Wednesday, September 30, 2009

flashbulb memory

I spent a lot of time today doing research for my thesis and a piece of writing I'm working on. The main website I looked at was for The Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University, primarily scrolling through their glossary to learn some new words. I really liked this entry and have been thinking about it this afternoon:

"A flashbulb memory is a detailed and vivid memory that is stored on one occasion and retained for a lifetime. Usually, such memories are associated with important historical or autobiographical events. For example, many people in the US who were adults in the 1960s have flashbulb memories for the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and can recall in elaborate detail when and how they heard the news. (Younger Americans sometimes have flashbulb memories for the explosion of the spaceship Challenger.) By contrast, few people have detailed memories of events which happened the day before or after each assassination. People also may form flashbulb memories of important personal events, such as hearing about the death of a family member or witnessing an unusual trauma such as a disaster. In each case, what makes the memory "special" is the emotional arousal at the moment that the event was registered. Subsequent remembering, discussion -- and even seeing TV footage -- can all also help to sharpen the memory.

Flashbulb memories are not necessarily accurate in every respect, but they demonstrate that the emotional content of an event can greatly enhance the strength of the memory formed. Flashbulb memories are thought to require the participation of the amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotional memory, and possibly other brain systems which regulate mood and alertness."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

immediate future

Dates: October 7 – December 12, 2009

Opening Reception: Friday, October 9, 2009 6:00 – 8:00 pm

Locations: SFAC Gallery, 401 Van Ness (at McAllister) and 155 Grove Street

The San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery is proud to present Immediate Future works by the recipients of the 2009 Murphy and Cadogan Fellowships in the Fine Arts. This exhibition provides a focused glimpse at what is being produced by promising artists within regional graduate programs. This exhibition presents an opportunity for these artists to share what they have been developing in their studios with a wider audience.

The Murphy and Cadogan Fellowships in the Fine Arts are annual awards sponsored by The San Francisco Foundation to assist art students in funding their final year of graduate studies. In partnership with the Foundation, the Arts Commission Gallery is committed to supporting works by outstanding Bay Area art students through the annual fellowship exhibition. The jurors for this year’s awards were Betti-Sue Hertz, Ellen Oh, Isis Rodriguez and Meg Shiffler.

Artists: Miguel Arzabe, Mara Baldwin, Michael Barrett, Bonnie Begusch, Oscar Bucher, Carlos Castro, Emily Dippo, Llewelynn Fletcher, Matt Kennedy, Ace Lehner, Bobby Lukas, Eric Martin, Susan Martin, armando miguelez, Kusum Nairi, Ruth Robbins, Eirini Steirou, rebecca wallace, Doug Williams, Sune Woods, Wafaa Yasin, Daniel Yovino.

Bay Area colleges and universities represented by the twenty-two 2009 recipients are the Academy of Art University, California College of the Arts, Mills College, The San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco State University and Stanford University. Media represented in the exhibition include: drawing, film & video, installation, mixed media, painting, fiber art, performance art and photography.

Monday, September 28, 2009


I installed the calendar quilt for the first time for a critique today and got some positive feedback. Everyone was suprised with how it came out, myself especially. The piece has a lot of potential for site-specific variation, which is great. It's heaviness and unwieldy nature to get it to those sites, however, will be challenging-- imagine the ardour it would take to carry a soap-covered king size futon up a flight of stairs.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

texas hold'em and some others

Some new members of the club acquired yesterday at Urban Ore in Oakland. Most drawers of photographs were slim-pickings or picked-over. They had a huge beautiful wooden dollhouse that I just can't stop thinking about, but it was $200 and I'm as poor as poor. Today I bought a frame for my drawing in the Murphy Cadogan show which costed an embarrassing and excrutiating $300. Embarassing because that's how much it costs for 4 pieces of wood and a pane of glass. Excruciating because that cost was even after a 25% off coupon. If this whole art-making thing doesn't work out I have found my calling.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Had a great day with Morgan-- first we went to Treasure Island, simultaneously one of the most beautiful and post-apocalyptic places I've been in the Bay Area. Morgan and I decided we wanted to build a shack with a farm there, not on the radioactive part of the island though. I looked up Treasure Island on wikipedia and was both delighted and dismayed that someone already thought of our plan... plus some other unique developments:

In 2005, Lennar Corporation, one of the largest developers in the United States, proposed to build a self-sustaining city on Treasure Island. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the proposal has 5,500 units of housing in several lowrise buildings, restaurants and a ferry terminal facing San Francisco. The plan also contains several midrise towers, four 40-story towers and one 60-story tower called the Sun Tower (formerly Treasure Island Tower). It also has an organic farm, a wind farm, parkland and tidal marshes. The proposal is designed to be as car-independent as possible, with the ferry terminal and basic goods within a 10-minute walk of the residences. A toll of $5 has been proposed to deter non-residents from driving onto the island. This is a change from the original plan which was more car-dependent and had only one highrise tower. The Navy has signed two "Findings of Suitable Transfer" or FOST documents which allow development plans to continue.

