In 1985, I read a sociological investigation by Andrew Greeley called Angry Catholic Women which sparked my enduring curiosity about the makeup of our spiritual imagination. Greeley’s research inspired me to reach beyond a visual vocabulary that was decidedly Catholic. On investigation, the meaning behind the images grew in importance. This exhibition is a result of probing my Catholic Imagination.
The main ideas I wanted to express were how grace worked in my life and how I transmit my experience to others. It is designed to create a visual and sensual experience of the spiritual phenomenon of grace. The fact of my work is that it usually starts from a point of frustration or pain that needs resolution. Progressively, it evolves through my art-making process into a transmutation of materials, and more importantly, a shift of intention. Transmuting of the ugly and confusing into a state of beauty and truth is a process I offer as an example of grace in action.
The visitors remove their shoes at the entrance, stand up and place their bare feet on a cold, black floor. They walk through the vestibule and take the sheet of bubble wrap offered. Before their fingers pop the third bubble, their feet step into the four-layer thick carpet of the one-inch bubbles, which burst in multiples, shocking, then surprising and delighting the naked feet. As they take their next steps, balloons hover around their ankles and above their heads. All is dark and the warm amber glow of the portholes promise possible views into secret spaces. The first porthole has the video of me dressing and undressing, and looks as if I’m captured in a little glass bubble as I take my dresses off in front of everyone. Occasionally, some of the men said, “I’m waiting for the woman in the video to get naked.” This was absolutely not my intention; nevertheless, I found it a humorous observation, which added an unexpected component. Now I see a relationship to these comments and the feeling of vulnerability I experience whenever I present my art. It is like stripping off everything until I am completely exposed and then allow the audience to examine me in my most naked state.
After the initial experience, some participants decided to sit for a moment on large white exercise balls covered in bubble wrap to contemplate the video of bubbles floating across the back wall. Some preferred to lie down on the carpet of bubble wrap while resting their heads on balloons. As they relaxed, they became aware of the many subtle sounds surrounding them: the dream-like critique tape coupled with the intermittent popping of balloons and bubble wrap intermixed with the rustlings of the changing clothes video. Across the room, voyeurs visited the portholes. They strained to steal a peek at the dresses captured in a timeless moment. Others reported that they found the portholes facilitated a glimpse into another dimension filled with an angelic presence.
Visualize Grace was an environment designed to engage the participant on many levels in an experience of grace. Adults enjoyed the serenity of the space when they experienced it alone. As the space filled with people, adults became children. For children, the space became a “garden of delights.” The children changed the atmosphere from serenity and mystery into a joy that was close to unleashed rapture, perhaps a quality of grace long lost to adults.
I plunged deeply into the enchanted world of my Catholic Imagination to design a visual and sensual installation that told the story of my experience with grace. According to the responses from the audience, I presented an encounter with serenity, sensuality, humor and play. They stated that they experienced a new vision and understanding of the word grace and had a wonderful time in the process.
I gathering them together and discovered that they numbered over 100. At that moment this sizable body of work began to inform me. These objects contain forensic evidence collected every day during this dark time. This physical debris holds the history of where I had been and whom I had been with. Every night I held in my hands the very proof of my presence in the world. This debris is also is entwined with the psychic dross of my life as I walked through the pain of my mother-in-law’s illness and death.
The installation consists of six black shelves each containing two twenty-inch aquariums filled with seven to ten sculptures. In addition to the sculptures, there are about fifty laminated samples displayed on a stainless steel table. To encourage and enable the viewer to explore the evidence there is a light table, a lope, and a magnifying glass. An addition to the interactivity is an electronic component. A hand-held microscope, laptop and projector provide the participants an opportunity to create their own projected images, which can be observed by all. Also moving from the micro to the macro are the enlarged images 13”x19” which give a concrete view of the evidence to those viewers not engaged in the hands-on exploration provided.
This exhibition, offered in a laboratory environment, is the result of braiding my experience with art and technology. With the help of the participants hopefully my existence during the summer of 2003 will be validated. Although my voice was powerless to control these painful events, this work has informed me that I did have the power to love.
