I wrote this letter to Julie on May 23rd. It represents my frame of mind during the first months of quarantine, when the most difficult problems I was encountering were being able to buy what we needed and having to stay away from other people. On May 25th, George Floyd was killed and the world reacted, making the issues of the early spring seem trivial. Since then, I have become certain of two things: first, that 2020 will be remembered as the year that our lives changed – a hinge point in history. But art still remains the balm and the curative that I have often felt it to be, with potential to do more than it has for a long time. That doing part is up to us.
. . .
Quiet morning here. I’m writing to you from my cave (a ground-floor room that was my first studio at this house, before we built the one in the back yard), where I currently spend at least sixteen hours out of 24. It’s my office and I sleep here – husband’s snoring drove me out of the bedroom upstairs a couple of years ago. I sit at the computer for way too many hours every day, between all the various projects I’m currently juggling: a book on mending as an art form and metaphor; an essay for a book on repair (see, it’s getting to be a popular topic now that the world is broken); and trying to finally finish the design work for my artist’s book Some Short Stories. But I love this little room, with its books and rugs and the yellow velvet slipper chair I got recently so I could sit comfortably and read.
I’ve been thinking about the number of little retreat-ish spaces I have had in my life – the tipi-shaped attic bedroom covered with silvery insulation in a farmhouse outside of New Haven; the remodeled tool shed I sublet in Berkeley where snails used to crawl in under the door overnight; even the room on the roof of the pasta factory where I had a studio for seven years. That roof-top space was actually a shipping container, craned up there at some point in the distant past, and I slept there (even though the metal stairs were scary) because it was the only enclosed space in 2000 square feet. Cold in the winter. But still cozy somehow. Coziness on some level seems necessary now – feeling safe and held: I’m reminded of Wendy Jacob / Temple Grandin’s chair that hugs you firmly. I’m quarantining with one of my daughters. (I have fraternal twins, turning 19 in a couple of months.) Drexel, where she’s studying fashion design, sent everyone home, and I’m grateful to have her here, as she comes to me for hugs several times a day. When she arrived, after an insane 17-hour plane trip from Philadelphia via Houston, she announced that she was done with ‘adulting’ for a while. Sometimes, I wish I could make the same declaration.
She has discovered that taking studio classes online is pretty terrible. Figure drawing, for example, involves the teacher sending her some photos or, worse yet, DRAWINGS and telling her to draw from those. And I don’t mean master drawings. I mean cheesy how-to-draw illustrations. Sigh. She is having better luck with her flat pattern-making class, because I gave her the biggest table in my studio. Currently she is out there (it’s in the back yard) making a dress mannequin out of duct tape and chicken wire. Ingenuity! Her final assignment for another class is to design and make a dress out of whatever’s at hand. She considered a minidress made from an IKEA bag, but settled on using some of the book pages I saved from recent sculpture-making, stitching them onto pieces of the copper screening she found in one of my cabinets. I have saved so many miscellaneous materials – she is surely luckier than her classmates. Then again, who can say… We buy, use and shelve so much stuff that almost everyone has interesting crap. Don’t they?
My life in isolation isn’t so different from the life I was leading before the pandemic. I’m on sabbatical this year, which either makes me lucky – or supremely unfortunate. Lucky to not have had to figure out overnight how to teach classes online: guiding graduate students through a non-exhibition, undergrads through studio classes with no studios. Unfortunate in that it stopped feeling like a sabbatical when I had to come home in a big hurry from the East Coast and cancel a residency in Belgium that I’d dreamed of for months. For years. I came to teaching rather later than most and childrearing later than pretty much everyone I know, so this was my first sabbatical (I’m 66) and may be my last. Yet I am alive and healthy, and so is most everyone I know. So, lucky. But it is hard to focus and to function fully, hampered by this pervasive sense of dread and uncertainty – of something lurking around the corner.
I miss going to galleries and museums – something I used to do quite a lot, as it turns out, looking back through the pictures on my phone. Not just because I write about art and, after forty years here in Oakland, know most of the players on both teams (artists and gallerists/curators). In their absence, I am reminded, painfully, that I really do love looking at all of the things and images that people make. I’ve always been intermittent in my studio practice – there have been gaps of months, or even years. But I don’t think I’ve ever stopped looking. The idea that a third of the country’s museums won’t make it out of lockdown makes me start to tear up. Then again, lots of things do that, watching Barack Obama speaking to the class of 2020 made me weep. We’re on a ship in the middle of a giant storm, the sails have just ripped to shreds, and there’s no one steering. Sorry, that’s a bit extreme. Or it isn’t, but we just don’t know.
In the meantime, I try to do things that are comforting and feel constructive. I’ve planted tomatoes in two giant pots on the front porch, and herbs too. I walk, every day, in big loops around my stucco-bungalow neighborhood, looking at everyone’s flowers and topiary and cursing my allergies as my nose runs under my mask. I text my other daughter often (she’s holed up with two friends in an apartment in Santa Barbara, also finishing her quarter online) and I look forward to driving down there to bring her home.
I have everything I need, except the lodestar that has gotten me this far, in a life that has revolved around art. I’m sure you miss it too.
Maria Porges, 2020, In progress ceramic works
Maria Porges lives in Oakland, California, writes about art and artists – both truth and fiction – makes objects, teaches at California College of the Arts, and raises twin teenage daughters and lots of succulents. She is working on a book about mending as an art practice across media, parts of which can be read at www.wordsaboutart.com.