When we arrived at the Granada bus station, we split for the restrooms, where Umar emerged about 15 minutes later looking green and having emptied his stomach. I had sat on my suitcase in the hall waiting, worrying that he expected to meet me elsewhere. I tried to recall some descriptors in Spanish to send a male passing by to look in the men's room and assure me Umar was still inside. Just before I mustered the courage to approach someone, Umar came through the doorway looking bedraggled with dark circles around his eyes.
Unforgivingly, I looked at him and said, "Food." I couldn't wait any longer and was nearly shaking with hunger. We walked through the bus station cafeteria to the few delis and settled on bocadillos with mystery meat that we ( or, I, really) were too starving to take the time to look up the translations for. Rustic-cut baguettes enclosed a grey pounded meat with crushed tomatoes. I inhaled mine and became human enough to calmly locate the hostel confirmation page from my bag, which had a helpful list of directions. It would take us two buses to get to our hostel. While in the bus station we tried to get a Spanish sim card for my phone like we had read about, but it seemed my phone couldn't activate the card. I realized that I was likely to be phoneless the whole trip and we would have to rely on Umar's cell.
We walked out into the daylight with our bags, found our bus station, and mapped our way. Only problem was, we couldn't figure out which direction on the route the bus was headed. In rough Spanish, I asked an older couple, who turned out to be Portuguese, which way to go. The woman seemed delighted to talk to me, and explained she and her husband were here on vacation to see the Alhambra Palaces as well. They were headed in a similar direction to us and practically held our hands all the way to our connection. We didn't have to wait more than a minute for our second bus, which was much smaller and continued to open its doors to cram in more and continuously more people until we were pressed entirely into one another.
The view became more rural until finally we exited onto cobblestones right next to the San Jerónimo Monastery. Checking our way on the map, we turned into a narrow alley (all in the Albaicín district are alleys) where the cobblestones were clearly installed by hand, so rough we had to carry our suitcases in our arms. All the buildings were a few stories high, which filtered the mid-day sunlight in directional chasms across our paths. No path was straight or gridded in any way in connection to one another. The paths simply were, curving and looping onto other paths in no sensical way and the buildings so tall as to block any view up ahead to ground your orientation. It was, as a visitor, impossible. It brought to mind the opening scene of Aladdin where he runs from the guards.
Our hostel on Calle Tiña, named Makuto, was on a corner, again with a heavy wooden door that had an iron screen over it. We were greeted by Marta, the receptionist, and Jacob, an American whose role in the hostel was unclear. He reminded me distinctly of a theater major I had known in college and had a boyish gleam in his eyes that indicated he liked to be the center of attention. He seemed to be putting on a role--purposefully overwhelming host? "Welcome. Let me get your bags. Sign in with Marta. Would you like water? I will bring you water," within the space of 20 seconds, immediately back with glasses of tap water, which Umar and I had agreed previously would be wise not to drink. He handed me mine and I looked at Umar with a shrug and drank thirstily.
"It's very clean water," Jacob said understandingly. He jostled us along, and presented us to Sam. Sam was British with cropped dark hair and an attractive smile. He explained that there was a bar in the courtyard open any time an employee was around. He pulled out a map and circled some desirable sites nearby and explained that he would lead a walking tour at seven. "You don't want to miss it," he said enticingly, then showed us to our room. Umar passed out immediately in our small dorm on the bottom bunk of one of two bunk beds. And with a key and a map in my hand, I set out on my own to explore.
After a two hour jaunt with my camera and a brief period of being lost (I enlisted two youths and exhausted my Spanish trying to conversationally tell them about my day in answer to their many questions), I found my way back to Makuto. There was the small reception area, up above which were the larger dormitories. I passed through into the patio and bar where employees and guests were lounging in plastic lawn chairs. There was a gravel patch ahead with a tree house, below which were available hammocks swinging amidst the hanging vines. I walked through to our shared room to check on Umar, who as now waking in a much better state.
Just like at an overenthusiastic camp counselor, at seven Jacob and other employees began ringing bells, bursting upon groups of people and shouting, "The walking tour! Grab a drink at the bar before you leave." I ordered a sangria while Umar put shoes on and joined everyone in the courtyard, a group of about twelve people. Sam led us through a tangle of pathways that we could not later re-create to the best vistas of Granada (which means pomegranate, he explained. Gesturing to tiles and the top knobs of fence posts, all decorative details in sight were sculpted to resembled pomegranates).
On the second to last view, he brought us to our first sight of the Alhambra palaces backed by the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We viewed this with shock as it appeared around a corner, a golden moment as the sun began to descend.
Within a few short minutes, Sam was inexplicably pulling us away, promising us there was yet a better view. We began a steep hike up cobblestone roads, leaving Albaicín for Sacromonte, which housed the gypsy caves. He led us up steep steps in the mountain to a tiered pathway opening onto the mouths of caves. Behind us was the vista of the Alhambra and the Albaicín in the distance, the sun slowly nestling further down.
Sam gestured to one of the caves, leading us in. Two African men welcomed us, offering to lead us through their home and passing out canned beers like entry tickets through the threshold for €1. It was strangely invasive, being led through without expecting moments before to be witnessing this, but the men were kind. Sam explained that there were no homeless here--that the caves were rent-free. These men had some deal with Makuto, offering the most spectacular view for a few euros and were clearly friendly with Sam, who led tours every night. What was surprising about the caves was the fact that there were individual spaces like rooms, divided by where the cave sloped and turned. They had gas lanterns lighting the space and it was sickeningly hot and crowded, but fascinating to see.
We exited quickly to seek comparatively cooler air and found the other man lining up broken or mismatching chairs facing the view down the mountain. Their dog meandered through the visitors, accepting pets dolefully while the host set out jewelry available for purchase--hand braided leather that had been dyed. I bought a burgundy necklace and asked him how he found himself in Granada. He said that he told his mother ever since he was young that he would move here--had romanticized it his whole life until he decided to take the leap. It was incredible to feel the solidarity of someone from a completely different culture who had dreamed of Granada just like I had.
While we sat and watched the sun fully set, the hosts made us tea, served in glasses, ceramic cups, and plastic mugs, no vessel matching the other. The group whispered between itself whether this tea was just tea. Behind the sweetness was a smokey unfamiliar taste. Already a couple of Irishmen in the group had purchased a bag of pungent herbs, and it became clear how the hosts really made their money and why they welcomed us so warmly. Sam overheard the giggly, whispered questions and, aghast, denied that anything but sugar was mixed into the brew, then, smiling, said that would cost extra.
That night we had dinner with a married couple living in Canada, where the husband was from--the wife was Australian. I want to say their names were James and Amanda? I can't remember that, but can remember they were EMTS, and that they reminisced the most common emergency call they received were to remove items that people had voluntarily shoved up their rear ends and gotten stuck. They were young and adventurous and had just come from Madrid, bragging of the Prado. Starving after the sunset atop Sacromonte, we grouped together and failing, tried to re-create the route which Sam had taken us through.
Eventually we found the square full of restaurants towards Sacromonte and settled at a patio table. Here, we realized, was a true tapas scene. Whatever drink you ordered (vino blanco seco, on my part) was accompanied with an appetizer included in the price of your drink. A gypsy troupe serenaded us with instruments just shy of a washboard and jug band. The base had three plucky strings, and Umar sat in awe of them and struck up a conversation with the basest, who came over to tell our table goodnight before they packed up.
We had tapas of seafood, bread, tomatoes, and most daringly for Umar and me, jamón Ibérico de melón, essentially prosciutto over honeydew and cantaloupe. For at least the past decade I have resisted pork of any sort. It is a taste I tend not to like, while I do like live pigs (my friend has a pet pig named Hamlet); pork is also not a particularly healthy meat, and I find Americans entirely too bacon-obsessed, which to me overwhelms the taste of any dish. Likewise, Umar was raised Muslim and explained that he was punished severely for trying pepperoni as a child and therefore had never explored pork in dishes. We has discussed in advance, upon watching an Anthony Bordain episode set in Granada, of giving in and trying whichever tapas were presented to us, pork or no pork. Umar was skeptical of our jamón, but I found it the perfect balance of salty and sweet. Amanda and I devoured it.
