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In my new studio, I am destroying old artwork: small plaster sculptures that don’t measure up. I could just throw them away whole, but instead, I drop them on the floor and watch how they shatter. Then I gather the pieces and lay them out on a big table to survey the cracks and edges.

Each time I break a sculpture, I’m hopeful that new ideas and directions will emerge. I might try reassembling the shapes into an imperfectly solved puzzle, or play with their negative spaces to find compelling tension.

But most of all, I use the activity as a way to take a step back and see a broken object not as something to be discarded or in need of repair, but instead considered for how, why or even if it is broken.

All this breakage was occurring just before a weekend of open studios in my building. I decided to use the opportunity to share my working process with strangers. I wanted feedback and conversation. I would pose this question to each of my visitors:

What is broken? 

A young woman with a flowered blouse and blue-edged hair came in first, and answered without hesitation: “My body.” She described her diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, and her experiences with doctors and medications. She sounded like a detective, determined to be an expert in her own care.

A man and woman came in next. When I asked my question, the woman replied, “Our government.” We complained together while her partner stood quietly, glancing at the room’s tables and walls. Then he said, “My son.”

I would pose this question to each of my visitors: What is broken?

People continued to wander through—individuals, groups of twos or threes or fours, parents and kids. Some conversations lasted a few minutes, some half an hour. We talked about the ways things break—from tangible objects, to hearts, to the world.

I asked a trio of twentysomethings, who were more than eager to weigh in. “We were just talking about this!” one said. She described her workplace, a nonprofit environmental group, where important issues that were supposed to be addressed were overshadowed by technical problems. She was frustrated by the back-and-forth blamegame. She sighed. “There are layers of broken.”

Then her friend, who is from Ghana and living in Brooklyn, pulled over a chair and sat down. “I work in criminal justice,” he said. He talked at length about his family history, and his country’s problems of sexual abuse and depression in men. “It’s not dealt with.”

Many visitors answered with a single, objective observation. “Empathy is broken.” “Our health-care system is broken.” “Our planet is broken.”

Some answers were hopeful: “Broken things regenerate.” Some were enigmatic: “Is there broken?”

A woman from Turkey responded to my question with an accent so strong that I asked her three times to repeat her words. “Broken is energy,” she told me. “Chaos is energy. When there is chaos, there is open.” As the singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen sang in “Anthem,” “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

As the afternoon progressed, discussions continued. A woman who had fractured her wrist a year ago described the difficulties of rehabilitation. “But, ” she added, “while my right hand was healing, I learned to use my left.”

I told her I had injured my shoulder three months ago, and an MRI had revealed infirmities that probably existed before and may never fully mend. When she left, I surveyed my table of fragments. An old plaster cast of my arm had split at its weak points. I promised myself I would make a new sculpture with the pieces.

As the singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen sang in ‘Anthem,’ ‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’”

At the end of my day, I was exhausted and inspired. After everyone had gone, my studio was silent, but nothing was untouched by the stories I’d heard. I will probably destroy more sculpture, if only to acknowledge that inevitably things do break, whether it is a computer, or an arm, or a life. And then, with work, or help, or luck, the light gets in.

A few weeks ago, walking to my studio along a busy street, I stopped to look at the side of a building that displayed a beautiful art installation of 24 portraits: large color photographs, with stenciled letters above that read, “All my friends are immigrants and refugees.”

This week, the wall has changed. The portraits have been torn away, some partially, some completely. There is no graffiti, just ripped paper outlining the absence of faces, like a negation. The artist’s message is broken.

I thought of one of my last open studio visitors, an older woman who lives in Germany. When I asked her “What is broken?” she replied, “Today is a different answer from tomorrow.” ca

© 2019 W. Richmond

Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.


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