memory etches wider, lower. Sunlight taps mirror and I try to catch this reflected light onto my sister’s body. Where are her marks? What are her non-memories?

I want to see my sister as her own person. Or I want to want to see my sister as her own person, but she progresses through my timeline with a five-year delay. I am in a constant state of wondering which pockmarks her body has stopped at and skipped like a CD, repeating words that don’t make sense. Which non-memories do her fingers draw circles around like the water in the drain in the sink, like the sunscreen on the surface of the lake?

I have watched her grow from tiny tiny small to small to big small, and all the tweenage yelling in my house are fights I’ve had with my mother on opposite sides of a wall. I sit on the couch downstairs and hear Helena slam the door to her room, and I am on my bed sobbing again, my hand shaking from the force exerted to shut myself back into my space. Wailing, shaking, careening back into myself. I am telling a stranger something on Omegle, I am thirteen, I am writing FUCK YOU very small on the wall, I am scratching my arm, I am squeezing out a bottle of toothpaste into the sink. Breathing deeply, I am back on the water with Helena.

We squint at the bay together and a cat that lives in the house pads between us. He is fat and orange and hot from the sun.

“Sweet cat,” Helena says, stroking his fur. The cat is purring against her palm. He must be a time travelly cat because it’s

August now and I’m in an air-conditioned apartment in Carroll Gardens, sitting with a man who has told me he is getting back with his ex-girlfriend within the week.

I am looking at him, and he is looking down at my legs, and my hand is on his thigh, and his words are not really making sense.

“But I think we should enjoy this time we have together.”

I am nineteen years old, but five years ago I was fourteen. And two years ago I was a virgin, and ten years ago I was nine and he was grown already. His hand feels like a baseball mitt rubbing my thigh, and he’s looking at my breasts and saying we should enjoy this time together because we’ll know each other for a long time probably, he thinks, because I’m very special and not necessarily less wise than his ex-girlfriend. He says she is as wise as me, even though she is twenty-nine. I wonder, honestly, if there’s a chance she’s just as stupid.

I get a cup of water for him and make a joke about poisoning it, and we laugh together. And then I say just kidding and then I make a joke about killing his parents and we laugh together again.

I am silent sitting next to him on the bed as he strokes my hair. His dick is growing in my hand, and even as I say, “I’m sad, this hurts me,” and he says “I know, I know,” (which are words of understanding) he becomes harder and harder, as he humps my palm. “I don’t want to yet,” I say, when he rubs his boner on my hip bone. He sighs, “fair enough.” But his face says no fair and his exhale also says no fair. But it’s no fair to me because he was so nice and he holds me with his big hands which also handle money and grown-up things and that means I’m also a grown-up thing. When he lets go of my body and sulks at the end of the bed, I am a kid again, and I want my mom. And I want to kill him.

I blink back to July, back to Maine, back-to-back with my sister on the sharp grass. She faces towards the house and I am looking at the water, at the seal or the bird. The cat rubs against me, then my sister, then me and is very fat and is stuck in time circling us. I try not to take it personally that Helena shaves now. We are both closing our eyes although I cannot see her face, and I wonder what she thinks has happened in my past, and if she links it to her future too. Is that ridiculous? Is this my OCD? These questions are not specific to Maine or to July. They may not even be specific to me.

Helena does not talk much in this story because I can’t remember what she said in Maine, in July, and it would feel like a lie if I fluffed this up with dialogue from my sister (like when I lied about her saying

“Sweet cat” even though she probably did say that at some point while we were around him, but I just don’t remember.) Helena laughs often and rolls her eyes just as often.

Sometimes, I look at her and all I feel is pain; all the time I look at her and all I feel is love. Because I was inundated with pain as a fourteen-year-old that tangled up in my genes and sat there and sunk into my body like Spider-Man venom when he gets bitten by the spider. When my powers manifested, though, I could not shoot cum out of my hands and swing from things or kiss women upside down. Instead I could cry in a chair for an hour in front of my silent psychiatrist, and I couldn’t go on the subway sometimes, and I could tell women, “I know what you feel,” when they told me terrible stories. These were all powers that hurt and made me better and made me worse.

April kisses Brooklyn, and I have landed back in New York because of a breakdown at school. I am sulking around my house like a ghost, a shadow of the girl who grew up here before. My nuclear family bounces around me, with their jobs and school obligations. I float, I spin. On Sunday night, my sister is sobbing in her room and my mother is texting me. She thinks, “I’m bad at being a mum.” Blasphemy! Because it’s blasphemous. How could she control the storms which raged unrelenting against the windows of her daughters? My sister makes me scared to have kids because she is difficult (again, less difficult than I was) but my mother says I owe her grandchildren.

Helena skips school the next day because she is unprepared for her tests and is very disorganized. I tell her it is “very bad” to skip school, although I’m a nine-hour bus ride away from school, which I am skipping, whereas she is only twelve stops on the Q away from school. We go to coffee and breakfast and Mum texts us yelling THIS TIME IS FOR STUDYING! NOT FOR HANGING OUT!

