The Clash of the Titans: Beading, Art, and Incarceration

The Clash of the Titans

Beading, Art, and Incarceration

 

by Michael J. Moore

Big Six stands six feet three inches tall and weighs 250 pounds.

His head is shaved and often dripping sweat as he lies on his back, pressing more than four hundred pounds off his chest. He’s serving four consecutive life sentences for a quadruple drug-related homicide that took place in 2010. He was also charged with felony gun possession and extortion, which earned him his third strike. He has a reputation, both on the streets and in prison, as a leader of Tacoma’s 46 Neighborhood Crips, and as one of the most notoriously violent prisoners in Washington State. As we sit at a metal table in one of four day rooms in the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) and he tells me about his life, however, I’m struggling to find the link between who Big Six is said to be and the gentle giant across from me.

Artistic expression, he tells me, is the reason.

“Beading brings me calm,” Six explains. “It lets me focus on something besides prison. It’s made me mature, taught me patience, and given me something to do instead of dwelling on hatred for my captors.”

I can’t help but wonder where Six would be today had such a source of calm been introduced into his life earlier.

“I was never in danger of going to college or becoming a rocket scientist,” he says, “but I am a mechanic, which means I put thing together and make things. It’s the act of creating, and if I’d had a positive outlet like art, growing up, I would have ran with it.”

Born John Booth on June 24, 1979, in Centralia, Washington, he practically took his first steps along the road that would lead him to this dismal place. His parents split when he was four, and while his brother was sent to live with their mother, Six remained with an abusive criminal father.

“My dad was an outlaw biker and a drummer in a rock and roll band,” he tells me. “He sold weed, partied all the time, and always beat the shit outta me. I basically grew up on the back of his Harley.”

At twelve, Six was already bigger than some of the men in his Tacoma neighborhood, and he was always prepared for a fight.

“The problem,” he recalls, “was that they couldn’t beat me up, so they would end up jumping me. That’s what ultimately led to me joining a gang. I always knew I was gonna be an outlaw anyway. It just so happened the time was right, and I became a Crip.”

Soon after, he landed in a juvenile prison for stealing a car and taking police on a high-speed pursuit. It was there that he met other boys his age, who were also immersed in the criminal element.

“I was surprised to see that these kids looked up to me. Soon, we started getting out, and now we all knew each other and wanted a piece of what everybody was doing. It used to baffle me that they didn’t have the proper connections. They couldn’t get guns, but I was a full-blown gang member and had more guns than I knew what to do with.”

Six assembled his new friends into a squad and oversaw operations that included but weren’t limited to selling drugs, robbing drug dealers, and collecting criminal-related debts for a percentage of what was owed. He earned his first adult prison sentence in 1996 for unlawful possession of a firearm, got his GED, and was released a year later with no new job or coping skills.

“My dad picked me up with cold beers in the truck,” he recounts, “but he’d sold all my belongings, so I didn’t have anything. I had to completely start over.”

Over the course of the next fifteen years, he bounced in and out of the system and climbed the ranks within the Neighborhood Crips—until that deadly night in 2010 claimed his life in the free world as well.

“Once the system did its job and I had life in prison, I doubled down,” Six says. “Where I was a full-blown gangster before, now I became the leader of prison gangs.”

Due to the nature of his convictions, he was housed in maximum-security facilities where he was locked in his cell twenty-two hours a day, with little to do but prepare for the brutality that took place when the steel doors finally opened. With limited resources, he began looking for a way to make money. A friend from his social circle was managing to generate a decent income selling beadwork, so Six asked him what kind of investment was needed to get started.

“It was substantial,” he remembers. “I raised the money quickly, though, and started collecting patterns and books. I taught myself how to bead out of books because I couldn’t be seen asking for help with anything. That would hurt my reputation. I was instantly hooked, though, and I finally had something to do besides create hate and discontent.”

But it wasn’t easy. For starters, Six has massive hands, and those beads are so small that they easily disappear when observed from a distance. But determined, he persevered and began to put his natural talent for creating into practice.

Soon after starting, he was found guilty of organizing gang meetings and put in segregation for six months, where he remained laser-focused on beading. He read books on the craft, acquired patterns, and daydreamed about future projects until he was finally released back into the general population. Then a series of high-profile fights that some within the incarcerated population dubbed “The Clash of the Titans” sent him back to segregation for the longest stretch he’d ever endured.

Six remembers of this time, “I continued to be consumed by beading. More books. More patterns. More daydreams….” One and a half painstaking years later, Six emerged into MCC, a medium-security prison where he could finally focus more on art and less on gang life.

It was here that a real transformation began in the giant. Though he can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, he’s convinced it was brought on by the meditative qualities and focus required to refine his process, which he asserts really isn’t a process at all.

“I just have to be doing something, and it can’t be something I don’t enjoy,” he says. “I genuinely enjoy making beautiful things. When I have an order and I can picture the person it’s going to, that’s what I do. I like the products to match the person.”

When he doesn’t have an order, he stays busy making his more popular products, such as hummingbirds and teddy bear necklaces. While other prisoners who bead tend to focus on two-dimensional medallions, Big Six’s items are almost exclusively 3-D decorative pieces.

Today, a glance through the bars of his six-by-nine-foot steel cage will usually reveal him sitting cross-legged on a bunk that’s smaller than he is, quietly bringing together his latest project. Where most of his neighbors hang pictures of half-naked women on their tack boards, his is covered in beaded necklaces, patterns, and a color wheel that he uses to determine which beads best blend together. He also has a store on Etsy, called americanbeadshop.

“Everything I make is in high demand around here, though a lot of it ends up selling before I can even send it out for my store.”

If Six’s story isn’t a testament to why artistic expression should be nurtured in prisons, I don’t know what is. As we wrap up this interview, I’m finding myself amazed at how even the tiniest of beads can inspire massive transformation in broken people.

