Some of the Whole

Originally published: April 26,  2005

Part 2 of “It’s in the Holiday Mail”

I had been in California for the holidays, and when I returned, they were all waiting for me. Some were in large stiff photo mailers, some in plain envelopes. One was even stuffed in my suitcase, cradled in newspaper, shrouded in a bag. The Body Parts had arrived right on schedule.

I carefully opened the envelopes –all postmarked California - and spread their innards across my workspace. I eased the charcoals and oil pastels from between their waxed paper sheets. There was a pair of feet - with ankles intact, a woman’s thighs with partial pubic area, a posterior view of a trachea complete with thyroid cartilage ripped from a medical textbook, a self-portrait of Picasso, a pair of eyes, a whimsical sketch in ballpoint pen of what might have been a penis – or a section of esophagus or fallopian tube – or perhaps a finger...? There were two colorful pastels, similarly tube-like, and, oddly, thirteen female breasts – eleven in the mail and a pair that had arrived via e-mail. The Parts lay on the table with the prose-wrapped, spike-holding mannequin hand, and the left hand of my Papier Maché man, which I’d salvaged at the last moment, wanting in the end, some small memento of him. For several days I left the Parts lying there, looking them over occasionally, moving them around, admiring them. I noted the range between the sensuous and the cooly clinical. I admit my first thought was, wow, what a lot of breasts! That thought was followed by a quiet acknowledgement that these were some very talented people and that my man’s spindly papier maché hand looked cold and dead compared to the warmth of the yellow-blue torso next to it. 

There are some of us – and I’m guessing this is true of my fellow Body Parts recipients – who use art in order to interpret the world. I am not an artist - if I compare myself honestly to the artists I know. I have always felt that a true artist must be fearless or insane or at the very least condemned to view the world from the angle of a different plane. I know a couple of people like that – which is how I know I am not. My schooling in art, (and my subsequent degree in the subject) was particularly valuable because it taught me this truth early on. I am a member of the legion who struggle daily with what art is, and where they fall in the scope of it.  We engage in art, often in the vacuum of our own tiny workrooms, simply because we have to. We lack perhaps the panoramic visions of the great, but we see things with the eyes of Everyman, and translate what we observe into a medium that suits us. And so we go about our lives, knowing with certainty that if we didn’t have this outlet, we’d be in some way disabled. The Body Parts project united eleven of us, allowing us to share our secret stashes, to dismember and disseminate, spreading our Parts to others, others who would see the value of them, the beauty, and unavoidably, the humor. This wasn’t really a “sociopath’s chain letter” after all, but instead the romantic correspondence of sudden and fantastically intimate pen pals. 

Very quickly, the Parts became precious to me– I didn’t want to rip and tear as I had originally thought I might do. I wanted to respect their integrity, to preserve them. I sprayed the pastels and charcoals with fixative and trimmed the ragged edges off the sketches, mounting them all on acid-free mat board. The little penis /esophagus/ fallopian tube/perhaps-a-finger pen drawing had arrived on a post card, without benefit of an envelope, and was sadly crumpled. I flattened it under an anatomy book. Slowly I added my own touches, applying color to some, and ripping just one - the reproduction Picasso self portrait - just to play with the Picassoness of it. The ideas for assembling these Parts into a whole came more easily as each became more familiar.

I still had one intact section of the ladder my papier maché man had been built on. It had an alter-like shape I felt was appropriate to hold these Body Parts, and it fit with my desire to archive rather than maim. I installed my man’s hand above the top step, and fanned out a stack of small purple breasts like playing cards between his thumb and forefinger. The mannequin hand went on the lower step, the spike driving toward a pair of dark, ample breasts. The matted oil pastels and charcoals were nailed or pasted on, including some text from the artists, such as, “This should be a fun project, Holiday Body Parts Exchange, just like cookies or toys!” 

The final presentation of the Body Parts project was on January 5th in Palo Alto, California, only a mile or so from where I grew up. Having just been there for the holidays, I couldn’t very well justify going back for one night of art, so I e-mailed digital photos to Parts Master Linda. The piece looked like fused fall-out from an explosion of drawing pads. That I liked the result was merely a perk - I had enjoyed the process so much that the finished product was secondary. It made me feel part of a community and that was enough. 

A few days later, Linda sent me images of the final night. For the most part, people were careful – almost reverential - with each other’s Parts. One person had attached the Parts to a cylindrical lamp with black photo corners, so that the light glowed through each drawing - my man’s foot dangling below. But the project was not without pain for some: one wrote, “ I am afraid of my body parts wearing out before I am done with them... it is hard not to see only death.” He’d arranged the Parts behind a long list of fears and disappointments regarding his own body: skin cancer, plantar fasciatis, spare tire, hammer toes, crow’s feet... A prescription bottle was band-aided to the bottom of the list. Still others struggled with taming the endless possibilities of the project. The day before the final presentation, I’d gotten this e-mail from Part Master Linda: 

  “I've done two collages and taken them apart, and now have all the pieces (except yours) stuffed in a jar.  Know the title is about manna and woke up this AM thinking they all needed to be attached to strings hanging from the ceiling in a "wall".  I still have through tonight to get this together...”

Seeing my man’s parts incorporated into the other’s projects was strange. Magically, ugliness and proportion no longer mattered - a severed leg has nothing to relate to except itself. The sheer size and weight of his parts had them acting as anchors or foundations for the two-dimensional, most often, as Linda had envisioned, hanging from a string. Scattered about that room, 2,500 miles away from where he’d started his existence as an ungainly duckling, it was clear that his reincarnation had given him a gravitas he’d never enjoyed until I took the hacksaw to him. Clearly, his new beginnings allowed him to thrive in a way that had escaped me – and that, too, was enough. 

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