Artist who Lost Mother Collaborates with Family Writings

In the San Francisco Bay Area with its forward-looking culture, we take notice of what’s new. We thirst for innovation. Bay Area artist Belinda Chlouber finds fascination and value in exploring and mining the past. I spoke with her in her San Mateo home studio about a recent series of multi-media work.

Currently she has pieces that are part of a group show in San Mateo California art space Flywheel Press. Part of her recent body of work will be on exhibit at Oklahoma State University Museum of Art’s Postal Plaza Gallery in a one-woman show from June 16 – August 31. She will give a talk on June 19 at the gallery, which is in her hometown of Stillwater, Oklahoma. That show, Belinda Chlouber Words and Paint; A Collaboration with Family Writings will then travel to the Willard Arts Center’s Carr Gallery in Idaho Falls and be on exhibit November 20th, 2014 through January 11, 2015.

“Much of the past lies hidden and concealed. Some family history and even our very origins are untraceable,” she says. “My connection to the past is very deep,” says the artist. “The past seems gone. It’s not. It’s in us. The past is in the present.”

Chlouber furthers this theme through her use of up-cycled materials. In some, paintings and images are layered atop recycled door board cut to order. In others, a higher-relief topography is created through layering fabric.

The surface is important. Some surface marks might be described as stains; others take on a biological nuance as though seen through a microscope, evoking the human organism at a cellular level. The canvas itself might even be meant to evoke a kind of flesh symbolism.

These surface decorations look worn in places. This gives figures an atmosphere, a complex visual universe. We meet little gremlins, monsters, and willowy dames. In some, writing is superimposed on these figures.

Words have been embodied in something more solid, out of the flat two-dimensionality of a sheet of paper onto a more tangible surface. Words and phrases are truncated, lifted out of one context and merged into another. They have gone from thoughts to symbols to things. Where to next?

Whether this interpretation hits the mark or not, the artist would agree that she finds beauty in that which is old and worn. The Japanese have a term for this: wabi sabi. The term describes the aesthetic appeal of things that appear worn. It is tied in with honoring the natural cycle of life, which unavoidably succumbs to decay.

The natural effects of time and wear are just one theme she explores in this series. At their heart, Chlouber’s pieces are intimate collaborations with writings–poetry and short stories–left by her mother, Carla Sweet Chlouber and her mother’s father (the artist’s grandfather), Arthur Carlos Sweet. Both worked at Oklahoma State University at some point in their careers.

As in Renaissance illuminated manuscripts, the artwork must co-exist with the writing in the flat plane. In some instances, fragments of actual script are taken straight from journal pages. The script is in her mother or grandfather’s own handwriting.

Chlouber’s mother died in 2011 from MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria, following a long struggle with parathyroid disease. During her hospitalization, Chlouber and family members went through her mother’s papers trying to find clues that would help caregivers understand the onset of her disease and how it had progressed. That was when a trove of writings was discovered that included poetry and stories her mother had written over 20 years in journals she had kept private. Chlouber has found a way to delicately curate their contents.

This mother-daughter and, because she also referenced her grandfather’s work, three-tiered, multi-generational collaboration, was a unique and personal project. It brought a mix of negative and positive. It was a package deal. She experienced loss but gained inspiration to explore new themes, challenged her intellect, and made new discoveries that have enriched her art and her inner life.

When Chlouber found a poem her mother had written about her own parents’ passing she was struck by the common thread she now shared with her mother. Similarly, in her grandfather’s writings and journals she found his writings about loss. His father, Chlouber’s great grandfather, died by having his head cut off with a machete during the Mexican Revolution.

“There is no getting away from death. These are universal experiences. When it happens to us, we feel it has only happened to us,” she says. Seeing this poem reminded her that it happens to everybody.

Before her mother’s illness, Chlouber and her mother had collaborated before. She once illustrated a children’s book her mother had written. This current project also evolved out of a past interest in art therapy. Chlouber had been accepted to an art therapy program she had applied to. But, she didn’t end up pursuing the degree. Instead, as she puts it, the universe found another way for her to learn about art as therapy.

Just before her mother was hospitalized, she had also applied for an artist in residence program with a local municipal recycling service in which she planned to explore healing on a global level as a part of addressing our environmental crisis through transforming trash and items destined for the landfill into public art for community education and engagement.

Exploring the universe of her mother and grandfather’s writing allowed her to channel her grief. It helped her recalibrate her relationship to her mother, to hold her close, and to then move forward. It gave her a greater sense of continuity. That she created works showcasing her mother and grandfather’s writing was also a tribute to her mother’s memory and to her family lineage.

There is a poignancy of a daughter receiving and carrying forward a creative legacy that finds its analog in all of life. We go forward and our children continue where we exited. It is our task as a species to do just that.

The work is also a suggestion of our culture’s collective project, shared by all of humanity. We are all participants in one long line of atemporal collaborators. Sometimes we see those with whom we collaborate. At other times, we read of them or simply receive their contributions anonymously. We are not in this world of artistic or cultural inheritance alone. We depend on those who have come before us.

In Chlouber’s blog (www.tenfingers.com) with its journal-like entries, I found a further tribute to family continuity. Her mother had chronicled her life in spiral bound notebooks for 20 years. In Chlouber’s blog one is immersed in a universe apart yet still connected to her mother’s legacy.

In a statement, the artist writes “Using their work in my own enabled me to see our life’s work differently, not as something that ends but is ever continuing.”

Katherine Relf-Canas

More Articles Written by Katherine

Katherine Relf-Canas splits her time between freelance writing and editorial projects while volunteering for Kids & Art, a nonprofit that provides art workshops and other support for families facing pediatric cancer. She has written for blogs and contributed to print magazines since 1996. Recently she has been writing about the healing power of art for this site and dedicated the project to her mother, Connie Relf, who worked as an artist and died in 2010. In 2000, she received a Masters Certification in Intuition Medicine® from Academy of Intuition Medicine® in Sausalito, California.

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