About the Author

 

Michael J Moore’s books include Highway Twenty, which appeared on the preliminary ballot for the 2019 Bram Stoker Award; the bestselling postapocalyptic novel After the Change, which is used as curriculum at the University of Washington; the psychological thriller Secret Harbor; and his middle-grade horror series Nightmares in Aston. His work has received awards, has appeared in various anthologies, journals, newspapers (e.g. ,TheHuffPost and Business Insider), and magazines (e.g., The Nation), on television (with acclaimed newsman Carlos Watson and KPIX5), and has been adapted for theaters including Open Door Playhouse

 

 

Top photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

Makers on Making illustration by Brian Dixon for BMP Voices. All rights reserved.

Makers on Making features printmakers, writers, knitters, crafters, painters, photographers, textile artists, and anyone else involved in art. These pieces delve into the psychology of making, the lessons we learn from success and (often more usefully) failure, and what it is to be a human authentically and emotionally involved as a maker in our world.

On Small and Unusual Spaces

On Small and Unusual Spaces

 

by Valarie Frost

Place has always been a complicated topic for me to grasp; to hold still in the palm of my hand.

 

To paraphrase the big moves in my life: I was adopted from China when I was one year old, raised in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, toured the country as a teenager, and currently reside on the East Coast. Like a horizonless kaleidoscope that transforms endlessly in the light of every slight angle, unusual spaces are the conceptual nodes of a life perceived in remnants. As I write and compile an anthology of sorts about the tiny spaces I’ve inhabited physically, and emotionally from afar, the notion of place morphs into something inconceivably intangible, riddled with the what-ifs of my yesteryears. In spaces where circumstance and spontaneity intersect, the room to vastly dissect notions of self is created.

Small spaces define us because they allow us to reorient ourselves in a reality defined by the fixed settings we’re born into. They brush the tips of our noses, scrape our knees, and we jam our heads into a child’s tactile realm. Defined as we are by the nooks within our larger sense of presence, the composition of our environment dwindles, and we realize that composition itself is indivisible from our situational locus. The center of these small spaces, the gooey impalement in our sternum, is all we have in the long run. To investigate and write about the chimera that are these tiny spaces of emotional heat is to write about the times in between that bridge the present and past; trail markers of our identity. They create us. As someone who’s spent a decent amount of time traveling in these in-between zones, tethered in the liminality of my personal collection of tiny and unusual spaces, I’ve come to learn that spaces are what we take with us after the fact. Small spaces serve as plot points for us to retrace. They’re these ethereal reference points that allow us to lay out ourselves like a character out of a novel.

I used to believe that escaping physically from a place could also release you emotionally—that location alone could ripen the eye and honey the world. But distance only temporarily files down familiarity with the freshness of an unblemished sight. Regardless of where we are, we tend to seek out the same functions of comfort, whether that be the type of crowd we attract or the items we accumulate over time. It makes me think about great writers like the Bronte sisters or Thoreau, who barely traveled far yet still managed to capture the essence of the human condition. Their work interrogates the necessity of excessive travel, but in many ways our civilization today is anchored differently than that of previous decades. Instead of solitude as a choice or purely a condition, solitude has become a form of escapism—the dream we chase after and the chase we dream of.

From Portland, Oregon, to Boston, Massachusetts, and the unavoidable places in between, travel has always carried an air of distinguishment. The idea of getting a fresh start when you change location is part of an allegory I fell for. With my collection of friend groups, town squares, and signals of a sunny day, I watch closely as they evolve in parallel spaces and often see them develop past myself. I am attentive as time goes on and as I stop to look back. The places I’ve been become alternate timelines of sorts; evidence of what could’ve been. Places move on without you, without permission, but spaces solidify your experience of a place, the space you choose to inhabit or choose to acknowledge or choose to identify with. I’ve become infatuated with tiny and unusual spaces because although they are engrained in the physical world, the value of solitude is all in our heads.

My sense of place was impacted a handful of years ago when my family sold my childhood home and moved out of state. My experience influences my piece particularly heavily because it was a tear in my sense of belonging and broke the bordered shelter that is home. On my last night in town, I was driving home, and I decided to do one last round to all the places that were meaningful to me that I knew I wouldn’t get to see again for the foreseeable future—

The wall of brick behind the high school where I’d pace on overcast days.

The wooded path of dead pines next to the old house.

The bog where I found a dead squirrel.

The nature park railroad only to be navigated at dusk.

The neighborhood tennis court where I gave someone a black eye.

The greenspace that fueled the children with endless dandelions.

The dusty base beneath the acorn tree where all the outcasts went to play.

The panel of cement where I pulled a three-inch-long splinter out of my foot.

The chilled garage step where I told my Mom I was leaving.

The patch of hallway where I built a trebuchet using floss.

The back deck where I dyed my dog hot pink.

The carpeted corner where I hid from my future.

The space underneath my desk where I stored jars of peanut butter.

The shelf of my headboard that hid my embarrassment.

The wooden stage I performed on with my sister when we were close.

The pillow we declared was only to laugh into at night.

The skylight in ‘Grandma’s bedroom’ that attracted soggy leaves and pale light.

The nerdy inside jokes that lined my mouth.

The back of the closet where I hid just to see if I could disappear.

The sitting branch where I engraved my sister’s and my names into the bark.

The yellow of a blazing day that crisped up the grass beneath my step.

The enormous oak tree that watched over us all.

My essay on tiny and unusual spaces began as an homage to these places and my determination for them not to be forgotten. Small spaces as they were and as we remember them are what we have to move forward with. They’re what we bring along with us. They are coveted planes that remind us of ourselves while allowing us to hide from the dexterity and daedal nature of our situation. While writing on this subject, I came across the word to hide frequently, and, unsurprisingly, I believe this is because isolation is so entangled with escapism. To escape is a luxury, and since we don’t always have the opportunity to run away, tiny spaces aid us in creating emotional bubbles where we can mentally detach from our everyday. Those are the kinds of memories that can resonate with us for a lifetime. Some of them, the ones I look back on often, even escape words. Their familiarity as a pocket of my reminiscence alone surpasses the value of the vision itself—the act of recollection becomes more sacred than what’s recalled. Those are the ones we love, the ones we return to in grim times, the ones that remind us of something we once were caught by. As a writer with this particular focus, to capture these instances is my mission. To let others into our enigmas and to provide reprieve embodies our ability to sympathize and to be understood.