Grace Gray-Adams, Ursula Adams and Annie Gray
Balancing the roles of wife, mother, and artist is not an easy task. I often solve this dilemma by incorporating my family into my work whenever I can. In 1992 I did a collaborative piece with my daughters, this project is a good example of how I work. Annie, my twenty year old was an art major at Palomar College, and she was writing a paper on Ana Mendieta for an art history class. We were discussing the paper when we simultaneously thought about doing a project together.
The Crosses Alcoholism is a chronic, progressive, terminal disease. Just as any life-threatening disease, alcoholism can be viewed as a heavy cross to bear not only for the victim but also for the family as well. When I was building this piece my mother died and I knew I had to include her and change the name of the project from Project Dad to Project Parent.
What began as a therapeutic exercise led me to a profound spiritual experience. The six crosses for my family members are placed over a large pile of beer cans and wine corks. (Today there have been a total of nine deaths due to alcohol or other drugs) Each cross is laminated with crushed beer cans that are attached with copper and brass tacks and wrapped with copper and brass wire.
This was a process piece where the building was synchronized with the liturgy of the passion of Christ. The beer can crushing began on Ash Wednesday, 1988. Forty days later, on Good Friday at 12:00, noon I laminated my father’s cross. During the next two years, I constructed the other crosses and designed the installation. On Good Friday 1990, the family crosses were placed on the pile and four candles were lit in memory of the lives lost. The candles were held in the liquor bottles taken from my mother’s house at the time of her death. On Easter Sunday 1990, I reenacted this ceremony with my husband and children. At that time we placed the Risen Lord crucifix in the middle of the family crosses. This action recapitulates the mystery of the resurrection in the here and now process of recovery.
The Peoples Cross This is a process piece in which visitors are asked to participate. I was aware of the provocative nature of this work; hence I felt a responsibility to my audience to provide an outlet for their feelings. This installation was designed to feel safe and comfortable. On a little table my dad had made in school, I provided a diary and pens for the participants to write their stories. There was also a box of tissues to put their tears while writing. On the carpet the large wooden cross soon fill up with the names of lost love ones and the gallery echoed with the tapping caused by the names being nailed to the cross mixed with muffled sobs. Today I have several of these finished crosses along with their respective diaries.
The Wall The Wall is about abandonment. When parents are alcoholic their drinking builds a wall between them and their children. The wall blocks the flow of honest human interaction between members of a family. It enforces the three rules addicted families must maintain in order to survive: Don’t Talk, Don’t Feel and Don’t Trust! I built a wall out of wood and wire to separate the viewer from the caricatures my parents. These are images painted on clear Plexiglas. The glamorous fragments of my parents float on the clear surface, as they do in my imagination.
Gather Miracles and Build a New Legacy Searching through my past, I have uncovered relics of forgotten blessings. It was only by trudging through the muck that I found these lost treasures. Today I realize how gently, yet powerfully, a Higher Power was working in my life. I see this piece as a series of shrines in which relic-like objects are encased. The first object of the series was a painting of Our Mother Mary on dryer lint. I built a table to hold her shrine and on the front leg of it, I carved an angel. Through out this process I realized that angels, saints and Madonnas were the bearers of the miracles in my life. Keeping with this idea I made an Angel Quilt, which also celebrates my feminine nature. My recovered inner child wanted it to sparkle and so it does.
Daddy’s Quilt The sketch for this piece was the start of Project Parent. I gathered up all the painful images that I associated with my father and his drinking: beer cans, cigarettes, ashtray debris, and an old blue plaid bathrobe scared with cigarette burns. I encased all those memories in clear vinyl. The serpent like tubing is filled with a yellow fluid that foams up like beer or urine. I had to endure the intense odor of dirty ashtrays while I sewed this quilt on my sewing machine just like I would a regular quilt.
Mom’s Quilt I designed this quilt as a counterpart to Daddy’s Quilt. It is a collection of painful images from my memory of my mother: beer cans, little alcohol bottles, cigarettes, ashtray debris, red fingernails, and burned, stained nightgowns all encased in clear vinyl. I also included the clear tubing filled with yellow fluid. Emotionally this was the most difficult quilt I have ever built.
