Career Topographies: Conversations in the Middle

May 3, 2023 |

Pacific Ocean, May 6, 2019 Photo by Amy Tavern
Pacific Ocean, May 6, 2019 Photo by Amy Tavern
Maya Kini

Maya Kini

Maya Kini is a visual artist, poet, and mother of two who lives in San Francisco. Her poems have appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, River Heron Review, Wildfire Magazine, and Crucible. Her favorite material is gold for its capacity to stretch, to tell stories, and to endure.

How do I begin again?

Through the enduring COVID-19 pandemic—as recurrent promises of an ending are broken—perhaps we’ve each asked ourselves this question several times. It is a question I began asking in the fall of 2019; I’d finished a year of cancer treatment and was reflecting on cycles of momentum building and busting in my own creative life.

At its best, disruption is an opportunity; at its worst, it is paralyzing. Mostly I found I lived between these two poles, in a world of uncertainty, in a new body with eyes trained on the present. I finished my fourth decade with a kindergartner and a middle schooler, a jewelry business and a partner, a home and a garden, and a host of relationships that needed tending.

I encountered the terrain of midlife and midcareer with the narrowed focus of illness and began to think of the ways in which the topography of disruption affects other women artists at the same conjunction of life and career.1

This article is built from my conversations with three artists: Kristin Mitsu Shiga, Raïssa Bump, and Amy Tavern. Each reached her forties having encountered significant challenges that reshaped both life and work; this piece spotlights how family and personal illnesses, moves, motherhood, and loss shape and hone their studio practice.

For each maker, having spent years developing both rigorous skills and creative voice, the challenge demanded the question: How to begin again?

 

From Left: Kristin Mitsu Shiga, Photo courtesy of the artist. Raïssa Bump, Photo: Karen Santos. Amy Tavern. Photos courtesy of the artists.

 

KRISTIN MITSU SHIGA

Mending

Kristin Mitsu Shiga was born with an undetected hole in her heart. By the time doctors in New York discovered the hole, it was the size of a quarter. At twenty-two, Shiga had open-heart surgery; after she healed, she threw a dart at a map and moved to where the dart had landed—Portland, Oregon—where she finished her degree in metalsmithing at Oregon College of Art and Craft. Invincibility is the dominant sentiment for many twentysomethings, but for Shiga, already versed in the fragility and brevity of life, this decade was a straight sail toward her dreams. She began building a multi-faceted life in the arts through teaching, working for other jewelers, and designing her own production lines.

I first met Shiga at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in the summer of 2004 when she was assisting Marcia Macdonald in a mixed-media workshop.2 Her breadth of skills in the studio and the precision with which she approached her work were inspiring. Skilled at drawing, Shiga worked from sketches, making exactly what she had conceived in pencil into objects, which to my hands and eyes seemed like a magic trick.

At the time of that workshop, a new set of health issues had caught up with her: she had carpal tunnel and tendonitis in both arms. This challenge—and the attendant change in her capacities—is pivotal to how she now approaches teaching, which is as important to her as her studio practice: When I had the tendonitis, I realized that 90 percent of metalsmithing is about holding things, so I taught a class called “Hold Everything” about tips and tricks, jigs and tools like the Benchmate, which was just in its infancy at that time. All of these challenges have made me a better teacher.

 

Kristin Mitsu Shiga, Unfinished, Damaged and Broken: Karen, John, Kazuko, Sue, Hanni & Shirl, 2005. Found ceramic plates, mild steel wire, 8 x 8 x ¾ in. to 16 x 16 x 1 in. Photo: Dan Kvitka.

In her midthirties Shiga experienced yet another set of health challenges: she survived cancer, a paralyzing stroke, and multiple cardiac ablations to correct dangerous arrhythmias most likely caused by the stress and toxicity of prolonged chemotherapy treatment. “My whole life, it’s been a way of life to figure out how to pivot and balance, respond and adapt to whatever my abilities and resources are.”

Throughout four years of treatment for adenocarcinoma, Shiga cultivated a meditation practice, reflecting that “bench practice is the same as meditation practice in that you just have to show up. You come to the bench, you come to the cushion.” Sometimes she drops right into the breath and away from the noise of the mind—what in creative practice is often called the “flow state.” More often, she quietly coaxes the mind to quiet, by sweeping the studio, by cleaning and oiling tools, by drawing her attention back to the sensation of breath moving in and out of the lungs. All of this constitutes what Shiga considers her studio practice.

