The Snowshoe Salesman
The poetry of ice and snow has always captivated me, Emerson’s The Snowstorm, Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, Melies Conquest of the Pole and the myriad variations of “A White Christmas." But within this canon of image and metaphor none is lovelier than Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Snow Queen: "Which describes a looking-glass and the broken fragments. You must attend to the commencement of this story, for when we get to the end we shall know more than we do now about a very wicked hobgoblin; he was one of the worst, for he was a real demon…
The Snowshoe Salesman is made from tiny party favor plastic shoes, glass glitter, a sleigh blanket, antique passementrie, glass beads, an ice cream freezer, “frost” embossed glass tiles and beveled mirrors, a Venetian mirror, 1930s jewelry samples, general store labels and antique products and many many hours of my time. Fairy tales can only come true if you invest enough time.
The Salesman himself stands 4 1/2 ft tall. His boxes and landscape are 10 1/2 ft tall x 14 ft wide x 10 ft deep.
I wrote a story about The Snowshoe Salesman. You can read it here:
Originally I'd wanted to make something about the North Pole, ice and snow... something all silver and dark blue... I always loved anything about snow and the frozen North. During my first years in New York I did a lot of drawings from 19th century tintypes of children. I was fascinated with old photographs. I planned to produce a calendar with these images but only got as far as a portion of "December,"...a girl in a snowsuit looking down. I was spending a lot of time with filmmakers... what were called "structuralist filmmakers," and wanted to take these 19th century images and fracture them. I'd already done some drawings of things reflected in a fractured mirror, and then of course, there was my discovery of Joseph Cornell...that changed everything.
Originally I'd wanted to make something about the North Pole, ice and snow...and I used to go to the movies constantly, the old revival theaters. For example, there'd be a Buster Keaton retrospective and I'd spend the entire week, every evening, watching Buster, and by the end of the week I was walking like Buster and, I'd imagine, thinking like Buster through Buster-colored glasses. I loved the tragic-comic way that Giulietta Masina walked and Jacques Tati leaned. I especially loved silent film...the over-acting of stage to screen made believable by the simplicity of black and white and all shades in between. That's when I really got to know the magic world of Georges Méliès...and, of course, that changed everything.
Originally I'd wanted to make something about the North Pole, ice and snow...and back in the 80's I was making box sculptures because everyone told me I'd never be able to break into the "artworld" with what I really wanted to do: this elaborate, costly work I'm now making. They said I should make something that could be shown in the galleries for "emerging artists." So I made these box sculptures and they were shown in the galleries as "emerging," but I never really felt that was the best I had in me and so I quit the "art-world" and bought an old brownstone instead, "a shell" - that's what they called a place you couldn't live in because it was such a wreck - and I started fixing it up. I became so fascinated by this process that I found another old wreck upstate and I bought that too (actually, it was such a wreck the seller threw it in on the land purchase.) Anyway, this renovation process was an education of immeasurable value that I credit with turning me into a sculptor. And the exposure to construction and antique renovation materials, well...
that changed everything.
Originally I'd wanted to make something about the North Pole, ice and snow...and I had all these small "party favor" shoes left over from my box sculpture days. I was moving them around from place to place while I was enduring the chaos of my divorce. And one day after having unloaded them into yet another upstate barn I said to myself, "What I really need right now is a shoe salesman!" And the idea came to me to turn the whole pile of them into a fantastic snowbank in a piece called The Snowshoe Salesman. After that flash of inspiration yet more years went by as I sorted my life out. I kept thinking about how to pull this complicated idea together and one day I was helping a friend move his stuff from a Harlem storage facility into his new houseboat. He'd been something of an antiques collector and he showed me a beautiful old Venetian mirror, cracked, crazed and greatly damaged but still very beautiful. He didn't think the walls of his vinyl over plywood boat would hold the weight of this extravagance and so he turned to me and said,
"Could you use this?...200 bucks." And it dawned on me, "Well, there's your centerpiece"...and that changed everything.
