My studio is in an old milk carton factory, the historic Cherry Building, in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I think of it not only as a place to work and think but also as its own kind of mutating installation, housing objects, text, video and audio portions from past works which I arrange in new juxtapositions at will. The space is always in flux but one area is reserved for creating new larger scale work, another for fiddling around with “stuff” and working on smaller things.
Part of my art practice, then, is simply the arranging of things to create new meanings. For 30 years I’ve collected found notes from family, friends, and strangers, which often become small metal drawings or books. I also collect “homemade” craft articles gleaned at flea markets and yard sales. These objects are meant to be based on a set of directions but the makers could not help altering the recipe. Materials from metal tooling foil to alphabet soup letters and burnt matchsticks are employed in these creations. Their originality and authenticity are a constant inspiration for me.
The Architecture of Migration: I’ll be back for the cat, 2010-11
An installation by Jane Gilmor
The Architecture of Migration: I’ll be back for the cat is a traveling installation of work from the past ten years exploring the psychology of personal and cultural migration. Issues of identity, dislocation and border crossings: public/private, poverty/privilege, rural/urban, male/female penetrate both the form and the text of these works.
The exhibition began at Long Island University it Brooklyn in November 2009 and most recently traveled to St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa in March 2010. As part of that project artist Matt Butler helped me create a web site and online survey for students, staff and faculty at LIU, ST. Ambrose and at my home institution, Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Stories of migration (large and small) are shared on this site. Anyone interested is now invited to contribute his or her own story at Back For The Cat
The two newest works in the exhibition include the installation of hanging metal books created from the selected text submitted to the www.backforthecat.com web site. Hanging midair across from the room are back to back pastel drawings by my mother, Margery Ann Maberry Gilmor, showing her college home in the Colorado mountains on one side and her new home in Iowa on the other (circa 1050). Not far away are my father Fred Gilmor’s shoes subtly rock back and forth in a soothing motion that seems headed forward but goes nowhere. Inhabited only by something that resembles a cat’s tail Fred’s shoes relate to the title from a found handwritten note, “I’ll be back for the cat”, and his love for his cats.
On the floor near the books a tombstone like marker covered in simulated chain link fencing houses two videos. One edited from the dating section of a 1960’s Portuguese language tape and the other documenting my own adventures wandering a 5,000 year old Neolithic stone circle (also in Portugal) wearing my very phallic, handicap accessible, portable hunting blind. (See links)
The earliest work in this exhibition, In Between: The Architecture of Migration (2000) was the first in my series of wearable structures that both connect and disconnect their inhabitant with the outside world. As a philosophy professor visiting the gallery quipped, “it seems meant to confound meaning, not create it.” I recently placed the structure (resembling a baby bottle) on a platform, raising it to the level of border patrol and voyeur.
The exterior metal skin is covered with text from U.S. government travel alerts, Canadian Nationalist websites, my mother’s travel diaries, notes from homeless teens, and directions from the Encyclopedia of Crafts. The interior is a warm copper incised with test and marks made by a hospitalized woman while on a respirator and near death. The viewer can enter the structure and become a performer by extending arms through the provided sleeves, looking out the screened opening, and reading aloud from one of several books hanging from an elevated hoop. This work took on new meaning when it was on exhibition in New York on September 11, 2001.
The Architecture of Fatigue (2004) was the second in my wearable series sometimes referred to as Containers for the Self. The six -foot structure is superficially based on psychological research connecting physical posture and facial gesture with mood. The piece responds to the personal and cultural sense of “overload” that has come with out post-industrial era. Again the wearer can connect with outside world only by touch, sound, and obscured vision. The outside text and images come from early twentieth century ads for fatigue remedies and energy restoration devices. Video monitors embedded in the “skirt” reveal a close-up of the artist rubbing tired eyes and moaning. Ironically the structure appears passive and submissive, yet when an arm extends to connect, viewers jump back in horror.
Near Fatigue is a small selection from the work Pillows (1995-2006), a series of twenty hand-fabricated metal pillowcases housing feather pillows salvaged from a defunct convent.
Much of my research for this project (outside the interviews themselves) is housed in the BreakRoom installation, seen here in the top row of images. The BreakRoom was entirely covered with silver insulation foam so visitors could write/press comments into the silver foil walls. The walls are sparse in most places and in other spots covered with framed images from the Grinnell workshops, a series of signs I found in 1989 in my old studio in Cedar Rapids (CSPS hall), signs from a soup factory, signs with directions for time card mistakes, and found objects related to work. All are arranged to simulate some factory or discount store break room from 1950 -1990’s. On a long central folding table are metal books made by participants about their work history and a library of books about work in our culture past and present. Nearby is a computer station where visitors can contribute their own work histories and philosophies. (www.unseenwork.com). The portable radio is playing Matthew Butler’s original audio piece combining talk radio discussions of work.
