“Project Palimpsest is the result of a collaborative effort between visual artists and writers from UTSA. Interdisciplinary groups focusing on five diverse themes – Road Trip, Partners in Crime, Celebrity Sightings, Elephant in the Room, and Trail and Error – experiment with integrating visual art and text in order to create a cohesive viewing experience. Mingling visual and written language, these diverse prompts find commonalities under the main exhibition theme of palimpsest, or hidden layers of meaning.”
Exhibit held at SMART Space in San Antonio, Tx during the month of April in 2015
An Age Old Dilemma
by R.A. Sengele
I was born into a family of creators. Generation after generation we have steadfastly stood before the Norns, the Norse dictators of fate, and proclaimed our dedication to a life built upon a foundation of creating something from nothing. Some have succeeded in making this lifestyle work in their favor, the rest of us have been forced to take the high road, apologize to the Norns for doubting the path that was set out before us. We resign ourselves to days spent trying to hold on to what little time we are aloud to create anything out of something. We spend our lives searching for that balance, the ability to live a life amongst the arts while still managing to stay afloat. And we pass the dilemma down to our kin, hoping that they will be more successful in finding the answer. But it is handed down with a warning and a kitchen timer. “Hurry, the answer is here, somewhere amongst the daisies. Hurry, before the Norns catch on. Hurry, before the Norns catch up.”
My mother came close once. Found herself on her hands and knees in that field of daisies. Her fingers so close. Felt bone beneath the soil. But, like so many before her, the call of finances and children distracted her. Her head was turned for just one second, and when she returned the answers had slipped once again from her fingers.
Born in the 60’s, my mother was the only child of a successful lawyer and a young housewife whose veins pump needle and thread. She knew those daisies well. My grandmother is a creative genius. In her lifetime she has taught herself nearly every type of craft known to woman. Crochet, knitting, sewing, embroidery, scrapbooking, card making, beadwork. If a craftbook has been published on it, my grandmother has taught herself how to do it and with results that could rival the expertise of someone who has dedicated a lifetime to the craft. Once, long after divorcing that lawyer, a small craft store opened down the street from where my grandmother lived. In hopes of working in the store, my grandmother bought a book of needlepoint and taught herself an array of stitches. She made a sampler to show the shop’s owners, a resume made from needle and thread. The owners were so impressed, they offered my grandmother, a woman who had just days before taught herself needlepoint, a job teaching needlepoint classes. Despite this, my grandmother has never quite managed to find a stable life amongst her embroidered daisies.
Like her mother before her, my grandmother passed her creative bouquet down to her only child the way the Norse passed down survival tactics. You see, creativity is second nature within my matrilineal bloodline. Our bodies scream for creation more than they do air in our lungs.
“God created us,” my mother told me as we talked late into the night about art and creating, “and if he created us in his image then we have that same need to create.” Though I have come to find myself on a different spiritual path than my mother, I understand where she is coming from. As a species, we create to survive. We created fire, we created food, we created shelter. Once we had created ourselves a way to survive, we created ourselves a creator, a reason for our existence. We created a bigger fire, we created food that didn’t just sustain but stimulated, we created shelter for the gods we created. As humans we create. Some are satiated with the creation of survival. Some, like my ancestors, are satiated only by creation.
“Everything we do is a form of creation,” my mother explained. “The way I sort my papers, the way I organize my bag, the way I display art on the walls. It’s a form of creation. It’s a part of human nature.” My mother comes alive when she talks about creating, and behind those light hazel eyes I see that fire that has been handed down the generations. When my mother wasn’t at her mother’s knee, needle and thread in hand, she filled pages with color, somewhere deep down learning how to shape lines and colors to her liking. She spent her childhood drawing and acting. Growing up in New York with opportunities abound, my mother chose to chase after acting. She would appear in two commercials, do voiceover work for a foreign film, even come close to playing Regan in The Exorcist (her religious mother, refusing to let her daughter play a demon possesed child, snatched my mother from the fields just as she was inches from falling into the answer she would later seek). But in the background, my mother would continue to draw and paint.
Once my mother finished high school, she left her home in San Antonio to attended college in Indiana, where, being as passionate about nature as she is about art, she decided to study forestry. After pulling a D average in botany despite a semester of hard work, my mother’s advisor recognized that she wasn’t as much a scientist as she was a passionate tree hugger and suggested that she switch to a degree in interpersonal communications. It was in this first semester that my mother discovered where her passion for creating came from, discovered her human nature. She changed her major from forestry to communications and theatre arts. Between theater and set design courses, my mother filled out her semesters with art courses. By her final semester, she only needed a capstone course to finish out an art degree. So she went for it, graduating with two degrees: one in theater and one in art.