Full of wine and food, we showered in the community dorm-style showers back in Makuto and fell into bed, Umar on the bottom bunk, I on the top. All we had were simple white sheets to cover us, and the window opening to the courtyard was open to emit the breeze. I was foot to foot with a young Australian on the top bunk of the bed pushed up against ours. He snored heavily and both I and the Vietnamese traveler below him took turns tearing off our sleeping masks and staring venomously at him in the dark to no avail.
Just before seven, still dark, Umar and I were the first to awake. We had tickets to the Alhambra Palaces that morning, and were told that it was within walking distance. We dressed in shorts, tanks, and sandals to accommodate the weather forecasted that day, but realized a few blocks into the walk that we were to freeze in the dawn. We had left a little later than intended, and after we reached the first paved road that would admit cars, we realized we would have to hire a taxi to arrive in time. The Alhambra was infamous for having thousands of travelers a day and waiting for no one.
We took the cab up a steep incline and found our way nervously to the notorious line. I think of our whole trip this was the most anxious period--part of me was so afraid that the tickets were printed wrong or had become lost, that we were in the wrong place or here on the wrong day, year, or time-slot. I was over-wrought with paranoia due to all I had read about the difficulty of purchasing tickets and being at the right place at the right time. Our guided tour wasn't scheduled until nine, and Umar patiently left me in line to retrieve hot coffee and pastries to calm my jitters. This, these palaces, were the most dear and important site for me on our entire trip.
I cannot begin to express my monumental experience of the Alhambra, so I will let the photographs speak for themselves. Afterwards, knowing that I would be caught between a high of happiness and a low of the knowledge that the event was over, we planned to walk to the Hammam Turkish bath house. It was a hidden building, squeezed, indistinguishably among shops on a narrow street.
We were ushered into a reception area of tiled floors, colorful couches with slouchy pillows, and a bright sun roof above. Vines grew from decorative columns and we were immediately served a hot, syrupy tea while we waited with another couple for the baths to have open spaces. Within a few moments were split into male and female locker rooms. We wore bathing suits under our clothes and stripped of our outerwear to rinse away the heat of the day before being shown into the baths.
The employee, dressed in a white bathrobe with her dark, curly hair piled up high on top of her head, gave us a tour with whispered instructions. Her glasses were perceptibly fogged from the fluctuating temperatures and her dewy skin glowed beneath them. There were four or five chambers with pools of varying depth and size. Each was a different temperature ranging from ice cold, to luke warm, to near boiling. Soft, haunting music played, and the corners and turns of each chamber were lit solely by candlelight. There was no talking, no laughing, she explained, and plenty of teapots filled with the same syrupy tea in multiple nooks that were were welcome to refresh ourselves with.
It felt like we were within the Alhambra palaces again, with similar red walls, intricate mosaic tiles, and Arabic-inspired architecture. The baths seemed to be populated exclusively by amorous couples, who took themselves quite seriously. Umar and I caught each other's eyes and stifled our nervous amusement--quickly dismantled by a violent glare from our guide, who paced authoritatively between pools to make certain everyone was silent. It made one want to retreat into a dark pool and mouth undeservedly "Are we doing a good job now?" with shrugged shoulders and awkward thumbs-up when she next passed by.
We noticed eventually that she would beckon customers from the pools and banish them back to the locker rooms. It seemed we were on a time limit, though it lasted indistinguishably--thirty minutes, an hour, two? We melded from one pool to another, to the sauna, for some tea, silent and contemplative, enjoying the surprise and comfort of shifting temperatures, not at all sure if there was a rhythm to obey. Eventually we too were banished.
I realized, back in the locker room, that I had not brought underthings to change into from my suit and tried briefly to blow-dry my sopping wet one-piece. Giving in eventually to dampening my clothes, I investigated the plethora of toiletries they offered, lathering on different lotions and cleansers before meeting Umar back in the reception area.
We returned to Makuto for a siesta, waking only from hunger. Feeling immaculately clean and lazy, walking slowly, we went for tapas--gazpacho and yet more fried mystery fish. Umar wanted to see a soccer game, and for the first time we noticed that nowhere around us were there TVS. In fact we had to find an Irish bar to see the game. The rest of our evening was spent tapas hopping in places recommended on our map from Makuto that Sam had circled. It was Monday the 12th and we found that Andalusia was infamous for not listing, or, more often, not sticking to their declared hours.
We ended up roaming pretty far to a closed discotheque and ended up instead at a tapas bar called Sonho (my favorite of them all) that had red string lights and served pizza, free, of course, with any drink. I ordered a tinto de verano, meaning "red wine of the summer," essentially a wine shandy mixed with gaseosa, a lemony soda. Umar ordered perhaps the booziest interpretation of an Old Fashioned ever conceived and became immediately drunk.
Glad that I felt grounded in directions, I brought us to one of the latest serving tapas bars that was already on our way back, Los Buenos Chicos. It was the smallest of them all, narrow, packed, and cheery. I settled Umar at the only outside table (the only seat available) to take some fresh air while inside I got him a glass of water and myself a glass of wine. The bartender seemed frustrated by my request and began grumbling a rapid string of questions at me that I couldn't translate. Fearing perhaps that ordering water here was a great faux pas, I began to slowly repeat the few words I recognized back to him as I tried to dissect his meaning.
Helpfully, two older and darkly tanned women jumped to my aid, and slowly I began to understand that I had accidentally requested my red wine to be chilled (somewhere replacing a single letter in "tinto," the distinction of which is again lost on me). With their help I explained that room-temperature would be perfect and the bartender replaced his scowl with a belly laugh and beamed at me, quickly getting our drinks.
I returned to find that Umar had bumbled into a German table inside, which did not seem especially to appreciate him, so once again we went out to sit on the patio. This time we were joined by a white dog who had been tied to the patio fence, his owners nowhere in sight. He had in his anxiety began to rip violently at the astroturf flooring, frenzied and whipping shredded pieces in his mouth to oblivion.
I can't say what came over me exactly, but I sat there and simply watched the dog. Feeling all at once desolate, firmly in control, and baffled. Umar and I witnessed the surreal scene in silence, I with my room-temperature tinto vino and Umar with his water until there was no more astroturf to extract. Wiped suddenly of energy, we stopped for helado de granada (pomegranate ice cream) and walked through streets already, now, familiar, back to Makuto to crash for the night.
We slept very very late into the morning and spent a majority of the day in Realejo, the Jewish district known for their expanse of murals. It was a very long, hot, quiet walk.
I don't think I can truly impart the remorseless joy of tapas. We walked the great hill up and then down along the path of murals, stopped for an Alhambra brand cerveza and yet another tomato-based snack. We strolled through shaded gardens, and went into a confitería for a beautiful chocolate dessert called a pinguino. We walked further to another tapas bar, Maison Tabarka, for more.
There was a park right by the patio where a puppy was tied up. He barked ceaselessly while an old man screamed drunken obscenities at him. The only thing recognizable was, "Cállate, CALLTE!" and then he mocked the dog with his own rabid barking to no avail. They both quieted when two very normal-looking middle aged women approached the man, seemingly a stranger, and they joined him on the park bench to smoke cigarettes and chat.
Next, a flock of your girls rushed by with markings on their face, performing for various commands like rolling on the ground and then bursting upright for jumping jacks. It became clear this was a serority hazing event, yet not so cacophonous and daunting as when the fraternity appeared from nowhere to join them. This ended with each girl being paired to a boy and then, holding hands in rows, they skipped high and rhythmically from sight.
It was lovely and not at all peaceful, and then we walked back to Makuto to rest before our late night Flamenco show.
We rose the next morning knowing it was our last in Granada. Sluggishly we ate the breakfast the hostel provided in the courtyard, where many people were sitting out in the sun drinking tea and coffee. One new arrival, Avartha, a solo traveler from India, had just arrived and was waiting for his room to become available.
We struck up a conversation with him and a Belgian French girl named Jessica. She sat Indian style in her chair, chain-smoking cigarettes and making eye contact with no one. She responded to most things by scrunching up her lips and emitting a ticking sound, then would cock her head and let out a stacatto "No" as a preface to the rest of her sentence. She was going to study a year in Granada and was staying at Makuto while she searched for a place to live. We decided to go together on a walk along a stream.
We took our shoes off and waded in the water, enjoying a lazy day under the sun in each other's company. When we got hungry we went in search of tapas and ended up finding a vegan place where we ordered a variety of mini dishes to share for the table. I remember that they served their white wine with frozen grapes instead of ice cubes.
