January 13, 2020

The World, the Nurse, the Sculpture

Catherine Fairbanks, <em>Proposal for a Billboard in My Neighborhood</em>, 2019. Image courtesy the artist.

Catherine Fairbanks, Proposal for a Billboard in My Neighborhood, 2019. Image courtesy the artist.

For fourteen years I have worked as a critical care nurse — each day at the med center I deal with life and death. I became a nurse because someone told me that nurses only work a few days a week; this sounded like it would leave a majority of my time to make art. It also sounded like the kind of second job that would be messy and passionate and real in ways I imagined would teach me a lot about people. The art I was making back then seemed only able to be romantic, exaggerated, gestural, vague. And while all of that was important to my growing sense of what art did and could do, I was also aware of my limits. I felt a need to be right up against another being, to find out how we support and affect each other.

In my early twenties, before I was a nurse, I visited New York to see my Aunt Chris, a physical therapist who has worked mainly with performing artists. I accompanied her backstage at the New York City Ballet, where the dancers hugged her between their pre-show warm ups. They were glad she was “on” that night. I watched them dance from an out-of-the-way area of the wings, these beings who moved unlike anything I’d seen in person before. They’d return to have my aunt look at and work on their (sometimes injured) feet and legs; her specific expertise with the body was necessary in a way I had never considered the art world would require.

In 2009, Chris became one of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s physical therapists. That year I was finally in an MFA program, studying sculpture and ceramics at SFAI. I remember riding my bike around the Bay to see the Cunningham company perform at the Craneway in Point Richmond. The forms the dancers took in their shiny unitards reminded me of John Mason’s glazed ceramics, and I wondered about other connections between these media. I looked for dance and performance in ceramics, and this eventually led me to ancient Athenian vessels. The Greeks chose a material which would hang around forever to talk about the nothing-left-behind-ness of dance: slip-painted satyrs, celebrants, and entertainers dancing at the symposia; flowing fabric, jostled wine cups, bare loins and busts, with erections coming up and going down. There you are: ephemerality in stone.

Once I moved to Los Angeles, I started hearing about Simone Forti, the city’s legendary dancer who, in her seventies, still taught at UCLA. I saw Simone dance at the Hammer Museum in 2012; she moved gracefully, spoke politically, and rolled around on the floor with newspapers, performing with a visible tremor. The nurse in me was amazed by her flexibility and wondered what her tremor was. The artist in me was transfixed by her ability to improvise with audience members surrounding her on all sides, not ten feet from her body. For a few years after that performance, I would encounter Simone on foot and greet her. In the evenings, she’d be walking down Gayley toward Wilshire, leaving the UCLA campus. I’d be moving in the same direction: also leaving campus, but leaving as a nurse.

I had for a long time been interested in the way my nursing body existed in the ventral direction: always slightly hunched forward over a bed positioned slightly too low. I often thought about what this might mean for my sculpting self. I wanted to dismantle my ventral pattern in sculpture, to understand sculpture from inside the form. For years I made things larger than me, heavier than me, or with a restriction that would attempt to break that ventral posture.

Catherine Fairbanks, screenshot of Vignettes of Thereness, the Making of a Rock Snowman, 2011-2013, video.

Catherine Fairbanks, screenshot of Vignettes of Thereness, the Making of a Rock Snowman, 2011–2013; video. Courtesy of the artist.

For the past five years I have been making a short piece with the dancer and choreographer Dylan Crossman, who had been in the final iteration of the Cunningham company. In the beginning, we took a book of my drawings to Central Park in order to turn images representing movement into actual movement. Dylan spoke about how some dance has a shape you are copying, and my sculpting self grabbed onto the idea of dance as shape. Wait, wasn’t dance dynamic action? Weren’t dancers athletes? Dance suddenly seemed a way for me to be inside an object, to alter my shaping practice.

Catherine Fairbanks, Bowls, 2019; high fire ceramic.

Catherine Fairbanks, Bowls, 2019; high-fire ceramic. Image courtesy the artist.

In 2017, I heard from a friend, Silas Riener, another former Cunningham dancer who also choreographs. He was coming to Los Angeles at the same time that Simone would be teaching a workshop. We spoke about taking her class together and what it might mean for me and my sculpture practice; I had never taken a dance class before.

Silas and I talked about Isadora Duncan creating dance from those Greek pots and Loie Fuller and other dancers that Rodin was likely looking at when he was making his dancer series of bronzes. We talked about how dance might be something I’d always be outside of in some way, which seemed true and not hard for me to admit. Yet Simone’s work seemed to operate on so many levels — perhaps there was room for me. I think one of the things I wanted to learn about my body was how it learned things in art that it could take other places, and vice versa — in particular into nursing. Nursing is very physical, and somehow the way that Simone might be all of her selves in her work seemed like a lesson I was trying to learn. Somehow maybe what I wanted was for her to show me how to hold onto things from all of my selves at once.

Catherine Fairbanks, Silas, 2019; high-fire ceramic.

Catherine Fairbanks, Silas, 2019; high-fire ceramic. Image courtesy the artist.

Catherine Fairbanks, <em>Adam Weinert Does Ted Shawn</em>, 2019; high fire ceramic, paper, gouache, matte medium. Image courtesy Adam Novak and Karl Burkart.

Catherine Fairbanks, Adam Weinert Does Ted Shawn, 2019; high fire ceramic, paper, gouache, matte medium. Image courtesy Adam Novak and Karl Burkart.

