“The first time was death. My grandpa Eli died on my eighth birthday. That August, while he was eating tomatoes and salt, I told him I would really like to have a whale for Christmas – I figured he would have to stay alive to figure that out. He passed away and I watched my family turn to straw. That night, my five year old brother went to the basement and assembled his old crib to sleep in. I found him crying wishing to be a baby again. It was the first time I learned to be sad. I was becoming aware of the responsibility of emotion, how attractive it was to have it together,” – by ‘Oli’, reminiscing on an experience that occurred when the author was eight years old.
What is a home? A constant, somewhere to hide, somewhere to return to, a place of stress, a feeling, a memory, an obstruction on the path to something greater, a goal — most often, one will experience each of these perceptions at different points in the lifecycle. A home is a container for growth and destruction, a reflection of an organism’s internal landscape, and often a space which acts as a barometer for emotional health. Frances Russell started asking these questions in late 2013 in preparation for her show now on display at Non-Fiction Gallery: A Transformative Home.
She asked friends and family: “Tell of one time in your life that you got “uprooted” and had to make a new environment for yourself. Be specific, i.e. new school, job, friends, city, etc. Do you regret that you ever got uprooted in the first place? How will your current “environment” change with time. Describe your idea of comfort and safety – what does that look like in your life right now? How do you think this idea will change in the future?”
Answers poured in. Some wrote about emotional upheavals (like Oli’s story above), others reflected on the rejection of their childhood homes in search of something better, and still others revealed stories of self-destruction and desperation. Throughout, there is a desire to completely control one’s home and an expectation that “home” will be a place to encase and absorb vulnerabilities.. and an acute frustration when “home” fails.*
Excerpts from these stories are displayed in unornamented glass frames throughout the gallery, accompanied by bits of seed, dirt and grass — the same materials Russell has used to create her anthropomorphic creatures. These forms (all titled A Transformative Home) are grounded in the intense narratives on the walls, providing visual supplication to the idea that home is created, occupied, shared and ended — it is part of the same eternal cycle as a living organism. Each of Russell’s creations are built from nylons stuffed with dirt and different seeds, watered and nurtured until grasses poke through their surfaces, and then sculpted into the forms we see in the gallery today. (If you’re wondering if you can pet them, I already asked and the answer is yes.)
Russell has arranged each of the pieces into poses gently suggestive of human forms; she combines all the supple curves of Gauguin’s Tahitian ladies with the ambiguity of modernist sculpture. There is a sort of forlorn sensuality about these pieces; they beg to be touched while they still can. After all, the lifecycle of the grass is only a short eighteen weeks. This seems only to reiterate the idea that home is ephemeral, in the sense that for some it is simply an idea, and, for others who view it as more concrete, it is fragile or fleeting.
For those who view home as a place to escape from rather than to, Variations on Change: I – III hang on the left gallery wall as a visualization of the struggle to be free. As a young man named Hunter wrote in his essay about being uprooted: “Part of being human beings is our desire for total autonomy.” For some, the quest for self-actualization begins with a push outward – similar to one of Russell’s blades of grass forcing through its thick, red wool casing.
The ultimate goal, of course, is to thrive, to find home — whatever that means — and to adapt it to you. A Transformative Home hits that perfect balance between personal and universal, using the simplest of materials to explore a concept of extraordinary depth. It doesn’t attempt to offer solutions or simplifications; its earnest examination offers comfort of the purest variety.
If you feel confused, allow these works to remind you that you’re not alone.
A Transformative Home is on view at Non-Fiction Gallery until Tuesday, June 2.
* A complete collection of the stories Russell received can be read in the self-published Exhibition Catalogue on sale at the gallery.