Other spaces offer themselves to us more coyly, in which they only appear to us attached to other flashbacks. They demand us to scan our memory and to pluck out the blooms worth remembering. Only the finest, greenest, thoughts; almost as if we can fool ourselves into thinking that’s what the whole world is like. But when we begin to interrogate ourselves and to look forward in match time, we inherently look back at what we know, which comes in the form of these smaller-than-bite-sized crumbs of an internal space, of the actions we’ve already dotted, and of the experiences whose wholeness has come and gone. Within these small spaces that we recall and the more acute spaces that encompass our recollection of sentience, our lives are stitched together, and we begin to piece together an identity of our life lived.

Vala

About the Maker

 

From Beaverton, Oregon, Valarie Frost (she/her) is a non-fiction writer currently residing in Boston, Massachussetts. Her work centers around the environments we inhabit and the nuances of our perceived identities. She gained a degree in English specializing in Creative Writing from Simmons University and continues to write for local publications.

Akin to many writers, her relationship with writing stems from its ability to heal and to navigate the past. In blurring genre lines, she sees memory as an ever-morphing figure that changes with each recollection. She believes that through the kaleidoscope of reflection, writing can mirror those reflections into the future and provide insight into framing the consequences of our being. In her free time she’s an avid hiker, bicyclist, aspiring climber, and strategist.

Photo by Vlado Paunovic from Pexels.

Makers on Making illustration by Brian Dixon for BMP Voices. All rights reserved.

Makers on Making features printmakers, writers, knitters, crafters, painters, photographers, textile artists, and anyone else involved in art. These pieces delve into the psychology of making, the lessons we learn from success and (often more usefully) failure, and what it is to be a human authentically and emotionally involved as a maker in our world.

Take Away: How a Renovation in Cuba Connected Me to My Chinese and Cuban Heritages

Take Away

How a Renovation in Cuba Connected Me to My Chinese and Cuban Heritages

 

by Katarina Wong

It was the tiles that clinched the deal.

 

My apartment search in Havana had grown cold, and I’d just about given up when the realtor called.

“A new listing just came on the market that I think you’d like,” she said.

We hoofed it up four long flights to the top floor and entered a living room with fourteen-foot ceilings and balconies that opened up to a spectacular view. It spanned from the Capitólio, a near-identical replica of the U.S. Capitol building, across the lush green treetops of the Granma Memorial and out to the malecón, the famous sea wall that marked the edge of the island.

But it was the cement tiles that ran the length of the space like an ornate rug that caught my imagination. Original to the building, one pattern of interlocking brick red, forest green, and ochre delineated the living room from the rest of the apartment, while a different configuration filled the other rooms. I thought about how generations of daily lives had polished them to a silky shine.

It was January 2015, only a few weeks after President Obama announced a reopening of relations between the United States and Cuba. The optimism this announcement ushered in was unprecedented, and I wanted to be part of what I hoped would be a new chapter for Cuba. I wondered too if I might find the next act of my story. I hoped to better understand my Cuban roots and maybe even find my place here—literally and figuratively.

This curiosity was sparked by a long-held feeling that I was a cultural imposter. Despite having visited my mother’s family in Cuba dozens of times—the first as a child in 1979 during the Cold War—I felt like the lite version of my Cuban relatives who lived in Miami, lacking any real sabor and sweetened artificially. English was my native language, not Spanish; I grew up in Florida, but not in the Cuban ex-pat community full of its rituals and large family gatherings; I never had a quinceañera, nor did I know who the Three Kings were until I was long past the age when I could expect gifts from them.

So, after all of these years, I found myself standing on the tile floors of a nearly century-old building in Habana Vieja, the oldest part of Havana, saying yes to the purchase.

Even though the apartment appeared solid to me, my contractor advised me to do a complete renovation and correct any underlying problems. He stripped the cement ceiling and walls down to the metal beams and fixed hidden leaks, upgraded the plumbing, and ran new wiring. I also changed the floor plan to make it more open and welcoming, but one thing I didn’t touch was the original floor. In redoing the bathroom, however, I learned my contractor needed to remove the ceramic tile floor to rerun plumbing lines. It was an opportunity for me to lay a new one, and I wanted cement tiles to complement the rest of the apartment. Like most supplies in Cuba, the challenge was where to find them.

Cuban tiles—referred to losas hidráulicas or mosaicos—were first brought from Spain in the late 1800s, and although Cuba became home to the largest manufacturer of cement tiles in the world within a few decades, by 2015 all of those factories had disappeared. Thanks to a Canadian acquaintance who was in the midst of renovations himself, I eventually found the lone fabricator of losas hidráulicas in Havana.

Walking into the showroom was like seeing the greatest hits of Cuban flooring. I recognized many of the patterns on the large panels displayed on the walls. There were the fat-petaled daisies against a background of dusty pink I’d noticed in a friend’s home; medallion patterns from a nearby hotel; and even designs from my own apartment. For the bathroom floor, I settled on a black, gray, and white geometric pattern that complemented the white bathroom fixtures.

While there, I was invited to see how the tiles were made. The saleswoman led me down a narrow staircase to the workshop where an artisan was attaching a metal mold to a twenty-by-twenty-millimeter (about eight-by-eight-inch) cement slab. The mold was divided into sections, and he filled them with liquid cement colored with mineral pigments. When the pattern was complete, the tile would be put through a press, then soaked in water to set the colors. After drying, each was not only a handmade piece of art, but one with a lifespan. I learned that the hand-poured layer (about four millimeters thick) corresponded to about a century of wear and tear—of children growing into adults, of fiestas, of families expanding and contracting.

