Digging Through the Archives

Posted on April 3, 2018

I’ve recently had reason to go digging into the hundreds of old slides of my work that have accumulated over the years. It used to be, kids, that when you wanted to document a work of art, you had to take a photograph on actual film. You would take several photographs of each one, so you’d have lots of copies, some of which would inevitably be over- or underexposed, because you were hedging your bets and couldn’t preview them. You’d have to wait for them to return from the “film place” to find out if they were any good. Since you were shooting on positive film, the piece of film in the camera was the actual product you had to live with, no post-production edits possible.

For what purpose this insane ritual? To send away for rejection letters, of course. The more of these labor-intensive, little white plastic-framed squares of film you sent out, the more letters you could collect. I sent away for lots of them, so I have quite a collection.

Every foundation, arts commission, granting agency, juried show, commercial gallery or other rejection-letter producing facility would have its own precise requirements for how these things should be labeled, and no two sets of requirements were alike. Place a red dot in the upper left corner of the image. Place a red dot in the lower left corner of the image. Affix a typed label with the title of the piece, dimensions, artist’s name, date of work, medium, birthdate, methods, influences, previous grants applied for, brief description of the process. Place absolutely no labels or tape of any kind on the slide.

This, of course, meant that you had to remove all of your carefully typed or handwritten labels every time you got the slides mailed back to you (in the self-addressed-stamped-envelope, or SASE, that you also provided), and start all over again for the next application. It’s kind of remarkable that any painting got done at all. And even more remarkable is that I managed to eke out a few successful applications, occasionally collecting a check or two rather than the customary rejection letter. (Note: Never, EVER, count up the hours spent preparing the application and subtract that time from the amount of the grant. Just don’t.)

Recently, to complete a modern, electronic–yet still rather labor intensive–application to one of the rejection-letter facilities, I dug up twenty-odd years’ worth of slides and had them scanned to digital files. The accompanying narrative required me to recap my entire artistic history, along with concurrent personal and professional history and other influences, from horse-drawing times to the present, thus provoking a full-blown midlife crisis.

These slides below are from the mid-nineties. I was still learning to paint, still learning how I paint, and, obviously from the subject matter, I was also an angry young feminist eager to slash some taboos. The fact that there are labels on them means I actually sent these babies out to someone in the stuffy art world. The thought of that initially made me cringe, but upon reflection, I gave my younger self a little credit for sheer cheekiness.

The one on the lower left calls to mind Frank Lloyd Wright’s quip about planting vines to hide one’s early efforts.


The egg phase came about in my early- to mid- thirties (when many of my peers were busily reproducing). I had surrounded myself with magazines from the nineteen fifties filled with little else except happy middle class housewives flanked by cherubic broods. The ads tout the wonders of consumer choice: look how many choices these ladies have! They have hundreds of choices of pastel shades of formica countertop. What they apparently didn’t have was the choice not to reproduce.

My ladies, appropriated from those ads and bent to my own purposes, spent a lot of time contemplating their eggs. Gazing at eggs, being vaguely threatened by eggs, fluffing eggs up into pretty deviled creations and displaying them for guests on the coffee table.

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