On the way back, Jessica and Umar bragged about the craft beer from each other's countries and vowed to send bottles to each other when they returned from their travels. Jessica shook her head and stared straight ahead. "No, it will not compare." To which Umar vowed that Good People's Fasto Stout would convince her otherwise.
As we strolled back through the narrow alleyways, we suddenly noticed street art encouraging veganos (vegans) that we hadn't paid attention to before. Known for their jamón in such a traditional city, I was surprised, first, to happen upon a vegan restaurant, nevertheless to find graffiti advertisement of the movement.
Jessica departed to class and Avartha's room became available. We split ways, and Umar and I tried to re-create our path to Sacromonte. I wanted one last view of the gypsy caves before we left, but it was difficult to retrace our steps from the walking tour. Discouraged by the monumental steepness (and a bus that never came), we returned, sweating, to Makuto to pack our things.
We taxied to the airport just as the sun set in deep, grenadine colored striations to fly to Barcelona. I love that as I write this I still have a hint of Granada remaining on my skin in the faint tan lines from my chacos.
From our layover in Belfast we had one short final flight that brought us to Málaga, at the very south of Spain, around midnight. We took a taxi to our hostel on Calle Mariblanca 19 (the only hostel at which we had booked a private room for two nights so we could sleep off our jet lag in peace).
I love that in our sleep haze we had inescapably entered into European life: the narrow cobbled streets packed with townhome-style conjoined buildings bursting with cafe life, bars, and vibrant shops. At midnight the people were just now leaving their rooms to go out. There were murals and graffiti everywhere, almost indistinguishable from each other, with layers of paper art pasted over bricks and overlaid with spray paint.
Our hostel was right among the lively bar life and had two massive wooden doors that parted in the middle, above which were colorful skirts hung for decoration from the balcony above. Every building in sight was at least five stories high and clustered tightly together. We fetched our room key and were led up three flights of stairs to our room, which had saloon style window openings with white shutters that let out into the hallway. There, the windows were open directly across from us and gauzy curtains lifted and fell, funneling the cooling breeze into our muggy room.
Our small room's walls were white stucco and we had a white iron trundle bed in the center with a thin pink and green patchwork quilt. We took quick, cool showers in the bathrooms across the hall, made tea from the hot water pitcher right outside our doorway, and gratefully fell asleep. We had left from Atlanta at 3 p.m. on the 8th (Umar's 25th birthday), and were now crashing a day and a half later around 1 a.m. on the morning of the 10th without having slept in between.
We awoke in time for breakfast around 9 a.m. feeling rested. After dressing in shorts and a tank suited for the day's weather, I stuck my head out the window from our hallway and took in my first view of Málaga in the daylight. The rich, fragmented yellow faceted over repairs (a commonality throughout all of Spain, I found) reminded me of iodine. We walked down to breakfast, a buffet of sliced cantaloupe and melon, yogurt, and pre-packaged pastries which we self-served onto blue and red transferware plates, clearly ancient with crazing and chips, all mismatched. The dining area on the first floor had ceilings the height of all five floors above with an open sun roof letting in streams of morning light.
Because it was Sunday, many of the museums and popular sites had free or discounted entry. Málaga is the birth place of Picasso, so we treked first through the few cobblestone blocks to the Museo Picasso. The building was structured around a large, open courtyard that followed his life's work chronologically winding up through the two stories. Though familiar with his photo-realistic portraiture in his early life, I had never seen his experimental pottery and sculpture from later in his career. While many pieces were easily recognizable, his high-profile paintings like Guernica were housed elsewhere, scattered throughout many other famous museums around the world. I translated with interest from index cards that still life in Spanish is naturaleza muerta, which translates literally to dead nature.
We next walked towards the water where the clustered buildings of the city parted to an open blue sky backed with palm trees and a large ferris wheel announcing the boardwalk. Lined with shops and white sails visible from the water we advanced in search of a path to the beach. Skimming to the left and perusing shops, we still couldn't find a path. We found our place on our map provided by our hostel and instead took a right until the boardwalk ended and we found ourselves further out from the city towards a bus station. All the time we were following the water but were blocked by chained gates.
By this time we realized most restaurants had closed for siesta, so we crossed over the street nearing the city center and found a patio table of a local place still taking guests. We asked only for recommendations and the server brought out beers in stemmed glasses and plates to share. The first was mystery curlicues of fried fish and onions with a tangy cream-based sauce. Next, patatas bravas with harissa aioli, a dish that we came to love and crave throughout the trip. Last, whole, bone-in sardines atop across crushed tomatoes. Tomatoes, we learned, were perhaps the biggest staple of Spanish food.
Refreshed, we walked back to the city center and found that the Alcazaba (one of my favorite words "Al-ca-thabba," which simply means a walled fortification in a city) had free entry. Beside it was the cathedral. The Alcazaba, made entirely of stone, were a series of tiered ramps and steps leading up to what promised to be an incredible view. There were challenging parapets along the way of steep, rail-less steps leading to various overviews.
At the pinnacle of the Alcazaba were open chambers overlooking the city that had been converted to small exhibits housing a diorama, histories of the architecture, and shards of pottery. At the time of the trip, I was to present a photography show about texture entitled Esthesia, scheduled two weeks after we were to land back in the states. The aged beauty of these chambers entranced me and I gathered lots of material here.
At this point we were in the peak of the heat, and with relief we found a shaded bar at the top overlooking the city and the Mediterranean Sea. We stopped for chilled white wine. This was our second affirmation that drinks were very, very inexpensive here. I think each glass was €1.50. From this viewpoint, we noted in the distance that there was yet another steep pathway leading to a fortress, which, we were informed was Castillo Gibralfaro.
This was our first real vacation day, and it was nearing dinnertime, but the sun was still going strong. Umar had bought a new pair of chacos last minute for the trip and they had begun to rub blisters. I think had it not been for the most fantastic view Málaga could afford, we would have gone back to the hostel to rest until mealtime. Re-invigorated by the wine, we set off towards the Gibralfaro. Most incredible to me was not how steep the stone pathway up was, but how slippery. The stone had been worn into slick, flat pavement, and in our sandals we could barely make it up. Because this was a fortress, my mind kept going back to armored soldiers, heavy and metallic. How could they possibly have made it up? I suppose the way was rougher, more grooved, that long ago.
Once we had made it up and passed through the check-in point (free once again!), we were greeted by the most ancient guardian cat we had ever seen. In a fit of concern, Umar insisted the cat needed water. He searched along the walkway and found a discarded plastic water bottle cap near a fountain. Carefully he filled up the miniature vessel and re-traced back to the cat to present it before him. The cat looked at the water, looked at Umar, and walked away.
The Gibralfaro was not as beautiful as the Alcazaba. It was rough and utilitarian without the curated gardens and painted chambers, but it did have gorgeous views of the city below and of the Cordillera Penibética mountain ranges. The main use was as a fortress, and there were stolid ramparts encasing the perimeter.
As the heat subsided, we came back down into the city center and passed by murals to a craft beer bar, which, admittedly, was fairly touristy, considering craft beer is not in high demand in Spain, but we needed something cold. We were humored to recognize Dale's Pale Ale among the dozens in the selection. We both got Spanish beers on tap, though I can't remember a thing about them.
We went back to the hostel to rest. The front desk sold bottles of wine (no judgement, this is the vacation way). We picked up a red and climbed the steps, exhausted. I awoke to find our room empty. I went in search of Umar to the patio, where he and our bottle of wine had made friends. He poured me a glass and introduced me to two American students here on a study abroad program (one of their name's was also Audrey), a young American solo traveler (he programmed for Amazon for a few years and then quit in disgust of consumerism and left to travel the world with his massive programmer salary savings), and an older English and Dutch couple (the English wife, Vicky, abhorred Picasso and I went on a defensive rant about his pioneering sense of humor, depression, and bravery, to which she had no comment and the room became momentarily silent).
We arranged to have dinner with the two students, but they took so long to get ready that we left without them, and found that the restaurant we were to meet them at had stopped serving food for the night. We thus became aware of the unfortunate fact that this American rumor that Spaniards often don't even leave to go out until midnight did not extend to the kitchen hours. Sadly many food places were closed, so we settled on Picasso Tapas Bar, which was disingenuous. Málaga does not have a true tapas scene, like we would later discover in Granada. Here I learned the very important phrase "vino secco" meaning "dry wine" after accidentally ordering the headache-inducing Málaga port.
