MFA thesis research narrative
MFA Glass candidate Southern Illinois University
This passage from Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror hugely influenced me and my decision to approach my thesis show in the lost wax method of casting. (pg. 12, Kristeva) I have been casting glass for fifteen years this year and when I came to graduate school and thinking beyond my previous work, I could not think of what to make in the method or why it was so important to my art practice. I look back at my Statement of Intent in applying for graduate school: I believe that beauty is an important catalyst for the more difficult imagery or ideas they [my sculpture] present. I feel no doubt that anyone working in glass does so because it is beautiful and captivating, which in itself makes it a difficult medium to use (besides the obvious technical aspects). Glass is subject to its environment. Each time it's viewed through the day it appears different; throwing shadows, colours, light and glares over surfaces; it animates as the sunlight penetrates it. It is precious and fragile; seemingly fluid as if only frozen in time, as if in a moment it will shift, as if it has a life of its own. Creating my work in crystal glass portrays a strange sense of duality; in one way sexually charged and of a violent nature... and in another; bright and fragile with an angelic lightness. 1
I came to graduate school in a liminal point in my life, seeking a break in the order in which my work was proceeding, after my split with my partner and collaborator of eleven years. I had moved with him to New Zealand ten years ago, there we started a glass studio and in 2011 I had my first solo exhibition and gave birth to my daughter, Frankie June. At the end of my personal and professional partnership, I made a quick decision in the last week of 2014 to pursue graduate school back in the United States. Having a deep focus in glass as both an artist and designer I decided to pursue my MFA in glass, needing both distance from the life I left in New Zealand and freedom to challenge my ideas around my artwork; I left the winter of New Zealand for the summer of the United States in 2015 with my four-year-old daughter and our dog in tow. I threw myself into life both as a graduate student and as a single mother, with no familiar support system. My life as both a full time mother and full time student had a deep impact on my artistic and general pursuits, even more than in her infanthood, our mother-daughter relationship seeped into almost everything I made. I belong in this fairly new discussion of the mother-artist, mother as a subject and possessing subjectivity, Katarazyna Kosmala writes on motherhood and contemporary art practice: “The question emerges whether women occupying a creative practice – an artist, a writer, a philosopher –are recognized as sublimated (in this role), negotiating porous multiple selves of being a mother, a woman, a guide, a lover, a professional and a politician? Or as a consequence, does the woman artist become imperceptible, impossible to be seen, heard or felt as a distinct entity, dispersed and mediated except in readings of herself through the unconscious? Many woman artists return again and again to their childhoods and those of their children, in both a physical and emotional sense, in order to engage with this question of subjectivity and unravel the limited perceptions of themselves associated with these multiple identities and challenges associated with forms of identification.” (pg. 88, Kosmala) Within the art-world, mother-artists are involuntarily avant-garde.
One evening during my first semester and most difficult adjustment period, I was tidying after dinner and caught a glimpse of myself in the double-paned window, there I saw two faces simultaneously, they were the same, but different. A halo effect shown down from the old circular florescent light in the middle of the kitchen, a saint-like tilt to my head, one translucent face ascending, hovering over the other. (Figure 1) I began to see myself as separate parts. I made a drawing, Torso, a self-portrait comprised of layers of buff tracing paper, resembling skin tissue. It comprises of self-associative symbols, body parts, and objects that have a personal representation of a time or place, drawn on each layer using graphite and ink and including some interjections by my then four-year-old daughter. I felt pulled between places, where was my home. Was home the New York of my childhood, or the island nation in the Pacific I adopted as home in my adulthood? Where did I belong? Did I belong here in university? I was placing a physical distance between my previous life and the new life I wished to pursue. I saw myself as different selves: myself as mother, my individual selfhood post-relationship, myself as a sexual being, myself as artist. This drawing became the trifold screen, the middle, a passage, the disillusion of self.
