You know the inner dialogue running rampant in your head? The honest voice echoing across the folds of your brain like a beacon of clarity? Inevitably the voice will start to crackle and fade as it struggles to become manifest. We can amplify the voice. We do have the ability to sink a hook into the thought and drag it out of the darkness into the light where we can examine it, name it, and decide if we want to cast it aside or put it to good use.
Over the past year I have stared, with varying degrees of excitement, terror, and bemusement, at the evolution of my practice as Whistlepig Studio, LLC. Motivation arrives via a tugging thought, hooked on a line long ago by a teacher. A teacher who said art should work on three levels: personal, local, and global. She couched it in terms of magic. In a performance art class. After talking about shamanic potentials in art. After studying Carolee Schneemann. Little by little, over two decades of unconsciously and consciously reeling these thoughts out of the folds of my mind, what emerged is a practice motivated by puppetry, story, and craft to empower individual stories through the making of Guardian Monsters.
A totem is just an object turned avatar. It is a device as old as humanity. Cycladic figurines were ceremonial objects bringing focus and reverence to various life events. Punch and Judy Puppet Theatre embodied the hard life of the working class and the impoverished, giving voice to exercise frustrations and the empowerment to throw off shackles. Drinking my morning coffee out of a mug made by Mariko Patterson translates to me drinking coffee with Mariko. Totems made by our own hands enable us to hear our personal wisdom, because making is an autonomous act, which releases parcels of our story back to our conscious mind.
In October, Yellowstone Art Museum Education Director Linda Ewert invited me to participate in an art program at the Montana Women’s Prison. The excitement in my studio was palpable. This would be the most challenging and rewarding community I had yet engaged in a Guardian Monster Workshop. The premise behind Guardian Monsters is, “Turning Fears Into Strengths”. It was hard to imagine a population more desirous of or ready for Guardian Monsters. However, this kind of thinking is the ego-mania that must be quelled in a practice bent on engagement of underserved communities. Questions of academic precedent behind monster as a trope had to fade. Pre-suppositions about the benefits for any one community had to evaporate. Fears about how to deal with personal stories unlocked by making monsters had to quieted.
Luckily, Summer Abbey Peterson, a Mental Health Therapist in Red Lodge, Montana unknowingly gave me some crucial tools after observing a Guardian Monster Workshop with local campers this summer. Peterson shared this: the power of group therapy is in the group. “You set the framework and the group does the rest. Your only job is to hold the boundaries.” More importantly, she said, “The monsters are enough.” Armed with this mantra, I filled out many forms.
Forms for entry into prison quickly invoked a sobering reality. “In the event of a hostage scenario the volunteer acknowledges they will be subject to the same protocols as prison employees.” Wait. What? Am I expendable? Workshop participants are named as “offenders” in the forms. I was suddenly aware of how pointy every clay tool is. I became aware that any object could become weaponized with a modicum of imagination. I relaxed and thought, “The monsters are enough.”
Then the day arrived. All the paperwork had been filled out and approved. Sitting outside the prison gates waiting for 8AM, re-reading the last minute protocol reminders, I was overwhelmed with excitement. I was so eager to find out what the next two days would hold. When I pressed the buzzer on the intercom for entry I was greeted warmly by a guard who helped me carry supplies into the visitors room. Ewert arrived too, along with a friend who volunteered. We set about arranging furniture and distributing supplies. The Community Relations Manager Annamae Siegfried-Derrick and all the guards exuded a tone of calm joy. That’s the best way I can describe it. They believe in their role facilitating successful exit from incarceration for each woman under their care. Their calm joy and commitment to the task at hand created a supportive environment that allowed the small Whistlepig Studio team to stay focused. “The monsters are enough.”
As the women began to enter the room the non-verbal dialogue was fascinating, deafening, and then liberating. Liberating because there was no way we could manage everything going on in that room, so don’t try to--just remember, “The monsters are enough.” It was also liberating because releasing any notion of control allowed us to deal with the women as individuals rather than as “offenders”. We had no idea what their walks had been like, what demons they fight. More than once I thought, “There but for grace, go I.”