After graduation, my mother decided to return to New York to get a masters from NYU. But New York, as she soon found out, is a different place on an art student’s budget than it is on a lawyer’s salary. Once the money ran dry, she returned to San Antonio to work temp jobs, saving paychecks and making plans to return to New York as soon as she could. While working a job at a small utility engineering company, my mother met my father. A creator in his own right. A man who can design and build anything you can come up with. A man who handed me a camera when I was a child and taught me how to use it to create art. A man who almost single handedly brought my parents’ 1950s home into the 21st century. My parents knew each other only a few months, had dated only a few weeks, but, afraid of losing my mother to the Big Apple, my father asked her to marry him. Though everyone thought she was crazy, she agreed. And in 1984, after a simple courthouse wedding, the two began to create a life together.
For more than five years my mother worked various jobs throughout San Antonio, creating for a living. She worked set design jobs between working for an airplane design company. Was even chosen to work on a team of creators who designed the exteriors of the building facades throughout the Fiesta Texas theme park. In 1989, my parents decided to create a family. I was their first born. After losing her job at the design company while on maternity leave, my mother found herself working unstable set design jobs. Jobs that paid well, but only lasted a few weeks, that demanded all of her time. My father became worried about the family’s financial stability. So my mother, her kitchen timer ringing, left the daisies for the time being, cleaned the dirt from beneath her nails, and went back to school to get a certification in teaching. At the time the jobs that were available were in special education, so that’s where she focused her certification. But, just in case, she got two: one in special education and one in art.
For the next twenty years, my mother would jump around the school district, changing jobs every five years or so. She mainly taught varying levels of special education, but she did teach art twice, high school for two years, then fifth and sixth grade for about five years. But, at the grade school level, teaching art isn’t the same as creating art. And as the school district demanded more and more of her, she left. Now she works as an early childhood intervention specialist, helping children birth to three years of age with developmental delays. But after five years, she’s ready to re-create herself yet again.
“I think that’s why I like change,” my mother said to me as our conversation drew to a close, “It’s a chance for me to create something new.” She had spent the week leading up to our conversation looking for teaching positions in art, preparing to apply for an opening in a new district and a new grade level. And as I watch my mother prepare to cleanse herself of this chapter she is ready to close, setting herself up to create the next one, I begin to wonder if maybe she never did leave the field twentyfive years ago. Maybe she found some part of the answer, grabbed hold of those bones and yanked hard, pulling them free from the soil. Maybe the answer isn’t always readily evident. Maybe the bones we pull aren’t always connected to a completed skeleton. Maybe we have to keep digging, even after we think we’ve figured it out. And maybe my mother is still digging, because creating answers is part of our human nature. And just maybe that’s the secret to this fire my ancestors set so many centuries ago, the fire that continues to burn through my matrilineal bloodline: the answers are for us to create, for us to build and discover on our own. The bones have been left for us to find, but whose skeleton those bones will create is for us to dictate, and the answers those bones will provide will change from generation to generation.
So, being born to a woodsman and a flower child whose veins pump paint and charcoal, I know my ancestors’ daisies well, and twentyfive years ago I unknowingly decided to continue this matrilineal cycle. When I wasn’t at my mother’s knee, elbows deep in cheap acrylic paint, my nose was firmly planted between the pages of a book, somewhere deep down learning how to shape words to my liking. As a child, I was handed pen and paper and taught to record the stories I insisted on telling. As a teen, those lessons were all that kept the Valkyries at bay. As an adult, those lessons are my reasons for getting out of bed in the morning and, like my mother before me, I have found myself on my hands and knees in that field of daisies. But though I have come close, swore I felt bone beneath the soil, I am still piecing together my own answer to that age old dilemma. And on those days that the ticking of my kitchen timer starts to get to me, I give myself over to Bragi, the great bard of my ancestors. Ask him to spare some time for one as lowly as me. Leave Valhalla for just one night, just long enough to help me dig. Show me where amongst the daisies the clues must be hidden. “Hurry,” I urge him, “before my kitchen timer runs out. Hurry, before the Norns catch on. Hurry, before the Norns catch up.”