Ghost Stories #YYC - Oct. 2020

GATHER 'ROUND THE CAMPFIRE AND LISTEN TO TALES FILLED WITH GHOSTS AND GHOULS, THE FANTASTIC AND THE MACABRE.

Ghost Stories #YYC is a group art exhibition where each artist writes a short story to go along with an original piece of work inspired by a folk tale, urban legend, or ghost story. The work is collected for a gallery exhibition and also collected in a storybook.

Gallery show ran from October 23 - November 14, 2020
Opening Receptions were: October 23 from 5 pm - 9 pm and October 24 2 pm - 5pm
Ruberto Ostberg Gallery: 2108 18th St. NW, Calgary AB

Applications for this show tend to open in February each year, right when the dull, cold days of winter start to gnaw at your soul. I had seen the first year of the show and when the applications for volume 2 popped up, it was perfect timing. I was in a creative rut and struggling at both my day job and art practice. I asked my wonderful writer friend (Cyla Panin) if she wanted to collaborate with me on the submission. She could write the ghost story and I’d create a piece of art to go with it. And so, it all began…

Fantasy writing is a passion for Cyla, so we didn’t really chat much about what I could do art wise, she just said she had an idea that included water. Glass can look like water, so I just said sure not really thinking anything of it. I needed to be pushed, so I let her go where she wanted.

We put in our submission (a short 200-word synopsis) and were accepted! I worked off the synopsis for the first couple months, planning and experimenting with all sorts of things. I don’t think it was about actually creating the piece at this point (unless one of my experiments went really well), it was really just me trying to get out of my creative rut.

I made many failed pieces, learned so much, and spent a LOT of time on this work. There was a freedom in the fact it didn’t matter if I sold the end work – I just needed to play without restrictions.

My first idea was to make a piece of glass that could go over top of a mirror and have the appearance of water/ice. I was somewhat successful with the glass resembling water/ice, but it didn’t work with the mirror. The glass was too thick and distorted the image you saw in the mirror too much. I still needed you to see yourself, not just wiggly shapes.

Then I tried to do really thin glass in the same way – total failure and several molds later.

So, I decided to step away from the mirror concept for a bit and go really crazy and cast my hand inside a huge hunk of glass! Huge chunk of glass (ice) with a hollow void inside shaped like a hand. I’ve always wanted to do a reverse relief casting like this. I got a little too excited (and went a little too large) and tried to demold my hand casting too soon and broke all the fingers off. You can’t reattach or fix plaster/slica molds, it just doesn’t work due to differences in moisture, but I fooled myself into thinking it would work and tried casting the hand anyway. All the fingers broke away and floated to the top of the glass casting! Plus, my kiln just didn’t want to get to the high temperature range needed for such a large casting (and it was mid-summer at this point – not a great time to do high heat work in the shop). Long story longer, very big failure, but I leaned a ton about casting larger pieces. Also, made a great smashing video.

Now we are about two weeks from art deadline at this point and I really have nothing to show. Cyla is all done the final story, but I’ve got no art. Nothing like a deadline to push me to figure it out. I decide I like the hands a lot and I also still think the mirror is needed (the viewer needs to become part of the piece), so I sit myself down and formulate a plan based on all the learnings from the last few months.

Let’s revisit casting the hands, but not reverse relief, actual glass hands (much easier) and the mirror. The hands can be attached and I can augment with some sandblasting to make the mirror look like water and volia! A mirror with glass hands mounted on it so when the viewer looks into the mirror they see themselves reaching back with cold, ghostly hands. See Cyla’s story below to really get the experience.

Surrender by Cyla Panin 

Ice cracked under my feet and I froze, waiting, watching for movement. Lightly, carefully.  

Nothing. 

My relief came out in a puff of warm air, like tiny clouds. The sky today shone grey straight across. Nothing to break it up, no wisps of white or glow from the sun. It was like a dull blanket spread over us, keeping us in. 

My thumb ached from wet and cold, inadvertently dipped in water as I tried to hold the heavy pail without spilling its contents on my shoes. I could wipe my hands off, drying my boots would take much longer. 

Another layer for you. 

I poured the water out faster than I’d intended, but the pail slipped in my numb hands. Drops splattered onto my boots and skirt, but I stepped back in time to avoid a drenching. The water slipped over the ice, pooling in cracks and crevices. There would have to be two, maybe three more layers after this. I just needed to cover the index finger. Almost done. 