We drink our coffee and laugh about being in ninth grade and fourteenth grade, respectively, and our funny and loving mum, and which Kardashian each member of our family would be, and how embarrassing it is to be alive.

I try and help her study for her history test, and I casually mention I am writing about her in a piece I’m submitting for a campus publication.

“Me? Is it bad?”

Is it bad?

Is it bad?

No. It’s not bad.

I get dinner with my grandma that night; we are kindred spirits because we both have mood disorders. The air is so warm and the light in the restaurant is yellow and we are sitting by the windows at the front. Young couples and old ladies sit around us; their conversations marinate into a soupy white noise humming, spiraling around me and my grandma.

I tell her I don’t want to talk about college because it’s painful, and she says that she also hated college when she went in the ’60s although she, too, doesn’t want to talk about it. We both have a glass of red wine (our preference), and my grandma looks at me and starts to cry because we are the same. She wants to see me as my own person. But I’m circling and skipping around her timeline with a fifty-six-year delay. I pat her frail arm under the layers of black clothes she wears as if she’s in mourning.

“How’s your sister?”

“She’s okay. She’s anxious, she’s difficult, but she’s okay.”

I am trying to talk about my sister, but I am really just talking about me. My words circle the drain: me, my sister, me, my sister, me, me, me. I have pain linked to growing older, and I watch as my sister grows older everyday. I think I’ve forgotten that I do too, because circling drains has made me dizzy, and tracing memories has made me exhausted.

Me and my sister, my sister and I sit back-to-back on the grass in front of the receding hairline which is the water licking the shore. My sister journals because of me, and that is an undeniably beautiful gift I have given her.

It’s quiet now between us, although our cells are screaming and yelling and singing and crying and slamming the doors. I don’t know what she’s thinking so I open my eyes and look up. I can’t describe the sky at 8:00 PM, pink against the coniferous trees, blue against the floating mist, orange against the stripped brown bark, the gray shingles of the roof. White against my wishes, it rains.

Categories
Voices

Since March

by Emma June Marcus | Voices | Fall 2018

Art by Jacob Butcher

It made no sense that we had a pool in a place named after the Pacific. In school we were taught that our home was a rainforest, a rain-fed wet dream for evergreens and mud puddles. I was born beneath an overcast sky, I learned to find comfort in grey. Daniel, my big brother by eight years, was born Southern California. He was blonde and twisting out of our parents’ grasps as his limbs burned pink.

Our in-ground pool was a lake by any standard. The perpetual rainclouds bred water-bugs and walls covered in slime. I swam until my lips turned blue. Sometimes he would join me in the cold, mostly he would just watch. I’d pull myself from the foggy water, dripping and skinny. I’d make him laugh with my teeth chattering while he wrapped me in a towel that reached the ground. He could never stay in one place very long, busy like big brothers are, but I knew he wouldn’t leave until I got warm again.

I got so good at holding my breath, I could go to the end and back again without coming up once. When Daniel forgave the freezing water he could go twice as far, though. His lungs are bigger.

My father forbade me from jumping on trampolines throughout my childhood, saying that I would end up paralyzed in a hospital bed. So after school on Thursdays I would bike to the Robertsons’ house. They had a big one in their backyard and no rules. I loved myself floating, my clothes full of air. But I hated hitting the elastic black, it would shock me, twist my ankle and take my strength with it. A chemical imbalance, Mom said Daniel had, some days were very high, some days felt low. The day he locked all of the doors in our house and spoke through the screen door: I am going to do it. I’m going to end it.—that day was close to the bottom, his ankles must have broken, he hit the trampoline so hard.

This isn’t about me.

None of it is, really, is what I’m coming to understand.

This is about what violence follows someone being locked up. This is about isolation. This isn’t about me. This is about mobility, security, locks and traps. I have lied so frequently about my family that the formula of falsity reverberates through my skull and comforts me each time I recite it. I think it might be easier because it once was true, it once settled inside the narrative of myself I was trying to sculpt. It fit perfectly—I have two siblings. My brother lives in Portland, still, he is getting his degree from Portland Community College. He was an alcoholic, but he got sober about five years ago. He totally turned his life around. He works with at-risk youth in a public high school outside of the city. He shows them music, he taught them to garden. My brother and I have the same face. We did a face-swap once and I swear to god nothing changed. We joke about who is the more handsome sibling. We hit each other’s arms and chase each other through my parents’ house. All of that was completely true at one point.

I was twenty and drowning, but this isn’t about me. It was a wet spring, 2017, one of the greyest that Portland has seen in years. The trees held water like mouths full, gulping it down. Deep green leaves shook with droplets and bounced like conversations. The northwest was being pummeled with early March down-pours. I would receive calls from my mother in which I could hear her pacing in front of the living room window, holding herself in a tight hug, rubbing her upper arms nervously. The tapping of raindrops from the front yard would weave itself between her words, I knew the grey was beginning to drive her mad.