The first job as a group was to establish a baseline for the duality within the idea of monster. We began our conversation by collaborating on a bank of words to describe monster: scary, mean, slimey, dark, huge, funny. Then we talked about what the physical manifestations of the descriptors might look like, resulting in a list of: horns, claws, scales, sharp teeth, etc. Now we confronted the inquiry, “What does a claw actually do? What is the job function performed by sharp teeth?” The answers revealed the duality, a duality all people are familiar with, but a duality we forget. The duality of monster is one of those pieces of wisdom lodged in folds of our mind. If we keep getting shamed for using our claws, we lose sight of the fact that the claws are protecting something. Finally, I asked the women to take time to write down the job they needed their Guardian Monster to do.
Here’s a hard thing to keep in mind: The objects made in the workshops cannot be kept by the participants. The work may be on display within the prison for them to see and enjoy and take pride in, but they cannot possess the object. The Guardian Monsters made were intended to be delivered to families or friends of the women who made them, giving them an opportunity to set all of their intentions toward doing some good where they may feel a void. As makers invited into the prison system, we could not guarantee the delivery of the Guardian Monsters. This was a hard reality, but, like many systems, the administration of the prison has limited human power and funding to ensure distribution of the objects. As guests, we did the best we could and promised to ask again on behalf of the women, “Please send these guardians home.”
Ewert said, while the women were making, “A creative mind, unoccupied or unnourished, will find something to engage it.” Her statement made me wonder, “How many artists find themselves in prison? Out of neglect or because there was no outlet for the way their mind worked? No way for them to process their life?” Her observation reduced daily existence to its randomness, equalizing everyone in the room with humility.
The women take the intention they wrote down and wad it into a larger ball of paper. This is the armature for them to wrap clay around. We talked about how the heat of the kiln would meld the intention into the clay body. Then they began building, only asking a few questions here and there. The details, textures, expressions, and stories they created span the breadth of human emotions.
The next time we met we entered into a darker conversation. Where the Guardian Monsters were meant to amplify the inner voice of our better selves, on the second day we confronted the Shadow Monster--the destructive side of monsters’ duality, with the intention of casting it out. University of Chicago Professor of Psychology Sian Beilock has been oft quoted for her work on our power to exorcise fear and worry by simply writing them down and throwing them away. Call the monster out. Name it. Tell it to leave. Not a single Shadow Monster received the colorful adornment of slip and texture the Guardian Monsters received. The Shadow Monsters were grim, raw, dark, and finished so quickly I wondered if they were just making them to appease me. Until I read them.
The women at the prison could not destroy their Shadow Monster completely, so I took their creations. I carried them away and destroyed them. On the banks of Rock Creek, I broke each bone dry Shadow Monster against the rocks after giving an offering to the water for carrying the darkness away. I read each named fear aloud and bade it leave before burning the paper armatures. Fulfilling my half of the contract with the women generated an emotion that rose in my body like thick tar. I told them I would kill these Shadow Monsters. And I did.
Back at Whistlepig Studio, preparing the Guardian Monsters to fire, playing ceramic fairy to any potential troubles, I thought about the kindness the women had shown us. The gratitude, intuition, elegant savvy, and humanity they shared over the course of those two days was a gift. The realization of how much trust they placed in us to do what we said we would do became a precious burden. I was then and remain impressed by their creative agility and their ready access to the thin membrane between imagination and reality as I loaded the kiln.
Since my visit I have been asked to relate feedback from the women. I have been asked to quantify the experience. I contacted Ewert, who has years of experience reporting to funding bodies on museum productions, and asked what language she would use to quantify the value of the work with the prison. Her first response was, “Well, if you can come up with that language, you’ll be a rich person indeed!” But then, she connected back to the earlier comment about the hazards of a creative mind left unnourished, which was almost an aside at the time. She said, “You know a lot of things have gone very wrong in their lives for them to wind up in there. A lot of bad decisions were made. Art gives them the opportunity to have autonomy over a single decision with positive results. That is the beginning of rebuilding their confidence and rebuilding their belief in their own ability to make good decisions.”