A learned and enlightened sage, whose name has long been lost to time, once said, "From the moment we emerge from our mother's womb and take our first breath, we are bound to the land by our evolutionary path, and those who brave the beautiful yet fickle waves of Poseidon's domain are both undeniable fools and indisputable heroes." One eyewitness to this momentous speech reported that the great philosopher then added, "So if ya think I'm climbing aboard that floating deathtrap willingly, you got another thing comin'!"
Thus these mostly wise words effectively describe the deep and highly complex emotions we feel when we stand upon the brink of any body of water, whether it be the enormous sea, one of the many Great Lakes or the kiddie pool at our cousin's fourth birthday party. There is joy. There is wonder. There is fear.
And yet we go--we dive in, swim through and sail upon. But as air-breathing mammals with bodies ill-equipped for longterm marine life, we of course must find ways to deal with and express our complicated relationship with H2O, salted and fresh. Enter maritime art and song, offering such a broad kaleidoscope of human emotion--jubilance, jealousy, sorrow, anger, desire, contentment--it can easily be transcribed as metaphor for any other aspect or way of life.
Conceptual/craft/installation artist and landlubber Maggie Sasso fairly recently became enamored with maritime culture--with its curious tools, tables, symbols, and signs--and its powerful storytelling ability. As she puts it, while conducting research for an exhibition in 2010, she came across a book of sea charts and was, er, hooked.
"Through further research I fell in love with the aesthetics of ships and sailors, it's a very flexible aesthetic, one that can be overtly humorous and stylized, or quite sombre, it can be industrial or highly ornate and decorative… I also fell in love with the navigational/inventive aspects of sailing as well as the exploratory aspects. It was, and still is a dangerous activity, the sailor is ultimately at the mercy of the sea, something we are so far removed from on dry and civilized land."
After moving to the shores of Lake Michigan in March 2011 and getting a taste of the lake air, Sasso developed an intricate project from a simple action: Hoisting a homemade flag pennant on the bare flag poll attached to her apartment building. Through observation of that flag as well as a miniature flag buffeted by a small fan, she gathered data--such as wind speed and thread condition--and invented other related objects. This project would eventually culminate as an installation, accompanied by a hand drawn manual, in the group exhibition The Story of Six at the Appalachian Center for Craft in Smithville, Tennessee.
Now Sasso is poised to open a new solo exhibition, Haul Away Home, at Gallery 2622 in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, but the concepts are far deeper and much more emotional than those she had explored in her previous work.
At the heart of Haul Away Home is a very personal story--one that tells of her close neighbor's tragic suicide, the discovery of his body and the feelings of stunned helplessness that followed. By all accounts, Fred, a lifelong bachelor, was the best neighbor anyone could have. He was cheerful, friendly, helpful, intelligent, and kind. But like many who commit suicide, he gave no obvious outward signs that he would ever take his own life, leaving Sasso, her husband Ben and their other close neighbor to grapple with endless questions and the sense that perhaps they could have done something to prevent it, that maybe they could have saved him if they'd only had the right tools.
To both honor Fred's life and explore the process of grieving that his death set in motion, Sasso turned to the maritime culture she had grown to love, which inherently lends itself to diametrical expressions of the jovial and the somber. Having inherited some of Fred's possessions, for Haul Away Home Sasso chose his mechanic's jumpsuit and oil rag as visual representations of his life and work, placing both objects in a raft with an American flag, his empty uniform laid in repose, and conjuring similar nautical memorial images.
Sasso also crafted a slew of common maritime objects, including oars, a flare, a life vest, a rope float--ya know, those brightly colored, floaty thingies that tell us where we can safely swim--and a life preserver. All of these pieces are made from cloth, sewn like pillows to imitate the look of their functional doppelgängers but of no practical use. In addition, she made a nautical-inspired dress, adorned with hand-embroidered badges.
"While the smallest objects in the show, the badges [on the dress] represent the macro version of the story, and the largest piece in the show, the large raft with Fred's mechanic outfit, is the micro version of the story. The badges rectify the difference between learning something artificially, the way a girl scout would earn a badge, and learning from experience the way I did when I discovered Fred. No amount of preparation can really prepare you for a sudden, intense and visceral experience. The Life Vest, Life Preserver, Oars and Flare are also all handmade. These objects are each rescue devices, that because of their material are ineffective as actual rescue devices. They are hung on the walls around the raft, offering levity to the situation, but no concrete help. These objects directly reflect the way in which Fred gave us no options to help him. The only thing I could do was call 911, which is why the Flare piece has erupted, a way call upon the professionals so they could process the situation through the proper channels."
That's a lot to take in, no? Yes. But don't think for a minute that Sasso was done yet. In the great tradition of maritime music, she also wrote, performed and recorded her own little ditty, along with some ambient sound, which can be heard playing during the exhibition. For those who'd like a preview listen, Sasso has kindly uploaded it to her site.
The opening reception for Haul Away Home is on Friday, April 3, 2015, from 6-9PM at Gallery 2622, located at 2622 North Wauwatosa Avenue in Wauwatosa. The exhibition will only be on-view for one month, April 3-30, so don't dawdle, kids.