“Grief,” a Fabric Collage

A Fetal Position

One spring morning in 2019, I woke up and checked my phone. There was a message from my sister on the other side of the world, saying that my father had passed away. His passing came out of the blue, taking us all by surprise.

The first thing I wanted to do, immediately after I read that message, was to find a dark room and roll into a little ball, into a fetal position. That desire was instinctive, primal and very strong. But there was no time for that. I had to book a flight, get dressed, pack a bag. Less than two hours later I was already on my way to the airport.

Only many months later did I learn that people who suffer from extreme physical or psychological trauma often assume this position.

I never got to roll into a ball then. But I did come back to this posture in my mind, time and time again. After my mom’s cancer diagnosis, only a year and a half later, I found myself physically curling up when no one could see. In the long months of her illness, and in the months that passed since she left us, I kept getting back to it, both physically and mentally. There is something very comforting about a fetal position, the first posture all mammals assume in the womb.

The Composition

Grief is a strange thing. It feels like an open, bleeding wound when it’s fresh. It scabs over eventually, gradually, only to reopen at the most unexpected times. When you take a shower, for example, or drive, or take a walk, or when something reminds you of the person you lost.

Experts talk about the stages of grief, as if it’s some kind of illness one can–and should-recover from. Everyone expects you to move on. But I have come to think of grief more as a chronic pain. It is always there. Sometimes it flares up and hurts. Like a million little needles, like thorns, aimed right at your heart. Other times it’s just a dull throb. You barely feel it, almost forget about it as you get on with your life. But it never really goes away.

This is what I wanted to express in this piece: the wound, the pain, the privacy and seclusion of hurt.

The Process

Like many pieces in my State of Human series, the idea for this one came to me as a complete image.  I knew I wanted to make lots of small, black, sharp triangles, but wasn’t sure how. I contemplated it for months. Should I iron interfacing onto the back of black cloth and sew little cones? Should I sew cones and stuff them somehow? How exactly should I do it? 

Then, one day, I saw one of the piles of used face masks we have all around the house, the result of three years of pandemic. A lightbulb went on! Like many other families these days, we go through A LOT of masks. And we all happen to use black ones, albeit in different shapes. My husband, son and one daughter prefer beak-shaped masks, whereas my other daughter and myself prefer the Korean-style ones. Masks are made of non-woven fiber, and they are already lined, hence they can easily hold a shape. Perfect!

I started saving used masks. When I thought I had enough, I began working.

I set about to make my triangles. At first, I thought of sewing them, but after cutting up a couple of masks to test, I decided to staple them instead. The first few tries were fails. My triangles didn’t hold up. After a few more tries, however, I learned which parts of the mask to use and how best to harvest triangles. I learned that the beak-shaped masks were the best kind for my needs, but that Korean-style ones can be used when in a pinch. I also learned that there were big quality differences between the six or so mask brands I laid my hands on. Some were clearly thicker and sturdier than others. Humm…

I posed for a photoshoot and printed the image onto fabric. Then I cut it out carefully with an Exacto knife.

I selected a bright-red piece of fabric that reminded me of an open wound, and played around with the composition. 

In the meantime, I kept cutting cones and stapling them whenever I had time. My pile slowly grew as they accumulated.

When I thought I had enough cones, I prepared a quilt sandwich in the 16″x20″ size of the State of Human series, and fused the red background and human figure onto it.

Then, I began sewing the cones on, starting with the inner circle and going outwards. 

Although I thought I had plenty of triangles, I quickly used them all up. I went looking for more masks, collecting them from all over the house. When I couldn’t find any more inside, I scoured for more in our cars. 

I kept adding triangles, round and round, until the canvas was full. I used up more than sixty masks in the process (!!). Every now and then I used some glue, to keep errant triangles down.

At first I thought I will paint over the staples to turn them black. After I sewed them all on, however, I realized I actually liked the look of the silver staples on the black triangles. They reminded me of pins, and tied well into the pangs of pain theme.

I did, however, use black acrylic paint to cover up some of the white (back/lining) parts of the masks that peeked here and there.

“Grief” is a very personal piece, but I think also quite universal.

It feels right that it is made out of pandemic face masks, as the last few years brought so much grief to so many…

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