Portland is a waterlogged city, its winding streets glisten with miniature streams composed of rain. It wasn’t until I moved to Ohio that I experienced an Autumn I could look upwards during without blinking rapidly, pinprick raindrops tickling my lashes. Oregon is a cloud-swirling rainforest, its days brew and simmer with the shaking of rain. 

I don’t let myself picture my brother’s smile. 

***

Daniel and I, we talked the most when we sat side by side, eyes straight ahead. My family loves the Portland Trail Blazers. Daniel would frequently surprise me with nosebleed seats to home games, inexpensive and impulsive. We’d sit at the top of the stadium, rows beneath us like scales. Amidst the screams and rounds of Let’s go defense, my big brother and I would talk about our parents, our changing city, our futures. He was planning on applying to a university somewhere that wasn’t Oregon when his girlfriend got pregnant. He confessed to me that he felt stuck in our waterlogged corner of the country, his sentiment cut short by an interception from the opposing team. Have you ever wondered—Daniel’s body shot out of his seat, electrified by the play below us. He then sat, bouncing his left leg rapidly, not facing me—have you ever wondered how different you’d be if you’d been born before we moved to Portland? My answer, “all the time,” was clouded over by the rush of people exiting during halftime, pushing towards bathrooms and food stands. There is something meditative about watching basketball. The methodical movement of it, the back and forth, the hush of a pass. Daniel and I would swing our heads in unison, clutching each other’s forearms in moments of tension, laughing hysterically when our team withstood persistent pressure. I felt glorious watching the games next to him. Daniel could recite a game of basketball like poetry. He knew each player, their history, their motivations. He could look at a court and decode it, observing the conflicts and flaying their complexities in front of me. Next to Daniel, I too could speak the game into emotional resonance. We could be poets together, and we would leave games in a flushed burst, lost among the crowds of people spreading from the stadium onto the damp Portland streets. 

***

My father describes the day after it happened in silhouettes. The large window at the front of my parents’ house hangs above a small flight of stairs. When visitors come and go, they appear in the window in motion exclusively, a flit of a human approaching their destination. My mother often positions her rocking chair to gaze out, onto the front lawn and the steep hill that is a highly trafficked route to the coffee shop a couple of doors down. My father describes the day after it happened through the frame of the window, while he and my mother were sitting in easy silence, sipping coffee at the dining room table. They will spend hours like that, surrounded by newspapers and coffee losing its steam.

My father loves to read obituaries. He finds it stunning, the details that people choose to include about someone who is now dead. Often, when I’m home, before “good morning,” my father will greet my gruff , overslept presence with an excerpt from a dead person’s life. “Listen to this,” he holds an open palm towards me while his eyes remain fixed on the page, “this woman taught preschool for three decades in California, and would get invited to her past students’ weddings. Isn’t that marvelous?” And through my sleep-fogged eyes I am usually able to make out a headline in bold Catherine Carter, Beloved Teacher, is Dead at 85. We relish in the romance of lives which now contain conclusions.

The day after it happened, my parents watched the lanky outline of my brother’s girlfriend ascend the front steps to their door. She knocked, something she had stopped doing months before, when she and Daniel moved in together. When their son was born. When time felt like it was passing comfortably, gaining momentum and taking moments to breathe in the pleasure. She knocked, and my father glanced over top of his paper, “Molly’s here,” which my mother responded to by setting down her coffee after blowing on it but before tasting it, and opened the front door. My father recounts this next part through the punctuated flow of it. Molly took one step inside the living room, her eyes fixed on the floor, and said, “you might want to sit down for this.” They sat on the couch in front of her and watched her pace, backlit by the window. My father lacks patience when information is withheld from him, especially when it dangles itself in the shape of a carrot, or in the shape of Molly, long brown hair swinging with each sharp turn in my parents’ living room. “Molly, what?” I’m sure he asked, although he leaves details like that out in an effort to emphasize the painful: she said it plainly. Daniel has been arrested. Daniel is in prison. To which my parents could collapse against, my parents whose only son was now behind bars, was now being held in a room alone. 

This isn’t about me, and this isn’t about prisons. This is about what happened to a family left behind.

I was many state lines away when it happened, finishing my midterms in the Midwest. I was cooking in co-ops with my friends and getting drunk on Wednesdays and my brother was in a cell, mentally ill and out of control. He had texted me just the day before, “you are the light of my life.” As the timestamp on that message approaches its second birthday, I am left wondering if he knew. If he was sending me a sort of farewell, if the lucid part of his mind was trying to comfort me. The days following his arrest I would hold lie in bed and hold his last voicemail to my ear, shaking as his voice coaxed me into a feverish sleep. I stopped looking in mirrors because all I saw in my eyes were his. Some of the only ways I know how to think about my brother are to imagine him dead. I imagine that I am capable of moving on, of it all getting easier to process.