She also practices the Japanese art of kintsugi, or “golden joinery,” using lacquer and powdered gold or platinum to mend broken objects. The repairs often take many hours and are themselves meditations on the nature of scars, what it means to break and repair, and how ritualized labor can help an artist process profound loss. For her first show after cancer treatment, Shiga invited her community to send her broken objects in need of repair, which became part of her 2007 series Unfinished, Damaged and Broken. She shares: What makes things that are no longer whole still recognizable? How many (and which?) elements need to be there before we know the name of a thing? With objects, it is obvious when loss has occurred, when something is missing or broken. But we are surrounded by people walking around with big chunks torn from them, and we never see it at all.

Kristin Mitsu Shiga, Unfinished, Damaged and Broken: Tiffany, 2009. Vintage ivory comb, sterling silver, 8 x 2 x ¼ in. Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

Raïssa Bump

Beginner’s Eyes

On a summer day in Portland, Oregon, Raïssa Bump and I wandered in the Ladd’s Addition rose garden with Bump’s daughter, who had just turned two. Amid a global pandemic that wrought havoc in countless lives, Bump became a mother and she and her husband—artist and furniture maker Jonathan Anzalone—uprooted their home and studio from San Francisco’s Richmond District to be closer to family. The focus of Bump’s days has shifted to caring for her daughter; it is a shift she hadn’t consciously known was needed. Bump speaks from a place of curiosity about these myriad changes: I still feel I’m intensely in the middle of all the transitions, reorienting. Like I’m sitting in the middle of a lake on a raft and am surrounded by fog. Where’s the shore? In this situation, there is no use paddling. As best I can, I’m embracing that it’s a time of pause—a messy, confusing, dreamy, visioning time where it doesn’t behoove me to make big professional decisions.

 

A foggy, foamy, watery exploration. Raïssa Bump studio process snapshot, 2018. Photo: Anna Gavrilov.

Bump grew up in the Hudson River Valley and graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 2003. In the nearly twenty years since, she has been building her presence in the fields of jewelry and metalsmithing, working and exhibiting at Sienna Patti Contemporary gallery, teaching workshops at Haystack and Penland School of Craft, and chairing the board of Art Jewelry Forum. Bump also created Reset, a series of “self-tuning” movement practices designed to stabilize and strengthen the many muscles that jewelers and metalsmiths use and abuse in the making of objects.3

Reset represents the intersection of Bump’s yoga and meditation practice with her studio practice. These are threads and chronologies that weave together. Bump, who is a certified yoga teacher, envisions the body as a physical tool, one that needs to be oiled, polished, and cared for. As we walked amid the roses, observing the world from a toddler’s perspective, I got the feeling that motherhood is a new strand that Bump is working in. Small children keep us in the present moment, in what the body is experiencing now, asking us—their caregivers—to notice. Meditation and mindfulness practices draw us into these moments of noticing. I was struck by the similarities between my own time as a new mother and my cancer treatments—both had reset my navigation and asked me to reassess the routes I’d previously traveled. They returned me to a state of presence and connection to my body that most of the time is as inaccessible to me as the horizon is. But the flip side of intense presence with a dependent human is constant interruption—the enemy of creative flow.

Poet Adrienne Rich describes how “a certain freedom of the mind is needed—freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away. Moreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment.”4

Right now, in her studio, Bump is learning how to work in short bursts, often engaging in a rhythmic or repetitive process before she goes on to ask questions of her materials, inviting the playfulness of “what if?” At the root of Bump’s work is the elusive state of beginner’s eyes. She takes bits and pieces of past works and finds new ways to envision them and guide them toward completion, seeing them again as if for the first time. The net in Large Mica Spiral Net Brooch is one such sample, created many years ago and returned to over the summer of 2022 as Bump found herself drawn to the concept of the spiral. In this piece, the artist uses spiral as process, circling from the center outward.

