Best artworks don’t necessarily come from the happiest times. Think Manet’s Dead Toreador or Picasso’s Guernica.

Mine started with a phone call. The man I lived with said ‘I think I like the receptionist.” He never came back. Alone in an apartment filled with his crap I was unsure how to move forward. Other things were not going well. Sometimes your life just spits you out. Mine was trying to do just that. The social friction at Grad School had reached the faculty. They didn’t like it. I was put on academic probation. I had a summer to build a new body of work their liking or, I would leave the program.

What kind of art do you make to move people who dislike you? I went home and cried. Because I wasn’t sleeping, I took to wandering my neighborhood in the hour before dawn. I gathered the petals from bloomed out roses. I don’t know why. I liked the smell. At home I tossed them on the floor and watched small creatures scurry away. A day or two later I noticed the texture had shifted to something with some structure and flexibility. I sewed them together.

You can see in the picture there are about a dozen stitches to a petal. R&D came naturally; some petals have no strength and never will (white roses), most florist rose petals are too small to bother with. What needle? Short quilting. What thread? Waxed cotton. As I progressed I went to local florists and asked them for roses. I walked home like some played out Miss America with a huge wilted bouquet. Their generosity, just having someone else invested in what I was doing forced me to follow through. For that season I hid in my apartment and sewed. At first I was sewing a handkerchief, then a camisole and by the end of summer a full length gown, size 8.

Back at school I lay the dress on a plinth. My graduate committee came in, stayed 5 minutes and left without a word. A junior member was sent in to tell me I could stay.

The guy, the one who left wasn’t that important except his exit was designed to inflict maximum harm. It worked. Being discarded by someone I loved broke me. I had not known that I was disposable. Or that I would have experiences like my mother had. I thought times had changed. I thought I was different. Turns out I wasn’t.

Turns out a lot of people weren’t. This personal history scenario is as common as pie. I exhibited the dress about twenty times before it disintegrated. Women, divorced women, dumped women, women over 40 came and wept over this dress. The waft of perfume and decay touched a common truth.

I made this work in 1995. In 2012 I saw Doris Salcedo’s A Flor de Piel , which is a cloth of pressed rose petals sutured together in memory of a Columbian nurse who was tortured to death. Ms. Salcedo’s is a very different work than mine. The petals are pressed and preserved so there is no scent and the color flattened. Her petals are not held together with the impossible work of hand but a cruel surgical intervention. The death in hers, the tone of a shroud, is monumental in the personal, a signature of her work that weeps for all the losses of Colombia.

By Christmas I was still working on the dress by sewing the skirt hem with a train of fresh petals edging the decay. At a party I ran into an old middle school classmate. He was in financial services. He asked what I was doing.
“Sewing together rose petals into a floor length gown.“
Are you getting paid for this?”
He then asked me my favorite question weighing poetry against remuneration;“
Do you consider this a good expenditure of your time?”
I do.

Another Best thing

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