I also noticed a curious thing. When Cubans made similar home improvements, many opted for mass-produced ceramic tiles made in China instead of traditional cement tiles. I’m sure a big factor was cost. While a dollar per cement tile was a bargain for outsiders like me, a dollar represented one twenty-fifth of the average monthly pay in Cuba. I also wondered whether having shiny new tiles seemed more exciting than keeping the faded cement ones they were used to living with. Perhaps it was like an American updating an avocado-green 1970s kitchen with clean white subway tiles and stainless steel appliances. I understood the impulse, but it broke my heart to see old, historic tiles covered over.

Even on an island so cut off from outside goods, China’s inexpensive, expendable products had come ashore, and with them a business model that favors quantity over quality, desire over satisfaction. This disposability ran contrary to what my Chinese father had reminded my sisters and me about the longevity of that side of our inherited culture and the inventions that continued to reverberate hundreds, if not thousands, of years later.

As a child, he’d prompt us with bedtime recitations of the glory of our ancestors’ ingenuity.

“Who invented gunpowder?”

“The Chinese!” my sisters and I would say, a chorus of little voices chirping in unison.

“Printing?”

“The Chinese!”

“Paper?”

“The Chinese!”

“Noodles?”

“The Chinese!

The disparity between those mass-produced tiles and the history my father was so proud of stung as I tried to make sense of what was lasting and what was fleeting about my Cuban and Chinese cultural inheritances.

One evening back in New York, I had an epiphany. As I splayed out a carton that held my vegetable lo mein, I noticed the curious angles and cuts that, when folded, came together in a shape known the world over. Here was something designed to be disposable but that was still iconic. What if I juxtaposed Cuban tile patterns on them—not as cartons, but as flat surfaces. What new hybrid thing might emerge?

I ordered a sleeve of takeaway containers, pried off the metal handles, and laid several cartons flat. Using my arsenal of bamboo brushes, I painted a tile pattern from my Cuban apartment across them. I chose a rich yellow acrylic ink reminiscent of a shade called “wong” that was used only by Chinese emperors. This was also the surname given to my father when he immigrated to the United States in 1939 during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

My grandfather had entered the States illegally, so he couldn’t bring his son. Instead, he turned to a friend who was Chinese but had American citizenship. His friend, a Mr. Wong, sent for my father from Guangzhou, claiming him as his own. My father became part of a generation of “paper sons,” and although he was reunited with my grandfather, in the transaction our family name, “Liu,” was erased. This color—this “wong”— references both a royal privilege that lasted through dynasties and a part of my family’s identity that became disposable.

Take Away

by Katarina Wong

(click for full-size images, titles, and captions)

I called my hybrid pieces the “Take Away” series. Sometimes I would scramble the tile pattern, as in “Take Away (Landscape),” which was inspired by misty Chinese scroll paintings, or I’d cut through the cartons, letting the negative space create the image.

Eventually, I wanted to translate these pieces into a medium similar to cement tiles. Porcelain was a natural choice. It is unexpectedly durable, and porcelains play a prominent role throughout Chinese art history. In “Take Away (Runner),” for example, I glazed the Cuban tile pattern purposefully askew across a grid of carton-shaped porcelain tiles, resembling a puzzle that is either coming together or falling apart.

My “Take Away” series ultimately was inspired by a longing for home—a physical one and one I carry in my heart—a way of merging what’s transitory with what endures. My father is no longer here, but my memories of him, stories from his childhood, his pride in his culture, are contained in every brushstroke. These pieces also hold my mother’s stories, my relationships with friends and family in Cuba, and the feeling of walking across the cool tiles in my Havana apartment—floors that stretch across time, back to the building’s beginning in 1928, to the present, and then into the future, where I hope more generations will play, grow, love, and create on them.

 

Jareen Imam author photo

About the Maker

I’m an artist and writer based in New York City. Through my arts practice, I merge disparate aspects of my Cuban, Chinese, and American cultures. As a first-generation American, I’ve never felt fully claimed by any of these cultures, and my work is a way of reconciliation and reclamation. I use a variety of media, including installation, drawing, painting, and porcelain, and create work that merges iconography and meaning from my diverse cultures. My artwork has been shown nationally and internationally, including at the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, D.C.; the Chinese American Museum and California African Art Museum, both in LA as part of the 2017 Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative; El Museo Del Barrio and The Bronx Museum, both in New York City; The Fowler Museum in LA; the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, Sweden; Fundacíon Canal in Madrid, Spain; and the Coral Gables Art Museum in Miami. I’ve received numerous grants and awards including the Cintas Fellowship for Cuban and Cuban-American artists and a Pollock-Krasner grant, as well as residencies at Skowhegan; Ucross Foundation; Ragdale Foundation; the Kunstlerhaus in Salzberg, Austria; and the Open Art Residency in Eretria, Greece. My work is in numerous private and public collections including the Scottsdale Museum of Art and the Frost Art Museum in Miami, FL. In addition to my visual arts practice, I write about immigration and Cuba issues, including Cuban artists, as well as professional development articles for artists. I’ve written for The New York Daily News, The Miami Herald, Entrepreneur, the Art Business Journal, and the Two Coats of Paint blogazine. My essay “Between the Lines: Messages from my Family in Cuba,” was included in the Bronx Memoir Anthology, Vol. 3 published in 2019. I am currently working on a memoir about my Cuban Chinese American heritages. I have an MFA from the University of Maryland, a Master of Theological Studies in Buddhism from the Harvard Divinity School, and a BA in Classics from St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD.

Photos courtesy Katarina Wong. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Makers on Making illustration by Brian Dixon for BMP Voices. All rights reserved.

Makers on Making features printmakers, writers, knitters, crafters, painters, photographers, textile artists, and anyone else involved in art. These pieces delve into the psychology of making, the lessons we learn from success and (often more usefully) failure, and what it is to be a human authentically and emotionally involved as a maker in our world.

