That Was a Wonderful Remark by Erin King

Imagine a time in your life that was particularly joyous, or you were at what you felt to be your lowest point. I would venture a guess that you might have a song that is tied to that particular moment in your life.

At least, that’s how it’s always been in my life. It probably helps that I also grew up in a very musical family. But as long as I can remember, my best friend was my radio, or CD player, or iPod, or Pandora station, or YouTube playlist… (I’m sure you get the point.)

As an only girl and middle child, and a child that had anxiety before she’d ever heard the word, I had trouble falling asleep before midnight. So, when I got to the point in my life where my parents would no longer let me sleep in their bed to fall asleep, I would stay up in my room with the closet light on, playing with my stuffed animals, listening to the radio.

As I entered middle school, our local classic rock/oldies station converted over to 80’s hits. By the time I entered high school, I could identify any band or singer based on the timbre of voice (or just by recognizing the song). I had every instrumental solo memorized. I could name the song within seconds of hearing the opening of the song. (As later experiences on trivia teams would show, I could also do this in any isolated segment of a song I’d heard before).

But while my peers, and even my mother, were listening only to how a song sounded, or the melody, I was paying attention to the lyrics. When there was a song that I took issue with the subject matter in the lyrics, no matter how much I loved the sound of the song, it would make me like the song less.

[Editorial note: I apologize if my story-telling is as meandering and hard-to-follow as John McCain’s train of logic in a Comey hearing. Please bear with me.]

Flash forward a few years. And by few, I mean, me being a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree. I’d had to move back home to live with my parents while I was searching for a job post-graduation. I wasn’t sure I fit the advertising executive box, but I also didn’t want to be a cashier at Lowe’s in my hometown forever. I took a leap of faith and applied for an 8-week paid internship in Westerville, Ohio, and moved in with my aunt in New Albany. (I also kept the job at Lowe’s on weekends just to have a fail-safe.)

I was a Special Projects Intern for a social media small business, and lasted exactly 5 weeks before quitting the job. I was verbally and emotionally abused, although I’m sure the folks working there would disagree. I had hit my low, and it had gotten so bad that I didn’t even give notice.

But all during this tumultuous time in my life, the alternative radio station I would listen to on all of my commutes would play songs that I read some sort of spiritual message in the lyrics — Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time”, AWOL Nation’s “Sail”, Foo Fighters’ “Walk”. I truly believe it was this that kept me going through all of the mess.

On one particular evening, (I can’t remember if it was the night after I quit my internship, or sometime after), I was driving through Columbus by myself, and “Walk” came on the radio. And I lost it. I am not a crier, but this song got me right where I was. It was equal parts sentimental, ballad-like, confessional, but also contained undertones of anger and rebellion. But when I heard this song, I couldn’t not hear it as a prayer to God after a huge stumble. And it touched on everything I was feeling. And then you get to that bridge:

For the very first time
Don’t you pay no mind?
Set me free again
You keep alive a moment at a time
But still inside a whisper to a riot
To sacrifice but knowing to survive
The first decline another state of mind
I’m on my knees, I’m praying for a sign
Forever, whenever
I never wanna die
I never wanna die
I never wanna die
I’m on my knees
I never wanna die
I’m dancing on my grave
I’m running through the fire
Forever, whatever
I never wanna die
I never wanna leave
I’ll never say goodbye
Forever, whatever
Forever, whatever

The beat picks up, and you enter the “head-banging” section, and since I was driving at the time, I’m both crying and screaming and pounding on the steering wheel. Catharsis.

The emotional and spiritual association that I have with this song runs so deep that maybe a year or year and a half later -after I’ve moved to Columbia, MO on my own for my work through AmeriCorps; living here with no family but my new work and church families — the music leader at my new-found church, Wilkes Blvd. United Methodist Church, begins one particular Sunday’s communion with that sacred Foo Fighters hymn, and I cry openly. That wound becomes as fresh as that night driving alone in my car, but I’m simultaneously overcome with relief. I’ve somehow managed to hear God enough to allow myself to walk away from an abusive workplace, and found myself in a new community where I’ve found the perfect job and a church that specializes in welcoming the least, the last, and the lost. The tears change from pain and sorrow to joy and wonder.

