Thursday, December 21, 2006

Memory of Place

While making plans to get a dog, my husband and I had a discussion about the size of our yard. His first choice for a canine companion was a large breed notorious for its need to run. I argued that owners of such an animal should have a big yard. To which my husband replied, “We have a big yard!”

We don’t have a big yard, but I can understand why my husband might think otherwise. Chris grew up on a narrow street where the houses are so close together you can almost reach out the window of one and touch the side of another. His yard consisted of a small patch of grass and a sidewalk. By his standards, our one-acre parcel is huge.

I, on the other hand, grew up in a farmhouse surrounded by 100 acres. Our yard feels small to me, but to be fair I was willing to give it a verbal upgrade of “medium.” In spite of this, we ended up getting a small dog that can run like the wind in our medium sized yard.

The small dog was my idea. I guiltily admit to sabotaging all of our plans by coming home with him unexpectedly. (Not one of the smoother moments in our marriage.) While the acquisition of the little black ball of fluff truly was spontaneous, I suspect the idea of a large dog bumping around in our small (okay, medium) sized home was more than I could take. In addition to our conflicting spatial perceptions, my husband’s tolerance of how the space around him is filled also differs from mine. Prior to moving in together, Chris accused me of being “sparse” in my decorating, while I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of “stuff” crammed into his little apartment.

I believe our differences stem from an inherent sense of space imprinted on us as children. The environment we are raised in continues to influence our adult perceptions for a number of reasons. For starters, us humans cope with the phenomena we encounter by slotting them in to the understanding of the world we have already developed.(1) In other words, we process what we don’t know with what we do know. Our memories determine our response.

Now, I can remember growing up with a lot of land around me, but I can’t say I consciously think of this when I consider the size of my yard. My response comes from a feeling. What feels spacious to my husband feels closed-in to me. Our property is tucked into a hillside and surrounded by trees – it’s very different from the open fields of my youth.

However, my perception of closed space isn’t the result of a single observation or a specific memory of my childhood home, rather it is the result of all the messages carried by all of my senses and how these messages compare with previous messages I have received throughout my life. Obviously, our senses carry more information than we can process at any given time. The totality of all this undifferentiated input we perceive in a general way as ambience.(2) Thus, the ambience generated by my current yard feels different than the ambience generated by my childhood yard. I interpret or generalize this difference as a feeling of being closed-in.

Memory is key in determining how we categorize the ambience or feeling of a place. Memory functions on a number of levels to determine our response. As scientists continue to unravel the functions of the human brain and establish how memories are formed, they have recognized two different kinds of memory: declarative and nondeclarative.
Declarative memory is for facts, ideas and events. (i.e. I can remember growing up on a large piece of property.) Nondeclarative memory typically involves knowledge that is reflexive rather than reflective in nature. This memory is unconscious and results in performance without awareness.(3) (I inhabit space with stored perceptions of other spaces I have inhabited – I unconsciously refer to these perceptions and respond accordingly.) Nondeclarative memory greatly influences our interaction with space.

While declarative memory can create an emotional connection to a place (For example, the association of a place with a memory of a particular event or time.) I propose nondeclarative memory plays a role in the development of a physical connection to place. Nondeclarative memory is subconsciously recalled through a response or behavior and behavior can be reduced to biological function.
In her book, The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions and Actions, Winifred Gallagher provides some excellent examples of the impact place has on biological function. She views “the earth and its processes as a unified living organism rather than as a grab bag of separate biological and geophysical systems.”(4) According to Gallagher, everything is connected. She acknowledges how “even the simplest microorganism depends on environmental interactions to survive” and extends her examples from “our simplest [cellular] level up through any state in our development.”(5)
Gallagher supports her opinions by explaining how light, temperature, altitude and even geophysical energies affect us biologically. However, her most winning argument is embodied in her discussion of the womb as place. When one considers a developing baby’s physical dependency on its environment – a connection made so apparent by the coiling umbilical cord – it’s not too far of a stretch to accept our dependency on the place we inhabit. The light, the air, the temperature, the space – “our relationship with the larger world is built from countless sensory interactions between us and our settings.”(6)