The San Francisco Gaelic Athletic Association has recently leased land on the island to create athletic fields which will be used mainly for Gaelic football and hurling. The 3 fields will be home to future North American Championships as well as visits from Irish All-Star teams.

Uhhhhh.... and in this one paragraph my plans have been totally blown out of the ether. Anyways, after our Treasure Island experience we went to Oakland, ate strawberry shortcake on a curb, perused the shelves of Urban Ore and went to Essex, a secret ladies-only backyard bathhouse in Berkeley.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Dear you,
I was thinking about loneliness and all of its recent conversational outcroppings and the sadness that comes with it. Both of us are people that engage with daily alone-ness and are good at being okay about it. But we've also talked about how the word is problematic because not only is it possible to feel lonely in the company of others but because it is possible to be fully satisfied in the presence of no one. So of course I looked it up. Merriam Webster dictionary writes that the state of being lonely can mean any of four things: 1) being without company, cut off from others 2) not frequented by human beings 3) sad from being alone 4) producing a feeling of bleakness or desolation. The definition doesn't leave room for content loneliness... which was disappointing until I read this by Paul Tillich: "Language has created the word 'loneliness' to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word 'solitude' to express the glory of being alone." So of course I looked up some other words and thought about how tricky but essential their differences are-- for example, 'isolation' being a detachment and 'seclusion' being a deliberate withdrawal.

Words have been and will always continue to bewilder. I started crying this morning in front of my advisor James while we were talking about frames. I kept trying to tell him that he shouldn't worry because it wasn't about the frames-- he was certain that he said something to the highest degree of personal offense. I am certain I could have said something that would have been adequate, but I kept catching the words before they came out of my mouth, stunned by their inadequacy-- you know, things like "I'm okay" and "I don't know"-- expressions that short-thrift what's actually going on. I was feeling very lost in that moment about who I was making my art for-- it seemed (in the moment and still now) impossible to figure out. I'm in my studio all day, alone, thinking and making things which will eventually live in a space (and eventually, a world) without me to explain them. But I also feel very much not alone-- I feel responsibility to make things that matter, that will make my family proud, that will speak about issues greater than my ability to articulate. Of course, this relates to the impossibility of trying to figure out what's best for me as autonomous from the world-- because I feel so intrinsically linked to everything else, and this sometimes means to you too.

There are many different kinds of being lonely-- in fact, probably each one is entirely unique. I think that the loneliness of one moment is so totally shape-shifting that by the time you are ready to process it, it has already turned into another kind of loneliness. Sort of like how I told you that it seemed impossible to me to live in the "here and now" because the 'right-now' is just the corner between the past and the future. T.S. Eliot was probably getting at this when he penned the question "What loneliness is more lonely than distrust?" He's admitting that there is more than one kind. In this quotation it seems to me that the distrust he is talking about isn't just something like having distrust in a person... for me he is talking about something more general, like uncertainty. To be uncertain requires a sort of detachment from certainty/sureness/confidence, and to be detached means to be, in any of various ways, alone.

I trust that everyone (not just you, not just me, not just twenty-year olds everywhere) oscillate/vacillate between being lost and being found on a hourly/daily/weekly/seasonal rotation. This makes sense-- that we experience and that then we attempt to evaluate those experiences. But how does one make sense of needing to be alone one moment and needing to be with others the next? I was heartened by this question and answer from the mouth of Kurt Vonnegut: "What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured." I'm comforted by this because this seems like a good strategy and because I understand his use of the words 'stable' and 'communities' to mean something more like 'supportive' and 'environments.' 'Stable' is sort of scary to because it almost means 'predictable' and 'community' is scary because it seems to imply a presence amongst 'many people.'