The thing about grieving someone in prison is that the pain heightens with time. Reality stretches on, and instead of healing, all that awaits me in the depths of my subconscious are visions of my brother throwing his head back and laughing at something I said during dinner. I am forgetting what it felt like to talk to him. Our relationship has been stunted and shredded and bloodied. What you need to know is this: my brother’s brain does not regulate its chemicals like most peoples’. He did something violent and regrettable. And his days are forever sculpted by the biggest mistake he has ever made.

Photo by Bridget Conway

There are parts of your life that will not be affected by this, my parents kept telling me, as if the more they said it the truer it might become. My head pounded with their words for months. I walked to work as morning air wove itself between the strands of my throat like liquid. The sun began to rise and the grass became electric green, how fresh, how fantastic. The fourth floor of the Oregon Penitentiary Prison has green walls. Mint green walls and deep green doors and windowless rooms where the “ten most mentally unstable prisoners” are kept, according to a newspaper article I found online. I crossed the street and there was a stocky man with a sledgehammer, the cement spread open like eyelids.

When the day arrived that marked 365 days of my brother’s imprisonment, I was driving north toward Sedona, Arizona. Against the electric blue desert skies, Sedona’s famous red cliff s look like hungry flames. Three friends and I spent a week in and out of breathtaking canyons, and I began to imagine my brother locked in the chambers of my chest. I took him with me everywhere I went, I showed him the beautiful things—the air fluttering in through the car windows as we flew along I-10, the red rock crumbling beneath my feet as I leapt across a creek, my friends’ faces glowing around the gasps of the campfire.

But he added a lot of extra weight. As anyone who has ever gone backpacking knows, every addition to your pack grates on your bones by the end of each day. And a full-grown man? I could barely walk by the time we needed to set up camp at night.

Everywhere I move, I pull him with me and he remains stagnant. He remains in one place longer than anyone I know. I go to class and embrace my friends and scream when I’m scared. On a Tuesday last December, I climbed into a frost-bitten car with three of my friends and drove into Cleveland. We needed to get out of the same tiny town. My best friend stroked my hair as I led my skull rest against the cool glass of the window, watched the world whizz by, my eyes darting across the thin winter light glitter between empty branches. The sun was lowering itself, hissing its last breaths onto Ohio as we sped along. I have the power to escape whenever I want to. I feel the world piling itself on top of me and I run away, I am finding myself in the patterns of my movements. I am left with echoes of my brother, of the man he was. I am left with what I choose to remember.

His being in prison has designated him one pocket of my mind, I trap him between my everyday murmurings and let him rot there. If I open the door to where he lives, the smell is too overwhelming, I can’t see. So he remains there, and I am left in a roomful of people lowering their heads during a classroom discussion about prison. The State profits off of locking up crazy people, I remember saying, my mouth shaping letters that crumbled out of my lips and scattered on the desk in front of me. The professor nodded and gave me a reassuring smile, or so I assume, but I could not see her because of the fog starting from the corners of my eyesight and moving inwards. The classroom was all sheer white clouds but I continued speaking, fueled by people thinking I had no personal stake in the argument—if someone has done something terrible, isn’t it easy to blame a person who can’t defend themselves? And as the room shrivels beneath me, all I can see is my brother speaking to a person who no one else can see.

I put in headphones while I read the paper one morning and I unplug them after a minute and a half, throwing the earbuds across the table and covering my face with my hands. Andrew Bird lyrics chimed through my brain and as the words reverberated down my spine, I am surrounded by what it felt like to watch Daniel walk into a room. With his sweet-slow crooked smile, people hung onto his every word. I throw my headphones across the table and shudder, scribbling in the margins of my notebook that songwriters should stop using prisons as metaphors. “Prison or hell,” he wailed, “prison or hell prison or hell prison or hell”—It isn’t until about a week later that I look up the lyrics to the song. “Those that can’t quite function in society at large / They’re going to wake up on this morning and find that they’re in charge / But those that the world’s set up for, who are doing really quite well / They’re going to wake up in institutions / In prison or in hell / Prison or in hell.” 

Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Nina Josephson

interviewed by Bridget Conway | Visual Processes | Fall 2018

Nina Josephson, Captured Beast

Bridget Conway for Wilder Voice: Tell me a little bit about your work!

Nina Josephson: So I like to create these sort of weird brightly colored bizarre creatures primarily with papier mâché and with needle pointed felt. And so the sort of thought behind all of this is that I’m trying to represent the weird little beast that lives inside of all of us. And like here these creatures that represent like the various visceral emotions and actions that people take that we’d normally just sort of bottle up; love and sorrow, entrapment, motherhood. I’m sort of just trying to think about how I can draw out the beast within us and focus on this little kernel of truth inside of people through these ridiculous forms. And just one more thing I’ve done because I think that it may be confusing: These forms are so strange and surreal and alien and goofy, my hope is that I sort of hope they’re so unlike yourself when you’re looking at them that it sort of gives the viewer space to connect to them and see themselves in these because they’re so, so bizarre and so out there that you know you’re not necessarily looking for a connection and the connection will find you.

