Monday, March 1, 2021

Funerary Art: Souvenirs from the Bardo

First Journey: Bardo Beads


Bardo Beads

My lifelong friend and traveling companion of 51 years left the planet on January 12. In Tibetan Buddhism they believe the soul passes from death into the bardo state - a realm I envision as a jungle or forest with a lot of confusing adventures in store. The goal in the bardo is to strip away the illusions, fears, and misbegotten ideas about reality and to see reality stripped bare, to see the light of raw being and to go for it. Meanwhile, all of your old fears and ideas and character defects appear to you as hallucinations, attempting to trick you into buying into the same old burdensome reality you just escaped in your last life.

The bardo journey lasts for 49 days, after which you are reborn (or, if you succeeded in the bardo, you achieve enlightenment and a pure state). My companion's stay in the bardo ends today. During this final trip together (or almost final, as you will see below), I fashioned some artifacts that are, in effect, bardo souvenirs.

The bardo beads

The first project was to make papier mâché beads. Source materials included old notebooks from our global travel adventures and birding expeditions, old travel documents, and letters, including a vintage aerogram sent by me in Nairobi to him on the Serengetti back in 1968, just after we had first met.

Source materials

The 
papier mâché technique I used was one I learned in San Cristobal de las Casas from a master of puppetry, Licha Matita. Begin with a clay base and roll it into a ball. For the first layer, cover the clay ball in lotion (any hand lotion will do) and use more lotion to cover the ball with tiny scraps of paper, all the same color, to create your first layer. This will make it very easy to remove the clay ball in the final steps.

Clay innards revealed in final step

You then want to build up six to seven layers of papier mâché, using a standard paste of half water and half flour (thinned as needed for easy application). Using tiny scraps of paper allows you to retain the curve of the ball easily. Most importantly, use a different color paper for each layer. This allows you to easily see what you have covered and what you have not. Otherwise you will get hopelessly muddled, which is easy to do in the bardo. I used the good luck paper the Chinese burn for the dead, which you can find in any Chinatown, and which seemed very appropriate for bardo beads, alternating that layer with layers from notebooks pages, letters, and other personal ephemera.

Layers of letters and notes

Layers of Chinese good luck paper

This was slow, patient, meditative work, and I sometimes chanted the heart sutra while working. A few days ago I knew I was done. The final step was to cut the balls open with an exacto knife, scoop out the clay core, and then seal the ball back together with a final layer of papier mâché.



Second Journey: Bardo Bag

Half-way through the meditative bead work, I suddenly got a call that the Neptune Society had the ashes ready and I needed to receive them. The idea momentarily horrified me. The whole point of the bardo process is to let go of everything, and now the earthly remains were boomeranging back. After giving myself a day or two to think it over, I decided to fashion a bardo bag - a little pouch I could use to take a portion of the ashes along with me on all future travels, and distribute them to the wind and sea around the world, in the spirit of letting go. I used a length of exquisitely hand-embroidered Chinese trim, a spiral button from Portobello Road in London, and a piece of horn from who knows where to create this little traveling bardo bag. A sealable plastic snack bag containing ashes can fit neatly inside. 

Bardo traveling bag


Back of bag


This was all a deeply satisfying process, and it is being shared here with love in hopes that, when the time arises, it may offer you ideas about how to process loss and grief.

Interested in learning more about the bardo and the heart sutra? Here are two good links:



Friday, December 25, 2020

The Holiday Onion

 

The holiday onion

It is time for all good folk to gather ‘round the holiday onion and have a good cry - a peculiar tradition that began during the great pandemic of 2020. Though exact origins are unknown, historians point to the hoarding of basic supplies during those troubled times and suspect that when surplus onions began to sprout, coupled with strict shelter-in-place warnings over the holidays, making it difficult to secure the usual holiday adornments, people simply made do.


Close-up


The decorations: fancy paper-fastener brads, bought pre-pandemic from a local thrift store. Others have used fancy hat pins, colorful thumbtacks, cloves - whatever is at hand.









Saturday, November 21, 2020

Advent Calendar 2020: Virtual Culinary Tourism

 

A garland of exotic goodie bags

This year’s advent calendar is tailored for a fun-loving, globe-trotting family with adventuresome tastebuds. After being trapped like rats for the bulk of the year, it is time for them and their tastebuds to have some fun. This year, the eleven- and nine-year-old recipients have been instructed to assume command of daily taste testings for themselves and their parents.

