orbits and returns

A perfect stranger reached out through the internet to ask permission to get a tattoo based on a drawing of mine. Grateful to be asked (in an era where most simply lift artists’ work without permission or attribution), I consented, and got a fun update from him not long after.

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The gentleman who reached out to me had found my drawing on a very old post from my long-defunct prior blog. Even at the time of that post, the drawing was older still. While I can’t speak to its symbolic importance in his life, it certainly made me recollect its importance in my own.

The drawing was one component of Sputnik, a large panel comprised of multiple drawings executed in 2002. I had just left a teaching job I loved that year: having realized that I was burning out and risking the loss of my art practice, I took time off to figure out how to be an artist in the world, and to find my way. Over the next year, I undertook 3 artist residencies (in upstate New York, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the south of France): it was a heady period of creative discovery, adventure and independence, but often lonely and uncertain, too.

Having read Haruki Murakami’s haunting “Sputnik Sweetheart” while in New York, I became fixated on satellites as poetic, solitary devices: isolated in their orbits, in perpetual slow motion, always transmitting, never permanently connecting. Murakami’s book had little to really do with that particular Russian satellite, but it dug under my skin regardless, given my state of heart and mind at that time.

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“And it came to me then. That we were wonderful traveling companions but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal in their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing.”

(“Sputnik” translates as either “companion,” or “travelling companion,” in Russian.)

One marvelous aspect of maturing as an artist is the gift of hindsight. I can appreciate with fondness the earnest clarity that went into an earlier moment of creative and emotional expression, while no longer being tormented by it in that moment. It’s fun to look back on things that were then-new semiotic realizations, and to see how I was first encoding which images with what meanings. These are the gifts of art, on the best days: knowing ourselves a little better, sharing our humanity with others, and inscribing a certain part of our identities even more deeply on some surface, somewhere.

So, when a random stranger reaches out through the ether to ask if they can inscribe some part of your iconography in some part of their dermis, you accept. And while their reasons for doing so have nothing to do with your reasons for making the image to begin with, it doesn’t matter.  It’s lovely and human.

Here, a different favorite book from an earlier pivotal era in my life:

“Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights: the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like Braille. I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story.”

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Opening Event Photos

A few pics from the ‘Limning the Liminal’ opening events: the talk in Fromm Hall with Patricia Cariño Valdez, and the reception in the Thacher Gallery. For a rainy mid-week event on a college campus at rush hour, turnout was decent! Many thanks to loyal friends who came through and supported.

Limning the Liminal
through April 14
Thacher Gallery
University of San Francisco

All photos courtesy Thacher Gallery (color) or James Sobredo (b&w).

 

Limning the Liminal

Last year, when I was invited to present a solo exhibition in USF’s Thacher Gallery this February, I was also asked for a show title much earlier than I was prepared for. After some brainstorming, I ended up suggesting “Limning the Liminal,” since this felt like a safe catch-all term for something that comes up in my work relentlessly, whether I intend it or not. (To limn=to draw/paint/describe; liminal=threshold/passage). Since I wanted to use this exhibition as an opportunity to show a range of work from the past decade or so, this also felt like a term that would reconcile the relationships between these various projects.

Wofford Limning the Liminal copy

Liminality is one of those words that no one knows until they know it: usually it comes up in a class, and then all of a sudden, it’s apparent how pervasive it is in one’s life. There are some very complex and specific definitions of liminality in certain disciplines, but I understand it as simply the space in-between; of transitions and overlaps, of hybridity and change. In my disposition as well as my work as an artist, I find it impossible to see things as singular or fixed; this governs subject matter like immigration, identity and mortality, and determines that creative output be interdisciplinary. It just makes no sense to me to be so narrow in focus when it comes to theme or technique.

That said, I still felt mildly unsure that bringing the various projects together for the first time in the ginormous Thacher Gallery space would make sense. Would the nurses make sense with the earthquake paintings or the death songs prints? And what about the Carlos pieces, or the folders, or the witches? Would the illustration-style work make sense with the realistic canvases or the semi-abstract works on paper?

In the end, with everything in the space, the relationships have felt reassuringly clear; distinct from one another stylistically, but very much in conversation with one another. I had this thought flit across my head that it’s a gift to be able to speak multiple languages; rules of grammar underpin each language, which allow for translation and comprehension. So why should there be any kind of stigma in being able to work in multiple visual vernaculars? Not everyone will speak the same language, but everyone’s capable of getting the jist of the thing with a little effort.

Jenifer K Wofford: Limning the Liminal
Thacher Gallery
University of San Francisco
Feb 25 – Apr 14, 2019

Wed Feb 27
Conversation with Patricia Cariño Valdez and Jenifer K Wofford

5-6 pm
Maraschi Room, Fromm Hall
Opening Reception
6-7:30 pm
Thacher Gallery, Gleeson Library

Roundup

Roundup of the last 2-ish months: while I’m not big on traditions, I’m realizing that we all have our own weird rituals and repeating motifs, many of which surface at the transition of a year.

STUDIO:
Finally in full studio-mode, prepping for a solo show that opens in late February. While a decent number of works in the show are already done or from a few years ago, there are unresolved odds and ends that I’m using this show as an excuse to return to, so there are a few variables yet. As part of the warm-up to this bigger work, I spent a good chunk of time finishing off the last few pages in my art journal. It’s always a nice feeling to complete one of these books, especially at year’s end.