After this we decided to try out a discoteque somewhat accidentally. As we walked along exploring, a woman who we guiltily at first thought might be a prostitute began to draw people into an old wooden building, which guards revealed to have flashing red and green lights inside every time they led a group through. After watching a few people pass through and a bachelorette party leave from the side in gaiety, we drew closer. The woman sold us tickets and led us through as if it were a prohibition party, explaining that if we went with her, she would get us a drink.
The minute we got through we found an empty bar with slatted wood walls hung everywhere with mirrors, a smoke machine, and bad techno music. A handful of single men mulled around in boredom, apparently saddened at the loss of the bachelorette party, the dance floor now entirely empty. "Show the bartenders your ticket, for your drink," the women said. We were rewarded with a shot of butterscotch schnapps and then left immediately in horror. We went back out onto the street in search of a more bustling crowd, but finding none tried to use our tickets to get back inside so we could order something other than butterscotch schnapps."No," the guards said, to our surprise. "You only come in once."
Feeling foolish we realized this was a tourist trap and that you could simply brush past other guards into clubs without paying for a "ticket," which was really only to get you a drink, not entry (the first set of guards didn't want to give up the charade, apparently, to people who were dumb enough to buy a ticket--perhaps so you would not disclose how small and lame the crowd was). We bounced in and out of a few more places, no longer drinking but people-watching, and lastly ended at a dive bar with tinted red lights and a live band where an older, more local-looking crowd was dancing on an audibly sticky floor.
We turned in around two, which was ironically the latest we were to stay out on the whole of our trip, and slept solidly until morning. We ate another breakfast of fresh fruit once again on beautiful patterned plates and then packed our bags to head to the bus station. This turned out to be about a thirty-minute walk--no small feat when you are traversing cobblestone streets with roller carry ons in tow under the hot sun after a whole day of over-enthusiastic vacation drinking.
We arrived, sweaty, exactly on time and Umar promptly stretched out across my lap and fell asleep while I tried with difficulty to eat an apple with my remaining unpinned arm. The two hour bus ride was heart-breakingly beautiful. There were stretches of land with lonely estates and mountain ranges along the way. In a sense I was glad to experience this alone because with mounting emotion I realized that I was about to finally enter Granada, a place I've dreamed of for a decade.
Dès Vu: The Awareness That This Will Become A Memory
I have to reflect on the fact that we returned from this trip on the 25th of September and I am just now on January 16th (a snow day, so no work) posting my first journal of this trip. Why have I waited so long? Well in part, I installed and exhibited photographs for my group show "Esthesia" within two weeks of my return (some of which were madly edited, printed, matted, and framed prints from this trip) as well as preparing for the accompanying lecture and critique at my Alma Matter. I came back to a fast pace at work, a visit from my grandmother, a short trip back to family in Texas, and then the holidays. In essence, I was busy.
The second answer to my delay, was that in a way, it made me sad. Presenting this intimate and long-desired experience meant accepting it as a memory--a thing of the past. I find myself immensely jealous of Europeans because a trip to a vastly different country with different languages, cultures, arts, foods, and so much more is a short and comparably inexpensive drive or plane ride away. For Americans, it's something we have to heavily budget for, request off work for (we don't get as many vacation days), plan for (we likely don't know multiple languages, while many of our European friends are experts from long years of practice starting in elementary school).
I'm jealous because I've had a taste of this traveling life from the ages of nine to thirteen when I lived abroad with my family in the Czech Republic. I've had the best of both worlds, and it makes me hyper aware that Americans don't and can't prioritize travel in the same way other countries do. I am so grateful that I was finally able to take this long dreamed of trip.
This is a trip that I have wanted to take for about ten years. I’ve been infatuated with the culture since my first Spanish course at a high school dual credit program at Blinn Community College in Texas when I was seventeen. Ms. Richarz, our teacher, was in her forties and had adopted her daughter from China on her own, which, in a rural town was noticeable as out of the ordinary--independent. Ms. Richarz was barely 4’ 10”, had delicate silver glasses and dark, tightly coiled hair worn either short or in a bun (either one couldn’t quite tell, or perhaps I can't quite remember), and she always seemed to be wearing the same pale blue mumu. I loved her.
She captivated me with tales of Barcelona, Seville, Granada, Madrid. She introduced me to Antonio Gaudí, Catalonia, the Prado, the Alhambra Palaces, and the lust to travel there. Now, at twenty-six and holding my first job that offered paid vacation, I decided to ransack my savings and to see this country for myself.
I embarked with Umar, my boyfriend of three years. We debated our flight schedule for a long time and finally settled on an eight hour layover in Belfast Ireland. Umar had never experienced the long flight over the ocean as an adult and was at once anxious and curious about the seven hours of captivity as we flew.
I remember Umar being so frustrated that Norwegian Airlines didn’t have TVs--most international flights would. About two hours into the flight previously invisible TVs popped out of the ceiling only to play in-loop claymation shorts about a stuffed bear for the entire remaining length of the flight. Our seatmate, a Brazilian named Gustavo, enjoyed a good laugh at the show while Umar good-naturedly fumed.
Gustavo was backpacking across the world. He had come from North America and was headed towards Israel. He also had a lengthy layover in Belfast, so we decided to explore together. I remember deplaning and seeing the massive literal backpack Gustavo hoisted laboriously onto his shoulders. It was at least two and a half feet high and looked to weigh fifty pounds. Gustavo saw me looking, shook his head, and said he would never again carry an actual backpack on such a trip.
After going through customs, we passed through baggage claim and noticed a girl who had been on the last two flights with us and who also had a significant layover. We approached her about venturing into Belfast by bus and she joined our newly formed exploration crew. Isabelle explained she was taking a year off from NYU and was on her way to Italy for her brother’s wedding. She would afterwards go to Sweden to become an au pair.
We exited the airport to a drizzle that would strengthen to a downpour in the city and boarded a double-decker bus where we had front row seats at the top to see the grey landscape and occasional clusters of wet sheep as we passed by. The airport employee who sold us out bus passes recommended we go to St. George’s Market, a monthly indoor (thank goodness) food bazaar that was taking place that Sunday.
Once inside, we were instantly warmed (the cold was already the first indication that Umar and I had not brought enough layers for our September trip) and visually devoured all the booths and their enticing wares. I settled on a savory crepe and a hot cup of coffee and the four of us enjoyed the all woman band playing in the center of the market. I remember Isabelle pulling out wooden travel utensils from her backpack for the soup she had ordered and thinking, impressed, that she knew how to travel.
When the band finished playing, we approached them to say how much we enjoyed the show. After talking and explaining where we were from and where we were headed, the guitarist admitted she had traveled through Birmingham Alabama once before, but only because their bus from Tennessee had broken down en route to their next gig. They recommended a few bars for us to check out while we were in Belfast.
When we left the market, the rain had stopped and the sun had appeared strong. We walked the few blocks to Muriel’s Pub, scouring each street we passed with curiosity. The inside of the pub was small and dark with expensive bras hanging from string lights on the ceiling. We ordered Guinness on draft and took them to the patio to dry our damp jackets and shoes in the mid-day sun.
About halfway through our drinks, we noticed two women who had just sat at the table beside us whispering and pointing at our table. Eventually the brunette leaned over and said,
“Hello there. I couldn’t help but notice that you have a camera.” and gestured to me. “We were actually supposed to go and get our picture taken today, but didn’t get ready and came to get pissed here instead.” She clasped the stem of a fish bowl sized drink of clear fizzy liquid with chunks of fruit settling at the bottom.
“You see, we run a botox clinic, and we were supposed to get our picture taken for our new flyer. I don’t suppose you could take a picture for us to use?”
I took the picture. They bought us another round of Guinness and recommended we get our pints with a splash of black currant, which upon sipping I immediately remembered with regret having tasted this combination once before on a prior trip to Dublin. It was overly sweet, but we sipped them and scooched our two tables close together. Sophia, the brunette, and Brenda the blond, telling us of northern Ireland, slurring, asking about our trip. Isabelle mentioned she was thinking of swinging by Portugal at some point.