This isn’t an isolated occurrence. For years, I’ve been quoting the modern-day prophets Mumford & Sons on my Facebook when I am feeling particularly lost. My favorite verse comes from “Below My Feet”:

Keep the earth below my feet
For all my sweat, my blood runs weak
Let me learn from where I have been
Oh keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn
Oh keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn

I think these words have particular significance for me because I am a kinesthetic learner, and failure is my best teacher.

But even songs where I already had an association of prayer with evolve into something more significant, given the right circumstances.

This song became especially important to me after my uncle, who was the closest thing to a grandfather that I had known in my life, passed away.

After getting the call that he’d passed, I had to drive myself from Columbia, MO to St. Louis, MO to catch a flight to Columbus, OH, so I could be home for his celebration of life and burial.

I absent-mindedly placed the album Babel in the CD player for when I lost the radio stations on the drive. When “Below My Feet” hit the lyrics

And now I sleep
Sleep the hours and that I can’t weep
When all I knew was steeped in blackened holes
I was lost

I bawled. I cried so much I had to stop listening to Babel. I turned on the radio and started searching for the closest radio station on the scanner. And wouldn’t you know the next song that came on was “Overcomer” by Mandisa. I let it play and let the tears fall.

Now, we come the reason I felt compelled to write this entry. I’m in a much different chapter in my life now. With the way things are going in the world and also with my own internal struggles with anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and paranoia, it can be hard to keep hope or joy. I’ve had my fair share of times feeling like I don’t hear God speak anymore.

But I firmly believe God gave us poets, musicians, artists, and comedians as modern-day prophets. And I thank God for the ones I currently go to for words of encouragement and hope: Sia, Pink!, Kelly Clarkson, Eagles and Van Morrison, to name a few.

It is this last one on the list — Van the Man — that I currently listen to. My music-loving friends tease me for my love for Van Morrison, but he’s so on point. For years, I’ve found solace in his “Days Like This”, but in the past year, I’ve found a new appreciation for his lesser-known, more spiritual songs.

At Wilkes one Sunday, we led the congregation into worship with “Whenever God Shines His Light”. As I was listening to this song in preparation for that Sunday in the graduate studio for the MFA students, one of my colleagues encouraged me to crank it up, and also to queue up “Wonderful Remark”.

I find myself frequently listening to this song on any number of my YouTube Playlists. It is the perfect message right now in our country’s political and racial climate.

How can you stand the silence
That pervades when we all cry
How can you watch the violence
That erupts before your eyes
You can’t even grab a hold on
When we’re hanging oh so loose
You don’t even listen to us
When we talk it ain’t no use
Leave your thoughtlessness behind you
Then you may begin to understand
Clear the emptiness around you
With the waving of your hand

But even with the poetic genius of “Wonderful Remark”, there is another song of Van’s where I seek refuge. Although I had to do a Wikipedia search to learn about the meaning of the chorus, “Tore Down a la Rimbaud” says everything I’ve felt recently while trying to bring some sense into my art-making:

Showed me pictures in the gallery
Showed me novels on the shelf
Put my hands across the table
Gave me knowledge of myself.
Showed me visions, showed me nightmares
Gave me dreams that never end
Showed me light out of the tunnel
When there was darkness all around instead.
Tore down a la Rimbaud
And I wish my message would come
Tore down a la Rimbaud, you know it’s hard some time
You know it’s hard some time.
Showed me ways and means and motions
Showed me what it’s like to be
Gave me days of deep devotions
Showed me things I cannot see.
Tore down a la Rimbaud
And I wish my purpose would come
Tore down a la Rimbaud, you know it’s hard some time.
You know it’s hard some time.
Showed me different shapes and colors
Showed me many different roads
Gave me very clear instructions
When I was in the dark night of the soul.
Tore down a la Rimbaud
And I wish my writing would come
Tore down a la Rimbaud, you know it’s hard some time.
You know it’s hard some times.
Tore down a la Rimbaud
And I wish my writing would come
Tore down a la Rimbaud, you know it’s hard some time.
You know it’s hard some times.
You know it’s hard some times.
You know it’s hard some times.
Tore down a la Rimbaud, you know it’s hard some times.

And after reading that Van wrote this about writer’s block while reading about French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s concluding his writing altogether at 26 years old, it makes the meaning of this song, and why it speaks to me, so much clearer.

Sometimes we need the silence, the darkness, confusion, the despair. It’s in these moments of wrestling that we find out just who we are, and ironically, create the things that tend to resonate most with everyone else around us. This is when God speaks through the modern-day prophets.

