I don’t have a picture of the first Bird Woman I made. It was made from a metallic gold and yellow print. I had been struggling with the adjustments to a brace for my nerve damaged leg and drop-foot. This was the second of 4 times I’ve tried different braces and haven’t been able to cope with the pain of wearing them.
I always go into these physical therapy programs with a great deal of hope and try very hard to work through the pain but what happens is I start to walk less. It doesn’t make any sense to me to walk “better” but walk less. Eventually I go back to my own galumphing stumbly limp. I always go through low periods and depression when I have to make these adjustments. I had to start using a cane in my 30s and stop riding my bicycle. I had to start using a quad cane because a cane just falls with you and a quad cane actually helps stabilize you. Then the walker for long distances. Sigh.
But when I work through the adjustment, I get this kind of soaring feeling. “Hey I can live with this!” I had been making art dolls for about half a year and decided to make a doll that told a narrative about learning to limp. I imagined myself caught between forms – I was not walking well anymore, but one day I’d be free and fly off this planet. I was becoming a bird, but I couldn’t quite fly and I couldn’t quite sing yet. I was caught in this absurd place with a beauty all its own.
I used embroidery stitches of red and blue on the outside of the body and used the Indian shisha stitch to attach stones to the nerve damaged parts of my body. I knitted lacy wings that weren’t strong enough to fly and a closed beak not yet ready to sing. It looked a lot like this one, made shortly after in all white. I made these wings out of sheer fabric.
I was preparing my first solo art show in the lobby of Memphis TheaterWorks. I was afraid this doll was too personal to show, but I also needed it to fill up space – that piece was about 3’ by 4’. Friends and family urged me to put in the show and I did.
At the opening, a woman kept coming back to it and looking at it so intently, I went over and told her the story of why I made it, what the embroidery and stones meant, why the wings were so frail and how I was trying to use mythological and whimsical interpretations of my struggle with a weakening body.
She listened patiently then looked me in the eye and said, “No, that’s not what this doll is about.” She then proceeded to tell me that the doll was about her struggles as a single Black mother who had to finish high school and while raising a child, who tried to make a better life for her self and her son, who never quite fit in her family and community. The stitches show how her battles in life left scars, but the gold in the fabric and the stones show how she had become strong and beautiful, even if people laughed at her.
My jaw dropped. I am mostly a self taught artist and never really expected people to respond to my work. It was only the great urging of friends that got me to show it publicly. And this wonderful woman gave me the gift of a completely different interpretation of my work. She validated my flight of fancy.
The doll was not for sale, but she convinced me it belonged to her. “You can make another one for you,” she said. She gave me a generous price for it, but had to pay in installments. My impulse was to let her have it for a lower price, but she didn’t want it for a lower price, she wanted it to have a high value in her life, at least as high as the other things she had to make payments on.
Since then I’ve made a series of birds. Each time I think, ‘I’m keeping this one for myself,’ and each time, they fly off to another home. Some were made on commission so I knew they were going. But when I make one for myself, they always want to be shown and they always make a connection with someone. I love how the personal becomes universal. I love that my birds who can’t quite walk right and don’t have strong wings still make their way in the world.
3 thoughts on “Bird Women”
I love this story. It is amazing to me how art that is so genuinely personal resonates with viewers. Sometimes I feel like work that is vague enough, non-specific enough, something that is not dictatorial will allow a personal connection, but apparently this can be achieved through the genuineness of a piece as well. Struggle is struggle and something the vast majority of people relate to on some level. I think the other aspect of these dolls that people cherish is the inherent hope.
Joy this is a wonderful description. I too have been suprised when something personal that I have transformed into art has resonated with someone else in a deep way. I love your interpretation of the bird doll and that the other ladies story is so different and yet the doll connects you both. Thank you for sharing and thank you so much for your comments on my blog. I look forward to reading more of yours.
Thank Gillian, your encouragement is greatly appreciated.