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Several months ago, I decided that in honor of the 20th anniversary of my ordination, which will be April 30, 2020, I was going to commission a stole. At first I looked at the websites of people who make stoles, which include many talented artists who make beautiful pieces. But I soon broadened my search, looking for fabric artists in general, which is a pretty wide net. So it was sheer luck that I happened upon the website of Diane Savona, whose work was so arresting that I put aside stole-related thoughts and just wandered happily through the gallery of her past pieces for a long time. Then I clicked on the link to follow her blog.

As I was to tell her when I finally reached out, not only is she a deeply thoughtful artist with consummate mastery of her craft, but the kinds of themes and issues she explores in her work resonate with many that are important to me. We share a fascination with the way the past is embedded in the present physically and psychically, with the beauty of objects that are obsolete or decaying, with certain objects such as keys and maps, and with art forms that are a mixture of found objects and new creation.

I don’t know whether she would describe her work as spiritual, but I see spiritual themes within it, such as her deeply respectful homage to places touched by tragedy (in the series Maps, which includes Hiroshima, post-Katrina New Orleans, and Japan after the 2011 tsunami). Her pieces in Soft Bodied Specimens and Fossil Garments show a knowledge of and respect for past wisdom, and in This Too Shall Pass she reflects on transience. And in “A Map of Hometown Perceptions” (another of the Maps series), she illuminates the racial segregation of her region in a way that is unflinching and also visually compelling, and that feels akin to my own activism.

I knew right away that I had found the artist I was looking for, but it took a couple of months before I got up the courage to write to her. It felt somehow presumptuous. “Hello, artist who is very busy developing her own ideas. I see you are working on an Opus” (that’s really what her current piece-in-progress is called! I like her sense of humor also) “but could you take a detour to work on a piece of clothing for a stranger?” I knew this fear was irrational, because artists do accept commissions, and if it’s not a good time or the commission doesn’t interest them, they will say no, and no harm done. Also irrational was my feeling that it was somehow degrading to ask an artist to make something for daily (well, weekly) use. She is, after all, a fabric artist, who has chosen a medium that, like pottery or weaving, is closely connected to pragmatic arts, in order to make works as complex and meaning-laded as any sculpture in marble or painting in oils. She is not likely to be offended by the idea that someone would wear one of her pieces.

So I took a deep breath and sent off my proposal. And she wrote back right away, intrigued, and by the time we’d exchanged a couple of e-mails we had arranged a commission. Not only that, but she could finish it by the anniversary, which was something I hadn’t hung a lot of hope on (I hadn’t even mentioned the date at first). And, best of all, she wanted to collaborate quite a lot, beginning by asking me what images were important to me, and then sharing many steps along the design path by checking in and asking what I liked. This is a tricky matter. It’s all very well to point at a design in progress and say “I like this better than that,” but to really know, I needed to know some of her thinking. Was there some significance to this seed or that photo of crumbling wall? She gives such careful thought to the many layers of meaning in images that I didn’t want to choose them only based on their visual impact, but to know their significance. That informed my choices.

Damselfly on a poppy seed pod, Sandy, Bedfordshire (14459158976)

Damselfly on a poppy pod (Orangeaurochs from Sandy, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D)

Some of the significances were serendipitous. For example, there was a skeletal seed pod in one design and, intrigued by its dramatic shape, I asked what plant it was from. It turned out to be a poppy, and poppies are our state flower. It’s a different genus than the California poppy–which is good, visually, because California poppies’ pods are long and thin, like elongated mini-okra, not as interesting a shape. But it has the same name as its cousin, poppy, and as someone who, somehow, has ended up spending the bulk of my career as a Californian, I like having it there. She wanted to make sure I didn’t mind the association with opium, but it’s fine.

And, speaking of opium, Diane proposed some walls of Oaxaca, sharing photos that she’d found on the internet, I guess, and one of them was very familiar to me. I wrote about it here; it’s an exterior church wall graffitied with the line from Marx, in Spanish, “Religion is the opium (opio) of the people,” and became a family joke immediately because of the first-glance similarity to “Religion is the celery (apio) of the people.” It turned out Diane hadn’t even taken note of the graffiti; she just liked the wall itself. So I asked her to incorporate it if she could, and she has. I don’t want the phrase on my stole, either with “opium” or “celery.” Marx is too down on religion for me, and certainly for a religious ritual item. But having a bit of that wall right at my back will be funny, and a reminder to myself that my purpose as a leader is always to use religion to wake people up, not put them to sleep.

So, you can tell part of what I responded when she asked what images are important to me, but this has gotten long enough, so I’ll say more about that in the next post.

 

The images I suggested

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