Step One: The Bags

The focus this year in terms of materials was tapping into old supplies on hand, including your standard brown paper lunch bags left over from my early-pandemic paper bag wall, lots and lots of Chinese good luck paper used in rituals for the dead, and metallic puffy paint to jazz things up.

Lots of paper collage for bag fronts

For the bag backs, I collected an assortment of interesting food facts from around the world on the internet - from a research finding that hot chocolate tastes better in an orange cup, to a culture that eats giant fried spiders, to the fact that goat is the most-consumed meat in the world. The bottom of each bag identifies the contents’ country of origin.

The backs: weird food facts


Step Two: The Contents

To my amazement it turns out that international snack assortments are a thing. Apparently some people have been going on virtual tastebud tours for a while, ordering different snack packs from foreign climes for entertainment. Simply google “international snack packs” on Amazon. I settled on three:

Japanese “dagashi” (classic snacks) assortment


Russia/Ukraine assortment


Turkish assortment


Each advent bag contains two to three snacks from a single of origin. Because the labels are in the language of the country of origin, the recipients have no idea what to expect. For added thrills I decided to make December 15 a high-challenge snack day and threw in the following cricket assortment.

Flavored crickets!



Step Three: The Garland

For the garland I used a long stretch of recycled lace from the Depot for Creative Reuse in Oakland. In accord with the exotic food theme, I dyed it in a pot of boiling water with turmeric root. At about this stage in production I realized my predominant color theme seemed to be orange, which is decidedly un-Christmasy, but I figure along with stretching their tastebuds they can stretch their aesthetic sensibilities as well. So a very orange Christmas to all! Each bag has a hole punched through the top, secured with a twist of gold or silver pipe cleaner, which is then used to secure the bag to the garland.

Turmeric-dyed lace


Pre-Advent Kickoff Event

Because this has been a trying year and we need all the amusement we can muster, I also included a pre-advent kickoff event. In China people burn offerings to send them to dead ancestors and loved ones on special occasions. Paper replicas are used to duplicate just about anything the dead might desire, including food. I picked up this seafood feast at a store for the dead in Oakland’s Chinatown. It includes the seafood ingredients, a wok, seasoning bottles, and an electric burner - all made of paper. For their kickoff event - to take place any time prior to December 1 - the recipients are instructed to use their backyard fire pit, invite all of their dead relatives who would really enjoy a seafood feast, burn the offering, and merrily sing a song of their choice.

Seafood feast for the dead (foot included to show scale)


Step Four: The Tastings

Recipients are asked to sample, share, and discuss each snack during their daily tastings, and to consider the following questions:

Before tasting, guess what you think it will taste like. How close were you?


How odd, unusual, unexpected is it on a scale of 1 to 5?


How much do you like it on a five-star scale?


What would you compare this to if you were trying to describe it?



Let the holiday merriment ensue! For more ideas, including everything from advent calendar ballgowns to advent calendar time machines, see Past Advent Calendar Posts.











Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Wabi-Sabi Shirt for a Fractured America

 

The artist in an unguarded moment

Wabi = rustic simplicity

Sabi = transient beauty, taking pleasure in the imperfect authenticity of age


A serendipitous stumble into wabi-sabi occurred about a month ago when I got home from emergency eye surgery, idly looked down, discovered that the shirt I was wearing had dozens of holes in it, and started laughing. That’s what happens when you can’t see your shirt.


The shirt


The holes


This simple sleeveless top was originally stitched with a length of hand-dyed West African fabric gifted to me by a friend in London. Never one to give up on rotting garments, I considered my next steps. I decided to cannibalize the lower sleeves of a red cotton Indian shirt (gifted by the same friend) and cut them up into little squares. I decided on a relatively crude overhand stitch around the edges to secure the tiny patches to the shirt.  I meditated on wabi-sabi, a mindset that originated with the Japanese and involves a different way of looking and perceiving. It involves acceptance of the natural cycle of growth and decay, life and death, and the imperfections that come with it. And then I started stitching..,


Little squares, overhand stitched around the edges

...and stitching and stitching and stitching. Every time I thought I was done I held the garment up to the light and discovered more holes.

