I am surrounded by friends and acquaintances who have complex family structures, including those with birth fathers, fathers through marriage, adoption and other, less defined relations. Some have never met their fathers, or haven't spoken to them in years. Each of us has an identity formed, in part, by our relationships with these people, and I believe each has stories to tell. Some of these stories are painful. Some are inspirational. Still more fall into hundreds of categories in between.
In my first year of study at the Oregon College of Art & Craft, I was given the assignment of creating a relic ring and a reliquary to house it. The ring was supposed to commemorate a pertinent character, thing or place from your personal history. I chose to relate a story about my father in a piece entitled, Bend Your Fingers! (Shown at right.) The piece gains its title from the phrase I heard uttered threateningly to every piano student my father had while I was growing up. The process of making the set, as well as sharing it openly with classmates, made me realize two things. First, the wound left within me by my alternately absent and abusive father was still raw, and second, the expression I allowed myself through the creative process helped me put aside some of the pain Id been harboring.
Bend Your Fingers has been displayed in several shows, and slides of it occasionally appear in class lectures. Each time it is shown, men and women approach me to share their versions of their father-child relationship. It has proven to be a doorway to new connections with people I hardly know, as well as an avenue for them to explore their feelings on the topic.
A year after the completion of that assignment, I discovered a poem by Dick Lourie, called Forgiving Our Fathers. In the poem (below), Lourie describes the countless variations of issues we have with our fathers in the context of self-examination, resignation and absolution.
forgiving our fathers
by dick lourie
maybe in a dream: he's in your power
you twist his arm but you're not sure it was
he that stole your money you feel calmer
and you decide to let him go free
or he's the one (as in a dream of mine)
I must pull from the water but I never
knew it or wouldn't have done it until
I saw the street-theater play so close up
I was moved to actions I'd never before taken
maybe for leaving us too often or
forever when we were little maybe
for scaring us with unexpected rage
or making us nervous because there seemed
never to be any rage there at all
for marrying or not marrying our mothers
for divorcing or not divorcing our mothers
and shall we forgive them for their excesses
of warmth or coldness shall we forgive them
for pushing or leaning for shutting doors
for speaking only through layers of cloth
or never speaking or never being silent
in our age or in theirs or in their deaths
saying it to them or not saying it -
if we forgive our fathers what is left
From Louries words, the reader can deduce that, no matter what the specific situation, we all carry thoughts and feelings about our paternal relationships with us every day; they help define who we are. When I discovered the poem after hearing the strong reactions to my relic/reliquary piece, I knew that my thesis at the Oregon College of Art & Craft must focus on these relationships.
The second component to my concept relates to process. Throughout my many years in school, I have earned a reputation for being tediously methodical. Although I regularly deferred to my intuition throughout the processes of design and construction, to an observer it seemed as though I always worked the same way: draw something, and make the exact object I have drawn, down to the last detail. A combination of having this observation continuously pointed out to me over the years and my belief that one learns the most in unfamiliar territory prompted me to choose a completely different approach to my thesis. I endeavored to remove myself as much as possible from the outcome of the project, relinquishing the control by which I was formerly characterized. This decision would help shape the projects methodology.
The topic of father relationships is endlessly broad, and could easily occupy a lifes worth of work. I had a year. I had to narrow my focus. Toward that end, I chose to gather stories from women about their relationships with their fathers for two reasons. First, I have never met a woman who, when the topic came up, did not have something of significance to say about her father(s). Secondly, the father-daughter relationship is one to which I can relate, and with which I hoped to find some peace through this project.
"Bend Your Fingers!" - Relic Ring: (1998) Sterling, Piano Key, Gun Sight, Diamond, 18K, Photos of Shirley Temple.
Reliquary for "Bend Your Fingers!" Relic Ring: Bass, Sterling, Acrylic, Steel, Cotton, Nylon.