Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Presentation Of Thesis Work

After a year of investigation this was my final presentation:

Animali Fantastici:
The Direct Experience of Being Alive

I define "direct experience" as immediate sense perception. We are often told our direct experiences are wrong, leaving us to distrust our inner gauges.

At the beginning of my thesis year, I researched learning disabilities and requested my own test scores from 2003. The person who tested me was perplexed because she couldn't fit me into one of the diagnostic categories. She showed me text-covered flashcards, and I told her I saw a huge purple triangle and smelled the scent of cherry blossoms. She gave me a very baffled look and recommended I see a shrink. She did determine I was dyslexic, but not enough to qualify for a formal diagnosis.

I felt like I was left with a stigma.

Later, I came across Synesthesia and Dr. Richard E. Cytowic. He defines Synesthesia as "a joined sensation where two or more senses are coupled." For example: voice is not only heard, but also felt , seen, or tasted. Within my research, synesthesia is compared to LSD hallucinations, photographic memory or sensory deprivation.

Dr. Cytowic describes a woman who has joined sensations much like my own. He recalls that "whenever this woman read a book or watched television, she saw 'four or five men moving about, some in business suits, one in a cowboy's shirt, one in a plaid shirt.' They would abruptly disappear when she stopped these activities, only to return whenever she resumed. "Finally, I found scientific information to support my experience with the printed page.

Through handed down stories, there is a history in my family of joined senses. A story validates the importance of direct experience, not just to the one whose immediate experience it is, but also to others.

The loss of my grandfather as a child, my father a few years before my thesis and then my youngest brother this past summer made this trait come full circle. It became the focus of my daily thoughts. 

My first conscious recollection of a joined sensation event was when I was eight.  My grandfather and I thought his stories had just died.

I found one of his sketchbooks and flipped through it. At one point I began to hear his voice, and was enveloped in a wave of joined senses and characters coming alive. For me looking through the pages in a book triggers the five senses and ultimately characters. My own "joined sensations" are like premonitions, dreams or memory mixed within emotional reactions to daily events, without being exactly like any of that. I think of it as symbols to my own emotions.

In high school I had a reader's facade; I carried around a handful of non-assigned books and spent time with librarians. This convinced people I was "reading."

Presuming I could read, educators and counselors told me I was lazy. I began to skip school and get kicked out of class. Through all my protests and rants, I was labeled an upstart, daydreamer, wiseass and a lollygagger.

I am from a long line of upstarts, daydreamers, wiseasses and lollygaggers. You could say it is almost encouraged. My families' stories validated my own direct experience. Their support kept me centered and balanced during my tour of duty in public school.

Books are often compared to the body.

Before my thesis, I thought by using Reason and the language of Science I could take the role of a medical examiner and dissect the body/book to answer my questions about my interaction with the book. I plan to pursue a master's degree in book conservation. I often imagine myself in a 18th century lab where books are laid out like little cadavers. I'm dressed in a lab coat with a huge magnifier strapped to my head. Strange colored liquids with bubbling noises, tubes and Bunsen burner fill the room. While wall-mounted taxidermy glass eyes watch as I spend my hours happily and carefully repairing injured books.

When faced with the reality of cutting books apart, I felt huge panic; I would be like Linus trying to cut up his security blanket. These books and the stories were replacements for people who could no longer be around, so to pull apart the book would be like pulling apart my family. Would I see and hear their cries? Good Grief! What have I done?! I thought especially with the recent loss of my father John.

I was relying on flipping through the books to help me deal with my current loss. To find another solution for thesis and as child of a biker, I decided to look for adventure by applying for a summer program in Italy. There are a lot of amazing things in Italy with plenty of distraction: wine, music and vitality. And one library like no other, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.

My knees almost buckled as I stepped into the exhibition space. The current show was called "Animali Fantastici." I moved from book to book and marveled at the astonishing range of zoomorphic figures depicted in them. Looking at those old books, opened huge avenues for my thesis without tearing books apart.

Less than a week later, the unthinkable happened. My youngest brother, Jacob, only twenty-four, died from complications with juvenile diabetes. Returning to school I found daily comfort in my childhood habit of flipping through books. But it began to feel like I was putting salt in fresh wounds each day. I felt I needed to stop this addictive action, and tear the books apart to discover why I was using this to ease my anxiety.

As I cut apart a leather-bound book, one of the books from Florence called out to me. The book contained the writings of Horace, a 12th century Philosopher. It contains an illustration of a creature with a women's, the neck of a horse, the breast, talons and wings of a bird, and the tail of a fish. Written across the face, the letters read camena (muse or poetry). This creature is not found in mythology. Horace invented this as an example of the abnormal to condemn any form of artistic venture that goes beyond the bounds of reason.

To refresh my mind on Horace's image, I looked in the book I purchased at the Biblioteca exhibition. I landed on this quote, "these creatures arouse a sense of marvel where the boundaries between the real and the imaginary become blurred." These creatures are beyond reason; they embody the book and printed page as I directly experience it. Flipping through books pushes me beyond reason and eases my own inner struggle with loss. It became very clear this action with the book was my muse or meditation practice.

My liberation.

I began visually recreating the stories and characters I have been collecting for thirty years through drawing and collaging.  The characters are often based on collaborations of people I love and admire from the past and present but I do have a villain or two.

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