“Ohhh,” Sophia says. “You must. I have a flat there, in Lisboa. You let me know when you’re going and I’ll tell you where the key is. All of you--all of you should go, stay in my flat. You’d love it!”
After we grew comfortable in our conversation, I finally worked up enough nerve to ask them. "Do you know the show Absolutely Fabulous?" They immediately knew where I was going with this and Sophia began scrolling through her phone.
“Honey, we dressed up as Eddie and Patsy last Halloween. We LOVE them.”
We talked for awhile longer and then noted sadly that we needed to catch a bus back to the airport. Gustavo had a later flight but Isabelle, Umar, and I began walking towards the nearest bus station.
We saw the bus pulling up ahead at our stop and, wary of the time, we ran towards it. Upon rolling his window down in the middle of the street to speak with us, the driver explained that this was the wrong bus stop and that ours was in the opposite direction. Now, we really were short for time and ran, crazed, to the next station. We waited anxiously only to realize that the bus would get us there too late, so we hailed a cab.
At the airport, we parted ways with Isabelle and boarded our next flight into Malaga at the South of Spain.
While we waited at the gate, Gustavo sent us this shot from Muriel’s patio:
1. The capacity for sensation or feeling.
3. The ability to perceive a stimulus.
Here’s a memory of swimming, being little, a navy suit with with one wide white stripe and gold buttons. The motion of scooting on a concrete ledge towards the water results in snags as the fibers of the suit resist. The feel of concrete rough enough to wince. The feel of fabric, nubby, left like unusable velcro; mangled shreds and strings. Texture dismantling texture.
Esthesia explores the conflicting emotions and memories I experience when I encounter texture in my environment.
I experience texture with touch from my skin; with crunch between my teeth; complexly with my ears and eyes. It is influenced by light, temperature, scale, taste, and memory. I can even experience texture from within my own body when it is chapped, scabbed, or burnt. I think of texture physically in two ways: ones I like, and ones I don’t.
Picture: naked, un-glazed ceramics. The skin of a peach on your tongue. Sandpaper, stucco, packing peanuts, burlap. When you drop a piece of flat, slick paper to a raw concrete floor and cannot pick it up, just like you have to lick your fingers to turn the page of a book because the paper, in its slickness, is resisting the expansive grain of your own skin.
Think of soft, rubbery foods to chew between your teeth like over-cooked mushrooms and eggplant. When I think of or see these things my reaction is to shrivel and grimace, like I have just heard a high pitched squeal. Discomfort and recognition.
Picture: the velvet grit of sand sinking beneath the mass of your body. Fur. The crust on a loaf of bread, ranging from flaky ridges to powdery traces of flour. The raised veins in a leaf. Any kind of repetitive grid: a screen, a pegboard, the grooved ridges of a pumpkin. The soft wrinkles of warm plush lips against lips. Smooth, the absence of texture. A slick flat plane. Like a polished rock or worry stone. Like satin. Thinking of touching or seeing these things makes me feel relaxed enough to close my eyes. Comfort and recognition.
The tactile act of feeling is sensual. I am fascinated that even seeing texture evokes an emotional response, as if I were experiencing the texture physically. The sense of recognition is so strong.
To back up, I want to preface “Esthesia” with a little more about the body of my artistic work. “Estheisa” is a new artistic direction for me.
My interest within the medium of photography generally lies with people. I love the body’s expressive language within thematic scenes: humor, whimsy, and narrative--all made possible by the beauty of the figure within its environment. This was the most relatable art for me to make because I connected with characters who have the visual dimension to think and act within a scene that I put them in.
To me this encompasses theory of mind, which means to attribute mental states to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one's own. As simple as it is, theory of mind continues to fascinate me in art. I specifically enjoyed breaking the third wall by having the figure look directly and knowingly at the viewer. It becomes a hall of mirrors: the viewer thinks about the character thinking about the viewer.
There is an inevitability in gravitating and connecting to a human representation. We anthropomorphize most of what we see by second nature. It fascinates me how we create and show narratives to young children like “Brave Little Toaster” in which an appliance emotes and goes on adventures. We look at clouds and find faces. We seek out aspects of humanness everywhere.
When I thought about “Esthesia” as a contrast to my previous work, I realized a human physicality is present within an image of a textural object through the implied sense of touch; and also a sense of denial: you can’t actually touch, because it is a two dimensional photograph. To me this is a driving factor in the emotion. I’m experiencing the tactile humanness of texture visually and associating it emotionally with a physical participation that I have had, could have, or might have, which is another sort of “hall of mirrors.”
Esthesia, which prompts you to consider your capacity for sensation and feeling, is akin to synesthesia. Synesthesia is when one sense of your body is produced by the stimulation of another sense. I once dated someone with synesthesia who would see color based off of the way he was feeling or the way something sounded. Sometimes he would tell me my voice made him feel and see purple and gold. Similarly, it is common for people to touch a smooth texture, like a worry stone, and feel comforted, or to rub up accidentally against a rough surface, like stucco, and cringe or feel on edge.
For me, I cannot bite into a whole peach because the fuzzy texture of the skin on my tongue is so intense and undesirable that I cannot continue, even though I love the taste. At the other end of the spectrum, for example, I was having drinks with some friends when a dried bean pod fell from the tree above our table. Once I picked it up I couldn’t let it go. I had to feel over and over again the slick dips of the empty sockets on the inside where the beans had once been. It became mesmerizing, but also comforting.
The culmination for me of both feeling and seeing texture as sources of emotion came about for a job.
I accepted a position at a photography studio prop styling and coordinating for Time Inc. brand food publications. A large part of the job is sourcing surfaces, or mock tables, for photography sets. We photograph so many recipes that the demand for variety and distinction between brands becomes high.
Consistently, creative directors ask for surfaces with texture--it adds interest, of course, but it also supplies a “lived in” feel of the well worn, well loved, and of comfort. Part of this was satisfied in hunting for antique tables that have a sense of history; but requests became so specific that I learned to echo this in painted creations. I experimented with smearing, distressing, and building up layers of paint. And, I also began to search for worn metal, wood, stone, and plaster, both to paint on top of, and also to reveal in their natural states.
The more I looked at texture in the context of warm, engaging table-scapes for publications, the more I valued the “found” and unintentional textures I encountered. Many artists photograph a subject as a reference they wish to explore in another medium like paint. There is an interesting cycle here then that speaks to the modern era that I am working within. I find textures out in my environment that become a visual bank of inspiration from which to paint. These paintings are then used as surfaces that are again photographed. So, is the choice of the medium relevant to Esthesia, and why? How does this choice separate my work with Time Inc. versus my work with Esthesia?
The answer is, I did explore the initial groundwork of just experimenting with paint. I painted so much for my job at Time Inc. that I requested one full-time day every two weeks to paint. And I was fortunate to be given mostly free reign of what I could paint. Obviously, these pieces would be used as surfaces for publications, so I did have to go by some guidelines, mainly regarding the color palettes that were requested for specific feature stories. And sometimes I was given a direct picture to imitate.
The rest of the time I would simply play around with different ways to reproduce interesting textures that could be versatile enough to photograph in different ways each time they were used. I love this portion of my job and spent these hours and days contemplating the beauty of texture that I can manipulate out of paint. Splattered in paint, clothes and shoes and skin always speckled in color, I imagined the application of paint as a final product of artwork and the concept behind the driving idea of texture and its appeal.
I think the main split from painting to photographing actually stemmed from jealousy. Producing work for a company is a transaction. It left my hands to serve a purpose other prop stylists and photographers could interpret and adapt. I didn’t have ownership, obviously. However, it was fascinating to see the ways photographers could use light and color balance and cloning tools to re-envision a surface I made into a fictitious digital piece.
This very versatility--that a strong surface can be re-imagined simply by altering light--is what made my skill of painting valuable to the company. But that’s also the magic of photography--it is at once real (a realistic copy of a subject “truer” than perhaps a drawing or painting), and yet also unreal (an adjusted or manipulated representation of a real life subject). I could have separately painted pieces for Esthesia outside of company hours that I could own and have rights to, but photography made me consider texture in a different way. Essentially, the control and manipulation in presenting these textures photographically gave me a stronger sense of ownership.
My next step in embarking on this project was to consider what makes up texture.