This Plastic Casing of My Body, An Art

This Plastic Casing of My Body, An Art

by Emily Bowles

 

 

My femaleness has always had hard edges.

 

I collected Barbies and built walls around myself, boxes like the Dreamhouse that took up so much space in my room, plastic walls with sharp corners, fixed surroundings, flowers cut to look like the ones growing by my next-door neighbor’s mailbox but so much less fragile.

So much less fragile.

The architecture of plastic promised that: a permanence and a relief from the softness, the easy-to-hurtness of being a girl and then a woman, I thought. Plastic offered protection (lessons learned later about latex gloves, condoms, barriers designed to stop fluidity—a lovely thought when it comes to blood, to semen). Plastic prevented me from feeling… anything.

This is what I learned when I read Donna Haraway’s A Manifesto for Cyborgs: there is power in abnegating femaleness, in living between body and machine. At the same time, we experience technological waste—that’s something that ecofeminists addressed before Haraway in their paralleling of the female body with the natural world, and that even in a post-human dystopia, structure is ineluctable.

I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan and Kaethe Schwehn’s The Rending and the Nesta round the same time one of my friends introduced me to plarn. This coincidental juxtaposition, happening as it did during Plastic-Free July and my second viewing of A Plastic Ocean, has made me think about what I have done to my body, what I have done to the earth, and what I make, how it makes and unmakes me, strips of plastic bags pulled tight by plastic needles and sloping loosely from a ball I’ve made over my fingers.

I hate it.

I am making bags out of bags, a metaphor and a reality that is as tangled as the piles of trash I’m pulling together, weaving together to keep myself from falling apart at the seams, to keep my tiny fragment of the world from being filled up with so much waste.

Working with plastic has taught me how frail the substance feels when it has outlived its first use, and I feel sorry for it, sorry for this flimsy substance that falls apart in my hands. I try to make it sturdy, even as I curse it for making me feel dirty (perhaps I should have rinsed off the CAUTION DANGER tape I tore off a cone by a construction site before I began to touch it, finger to needle), culpable for all the things I have thrown away.

The things I have thrown away. The times I have thrown myself away—on men, on meaning, and on meaninglessness. I have been an object, the object, which makes it hard to object. I have been treated as disposable. I have treated myself as disposable, I think, as I imagine the number of wastebaskets by body has filled with tampon applicators, bottled water, Ziploc bags, lip-gloss tubes, mascara wands, plastic hangers from clothes I ended up not wanting.

It is so easy to consume and be consumed in ways that surreptitiously make us feel unworthy, as if we’re made of the stuff that fills so many trash cans and recycling bins. We live in a culture where we want women to look like plastic, to feel like plastic—and to be as easy to dispose of as plastic. Maybe that’s why, as much as I hate it, I’m drawn to the fact that it outlives us, chokes out everything we have stereotypically labeled feminine: water, birth. This so-called disposable product is destined to outlive us.

My disposable body, the body I keep trying to throw away (babies and bathwater seems like the appropriate phrase here) keeps returning. I choke on it like a sea otter or baby seagull stuffed full of trash bags. I choke on it and still float. I am learning that what we view as disposable is in fact not something we should toss without thinking into a receptacle, not something we should put off to the side and pretend never existed. It’s the stuff that matters.

Each ball of plarn, each broken Barbie, and every vinyl record I’d rather melt down than hear out has a story. For example:

The edges of my femaleness have hardened. The landfill of my living room is a series of landmines that I stitch together to create something capable of withstanding the right pressures to tell a different version of sustainability that defies fictions and fibers. I hope.

Plastic is a gift, and I have made the most of Barbies, vinyl albums, and plastic bags by remaking them, lending them a permanence and a new intelligibility.

Plastic is a prison. It ties me to social constructions and reminds me with every stitch how many molecules are fighting for meaning, for space—and how much ends up floating away, causing destruction, rendering itself obsolete and yet unavoidable.

When plastic moves down my arms and I grip it, I am part woman, part object, always.

The domestic depends on it. Grocery bags, Ziploc bags, microwavable containers. It’s no wonder that when people try to go Zero Waste, they have to start in the kitchen and work their way out. How often do we work our way out?

What I make unmakes a small story of destruction. What I use helps, I tell myself, create a tiny bit more space for life in the ocean, for life in our most vulnerable communities, the ones right on the edge of landfills.

On my arms, the plastic feels toxic, not like the living fibers I love to knit.

With it, I am never sure if I am reproducing artifice or unmaking it (e.g., when I told a man that I was making a bag from bags, he perhaps predictably laughed, even though it wasn’t intended to be funny).

We give birth to stories that are objects, too—stories and objects we do not always want to touch and to touch us.

Knitting with plastic has its own kinesthetics. My mother could hear me knitting when I talked to her on the phone. There is, in that, a sensory power and a shifting away from the quietude of crafts toward something more radical.

It’s new and old at once, this repurposing.

 

Jareen Imam author photo

About the Maker

Emily Bowles is a writer, advocate, and non-profit management professional whose life was either ruined or saved by watching The Last Unicorn and reading Wuthering Heights too many times. She inherited her love of knitting magical creatures from her grandmother, whose sock monkeys were legendary, and her great aunt, whose quilts told many stories. Emily’s first chapbook, His Journal, My Stella (Finishing Line Press), draws on the research she did as a graduate student on Jonathan Swift and uses it as a framework to tell her own stories of sexual violence and shame. Read more of her poetry online at embowlden.blogspot.com and follow her on Instagram @embowlden77.

Top photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Makers on Making illustration by Brian Dixon for BMP Voices. All rights reserved.

Makers on Making features printmakers, writers, knitters, crafters, painters, photographers, textile artists, and anyone else involved in art. These pieces delve into the psychology of making, the lessons we learn from success and (often more usefully) failure, and what it is to be a human authentically and emotionally involved as a maker in our world.