BC: Yeah they look kind of like almost like cartoon characters but from like a scary children’s show or something like that.

NJ: Yeah, yeah.

BC: They find this really nice line between almost scary and and just kind of unsettling but also like I want to pet one!

NJ: Well I definitely like to play along that line of, like, creepy and cute and scary and playful especially now. I feel like now I’m sort of moving out of the gross-out weird pickled pigs and chicken feet. I sort of have moved away from that, chilled out a little bit, but I don’t know I think that’s a really fun sort of dichotomy to engage with.

BC: So other than moving into this more fantastical world how has your work changed as you’ve grown into senior studio and your time just as an art student at Oberlin?

NJ: It’s crazy! I started out printmaking and was just super into printmaking, which is still cool, but I think it was just like the first medium that I was introduced to at a college level and was really pumped about and was, I don’t know, just at an exciting start and then sort of as I started taking more classes and started questioning what makes good art and what I should be sort of working towards, I started moving into the third dimension a little bit. This is the first year that I’ve fully done the 3D stuff but definitely my work is a lot more playful, and a lot lighter. I don’t take art less seriously but I take my own art less seriously and just have sort of given myself more space to just do things that are fun rather than like being like “oh, how will this go over at the critique?” Yeah, I’m happy with the direction I’m sort of taken.

BC: Yeah! Other than just taking more classes why do you think that your scope and motives have shifted?

NJ: I guess just engaging more seriously with the art world and taking myself more seriously as an artist who can actually make things that are actually art. That sort of switch and understanding where you’re like, “Oh, I can create art too.” Taking your work more seriously and placing more value in the things you create really makes you sort of change the style. I guess I’m being weird by saying I’m taking myself less seriously and also taking myself more seriously but I’m having more fun and taking myself seriously. Yeah, that’s what I would say!

BC: That makes sense. You can sense that you were pointing to some of these creatures and explaining what they were—what are you working on here? What’s this creature going to be?

NJ: This guy has six legs and he sort of is like a little daschund and he’s going to have a striped tail. And yeah I think this is sort of a process driven work because I don’t really know who he’s going to be until I’m finished with him. You know, I think their identities and characters sort of develop with the colors and the textures and the story happens as this guy happens so right now I don’t really know what’s going to happen with him, but I think he might have sort of been starting on a little baby for him, so maybe this one’s going to be a mommy too.

BC: Alright, I like it! So in your work do you  find a rhythm in the process? I’ve noticed in a lot of these they have a lot of similarities. So when you start a new piece, how do you decide where you’re going? Or do you just start off with some plaster and go for it?

NJ: I guess it’s like a little bit of a formula that I stick to to keep these creatures in the same sort of realm of existence. Like I like the heads with a rim so it looks like they’re wearing a little suit or something with their heads exposed. And I like the polka dots. And of course the bright colors. But in terms of their form, I sort of just wing it. I work with chicken wire and it’s like really hard on your hands. That’s the worst part to me, making the actual structure and I’m just rushing through it like, “I just gotta get this done!” And then you sort of create more of the form once you add the layers. I guess there’s direction and there isn’t direction. Sort of like a matrix that I’m following but each one is a little bit different. Sort of like trying to make it work as I’m working with it.

BC: Yeah! Are these ones that are hanging and fuzzy, are they constructed in the same way?

NJ: No, so these these are crazy! These ones are really big felted creatures—needle felted, out of that wool stuff that’s sort of like this fluff y wool roving. This has, like, a skeleton with one piece of wire and then you sort of wrap it like poly-fil or whatever and then the wool roving and then you, like, stab it up until it sort of forms a little guy like this.

BC: Another thing I’ve noticed is how those are obviously hanging to the walls and they have this wool felt that looks really inviting to touch and these other creatures are the size of a small dog or something like that. How do you want people who are looking out to interact with your work?

NJ: Oh, I want them to interact with it! Everyone always says that they want to pet these and I want them to, even the ones that aren’t as fuzzy. I think they’re so sweet and just to engage with them and touch them… I mean I make them out of papier mâché so they’re light and they’re durable and they’re not going to break. So yeah, I want people to think they’re like little puppies or babies and I want people to be excited about their bright colors.

BC: And it’s very fun! It’s kind of like they’re living with us in a children’s book.

NJ: Yeah. Yeah! I want to put them in a giant room of polka dots and really get it going.

BC: So you talked a little bit about, like, the reasons your process has changed, but what are some of your inspirations, artistic or otherwise, that inform the work you make?

NJ: Oh, well I definitely have my favorite artist influences. I really like Allison Schulnik who works in clay and also animation and also makes figurative animals but they’re super influential to me and I think about them a lot. Also Louise Bourgeois. Love those little creepy spider guys. I think all these artists who sort of have these weird alien creature animation things, not animations but animated creatures, those are really what I think about. I’m thinking about this whole world that already exists out there and all these different funky guys and I’m trying to sort of add my own into that space.