I have had a long time interest in the spiritual imagination and how it informs the psychology, sociology and theology of women. Most of us began to form our spiritual imagination during childhood using fairy-tales, myths and bedtime stories. Naturally, early religious training has a profound effect on shaping the spiritual imagination. To grow spiritually, we must form a mature and useful spiritual imagination. As adults we are called upon to re-encounter our childhood imagination taking only the truths embedded there, freeing ourselves from the distortions of a child’s memory. This process is forever damaged if clergy misuses their position of trust. The children who suffered this violation lose the part of growing up that I value so much. The development of their spiritual imagination will be damaged and their spiritual connection will always have this obstacle to tackle before it can flow.
This piece is dedicated to my childhood friends, "the little choirgirls" of Holy Spirit Parish. In a Victorian style I have created a Requiem for their crushed childhoods. My initial investigation with this subject yielded a sculpture of the psychic entrails these victims would have to uncover to prepare their depositions for the upcoming action against the Diocese of San Diego. I used black chiffon and braided it into arithmetic structure. The rootlike weave bulged out into nodes, which I filled with shredded photographs of the children of Holy Spirit's Parish and with relics of their religious paraphernalia.
The first intention for my work began as a call for the Diocese to do the right thing: apologize and release the funds these people deserve. I am not putting down my faith; I just want to shine a light on the flawed hierarchy, which continued to cover up this tragedy. But as I was finalizing the portion of this work I planned to present in a show for art faculty at the college where I teach, I saw this headline on the SNAP website: "San Diego priest abuse claims settled." Although I am pleased with the settlement, I was disappointed with our Bishop for offering such a lightweight apology. I was also very surprised that not one word of the case was mentioned at mass that following Sunday.
It was not until Easter Sunday 2008, Deacon Peter Hodsdon, at St. James Catholic Church in Solana Beach California, frankly and without embellishment, finally uttered the healing words I had been waiting 5 months to hear. It wasn’t the words he wrote, it was the tone of authentic reconciliation in his voice that touched my heart.
On April 17, 2008 Pope Benedict XVI came face-to-face with several victims of sexual abuse by priests in the Boston area. On the Larry King Show three of the survivors who met with the pope shared a fairly positive response to their time with the pontiff. Without question the abuse scandal was central to the purpose of his visit.
I must acknowledge the courage of Cheryl Outhier. Not only did she go through all the depositions and interrogations but she also stood up and gave public interviews. These actions on behalf of the 140 victims helped them win their case. Those who needed to keep anonymous also need to be honored for their courage to stay true to themselves. Hopefully the healing process will include all involved as the spirit of Reconciliation permeates the entire dioceses.
This piece is dedicated to Cheryl Outhier and all the little choirgirls of Holy Spirit Parish.
While I was building this piece the tragedy of Katrina was unfolding on TV. My artmaking process transformed into a meditation contemplating the grace needed to heal the survivors, the environment, and the country. The warm gray cape gave me comfort like some type of security blanket. In 1965, Beuys produced, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare at the Schnella Gallery. In 2005 during Katrina I built a dead rabbit and it became my constant companion. I felt like those mother primates who refuse to accept the death of their offspring. They carry their lifeless babies around in expectation of a spontaneous resurrection… powerless. Explaining Katrina to President Bush was as pointless as Bueys Explaining Art to a Dead Hare. What would Joseph Beuys have done? As an environmentalist and political activist surely he would have taken action. As artists what is our moral imperative in times like these?
One day Hildegard found a chest in the convent; it was full of white silk. She wanted to make her nuns dresses out of the silk but that idea caused such an commotion that she settled on the idea of veils instead of the dresses. The white silk veils were encrusted with jewels, and they wore them on feast days and religious holidays. Hildegard was criticized for the flashiness of her sisters. She held that: Who could better reflect the inner brilliance of Gods love out into the world then the Brides of Christ?
First I made a white veil encrusted in jewels which say’s, “Hildegard’s Brides of Christ Glitter for God.” To extend this idea I made more jeweled veils in bright colors to represent this glorious tale. To bring it from the 12th to the 21st century I took the white silk and change it into color, like going from Kansas to OZ. I made a video of group of women all diverse in ages and backgrounds dancing in these veils. On my videos, I generally collaborate with my daughters with the intent of truly sharing the essence of the tale with them as we create the vehicle that will disburse it to the audience. The veils in themselves are art worthy. I believe that relics from performance are a viable form of presentation.