A high percentage of our sensory interactions and subsequent biological responses are primarily recorded by nondeclarative memory. In their book, Memory From Mind to Molecules, Larry Squire and Eric Kandel explain how early behavioral psychologists unknowingly characterized a number of nondeclarative forms of memory. Specifically, they identified two major learning procedures: nonassociative and associative learning.
Habituation and sensitization are examples of nonassociative learning. In these types of learning, a subject learns about the properties of a single stimulus – such as a loud noise – by being exposed to it repeatedly. [The subject will no longer be startled by the loud noise after hearing it over a period of time.] Classical and operant conditioning are examples of associative learning. Here a subject learns about the relationship between two stimuli (classical conditioning) or about the relationship of a stimulus to the subject’s behavior (operant conditioning). Thus, in classical conditioning, an animal that learns to associate a bell with the taste of food will salivate when it hears the bell. In operant conditioning the animal will learn to associate pressing a bar or key with the delivery of food… (7)
Squires and Kandel’s discussion on nondeclarative memory supports Winifred Gallagher’s claim that “much of what we assume is ‘instinctive’ behavior has actually been learned in early life.”(8) “In a very real sense, the places in our lives get under our skin and influence our behavior in ways we often don’t suspect.”(9) The authority place has on our behavior can be traced to the formation of nondeclarative memories and offers proof of our physical connection with place.


1. Bender, Barbara, "Time and Landscape." Current Anthropology 43.4 (August-October 2002): p103(10)

2. Winifred Gallagher, The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions (New York: Poseidon Press, 1993), p. 23

3. Larry R. Squire and Eric R. Kandel, Memory from Mind to Molecules (New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2003), pp. 24-25

4. Gallagher, p. 23

5. Gallagher, pp.15-16

6. Gallagher, p. 127

7. Squire and Kandel

8. Gallagher, p. 168

9. Gallagher, p. 127

A Sense of Awareness

I have been skimming James Elkin’s How to Use Your Eyes and The Object Stares Back, Joseph Alber’s Interaction of Color, Martin Kemp’s Visualizations, and Katherine Harmon’s You Are Here, while I have begun to read The Power of Maps by Denis Wood. If I were to focus on a single thread these books have in common, it would be a “sense of awareness.” An awareness of the unnoticed, the hidden, or information we usually don’t take the time to think about; and perhaps more importantly, an awareness of the past as it manifests itself in the present. The past is revealed when one takes the time to notice and/or learn about its physical evidence. In other words, if we take the time to truly look, there is narrative in everything we see.

James Elkin’s book How to Use Your Eyes was instrumental in bringing me to this conclusion. I was first drawn to the chapter How to Look at a Map and was mildly interested in Elkin’s observations on the European influences apparent in the map maker’ efforts. However, it was his chapters on cracks in pavement (of all things!) and paintings that really caught my attention. Cracks are fairly common elements and are easy to overlook. The map-like quality of the chapters’ photos caused me to pause and Elkin’s text urged me to look closer. He explained how crack formations are indicative of specific events or conditions (material, weather, etc.) and in each case, the physical appearance of the cracks tells the informed viewer what those events or conditions were. So in a way, cracks are maps of the past. Maps that tell a story.

In my last post I talked about how we carry a sense of space derived from our birth house with us for our entire life. Now I am looking at cracks in paint and wondering what story they have to tell. While seemingly divergent, these thoughts do share a commonality: both require an awareness of the past.

Allow me to expand on my reverie by referring to the exercise in Joseph Alber’s book where you stare at a page of yellow circles and then focus on a blank white paper and see an after-image of yellow diamonds. The exercise is meant to demonstrate the interdependence of color (and does so quite nicely), but for the sake of my line of reasoning, let’s use it as an example of the physical manifestation of the past in the present. Although we are no longer looking at the yellow circles, their evidence remains. However, unless we are specifically doing this exercise and looking at white paper, we are not likely to notice the after-image. A “sense of awareness” is highly dependent on the act of observing.

Which brings me to another point (or the same point, but more so!) In his book Visualizations, Martin Kemp uses the power of observation to create a hinge between Art and Science. Both scientists and artists study an object in order to gain understanding, and sometimes their observations enable them to see things in a different way.

In Visualizations I was attracted to Susan Derge’s Taw series where she treats the surface of a river as a photographic transparency. The resulting patterns offer the viewer a new way of seeing the rivulets on the water’s surface. The topographic quality of the images is striking and I can’t help but think of Elkin’s cracks and wonder what stories Derge’s rivulets have to tell.

Perception is Reality

My sisters and I use to play house in an area at the edge of our yard. The land, originally shaped by the foundation of my great-great grandparent’s first home, mimicked the space inside our nearby house. We would walk up a slight rise to enter the “kitchen” – a level area measuring approximately 20 x 20 feet. A mossy bank on the right was our “stairway” to the long “hallway” that led to our “bedrooms.” In reality the “hallway” was a two-foot wide path tucked into the hillside about four feet above the “kitchen.” Our furniture consisted of a picnic table, old camp stove, worktable and two large boulders were our “beds.” Young trees studded our “walls” and their leafy canopy created our “ceiling.” We pretended a large hollow tree trunk in our “hallway” was our “bathroom,” but we weren’t above stripping the decaying bark from the inside to serve as “meat” for our dinner table.