Thousandth Time

Thousandth Time

Broadside Construction

 

by Myrna Keliher

“For the Thousandth Time, I want to Know” is a poem by Mark Nepo from his out-of-print book Inhabiting Wonder.

I first imagined this piece nearly four years ago, and contacted Mark, who generously gave me permission to reprint the poem. It was an ambitious project at the time, and I got about three-quarters of the way through before I abandoned ship. Over the course of a year I designed it, printed it, built all the frames, and scored each sheet by hand eight times and each hinge three times. Then I assembled the first full prototype, and my morale plummeted. It just wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. A classic example of what Ira Glass is talking about in this genius little video on beginners, and making things. I let my perfectionist get the better of me and put the whole darn project up high on a shelf, leaving it there to lurk in the corner through three studio moves and countless other projects.

For three years now, I’ve alternated between forgetting about this project and feeling bad about it: guilty, dismissive, or just plain impossible. It’s been entered on to several hundred to-do lists without ever being crossed off. Until about a month ago. Something shifted and “Thousandth Time” moved from the “unfinished old crap” list in my mind to the “new work to be editioned” list. There were a few external motivating factors, but in reality I don’t know what made the the project click over from one side of my mental divide to the other. The good news is it did, which made it feel possible to work on, and voila! Now its many pieces are covering my work table and the edition is more than half completed!

It also feels current, which is perhaps the most interesting thing of the whole matter. Because the fact is that when I began the project it was beyond my ability to execute from a technical standpoint. I could see it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, but I simply did not have the experience and hand skills to improve it. Now, coming back to the binding process a good three years later, with a handful of large book editions under my belt plus a lot of one-off blank books, my hands are much more capable! And my eyes can see a lot more. It’s been an unexpected gift to pick up the pieces of this ‘old’ project and experience just how far I’ve come since I started it. Somehow my old self must’ve known it would be important work for my future self to complete.

“Thousandth Time”

by Expedition Press

(click for full-size images)

“Thousandth Time” is a three-dimensional poetry broadside, printed on Japanese paper and bound on balsa wood frames with two-way hinge so it can open and close in both directions. I’m making it in an edition of 26. The design was inspired by traditional shoji screens, and a few smaller pieces built by Jules Faye for window displays. This broadside folds closed like a book and slips into a protective black soft-sided slipcase – which is a whole ‘nother pile of work. But hey that’s okay! I like work. Doesn’t everyone like work? One more prototype and the slipcases should be ready to edition.

The binding process for these screens is challenging and time-consuming. The materials are delicate and finicky and I designed it without considering the grain of the paper. The truth is I derived the overall dimensions from the paper itself, which I found in a dusty old box labeled “Antique Japanese Paper from Ralph” which must’ve been sitting for a couple decades itself. As it happens the grain is running short-wise which means the longer turn-ins are the more difficult ones. Here’s the process in a nutshell: first, I trim the corners of each sheet so that they’ll fold properly. Then I glue the frame to the sheet and place it under boards to dry flat. Now the turn-ins, the most difficult part. Head and tail are turned in first and the corners are wrapped with the tabs (cut in the first step). Then the sides are turned in, with generous amounts of PVA, some swearing, and a few deep breaths. Back under boards to dry flat. Then the hinges are attached to two frames at the same time so they line up, first to the front, then folded and scored against the frame. The last step is joining the two screens together by gluing the hinges on the back. Then back under boards, and they are left to dry closed under weight. This helps the finished pieces stay flat and also lets the hinges relax into their closed position.

On a personal note, my mother asked me to print this poem the year after my older brother died. So the project has a lot of grief tied up in it as well, which I am sure has played its own mysterious part in the stymied stop-and-go nature of working on it. I can’t help but note the time of year: there’s something about fall and the days getting darker, a general trend toward introspection that feels appropriate for coming back around to finishing this edition. I spent Nov. 1, the Day of the Dead, prototyping the slipcases, which are all black. Who knows why we let certain things go, and when if ever we’re able to pick them back up? Some things can’t be rushed, and sometimes we’re not meant to know. Good craft has a way of being slow, as does healing when there’s a rift in your soul. I’ve thought of my brother Nathan a lot while working on this project, and I will continue to through the many slow hours left to finish it. “Thousandth Time” is dedicated not just to him, but to all of those we love, and see no more.

Jareen Imam author photo

Artist’s Statement

As a letterpress printer, I work primarily with handset metal type and antique presses. My studio practice is research based and employs strict experimentation alongside no-holds- barred exploration. I collect poetry fragments, expand on them visually, and thread them together to create an experience at once intimate and vast, exposing a sense of wonder and available space. According to Franz Kafka: “a book must be the axe that breaks the frozen sea within us.” I aim for my prints to be pages out of that book. Whether an ice-shattering blow or a tiny doorstop, my work holds space at the threshold of imagination and invites the viewer to enter.

About the Press

Expedition Press produces literary-inspired artwork and limited edition poetry books and broadsides. Our mission is to increase access to poetry via multiple beautifully crafted points of entry.

Expedition is also home to a full service letterpress print shop and bindery. Our shop offers a broad range of design and print work rooted in handset type. We’re located in downtown Kingston, WA, just a few blocks from the ferry. The Press is open by appointment.

Shop Expedition Press | Website | Instagram | Facebook

Top photo by Marco Djallo on Unsplash.

All other photos courtesy Myrna Keliher. All rights reserved.

I Will Make Beautiful Memories

In October of 2004, my mom picked me up from my college dorm and drove me about twenty miles up Interstate 79 to Edinboro, Pennsylvania, where we pulled into one of those perfect, Desperate Housewives-type neighborhoods with the immaculate lawns and minimalist traditional houses just a few inches too close together.

We parked in the street in front of one of these houses; the driveway was too packed with minivans and station wagons for us to fit. Also, I got the impression that my mom didn’t want to be trapped. If she felt the need to flee, street parking would enable us to up and go without any awkward car shuffling.