I began to see myself in different parts
The bronze sculpture, the Box of Birds, has been in my head for ten years, ever since I met my late friend, fellow ex-pat American and glassmaker, James Walker. Walker told me of the New Zealand colloquialism ‘you’re just a box of birds’ which means full of happiness or contentment, or outwardly happy. This sculpture is not what the box may be perceived to be from the outside, but what that box looks like on the inside, it is jam-packed with smashed down, compressed, struggling birds, a box of discontentment and violence. Kristeva describes a type of melancholy, one of a “black hole”, in which the “superego dignity at once transformed into an inaccessible hypertrophy” Hypertrophy is a biological term which describes the enlargement of an organ or tissue from the increase of its cells. “As nothingness that is neither repression nor simply the mark of the effect but condenses into a black hole –like invisible, crushing, cosmic antimatter –the sensory, sexual, fantasy-provoking ill-being of abandonments and disappointments.” (pg. 87, Kristeva, Black Sun) I see the box of birds as a push and pull, of hypertrophy of birds, an amassing multitude of bodies, held forcibly and condensed down into a cube by unknown forces. The compressed, sunken, hard, inescapable feeling of heartache, that fills and bears down, and pulls from the inside, suspended within your chest, big and hard and heavy. The bodies of the birds swell out and the cosmic antimatter crush it back in, the heart has no room and each beat is strained and pained. The birds are silent, their sounds muted by the nothingness which condemns them.
Destruction and destructiveness is part of life, becoming mother is a destruction of person into animal and self. In her paper, Reflections on Ethics, Destructiveness, and Life: Rosi Braidotti and the Posthuman, Judith Butler discusses Braidotti’s concept of anti-life, in the name of life: “My understanding is that the kind of destructiveness that is part of life, even in the service of life, might be best described as the process by which an assemblage breaks apart, opening up the possibility for reassembling of new parts and relations.” (pg. 24 Tuin) I approached this by means of material and form in my fortress sculptures. My first fortress, Crystal Fortress, was cast from off cuts and failed lead crystal castings from my time here at Southern Illinois University. I arranged the different colors in the mold reservoir, hoping for the best, unsure what the color outcome might be. What transposed was magical: the colors spread out through the appendages of the sculpture and the black crystal ran like ink through the structure, seaming to push to the colors outward, giving it a living presence. As the birds are subject to constriction and pain, the fortress is a construction for the protection of the heart, my fortress is not built of walls, it rises like a cathedral, armed with nipple spikes. The fortress is body, a support, a protection, a strengthening of self. The fortresses are figures, studded in nipples, nipples are not aggressive, they are sensitive, and sensual, and life- nourishing; they guard the heart.2 The nipple-spikes which stud the buttresses are poor defenses, they serve as extensions of the heart, representing the chest.
The fortress derives their form from the windows and buttresses of cathedrals, the cathedral as a fortress of the soul. The fortress represents the body, as the figure of the Virgin Mary fills the cathedral in Jan van Eyck’s panel Madonna in the Church, indicating her body as the house of God and the temple of Christ; the fortress is both architecture for the body and is the body, a space for the mind to fill. (Figure. 2)3 The Iron Fortress is directly representative of myself in size, and is roughly my weight. The Iron Fortress was cast using a traditional iron copula, which is a tremendous undertaking, one which is both physically and mentally transformative. A team of sculptors from both Southern Illinois University and Washington University and Paducah School of Art got together to run the pour, here at the foundry. There were months of preparation, breaking and dividing rations of fuel coke, and scavenging for and breaking iron. We picked iron from scrap yards, climbing and scoping the terrain of the ferrous metal heaps and hills, King of the Castle, spying for bathtubs and hauling out lamp posts. Back at the foundry I broke 300 pounds of scrap iron into two inch pieces, with a sledge hammer. It occurred to me what I was doing, I was breaking myself, swinging and smashing away at the scrap iron, iron from homes, to cast into structure for my self, a home for my heart to live in, to be protected in.