MYLAR CAVE:
In early December our Mylar Cave was up and running again! Having been gifted a bunch of crumpled mylar by a friend a few years back, we’ve since made this our annual seasonal decor by transforming our tiny living room into a cave of wonder for SF’s wintriest months. (With festive holiday costumes, to boot.)

HOLIDAYS:
The Terrible Holiday Svetr(sweater) made the rounds yet again, with more family photo-ops than ever. I procured this masterpiece of oil consumption at a swap meet a couple of years ago; while not technically an ugly Christmas sweater, it more than fits the bill.

WANDER WOMAN at Root Division
Manananggoogle‘s 2018 recruitment video made its U.S. debut as part of a nice show curated by Rea de Guzman. Since Reanne couldn’t make it up from LA, Eliza and I didn’t don full C-Suite drag: we went in casual whites, repping the company’s less formal philanthropy wing.

NO SCRUBS 3.0 at the SF Women’s March
I wrote about how potent and fun this was at the first Women’s Marches in 2017, but was unsure whether it was appropriate to reboot it for subsequent Marches in 2018 and 2019. Turns out, it was! And multiple young women came up to us, expressing glee that we were back again. It was fun to absorb them into our motley crew along the way. Traditions aren’t so bad!

struggle bus as process

A few years back, Woff père randomly mused, “I think everyone should have a death song.” (That’s Woff Sr for you: thoughtful, sensitive, morbid, and always planning ahead.) Curiosity piqued, I asked him to elaborate, which led to a conversation about music chosen as some sort of final personal declaration after one dies.

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I never really thought about this as an art project premise until I started writing a grant application in late 2016, after a banner year of musical losses including Bowie, Prince and Juan Gabriel.  I wrote the grant on the fly with Dad’s sentiment on my mind: not entirely sure what I would make, but having just finished the karaoke chapel video installation piece, thinking it might end up something like that.

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Fast-forward about a year: with my intended project venues falling through, with work and other obligations dismantling what little free time I had, and with a substantial amount of creative block and personal grief kicking in, I found myself unable to move forward. While I often joke about being on the “struggle bus” at some point with a project, at least it’s usually moving slowly in a direction. This time the bus felt like it was up on cinder blocks, with no destination.

While a basic premise was still in play (asking people what their death songs would be), I couldn’t figure out how to make art about this. The public-ness of a project about sensitive subject matter felt unsafe. The visuals felt unclear. Video no longer seemed viable. Add to this an awareness of other artists and organizations who were deeply immersed in death as a subject in their work and programming, and I began to feel in over my head– like a charlatan, like I had no right to make work about this.

Over the summer, I did what often helps me out: I stopped trying to force an agenda, and just started working in my art journal for personal reasons, instead. I’ve kept journals on and off for over half my life; they ground my practice in something private and personal when so much of my professional work must be public and social.

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Out of these journal noodlings, some images started to take hold. These images confirmed that the project’s primary form needed to be a book. Not like my journal, or my other books, but a semi-narrative mix of drawings and text. As realizations go, it was a classic case of the answer having been right in front of my nose the whole time. (Sometimes the struggle bus takes a very circuitous route to a destination right next door.)

In any case, this breakthrough launched me into a frenzied period of drawing piles of things, some of which made the final cut, some of which didn’t.

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With project momentum came proper book design, in the form of Colleen Kiyoko Pualani Barrett, an amazing young graphic designer and USF alumna who’d once been a drawing student of mine. An ace with In Design and typography, she harmonized my ideas, kept the project on track beautifully, and taught me some new design tricks along the way.

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The book having taken a more intimate, personal tack also allowed me to get a handle on the more public-facing website component of the project. Having discovered that my friend Juan Luna-Avin had been doing an eerily similar art project called “Soundtrack of our Lives,” I proposed that we find a way to team up, and intermingle our projects without cancelling each other out.

Since Juan’s project was more of a live experience DJing peoples’ funeral songs, and mine was becoming a book, I proposed that we compile our respective interviews with people onto a single website, with a shared title, the somewhat light-feeling, double-entendre  “Ultimate Song Request“. With some consultation and the usual technical tweaks provided by one of my oldest friends Max, the website was up and running.

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Juan and I then co-hosted an “Ultimate Song Request” event at the Luggage Store: this functioned as the launch party for the web project as well as my Death Songs book. Juan DJed peoples’ ultimate song requests, we both chatted about the genesis of our respective projects, several artists presented/performed, the audience participated in some break-out conversations about their songs, and we all shared a toast to absent friends.

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Given all the sturm und drang along the way, the book, the web project and the public event all turned out remarkably smoothly in the end, and much the way I’d hoped; funny and strange, and a little sad (but not too much so.) I don’t think the project is done, but it’s at a good place for now.

While I’ve been a professional artist for long enough now to expect and accept some discomfort and uncertainty along the way, the obstacles on this project threw me for a loop. I feel extremely relieved to have eked this one out despite some delays, and extremely grateful for the many people who cajoled, encouraged, and collaborated with me along the way when I was stuck. Sometimes it takes fellow passengers pushing the struggle bus out of a ditch to get it back on the road.

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