Tools and Slippers and All Kinds of Things

“I have a notebook filled with pages and pages of everything that’s here,” Sam says. “Tools, and slippers, and all kinds of things.”

It’s a windy spring Friday, one of the many Fridays that Sam, a University of Pennsylvania junior from Long Island, has spent in the late sculptor Bill Walton’s studio, cataloging and packing up its contents. Last year Sam worked as a summer intern at ICA, organizing our digital photo archive. She did such a good job that she is now entrusted with this artist’s studio. Next year, in our Project Space, ICA will recreate the studio in all its miraculous order and ambiguity. Walton’s sculptures often look like tools, or arrangements of tools, and his tools are often as carefully arranged as sculptures. This, for example, is a (blurry photograph of a) sculpture:
Miranda: Box-of-tools-3

Miranda: Box-of-tools-3

This, however, is just a jar of tools:
Miranda: Jar-of-tools-3

Miranda: Jar-of-tools-3

Sam has described it in her notebook like this: “Jar with compass, matchbook, mini flashlight, 2 exacto knives, screw driver, metal penlike tool, ‘r’-shaped green and gold metal tool.” Soon she will swaddle it in bubble wrap, tape it up, write a number on the tape, and store it gently in a carton with other things from the shelf she found it on. Photographs will help installers figure out how to arrange the items later, at ICA. “What’s difficult,” Sam says, “is trying to figure out how to organize the things so it makes sense to someone besides me.”
Miranda: Sam-2

Miranda: Sam-2

Here is part of a list from her notebook:

  1. small glass w/ colored pencils
  2. Windex
  3. spray bottle
  4. small sheet of paper w/ grid
  5. sucking candy
  6. end of paint brush
  7. green apple soap

Her favorite object is Walton’s talking clock, though it scared the bejesus out of her the first time it went off.

Sam starts explaining about the connections between the workspace and the art, how Walton created mirrorings between the two. She points to a sculpture:
Miranda: Hanging-cloths-1

Miranda: Hanging-cloths-1

She says, “Apparently the sculpture that looks like two rags is mirrored back here with his hanging sweatshirt and apron.”
Miranda: Hanging-sweatshirt-and-apro

Miranda: Hanging-sweatshirt-and-apro

I first saw this studio last fall, when artist Jane Irish, a good friend of Walton’s, gave a tour to some ICA staff. I had never heard of the sculptor, who had recently died, but listening to Jane talk about his particular combination of workmanlike honesty and artistic integrity—and how he was well-known and beloved of other artists, if less known by the public—brought to mind the poet Bill Stafford, perhaps best remembered for his poem, “Traveling Through the Dark.”

Traveling through the dark I found a deer

dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.

It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:

that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

That’s the first stanza. There is a plain-spokenness about Stafford’s language that might make you mistake it for prose, the way you might mistake a Walton sculpture of a box of chisels for tools. Both artists make you look closer, think harder, press yourself against the question of the world and art, and how to think about the difference between them.

Sam is just the person to be mulling over these questions. An English major with an art history minor, she used to be editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian. Last year she took “Writing Through Literature and Art,” a collaboration between ICA and Penn’s Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, taught by Kenny Goldsmith. Twice she took the Fellows course at Kelly Writers House, taught by Al Filreis and Jamie-Lee Josselyn, and I ran into her there this winter giving a smart, passionate introduction of the non-fiction writer Susan Cheever. The relationship between life and art is one she’s already wrestling with.

It’s Friday again as I write this, so Sam is back in the studio, listing, wrapping, labeling. I like thinking of her there, asking herself these questions, and listening to Walton’s talking clock call out the time.

Sam has volunteered to write the first guest post for Miranda, so be sure to check back to see what she has to say about her experience with Bill Walton, ICA, art, life, etc. ICA’s Bill Walton exhibition will open September 8.