My mom had brought along four grocery store bags filled with photographs and memorabilia from our recent vacation to England, and we hauled them up the walk to the front door, which was opened pre-knock by a smiling woman in a red tracksuit and white athletic socks. Her grip on the doorframe made it look as if she’d slid to a stop Risky Business-style.

“Ginny! Hey girl!” this woman said to my mom, who was not a “Hey girl!” type of woman. She turned to me and smiled. “You must be Mike. I’m Mrs. Costa. Come on in!”

We followed her into her perfect home. The color scheme was light blue and cream, and the walls were adorned with photographs of a perfect family unit. She advised us to remove our shoes and led us to a door on the far side of her open-plan kitchen. We descended a set of stairs and emerged into Scrapbooking Narnia.

My mom and I gazed up at the shelf-lined walls like Belle in the Beast’s library, dazzled by rows upon rows of glittering books, sticker packs, paper sets, and collections of colorfully gripped razor blades arrayed on surgical trays.

Rows of tables were arranged in the center of the basement, accessorized with clear plastic discard bins hanging from the edges. About a dozen middle-aged women were seated at the tables, gabbing and crafting like Santa’s elves while sipping wine coolers.

We introduced ourselves and joined them at the tables, where Mrs. Costa proceeded to take us through the basics of scrapbooking. She started with the essentials: tape runners, corner cutters, die-cuts, stickers, journal boxes, paper, paper, more paper, and of course, scrapbooks. Then she showed us how to add pages to scrapbooks and how to tape paper onto the pages. We learned that nearly any mistake could be corrected with the right combination of patience, tape, and the magical fix-it tool (which is basically a piece of plastic – rounded on one end and pointed on the other – that allows for the scraping up and pressing down of tape and stickers). She showed us the best way to edit photos, both for page aesthetics and for the photos themselves, enabling us to crop bad angles, cover unwanted rumples with stickers, and make our complexions dazzling with the right color of mat.

Thus instructed, we got to work. As we did, Mrs. Costa brought my mom a wine cooler and me a Diet Coke, and we casually chatted with the other scrapbookers. Mrs. Costa herself didn’t scrapbook; instead she bopped around, helping to cut photos, choose stickers, cover pages in protective plastic, or offer any other scrapbooking assist. The majority of the other ladies were working on books about genealogy or Disney World, and generously provided us with tips and examples.

Though the typical scrapbook looks like it’s constructed page by page, the reality is that a lot of work should be done before the first photo is placed. Photos should be organized into the order that they will appear in the book, then grouped by potential page, then cropped. Paper for backgrounds needs to be pre-chosen, particularly if you plan on matting your photos before actually putting them into the book. (You should.) Supporting materials – brochures, menus, stickers, journal boxes, etc. – need to be chosen ahead of time and also cropped and/or shaped.

This all felt very overwhelming the first time. My mom and I were slow, careful croppers. We obsessed over potential color schemes, eventually choosing pink and green to accentuate the colors we’d experienced in English gardens. We looked around at the other scrapbookers’ immaculate pages, so vivid that I could practically feel It’s a Small World’s artificial river lapping at our feet, and felt jealous and inadequate.

Despite the friendly atmosphere, I felt out of place and uncomfortable. On the one hand, I was a nineteen-year-old boy in a group of scrapbooking forty-plus women. An obviously gay teenager in the heart of Republican Americana. What could be more traditional than women gathered around the crafting table? And there I was, an interloper, the opposite of traditional, bringing the stain of maleness (the double stain of male-on-maleness) to this dainty female gathering.

On the other hand, scrapbooking represented everything that a formative gay male was supposed to reject. Online dating sites were filled with guys looking for masculine guys only. Gays were supposed to be breaking stereotypes, doing manly things, not picking out stickers with our moms.

But as we cut pictures and listened to stories about football games, unbelievable Disney deals, and local politics, a Zen-like relaxation overtook me. Every group of matted photos was an individual memory, curated by my mother and me for an audience of ourselves.

We went back the next week, and as we progressed from cropping and organizing to placing background paper and arranging our pages, my feelings of relaxation turned to subtle joy. Part of this was the simple pleasure of being in a group whose only connection was shared creative expression.

But more than that, the joy began to flow from the scrapbook itself. It started as a stirring in my stomach, a giddy excitement achieved by trimming what had mostly been a lousy day trip to Dover into a beautiful one-page ode to the city’s famous white cliffs. Eventually every piece of our trip fit into the book like a piece of our own intricate jigsaw.

That giddiness grew as we found the perfect places to stick the menus, brochures, business cards, and even coins that we’d squirreled away on our trip. Scrapbooking solved some sort of organizational compulsion that I didn’t even know I’d possessed, and the ability to make the useless useful was intoxicating.

When I look at that English scrapbook now, it’s hard to see beyond the book’s flaws. It is a twelve-inch-by-twelve-inch pale green canvas book with a simple metal plaque adorning the front cover. The plaque consists of reliefs of dainty pink and yellow flowers. Very English. It opens to a garish title page, dominated by laser-cut, doily-like stick-on letters spelling out “ENGLAND” across the top. Beneath, a cutout from a brochure showing a rail map of Great Britain is sandwiched between bright red words – “Mike” on the left and “Mom” on the right. All of this lay atop a Pepto-pink background and surrounded by stickers of airplanes, flowers, hedgehogs, and, strangely, a giant watermill.

Our stickers are placed unevenly, we failed to mat about half of the photos, and we stuck our journal boxes in the book before we did the actual journaling, which forced us to squeeze too much or stretch too little text within them.

Despite those flaws, I have nothing but appreciation for the book, and that’s because of what isn’t physically within it. The invisible feelings and details that aren’t on the pages but nevertheless still live inside the scrapbook. There is something about scrapbooking a moment that traps the events and details around that point in time. I don’t know whether or not those details are the truth or in fact just another facet of the scrapbooking illusion, but every page still takes me back into who I was then.

