Image: Set design prop for an independent film, courtesy of the artist.
Abby Walsh lives in New York City, and has been a careful student of the relationships between our work and how it shapes each of us. She has spent time as an Ironworker for the Department of Education, a forklift operator, a figure/art model, an art director for film, an illustrator and head carpenter for institutions like the Park Avenue Armory, supervising massive steel-based installations, as well as other kinds of projects at a grand scale. She has worked with art world heavyweights such as Marina Abramović, Robert Wilson, Michael Van Der A, Taryn Simon and Nick Cave – helping influential people manifest their visions has been a rich experience for developing her own creative voice – but nothing has meant as much to her or nourished her as deeply as the welders, warehouse workers, the labor crews and carpenters that support every facet of expression that she has thrown herself into.
“If our species evolved out of nomadic family groups who weren’t anchored to a specific plot of earth – then maybe we aren’t creatures with literal roots and childhood homes, maybe it was always stories that connected us to each other in the river of time. Mythological characters that only lived on the lips of a blind man in ancient Greece became some of the core structures of Freudian analysis. The structures we are born into, and eventually claim as our own have come from somewhere – maybe we have confused the transubstantiation of idea to flesh as brick and mortar, as something permanent, a monument, rather than bearing the warp and weft for a spell, until we can pass it those younger than us. As we spin the yarn of our lives, shaping the fibers and coloring the thread with our individual fight for space and sustenance, shelter and connection, the care with which we craft our social fabric is what builds the walls and pathways we walk along. We are all momentary manifestations in a multi-generational artwork, claiming that responsibility might be our birthright and burden as a member of this human collective.
Maybe there is deep psychological value to considering how we orient ourselves in time and space. This particularly human trait of finding narrative threads to lead us and to inspire us creates so much the contexts we live inside of, and using various media I propose an inquiry into the history of the narratives that we have crafted around our sense of self and the universe, our place and our purpose, and how those story structures contain fundamental questions about economic realities, gender dynamics, and our relationship to self and other.”
Walking home from the coffee shop balancing my old roommate’s handmade dishware in my arms, I tried to channel what I imagined being a waiter would feel like to balance opening doors and holding my coffee while also making it up two flights of stairs with out dropping these precious gifts she left behind for me on her way out to LA to start a new life. A memory bubbled up, as memories often do, and I struggled with my conflicting emotions as I navigated doors and years of doing hard labor and ironwork along my path.
My freshman year of college, I was moving back to Sarasota. I had been born there, and some part of me knew I would be going back. One of the top art schools in the U.S. sprawled along the beaches there, and I had been accepted – it was the only school I had bothered to apply to. I have vague pictures of a house with a window between my older brother’s room and mine, where we would signal to each other after everyone went to sleep. My mother took me to dinner at The Columbia in St Armand’s Circle, where she had been a waiter during my infancy, and eventually met and fell in love with the father of my younger siblings. She had worn a bow tie and slacks like the men and refused to be called a waitress, and told me later that they had to leave in part because they couldn’t avoid run ins with the Cuban Mafia for much longer, possibly because of my step father’s drug trafficking and addiction.
My mother recognized some of the waitstaff during this precollege visit, exclaimed excitedly the name of the latino woman who brought us water. As my mom described who she was, I saw a pained recognition crystalize across the other woman’s face, and my mother gestured to me, bragging about bringing her daughter here for college, asking about the other woman’s daughter. She barely glanced at me, with my blond hair and blue eyes and fair skin, choked out a few words in broken English and walked off as soon as her task was completed. As my mother giggled and crooned about how they used to do coke together when I was a baby, I watched that woman signal a different waiter to attend to our table, and I sat in contemplative horror at the strange innocence that so defines my mother. How was it not obvious that this other woman was embarrassed, possibly for still being in the same work environment, or her own relationship with her children and college, or maybe her memories of that time are darker than my mother’s, who was able to walk away and not have to face starkly different fears about surviving, how could none of that flit through her mind, somewhere behind her somewhat vacant eyes?
On the way out my mother had an extended conversation with the Maitre D’, while I stood on the sidewalk and watched from a distance, trying to figure out what felt familiar and what was fabricated in my sense memories of this place. As she collected me and we left she told me he had offered me a job if I ever needed one, and she threw her head back and laughed good and hard at the thought of me being a waitress, like I was too soft to be able to handle something like that.
I have thought about that moment a lot over the years of being on and eventually running construction crews, almost every time I get on a forklift, so many strange moments where I have exceeded the limitations in my mother’s view of what I could be capable of.
She obsessively hoards all of the awful student work I tried to throw away, bad ideas or overworked and with tiny arms and such, the beginnings of all artists. My siblings tell me about the paintings lining the walls of my childhood home that I hope to never step into again. My little brother even stole one of those paintings once, to my glee – and he received the strangest, quietest phone call from my mother who claimed it was worth some obscene amount of money ($15,000 I think?). I don’t know what picture of who or what I am lives its rich life in my mother’s eyes, all I know is that anything that undermines it is a threat to whatever narrative she has crafted, and it amazes me that someone could move through their lives or look at their children with such an overwhelming blindness.
I think it makes some parts of my natural expression harder to lean into, picking up a pencil to draw carries with it the weight of potentially fulfilling my mother’s blind desire for me, like it is not truly mine somehow. And I fight to be noticed for other kinds of physical prowess with a ferocity that is somehow related to needing her ideas of me to change, to recalibrate around something real – battles I bring in every day to work but are being fought for a ghost, an idea of what a Mother should be, for a child I buried in my body a long time ago.
I can’t even do simple tasks without thinking about the box she thinks I live in.