Let’s Felt Hands in a Mirror Maze in the Mountains — Or, My Experience at Arrowmont School of Art and Craft by Erin King

The week of May 22nd — 27th, I was honored with the opportunity to take a Fiber Sculpture class led by Tanya Aguiniga at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, TN. I was told that this would be a transformational experience, but I was not prepared for just how much I would learn; not only from Tanya, but from the atmosphere of Arrowmont and from my peers. (No, they are not paying me for this blogpost).

Learning from Tanya Aguiniga

I just spent a week learning fiber sculpture techniques taught by Tanya Aguiniga (Ah-Ghee-Ni-Gah). This actually happened. It’s been a week and a half since my workshop, and I still can’t believe my experience. I’m still fan girl-ing about this.

I had seen an interview with her on Craft in America; a week later, I was selecting Tanya’s fiber sculpture workshop as my top choice on a scholarship application with Arrowmont.

What little of Tanya’s work I was familiar with was her felted chairs, installation work, and community engagement through the arts. Since she has successfully found a balance between her gallery work and her community engagement projects, I felt I could learn a lot from her, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much I would gain from a workshop under her facilitation.

Our first class on Sunday night, she could tell a lot of us were tired from traveling and time zone changes, and decided she wouldn’t start her artist talk about her work until we had gotten coffee. After the artist talk, she would have us go around the table and introduce ourselves, what our primary art practices are, what techniques in the class we’re familiar with, and what we were hoping to take away from the class. She kept referring jokingly to this part of the class as “probing” or “support group”.

We wandered disreputably into the dining hall after hours and caused a brief disruption for the kitchen staff in requesting coffee. We were informed for future needs of night-time coffee, the lounge had a coffee maker.

After we got our coffee, we went to the auditorium for Tanya’s artist presentation. One immediate thing I picked up on was her philosophy models for what drives her as a person, artist, and activist. Tanya is one of those artists that you can’t divorce from their autobiography. So much of Tanya’s experiences as a U.S.-born resident in Tijuana have informed the work she has done in her career as an artist, and her passion for community-driven work. But her autobiographical experiences don’t shut people out of her work. It’s one of the things in her presentation that makes her stand out in a series of artist presentations. She describes one of her models for what drives her as a person, talking about the tension between the public and the private: “People will ask me what I am, and I answer, ‘Whatever you need me to be.’ I find the label tends to be more important to the ones trying to label me."

While this statement may have spoken more toward which ethnicity or nationality she identifies, it really sums up her philosophy as an educator as well. Though we didn’t really get to that part of her teaching until Thursday when she turned us loose to make whatever we wanted using the techniques she’d shown us, there were early signs of her generous spirit.

She had brought her book that she used when she taught at the university level as resources we could peruse for more in-depth visual references for the techniques she introduced. At one point, she had the idea of checking with the book and supply store to see if it was possible to make copies of the book for a fairly affordable price. It turned out it was possible to print them to be sold for $12. (I have a copy of Tanya Aginagua’s Fiber Sculpture coursebook.)

The final day of class, she was writing on the board information details on all of the supplies she had brought from her studio, making phone calls to her suppliers, and working out discounts if we tell them that we’re her students. She was answering all of the professional development questions that my classmates fired at her.

That evening, a handful of us from the class went to the Ripley’s Mirror Maze with backpacks of wet-felting supplies. Once we got to the center Mirror Room (that resembled a Yayoi Kusama installation), we circled up and felted each others hands as Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” played on repeat. This is an activity that Tanya takes to different communities when she leads workshops, as a way to get us to learn to be intimate with our neighbors, talking with people around us.

Learning from the Class as a Whole

Monday was full of demos on hand crocheting, frame knitting, binding, light macrame, netting, and sewing organic material with Solvy. Our heads were full of information and it was hard to remember what all we had gone over in those few hours. Going into Tuesday, we were challenged to make and bring 3 samples to share in class. The thing about these samples is we all made them with the same care and tenacity as our final projects. I personally made more than three samples that evening, and was in the studio until 11pm. There were probably 8 or 9 of the 15 in our class working late on our samples that night. Between being given the freedom to just play with materials and new techniques, and having a large group working late with you, it was a really productive environment.