The first picture in this first scrapbook is of me, looking relaxed and comfortable in my own skin, wearing sunglasses and leaning against the doorframe of the hotel my mom and I stayed at for our first few days in England. The picture itself isn’t that significant outside of enabling us to remember the name of The Ridgemount Hotel. Instead, the picture is significant because the person in the photo didn’t exist.

At nineteen I was horribly self-conscious. I was tormented by a combination the fear that came with growing up gay in a rural area and the insecurity of an effeminate, formerly obese teenager. I wasn’t someone who could “pass” for straight, and I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.

But this picture on the first page is the first I can recall of myself looking relaxed and at ease. I didn’t even realize that I’d felt so different until we began creating the scrapbook and I saw myself in those photographs and relived the memories.

Scrapbooking revealed to me that I’d felt like my real, true self in London. This made sense – it was a place where I could be myself in public without attracting unwanted attention. Later, I would move to London for this very reason.

Scrapbooking is like a Ouija board for nostalgia. Usually this ethereal force that alternately warms and stabs our hearts, nostalgia is harnessed by scrapbooking into a kind of total recall of events. To an outsider, a beautifully constructed scrapbook might look like a Photoshopped version of events — a postcard memory. But scrapbooking allows for the opposite, at least in my experience. The process of scrapbooking allows me to fully reflect on every angle of an experience.

This reflection is hard. Like most LGBTQIA+ people, I have a lot of pain in my past. Pain suffered at the hands of bullies, of society, and of myself. Pain that often made very little sense at the time of its infliction. This is where scrapbooking can help. It allows for reflection to be coupled with action. The act of sorting through memories, painful or not, is empowering. It may seem symbolic, but it’s more than that because an actual document — an artefact – is being created in the process.

For example, I have a scrapbook my time spent studying abroad in northeast Australia, one of the most beautiful places in the world. However, this part of Australia was also at the time quite socially conservative, and gay activity was restricted to the Internet and a few gay clubs. In building my scrapbook I thought back to hurled slurs, having my boyfriend (who was closeted) deny my existence, being called “Gay Mike” by everyone, including my closest friends.

Unlike my trip to England, I did not feel at home in Australia. Scrapbooking, though, allowed me to control how I remembered Australia. It may sound as if I’m putting a rose tint on the past. But pain can’t be erased with the cropping of a photograph or the addition of stickers. Pain, shame, fear, and embarrassment are all tattooed on my skin. But scrapbooking my Australian experience allowed me to declare what I wanted to take away from Australia. I fell in love. I was independent for the first time. The nature was beautiful and I met some of the best people I’ve ever known. I frolicked on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and saw some of the world’s weirdest animals. My brother visited, and we had an absolute blast.

Those are the things in my Australian scrapbook, and I look back on that time with joy. I don’t forget any of the bad things, but my scrapbook has allowed me to keep those bad memories at bay, to prevent them from smothering the good ones.

Beyond what scrapbooking gave me mentally, it had tangible benefits as well. The actual skills associated with scrapbooking have aided me countless times in my career, most significantly in the field of advertising.

Work took me around the world, and I spent 2007 to 2011 living in London, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Hong Kong. In the fall of 2011, my husband and I made the decision to move to the United States, specifically to New York. I just had to find a job. New York City’s advertising field is notoriously competitive and overflowing with eager job hunters with endless reserves of creativity and technical skills.

I arranged a series of interviews and arrived in New York from Hong Kong with a briefcase full of résumés and a portfolio of great international clients. However, it felt like something was missing. When I got to my hotel in Manhattan, it dawned on me what I could do to set myself apart. I called my mother and had her run to Mrs. Costa’s and get me the shiniest scrapbook she could find. She overnighted it to me along with a heap of supplies. Luckily I’d given myself an extra day to recover from jetlag before my interviews, and as soon as my things arrived, I set up shop in the hotel’s business center, printing, cropping, and sticking my working life into a silver, star-adorned scrapbook.

I didn’t know whether I would be successful, but I was relatively sure that no other candidate for a senior role in a New York advertising job would have a scrapbooked résumé. One of the lessons that scrapbooking had given me over the years was that personal moments count far more in a scrapbook than the generic, no matter how stunning that generic moment was. As beautiful as the Eiffel Tower is, everyone has seen a picture of it. Scrapbooks are for showing yourself posing with a stranger in front of the Eiffel Tower, eating a dozen croissants, or looking awkward in a beret.

So I focused my scrapbook résumé on the personal. I had my education, agency experience, and client list, of course. But I also showed myself sitting fireside with my boss on retreat in South Africa’s Karoo desert and eating spicy soup on a business trip to Shanghai. I included pictures of myself running the London Marathon and posing with friend on Hong Kong’s Avenue of Stars.

I got the job and took that scrapbooking experience to the agency with me, advising colleagues on how to creatively present work to clients and how to pitch for new ones. And I kept scrapbooking for myself, which helped me not only to remember what I loved about my life but helped me reflect on what I didn’t.

Which is also how I ended up leaving advertising. In focusing my scrapbook résumé on the personal, I also identified what it was that I loved about my job. I loved the travel and the people, the new experiences. What I didn’t love was the work. In looking back at the scrapbook now, the signs are all there. I reflected on educational experiences warmly and thoroughly and skipped over entire years of actual work experience. Most tellingly, I included a page in my scrapbook about how I dreamed of being an author. Who applies to a job by telling potential employers they want to be something else?

Eventually, I left advertising and went back to school to be a writer. I now teach, too, which is another area where scrapbooking knowledge proves to be a helpful arrow in my quiver, though a young male teacher telling a group of millennials that he scrapbooks is also a recipe for instant criticism.

Which doesn’t bother me much. In learning to scrapbook, I learned to focus on what’s really important. Sometimes what’s really important is cropping your midsection or ex-boyfriend out of photos. Sometimes it’s adding a hundred stickers to a page to emphasize the importance of an event. Sometimes it’s holding on to the smallest memento of a person or place. And sometimes it’s choosing to let something go.

top photo by Vladimir Proskurovskiy on Unsplash