One evening, as the elections were looming over us and tensions were high, I glanced over at the shirt hanging on a door and awaiting more patches And realized I had created an American flag - a fractured American flag. I also, with philosophical wabi-sabi serenity, realized I was never going to outpace all of those tiny holes. The shirt was done. Time to don it and enjoy the slow decay.

Wabi-sabi shirt for a fractured America...


...with lingering little holes to let new light in


As I was trying to take a photo of me wearing the shirt as the final graphic for this post, I kept tossing out photos that showed the sagging skin on my arms, the wrinkled neck, the age spots. And then I realized wabi-sabi aesthetics apply to all things, including the beauty of an aging body. I donned my power cuffs embellished with embroidered drawings my grand nieces made of scary monsters, struck a few power Wakanda poses, and am ready for whatever crap the universe throws at us next.



Artist credit: the hanging wood sculpture behind me is by Creative Growth artist John Martin














Sunday, November 1, 2020

Stitch Doodling through a Disaster

 



If I am not actively engaged in a project I go a little mad. My lack of tolerance for idle hands has led to some unfortunate incidents, like the chopped haircut featured in the photo above. A better solution is what I call “stitch doodling” -  grabbing scraps of fabric and just mindlessly creating something or other. The complete lack of planning, goals, or concern about outcomes can lead to some entertaining results.

In this case I took an ugly, discarded piece of eco-dyed fabric and whipped up yet another mask. I have realized recently this is never going to end and one can never have too many masks. I thought lettering would be entertaining and distract the eye from the basic ugliness of the fabric.  And then the ugliness became the point. And yes, I do keep track of exactly how many days I have been isolating during this damned pandemic.

Front

Reverse (eco-dyed rose leaves)


Once done, to my delight I realized I had created a grim and gritty mask suitable for a character in a dystopian graphic novel. The chopped haircut just makes the whole comic book character persona even better. Yay! On days when I wish to remain incognito I can always wear the side that looks like a rose bush was flash incinerated when a nuclear bomb went off. Unfortunately there is nothing I can do to mitigate the chopped hair since I have promised friends I will not touch scissors to locks for at least a month.




Want to create a mask of your own suitable for a troubled comic book character? My favorite mask pattern and instructions so far during the apocalypse: Craft Passion Mask Pattern.



Thursday, October 15, 2020

Souvenir Handkerchief #3: Special Coronavirus/California Wildfire Collector’s Edition

 

Keep handy for smoke, tears, and general despair

Here you have it - the third and final hand-embroidered handkerchief from the Coronavirus series. Scroll back on this blog through time, or click the Coronavirus label in the menu to the right to track the inexorable decline into madness. After months of masks, social distancing, and societal mayhem, along came the California wildfires with orange skies and toxic smoke. I just stitched my way through the insanity and here you have the result.




In the detail photos below you will see the now-familiar virus; the smoke; the year 2020 floating around (the virus forms the “0”s in 2020); the words “”signs,” “portents,” “space” and “time”; fire and smoke, from billows down to those lethal 2.5 particles that stay in your lungs forever; and the title of this piece, “Solemn Lemons.” I have found myself playing a lot of text twist games on my iPad in the evening as I watch TV because I find myself unable to concentrate on even the stupidest old sitcom reruns. One evening the solution to the full word(s) in the text twist game were “solemn” and “lemons,” which is such a lovely anagram I thought, Oh, that is going on the handkerchief.








And for those stitching fanatics who simply can’t resist turning a piece over to inspect the needlework:
 
The back, with stitching revealed


Saturday, October 3, 2020

Bleeding Heart Liberal Pin

 

Wear it with pride

Sometimes all it takes is a few scraps of fabric that meet by happy accident on your craft table. That and a desire to send something lovely to an old college friend who occasionally sends me incredibly thoughtful little gifts in the mail every so often out of the blue. The fact that she has spent over fifty years pounding the streets of Manhattan as a foot soldier for social justice meant the rest of the project just created itself. And here you have it: The Bleeding Heart Liberal pin.


Front


Back


If you, too, would like a bleeding heart liberal pin, here is a quickie photo tutorial.


Draw a heart, transfer to cardboard


Cut out heart, glue felt to each side


Glue outer cloth to each side


Stitch all around, tight against cardboard. Trim. Overhand stitch around trimmed edge.

The final step is to sewa little “blood” on the front and stitch a pin clasp to the back. Now off to fight the good fight armed with empathy and compassion.


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