When Women Were Birds
Terry Tempest Williams and Silence
Situated next to Provo, Utah, Orem is one of the most conservative communities in the United States.
I mention the politics only to mark the courage of Terry Tempest Williams and why so many of us were struck by her transparency at the Orem Library when she highlighted one particular passage from her exquisite memoir When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice.
The book covers rich emotional ground about absence and presence, silence and voice, blindness and attention. It’s the companion to Refuge, telling what Williams wasn’t ready to share twenty years ago, or even face herself.
Before the event she was understandably nervous, but she spoke to honor the birthplace of her mother, a community foundational to her upbringing, and women who live in silence.
“We all have our secrets,” she said, and one of those is our relationship with sex.
It’s a critical, soul-wrenching, community-jeopardizing conversation, and not just in Orem, Utah. So often birth control gives women their voice and power, which is why Williams believes it’s not only a legal right but a spiritual one.
For years three of her close friends concealed the fact of their abortions from everyone. It was an intrinsic, buried component of their identities.
“Erasure,” Williams said, is “what every woman knows but rarely discusses. Word by word, the language of women so often begins with a whisper.”
We should make decisions about our reproductive health without the judgment of others, she said softly. “If a man knew what a woman never forgets, he would love her differently. . . . Because what every woman understands each time she makes love is, Life could be in the making now.”
What are the consequences of our guilt and shame and doubt?
Like anyone, Williams has spent much of her life in retreat before she shares personal excavations. When she wants to know herself intimately, she handwrites her thoughts, going over each sentence again and again until the evidence is blotted from view.
After writing “The Clan of One-Breasted Women,” an essay that became the epilogue in Refuge, Williams concealed it for two years, and she was afraid the book would lead to her excommunication from the LDS Church. One of the lines that terrified her most was “blind obedience in the name of patriotism or religion ultimately takes our lives.”
“There is an art to writing,” she admits, “and it is not always disclosure.” It’s tricky telling a personal story, one that resonates universally, because speaking from the truth of our hearts often requires a betrayal, a breaking of taboo.
It’s certainly not easy. And therein lies its power. “One story begets another story, begets another story . . . that becomes a shorthand for the courage in the community.”
Still, every day leading up to Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape, Williams took another page, five pages, ten pages, out on her back porch in Emigration Canyon and burned them.
“I’m a little concerned about the fires you have on your porch,” her neighbor said. But Williams destroyed them because, she related, “I was too afraid that when I would go down the canyon to Dan’s to get groceries for dinner that I would be in a car wreck, and somebody would read what I wrote.” Somebody like her husband.
There was value in the process. One day, finally familiar with the emerging voice, she wrote something she could keep, something that skillfully said what she’d been trying to express.
Not that there aren’t consequences to transparency, however gently engaged. “There are many times that we are ejected out of our tribe,” she said with some emotion. But if our intentions are right, and we’re patient, eventually we’re re-admitted. Change requires conversations, a testing of ideas, hearing “our own voice in concert with another.”
The ideas and questions keeping her awake at night fueled each new book. “If the old stories we’ve been telling no longer serve us, what are the new stories? What is the new mythology?” How can our personal creation myth propel us away from exploitation and numbness, toward attention and empathy and passion?
In Refuge, Williams found a sanctuary that could withstand her mother’s death. In Leap she grappled with her belief and ultimately transitioned from religion to spirituality. Finding Beauty in a Broken World came after September 11th, when Williams faced the ocean in Maine and asked how to pick up the pieces. “And the word the sea rolled back [was the art of assemblage] . . . m o s a i c.”
Which brings me back to When Women Were Birds.
Without betraying the impetus, you can know there was a darkness only a mother could heal. And on her deathbed Diane Dixon Tempest left all her journals to her daughter, extracting a promise from Williams that she would save them for after the funeral. Shelves and shelves of journals: footprints, presence, comfort.
They were all blank.
How to translate such emptiness into awe?
Terry Tempest Williams’ words are a salve and a gift. I’ll leave you to the journey.
Up and Upcoming: To The North
Exhibition Listings in Northern Utah
Weber State University Shaw Gallery UP:Topography: Recording Place – Mapping Surface, a solo exhibition of work by U.K.-based, Greek artist and designer Ismini Samanidou. A textile designer and artist, Samanidou conveys a deep engagement and curiosity with the ideas of topography, or surface and landscape.|1| Often using a photograph as a point of entry for exploring various topographies, she incorporates the subject matter of the photograph into woven form, using either hand or industrial Jacquard looms.