There are countries where art is so entwined with the culture that all their people make art. Now is a time of huge budget cuts to the arts. The political powers of this country do not considered the Arts important to the American culture. I am looking back to a time when all good mid-century Americans were sitting down at their kitchen tables and painting. Truck driver and debutant, baseball star and grandmother were enjoying a fad that had them painting. One of the questions I’m interested in is if painting is about the paint then where do we place the “Paint by Numbers” devotees on the art-making scale?
The praying by numbers refers to the same period in history when sins could be forgiven by saying the proper number of prayers assigned to each sin. Little sins carried a little number of prayers and big sins had large numbers of prayers attached to them. Historically this process had threads of the old corrupt selling of indulgences, which precipitated the 16th century religious movement, the reformation. As a result of Vatican II, today the system of forgiveness is about true reconciliation.
I have embraced this old painting and brought it back to life through the aid of my powerful Mac G4. During the reconstruction process I was able restore the original blue-line which makes it possible to share the painting experience with friends and family. Each day, around my dining room table, groups of 2 to 4 women would lose themselves for an hour or so finishing the canvases I have printed for them. Today I’m sharing some of the collaborative product from these get-togethers. My quilt is a light-hearted remembrance of the time in history when we painted by numbers and prayed by numbers. Oh… that was right before we all became a just number.
The Kiss The glow of the long satin gown, and the glowing video kisses of sweet lips are beautiful like all the other objects that join together to make a wedding but do they have anything to do with the sacrament of marriage?
The Wedding Sheet The sparkling embroidered wedding sheet is beautiful just like all the other objects that join together to make a wedding. Romantically decorated with loving hands the Wedding Sheet awaits the moment of bliss where all dreams come true. Through that porthole of carnal connection pours out the stories hidden between the sheets. Those beautiful lips right down there where you want them are telling the truth.
The Granny Quilt This is an interactive piece designed to explore the female aging process. I am contrasting the beauty of the bride to the beauty of the older woman. It is interesting to observe the different reactions participants experience. To some the gray wigs are warm and cuddly as a quilt yet to others they cause revulsion. Perhaps in some way this reflects our country’s views on older women.
Crone Ball I have done a lot of work around the image of the little gray perm. On first glance this piece reflects the power of women’s groups, which is true but it goes deeper than that. When my daughters were little I always told them, “If I ever get a little gray perm just shoot me.” Now that I am old enough to have a little gray perm I realize I was giving my daughters a negative image of aging and I regret that. The funny thing is I always thought I would have a long gray braid in my senior years but I still hang on to my San Diego golden beach girl hair with unbending tenacity.
People would ask me if I was a little Cowgirl.
And I would reply, “No, I’m a Girl Cowboy.”
This statement would make them frown and shake their heads and say,
“You can’t be a Cowboy you’re a Girl.”
I knew I was a girl; I didn’t want to be a boy!
I just didn’t want to wear a skirt and stay in the kitchen,
or be driven around in a Jeep.
I wanted to ride a horse, carry a gun, sleep outside
and eat beans out of a can.
But most of all I wanted to be free.
I was only five at the time.
I believe this was my first independent idea.
Perhaps ... my first feminist thought ... Click.
I don’t think I have ever made a piece of art that has cause so many comments. Many women who grow up in the 50’s instantly identified with this story and were eager to share their own with me. One of these stories changed the painting in this quilt. My friend Carol grew up in china and somehow her mother found a pair of red cowboy boots that she had been wanting. She just loved them and wore them all the time. After hearing that I went home to my painting and promptly painted out the ugly orthopedic shoes and painted in Carol’s red boots. It was a delicious thing to do.
Because we would have the privilege of wearing
A white veil twice in our lives
Catholicism is a common experience I shared with my mother and my children. It connected us in a very special way. My daughter Ursula studied for her First Holy Communion with the Deacon’s wife who was a prim and proper woman who taught the children in a very traditional way. One day Ursula told me that she had learned why Catholic girls were so very special. With eyes big and bright with enthusiasm she said, “It is because they get to wear a white veil twice in their life”.
As a feminist I might have corrected that statement but as a mother who remembered my special day I just smiled. I have often thought about her comment from a feminist perspective. It seems like such a small morsel of compensation for a young girl to hold on to within a church dominated by a male hierocracy. Spiritual rituals create magical moments where mortals make contact with the divine. In making this quilt, I was just interested in contemplating Ursula’s comment not to judge it.