A sad story with a happy ending.
A long-time admirer contacted me earlier this month, looking for the perfect wall hanging for their home. After many emails and sent images, they decided on a framed fragment:
But they had their heart set on a wall HANGING. Would I be willing to turn this into one?
Well, sure! The framed version would be harder to ship, I haven’t made hangings in awhile, and this would be a good opportunity to get back into the swing of things. A practice piece, if you will.
It took many, many more hours of work than I’d anticipated. Still, if I charged by the hour, all of my work would have to sell for several thousand dollars. Which didn’t seem fair….
I added a backing to the fragment, created a hanger for the back, and searched my extensive stick collection for the perfect stick. It has to be the right length to work with, a shape that works with each fragment, etc.
Surprisingly (not!), I always find only one stick that meets my needs.
I found it! A beach-combing find from the Sonoma coast. I test all my sticks before I use them in a piece, to make sure they aren’t too brittle or fragile. This one passed the test–I thought.
It was already worn smooth by waves, it had beautiful branches, it sanded up easily. After waxing and buffing it to a soft gleam, I got to work drilling holes for the ties that would secure the fiber fragment to it, the beaded side “drapes”, and the cord to hang it all with.
For some reason, my new power drill didn’t work very well. Maybe my drill bits are dull? So I used my little hand drill (pin vise) to make the holes. Yep, more hours….
I put almost 8 hours on drilling the holes, stringing the color-coordinated glass beads for the drapes, attaching the fragment to the stick, and adding the beads that adorn the hanger. I’m pretty fussy about the beading. I use a lot of antique glass trade beads in my work, and many of them have really big holes. I have a stash of smaller beads I use to fill the holes so the beads set evenly.
After it was all put together, I picked it up to take a photo…..
And the stick broke.
It broke where I’d drilled a hole. Fortunately, it was a clean break. I was able to glue it back together (with construction adhesive!), restring that part, and wound some cord around it for support. Part of my aesthetic is creating the look of a well-worn, often mended piece of art. So it fit right in!
I clamped the repair and let it sit a full 24 hours, like the instructions said. Came back to the studio, gently tested the repair–good!
I picked it up to photo it. And it broke in my hand again.
This time, the wood shattered. So I was back to square one. (Okay, square three, but it sure felt like ‘one’.)
It took awhile, but I found another, completely different stick that I loved.
It has a sad history. Bark beetles are highly-destructive, destroying millions of acres of forests.
And yet, the damaged wood is hauntingly beautiful.
In New Hampshire, I looked for beaver-chewed sticks. The chew-markes look like writing, strange writing to be sure. They became part of my story, echoing the mystery of the cave paintings of Lascaux in my art: A message that was not addressed to us, a message we cannot read.
The trails made by bark beetles echo that story.
I’ve collected a lot of their chewed sticks from the coast, too. The good part is, the beetles are long gone and probably long-dead, too.
I sanded the stick carefully, and wiped it clean. I painted it black to back-fill the little chewed channels, then wiped off the excess. Then waxed it with brown Brio wax, and buffed it, then drilled more holes.
Finally, it was done!
Today I’ll find the right-sized box to pack it up and ship it to its happy new owner. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought, but I never regret a profound learning experience. Well. I regret them in the moment. But I’ll get over it.
My little journey from “the perfect stick” to one that many people would consider as a tragedy (destruction of national forests) and trash (a bug did this? WTF!!!) has me thinking again about my art process and my stories.
I obsess about getting everything exactly right, in an imperfect way. Asymmetrical yet balanced. Ordered color palettes.
One of my most powerful insights, in my life and in my art, is recognizing when something is ‘good enough’, and letting go of perfection. (As a wise woman once told me just before I began my hospice volunteer training, “When we are a perfectionist, we are ‘full of knowing’, and nothing new can come in.”) (Thank you Quinn!) (Another gift: I didn’t know she’d started a new blog until I linked to hers here.)
We all have visions of what that ‘perfect’ thing is. The perfect job. The perfect marriage. The perfect home.
Then there’s reality. There are the slog jobs, the times in a relationship when things can feel wonky, and homes? Renting here in Northern California, it’s whatever one will let you have pets….
Yet even in the worst of times and places, there is something of value.
Insights. ‘Aha!’ moments. Healing. Reconnection. Beauty. New ways to retell old stories. Seeing our loved ones for who they are, instead of the perfect person we sometimes expect them to be. Learning to see ourselves the same way….
Sometimes the ‘perfect’ needs to make way for something bigger and better, more human. Sometimes, we need to make way for something else.
And sometimes, it makes way for a tiny little beetle, with its own way of creating a powerful story.