I think my first trip over to Eastern Europe to meet my first Gypsies was in the year 2000. One of my dearest friends has a father from Bulgaria and he took us over for a tour of different Gypsy camps he had befriended throughout Eastern Europe for a few weeks one summer. After that it was an addiction. I went back every summer and some springs, to visit with the new families I had fallen in love with and to scout out new groups hidden among the garbage dumps of Romania and the projects of Turkey.
Some trips it was just me and two other women – following garbage trucks through the city until we could follow them to the city dump. Climbing hills of garbage to seek out the sweet dirty faces of a race of people who are typically treated with such atrocious racism it would make your stomach turn. Discarded like the garbage they are forced to live in, the Gypsies forge a life the best they can among the trash and waste of the cities they occupy.
Between 2000 and 2007 I believe I made over ten trips to see the faces and hearts of a people I had fallen madly in love with. I had a special relationship with so many of them because of my camera. I would typically take 5-7 thousand photos a trip. Gypsies would drag me into their homes for family portraits. Throw babies in my arms, smile toothlessly at my lens and offer the meager scraps of food they had as gestures of hospitality. Over those years I watched small children grow before my lens until they went from children to mothers themselves. And each year upon my return, I would print out every one of those 5-7 thousand photographs and travel city to city, village to village reuniting with the faces I had memorized on the printed photographs and giving the prints out to the faces they belonged to.
It was the deepest privilege to be granted the trust by these typically closed off people, of photographing them and to share the joy of memories together as we shared the gift of friendships and family in this unique way.
Sometimes I would meet new families – in different cities – be invited into their homes and discover photographs I had taken, adorning their walls. Totally mind blowing. They would know it was me who had taken the photos and they would thank me with toothless kisses and cheek pinching! Sometimes unfamiliar Gypsies would see me with my camera and take offense and accuse me of using their images to make money of some kind. They’d yell or spit at me – until a brother, cousin, uncle – who knows – would pull a lovingly worn photograph I had taken from a chest pocket to show them I was the one who could give them such a treasure. Suddenly the man or woman who had been spitting at me was now beaming and pulling me by the arm to their home to meet and photograph their family! My days spent among the Gypsies were full of as much wonder and joy from enjoying them as there was heartache for seeing the way they were forced to live because of inhumane racism.
I cant possibly begin to define the misery of the racism they endure. But a girlfriend of mine – Kate Petrick – who took a few of those trips with me – has used her talent as a film maker to create a documentary about their plight. I have known Kate since she was 14 and have watched her, video camera in hand, grow into a talented woman who is taking a stand for this people group we both love. I have a page about thedocumentary she has made, narrated by Ethan Hawke (!) here.
The connection between my experiences with the Gypsies and my work is one of a powerful freedom. The spirit of the Roma people – as they’re known when referred to in the politically correct way – is one of deep passion. Theres a freedom in their spirit. I realize the way in which they wander and have taken up life on this planet as nomads is because theyve been rejected and forced to move and never given land to settle in. But the freedom of spirit I refer to is not due to their wandering – but because of it. The inhumane racism they live with, the hardships of their lives which, my god, now that I’m a mother – now that I know what it means to have children to love and be responsible for…knowing the conditions under which they are forced to raise and try to care for their little ones under these circumstances…oh it just breaks me deep inside.
And yet… And yet they smile. And yet they have a passion – a song – a spirit within them that all the hate in the world hasnt been able to snuff out. Its that spirit – that passion in the midst of such terrible pain, that living in spite of everyone else condemning them… To only know life as the outcasts, the rejects, the judged and despised…. and they love their children like we do. They cling to their families. They do life regardless of what anyone else says and often in spite of people trying to keep them from living. That spirit influences my work.
The first time I felt this in my work was when I made use of the discarded wooden textile stamps Ive collected on my travels among the Gypsies in my work. I saw them use the textile stamps on the walls of their homes. Homes constructed of trash and plaster. Walls painted bright colors often with nothing more than toothbrushes for lack of any other supplies. Then they adorn their self made walls by taking these small stamps and randomly cover their walls with the graphics the stamps make.
Its chaos and yet its beautiful.
Its making the best out of what you have – even if all you have is some trash and some paint to live in. I’ts putting your voice and your love into those walls that protect your children from the elements, even if those walls dont do a very good job of it, you cant help but know the love that was put into them. The patterns have energy from their haphazard placement and execution. And when I took that spirit of application to my own medium of clay, I found my voice for the first time artistically. I found I had created a moving song on the surface of my cups and bowls that I had never seen anywhere else. And to this day – thousands of bowls and cups and platters later – each piece I make is still beautiful to me – unique – and alive in a way I struggle to explain – because with it the spirit of my gypsies and I keeps moving forward into this world, in this life, regardless of what other think, or how they judge, on each and every piece of my work.
I know each stamp – where on the planet I found it and when. The stories of my travels that go with each block of wood. I send those stories out – translated onto bowls and platters – into the world. My memories repeated along the brim of a vessel in patterns that drip and flow through the scratches and abrasions on the clay. I’ts almost as if in my weathering of each piece I give each object its own history of scars and lines and each piece takes the glaze in a way that no other piece can, because no two are alike.
My work is happy. It both makes me happy to use and to look at. I dont think its just my color palate that creates that energy, if you will, but the freedom in the application of the stamps and patterns. Like the Gypsies – there is no struggle for perfection in the pattern placement. I have no need to achieve an exact replica on pieces that come from the same collection. There is a connection to me in the way that each item uniquely displays its glaze because of the weathering it has endured, the same way as humans we can use the trials and pain that life gives us and allow it to shape us into unique and beautiful beings if we refuse to give up trying to make the best out of the situations we find ourselves in.
Like the Gypsies – there is no struggle for perfection in the pattern placement. I have no need to achieve an exact replica on pieces that come from the same collection.