I broke a house
I broke a radiator
I broke a bath
I broke a lamp
I broke a lamp post
I broke a water pipe
I broke a home
To build up myself
The fortresses, one and two, are erect to the heavens, like a steeple. The third is warped, collapsed, splayed, split; fortress as animal. I was in the home of my friend Leslie Negre, in the countryside just outside Paris in the summer of 2017, right before I started the fortress work, drinking rosé and talking about the birth of our children, Zola and my Frankie June, she expressed to me that when Zola was born she felt like an animal, existing to feed and keep alive her baby, she told me she loved it, she loved her animal self. This fortress bends, holding its own, grips the earth.
Cloud Extension is a long white cloud, spread low across the horizon, comprised of birds. Blackbirds have an important place in many different mythologies around the world, they often represent a transition between worlds, perhaps because they sing both day and into the night and spend much of their time on the ground. They represent shift between spaces: between day and night, between land and sky, between heaven and hell. Cloud Extension is the box of birds pulled out and laid bare, like a scroll, the storyline of the intermingled narrative of the bird bodies. It is made in a complicated glass-casting technique called pate de verre, or glass paste. To create it, I tore apart a hollow wax cast of the box of birds and invested the bird pattern in a panel of plaster refractory and sculpted that backside so that I could pour a second side of plaster refractory over the wax pattern without it grabbing, in doing so I created a dramatic landscape of hills, one which gave me a distinct place memory of the Taranaki region of New Zealand. I melted the wax out of the bird side refractory panel and laid out a snow-like blanket of dampened granules of clear glass and laid the refractory hill-scape over it. The weight of the top section compresses the snowy glass as it melts together, the result is a semi-transparent thin glass relief sculpture with bird imagery on one side and rolling hills on the other, the thick and thin transitions of the glass grains have the density of gathered precipitation, allowing light to filter through between bodies and gaps, like a cloud, like Aotearoa –Land of the Long White Cloud, my home which I will return to in leaving this between-space.
1 “Can the beautiful be sad? Is beauty inseparable from the ephemeral and hence from mourning? Or else is the beautiful object the one that tirelessly returns following destructions and wars in order to bear witness that there is survival after death, that immortality is possible?’ Kristeva, Black Sun, pg. 98
2 “The fusion sought in masculine arms –and no sooner granted that withdrawn –is realized by the mother when she feels her child heavy within her or when she clasps it to her swelling breast. She is no longer and object subservient to a subject; she is no longer a subject afflicted with the anxiety that accompanies liberty, she is one with that equivocal reality: life. Her body is at last her own, since it exists for the child who belongs to her. Society recognizes her right of possession and invests it, moreover, what a sacred character. Her bosom, which was previously an erotic feature, can now be freely shown, for it is a source of life; even religious pictures show is the Virgin Mother exposing her breast as she beseeches her Son to save mankind. With her ego surrendered, alienated in her body and in her social dignity, the mother enjoys the comforting illusion of feeling that she is a human being in herself, a value.” Pg. 496, Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex.
3 Jan van Eyck included an excerpt from a Nativity hymn in another painting, Lucca-Madonna, which I feel exemplifies the use of colored crystal in the fortresses:
As the sunbeam through the glass Passeth but not breaketh,
So the Virgin she was,
Virgin sill remaineth. (pg. 283, Wolf)
sculptor Katherine Rutecki
painter Jonathon Witzky
on view 16th-21st of April, 2018
Artspace 304, Carbondale Community Arts 304 W. Walnut St, Carbondale, 62901 Reception 20th April, 5-7pm
Beauvoir, Simone de. 1983. The second sex. n.p.: New York, Vintage Books 1989, c. 1952., 1989.
Kosmala, Katarzyna. “Becoming Imperceptible M/Other: Negotiating Porous Multiple Selves.” N.Paradoxa: The Only International Feminist Art Journal 39, (January 2017): 86-95. London: KT Press, 1998-
Kristeva, Julia. 1989 Black Sun: depression and melancholia. n.p.: New York: Columbus University Press. 1989.
Kristeva, Julia, and Leon S Roudiez. 1982. Powers of horror: an essay on abjection. n.p.: New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Tuin, Iris van der, and Bolette Blaagaard. 2014. The Subject of Rosi Braidotti: Politics and
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