On a nice day, my sisters and I could spend hours in our make-believe home. Since reading The Lure of the Local by Lucy Lippard and The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, I’m just beginning to recognize the significance of our play.
According to Bachelard, the physicality of the space we initially inhabit affects how we perceive and relate to all other spaces throughout our lives. He says,
But over and beyond our memories, the house we were born in is physically inscribed in us.
He continues,
…the house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations on a fundamental theme.
Our make-believe house at the edge of our yard could very well represent the first time I projected my sense of space, derived from my “birth house,” onto another environment. I traveled the mossy bank and path the same way I climbed the stairs in our home. The imaginary walls offered a similar familiarity – the texture of the tree bark could have been cracked plaster. Even the cramped quarters of the hollow log felt akin to the toilet squeezed between the wall and the large tub occupying the closet-turned-bathroom in our old farmhouse.

It was easy for us to re-create our home in the nearby landscape. We naturally gravitated to this particular area because its features were suggestive of spaces already familiar to us. As Bachelard says, “The space we love is unwilling to remain permanently enclosed. It deploys and appears to move elsewhere without difficulty; into other times, and on different planes of dream and memory.” Our movements within our imaginary home echoed the movements within the spaces of our actual home. Our imaginary home was the equivalent of our actual home reduced to its most primitive elements and our play embodied the most basic notions of inhabiting space.

Because I was very young when we created our make-believe house, I am convinced its features are imprinted on my psyche as deeply as those of my birth home. The textures and sensations, smells and sounds of the actual location settled within me – essentially blending my recollections of the original space with the physical reality of the landscape. Therefore, in addition to the physical inscription of my birth house, I developed a strong connection with the land.
Furthermore, the result of these early spatial/sensory impressions extends beyond the physical realm. Lippard and Bachelard both acknowledge a higher level of impact.

In Lure of the Local, Lippard notes, “In his evocative book on domestic interiors – Home: The Short History of an Idea – Witold Rybczynksi traces the human dwelling place from campsites to bare rooms to the complex spaces we inhabit today, drawing parallels with the development of self-consciousness, ‘the house as a setting for an emerging interior life.’” And Bachelard claims, “Now my aim is clear: I must show that the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind.”
Bachelard also says, “Our soul is an abode. And by remembering ‘houses’ and ‘rooms,’ we learn to ‘abide’ within ourselves.” So, as the spaces of our birth home determine our physical interactions with subsequent environments, they simultaneously influence us on phenomenological and metaphysical levels. In other words, our thoughts and perceptions – the very essence of who we are and how we identify ourselves – are affected.

This notion could explain the difficult time I had in my early twenties when my sister and brother-in-law bought our family home. The transaction happened to occur while I was experiencing some difficult personal challenges and for the first time in my life I felt like I had lost “me.” In addition to the changes he made to the actual house, my brother-in-law completely altered the landscape of our childhood play area. The physical loss of this place was mirrored and magnified by an emotional loss I had suffered. I floundered for a couple of years before I developed Bachelard’s understanding that “the houses that [are] lost forever continue to live on in us.”

Relying on Process

Before I began the Master of Fine Arts program at the Art Institute of Boston, I had not given much thought to the difference between conceptual art work and process-oriented work. To be perfectly honest, I had not given much thought to my artistic approach at all. I had been working as a freelance designer with the same handful of clients for several years and my work had become routine. My frustration with the mind numbing routine was one of the factors that lead to my decision to pursue an MFA.
Shortly before I attended my first residency in Boston, I read a book called The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes. This book introduced me to several of the concepts that are the main focus of the “process” books I read during my first semester in graduate school. The following quote caught my attention:
“Every book,” said Iris Murdoch, “is the wreck of a perfect idea.” Once this is clear, it’s easy to panic, get blocked, or give up writing altogether as an impossible dream. One thing that separates would-be writers [substitute ‘artists’] from working writers is that the latter know their work will never match their dreams. Nonwriters typically vow that if they can’t make the book on paper look as good as the one in their head, they just won’t write it. Working writers know this is an impossible dream and settle for the closest facsimile.