In the process of researching (Un)Seen Work, I visited the archives of many individuals, The Grinnell History Center, The Drake Library, The Herald Register and, of all places, the library at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. In the recycle section at FIT a friend found about thirty books from the 60’s through the 80’s on Time Management and Efficiency in the Workplace, testament to the height of our industrial age. The images are self-explanatory (or not) and highlight our culture’s obsession with Time as Money. The most ridiculous of these diagrams and forms have been transferred to metal creating sections for the large walk-in (Un)Seen Work book. The books themselves are in the BreakRoom for leisurely reading. Nearby is a video monitor of the selected interviews of Grinnell Workers edited by artist Matthew Butler (see video links on page I and 2.)
Here is some of what we learned about unseen work in Grinnell (quoted from transcriptions of interviews conducted between February and May 2010).
[what I like about work]
My wife says “when you’re working at the Water Department you’re like a duck in water.” I wouldn’t venture a guess the number of times we were heading out the door and the phone rang and I’d say, “Sorry, Dear, I gotta go to work.” Paul McDonald The cemetery, like I said, you gotta dig, you gotta bury people, which is not a great job, but the advantage if that is that you are outside all the time. Keith Stewart
I have come to realize that all of us stand on the shoulders of those who worked before us. Simply, we owe our success to others. The more we recognize that fact, the more we can recognize the worth of unseen labor. We will then be inspired to lend a hand to the less fortunate and work for causes that result in something more than a salary. We will give our own labor to building a more equitable, fair community, where starting points don’t determine the ending point. Michael McHugh (Grinnell student, (Un)Seen Work interviewer)
For me, I miss work. I’m trying very hard so that I can do something productive again. I have good days and bad days. But after working so many years and building a good career, then to have it yanked out from under you by illness–it’s crushing. Dan Diehm
I’ve cleaned all over the city. I’ve done the police station, the fire station, the library.. I’ve done the street shops, the community center, the Memorial Building. I’ve done ‘em all, sometimes in one day. Anonymous
You know I always thought I was going to be terrified the first time, but I went to the first fire and I wasn’t that scared. It was a little scary–you can’t see in there–you have to think, “is the roof going to collapse? Is the floor too wet?…” It’s nerve wracking but you are trained to know what to do. I lucked out on my first fire. It was actually a semi-trailer full of cereal–rice crispies–burning! Kristina HellesoI’m standing here working on a motorcycle, getting my hands dirty, tool boxes everywhere with wrenches, socket sets, screw drivers, drills everywhere. I’ve grown up working on cars and trucks with my uncles and grandfather. I think this is the field my grandfather would want for me–what he would want me to do with my life. Ryan Rice, New Horizons Alternative High School I’ve done a lot of things–plumber, electrician, truck driver, carpenter, cook, worked for General Telephone, taught Arthur Murray dance classes for a month. (You got paid by how many people you could talk into taking lessons, so I gave that up.) But the first day I walked into a classroom, high school, I knew I was gonna be a teacher. Jack Marcum
The hardest work I’ve ever done would be working in the kitchen. You’re so completely stressed, you’re pumpin’ out twenty million orders, people are yelling at you, people are yelling at your boss, your boss comes in and yells at you, you make sure all the food is going right and it’s a kitchen so everyone is getting really hot, so tempers are flarin’, waitresses are conflicting with cooks and cooks are getting mad at waitresses, and the boss is mad at everybody and you just gotta keep running around and taking it as it goes and at the end of the night you are completely and totally fried –and you still have to clean up the whole entire mess! I never want to work in a kitchen again in my life. A lot of angry people in kitchens. Jarrod Diehm
I like working in a small town, especially when I was in the restaurant business, because almost every restaurant has their regulars. Coffee drinkin’ men that are there all morning, you know? And you get where you know them by their first name and you know what they want when they walk in the door without even taking their order, and you know personal things about them and they know things about you, and, you know, that’s what I like about Grinnell. LuAnn Montgomery
So they hired me in a man’s position to write headlines and I worked with this little man with red hair who he smoked 12 cigars before lunch. And he sat across this big desk from me. And I’m not sure he was pleased to have female across the desk. Betty Gerber
I worked straight through from like 10:00 to 3:00 every day, ate at my desk, and then one day I went in and some of the girls had gotten a fifteen cent raise and I got a nickel. I was typing up a bid and when I heard that I went to the boss and said, “I’m typing a bid now; when I get it done, I’m through.” And I walked out. Esther Adkins
I started my working career as a young lad walking behind cultivators, pulling morning glories. After the Depression I worked for farmers because I was born on a farm, pitchin’ levels. And I worked for farmers –I’ve worked in the hot sun fifteen hours a day since I was fourteen years old. Wendell Sleeuwenhoek