I'm almost done writing this letter, but haven't reached any sort of conclusion-- I sort of feel like one of those french bulldog puppies stuck in the air with my soft little legs pawing in the air. When we were watching that video I was mesmerized by the juxtaposition of the desperate pace of those outstretched legs while the puppy scrambled to upright itself abbreviated and then by the calm stillness while it caught it's breath, the vulnerability of it's naked freckled belly arched towards the ceiling and it's dark eyes slowly scanning the room for someone to come help turn it over.

See you soon,

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

awake and dreaming

I read Maurice Halbwachs On Collective Memory that seemed to iterate 1) no memory is truly real and 2) memory is oriented by our connection to society. Parts of this make sense-- if we feel alien in a place than we remember our occupation of previous ones familiarly, etc. But I was thrown by the articles repeated use of the terminology "disconnection" to talk about the difference between the memories of waking space and dreams-- "In a way, contemplative memory or dreamlike memory helps us to escape society. It is one of the rare moments when we succeed in isolating ourselves completely." I recently started subletting a room after 2 months of being without my own and it was strange and wonderful to sleep in a large bed by myself. Of course, when I'm sleeping, even next to another person, I am completely alone in those dreams. But some part of me questions whether that is really true-- whether sleep affords a real disconnection from the body next to me... I'm not sure. It seems like a more umbilical relationship than that.

And I wondered about this disconnection-- how it was both essential to the inward emotional meanderings of memory and how it also destroys our ability to understand memory cognitively through societal cues and historical facts. The disconnection seems to be the place where things open up and get exciting/confusing. The article also threw out some of other words of interest-- "yearning" "identity" "nostalgia", before wrapping up with the following: "Society from time to time obligates people not just to reproduce in through previous events of their lives, but also to touch them up, to shorten them, or to complete them so that, however convinced we are that our memories are exact, we give them a prestige that reality did not possess."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Moby Dick and then some smaller fish

James Gobel asked me if I would hang some of my work in the nave of the main building here at CCA for a week and I was glad to be invited. Excitingly, the opening for the Wattis Institute's Moby Dick show is tonight so it's sure to be seen by a bunch of people in the community. I'm stressed out about making a choice for what to put in the Murphy Cadogan show still and it's nice to have an instantly-gratifying distraction.

Monday, September 21, 2009

historically rendered

I finished this today, and am happy with the results. But my friend Sune Woods told me after looking at it, "I like it but Mara, honestly, I have no idea what it's about." I started laughing because I thought she was joking until she said, "No really, please tell me." Another peer, Nicola Buffa, said something similar. After questioning them I realized that people looking at it couldn't figure out that it was a drawing, something which had seemed so obvious to me. Nicola suggested that I should include a description of how I made it because the forgery was unrecognizable. So here: 1) I bought a shirt from a thrift store that seemed like something I might have worn as a child 2)and then I erased the pattern by painting over it with gesso as a visual metaphor for appropriation and recontextualization 3)and then I drew the pattern back on the shirt with markers and pen as a visual metaphor for memory.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Starting to figure out the quirks of using a projector to make a banner for some directions I found online-- How To Remember Past Lives. I found these directions way back in the end of the spring and only recently re-read them to consider what they mean and their pertinence to my thesis engine. I'm working on the proposal for my written thesis tonight and have been thinking about using this text and it's 10 steps as a jumping-off point-- perhaps call-and-response style, picking a part of each direction to enunciate and respond to.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

waste vs. haste

Today I started making this rag rug out of the leftover strips from the quilting project. I'm liking how it looks and have been thinking of ways to integrate it into my pratice... two ideas so far:

1)make a large rug and dip one end into a bucket of dissolved color-remover so that it soaks up and causes a fade from white to prisma.

2)make a smaller rug and draw a floor for it to sit on, except intentionally neglect to draw the floor boards over the part od the paper the rug will sit upon. Display slightly askew.

I also dropped my camera in a hurry to take this picture and now need to buy a new lens.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Well my friends, it has been a long time coming but it's finally done, this 300 foot long monstrosity of a quilt. I installed it in a tall stack in my studio on Friday while I consider what to do with it next. I'm thinking I'd like to draw a floor underneath and a wall behind it to put it into a more specific space-- one that is forgiving and articulatory.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Today my friend Morgan let me trace her scars so that I could try embroidering their shapes into fabric later. I thought about that word-- trace-- and how these subtle marks were traces of an experience Morgan sustained as a kid that exist today only in her memory and her articulation of it. Skin, like the fabric of our clothes, tells the stories of how we use it with its warp, wear, stains and fade.

