Girl’s Dresser is not my first attempt at using watercolor, though it’s among the earliest ones on my long journey to becoming an artist.
This piece was created in 1991 after I had turned sixteen. The start of the year was one of my most dramatic teenage years. Second only to the year I became pregnant in my sophomore year of college at the age of nineteen. I was head over heels in love with a beautiful man who was seven years older than me and I was tortured by my parents’ attempt to keep us apart. The strain of it all proved to be more than my fifteen-year-old self could handle and before I turned sixteen, I had ended it, to his (and my) amazement. Essentially, Girl’s Dresser was created shortly after the breakup of my first boyfriend.
I drew inspiration from my own clutter. One night, I made a little space and teetered on my dresser to take it all in. The visual of my own dresser top overwhelmed me and I realized then that I’d have to simplify my vision in order to get it down on paper. As I sketched out my edited and imagined version, periodically I’d again teeter on top of the dresser to keep the core of my vision in my head.
There was no book present, but I wanted to incorporate one in the piece because I had always been an avid reader, though in 1991 I was no longer a reader of the genre of literature the novel I created visually implies. The novel in Girls Dresser titled Tiny suggests some sort of young adult horror literature. It’s more of a reflection of what I had been reading from fifth to seventh grade rather than the literature I devoured at sixteen.
I define clutter as an abundance of things that are unorganized and I place them into two sub categories: (a) things that have sentimental value and (b) things that have a perceived outward world application value.
By 1991, I was reading works like, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and literature about slavery. I knew at the time that the novel I had invented in the painting came across as silly, but I placed no harsh judgment on it and allowed myself to explore the misty paths my imagination took me. The work was not created to be seen but to be adventurous. It was my version of still life, but for my eyes only—and maybe a couple of friends.
When Girl’s Dresser was complete, I tucked it away behind a collection of unhung posters behind my bedroom door. Girl’s Dresser, though always in my heart, never hung on a wall or door. It could almost be seen as a capsule of time that reflected the thoughts and behavior of my much younger self. I was a girl trudging towards womanhood, trying to be pretty, trying to be smart, exploring curiosities and defying her parents—I got into trouble on more than one occasion for keeping my dresser such a mess. I shrugged it off. It was my mess.
My current style and themes veer away from my interests as a teenage girl in wide degrees. For example, in a series of work titled, “Kobiphysics,” all of my paintings touch on the contributions of ancient and modern physicists. In a series titled, “STATIC!” the work addresses police brutality and the abuse of authority. Observation from these few examples illustrates that my more current somber and cerebral topics are galaxies away from the pink swirling whimsy of the study of a girl’s dresser.
Examining my entire body of work (my writing included) up to the present, one of the common threads that weave my first works to my current ones, is a thread I refer to as “clutter.” To be clear, I’m not inclined to categorize clutter as the half hazard placement of things that haven’t made it into the trash from procrastination or laziness. I define clutter as an abundance of things that are unorganized and I place them into two sub categories: (a) things that have sentimental value and (b) things that have a perceived outward world application value. In my writing, you can see it in random lists I create (I’ve always been a list maker). In my art, you can identify it in a collection of abstract images. An example is seen in my latest series, where I create assemblages of random things I own: pearls, painted bottle caps, crocheted t-shirts, Mardi Gras beads… in order to re-envision the idea of traditional talismans. My favorite is titled, “To Ward Off Sneaky-Snake Women Who Try to Kiss Your Man on the Mouth.”
I suspect the influence, the gravitation to the visual aesthetics of the abundance of things, stems from my grandmother, Ernestine Ruthie Mary Anderson Banks, who, in hindsight, I recognize as a hoarder. She was what a psychologist would classify as an “organized hoarder.” Her cups not only lined the inside of the cabinets, but were also nailed to the outside of the cabinets. Grandma had more jewelry nailed to her walls than in jewelry boxes. I’ve spent hours of my life reflecting on the multitudes of perfume bottles (full and empty) that occupied her entire dresser top—lined like soldiers under a cover of dust.
Clutter is to my work as decay is to the work of Salvador Dali; as crowns are to the work of Jean Michel Basquiat; as shame is to the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky.
My grandmother, Ernestine, passed away when I was twenty-four, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I began looking at her and her collections with new eyes. I’ve reflected on the way she spoke with relish of her collections; the shelves of ashtrays; the wall to wall beverage bottles, the cast iron skillets that hung from beams, the deer antlers on the back wall of the den, the floor to ceiling walls of books… and how she displayed them—like a series of museum installations. I began to look at her, over time, as an artist. The quiltist. The candelist. The pillowist. The found-object installation artist. Now that I think about it, she was also a curator, because everything she displayed was chosen as though diamonds and displayed with parallel mindfulness. As kids, we, her grandchildren, didn’t look at it like that at all. Everyone had grandparents who lived like this. Right?
My clutter was never as artful and Grandma’s. As I grew up and became a mother, I had less of my own clutter and a whole lot more of my daughter’s. Still, subconsciously, the clutter, the disorganized collection of various things, has been the backdrop to my various explorations of themes, concepts and media. A quiet stowaway that I’ve paid little attention to, until my body of work silently expanded. Clutter is to my work as decay is to the work of Salvador Dali; as crowns are to the work of Jean Michel Basquiat; as shame is to the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Though I am now open to sharing my work publicly, I consider each to be an experiment as I’m constantly working on both skill and mental evolution as a human being. My great challenge is to create like I did when I was sixteen. An exploration of and for the self. I’ve been striving lately, to be honest with myself. To stand up on my dresser top and look down at my life, to see it for what it is. To share what I want and keep the rest to myself. To recognize the mess. My mess.
This essay first appeared in the online literary journal, Lunch Ticket in 2018.