BC: Yeah like that, it’s very engaging. Is there anything else that you’d like to say about your work or that you want people to know when they look at these?

NJ: No, but I can plug my website! My website is ninajosephson.com and my Instagram is nina.makes.art, and that has my in-progress works!

Categories
Graphic Arts

Issue Artwork, Fall 2018

by Wilder Voice Artists | Graphic Arts | Fall 2018

The following works appear independent of any print piece in the Fall 2018 issue.


Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Octavia Bürgel

interviewed by Bridget Conway | Visual Processes | Spring 2018


Bridget Conway: Do you have an artist’s statement or intention for work that you’re working on right now, or work that you’ve worked on in the past?

Octavia Bürgel: Well, I don’t have an artist statement currently that I’m proud of, but I make work that’s largely photographic. I’ve been doing photography for eight years at this point. I mostly do work that talks about race in some capacity, as it directly relates to my experience. Recently, I’ve felt like my most comfortable ways to talk about that have been through abstraction, although the majority of my work is largely representational or figurative. I’ve been dealing a lot with ideas of identity and construction and how we can represent facets of identity through abstraction, but also through the repetition of specific motifs and imagery and ideas.

BC: What are some of those abstractions or other motifs that you rely on in such a representational media?

OB: I’ve been doing a lot of things with image distortion. So mostly distorting images to the point that they’re unrecognizable, and then questioning whether or not those images can realistically be called photographs. I think a lot of my real interest in photography is also embedded in the physical technique, the literal techniques and processes that are required in order to make a photograph. And so I think my work is very process-based because it’s consistently informed by whatever—however I’m printing or distorting the image. So recently, this woodblock that I just printed is like this photograph of a bunch of Oberlin baseball players in the 1800s. I’m trying to distort that to reshape the narrative about the importance of education, because this is like our school. And I think there’s a real way that sports and white maleness lend themselves very easily to glory and celebrity. And I feel like we talk so much about the “great American sports” and all of these things, but also this project for me is really about being like, yeah, OK those things are interesting, but like specifically at Oberlin, the legacy that we brag about has directly to do with the legacy of slavery. I feel a lot of my work is a constant sort of questioning and hopefully the work itself can be a process of answering.

BC: Do you want to speak a little bit about the work that you either brought or that you wanted to bring?

OB: Yeah, I’ll talk a little bit about the work I wanted to bring. So, I think for a long time—and this also very much coincides with my experience of growth and developing a sense of self and identity, in my college career. Because I think my earlier [work] or the work at least that I was doing when I… first started doing photography, it was just very simple. You know, you have a camera and you take pictures. And that’s just like what I did for years. Then I took a couple of photo classes here and there and the projects that I was doing were sort of related to identity, but more through like space. And then when I got to Oberlin, I started talking about my identity in this way that was mostly through self-portraiture. And I’ve found, oddly enough, that self-portraiture is a thing that I feel very comfortable doing. I think because you just need one person to do it. So more and more, as I’ve been in school and reading a lot about many of the Black artists who have come before me and who have been dealing with ideas of Blackness and abstraction, and Blackness as an abstraction, as a state of nothingness and death, I’ve been very much starting to be pulled in a more abstract or theoretical direction, and so I did this piece… last semester, it doesn’t have a title, but I was thinking a lot about landscapes and specifically urban landscapes, because every time I would go home to New York I was walking around and there’s just textures and colors and sounds and everything. And I was just like, Oh my God, you can’t synthesize a place into a photograph.

I have a lot of thoughts about photos in general too, but I think photographs, people usually think of as being reductive in some sense, as being a flattening of a real experience. And I definitely buy into that idea to a certain extent, and so last year I was really starting to think about landscape and textile. And so I did this piece that was—making these prints, both photographic and screen-printed—images of basketball courts because they’re just… I think that there’s just so much to be said for the basketball court as a symbol, as a graphic symbol. First of all, just because it’s so recognizable automatically, but also the court in so many Black communities is a really fraught space where it’s at once supposed to be representative of freedom and joy and the ability of movement and, I guess to a certain extent, the awareness of having a body is directly tied into any kind of physical activity. But then on the other hand, it’s also for many people a source of life and hope and the idea that… I don’t know, it’s just so much, it’s such an image of success, and I think that I just really wanted to trouble that invention. I was using a variety of media, and I was taking these images, of basketball courts and kind of… oh, I was distorting them! Oh my god, I didn’t even realize, but I was messing with them so they would print a little weirdly.

I have a lot of thoughts about photos in general too, but I think photographs, people usually think of as being reductive in some sense, as being a flattening of a real experience. And I definitely buy into that idea to a certain extent, and so last year I was really starting to think about landscape and textile. And so I did this piece that was—making these prints, both photographic and screen-printed—images of basketball courts because they’re just… I think that there’s just so much to be said for the basketball court as a symbol, as a graphic symbol. First of all, just because it’s so recognizable automatically, but also the court in so many Black communities is a really fraught space where it’s at once supposed to be representative of freedom and joy and the ability of movement and, I guess to a certain extent, the awareness of having a body is directly tied into any kind of physical activity. But then on the other hand, it’s also for many people a source of life and hope and the idea that… I don’t know, it’s just so much, it’s such an image of success, and I think that I just really wanted to trouble that invention. I was using a variety of media, and I was taking these images, of basketball courts and kind of… oh, I was distorting them! Oh my god, I didn’t even realize, but I was messing with them so they would print a little weirdly.

