Saturday, March 7, 2009

On Her Plate

Sometimes what we know to be normal, everyday things can cause amazement and wonder in those around us.

When I was in sixth or seventh grade, my Iraqi grandparents stayed with us for quite awhile. I remember how they would go on walks in the forest preserve near my parents' house, picking grape leaves to bring home and make into dolma. On one particular afternoon, I brought a friend home with me. We walked through the kitchen, and my friend stopped and stared at the kitchen counter. "What is this?" she asked. I looked around to see grape leaves everywhere, literally covering every flat space in the kitchen, all spread out to dry so that they could later be stuffed with rice and whatever else goes in there (as a teen, I wasn't a fan of dolma). "I don't know, they're making food, I guess," was my mumbled reply. My friend was amazed and in disbelief that these leaves would be all over somebody's kitchen, and that later, we'd be eating some random leaves somebody picked up down the road. All I could think about was what my mom was going to make me if the rest of them were having dolma. Maybe fishsticks? Gross.

I write this story because the memory of this moment was triggered by an art show I attended this evening. On Her Plate, held at The Project Lodge, is a collection of work done by the late Carolyn Gaska. There's a great write up here that explains better than I probably can. The basic story is that Carolyn, who grew up during the Great Depression, made art out of any materials she could get her hands on. She used colorful, disposable plates as her canvas, magazine cuttings as her backgrounds and characters, and quilt batting to make it all stand out. Most of the material was collected by her husband John, but anything that needed to be bought was considered by Carolyn to be a gift. For her birthday and Christmas, she'd ask for magnetic strips any other materials she needed to crate her art. The rest was found or collected.

To say that Carolyn was a prolific artist is an understatement; there seemed to be thousands and thousands of pieces of her art in the gallery, and I knew it was only a small portion of what she created in her life. Gwen and Breena curated this show, and did a wonderful job. The show is up from now until Thursday, March 19th. The Project Lodge is located at 817 E. Johnson St., on the same block as Mildred's, Jewel in the Lotus Yoga, and Sophia's.

I'd had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with Carolyn's husband, John, and her daughter, Deb, earlier in the day as the show was being set up. They were there pretty casually, it seemed, helping hang the art and do what needed to be done. During the opening, however, I felt them both open up a bit. I was so grateful to witness them in this environment, surrounded by their wife's and mother's art, watching strangers take it all in, and even sharing stories about the pieces. It made the whole art show so much more of an experience for me, especially watching John as he practically bounced around the room in his social butterfly role, introducing himself to everybody and talking about his wife's life and work. He told Genia at some point that he was always amazed by his wife. The love and excitement coming out of that man was unbelievable touching and completely contagious. I felt myself smiling every time I looked his way.

The room at The Project Lodge seemed pretty perfect for this art show. The plates Carolyn made all hung on sheets along one wall, and some of her other projects were displayed as well.

Here's the room earlier in the day, when Breena and Gwen were just starting out.

I'm amazed they did it all in just one day! When it was all complete, there was one wall of harder, non-disposable plates and old tv dinner trays.

This is the massive wall, covered by plates. Earlier in the day, Breena gave me the "task" of counting the plates on this wall. I think I counted 392, give or take ten. I also think Breena was very nice to find something for me to do instead of just sitting around being hilarious all the time. Thanks, Breena! Keep in mind, there's maybe three times as many plates in the art space alone, in addition to whatever is still in John's house. That's a lot of plates...

Each plate has a theme and is multi-dimensional.

Sometimes, but not often, there would be a slight repeat in the designs.

Here are some of my favorite individual plates. I bought the green one with the peacock, along with another green plate that has a ballerina on in (not pictured).

Carolyn also created her own magnets. These are made from frozen juice can tops - the ones that are round and really smooth with no sharp edges. Like the plates, each has a character, theme, and is multi-dimensional.

I didn't get to count the magnets, but there were three displays on the wall (Check the picture - they're refrigerator/freezer doors - brilliant!) and a big box of them on the table for people to purchase. In addition to these magnets, I heard John saying that he has a closet full of about fifty more boxes of magnets, all labeled according to the subject of each magnet: dolls, bears, birds...