The eyes seemed to watch me though they never moved. The deep, brown colour I knew they were was faded and distorted through the ice but the expression shot through the layers and burned me with its rage. I would have been terrified if there was a way for it to get out.  

As it was, I was only a little scared because it was hard to forget the burn of those eyes when I slipped under the five wool blankets piled up on my narrow bed at night.  

I hadn’t meant to bring her here. She slipped in behind me, clinging to my skirt like a small child too afraid to look at the world. I hadn’t noticed at the time because she had made herself so small and I had the whole big ship to look at. The smoke staffs belching grey clouds, the blonde wood deck beneath my feet, the chipped rail where I rested my hands — paint worn away by countless people squeezing the wood with one hand while they waved goodbye to everything they knew with the other. 

She was with me when I wound through the stark corridors of white wood and white-painted metal in the underbelly of the ship. It was as if they were afraid of darkness down there. I didn’t mind. I was afraid too — terrified of the dark water on the other side. Separated from me by a few inches of painted metal. Knocking against the walls. Calling me with low moans.  

I wasn’t sure if it was the water or the whales as I lay in my tiny bunk that first night. I wanted to sing back, just in case. Three other women were breathing and sweating and sighing around me, but none of us spoke each others’ languages. We’d shrugged and given half smiles and each claimed a bunk. We settled into loneliness. 

That’s when the ocean’s moaning changed. 

My ears thrummed with the low sound, beating in time with my heart. Her cold body slipped in next to mine, puckering my skin with goose bumps. I held myself perfectly still. I’d thought I’d escaped her, left her on the shore. I didn’t want to open my eyes to see her blank ones. 

Somehow I slept as she cupped herself around my body. I ignored her as the ship cut through the endless swath of deep blue. She tried to get my attention when I ate – turning my belly against the watery soup and hard bread – but I never spared her a glance. 

It wasn’t until I walked on new earth, sucked in breath after breath of air I didn’t recognize and felt the difference in my lungs. Clear and empty of judgement. No one knew me here. Except her. 

She stalked me, darkening the edges of doorways and clinging to the underside of the wagon taking me deep into the trees. I tried not to listen to the scritch scratch of her nails on the wood as I sat, trembling from the ruts in the road. 

The cabin had been used before. Other people’s disappointments made the air inside stale. I went in alone, hoping she wouldn’t notice, would keep hanging on under the wagon, taken to the next destination far away from me.  

I wasn’t that lucky. The first night, I heard her breathing next to my ear. I’m here, she whispered. I turned my back on her and squeezed my eyes shut and counted daisies in my head until consciousness slipped away.   

The next day I trapped her. I used the axe to open the pond and slipped in, the water cutting through me like I’d just cut through the ice. My teeth rattled in my head. I almost bit my own tongue. The pain surged through me, but leaving the water wouldn’t help. It wouldn’t accomplish anything. I couldn’t live with her anymore. 

Finally, her shadow darkened the ice and she filled the rest of the space in the pond. I pulled myself out before she could reach me and pushed her under, holding her there until the ice began to form again. She reached out a hand and I ignored the fingers that looked so much like my own, the chewed nails and the freckle near the base of the thumb. 

It was done. She was stuck and I was free. 

But the ice was too thin. I took the wooden bucket and filled it from the well before spilling the frigid water over the dark form in the pond. Layer by layer, I built up my defense. Somewhere deep down I knew it would never last. Spring would come and the ice would desert me too.  

I went out to her, pouring another layer of water to reach the end of her index finger, but it moved. Bent, twitched. My heart leapt in my chest, beating hard against my ribcage. She used her nail to grate against the thinning ice. Scrape. Scrape. Scrape.  

She was as determined as I was to be here, in this new world, where I thought I could be someone else. Maybe she thought so too. 

The ice cracked, sweated. Water beaded and ran. I flinched but didn’t move. Couldn’t move. I had to see her face again. 

It was pale blue with dark circles ringing her deep brown eyes. Eyes I know too well but had almost forgotten since the cabin had no mirror to stare into. Her hair hung from her head like the thin brown snakes that lived near the pond. Harmless but still terrifying to me.  

I stared into her face, my face. She opened her arms to me and I didn’t want to go to her but I couldn’t help it. I had to. I couldn’t let her go — I thought I could leave her behind but I should have known better. She was stuck to me like sap, like tar, like sweetest honey.  

She pulled me in and dragged me under. 

January 29, 2021 — Michelle Atkinson