I love the Smithsonian. Visiting it several years ago was one of the highlights of my traveling life, and I am feeling the pull of it again. I subscribe to the Institute’s magazine, I get their newsletter emailed to me, and I am swooning this week (I have prolonged swoons) about this exhibit of the work of Leah Evans.
Imagine: Quilt maps! Abstract charts of of soil surveys, lost boats, cranberry farms, satellite photos. All made out of fabric. How do artists do it, keep finding their voices in the most unexpected places?
I admit to loving maps. No matter what material they are made of – from parchment (think Magellan, think terra incognita, think Here be dragons) to satellites in space (think Google Earth) to textiles (think Leah Evans) to wood (think State Park and “You are here”) to the voice on the GPS device (“In 200 yards turn right on Northeast 75th St.” – if you don’t follow directions think “Recalibrating….recalibrating…”) maps give us a sense of where we stand – at times literally, at other times metaphorically – in the world.
I once gave a lecture at the Vermont College of Fine Arts about maps in books (it was really about the importance of setting, but I focused on those wonderful maps on the endpapers) and then I followed the lecture up with a special workshop where we made maps of our works-in-progress. You can read a tidied up version of it in the May 2010 issue of The Horn Book. In the workshop (for writers, not quilters) students studying in the Writing for Children program made maps of their works-in-progress, down to the smallest details possible (“Draw a house plan of the house in your book. How far away is the parents’ bedroom from your protagonist’s bedroom? Through which window does the morning sun come in? Where would the protagonist stand to watch a sunset? How does he or she get to school – what neighborhood places are passed each day? What color is the house at the corner?”) I’m a great believer in developing setting as a character in a book, asking what the setting wants or demands or begs for from the human characters. Just think of the writers for whom setting was essential: Eudora Welty, Robert Frost, John Steinbeck – it’s impossible to imagine them without Mississippi, New England, the fields and flophouses of the Monterey Peninsula. Beverly Cleary’s Ramona – how could she live any other place than Klickitat Street? How could Octavian Nothing be anywhere but Boston during the Revolutionary War?
Here is a stanza from Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Map.” (You can read the whole poem here):
The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
-the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.
No matter what the medium- yard-goods or words – and no matter what the peculiar genius of the artist/writer, maps bring our focus squarely in on the sixth sense: that of our own bodies in physical space. I think interesting art art is made by people who explore that physicality.
I would love to go see the Leah Evans exhibit at the Smithsonian. As abstract as her quilts seem to be, they converge with maps we are familiar with – we can almost see the satellite photo that the quilt below is based on – is it Manhattan? Is it Cuba?We can puzzle it out, or we can go with just an impression. Art provides a wide berth. When we look at both photos, we “take the water between thumb and finger/ like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.”
————————————————————————————————–[P.S. If you’re interested in that Elizabeth Bishop poem or poetry in general, you can head over to Anastasia Suen’s blog, Booktalking, to see what people are posting for the weekly round-up on Poetry Friday.]