After I got big enough to handle the milking machine, I did the milking and we milked fifteen to twenty cows. You got up and you did that before you went to school and you did it again when you got home after school. Paul McDonald This is my job because it’s the only thing I’m good at. In farming you work until the job gets done. New Horizons Alternative High School student
I was never really directed in the care(giver) direction, but (as a child) I tried to help birds and one time I brought all the cats in because it was raining –and I got in trouble for that. When there was a storm and I’d see a chicken out there, I’d get boxes to cover ‘em up. That’s just what I did. I tried to rescue. Carol Shreiner
I’ve been with residents until the end. For me it’s not death. It’s the beginning… I sing to them. I put lotion on their hands. Show them someone’s there. That it is okay. I simply feel if it is their time, it’s their time. I’m blessed to have been there, blessed to have known them… Kimberly Kaisand
I remember working in the factory where there was lots of noise, cement floors, other workers, dirty walls….I was putting linen in the pressing (ironing) machine rollers when my fingers got caught. I was yelling “push the OFF button,” but the noise was so loud no one could hear me. Ramona Washington
We have fans but there is no air-conditioning, it does get very hot. It gets sweaty and I have heard of some people fainting so it is very uncomfortable in summer. In the winter, there are heaters but a lot of people are wearing sweaters and so…there is definitely a temperature issue. And there is also a noise issue. There is a lot of machines so I wear ear plugs all the time just because there is so much noise. AnonymousI’m standing in a large factory with machines and computers everywhere. With each button I push and each lever I pull I hear sounds of very large contraptions with motors. I smell crude oil and grease. I can feel the cement floor under my steel-toed shoes. There are not many girls in my line of work. I work ten hours a day and, granted, I come home dirty and tired but I still enjoy it. (work fantasy visualization, Kayla Evans, New Horizons Alternative High School)
I took a couple ones out of my husband’s wallet to pay this bill. Take this much and be satisfied for right now. We have to pay the car payment and for my tape recorder, etc. From Barbara Wolf’s collection of notes on returned telephone bills Well, I’ve always worked two jobs. I was a farmer on the side and whenever I got done with my day job at the railroad or whatever, five or six o’clock at night, I’d jump on a tractor–cultivate or something. Wendell Sleeuwenhoek
Our rent was six dollars a month and the man that owned our house was in Newton, so my dad would save up money from working, enough to buy gas so we could drive to Newton and back on old Highway 6 to pay the rent—and that was a monthly trip. Jack Marcum
One of the things at the collection agency: they always closed after talking with somebody and ringing them about, you know, ‘we are gonna sue you,’ and they would always say “Have a nice day!” To this day, I have never used that expression just because of that–because it is just so horrible to me. Crosby
The American Dream is based on the premise that hard work will result in prosperity. My family is fully ensconced in this belief. As members of the often ignored working class, my mother works because she is passionately in love with her occupation, my father because he is loves work itself. Both judge their worth in their ability to do their work. Because of the momentous importance of work in defining my own value, I have frequently been troubled by the invisibility and marginality of the jobs I have had. Nichole Baker, (Grinnell student (Un)Seen Work interviewer)
We’d tell them, “it looks good on paper, but it doesn’t work very well.” But that’s how management was… “It’s on paper, it’ll work.” But we were the workers and we were telling them–it’s not that easy. “Oh, you’ll get used to it.” Okay, it’s 100 degrees in the factory, fans blowing hot air, I mean…they once made me walk around with popsicles. “Oh, here you go.” But you gotta keep working with your popsicle. ….How’s that gonna work?! Anonymous
[getting out of bed]
Question: What’s the hardest work you’ve ever done? Response: “Getting up in the morning.” Ed Adkins
It gets tiresome waking up at 3:00 every morning. You know, you just have to drag yourself out of bed, put your clothes on, car up, put those newspapers together and take off. Someday I’ll just stay in bed and snuggle up! Vicky Cline
curated by Lesley Wright, Director, Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College, Fall 2010
Jane Gilmor In collaboration with the citizens of Grinnell, Iowa (as listed below)
Matthew Butler, original video and audio works; David Van Allen, photography; Barry Sigel, Christina Husmann, Maria Terzopoulou, Cory Taylor, Nicole Bake, Thomas Bateman, Robin Young, Michael McHugh. Funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (logo)
Culturing Community: Projects About Place curated by Faulconer Gallery Director Lesley Wright asked four artists to create four projects using art to get at a more complex sense of a small Iowa town and it’s people. The exhibition is an experiment in uniting a community and a Museum in unexpected ways. Culturing Community creates a bumpy unresolved picture of Grinnell. As a lively town it is a work in progress. Gerard Delanty in his book Community notes, We often find our sense of community in those “in-between” spaces that we pass through on our way to somewhere else: the coffee shop, the waiting room, the library.