To experience texture by touch requires raised three dimensional planes. As a two dimensional visual, these different planes interact with light. A dip becomes a shadow, a bump a highlight. Presenting texture photographically allows me to show a texture in a single moment of time influenced by light. Texture comes into existence as a process, and I wanted to encapsulate just once stage of that long process.
Consequently, process suggests a narrative, which reminds me again of the human connection. We think of new as smooth, wrinkled as old, a process our own bodies transition through. Objects start out as one texture, and time and exposure, creates another. I think of the cycle of wood: a slim, sleek sprout that grows to a mature tree, the inside still smooth but sheathed by rough bark. A tree cut to planks to be built into a surface exposed to the elements. A board, dried and splintered. The polished touch of petrified wood, ancient and contradictory.
I also found that I was drawn to representing only some types of textures. Partly, this can be explained through my background in prop styling to find surfaces with depth that provide a sense of history, like a loved table passed through generations. I concentrate on non-organic textures like metal, plaster, stone, paint, and cut wood. To me these man-made pieces, or textures altered from their natural state for human use, encompass an intentional realm of sensation visually and physically felt.
These materials warp and tear and change with the presence of time, especially after they are worn down by human use and exposure to the elements. The lack of upkeep renders the original intention of the material altered.
The narrative here is abandoned structures. Again, a human presence is felt in the knowledge that they were there within this structure and have left.
There is a sense of the Southern Gothic in old or abandoned textured environments. Yet there is also a mixture of the Urban Gothic in Esthesia, in which post-industrial urban society is manifested in dark city-scapes. Both reinforce the narrative of time and the process of aging. Here the vivacity of color, often being swallowed up by rust and dirt, or even a fading or lack of color, also becomes a key factor.
To me, rust ranging from reddish brown to orange is particularly important. Throughout the process of working on Esthesia, rust colors began to symbolize the process of texture for me. I found myself particularly attracted to rust paired with blue. The remainder of the photographs tend to lean towards a neutral palette. Once I took a step back after the project was nearly complete, I was able to analyze these color pairings further.
Blue is a particularly popular color for food publications. Because my work prop styling for food introduced me to seeking out texture to begin with, I found this unintentional love of blue a notable subconscious preference.
Ranges of blue tend to contrast beautifully with food in a way that colors like purple or yellow cannot. It can be magical, considering you really don’t see blue within most food itself. Monochromatic food like fried things and casseroles that don’t hold a lot of visual interest on their own are enhanced by blue. And more raw and natural foods, for instance vegetables and fruits, really pop against a blue surface or vessel. Blue can also be used year round: pale blues and aquas feel more summer and spring, while navies or teals are more fall and winter tones.
Essentially, blue is a very versatile go-to for food photography, especially for foods that are difficult to make beautiful or appealing on their own.
On the other hand, you also see a lot of neutral tones within propping so that food is the main factor that stands out in an image. For instance, one of Time Inc’s brands, Cooking Light Magazine, just went through a big re-design. Now, all of their content besides features all have black, white, or grey propping. They conducted focus groups during the re-design and the feedback they received was that the audience wanted the images to be “all about the food.” These neutral tones helped provide that “food-forward” aesthetics so that all other elements, like the props, fall into the background.
In essence, my mind reverted to some unspoken rules or tricks within the world of prop styling. Because these are the palettes I use every day at work, these tones have seeped into my mind while photographing Esthesia. This subconscious marriage of orange to blues and neutrals is a natural progression bridging ideas from the art I make as a prop stylist and the art I make as a fine artist.
To return to my process of decision making, one reason I chose not to illustrate organic textures, such as the wrinkled skin of a gourd, was a decision mainly about scale. I abstained from macrophotography because I wanted these images to be more of an environment that the viewers can picture themselves interacting within. The sensation of texture hinges on our ability to recognize it, so I wanted the textures to be made of more obvious materials to correlate with a memory or an imagined experience inside of a space one can realistically reside inside of.
I also found I gravitated towards photographing materials that could make up a structure or shelter. This requires hard or more permanent supplies that have a longer lifespan than organic material, which would decompose quickly. Again, I wanted to reinforce the slow transition of what is man-made to a structure left abandoned and devoid of its intended function. Shelter is obviously built to protect, and when it is left to decay there is a sense of sadness, mystery, loneliness, and also intrigue.
Tying back to the theme of Southern Gothic, William Faulkner writes in As I Lay Dying: “The cotton house is of rough logs, from between which the chinking has long fallen. Square, with a broken roof set at a single pitch, it leans in empty and shimmering dilapidation in the sunlight, a single broad window in two opposite walls giving onto the approaches of the path.” There is a haunting sense of a dreamy but desolate past that is tangible. I think especially as a southern artist this connection to the past is relevant to my decision making.
Another aspect that I found appealing about the medium of photography over painting is that there is an awakening of the senses. You have to go out to find these textures--it becomes a scavenger hunt. I see textures in places that I would not other have otherwise noticed or investigated. The fact that they were mostly produced within Birmingham’s city limits reflects both convenience for the project, as well as that these textures reflect several aspects of the South.
Many of my images are fairly anonymous urban city-scapes, which ties to the Urban Gothic ambiance within my work. For a city like Birmingham that is slowly undergoing revitalization, I recognize that we have a mixture of appreciation for the old and the new that speaks to me. We remodel public spaces with historical significance and charm, like the Lyric Theater, which maintains a textural narrative.
On the other hand, we also demolish and rebuild the old when structural damage isn’t a factor. For instance, the Birmingham Terminal Station was torn down to downsize a big beautiful, but empty, station that was declining due to the rise of automobile ownership. Though the concentration was on the updated function rather than a faulty or at risk structure, the fact is we lost a piece of beautiful historic architecture when we could have come up with another solution.
I am not specifically arguing for or against historic preservation with my work, but rather romantically wondering how old structures that never had the opportunity would have aged. What story would they have told through the details of their textures? What does the removal of these old textures say about our urban history? How would my scavenger hunt of collecting exotic textures have changed? On the other hand, we do demolish and rebuild functional structures for more modern or an “improved” aesthetic all the time, which speaks to larger issues like gentrified neighborhoods. This brings up another point: we tend to see texture, when it indicates age and wear, as something dirty or dated.
The example that I think of is this: picture a heavily plastered wall, or a wall that has built up layers of paint. This is something that generally illustrates repair and maintenance. Thick application here maybe shows repeated upkeep, signaling age. Someone who has a wall like this is maybe doing their best to keep an older structure functional and clean.
On the other hand, this is a rustic “look” that we also repeat for pleasure to give charm. Think of all the people you know who tried their hand at a faux “Tuscan” wall in their brand new home. Essentially, people appropriate a “look” that excludes the baggage of it’s origin, such as a lower income house with plastered and continually repainted walls. Charm without history. Faux charm re-created in a day rather than years.
Given these thoughts regarding the perception of texture, I recognize that it is a multidimensional experience that we don’t often truly contemplate. Esthesia has been my way of investigating texture as a visual concept. Photographing something smooth or with an absence of texture would be less visually interesting, and it would also tell less of a story or provide less of an emotional attachment.
I tend to I focus on highly exaggerated textured environments with a sense of narrative, many of which would be unpleasant to touch, but that are pleasurable to see. There is a competition of the senses. It is a visceral experience to look at something unpleasant, like crackled shards of metal that would snag and tear your skin; then, emotionally experience that physical sensation, and still manage to find that image appealing. Ernst Fischer writes, “In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable.”
To wrap up, Esthesia represents the urge to look and then react or feel without truly experiencing or understanding what is being shown. The conflict is being denied the real physical experience, but being shown that you have the capacity to feel regardless. Good, bad, beautiful, and interesting, texture is a constant part of our environment that we relate to and understand implicitly in a sensual way.
See the gallery for the full series:
I’m at a point in my artistic life where conceptual art is most meaningful to me. I find topics that speak to me: body positivity, emotional health, biases, prejudices, and human interactions and relationships. I tend to work in series, in narratives. I feel this is an upper tier in my self-actualization as an artist. And then sometimes I want to create a beautiful picture for it’s own sake.
I think of photography like paintings. It’s not that I think of photographers who happen upon or capture slices of our reality just as it is seen as less, I just think of creating the components of my images, piece by piece, as purposeful: it gives me control, which I like to have and to manipulate. Though I like candids as much as the next photographer, I find that I rarely include them in what I consider my “fine art.”