Friday, September 11, 2009

small pink accidents

Some progress on a new drawing I've been working on this week. I had originally planned on there just being one intentional error interrupting the pattern... like one of the flowers drawn upside down. But then I executed a few totally unintentional accidents-- drawing one flower just totally in the wrong place and then smudging the paper by leaning too close with a paintbrush in my mouth. After some preliminary freaking out I entered Phase Two of problem-solving by revising the idea behind the drawing. So now instead of being a drawing about minute error it's one about migration and absence.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

the end and what came after

I woke up thinking about the last day my grandmother was alive today. The story my grandfather told us was that she had been in the hospital after a small stroke left her unable to move her arm. A doctor told her that he suggested she undergo surgery to remove the clot which was constricting her circulation which she seemed wary of. Very early in the morning my grandfather received a phone call from Mimi at the hospital requesting him to come and bring a pair of scissors. Upon arrival she cut all of her tubes and cords and demanded he take her home. They sat on the couch in the living room together until she died. My grandfather called my uncle on the phone to come over. My uncle hadn't even known she was in the hospital. At the funeral my grandfather confided to my mother that he was concerned people would think that he had killed her. Visiting her house this past July I found myself surprised by what traces were left of her. My grandfather almost immediately got rid of all her clothing in the closet, but her makeup was still in the bathroom drawers. The dresser in her room was liquidated but dozens of pairs of small calfskin driving and foul weather gloves are still in the drawers in their front entryway. The address book and telephone directory are almost entirely in her handwriting.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

some things come together

My answer to the first assignment of what's sure to be a great forthcoming semester. Here's what I wrote, some bits and pieces taken from previous blog postings, brought together by water.

I bought my first photograph when I was a senior in college at an antique mall in Asheville, North Carolina with my girlfriend Margaret and her little sister Flynn. It was of a family standing in lake water up to their chests, the matriarch and an aged man seated in a wooden rowboat behind them, a small boy dogpaddling off towards the other shore. It was the idea of these people standing in their wool bathing suits for an hour in front of a 4 x 5 camera, the low perspective of the shot and the shifting focus of the surface of the water that convinced it to go home with me. After college I moved to Portland, Oregon where I continued to buy old photographs, mostly cabinet cards of pretty young women or uncomfortable babies, people that I would have liked to know. I organized them into albums by type, theme, by the gender and age of their subjects, by the era of their production. I was interested in the biography of their images and the handwriting on their backs, aware of the feeling that these stories were somehow part of my story too.

The same year I found that photograph I lost my mother’s father and then my father’s mother. I had been working on a series of drawings of their personal collections, drawings whose meaning were articulated when those objects lost their ownership. The French verb, souvenir, means in English “to remember.” But the word more literally translates to mean “to come from under” which suggests to me a submersion into the depths of memory and a resurfacing in a familiar place. The objects my grandparents left behind, souvenirs of their experience, glimmered under the water and my own narcissistic inquiry pulled me in.

Every home is a museum of personal identity. The rooms are strategized to fit a family, the furniture comes with stories of acquisition, the walls are adorned with trophies and tales of origin, the composition lace with priorities, beliefs, ethics and expectations. For my grandparents’ era, the home was composed by the wives, the layout telling their version of the story of who we were and where we are going. In Mimi’s suburban Indianapolis home, a house built in the 1960’s to look like a New England colonial manor, the walls were devoted to historical prints and drawings. My father has stories of her picking him up at college and having to share his seat in the car from Connecticut to Indiana with antique dressers, porcelain plate sets, thatched baskets and Adirondack rocking chairs. In Grammy’s canal-shored Long Island home the house is decorated with a similar affect but the imagery is less land-locked and almost entirely devoted to the sports of fishing and boating. The furniture is pastel and wicker, the floor covered with a light-colored sensible carpet, the pictures on the walls always featuring the water as a prominent character.

When I looked through family photographs in both of these homes I was stunned by the lack of information they provided about the lives of my grandparents. Photography having only become affordably accessible to middle-class families in the 40’s and 50’s the beginnings of the lives of my grandparents were almost wholly undocumented, to the exclusion of some staged formal portraits. In pursuit of a reason for my own obsession with the family photographs of strangers I read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, a book in which he talks about the power of images to invoke memory. In one chapter he wrote of his experience flipping through familiar scrapbook photographs of his mother’s life after her death and coming across a picture of his mother as a four year old standing in a garden during winter. He muses on how and why this one specific picture, taken twenty years before he was born, seemed to supply the most truthful image of his mother, albeit in a state he had never known. When flipping through Mimi’s photo albums keenly labeled “The Baldwin Family” I was disappointed to find that they began with pictures of my father as a baby. There are no pictures of her and my grandfather at home during the years between their wedding and birth of their first child—not even pictures of her pregnant with him. It was disappointing and strange for me, as a queer-identified post-feminist and individual with a permanent health condition to discover that documentation attributed the beginning of their identity to their production of a child.

