Idle Hands and All That

Unfinished bargello piece from Egypt
photo and continuing saga by the artist
Summer of '92 I lived in Egypt.  It was my grand experiment to discover if I could live there as a resident rather than a pampered tourist as I had been the year before.  I was planning on embarking on my 20 year dream to become an Egyptologist.

As a resident, museum stalker, and potential Egyptologist I survived just fine.  As a temporarily non practicing artist I did not.  I had left the US with all of 2 bags, sticking to my philosophy of only ever traveling with what I could carry on my own - a philosophy that would be severely tested as a traveling single mom in later years. There was a trip to the Virgin Islands with an unplanned change of planes, a stroller, 2 carry-ons, an FAA approved car seat (the kind they don't gate check), and a child too young to walk long distances that my shoulders and back will never forget.

So there I was in my furnished apartment in Heliopolis with clothes, a few books, and a small sketchbook, trekking to the Cairo Museum every few days and to archaeological sites off the beaten tourist path as time and funds allowed.  I could make do with studying, eating, and sleeping to survive the hottest part of the day, but the nights were often mind numbingly boring.  If I was not out with friends, I was stuck inside with 3 Arabic TV channels that wouldn't have been even slightly more entertaining had I been able to speak the language.

One day on a shop-like-the-natives adventure (think old European town market + New York streets and traffic) I passed a sewing and needlework shop.  Without realizing what I was doing, I detoured in and began buying colors of DMC thread and petit-point canvas.

Needlepoint, bargello, and tatting had been what kept my fingers busy from ages 10-15.  They involved patterns, the challenge of figuring out new stitches, color, and complete portability, all the things I needed to keep at bay the utter boredom of waiting in my mother's office every moment I wasn't in school or asleep.  There was even a period of time in 7th grade English class that I pulled off doing needlepoint under my desk during class.  The English and American lit and Greek mythology were fascinating.  The teacher's horrid lectures were enough to make me wish I'd been illiterate.

So as the 100 degree evenings drifted into 97 degree nights I stitched geometric patterns around contrasting cartouches of hieroglyphs in shades of golds, blues, and purples while listening to the TV's drone of Olympic weightlifting, narrated in Arabic and nighttime soaps that would have been silly and melodramatic in any language.  At least I got through most of one series before someone told me the character everyone loved to hate because she was so stuck up and incredibly stupid was supposed to be American.  5 long stitches 1/2 step up, 2 sets of 4, 1/2 st up between, 3 sets of 3... next shade of purple... repeat...

Soon, the bargello projects went everywhere with me.  If I wasn't looking at art or architecture, I was stitching.  Egypt is a place where time stands still, particularly if you have to wait in line for anything. I couldn't cope with the glacial pace and inefficiency.  I was so used to getting odd looks and being stared at that if whipping out needlework got strange reactions, I'd hardly have been able to notice, so I coped as I always had, by making things.

A year later I was trekking around the campus of Memphis University, where I'd been offered a scholarship to pursue a masters degree in Egyptology.  Inside the building that housed the department I felt like I was home; outside in a miserable heat wave and trying to find a cheap apartment, I had the nagging feeling that this was the wrong path.

Eventually, I began to realize that my need to make art was even greater than my desire to dig it up out of the ground, so I never ended up living in Memphis.  Although I traveled back to Egypt many more times before Bush made international travel a nightmare, I let go of the life of scholarship and scientific method in favor of a life of creativity. Ironically, I probably ended up on the path with not only the greatest flexibility but also with the now greatest job security.  Perhaps...

What I know for sure is that I can never stop my conniving little fingers from manipulating some elemental substance into a 3 dimensional form.  I've complained recently to my husband that I want a real vacation.  No work, no workshops, no schedule, nothing to do!  "I want to sit in a comfy chair under an umbrella on a beach with aqua colored water, not too much heat, and a slight breeze, a book (a good mystery) nearby in case I feel like doing something besides staring or sleeping."  He was too polite to ask how long I'd last before the boredom would kick in and I'd be looking for some kind of art supply store, or constructing complex sand castles, or lettering Hamlet into the sand with a broad edges shell and discussing how one of these endeavors will become part of a latest series...

Actually, I believe he worked really hard not to laugh his ass off at me.


Mare said...

That piece is so beautiful!

Go find a beach somewhere; I think you *might* last for a weekend before the creative bug bites you. ;)

Amy said...

Speaking of Egypt, there is a well known Egyptian jewelry designer Azza Fahmi that I think you would like. She draws inspiration from ancient Egyptian traditions, and creates wonderful jewelry.
As someone who started to research jewelry a bit more seriously lately, looking for my own voice, I get the benefit to discover lots of interesting things , your site being another example :-)