Some mornings –or afternoons– I wake up thinking about a project and wonder how in the hell I got to the present point. I compare where I started with the current location and can barely see the correlation betwixt the two. Kinda like having a baby and two days later she calls you from jail. Or thinking that your vacation of a lifetime will be to exotic locales but you end up in Cleveland. Or that new stove that turns into a garage conversion and a new fence. So I shouldn’t be surprised when this happens with a project, but I still never cease to amaze myself.
I’ve worked in a lot of different media and I know that the initial path I choose for a project is usually not the one I’m on when I finish. Along the way, as the project and I become friends, or more often frenemies, things change. Perhaps Ms. Project doesn’t like a color or texture or juxtaposition and so I change this or that to quiet her voice in my head. Still, when I start with a painting I end up with a painting; if I cut a bunch of fabric shapes I end up with a quilt; if I train my camera on something I end up with a negative. So how come my latest project started with a camera and ended up a sculpture?
What I wonder is, at what point does an artistic undertaking cease to be a viable project? Where is the line that I cross and say, Nah, this isn’t where I want to go? Do you just go there anyway? Let me elucidate. I started with 9 images of roadside memorials. Actually, 8, but I knew I’d find that last one at some point. I shot them on MF film over the course of a couple of years, and they were too small to contact print. I planned to projection print them at 5″x5″. First the images were lith prints mounted on wood with wax on parts of the surface. Ok, but not thrilling. Then they were transparencies on a colored ground. Not bad. Next, transparencies on top of gold paper and under glass. Now we’re getting there. Currently they are trying to be glass dry plate positives on top of a piece of gold /bronze painted wood, the two layers held together with copper. The reverse side of the wood is painted and then covered in wax with a blue thread running through it and all nine are dangling from the barrel of a gun that I’m holding to my head while juggling wet cats. Well, not that last part. Plus some of the parts that came before that are still largely in my head. My point is, that’s where I want the project to go (before the gun part) if only I could get the dry plate part to work.
I thought I had the deal down when I first enquired on a social media site about where to get the glass for dry plate, and I was directed to get in touch with Mark Osterman of the George Eastman House. As he pointed out, many of my trials would have been short lived had I been able to pop over to the GEH and take a workshop. However, there is the small matter of my being in California and it being in New York. That’s 3000 miles, people. No is chump change. Anyway, the poor fellow has been trying to help me out via the miracle of the internet but methinks I need a miracle of an entirely different calibre. He has guided me through cleaning the glass, heating the plates and emulsion, pouring the plates, chilling and leveling the plates, etc. In the process, I wasted so much emulsion that I went through the whole 250ml without getting but 4 decent images, and I needed to buy more. Unfortunately, I had to change brands.
Oy vey! The new brand (because the original brand was no longer available in the US) proved to be a disaster as the emulsion was opaque and seemed to act as its own filter. I projected my image onto them in the darkroom as I had before but to my horror, the images on plate after plate were murky and grey before they began lifting off the glass in the developer and sliding into oblivion in the fix. Fed up, I slammed one plate with a full minute fully open under the enlarger to see if I could get any black at all. Oh yes. There is was….and….going, going, gone. I should have used that floating image to make some groovy new emulsion transfer wacky distorted spontaneous serendipitous cosmic-mistake lo-fi ART. I missed my chance.
Next step was to try my hand at making my own emulsion. It took a couple weeks at least to get all the stuff together and order in the chemicals and so on. And then to find an adequate chunk of time in which to play mad scientist. Which unfortunately I became when I discovered that I had managed to severely fog the entire batch of emulsion, rendering it useless. Of course there are 514 ways I could have mucked it up but I think what I actually did was get careless about light when I was popping in and out of the darkroom. Or it was the green power light on the hotplate that I neglected to cover. Possibly the bag I put the emulsion in to chill it in the fridge. Could also have been too high heat. Maybe I shouldn’t have been playing Candy Crush Saga on my phone in the darkroom. Or smoking a cigarette while using the flashlight to look for the earring I dropped.
I could quit now and shelve the whole project since I seem to have embarked on a hopeless and ridiculous journey for which I have neither the skill nor patience to complete. Or I could try again, since I still have silver nitrate, and see if I can actually do this right. What’s the motivation to choose one over the other–the doing versus the not doing? Is this dratted project worth it? For all my effort, it still may turn out to be garbage. Or, more likely, something only I like and everyone else thinks is meh.
I choose to continue because I want to finish this mofo. That’s what drives me. The idea in my mind still has the power to motivate me to try again, and again, and…again. I am frustrated, irritated, and stunned that I am still with this project despite being out in some creative pasture that I never knew I’d find, much less try to cross. I cannot know if the finished piece will say anything to anyone but me, but it isn’t the thought of reaching others that motivates me–that’s just a bonus. Each of the 9 memorials is special to me, each is evocative, and as a whole they have the power to say something that has meaning to me, if only I can get there.