Arts

Houston Artist Coronavirus Hibernates in Downtown Mid-Rise — Creating in Isolation

Collages and the Simple Joy of Plates

BY Mary Margaret Hansen // 04.30.20

Editor’s note: Mary Margaret Hansen is a visual artist based in Texas. She has written about her European travels and American road trips for PaperCity in the past. Currently, she’s featured in the two-person exhibition “Finding Our Way” at The MAC, Dallas.

Something unexpected happened this morning in my place of hibernation. As I brewed coffee, I unloaded the dishwasher, and this simple housekeeping task suddenly gifted me with an unanticipated thought-meander. Who knew? And at such an early hour?

During these days of seclusion, there is an ever-sharpening focus on the small stuff — things I might not have noticed if I were filling my days with errands, meetings, lunches on the run, theater and movie matinees, evening book signings, gallery openings, and, at the end of the day, a glass of wine and dinner with good friends. None of these activities are taking place right now, which is leaving space for noticing little things, miniscule happenings, many of which take me on rambles of the mind and heart.

#6a bouquet of leek stalks against an Earl Staley painting
Mary Margaret Hansen arranged this bouquet of leek stalks against an Earl Staley painting. These leeks later became material for a collage work

This morning, as I emptied the dishwasher, joy surged. Think Marie Kondo’s kind of joy as defined in her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo says, “Hold an object in your hand, and if it gives you joy, hold on to it.” At least that’s the way I remember it. . .

As I lifted each dish from the rack, then put a plate, cup, or serving dish in its place on my shelves, joyful feelings wafted over me. I paused to wonder: Why joy?

The Nostalgic Power of Plates

When I downsized a couple of years ago, I moved into a comfortable downtown Houston mid-rise that feels like a pied-à-tere, simultaneously cozy and temporary. I brought with me only the dishware I love, and from time to time, I’ve add a find from The Guild Shop, a local dollar store, IKEA, an estate sale. My dishes are an odd assortment, and every single one is memento of a moment in time.

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With a pink dinner plate in hand, I suddenly understood the sense of joy. Cloistered as I am, I have slowed down enough so that each dish was conjuring a vivid place or person memory.

When I moved, I gave away my wedding Dansk blue dishes, replacing them with a dozen pink dinner plates from IKEA.

Pink calls to me these days: It’s the color of resistance, and I amass ever more pink belongings. Plus, any dinner served on pink plates feels extravagant.

Pink IKEA dinner plates mingle with a collection of other china assembled from places near and far by artist Mary Margaret Hansen.
Pink IKEA dinner plates mingle with a collection of other china assembled from places near and far by artist Mary Margaret Hansen.

I take a bowl from the dishwasher that I’ve used for steel-cut oats and chicken soup for a very long time. My mind turns to my eldest daughter, who learned to make pots on a wheel in elementary school, took classes at RISD while at Brown University, and now lives in the Pacific Northwest.

She’s still making pots and bowls, giving them to family and friends. Could it be that I’ve used her RISD bowls for 30 years?

That elegant oval bone-china plate is Syracuse China, perfect for cheese and crackers for one. A year ago, I found stacks of these plates in a Houston dollar store. I bought a dozen because nostalgia hit me hard. Finding those plates time-warped me back to childhood, when our dinner table was invariably set with Syracuse China serving bowls Mom bought from their outlet store.

Syracuse China made dishware for restaurants, hotels, and home use for more than 130 years before closing its doors in 2008. Keepsake plates and platters are still being passed down in our family.

Artist Mary Margaret Hansen poses in the doorway of a shop in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, 2009.
Artist Mary Margaret Hansen poses in the doorway of a shop in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, 2009.

A decade ago, a vendor in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, gave me a tiny Turkish bowl. At the time, I wondered what use it might have. These days, it sits on my kitchen counter holding a daily ration of vitamins and minerals. I hold this little bowl and give into the moment of joy, remembering second and third glasses of strong Turkish tea given us when we stopped at booths to buy scarves or pottery or a glass lamp. By that third glass of Turkish tea, always served with two sugar cubes, my body chemistry changed, propelling me into buying mode. I returned from Istanbul with four dozen scarves, my daughters and friends the beneficiaries.

My water goblets? I found them at Fiesta Mart on South Wayside in Houston’s East End. I bought them for a dollar each, because I like goblets and because these are made in the USA. What better reasons.

I recommend slipping into joy when unloading a dishwasher. Especially when coronavirus hovers and daily stats are ominous and heartbreaking.

That’s all for today from within the confines of my domicile. The news is still dire — even as Governor Greg Abbott starts reopening Texas. Hibernation is a strange, albeit safe state in which to spend one’s days in the time of coronavirus.

Musings from My Mid-Rise

Several random hibernation happenings that must be shared:

1). Every time I look out my windows and see an 18-wheeler racing along the Pierce Elevated, I say a prayer of gratitude. Trucks moving in either direction comfort me; goods being moved is evidence that our food chain remains in place during this dreadful time of such little certainty.

2). It’s time I tried my hand at mask-making. The first online directions that appeared were for masks that needed sewing, which means actually getting my sewing machine out of the closet, finding thread and a few straight pins. However, today I noticed more and more video instructions for no-sew masks. The longer I’m in hibernation, the more I know wearing a mask outside my domicile is the better part of wisdom. So, I’m on it with mask-making.

3). When called upon to forward an email chain letter as a way to spread kind words in the time of coronavirus, three friends voiced a firm NO. Two said they’d be spending their hibernation time writing books. I took note, as I too am writing a book. Very quickly I forwarded the chain letter with an apt quote from Henry David Thoreau:

“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”

Then I studied my calendar and blocked off times for work on my book. Only then did I begin to move bits of photographs, plant material, and small objects here and there to make a new collage, which you’ll find in this post.

Featured artwork: Mary Margaret Hansen’s Perplexed by Leeks, 2020, photo collage, silver gelatin print, leek stems, 16 x 20 inches, $1,200; at Heidi Vaughan Fine Art, inquiries heidi@heidivaughanfineart.com.

Read the first story in this series here

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