After living in Portland for a year I got a gig dusting and organizing at an estate sale store once a week for trade. Sellers would come to the store with cheap polaroids of furniture and belongings that they hoped to hock, which I started keeping, interested in the casual bluntness of these photographs—their total ignorance of composition, the wan colors and washed-out details, the voids of information where the Polaroid had failed or the photographers finger crept into the frame. The accidents and unintentional information in these pictures seemed to suggest a much more interesting and potentially unscripted narrative of who these people were and where they were going.

After my grandparents died their secrets were unveiled. My father told me that Mimi, a woman known for her intense control and sobriety, had suffered from breast cancer years prior and that months before her death, at age 82, she had been convinced by a doctor to reverse her age by receiving a facelift. On the other side of my family, my grandfather died having kept his Type II diabetes a secret for over a decade, even from his wife. My parents were each hurt by this information in their own way, but for me it seemed to finally validate my feeling of disconnection from who my grandparents were and it was this unknowingness that liberated me to finally be able to imagine them outside of their identities as grandparents. I realized that the photographs I had been collecting were not so much photographs of strangers but perhaps more photographs of myself—each one selected as a souvenir of something that seemed vaguely familiar, just under the surface of the water, the truth told slant, blurred by the fluidity of memory.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


I've been thinking a lot about this word, 'mussed,' and the way it rolled off of my grandmother's tongue familiarly and frequently. Growing up, my brothers and I used to spend parts of our summers with my grandparents in Indianapolis. My grandmother insisted upon a pool membership to Meridian Hills Country Club for the socialization of her grandchildren. Those long days at the pool, however, I remember being awfully lonely-- we didn't know any of the other kids and it's just plain awkward to meet people when you're pre-adolescent and in a bathing suit picked out by your grandmother.

But the summers just happened that way, and they always happened that way and my grandmothers documentation of them in her scrapbooks denote only the most joyous moments of the endless hours we spent there: a leap off the high-dive, a wave from the top of the water slide, my brothers and me towel-clad and eating mozzarella cheese sticks from the food stand.

Looking back I realize how controlled those summers were-- Will and I eating the same breakfast every morning, pre-planned play dates with other visiting grandchildren, tennis lessons and the Children's Museum. And in between those activities, always driving in Mimi's car, the windows tightly sealed and air conditioning blasting out of the vents to suppress the mid-western heat and haze. We were never allowed to roll down the windows, even on the most temperate days-- and putting down the top of the convertible was out of the question. My grandmother, a Midwestern woman, had her hair done (sculpted, really) once a week and she insisted that the wind would muss it. After swimming we had to sit on towels in the car, less our wet bottoms muss the leather. Must to avoid mussed. Once I had my fingers in the slightly cracked window and my grandmother rolled up the automatic window. She interpreted my incomprehensible screaming as unnecessary fussing and continued to press the up button. My fingertips were bruised and I wouldn't talk to her for hours-- a total muss.

I wish that my grandmother had loosened the tether, not just on us grandchildren, but on her own appearance and lifestyle too. I found out before she died that she had requested my parents keep her battle with breast cancer from a few years before a secret from us grandchildren, as if grandmother's aren't allowed to have breasts or suffer from a medical condition. I remember her having intense nose-bleeds, which I always attributed what seemed to be her perfect feminine daintiness, not to her anemia or hemophilia. Months before she died a doctor convinced her to trim years off by undergoing a face lift in her early 80's-- my family attributes this decision to her subsequent unraveling of health.

Sometimes I figure out why I make certain drawings after I already start making them-- an awesome realization that I think is only attainable through their repetition and meditation. These drawings of patterns I've been working on, patterns slightly interrupted, speak a lot about how I am coming to understand and interpret the decisions and lifestyle of my grandmother four years since her death. I was struck by the differences in each of my grandmother's homes-- in Mimi's, a commitment to pattern, in Grammy's one to soft pastel tones. I think there's a way to talk about pattern and ritual by showing where it fails-- showing the places where control gives way to secrets, accidents and muss.