Walls and windows
Raw, cavernous spaces have always made me weak in the knees. The less evidence of fuss and repair, the better; the dustier and more tattered, the faster my heart quickens. Once, when I was ten or eleven, I led my neighborhood gang on an explicitly forbidden tour of a nearby house that had been ravaged by fire. Autumn leaves lined the former living room floor, sky replaced large sections of the roof and weather coaxed rose patterned paper from the wall. I wanted to live in that not-quite house with all of its tragic texture and forbidden entry. I wanted to stay and make up stories of how we'd put it back together and find our own home in this collection of rooms, playing family as much as playing house. Realizing we were well past the dinner bell that was too far off to hear, we leapt from the porch and startled a good sized black snake who, in turn, gave lightning speed to our return home. I never visited that house again but I've thought of it often as a place that first inspired my desire to make more of something from something.
When I moved to Rhode Island in my early twenties, I was in the final throes of an ending love affair and my first real broken heart. He was slightly older than me and in the midst of trying to sort out his post-graduate life, bouncing back and forth between the hot shops of Seattle and his former haunts in the industrial mills on the Western side of Providence. He rebuilt BMW 2002s and rolled his own cigarettes and didn't shower much despite sweating profusely in front of a glass furnace for long stretches of time. (My mother will always refer to him as the louse with the disgustingly dirty fingernails.) I was so charmed by all of this, and in hindsight, it is hard to discern how much of my blindness was about him and how much of it was about the 1800's brick and glass city we spent our days in. I shared an entire floor of a former mill building -4000 square feet- with three other people. Three other people! We had a small skate ramp and a swing and sometimes we even had heat. The walk from my bedroom to the common bathroom was punishing in the middle of the night with splintered wood giving way to icy cement. By morning, with light touching down through the ten foot windows that surrounded me on every side, any hardship of living in a place like that was forgotten. Endless light, umber brick, iron pipes with their constant gurgle and hiss; this was a place for drawing and making and writing and falling in and out of love.
Years later, I would walk down Main Street in a tiny town called Woonsocket and see a building named Honan Block, a former bank with a fancy cast iron facade and an interior that had mostly gone untouched since the 1940's. On our first tour through the upper floors, I felt that same charge, a want to make more of the disrepair, not just fix it up and make it whole again. Just after we signed the paperwork and took ownership of the plot, we drove to the building and drank cheap champagne on the stair landing that would eventually become our home. When I think of that moment, it was perhaps the happiest moment of my marriage, a night when the giddy flutter of possibility stuck with us without effort. Our relationship was never one that came easily without effort and that building would reveal that more and more over time. When we last walked the halls of Honan Block, we were six months divorced and it was an icy February afternoon. We'd spent five years chasing that giddy night on the stair landing and the striking beauty of what we'd made belied the reality of who we'd become. Boxes loaded into separate trucks, worn marks on the floor from our dogs running back and forth, a new leak from the drafty eleven-foot window with views of a vanishing downtown; this was now a place for grieving, as much for my second real broken heart as for the promise of possibility I'd so easily seen in spaces like this. What I didn't then understand about my grief was how literal I'd become in connecting the romance of space to my creative self, as if the very bricks themselves were requisite in conjuring my desire to make anything let alone something more from something.
A year ago, I moved my looms into a Brutalist studio above a tile factory in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. The corner where I've mostly sat to weave was once the apartment of the building's night watchman, so I've been told. Chalk lines remain vibrantly blue along several cement panels, timbers reveal themselves in columns and along the long wall of windows. To do almost nothing to this space is to do right by this space. It is a potent place and one where I've spent countless hours, alone, remembering what it felt like to be encouraged by architecture. We photographed work against the inky grey walls and were instantly transported to Irving Penn's Parisian studio where he photographed tradespeople in the early 1950's. I've unrolled yard after yard of woven cloth along the mottled cement floor where layers of earthy green paint have stained the pale grey, the perfect background for Sally Fox's naturally colored cotton. Rain made serious puddles between my two looms when we had a brief stint of downpours in early December, running its way from a gap in the metal window casing and along the floor, somehow avoiding contact with either machine as it traveled and pooled. I wove my first batch of Black Thorn wool in this space where the spare back drop offered a new way of seeing the fiber, wholly separate from its lush Appalachian origin. I've had many visitors and long conversations and weaving demonstrations and lots and lots of celebrations. And now, it's time to return the looms home to my studio that sits just feet from where we sleep and cook. Traffic has elongated my week by a solid 16 hours given over to my car or a train and I am more than ready to return that time to my loom and to my family and to myself. A year in this space reminded me of the visceral connection between storied places and my electric urge to create. A year spent getting back and forth to this space revealed that I now carry that connection within me and that sometimes walls and windows are just walls and windows.