The room was nice and cozy as about fifteen of us huddled around the table in anticipation. This is when we were going to get to the “meat and potatoes,” where we would unearth a subject for our books. We were told that the writing exercise would help us to formulate ideas for our project. We cleared our spaces of everything except paper, our pens poised in our hands as we readied for the rapid-fire questions that were to come. “Get ready,” we were told, “you’ll only have about one minute to write your answer for each question.” And so the exercise started, each of us furiously wrote our answers – a race to write down all our immediate thoughts and to keep up. 

Things went smoothly until this question was posed: “Who are you?” Well, who am I? What – gender, age, profession, ethnicity, belief, family status – is distinctly different from who. What can be easily answered in a minute, but who takes much more time. I was barely able to answer the remaining questions, as “who” kept nagging at me. After the exercise, we looked over our answers, but truthfully, my remaining sentences were a jumbled mess. The only question that really held my interest was “Who am I?”

Now believe me, I realize this is a common question that I’d answered many times before, but somehow, this time it caught me in a way that was downright nagging. It brought me to understand why my work addresses the quest for understanding identity and all it encompasses. For example, I understood a clear connection between my painting and my mother’s sewing, my grandmother’s quilting and crocheting and my great aunt’s tatting. This line extends past my family, linking us to a particular culture and place, and beyond. Each individual, quiet story coalesces to form a cultural memory that is shaped by experience, ritual, belief, places and relationships, and is called upon to explore connections.

Eventually, the book was completed, but my project continues. It continues when stories that reference culture, the body, memory, and place are shared. It continues when an object relays an experience, either by paint, thread or paper. It continues.

Why I like to touch a book

Two things happen when you open a book. If it’s a new book, when you open it the cover gives way with a crackle and then you get the smell of air and ink. The pages are proud and resistant in a new book.

If it’s an old book, the cover surrenders more easily to reveal a bit of history left behind by those who’ve read it before. The pages will smell too, but in the older book the smell is different from that of a new book, like new clothes versus old clothes, even if they’re clean. As you turn the pages, you might hear a slight rustling sound; the pages are softer and more pliable in an older book.

But before you even touch the book, you notice its size. This gives you some indication as to the amount of commitment it will require. As you start reading the book, you can measure time and distance according to the progression of your place within it – where you are, how far you’ve come, and how much more to travel.

Then there’s the feel of the paper. Maybe it’s a book of poems with creamy pages of thick deckled rag, or a tome consisting of thin almost transparent onion skin with a sharpened golden edge. Or it might be an offering of jet black type that plants itself firmly and digs into the page.

Sometimes the physicality of a forgotten book beckons from a shelf - maybe you see just a hint of the spine or cover, or there might simply be a certain quality to its stance - and seeing it makes you want to hold it again and remember.