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Working with Matter

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

“Matter is a physical exuberance, ennobling contact, … and the joy of growth, it attracts, renews, unites and flowers. By matter we are nourished, lifted up, linked to everything else, invaded by life… it contains the spur or the allurement to be our accomplice towards heightened beings.”

— Teilhard de Chardin

This favorite quote by Teilhard de Chardin preambles the chapter titled Tender Materials in my book, “The heartist’s Secret.” Today I wish to share how materials expand my life and bring me joy, in other words, “link me to everything else.”

I am not known for being a ‘maker’; I mostly use materials as ritual props for my performances, though I have used rocks or branches for installations. As I am wrapping up my life, I wonder what will become of my cherished materials.

Not only do I have so-called props, like little children’s shoes, but also materials like hair that I’d collect from my brush or the bathtub. I’d then wash and save them into whirled bits that after a while accumulated in sausage-like amalgams. I began this saving intuitively, without having great plans.

As a ritualist—not unlike a Buddhist nun carving her gravestone—I quickly associated this impromptu gesture to a meditation on life and death. Interestingly, years later I learned how hair was considered sacred by Native tribes in many places on Earth. (For me, it was a hint that these innate gestures have some connection to the human soul, wherever we are planted in the world.)

After all these years you can imagine that I have a lot of hair saved; though thin, my hair is long. During a period when I thought I would ‘make’ a work with my hair, I had prepared a maquette for a work titled The Nest of Me, but then the resident mice in my former studio grabbed it for their own nest, maybe sending me a message that ‘making’ was not my path.

Years earlier, I had a professional spinner braid my hair to be used as a rope for a possible work in my bell series. Eventually, I tried to fashion a sheer organza ribbon into a tube ribbon in which I’d stuff my hair. But life and writing took over, and these thought-seeds and baby gestures stayed on, lounging as ideas and dreams.

So what to do with my ‘materials’ and continue ‘Doing Art For the Earth,’ which incidentally, my friend eco-art curator Patricia Watts translates as ‘Making art in, with and for the Earth (or Nature). Then (hallelujah…) I read about a splendid example of life as art, which to me sources from the same caring and creativity that would be put into an art project: “Recycling hair into felted mat products that soak up petrochemicals in storm drains, wells, filtration systems, rivers, oceans…” is how the company Matter of Trust describes what they do with hair. Coming across a photograph of a pile of hair booms ready to be sent on their final mission was like seeing an ‘art installation.’ So connecting with this group brought me the comfort that my hair material would finally ‘art’ for my beloved Earth.

"One pound of hair (the average produced by a single salon in any one day) can soak up nearly 8 gallons of oil. If every salon in America gave just one day's worth of hair, that would be 2,000,000 gallons of oil that could be cleaned up."

— Dana Boyle

In the silence of the river, I heard ‘heartist,’ that magical little word. What does it mean to be a heartist, a question, a path that should flow like the river where I encountered it/her? Is it either a matter of going with my original impulse or connecting with Matter of Trust?* For me, it is to continue feeding this one fire going in my heart and, with patience, take the next step, and another step… keeping in mind the demands of my body. In the silence of the in-betweens, I can take little steps and trust and not judge myself too much for not ‘doing’ more… and meditate on what ‘being’ means. "Life is continual creation, i.e. the formation of new, higher forms.” Leo Tolstoy

(*) For more details on this Life-As-Art group, go to Program, and the associated organization The Hum Sum, a platform dedicated to everyone who wants to offer solutions for environmental challenges.

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