This set the tone for the whole week. Tuesday and Wednesday were full of rapid-fire demonstrations, trying them out on our own, and making crazy samples. We often felt like all we did was break for meals. That was the only marker for any passage of time was when lunch or dinner interrupted our time playing in the studio.

Our class was a tight-knit group of various backgrounds and preferred media. There were several undergraduate scholars from Arizona and Colorado, two other graduate students from 3-year programs, and several ladies in various stages in their non-art career paths. This mix of life experiences and the super-encouraging and enthusiastic facilitation from Tanya made our class noticeably the best-bonded class.

Ours was the studio that people would pass through when they decided to take a break in their class. I don’t ever recall any of us taking a break from our class to walk through anyone else’s class, but maybe that was just my tunnel-vision.

Personal Breakthroughs

But more than having the opportunity to learn from an inspiring, accomplished artist like Tanya, (whose philosophies on teaching and making I wholly identify with); more than being in an environment where everyone’s geeking out so much over what they’re making that everyone loses track of time; more than being in a close-knit group that feeds and borrows off of each other — the thing I gained most from my week at Arrowmont was affirmation.

So much of the MFA candidate experience can be high-stress, competitive, and leave you second-guessing your every decision to the point where you are afraid to make anything just for fun. Being in an environment where you’re not expected to have an explanation for every decision you make, ironically (or not-so ironically) enough, made it easier for me to start drawing connections between each of my works.

It was a meal-time conversation with Linda, a self-taught handbag/fashion designer (who was a news anchor in L.A. in her pre-marriage life), that helped me start to make sense of the underlying method that drove my decision-making.

It was Tuesday, and we had shown our samples in class. I had been a little embarrassed about the work I was showing because my work looked absolutely nothing like anyone else’s in the class. I had brought 4 or 5 instrument “dead bodies” with me to transform, and decided to just dive right in on the violin and a saxophone. When it was my turn to show them, I quickly made a crack about there being some fish-story relating all of my pieces together.

When we broke for lunch, I sat at the same table as Linda. I latched on to conversation with her because she had mentioned her work in the news industry, and my brother is currently working as a news producer. But conversation went from journalism to her experience in getting her Master’s in Philosophy and Journalism. Finally, she mentioned that there was something deeply philosophical behind my work. She had also noticed that my pieces were vastly different from the rest of the class, but she said it was great. She encouraged me to do some reading in philosophy, including Kant’s Categorical Imperative, in the hopes that that might give me a vocabulary that would empower me to talk about my work. Then our conversation progressed to homelessness, and our experiences with the homeless population. This conversation with Linda opened my eyes to see my work’s strangeness as a strength.

Later in the week, I had a piggy-back epiphany. By this point in the week, my favorite piece I had made was a rainbow-colored felted trombone bell. Then I was trying my luck at an off-the-loom weaving. I was tearing up a business skirt that I had brought in a bag of clothes I’ve been holding on to for art-purposes. I also had a bit of American flag twine I had made before the Arrowmont trip. Somewhere along the line, I decided that these two needed to be woven together. Everyone in the class were responding positively about this weaving, and simultaneously were commenting on how dark it was.

And this began the conversation with Jen, a woman who currently does not need to work and is pursuing expanding her skills in fiber arts with various workshops and residencies this summer. I told her about how this piece juxtaposed with the rainbow trombone is the perfect demonstration of the “bi-polar” quality of my art-making. I regularly make these aesthetically pleasing, somewhat hopeful or whimsical pieces, and then I have a really heavy-handed, political piece. And I can’t choose between the two — they’re both equally important to me. And honestly, I want to find a way to play up this “both/and” aspect that keeps showing up.

In further conversation with Jen, she encouraged me to use the word “dialectic” as a reference point. Which led me to a word association search via Wikipedia, which led me to “unity in opposites” and a whole list of different words, phrases, and theories for me to look into more.

My week at Arrowmont was the salve my soul or ego or what-have-you needed following the conclusion of my first year in graduate school. And since my return from my week at Arrowmont, I’ve been working on frame-weavings non-stop, and all-the-while, my mind knowing exactly why it’s selecting what materials it’s selecting; why it’s gravitating toward weaving, netting, twining, spinning…

For that connection, we have to go back to something Tanya said when we were covering weaving in class. She was talking about the numerous things you could do to create variety in your weaving, just so long as you kept in mind to do the opposite motion to lock things in place.

“It’s a great metaphor for life really — the pendulum swings both ways.”