The death of my father in the beginning of my freshman year at the Corcoran College—and the rocky family life which was to follow—had greatly impacted everything I had done during my time as an undergraduate. Never wanting to become indulgently autobiographical or pitied, I hardly mentioned these realities as a motivation for the surreal spaces I like to create in my artwork. In April of 2013, on the brink of graduation, it finally seemed like the time to deal with the sense of loss, duty and unresolve my father’s sudden passing left me with, and so I created “Just Deserts,” a performance set to Cat Steven’s 1970 album Tea For The Tillerman, one of Dad’s favorites.
Cat’s religious inclinations and the confusion of his spiritual awakening of the early ‘70s, prompted by a near-death experience, have him often singing to someone just out of reach. This sense of isolation is one I tried to convey in the performance, during which I finished sewing a needlepoint of a small heart while drinking tea and eating cookies. Once the heart was sewn, I placed it and several other needlepoints on a wall, one with two antique rifles in a criss-cross over the words “Burn This House,” another with a portrait of Schlitzie, the sideshow performer.
Given my family situation, America’s policies on mental health and gun control have become increasingly problematic at a personal level. When a random act of violence occurs at the hand of the mentally ill, the media’s first response is to point a finger as opposed to trying to understand mental illness. Each image sewn and the music in the performance represented an aspect of this. The needlepoints were carefully placed, sprayed with tea at the edges and dusted with cocoa powder, then moved, and the process repeated during the duration of the album. The heart was not moved. When the performance was over, the wall was nearly covered with ghosts of where the sewing rounds had once been.
My father’s music is something I hold close yet cannot enjoy without also feeling deep sadness. The piece looked towards the hope of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s youth culture, their efforts to stimulate reform. While I tried to place the pieces in a way that would make everything right, I was also antiquing them. The piece is about family, trying to fix violence, illness and loss in the hopes that time will heal, but it is also about the experience of never seeming to make progress alone.