In the case of this shoot, my subject and atmosphere fell into my lap. I needed a break from pre-meditating; I put about 30 seconds into planning and then walked across the street from my family’s front porch. I was in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia for Christmas. Not home, but where my family now lives. They moved from my home-state when I was in college and transplanted themselves to the East--at first, in a dingy, crime-ridden corner of West Virginia; now, to a beautiful, expansive mountain-scape with apple orchards swallowing every angle of scenery.
In my current life (of working, working, working, to pay off student debts, to search for career options, to take pride in my precarious financial independence) I only see my family once a year, for Christmas. Considering my emotional and creative closeness to them, this is sad. Especially in the case of my oldest younger sister, Chaste. An expanding artist, she enters her first year of college, and I see every day her steps of development and talent. I want to influence her life as a supportive older sister, but my role is limited by distance.
She is my favorite model. The first reason is that she does exactly what I tell her to do. The second, of course, her beauty. Third, her eagerness to bend to whatever bizarre artistic endeavor that I demand of her; yet I realize that these projects always blossom into a collaboration, unlike many shoots. Every time we see each other, we do a photoshoot.
Here, I styled her and plodded with her to the orchards in the fog and rain and shot her. I think these are the best images I have ever taken of Chaste. Of course, because I cannot operate artistically without a narrative, I ended up with pictures reminiscent of Snow White or Eve. Instead, Chaste and I (in retrospect and impulsive thinking-on-our-feet) consider our creation to be more of a Lilith.
Lilith, in Jewish folklore, was the first created woman, before Eve. She was Adam’s first wife, but she refused to be subservient and opted out of the garden of Eden. She’s also referred to as a demon lady. Basically, Chaste and I wanted the essence of a badass. Though it was Eve who picked and ate the apple from the garden of Eden, we envisioned our Lilith as romping around her own garden of wickedness and eating as many apples as she pleased, looking as rebellious and wayward as she possibly could.
In sum, we had a damn good time.
I like masks. You can see that very evidently in my work. I like the wearer pretending that the viewer does not notice it is a mask. To purposefully confront magical realism and then ignore the fact that it is magical forces the otherworldly into the ordinary, the accepted.
For example, in my series Heather, not as a Hippo, Heather visually narrates to her viewer, “Yes, I have the head of a hippo and the body of a human. Let’s move on from that impossibility. We have so much ground to cover together to waste time discussing silly details.” It’s the leap over absurdity to land into bizarre narrative that strikes me.
So, I found a new mask. It reminded me of an exaggeration of Rockwell’s work. It harkens back to youthful, chubby, rosy cheeks like Rockwell depicts. It evokes innocence and health. It also reminds me of the Mad Magazine kid, Alfred E. Neuman, who, in turn, I’ve always associated with Rockwell. Of unknown origin, what has developed through the hands of artist Norman Mingo is the cartoon icon Mad Magazine has plugged into each new comedy mocking current events. To me, the exaggerated ode to Rockwell’s idealized style is unmistakable.
I will investigate Rockwell and Neuman and they way they affect the culture of this mask further in the article.
(Click the image below to move on to the next frame)
For now, let me say I intend to use the mask, as seen above, to investigate the world of fashion models.* There are countless arenas in which idealized portrayals of models harm women: objectification, the sexualization of young girls, and unrealistic body and beauty standards. The list is much more extensive. Models restrict their bodies to fit these roles of thin, waifish, youthful examples of women.** Their bodies starve, and yet they pinken their cheeks with blush, redden their lips with lipstick, highlight the corner of their eyes to brighten and shine, all to imitate the health and vivacity that you cannot also possess with thigh gaps and concave stomachs. On top of that, they way in which they are lit, posed, and photoshopped heighten the sense of the unrealistic, the impossible, and yet, most disturbingly, the desired.
A mere google search of “popular models” illustrates the harm this barrage of images can perpetuate. An overwhelming majority of women in this coveted industry are unwell, and yet presented as what culture expects women to appear like. We look past the falsity in these values in deference to a harmful industry. Models are our advertisements, our idealized formats. Models wear a disguise--a mask--begging the consumer to pretend that this way that we see them is real. And very often, we do ignore that they wear a mask. I’m fascinated that this problem is, quite honestly, widely discussed and criticized; however, unattainable standards still continue.
I want to show this Rockwellian mask, representing the imposing ideals of fashion models, as a physical object. The viewer will experience the impossibility of pretending to ignore it. To see both the beauty and the absurdity as one. I intend to mimic fashion editorials. While I will not be working with professional models in the industry, I will chose young women who encapsulate similar standards of beauty: essentially, thin, shiny-haired, doe-eyed lovelies who come from our natural world. I want the association to editorials to fit with approved standards so the mask alone strikes as contrast .
Now, a bit of background on why masks have come to interest me. One main artist that propelled me into masks and disguise is Cindy Sherman. The way she presents the obviously unreal in her self portraits (makeup and masks, latex and paint) encourages the viewer to pretend Sherman is presenting something real. She knows the viewer is aware of the falsity of what she is showing. Essentially, Sherman looks the viewer in the eyes and says, “Now that we’ve acknowledged I’m lying to you and you’re pretending to believe me, I’ll tell you a story.”
(Click the image below to move on to the next frame. Photographs come from Cindy Sherman's series Hollywood Hampton Types and Society Portraits)
Illustration, on the other hand, bares the weight of artistic license. The artist illustrates people to look however the artist chooses. People are real according to the standards of their created universe. Presentation of unreal as real doesn’t exist. The relationship with the viewer is much different than what Sherman shares with her audience. Painters depicting human figures face the inevitability of altering the image into idealized forms, whether or not they intend to.
Short of photorealism, artists involuntarily allow the culture they are saturated in to affect, to a degree, the way they portray their subjects, while I would argue that photographers have the option to more purposefully play with the nuances of disguise and idealism. Really, all art, however inadvertently, perpetuates ideals. And ideals are masks to be recognized, and to be taken on and off.
Let’s investigate Rockwell, an American legend. A beloved illustrator, Rockwell’s images branched into the height of idealism: advertisement, in The Saturday Evening Post. As an artist in the 1950’s, his work reflected the culture of his time. When I first started investigating his oeuvre, particularly his portrayal of women, I thought that his rough stylistic connection to my mask would support a theme of suppression.
(Click the image above to move to the next frame. Illustrations by Normal Rockwell from The Saturday Evening Post)
Contrarily, I discovered an enlightening article (Beyond Objectification: Norman Rockwell’s Depictions of Women for the Saturday Evening Post by Haley M. Palmore) that outlined Rockwell’s involvement in turning The Evening Post from a magazine that wrote articles for men to read and to coerce their wives into buying products (by enticing advertisements of beauty and expectation) to a magazine with columns written for women about women’s issues.
I realized that my original confusion of Rockwell’s standing on women’s ideals was due to his subtlety--to the incumbent pleasantness of his era--as well as The Post’s slow acceptance of his direction.
Many of his images are of housewives doing wifely things. Most of them are pretty, thin, delicate, and youthful. Only in looking at the voluptuous bombshells of The Post’s past do you see Rockwell’s contrast. Artists today working with women’s issues shock you with menstrual blood, mastectomy scars, fat--the whole concept of the abject, glaring the viewer in the face ushers in a new physicality. Though an inappropriate parallel, I mean to say Rockwell was not shockingly revolutionary with his work on women’s issues, especially as seen through the veil of our modern eyes.
(Click the image in the top right to move on to the next frame. Illustrations are from Rockwell's contemporaries. Artists from first to last: John Lagatta, Guy Hoff, J.C. Leyendecker, and William Randall)
Though not exemplary of 1950’s beauty, Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter is cherubic (her facial features are debatably childish); she has strong, skilled arms. She’s calm, clearly on break from her job of physical labor, and seems to pose, accepting our approval in advance of her (then) strikingly masculine role. However, even at Rockwell’s most bold, his images are still nice and non-confrontational. Rosie does not want or need our approval; she experiences success and fulfillment without. We’re never given the opportunity to debate what we see, so we’re put in the position to keep any judgmental thoughts of Rosie’s appearance to ourselves. She’s not defying the viewer, she’s eating a sandwich.