The last section of the show was really interesting. Carolyn and John made several dolls that were mounted in frames, each doll representing a different country. The reminded me so much of the Madame Alexander dolls my sister and I had when we were little.

Not only did Carolyn make every inch of every outfit by hand, she and John also made these dolls from scratch - they created a cast in the correct shape, made the form of the dolls, painted their tiny faces on...John laughed as he talked about the "test days," before they had the formula correct and arms and head would fall off here and there. "Maybe that's why that one has a scarf on," he quipped, "otherwise its head will fall off."

A few people had asked whether the dolls would be sold and for how much, to which Deb replied, "I don't know...$25?" Gwen, Genia, Linda, and I collectively shook our heads. Gwen suggested a lot more, and Deb said "See, I don't know about these prices and everything! I just know that they were hanging in my bedroom forever."

I thought of the grape leaves then, and how the things we are used to seeing every day in our lives can be new and exciting (and sometimes art!) to other people. Those grape leaves were a beautiful thing to which I never gave a second thought. Later in the evening, Deb thanked us for letting her see her mother's work in a different way. I think that's something to hold to...

Here's John, taking it all in.

Gwen, Deb, John, and Breena at the end of the night.

It's a wonderful art installation that I encourage all of you local Wisconnies to go see, and it was a lovely night. The most beautiful moment, however, was a conversation I must admit to "overhearing," or eavesdropping upon, if you will. John approached Gwen to tell her what a nice job she had done, and I heard him say the following:

This is beyond anything...
I'm not one for saying much, but...somebody up there is happy right now.

Thank you, Carolyn Gaska, for this amazing work!


Emily P. said...

This is great! Her work makes me think of other so-called "outsider" artists, who tend to get kind of obsessive and make different versions of the same thing out of available materials...

Sorry I didn't make it last night. How long is the show up?

Reem Tara said...

Hey Emily - thanks so much for reading! The art show goes until Friday March 20th. Thanks for mentioning that - I'm gonna post it within my blog too.

I'll check those links! I love the idea of "available materials," as you said, especially because she was a self-proclaimed "Depression Baby." It's all really fascinating, and, because of what's happening in our economy now, pretty inspirational as well.

kittymodern said...

thanks for the great write up!! Thanks for coming and thanks for your help. I am going to send John's daughter the link to your blog, she will love it!

Bea said...

Reem, this was such a thoughtful and touching write-up - thank you so much! It was such a neat thing to wake up to this morning (yes, your blog is part of my morning routine) and I am linking people to it every chance I get, so watch out! Thanks for your help getting the show ready (you did more than count plates!) (Though you are an awesome plate counter) and for being AT the show, and again, for writing this. It truly meant a lot!

(Oh, one tiny clarification, though... the show runs through Thursday, March 19.)

Lynn said...

ooooooh! I like the plates so much that I think I would buy the photographs you took of the plates as art. I like seeing them all together. Some of them -- the unicorns? -- remind me of the guy from "The Realms of the Unreal."

Awesome post.

Do you like dolma now?

luai said...

that art is great and all, but how can you have a show called "On Her Plate" and not expect people to show up wanting to be fed.

Also I think the only thing that should go on plates is food, so you should just do the same art show but with all of the pictures from the Delicious Food site. we could make probably at least 50 bucks. GENIUS!!

Sara Ashes said...

very very lovely! there are a few of my friends from high school who still tell the stories of grapeleaves in the kitchen as well.

i love that you chose the peacock!

Thomas Overly said...

To my cousin Deb and Uncle John. Deb, Thanks so much for sending this link to me. I never knew Aunt Jean did this much and never thought much of it when visiting you house while growing up. The pictures in this article are TRULY AMAZING to see. I only wish I could be there to have seen the display

Your cousin and nephew
Thomas Overly from Montana

iurodivii said...

Thanks for such an amazing writeup. Reading about this show is the first time I have wished I lived in Wisconsin.