Weber State University UP: Student sculptures by Bruce Case, Alexandra Furlong, Fred Hunger, Blake Niflis, Trevor Panzano, Tyson Pendleton, Andy Perkins and Adam Smith will be featured in the Shepherd Union Gallery, Shepherd Union Building, WSU Ogden campus. Jason Manley, the new Sculpture / 3D faculty member in the WSU Department of Visual Arts, is the mentor of the students who are working with materials such as wood, concrete, plaster, metal and castings in various material including pigment and wax.
Eccles Community Art Center UP: In the Main Gallery the 18th Statewide Photographic Competition features recent (within the last two years) original photographs by resident Utah photographers. Juried by Ryne Hazen. AND: The Carriage House Gallery features the acrylic paintings and jewelry by Salt Lake City artist, Stephanie Saint-Thomas.
Crowley Gallery UP: Go Figure ... figurative art work by Utah artists Glen Hawkins,
McGarren Flack, and Roberta Glidden. Each artist has a distinctive style, but all are drawn to the figure as a central theme in their work.
Julie Nester Gallery UP: FIVE featuring new works from Marshall Crossman, Chris Gwaltney, Geoff Krueger, Jennifer Nerhbass, and Daniel Ochoa. Marshall's "Class Photo Series" uses imagery inspired by 1960s yearbooks,|2| Gwaltney's "Postcard" series pays homage to his artistic heroes (Twombly, Rauchenberg, de Kooning and Diebenkorn),|3| Krueger's non-traditional still-lifes isolate single objects and drape them in opaque or clear plastic,|4| Nehrbass mixes detailed realism and pop-accented abstraction, |5| while Ochoa brings a new body of work inspired by public spaces.|6|
Gallery MAR UP: Matt Flint's In this Moment solo show features wildlife-inspired paintings with a fluid approach.|7| UPCOMING: Unbroken Equivalents, new works by Michael Kessler that explore natural motifs in abstracted paintings that have the appearance of hard glass|8| (see our review page 4).
Kimball Art Center UP: Dwellings, an exhibit of works by Stephanie Clark, features her sewn "paintings" that use embroidery to create domestic imagery to tell the story of life in the home.|9| AND: geolines is a new series by award-winning photographer Mark Maziarz that begins with a working concept of the photograph as a recording of a moment in place and time, then explores the path of reduction and expansion of the image into new layers of color and space.|10| By using portions of his photographic images and expanding them into explosive bars of light and color, Maziarz takes moments of space and time (the “geography” of our emotions and memories) and reimagines them into stacked color lines in a range of stark and richly luminous palettes. AND: The Art of the Brick returns to the Kimball with the LEGO sculptures of New York-based artist Nathan Sawaya.|11|J GO Gallery UP: Knowledge Objects, new works that dance the line between sculpture and painting by Curtis Olson (see our review page 4).|12| UPCOMING: Micro Macro: Sid Parasnis|13| & Mark England.
Meyer Gallery UP:
Jeff Pugh, an artist known for his graphic compositions, bold colors, strong lines and chunky textures, has a solo exhibition at Meyer Gallery. His work also conveys a sense of humor and a homegrown love for the land. |14|
District Gallery UP: Expressionistic and vibrant landscape paintings by Caleb Meyer, and realistic narrative paintings exploring the human figure by Carl Kunz.
Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art UP: LUX is an exploration of how artists have used light as a medium or subject matter. AND: Industrial Ethos: Photography by Chris Dunker
presents selections of the northern Utah-based artist's work. Dunker's fascination with urban decay provides a dystopian look at the modern, optimistic attitude of industry and manufacturing that has marked the progress and historical significance of northern Utah.|15| AND: idea,
curated by twelve students and two teachers who explored the museum's rich holdings in conceptual art, includes artwork by a variety of conceptual artists who created art primarily as an outlet for their ideas.
Brigham City Museum UP: Wild Land, Thomas Cole, and the Birth of American Landscape. With large-scale banner graphics and other media, Wild Land takes audiences on a journey with Cole through the story of his creative process along the Hudson River in the early nineteenth century. His genius lay in expressing the majesty, power and divinity of America's wilderness.