Glenna Stearman Park, 1973
Entering graduate school with three little boys, aged 7, 5, and 2, seemed daring, but was perfectly logical. I was painting and making sculptures full time, but needed to develop a conceptual orientation for my art. That is, I needed to know what I was doing and why. I entered the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program at UCSD in LaJolla, California.
We lived very comfortably in new and beautifully-built student housing. The complex had an efficient and spacious laundry center which soon became my second home. As soon as classes started, I developed a strategy of never keeping dirty clothes stashed in the apartment. They stink. Frequent trips to the washing machines compromised my study and studio time. When Joel would get home from his PhD research, he would take the boys out for frisbee, t-ball practice, or the playground. I loaded machines at the laundry center, raced home to make dinner, dashed back to move everything to dryers, and returned to a sit-down dinner with the family. Joel started getting children bathed and dressed for bed, while I returned to claim my laundry, bring fresh clothes back to our apartment and dump them into a pile on our bed. As life was bubbling, I could occasionally fold a few things and sync with bedtime stories and doing dishes. Joel returned to the lab from about 8 to midnight. I worked on my art in the living room.
Looking into my home life for conceptual art issues, I made drawings (below) of the state of the apartment after the kids went to school and again when they came home. Dresser drawers left messed up and open, socks and shoes all over the floor, books stacked, and jackets draped on chairs or on the floor. It was rich subject matter. These images emerged as miniatures, using doll house furniture and a material called “SCULPY,” which was a very fine saw dust and glue material. I also used paper and acrylic paint in the sculptures. It was easy and fun to represent these “objects d’art” in what we called “the high art world” — meaning museums and New York galleries.
At this time, a great conceptual art war was going on between “craft” and “high art.” I flirted with the edge in what some people called Kitsch Art. It often generated vigorous and insulting sessions in seminar classes. The I-Beam giant steel sculpture guys found it insulting for me to present soap carvings and doll house furniture assemblages as sculpture, let alone as art. We had great aesthetic battles in graduate seminars. Often, I lost the short-haul arguments, but I became a long-haul fighter for my developing aesthetic.
Thinking about artists who worked in confined situations (limited time and space), I started thinking about and studying Eskimo art, especially the small carvings of walruses. Those were the “grocery bags” of Eskimo life, as they wasted nothing from the animal. I decided to look into my own grocery bag for “natural” materials and came up with soap carving. I made tiny carvings of my tools: a toaster, teapot, sewing machine (exhibited at left), tv set and more. I sat in the evening with soap in my lap along with an Exacto knife and other sharp items. My boys were sleeping, Joel was back in his lab, and the apartment became my studio.
Domestic “art” objects – doll house cans, newspapers, soap sculptures, and other miniatures in brown bags, presented on a silver platter as “high” art.
Every night at midnight, Joel and I would carefully lift the bedspread, still covered with unfolded family clothes, to the floor and go to bed. Each morning we made the bed quickly by carefully lifting the laundry covered spread from the floor and back to the bed. By the weekend we could find time to fold and shelve the clothes, while other almost daily trips to the laundry added to our pattern of life.
While carving my soap, I started thinking about early American women and how they made their art in the language of patchwork quilts. I saw the Whitney Museum’s early catalogue of “Abstract Design in American Quilts,” the 1971 exhibit that contributed to breaking through rigid standards in the definition of art.
I decided, once again, to use a folk art form to create the art required for my master’s thesis. Women historically made quilts one square at a time, in their laps, after the dishes were done and kids were in bed. I eyed my constant laundry pile and started sewing it to a double bed sized cotton top sheet. Whatever stayed on the bed was sewn to the sheet. Lots of little boys’ clothes, a diaper, underpants, odd socks, and even adult clothing. (Joel was upset when he couldn’t find his dress socks until he looked at my “quilt.” I refused to cut the thread and give them back, so he had to buy a new pair and was careful to regularly grab his things from the heap.) Even while working on the quilt, we lifted it back and forth from bed to floor and back to bed.
Looking at the traditional “crazy quilts,” I learned to make colorful embroidery stitches (example at right) around the clothes that were heaped onto the backing, I did not stretch clothes to their flat outline. I let some fold, pucker, and overlap. The first time I exhibited the “quilt,” it was placed on a twin bed so its edges touched a floor that had been covered with black photo backdrop paper. The edges were finished about 20 inches in from the edge toward the center, which was still the double bed sheet backing. In the bare center, I dumped fresh unfolded laundry. People told me that they saw gallery visitors walk on the black paper to get a closer look at the clothes. It amused me because I have seen people step on clothing in messy houses. (Exhibition of MFA quilt in progress)
Completing the quilt took many years, and I decided that I would do the final embroidery work when my youngest son went off to college. At that time I sent the quilt to a show in New York and also included it in a San Antonio exhibition.
Maxie and Me – My grandmother, Maxie Stearman, was a quilt maker and gave this particular one to me. I showed it placed just above my quilt in a gallery in San Antonio in 1995. Her quilt had over 1,000 pieces, and mine was the family laundry. Her quilt now has a new home with a cousin who is a master quilter.
The USCD art faculty and I concluded that I was the first student to earn an MFA with a quilt, soap carving, and doll house furniture. The art world was making giant steel I-Beam sculptures and minimalist paintings. My art was the antithesis of the prevailing styles. I wrote my thesis statement based on my philosophical attitude about a dominating aspect of daily life. The vertical spelling of “fuck housework,” where the first paragraph began with an “F” word, the second paragraph began with a “U” word, the third paragraph began with a “C” word, and so on. According to my plan, the concept would be no longer and no shorter than the 13 letters to spell my philosophy.