Sunday, May 8, 2011

Grass for Sarah

Grass for Sarah
Woven copper and wool, copper tubing, linen warp
by Shanna Wheelock, 2011

The last few weeks have rolled by quickly with a multitude of deadlines and long drives, thus my absence from blog world. Time is always shorter than the list of things to get done, it seems. I am breathing a bit easier now, though, since my MFA semester work has been passed-in. The long drive back from Kennebunk last weekend offered hours of reflection on accomplishments, gratitude, and goals.

While on the road I was able to visit family and spend a day in Portland enjoying art and some slow-paced browsing. If you are in that neck of the woods definitely check out the biennial show at the Portland Museum of Art. I thought it was one of the best that I had seen.

Over the next couple weeks or so I will post two new sculptures, but for now, will begin with a woven work that has had me on a journey of discovering information about one of my ancestors: my great-grandmother Sarah. The last blog entry that I wrote three weeks ago outlined some of my experiences during this quest.

The discovery that Sarah was a weaver who had a deep reverence for nature inspired the piece pictured above. From the tidbits of information that I found in the New York Times, she was working with grass on crash fiber. It was considered a new and interesting material choice for her. I decided, for my own piece, to focus on the word "grass" and to weave with a new material that I had not used before: copper wire. I am not certain what "crash" is, but from the definition that I found, it sounded similar to linen warp string.

Throughout the whole process, I felt my great-grandmother's presence. I imagined what colors she would have chosen, or how she would have ordered the 25 individual panels that were eventually pieced together. I wondered if copper ever had significance for her being a jeweler. She lived on a plantation with sheep. Did she use wool from those in her own weaving work? Did she help her husband Henry sheer the sheep? And did she then card and spin that wool? Were her hands as sore as mine after a day of weaving?

Each day I would finish a component of the work but each day I still did not know how the tapestry would end up in its final concoction. The mystery unfolded only after moving through numerous transformations. Eventually the panels formed long strips of green and copper that flowed from a frame of copper tubing.

"Grass for Sarah" became more than just woven panels spliced together. Emotions were intense and in talking about the process and why certain decisions were made, Chris said to me that they way I described the piece sounded like a "Transformation Tapestry."

I started making "Transformation Tapestries" in 2007 after my Nana died. The tapestry, made with her clothing, was a venue for grief resolution as well as a commemoration and celebration of her life. Since then, I have made others, not only to represent the deceased, but other life transitions as well.

I felt that "Grass for Sarah" was guided by Sarah's spirit, through my hands, as a Transformation Tapestry in honor of her daughter Amy, who drowned only a few months before Sarah herself died. I thought of how Sarah was an incredibly strong woman, having lost two children but still managing to raise two others and still continue to progress as an artist. She must have spent many of her days with a deep sadness, and at the time of Amy's death, I thought that perhaps she had not yet fully processed that loss when her own death occurred.

Finishing "Grass for Sarah" was one of those big exhale moments. The process had consumed my thoughts since the morning of April 1st, and the physical labor demanded over one hundred twenty hours, the bulk of which was input during April vacation. There were lots of cuts and scrapes and sore fingers and moments of "starting over". There are at least 11 panels that did not make it onto the final piece and the frame was built three times. But all was a necessary part of the process and nuggets of ideas have been sparked for future pieces.

The song by John Hiatt, "Through Your Hands" makes me think of my journey with "Grass for Sarah", and also of all the other incredible things that come from our hands - from a child's art, to penning a poem, playing a musical instrument, building a house, healing, loving, baking, planting.......

powerful to think how our hands are conduits for the creative thoughts and ideas that come from our souls....


Anonymous said...

Interesting story and nice follow-through. I never knew my grandmother because my father was adopted as a result of the death of his mother 10 months after his birth in 1933, during the Great Depression. He was "adopted" by a distant relation who I knew as my "Bopci" (grandmother). There were a lot of badly handled adoption issues and as a result, a breakdown in communication within the family. It was not until 2005 that I received photos of my grandmother who looked like she could have been my twin, except shorter.

Anonymous said...

Isn't finding out about your family, who came before you and paved the way for you in so many ways, a wonderful gift? They are so connected to you in such a powerful spiritual way. It is something we don't think about all the time, but when you start to find out about your ancestors, you learn so much about yourself! Your connection to Sarah is a joy to hear about and I'm happy that you have found such delightful inspiration! Pam C. NH