“All of us failed to match our dream of perfection,” said William Faulkner. “So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide.”
The above quote, along with Keyes’ overall message, caused me to question my own creative methods and decide that the artistic process was a worthwhile subject for starting my academic studies.
Subsequently, I read Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, Trust the Process by Shaun McNiff, and The Blank Canvas by Anna Held Audette and found that all four authors are essentially saying the same thing: 1.) Don’t strive for perfection, 2.) Just work and work as often as possible, 3.) Work with what you know/what is important to you, and 4.) Don’t worry about what other people think/how your work will be received.
I needed to hear all of these points. For years I entertained an abundant number of ideas that never reached fruition. (My work was so conceptual it never achieved material form!) I blamed my schedule, my lack of time, etc. for my failure to create personal expressions, but now I realize my approach was at fault.
The few times I actually started a project, I quickly became frustrated when it didn’t match the picture in my head or I became distracted by a “better” idea. (I suspect the parameters of deadlines and assignments prevented me from experiencing the same lack of productivity in my design work and as an undergraduate.) I was annoyed with myself on many levels.
So it was very liberating when I read that even William Faulkner couldn’t pull off what he created in his mind. Art and Fear drives the point home very succinctly with a single line:
…vision is always ahead of execution – and it should be. (2)
In Trust the Process, Shaun McNiff, of course, informs me that I shouldn’t concern myself with the initial idea in the first place, but allow the process to lead me. He says:
Truly original expressions can never be planned in advance. (3)
Anna Held Audette throws another slant on the subject in The Blank Canvas:
First of all, keep in mind that thinking about what you’re going to do is a way of stalling.(4)
I had definitely been stalling! Audette also remarks:
Of the two abilities, talent and the will to work, it is the latter that plays the more important role in an artist’s development. (5)
In spite of the Nike® slogan, the concept of “just doing it” had not really occurred to me. I have since applied this work ethic to my studio practice and the results have been very satisfying. I sit down and work for an allotted period of time regardless of where my thoughts are. Some days I follow a specific idea, other days my work is more spontaneous and directed by the media. I have adopted Mcniff’s belief:
The discipline of creation is a mix of surrender and initiative.(6)
I accomplished more in the first few weeks of my graduate studies than I had in years and, according to the above authors, by accomplishing more I increased my odds of accomplishing something good.
Aside from improving my productivity, my reading also encouraged a growing confidence in my choice of subjects and methods of expression. Bayles and Orland say:
In a large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive. (7)
Audette says:
The quality of your work is directly related to your involvement with what you are doing, (8)
It is, however, of paramount importance to know what moves you and to act on that knowledge. (9)
I find that I am able to step away from a designer’s mindset and its accompanying commercial concerns for the “audience” and pursue highly personal work simply because I want to.
Of course, there is a good chance that such work will not be well received. Bayles and Orland encourage me not to worry:
…the real question about acceptance is not whether your work will be viewed as art, but whether it will be viewed as your art, (10)
…courting approval… puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts – namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work. … The only pure communication is between you and your work. (11)
Audette backs them up:
Jane Freilicher spoke pointedly to this issue when she said, ‘To strain after innovation, to worry about being ‘on the cutting edge’ (a phrase I hate), reflects concern for a place in history or for one’s career rather than for the authenticity of one’s painting.’ (12)
So I move forward by following the premise that genuine work is far more appealing than self-conscious pandering and that the best measure of my success as an artist can be found in the spectrum of my own work. This concept is truly cathartic.


1. Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write (How Writers Transcend Fear) (New York: H. Holt. 1995), pp. 26-27.

2. David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear – Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (United States: Image Continuum Press, 1993), p. 15.

3. Shaun McNiff, Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go (United States: Random House, Inc. 1998), p. 60.

4. Anna Held Audette, The Blank Canvas – Inviting the Muse (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc. 1993), p. 64.

5. Audette p. 42.

6. McNiff, p. 2.

7. Bayles and Orland, p. 3.

8. Audette, p. 98.

9. Audette, p. 102.

10. Bayles and Orland, p. 45.

11. Bayles and Orland, p. 47.

12. Audette, p. 63.

The Tree Is a Good Image To Work With

Pathways 1
2005 - mixed media, 48" x 48"

This image represents the culmination of my graduate studies. From 2003-2005 I made the transition from working digitally in the commercial realm to finding my “voice” as a mixed media fine artist. It was a time of discovery as I experimented with different methods and materials and learned that humans have an innate need for physical experiences, especially in relation to the natural world. In this work, I explored the ideas of place, perception, memory and longing – using the visual vocabulary I developed in earlier pieces. The tree is a good image to work with – by its very nature of being rooted to the ground it exemplifies a physical connection with the landscape. Additionally, its reaching branches resemble the nerve endings that make up the biological system of our senses and act as our window of awareness. This particular image was achieved by solarizing the negative – the shifting of positive and negative tones creates a rich linear texture within the image itself. The image was printed in sections with archival pigment inkjet and mounted on sixteen 12” panels. Each tile was coated with encaustic medium (bees wax and resin). I then rubbed oil paint into lines I inscribed in the encaustic surface. The overall all result is a sensual, multi-layered evocative image.