Before that, I guess the piece that sort of […] thinking a lot at the end of last year about race and that was really the first time that I was directly talking about race, because before that, my work that was mostly self-portraiture and it consisted of exactly that. But I would kind of just be like “Oh, this is about identity,” without putting any real kind of term onto it, because I think my experience of being half white and half Black always made me into a weird kind of thing that nobody really knew what to do with, where I felt ostracized from my white family and also ostracized from my Black family, and just didn’t really know if it was even remotely possible for me to talk about race because I didn’t know what I was. But also, I think so much of the experience of being a Black person and the experience of being a mixed person or any kind of person who is somehow “uncategorizable” or an anomaly, is feeling literally ignored and fully invisible. And so it’s really important to me that people actually have to be able to look at the work and engage with the work and not brush the work off. 

Image by Octavia Bürgel

Yeah, it took me awhile to figure out. So I started making work about Black masculinity, because I just had been thinking so much about all of these relatives that I had, and family members and friends. And all of these ideas are coming directly in a time when police brutality is, it’s constant, it’s everywhere. It’s impossible to get away from. And so not working within some kind of response to that or some kind of very emotional feeling about the way that this constant stream of murder was affecting me, felt, I don’t know, a little bit disingenuous. So I started making this work about Black masculinity by just sort of compiling archived family photos and printing them using a nineteenth-century photographic process. And I was printing on silk and that was the first time that I had ever printed on a material that wasn’t photo paper and it felt really, really exciting and freeing to be exploring different types of material. And so, for that piece specifically, it was really the silk that was so important to me because the whole “I can’t breathe” slogan was just everywhere and so I was just —these images need to be able to breathe, they need to be able to move. They can’t just exist as this flattened thing, and so now I feel, I’m very much in this phase of trying to understand how photography can be not a reductive thing but an additive process. And how can you make photos and prints and these very two dimensional objects into some construction of a life or an identity. 

BC: Where do you see your work going from here? What are your next projects planned for you know, senior year? Different media or continuing with photography? 

OB: I feel like I’m always going to be using photography in some sense… I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that the times that I’ve taken extended gaps from any kind of photo-related work have felt really, really weird…there are a lot of ideas that I’ve really been trying to work through this semester specifically about mixedness, of being mixed of any background. And I have been really fascinated because we’ve been doing a lot of readings in this printmaking class and also in this translation workshop that I’m in here. They’ve been mostly kind of theoretical texts, but they examine the ways that, for example, in translation, the way that there’s this dichotomy between the original and the copy, and the original and the facsimile. And the same I think can be said for printmaking. And photography too, you have the original moment and then you have a photograph, or you have the matrix or the drawing or whatever the idea is, and then you have the print. I think that that applies really well to a mixed race identity because there is the feeling of being other, and the feeling of being uncategorizable comes from being viewed as a copy, in a sense. But I do really want to start getting more sculptural and definitely less… I don’t want to say less figurative, because also some of the ideas that I—one of the main ideas that I want to do is fashion-related. And I think that there’s just so much to be done with fashion in terms of making it into art, and I also think that there’s so many ways that there can be fashion that is specifically for an outsider identity, and how does that represent us. So that’s kind of what I’m going to be working on next year, but I’m also working on a lot of other things. 

Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Julia Schrecengost

interviewed by Bridget Conway | Visual Processes | Spring 2018

Julia Schrecengost, untitled

Bridget Conway: Do you have an artist’s statement for your senior studio or just your approach to your work in general? 

Julia Schrecengost: This year I’ve really been exploring sculpture and printmaking and the intersections between the two in my half-time show, which was an installation. There were no prints, but for my final show I’m going to incorporate a lot of monotypes using the same found materials I use in my sculpture work. [The show includes] some monotypes that have nets coming out of them and are physically embedded into the paper to reference the nets that I have been hand tying and casting in plaster that are also going be shown in the space hanging from the ceiling. I’ve just been experimenting with repetitive processes that I am instinctively drawn to, like tying knots over and over again, [and] wrapping wire around stuff. That also ties into printmaking, which is itself a very repetitive and laborious process. The themes that I’m exploring right now are all kind of related to chronic pain stemming from a lot of childhood leg injuries I had playing basketball, and processing how that’s affecting my body as I age. It’s getting more and more tangible. The pain—it’s more of a daily thing now. And so the repetitive and laborious processes for me are sometimes an act of physical endurance, especially with printmaking. It sort of feels like I’m channeling the same energy I put into sports into art making, but it has a very different product. 