(Un)Seen Work: Traditions and Transitions, draws on Grinnell histories and experiences of work, particularly the unseen work done in unsung jobs that keep a community going. Through a series of video interviews begun in February 2010, fifty people contributed their work histories to the project. Gilmor also held workshops to help participants create metal foil books with text and images expressing their experiences of work.
Participants were asked to address these and other questions: What is your personal work history? What work would you like to be doing? What kinds of work do other members of your family do? What kinds of work were you raised to do?
Using the videos, transcripts, archival materials, objects brought by Grinnell participants, and other Grinnell/work related materials, Gilmor fashioned a giant walk-in book about work in a small Iowa community. The piece incorporated the words and images of the “unseen” workers, video, and hands-on activities.
Copies of interview videos and transcripts completed as part of this project will be donated to the Iowa Labor Archives of The State Historical Society in Des Moines as well as the Drake Community Library in Grinnell. Thank you to all the (Un)seen Work participants, including those who chose to remain anonymous but are not forgotten. A complete listing of participants can be downloaded in the form of the “thank you” poster for Culturing Community.
In 1993, always in search of lost notes and found images, I spotted an odd little envelop in a Katmandu shop. It was full of hand-drawn Kama Sutra woodcuts. No sign of the artist’s signature.
The same couple, in the same room, repeatedly attempts dozens of impossible postures. The simple line drawings are naive and awkward, the couple is ticklish, almost slap stick.
To paraphrase my friend Matt Freedman: The entire operation seems doomed to an endless spinning in search of the sublime. This is a kin to my own take on the human condition.
The cast glass Japanese Mikasa frames – usually given as wedding presents – reference the “kitsch” factor in marketing the “sublime” in American culture — a shiny, reflective, priceless, yet fragile, decorative beauty. I especially like those that look like hair swept up into a bow. I search them out on Ebay – where most wedding presents end up eventually.
In my studio mining forty years of unfinished work and collected materials, I’ve set out to re-purpose the sluggish build-up.
I have categorized piles. One is a stack of old found notes and drawings transferred to soft metal. Some of these are drawings by the disenfranchised people I work with in my socially engaged practice, some are domestic, didactic signs and directions found in the abandoned buildings or given to me.
A decade ago, a biology professor friend, Frank Jazsh, after cleaning out his office, left eight boxes of approximately two thousand out-of-print educational transparencies on the floor outside my office. Two months later after retiring from teaching, he died of a heart attack while fishing his favorite trout stream in Yellow Stone.
I keep those transparencies close by on a table where I fiddle with my stacks and piles. Gradually I began intuitively layering the transparencies over the old metal notes creating a sort of investigation of those slippages and entanglements of language and visual experience through which we try to locate meaning. These layered worlds seem to explore the dualities and fluidity of identity, dislocation, and border crossings: substance/ absence, matter/spirit, microscopic/cosmic, poverty/privilege .
The search here is for some unspoken connection in these random collisions.
For me they embody the peculiar, ridiculous, and meaningful (less) qualities of most things human
In 2016-17, Champaign-Urbana faced a growing crisis in housing for low-income families and the under-sheltered. To bring this issue into sharper focus, The University of Illinois YMCA Art program, in collaboration The School of Art and Design and The School of Social Work, initiated BED SHOE HOME, a community-based art action collaborating with area homeless drop-in centers, domestic abuse shelters, and soup kitchens.
As one component of year-long project, I was in residence on campus for the month of October (Domestic Violence Month). I worked with art and social work undergrad and graduate students to organize workshops at three area organizations: Courage Connection, operating a domestic violence emergency shelter and a women’s shelter, The Daily Bread Soup Kitchen, and The Phoenix, an area drop-in center.
Discussion-based workshops with residents, staff and students in journaling, handmade books, and metal embossing as well as video and audio interviewing were part of a number of activities involved in this dialog between the University and those disenfranchised from it. During these workshops we created drawings and writings on metal foil based on visualizations and memories of a place. The place might be real or imagined, from past or present. Often in their representation of a place, individuals seemed to be dealing with a psychological space one might call “home” This socially engaged work explored identity, dislocation, and border crossings: poverty/privilege, public/private, rural/urban.
The project culminated in a three-month long participatory exhibition at the YMCA in which included a large walk-in book covered with images and writings on metal from participants and embedded with collaborating artist Matthew Butler’s video on homelessness.
BED SHOE HOME helped build a sense of community both within the under-sheltered population and between the University, the larger C-U community and those living on its edges. The project was also intended to give a voice to those marginalized and stereotyped in their own community while also providing participants access to nontraditional art forms and encouraging the use of imagination as a survival tool.
BED SHOE HOME was funded by The Institute for Advanced Study, George A. Miller Visiting Scholars Program, at the University Illinois Champaign-Urbana.