Through investigating Rockwell’s work, I now want to borrow his subtlety with a throwback to a non-confrontational era. I don’t want to defy the viewer outright. I want to suggest the absurdity of modern desire with a connection to the evolution of images of women that brought our culture to where we are now.
Next, let’s briefly re-examine Mingo’s creation of the wacky Nueman, whose modest stylistic connection to Rockwell can be noted in the images to the right. The red, warm tones of the skin, the reference to youthful traits like over-sized ears ready to be grown into, the missing tooth, the pinched, chubby cheeks and and tousled hair all point to Rockwell’s representation of children, little rascals to nurture and adore.
(Image above left Mad Magazine cover by Norman Mingo. Above right Kellogg's ad by Norman Rockwell. Image left Mad Magazine cover by Mark Fredrickson)
Mingo’s Neuman channels the sweetness of these idealized youth of Rockwell’s times and then shocks viewers with his knowledge and mockery of sensitive political subjects and the ever changing ties to pop culture, the participation of which is clearly inappropriate for a child. Neuman is made a mask for innocence corrupted by the events of our world. He is at once clever to the general public consuming the material he appears in and yet also made a fool for engaging in trivial banter mocking larger issues.
By the same token, to be relevant or noteworthy, models in the industry must also be youthful. Furthermore, youth denotes innocence, yet the lifestyle the industry promotes corrupts. This transformation, and youthful features themselves, are fetishized. Like Nueman, the message becomes: appear as a child, yet engage in an adult world. And when you act like the child you are, you become a comedy, a court fool to be devoured by our culture then, in the case of models, forgotten when you age.
Thus, guided by Rockwell’s configuration of women’s roles and their slow evolution from stigmatism, and Nueman equating to the double standards of youthfulness, I delve, albeit comically, into ways women continue to be formatted into ideals by fashion models. We allow beauty in our culture to be dictated by consumerism. These standards? To be simple, they’re silly. They’re absurd. They create a fissure in our real world. They makes us unwell, and we should stop conceding.
*I don’t think fashion industries of themselves are bad. I don’t think models themselves are to blame or that all models harm or restrict their bodies to attain certain measurements. I don’t think regular women (such as the models I use in this series) who share physical attributes to models are harmfully affecting beauty standards. I’m merely investigating the maturation of ideals and landing on what I consider to be the most current factor in which consumerist culture preys on women in and out of the spotlight.
**By its evolutionary nature, the laws of sexual attraction seek signs of health in a mate for producing viable offspring. Health is marked by a thin, athletic body, shiny hair, bright eyes, clear skin, rosy cheeks and lips, and youth--these signs mean our diet and lifestyle maximize our bodies’ potential to conceive, bare, and protect a child. Beauty, in its simplest form, comes from practicality--we are attracted to mates who best suit our reproductive needs. Obviously, breeding is no longer our primary concern, but those basic instincts remain. The problem is, these attracters of health transcend past what really is healthy. Now, superlatives are expected when it comes to beauty: not just thin, thinnest, not just rosy, red, not just shiny, glittering. Check out the documentary The Science of Sex Appeal if you’re interested in this topic. The irony is, these new beauty markers no longer produce the original goal. Women that are too thin cannot conceive, and lack the vitamins to have clear, rosy skin, and shiny hair (which products can trick and tease to regain this appearance).
There is vulnerability in exposing our bodies. Our anatomy is the same, and yet our bodies are diverse. In a world of different colored skin, obesity, blemishes, piercings, tattoos, and scars, bellies are among the most risky to show because they are the most easily hidden. And yet bellies represent a cycle (they housed us for nine months), and at their center, belly buttons are the scars of what doctors cut between our mother's bodies and our own. They represent, in a sense, nurture that has been fractured and terminated. I intend to examine this series in terms of returning emotional nourishment and analyzing our own bodies in regards to the standards we impose on them.
Let's talk about scars. They're increasingly common in this medical age in which many who would otherwise no longer be alive have overcome disease and injury. Living with the physical evidence of these traumas is a fairly new issue as medicine successfully trumps bodies' maladies again and again.
Notably, there are emotional repercussions of a scar. We live in a society in which we consider the aesthetic of a body before we consider the body itself. A body with a scar is a body that has been, or is in the process of healing. Shouldn't this feat of nature be the first thing that enters our mind? Such as "This person has triumphed over something!" Instead, society often considers scars disfigurement - the subject of morbid curiosity - something worthy of being stared at. Unbuttoned permits a consensual viewing
Physical differences are okay to acknowledge, and visualizing an altered body is of natural interest. We are empathetic and curious creatures, so lets look at some scars.
Belly button #15 says of her scar, "My ostomy saved my life, but at sixteen I thought my life was over due to my new cosmetic flaw. At twenty-three it's easier to love my scars and the story about my continuing battle with Crohn's disease." (Crohn's is a chronic illness in which the digestive track becomes inflamed; a majority of patients will need surgery.) "I love being able to share my story with whoever I can, and [Unbuttoned] allows me to do that," she says of modeling.
She calls her scar a "cosmetic flaw." In an evolutionary sense, the laws of attraction could arguably dictate an increase: they have a scar, so they have battled something and survived it. They are strong and resourceful; they can protect me. In a modern sense, of course, scars indicate a variety of things, mainly someone with a chronic or fatal illness, a victim of an accident, or someone who engages in risk-taking behavior.
These modern possibilities no longer indicate evolutionary attractiveness, specifically. Rather, scars in our modern experience (especially those related to an illness) might be considered an indication of personal and emotional strength. In a world where physical strength is no longer a necessity of survival, this gained emotional versatility of having survived a trauma and living to accept the remaining scar is a positive and attractive trait.
Yet society doesn't portray this value. Type "scar" and Google gives you "treatment" and "removal." In art history, there is an ethical conversation in preserving something of historic artistic value. Consider ancient ruins. These monuments have been damaged by age, but also by their physical geographic presence in times or war, occupation, and violence. Is it our duty as a society to repair these monuments, to preserve for the sake of their nation's value of its art? Or are we altering (or erasing) their historic testimony if we repair them? For what sake do we repair our body's history of scars? Attractiveness and desirability? A scar should not render a body unappealing or invaluable.
Belly button #14 says, "My stomach is the only visible evidence of my otherwise fairly invisible disease, cystic fibrosis (CF). Many CF patients, myself included, are born with a condition called jejunal artesia. Jejunal artesia occurs when a person is born without a membrane connecting the small intestines to the back of the stomach, causing a portion of the intestines to wrap around crucial arteries and cut off blood supply. As a result I was operated on twice as an infant. Additionally due to CF I was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis Related Diabetes (CFRD). Occasionally I have bruises on my hip caused by the insulin shots I self-administer."
Belly Button #37. describes her experience: "My scar is from a surgery I had when I was nineteen to remove my spleen, which had a cyst wrapped around it. The scar ended up being bigger than I thought it would be, and at the time I was very self conscious about it. Now, four years later, it continues to heal. I've learned not to let it bother me. It's now a part of who I am."
#36. explains his scars: "A thirty-two year old third degree burn stretches across my abdomen with noticeable skin grafting between burn patches. This is the result of a house fire accident that took place on June 3, 1983 when I was three.
"As my young boy's body grew into a man's, the severely burned skin had very limited expansion characteristics. The skin grafts are six layers of donor skin from other parts of my body (thighs/back/forearms/head), and some even came from pig skin and cadavers.
"This particular abdomen skin-grafting is in place to allow for growth and expansion as well as to aid in allowing better lung expansion for breathing. The grafted skin functions as normal expanding skin. I am an example of human adaptation and a body's willingness to exist.
"For those who are curious, skin grafting is ten times more painful than the actual burns. More often than not, the graft does not take for most patients. I've been told I am incredibly fortunate. My heart stopped over a dozen times during the first twenty-four hours after the accident."
#36.'s compelling narrative is hidden; all the scars appearing in Unbuttoned are restricted to the models' stomachs. No one would know these scars existed, unless the models personally exposed them. Unbuttoned allows both anonymity and a confidential reveal.
In summation, how can we change aesthetic pressures and standards without confronting the deviations? We benefit from opening up private conversations about our bodies that we are encouraged to hide through clothes, cosmetics, plastic surgeries, or simply by avoiding visual contact. We should know more about each other's histories, ask more questions, and experience the answers with engagement and respect.
If you live in Birmingham and are interested in modelling your belly button, contact me at email@example.com
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