Bump recently taught an online workshop with Pocosin Arts School of Fine Craft called “The Resilient Studio: Honing Your Creative Practice & Sustainability Practices.” The class grew from her own work to relearn what to say yes to and what to say no to within the framework of motherhood; the workshop is its own sort of reset for Bump and other makers within a wider community, all of whom are emerging from the pandemic with changed perspectives and practices. Of the workshop, Bump says, “It’s not a space for me to transmit information outward but rather have a space for side-by-side learning and discovery, a space to resource each other and connect. It feels scary and vulnerable and unquestionably right. That makes me proud.”

Raïssa Bump, Large Mica Spiral Net Brooch, 2022. Oxidized sterling silver, mirrored glass, mica, paper, copper, 2¼ x 2¼ x ⅞ in. Available at Sienna Patti Contemporary. Photo courtesy of Sienna Patti Contemporary.

 

Amy Tavern

Community

Amy Tavern and I met in 2009 when we were both Searchlight Artists at the American Craft Council’s Baltimore show. She had just begun a three-year residency at Penland School of Craft and I had my eight-month-old firstborn strapped to my chest. She was beginning her Graffiti series in which she layered spray paint onto silver forms, sanding into them to expose layers of color. At Penland, Tavern lived within a supportive and engaged community, and made a living with one-of-a-kind and limited-edition jewelry while developing her teaching and lecturing style. I was exploring ways to work in the bits and pieces of the day when I wasn’t caring for an infant. We were both emerging artists in our thirties.

Toward the end of her Penland residency—as she gathered creative and professional momentum—her father’s Alzheimer’s began to worsen, so Tavern moved to her hometown of Richfield Springs, New York, to help care for him. Witnessing her father losing everything to Alzheimer’s was, Tavern describes, one of the most difficult periods of her life. Yet throughout that time, her studio practice remained strong and a source of comfort. In 2013, Tavern was awarded the NES Artist Residency in Skagaströnd, Iceland. It was there, amid a liminal landscape of sea and rock, that Tavern began shifting the topography of her life and career: after over a decade as a studio jeweler, she decided to pursue an MFA in sculpture and installation. During her residency, Tavern made Island of 14,264, a piece that mapped in embroidery knots the number of days the artist had lived. Island is both self-portrait and the beginnings of Tavern’s meditation on time—as well as the consideration of the smaller part within a larger whole, an approach that she would later carry into her sculpture and installation work.

After her father passed, Tavern moved across the country to study sculpture at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Opening new doors often involves closing others, and Tavern’s commitment to working at a new scale in a new field demanded she say no to teaching opportunities, shows, and jewelry clients.

Her decision to step away from the field of jewelry was fraught: My identity was so wrapped up in jewelry! I had never thought about my life without jewelry being the focus, and all of a sudden it wasn’t going to be for an indefinite period of time. I made the choice to walk away from it because I knew in order to do what I had to do, I had to be separate from it. I know what to do with jewelry. That’s not to say that I’ve mastered anything or that I’m done with it, but I had my voice with that material and I wanted to work with ideas and scale that I’d never done before.

One year into her MFA at CCA, Tavern created an installation entitled Universe made from painted sheets of vellum that the artist crinkled and crushed; distressing the smooth surface added depth and texture, and she could work at installation scale through the accretion of small individual elements. “Finally, I made something big enough,” Tavern says of this piece, while still recognizing the jeweler’s sensibility she brings to large-scale work.
Amy Tavern and I began our conversation about midcareer topography in early 2020, just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not long before we met up, her ophthalmologist had discovered a brain tumor pressing on her optic nerve.

Amy Tavern, Universe (Blue and Black), 2022. Vellum, paint, 8–20 x 45 ft. Photo: Graham Holoch.

This was one of few moments in Tavern’s life as an artist when she couldn’t make work in the studio. Facing vision loss and the possibility of brain surgery to remove the tumor, Tavern was also contemplating a changed body and mind in the aftermath of treatment.5
5 What she could do was walk, so she took daily walks on Ocean Beach on the far western side of San Francisco where she lives. Returning to the beach is similar to returning to the meditation cushion or the bench or the yoga mat—a commitment to noticing. Tavern shares photos from these walks on Instagram and published the book Ocean in 2021. The images often hover on the place where land meets sky, the glassy sand where a wave recedes, the clear gemlike bodies of jellyfish, the intricate structures of kelp holdfasts, and the places where sand has been shaped by water. When illness comes, we become students of that. We learn how to inhabit different bodies, how to see differently. Our calendars are directed by medical appointments, scans, and procedures. There is no right way to encounter illness. Only circuitous paths that we hope will lead us off the island.