Originally I'd wanted to make something about the North Pole, ice and snow...and one day I was walking down Canal Street and noticed Canal Surplus's "going out of business" signs. Canal Surplus had been a NY mainstay for great junk for years and here it was, going under just like all the other NY mom & pop junk emporiums being replaced by restaurants, clothing boutiques, Staples, Starbucks, or more likely in this location, an extension of the faceless electronics/souvenir shops that line Canal. I walked in and noticed sitting on the floor in the middle of the "out of business" traffic pattern hustle, battered cardboard boxes of what looked like jewelry, but so tangled up, the metal corroded and the rhinestones just managing to twinkle through the grime. I bought the lot and once home spread the contents out on the floor of my studio. They were actual jewelry samples from the 1930's with art deco designs and their price tags still on priced by the gross. I got the idea of making curtains out of them...some sort of fantastic proscenium stage drapery...like snowflakes frozen into a Méliès confection...and that changed everything.
Originally I'd wanted to make something about the North Pole, ice and snow...and I went to Canal Surplus's big "close-out" auction. They'd moved to South Williamsburgh and were trying to operate out of a garage, but the place was so packed with all their weird junk that they couldn't even find anything if you happened to ask for...let's say, "wire," ...hopeless...and they didn't have a regular door, and they weren't even in a location where anyone could find them and the whole situation was such a retail disaster, so they decided to have an auction. They advertised it as "the end of an era," and that was surely true. All of their regulars showed up and we offered bids for the eccentric, the odd, the application-less, the curious, the phantom-mechanical, metallic-rhapsodiacal and I walked away with a box of beveled glass tiles, each embossed with an acid-etched snowflake pattern, each as individual as a single snowflake...and that changed everything.
Originally I'd wanted to make something about the North Pole, ice and snow...and after coming up with the idea for a gentleman in a sort of three-part traveling trunk with a mirror on top who sells shoes, I thought, "Well, who is he selling those shoes to?" And the obvious answer was, "To the Snow Queen...who else?" And with this notion the whole piece came together. With this story in mind, the traveling salesman and the curtains and the "product-line" of blue and white "snowy" products that I'd begun to pick up in antique stores as far away as Arcadia, Florida, seemed to finally make sense...and the mirror finally made sense because "the mirror" is the metaphor of subjectivity with which Hans Christian Andersen began his most sublime Wondertale...subjectivity and vanity being almost interchangeable...the endlessly fractured, fragmenting sense which is the inward view. And here was Andersen's tale about the inward and outward world made marvelous through this trick of the fairy tale which can reflect things most complicated and convince us
it wasn't complicated at all. And I realized that was what I was doing here...I was telling a story about many things, interconnected like a reflection, and that at the center of it all was this writer who had taught me so many things when I was just a little girl. He'd taught them to me in a way where I didn't even realize that I was learning anything. And I realized that this was what it meant to be enchanted...and that changed everything.
Originally I'd wanted to make something about the North Pole, ice and snow...and while I was going through my divorce and was unable to focus my efforts on materials that didn't accommodate my peripatetic existence I took instead to writing a book. Since my thinking is object-driven, I wrote a book of letters in which each letter is like an object that can stand on it's own - just like pictures at an exhibition can be appreciated individually. My letters addressed my concerns at that time, much preoccupied with the role I'd played as a wife of many years, verses my life as an artist unfixed by the restrictions of my sex and even my age, since at 41 years old I was setting off on an adventure much like that of Alice in Wonderland. And so, to collect my thoughts in a sense, I wrote to Mr. Lewis Carroll about being Alice...and I also wrote to Mr. Andersen. You see, I'd taken a trip to Newfoundland, Canada...
driven up there to visit a friend in Pouch Cove. To get there I took long ferry rides out over cold waters, home to icebergs and whales, and I drove across tundra where the caribou walk right up to your car and the wild sea birds gather on stony cliffs jutting vertically, straight up out of the sea. While there I wrote to The Man In The Moon and a couple of other long-shots on response... and that's where I wrote to Mr. Andersen...but not as myself...instead I wrote as Jenny Lind, someone who had something to talk to him about: the question of women's virtue. This letter to Mr. Andersen established an odd feeling of familiarity...as if I'd really known him once and really had things I needed to tell him. And with that letter, and all the others I wrote during that time, I gained a broader sense of the plastic nature of spatial relationships - of the structures that include things like sculpture and time in the same concern... and that changed everything.