Simone’s warm-ups began by her moving side to side on her feet and saying: “We will do this for a while.” We copied her swaying movement, which felt very similar to a Tai Chi exercise I love to watch anyone do: the knees are bent as you move your arms back and forth. It felt good. Then we did some things I cannot describe — but the tone of the class changed. Things got faster and slightly more physical. As we moved together for almost an hour, sometimes against and sometimes with each other, my body felt a kind of comfort; as a sculptor I am used to non-specific forces with a variety of weights and malleable volumes swirling around me in the studio while my own vector remains straight ahead. As the class progressed, we did more things as a group, nothing risky, nothing performative, all interior, and all simultaneous. Eventually we slowed down and began to walk in circles. No audience assembled; my lack of control was not revealed to me. I danced through Simone’s group exercises, believing I was there as an artist to learn something about a different kind of art. I recognized a feeling of genuine curiosity about what dance is, and what it means to dance with dancers. This position I felt myself occupy was somewhat safe and intellectualized, though not intentionally.

Suddenly Simone got out a bunch of newspapers and started opening them up. For the first time, I became vaguely worried; this new thing in the room around which we might have to organize our movement was slightly threatening. I had seen Simone use newspaper in her work before, and I didn’t think I was capable of responding to it in a meaningful way. I was quickly aware of my mind as it framed self-reflective questions. “What did it mean for me as an artist if pop culture rarely moved me to make art?” “Was this diagnostic of my place in the art world?” I remembered how, at one of Simone’s performances at the Hammer, she had seemed to hold the perfectly responsive pages of newsprint as if to actually amplify the delicate out-of-controlness of her very subtle tremor. Her performance that day was particularly intoxicating. In this class, years later, I felt neither the confidence to physically interact with current events nor compelled to think about the paper as an object through which I might find my own moving subjectivity.

Simone said something like: “Let’s each take some newspaper to our own areas on the floor, let’s look, draw, and think.” This was my first sense that my anonymity was not guaranteed. I did some kind of panicky calculation about how many minutes were left in class and I felt myself losing my bearings.  “WARNING WARNING WARNING” was flashing in my mind. Simone then said something like: now we will perform DUETS based on this idea of text/movement and that I was FIRST and I would do a duet with HER!

Through a haze of shock and fear, I began to move stiffly in front of this suddenly materialized audience. I tried to assume a position of safety as I did something with my lower body that I recalled from a drawing. I tried to remember figures I had once drawn confidently, figures around a chimney sculpture, figures with long limbs laying bricks. Even with the safety net of relying on my own sketches, which I had watched Dylan interpret many times, I felt fraudulent. How little I knew of this art form! How naïve to think I could learn about other bodies, let alone my own body, in this space! I caught a glimpse of Silas and others in my audience and I wished to evaporate.

Through this panicky fog, I became aware that Simone had been watching me. Now she was approaching. She picked up my arms and moved them in a way that arched my back. I moved toward her, so that we became more centered in this small performance space. I felt the rarely achieved sense of my body leaving its ventral orientation. I suddenly had an inside and an outside. This was not work to be done in front of me. This was me inside something. Simone moved slowly into the middle of the audience; she got very close to those watching and at the same time turned away from them and blindly began to arch her back, lowering herself to the floor. At that moment, as I moved slowly near her, it seemed to me that if I didn’t catch her, she might fall. My move was to support her and dance down along her path; I gently approached her left side and we very slowly descended as a single form. She was all that I could attend to.

I was hovering like this when I began to cry and mumble about that previously unrelatable newspaper. A sound of pain escaped from me as I cried out for a recent patient in some incomprehensible way. I felt a complex wave of emotion coming over me: embarrassment at my public epiphany, joy that my planar self had been enfolded and recycled for a three-dimensional version, and honor and amazement that Simone could be at once so utterly raw in her relation to me and simultaneously so capable of structuring a learning environment where strangers might find this degree of togetherness. I wanted to stand up and start over, to do that again and again.

Catherine Fairbanks, Simone, You Saved The Day, 2019; high-fire ceramic, paper, matte medium.

Catherine Fairbanks, Simone, You Saved The Day, 2019; high-fire ceramic, paper, matte medium.

Our duet concluded, I transformed into an audience member. Watching the other pairings, I wondered whether Simone had somehow seen me as a nurse, and because of that intuited a way to move my body in a pattern it would recognize. Or was it that Simone became the nurse? Seeing me wounded, she became a body that cares for other bodies, and she did so by moving dorsally, not ventrally. It appeared to me to be magic, her seeing and eliciting the nurse or becoming the nurse and showing me a way to shape myself as open and back, not open and forward. What occurred was a form of healing only possible for me in art.

Our duet brought me into a feeling of starting over, but with the knowledge that the beginning doesn’t happen alone. The duet is the organism working with the world. Simone, while remaining herself as her total being, also appeared as a dancer, through which she was transformed into the world, the nurse, and the sculpture.

Beatrice Wood, <em>Untitled</em>, 1987; ceramic. Image courtesy the Beatrice Wood Foundation.

Beatrice Wood, Untitled, 1987; ceramic. Image courtesy the Beatrice Wood Foundation.

Comments (3)

  • Beautiful all of it.

  • Brilliant piece! Thank you Catherine for writing this! I hope it is republished again soon on other sites to reach a broader audience–as this site infers, open up the spaces! others can enjoy this! NYTs? Refinery29 etc.

  • Thank you – wonderful piece. Such a compelling entrance into the images of your sculpture also.

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