Midway through her forties, with a full-time job and just one day in the studio, Tavern needed to direct all of her mental and emotional resources toward this singularly demanding subject: her tumor. She visualized her collection of atypical cells growing much like one of her sculptures: Non Solus. Tavern began Non Solus in 2015 while caring for her father. Made out of thousands of pearls sent to Tavern by her community, the sculpture is built in a similar manner to how pearls are formed—accretion, where layers of nacre are slowly built up around that first, irritating grain of sand. Tavern wrote in a blog post from 2015, “The participatory aspect of this piece makes it more compelling and personal. I like the idea of the materials coming from a myriad of sources, from places far and wide. They will bring beautiful, complex layers to the work and mimic the process of how a pearl itself forms.” Tavern returned to this piece in 2021, as she underwent five weeks of radiation treatments to arrest the growth of her tumor. During that time, she added thousands of new pearls.

Amy Tavern, Non Solus, 2022 (ongoing). 15,520 real and imitation pearls from 159 contributors, artist’s own pearls, silk thread. 11 x 8½ x 8 in. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The work of stitching pearls onto Non Solus is intimate and quiet. One hand holds the form while the other adds the pearls and threads. It seemed a perfect accompaniment to the daily radiation treatments, the effects of which accumulate in the body. Non Solus means “not alone,” and the piece acquired new layers of meaning during the pandemic, offering Tavern a way to ground herself in her work while connecting her to a larger community of pearl donors. The resulting “sculpture-in-progress” is a luminous, amorphous form that epitomizes slow growth.

At the intersection of life and one’s creative practice, when life is no longer sprawling out ahead with promises of endless futurity, when the work of care—for our loved ones and for ourselves—demands time and attention, the artist pivots. Mountain analogies abound during middle age time: the sometimes-grueling climb, the confidence and hope that a stunning vista awaits—followed by the dread that we may have already reached the summit and are now steadily on the decline. It is here that David Brooks’s image of the “second mountain” takes shape and represents a life and career beyond the initial ascent of the first mountain—while not discounting the lessons learned from the completed descent. If the term “midcareer” understands time chronologically—the stuff of calendars and résumés—each of these artists is engaged with time in its other sense, which the ancient Greeks understood as kairos: “the uniquely timely, the spontaneous, the radically particular,” responding to life-changing events by returning to the bench.6

When asked about sustainability within the field of metalsmithing, I have often reflected that we engage in a type of mining—of the scrap pile, of the themes and ideas that have brought us to these middle years, the techniques embedded in the muscle memory of our hands, the ways in which we pick ourselves back up after a life-altering event, the books we return to, the embers from an exhibition that become fire for the next, the experiences that shape the themes and ideas in our work, as well as the bodies that make them. We say yes to fewer things because we know there is less time stretching out in front of us. We ask ourselves: How do we begin again? And to what (and to whom?) will we dedicate these hands?

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Endnote

1. My choice of the word “topography” comes from David Brooks’s 2019 book The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (New York: Random House) where he differentiates between the first mountain, the terrain of the ego; and the second mountain, the terrain of the community and a spiritual life.
2. Marcia Macdonald died of cancer in 2010. She was a beloved member of the metals community who wrote about her illness in a note accompanying her donation to Penland’s annual benefit auction: “The past year has presented me with some serious health issues. This has affected me on so many levels, how could it not also affect my work? Cherishing every moment, trying not to sweat the small stuff, simplifying my life, and doing exactly what I need and want to be doing at any given time are my current goals.”
3. http://www.reset-stretch.com
4. Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” in Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002), 21.
5. Tavern successfully underwent radiation treatment to shrink her tumor in late 2021.
6. Krista Tippet, “Taking a Long View of Time, and Becoming ‘Critical Yeast,’” October 27, 2022, episode 1,084 of On Being, https://onbeing.org/programs/taking-a-long-view-of-time-and-becoming-critical-yeast/#transcript. Tippet engages in a conversation about chronos and kairos expanded upon by Joanne Paul, “The use of Kairos in Renaissance Political Philosophy,” Renaissance Quarterly 67, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 43–78, https://doi.org/10.1086/676152.

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