Originally I'd wanted to make something about the North Pole, ice and snow...and after coming to the conclusion that this North Pole piece was really being made in honor of Mr. Andersen and his story, The Snow Queen, and his effect on my mind, even to the point of writing him a letter, I felt I had to learn about him. I read, Hans Christian Andersen, The Life of a Storyteller, a marvelous biography by Jackie Wullschlager. And curiously enough, in the first chapter, I discovered
Andersen recognized his father as an essential influence, and shoes and feet are repeated symbols in his tales - "The Red Shoes," "Galoshes of Fortune," the little mermaid who pays for human feet with her tongue. A draft found among his papers after his death eulogizes the shoemaker's guild, naming Hans Sachs and the Wandering Jew as examples of famous cobblers.
I also discovered this:
"His corpse lay on the bed, I therefore slept with my mother. A cricket chirped the whole night through. 'He is dead,' said my mother, addressing it, 'you need not call him, the Ice Maiden has carried him off.' I understood what she meant. I recollected that in the winter before, when our window panes were frozen, my father pointed to them and showed us a figure like that of a maiden with outstretched arms. 'She is come to fetch me,' said he in jest, and now when he lay dead on his bed my mother remembered this. - H. C. Andersen
Twenty years later Andersen still noted the day of his father's death - 26 April - in his diary. The fantasy image from that traumatic night was recalled in two great romantic fairy tales, "The Snow Queen," in which love triumphs over death, and "The Ice Maiden," where death triumphs over love, and the elderly Andersen reasserts his parents fatalism."
And even after these discoveries I had yet one more...for after reading his biography I was still curious, and so I looked him up on the internet. There I discovered that I had been so entirely preoccupied with Mr. Andersen in the years leading up to the 200th anniversary of his birth...that unbeknownst to me (I tend to be oblivious to dates, even in biographies) I'd been working on a piece in his honor that would be completed, as if by magic, just in time for his birthday. Therefore, Happy Birthday Mr. Andersen! May you live forever. May you never be forgotten. And may many more little girls listen to the wise council of your wonderful fairy tales. And so the news of this special fact, along with all the other special facts along the wandering way, seemed to have been leading me, directing me...and as much as I wished to believe that I was the one making these choices, and making these puppets, it occurred to me that just maybe I was the puppet... and that changed everything.
Originally I'd wanted to make something about the North Pole, ice and snow...and I could tell many more stories of why I came to make what I did, but that would take such a long time and the only really important thing that remains to be said here is where it leads to...how making this piece has led, in turn, to the making of the next, which is called The Ghost Of Change, which is all about time and change and nickels and dimes and relativity and synchronicity and strings and holes and Coney Island, and baseball diamonds, and the land of the cosmos in the grain of sand and the blessings of one very smart, remarkable man, Mr. Albert Einstein. And it would take far to long to explain in these stories where this new piece has really come from...and how the alchemy of junk in the attic or the closet or the now boarded-up second-hand store and the myriad reflections of the mind can harbor more mystery than any tale can tell. It would take too long to tell that story...but even so, I'll tell you this:
When it occurred to me to create an exhibition that attempted to explain how my work came to be made I thought that certainly I needed to have some images of snowflakes around... tacked to the walls in-between the text...since snowflakes are really the small stars of the event. I went on the web and discovered Mr. Wilson Bentley, the Vermont farmer who back in the early days of the 20th century was the first person to microscopically photograph snowflakes. The fact that I went to high-school in Vermont and that, if you look closely at his picture, you'll see him wearing the exact same suit that I'm wearing right now, and that, if you look closely, you'll notice that snowflakes are always perfect little six pointed stars...well, you might think nothing of these facts...or you might think, "How interesting...such coincidence"...or you might, in future, think differently about snow and the Star of David, The Wandering Jew and mathematics...or reconsider the old coat hanging in your closet. Someday you might even find yourself thinking..."That changes everything."