Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Birthdays are bittersweet. Most holidays are. The awkward silence of family get-togethers; so much of me, unable to attend.
Advent calendars were my favorite part of Christmas. Those little swinging doors, patiently opened one day at a time, marked my jubilant, albeit Protestant progression towards the Nativity. Immaculate birth. Virgin Mary. Joseph getting short shrift for his role in the matter.
In March of 1989, I traveled to Montreal to meet my mother again.  We’d had no contact since our last on February 2, 1968.  I didn’t know I had a younger brother until just a few weeks before my trip. Lying on a trundle bed next to him on the first of my four-night stay, he told me that every year on my birthday, our mother locked herself in her bedroom and murmured sounds of crying would drift through the walls.
The bathroom was the only room in our two-story house with a lock on the door.  It was a legitimately private space where Mom wouldn’t question my absence at age six, or less.  Sequestered on the toilet, pants up, feet dangling and door locked, I attempted to send telepathic messages to my other mother.  Mimicking Disney films where dogs talked, cars flew and little children escaped to Witch Mountain, I was left to wonder whether she ever received them.
There is an evolutionary imperative about our ability to recognize faces. I loved to play records on my family’s green plastic portable stereo. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Along with the sunshine. There's gotta be a little rain sometimes. I sat there fixated on the album cover, mesmerized by her beautiful face, my trance interrupted only by changing the record. Lynn Anderson.  We had tickets to see her in concert at the Quincy Junior High Auditorium in 1973. I sat there in rapt anticipation to see my dream girl. When it was announced that she was sick and substitute entertainment was trotted out on stage, I was heartbroken. Mom whispered Anderson’s illness was probably a horse show.

Le Couturier

Shortly after moving into my [former] studio at Prentiss & Burlington Streets in Iowa City, I started tuning into the pirate radio station broadcasting from the space across the hall. It featured everything from raw urban rap, to stories read by a gentle-voiced young woman. Without enough DJ’s for 24/7 programming, the station often resorted to long stretches of prerecorded sets and large doses of dead air.

I rarely saw any of the other artists, musicians (including Iris Dement - how did I miss her?), or DJ’s that worked in the building. When I did, we exchanged little more than a terse, under-the-breath “hull-oh.” Eventually, I passed a young woman in the hall who offered me a flier advertising her radio show. It revealed she was the storytelling DJ I’d heard. She was authentically funky, far beyond the usual Iowa City fare, softened by her intoxicating smile.

The daily walk from my parking spot to the studio led me under a concrete railroad bridge-cum-unsanctioned gallery of local guerilla art. Much of it was posted with stencils and spray paint, some with wheat paste. There was one particularly engaging image of an upright man, limbs akimbo, titled: “Le Somnambule,” the sleepwalker. I began to notice similar images in increasingly out of the way places (alleys, dumpsters, transformers, etc) throughout Iowa City. I imagined the work was likely conceived by one person and executed under the cover of darkness. The stencils were mostly single images with one-word French descriptors, a kind of visually sophisticated vocabulary flashcard.

When my beloved sleepwalker was suddenly obliterated overnight, by little more than the cappuccino-colored paint that already covered the concrete underpass, I was crushed. I realized the urgency of an earnest search for the source of this ephemeral work.

I inquired around town among friends I suspected might know and be willing to reveal the identity (under promise of strict confidentiality) of this elusive artist. After she was revealed to me, I invited her to meet me at my studio, only to discover that she was the same young storytelling DJ I’d previously met in the hall. I was instantly enamored. She told me more about the stencil work including her public service goal of teaching Iowa City French one word at a time, and how in return, she was sentenced with public service after being arrested for criminal mischief for posting her stencils publicly.

Eventually, our acquaintance translated into an internationally distributed line of fabric for her wide ranging and truly original artistic expressions. I am honored to have supported her in this way. She generously gave me permission to incorporate her publicly posted stencils into a future quilt project, which I hope to do, once I learn to screen print.

This summer began a trend of people using the Home Ec Workshop, co-owned by two friends of mine, as a means to contact me. One of these contacts turned into an important quilt sale. Another, netted a mysterious package that arrived only after being returned to the sender, who initially mailed the package to my first address in Iowa (eight addresses and ten years ago). I was thrilled to open it and find an original stencil made just for me. It was cut out of a peanut butter Captain Crunch cereal box. It features a tuxedo-wearing man sewing a quilt which gracefully cascades off a sewing machine to his feet where the piece is titled “Le Couturier.” The artist included a note written on stationary that she hand-painted, now housed in a special pocket on the back of the framed stencil.

Thank you MG. You are so dear to me!

Click here to see more Iowa City stencils