Editor’s note: Full-length version of story. UMaine Today Fall 2011
In ceramics, the void is a powerful thing. Whether visible or hidden from view, the hollow space inside a vessel is as important as the surface. It defines structure, shape, character.
As a ceramic sculptor, Constant Albertson is acutely aware of that inner space. Sometimes in her work, it holds or cradles an object — a slice of apple, a skeleton, an egg — that the viewer can access through a hinged door or an opening in her piece of art. Other times it holds an idea or a message, shrouded by a wall of clay, a secret known only to the artist.
In life, the void is an equally powerful thing. Albertson discovered this viscerally, intensely in the wake of her mother’s death in 2007. Johnnie Albertson was larger than life. Extraordinary. Her death left a hollow space not easily filled with figures or ideas.
“When death comes and when it’s personal, it seems like such a mystery,” Albertson says. “They’re here and then they’re gone. What do you do with that hole in your life?”
For Albertson, an art education professor at the University of Maine, the answer was obvious: Make art. And for three years, she focused on this memorial, building and refining sculptures that examine the complex — and at times contradictory — life of a self-made woman.
The resulting installation, Storyteller, is a riveting narrative about motherhood, myth and memory. Arranged like a clock face, Storyteller consists of 13 sculptures, one at each time station — each representing seven years of Johnnie’s life — and one in the middle. Instead of hands, crayon lines and handwritten dates on the gallery floor radiate from the center. The crayon is intended to blur and fade, like memory, over time.
Narrative is critical for Albertson, whose work has been exhibited internationally. A previous series, Unhinged, explored the parallels between personal and worldwide crises — pairing the domestic with the global, the unraveling of an individual life with the unraveling of an entire system.
In Storyteller, Albertson explores her mother’s personal history, a tale that is rife with struggle and success. Johnnie was an orphan who climbed trees, read voraciously and dreamed of a better life. She married for love. She had a pioneering career in advertising. She was a loving mother to her son and adopted daughter. She also had her demons — alcohol, drugs and, when her marriage failed, poverty. But it would take more than hardship to squelch Johnnie’s spirit. In time, she joined Alcoholics Anonymous. She rose through the ranks of the Small Business Administration, achieving the highest possible position in American civil service without a congressional appointment. She even jumped out of a cake — when she was in her late 70s — at a convention.
Albertson’s sculptures capture the landmark moments, using recurring symbols to represent themes in Johnnie’s life: birds serve as witnesses; apples and apple trees symbolize learning and ambition; a rabbit embodies androgyny and fear.
The idea of bearing witness plays heavily into Albertson’s work. In the show’s centerpiece, Memorial, a swallow perches on the shoulder of an elderly woman, eyes closed, at peace. A hinged door at the woman’s abdomen opens to reveal a slice of apple and a painting of an orchard. The sculpture represents the moment of Johnnie’s death, which Albertson re-created using sketches done at her mother’s bedside.
The bird and apple trees reappear on a sculpture of a child’s wagon, a rumination on motherhood, on giving children roots and wings. Another bird perches atop a sculpture of a well-worn Louis Vuitton bag — the clay as supple and slouchy as the real thing. A status symbol, yes, but one that showed just how far Johnnie had come.
In many ways, the sculptures are a celebration, but Albertson unflinchingly tackles the difficult times, as well. A tall, narrow house, side open to reveal a skeleton cradling a baby, represents the dissolution of Johnnie’s marriage and the dark days that followed, days of alcoholism, suicide attempts and overdoses. A rocking horse of sorts — a hybrid of a rabbit, bird and fish, really — with “once upon a time” stenciled on the runners is Albertson’s way of coming to terms with the grandmother Johnnie wanted to be and the grandmother
Johnnie was. And then there is the eagle-plane — a B-17 with talons instead of wheels, representing Johnnie’s stint as a Women’s Air Force Service Pilot — a story Albertson heard many times. Yet when she started researching for the installation, she couldn’t find any record of her mother’s service.
“You question whether you heard the story right,” Albertson says. “What does it mean that it’s unlikely to be true? I went through a period when I thought she had lied to me, but I started thinking about the context of her life, thinking about the psychology of the person, thinking as an adult rather than a child. As a woman who has faced difficulties, sometimes you come to believe the metaphor. Sometimes, the distinction between metaphor and verifiable fact becomes untethered.”
After much soul searching, Albertson decided that the facts were less important than the overarching truth about her mother — she did soar.
Johnnie wasn’t perfect. But she was amazing. And when she passed away, her absence left a void that was difficult to fill. Through her art, Albertson was able to build something beautiful around that void. Something that would make sense of it. Something that would contain it.
“For most people, their mothers are a pretty big presence, but my mother was a big presence for others as well,” Albertson says. “Some of what I did was working out what it meant to be the child of someone so big, someone who accomplished what she did in her life. Most of us hope to achieve more or to build on what their parents did, but when you get someone who is so extraordinary as a parent, you have to rethink that.”
Image Description: Constant Albertson