BC: One thing I’ve noticed about your work is that it often does come out at the viewer. Even with some monotypes, you’ve used the materials to emboss the paper. Is there something that you’re trying to get across with having such three-dimensional and natural works?

JS: Yeah, I’m trying to communicate a sense of tension in my pieces. In the way that they’re hung, there’s a lot of empty space. I’m trying to reference the things that are going on inside of our bodies that we’re not really aware of and these random pains that seem to have no source. I’m referencing things like ligaments, tissues, veins, and bones in a very abstracted way. I’m also referencing neuro pathways of pain and how they extend beyond the body, by casting shadows on the wall or onto prints from my sculptures as a way to tie the concepts together. 

What else am I trying to do? I also work with a lot of found objects, things that when I’m at home or when I’m traveling, I find and think would be interesting to manipulate. I also just don’t really like spending money on expensive art supplies, so finding things in the trash or on the side of the road is a great way to navigate that. And also you can’t really plan on finding something like that. It’s a moment that I want to replicate, like how I’m feeling when I find it. I like to go for walks in the woods and just think a lot and collect plants or anything that catches my eye. And then when I’m making a piece I’m processing the same things as I am when I’m walking, since walking can be painful physically, and you know, if you’re going through something painful mentally too, it’s helpful to process those things by walking, and by then collecting and using those collected items to make art. 

BC: When you’re looking, whether in the woods or in the trash or something, what kinds of things are you drawn towards? And then on the basis of that, how much of your work is planned? And how much of it is improvised based on what is available to you? 

JS: When I’m looking at plants, I like to take things that are dead but used to be alive, so I’m not like ripping [them] away from the earth. I like to only take what’s offered to me. I’ll take something like a flower that was once soft but has become hard or something that is now soft but was once hard. It’s like going through this evolution that I’m continuing on in my work. When I’m on vacation with my family at the beach, I like to wander the shoreline and I’ve found a bunch of bleached, washed up nets and driftwood and sea glass. I like taking objects from places that I spend a lot of time in a way that feels significant to me, so then I can take a piece of those experiences with me. 

Talking about how much of my work is planned, pretty much none of it is. I have a lot of materials, and I think about which ones want to work together and then I sort of limit myself to those materials. And then I decide what processes to use to manipulate them. As I’m going, I don’t have any real sense of what it’s going to look like in the end. I just try for it to feel whole and harmonious, and have interesting composition and a lot of movement. 

BC: How much do you feel that you’re in conversation with your own work? What’s the balance between you and your work? If you’re making things spontaneously and responding to the process, do you see a separation between you and your work? 

JS: When I started making a lot of nets, I started by just doing the process of tying up the string and making knot after knot. It really depends on what the material wants to do in terms of how it turns out, but it’s definitely a reflection of myself because a lot of it comes from the subconscious and my own instincts. Thinking about how that relates to the sports I used to play, I did my best when I wasn’t thinking about injury and was just very fluid in movement and relying on instinct. And then when I got injured, I was always aware of the limitations of my body and was more scared to do things. Now that I’m making art, I’m trying to make art about the limitations of the body while still remaining instinctual in my making. 

BC: That makes a lot of sense. I think because, especially with the sculptures you make with nets or found wood, it feels very immersive and bodily. This net you have on the wall of your studio, for instance, feels very big and immersive. 

JS: Yeah! And that will all look very different when I’m done with it. For instance, I found this medical grade plaster bandage that I’ve been wrapping [around] the driftwood and it feels really satisfying to wrap it up, like it’s like a limb or something. Then, when it’s all white, it kind of looks like bones. And I’m going to attach those to the net via plaster. A lot of my processes recall surgery or other semi-violent actions towards the body. I have a few pieces in which I’ve threaded copper through a hole in a piece of metal or stitched into latex. I kind of view art making like the process of sustained recovery. It often makes me physically feel worse, but it makes me feel more whole and at peace with my body, emotionally and mentally. 

BC: How has your art practice changed or grown at your time at Oberlin? Is there anything that you thought that you would never appreciate that you’ve learned to appreciate or things that you thought you would always stick with that you have realized that you’ve moved on from? 

JS: At Oberlin, my practice was changed completely. Before I got to college, I was mostly making realistic paintings and I was getting really frustrated because they were taking a long time and it wasn’t fun anymore. My first semester here, I didn’t take any art classes and I was feeling really lost. And then I took a class with Nannette and Julie Christiansen, the last Materials and Methods class. It was on installation and performance, and that’s when I started getting really interested in installation and the idea that art is a lot more than just something on a canvas. And then my sophomore year, I took a screen printing class with Kristina and that just totally changed my whole perception of art making. I really wanted to master the technical aspects of it. My designs got a lot more abstract, and it opened me up to experimentation. […] 

I think that it is really important for me to be a part of an arts community and feel inspired by my peers and help them out as a way to help myself to grow. I really changed a lot since coming here, and I’m pretty happy with where I’m at right now.