This story began in 2017 when I happened upon the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale. I, like most of the world, sat spellbound watching this brutal dystopian society’s chilling story delivered, as if through a lens of a Johannes Vermeer’s painting.
I went on to listen to the Audible recording of the book, narrated by Clare Danes. I wondered if I would be disappointed. Ticking off things the series already covered. Perhaps frustrated with the differences. But I was moved by the language the author Margaret Atwood used. It would be elegant almost poetic words smashed against harsh realities of this dystopic society.
Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaids Tale”
I was enthralled, so I set out to consume all forms. I watched the 1990 movie by the same name. I found it pretty 80s-rific, but I appreciated that they gave it a happy ending.
Somewhere in all this, I was given an old paperback copy by my friend, and co-worker, Carol Mason. Before it was put up safely up on a shelf, my then one-year old teething daughter gnawed on the edge of the book and tore out some pages.
Books are sacred to me, and destroying them is blasphemous. In its current unfortunate condition, I decided to use it in a new art piece that I had percolating in my brain.
Over the course of a year I tore apart the book and dyed pages. Though I hadn’t completely flushed out the composition I knew I needed the various shades of the following colors:
Red: cherry juice, ink and clothing dye
Skin Tones: coffee, marker, clothing dye and bleach
Black: ash, charcoal, ink and marker
It was a process with a learning curve. Once dyed, I had to dry them and keep the flat. Cookie drying racks worked well but they also left lines. As I worked with the various materials, I felt like a witch making magic.
Once the dying was complete the pages did sit around for a bit. As a mom of two little people, the stars had to align for me to make what I lovingly call “messy art”, because I know once I begin I’ll be consumed.
I began in earnest in August of 2018.
As it is with art-making, I was singularly focused once I began, but this particular medium takes time and patience since there are layers of paint, paper and modge-podge. Altogether, I estimate that it took a month to come together.
The dyed pages from the book were especially important to the overall message. It’s a protest piece. Women in Gilead were not allowed to read or write.
It’s composition is deliberately reminiscent of the iconic “Wicked” poster. I wanted to highlight the idea that the words women’s use with each other a double-edged blade. They have the capacity cut deeply, as with gossip, but also have the power to lift women up.
Support from honorable women have made all the difference in my life. My girlfriend JillIan Harmer helped me get out of an abusive relationship. Her friendship made me feel worthy of love and kindness. Another friend, Tara Russel’s influence helped me choose a path of honor when I could have easily chose not to. I wanted to know I deserved her friendship and respect. I wanted to be a better human like her.
I got lucky that these women came into my life when I desperately needed them. They were the voice in my ear, “Nolite Bastardes Carborundum.” Translation: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
Today, I’m blessed with a wonderful husband, amazing children, a livelihood I love and girlfriends that bring lightness and laughter to my life. I’ve come very far from the broken girl I once was.
The finished piece hangs at the Raven Café and I sell prints of it.
The Book Keeper, in Sarnia, ON, owned by my friend Susan Chamberlain (daughter of my other dear friend, Carol Henry) also stocks prints of “The Handmaids”.
Fast forward to summer 2019 when I see that The Book Keeper is hosting a Margaret Atwood author event. I reserved a ticket post haste and twenty-four hours later it was sold out.
There was discussion that they might sell prints of “The Handmaids” at the event, but ultimately the decision was made that only books should be sold at an “author” event.
Five months later the day of the event arrives, and my Facebook messenger pops up. It’s Susan telling me that she’s going to gift a framed print of my piece to Margaret Atwood after the event and she’s wondering if I would get up and say a few words about it…
I am one of the 75% of the population that has a fear of speaking in public. I am content to sit in the audience and don’t aspire to perform. I appreciate those who can and do. They’re a magical breed. My husband is one those people.
I ask Susan via messenger “How many people will be there?”
Despite my terror, I didn’t take long to agree to do it. It was such an incredible honor to be asked and what an opportunity to share my art with people.
While I’m sure Susan felt like her offer was last minute, it was actually perfect timing. Afterall, it was just going to be a short speech – so I had time to prepare, but not too much time to be nervous and over-think it.
I practiced the speech out loud by myself. I felt ridiculous.
It was at this point I recalled that my husband (one of those magical performing humans) had told me on more than one occasion that he thinks I’d be great on NPR’s “The Moth”. High praise from him. He thinks I can do this.
My girlfriend Gwyn Atkinson-Lewis and I drove over to Sarnia together. On the way, she assured me that I’d do great and said “You deserve this. What an affirmation of your talent.” To which I replied, “Mostly I feel like I’m incredibly fortunate to know Susan and Carol (on so many levels).”
We met up for dinner with our friend Carol. I let them read what I’d prepared and they said it looked good.
Sitting in the front row I thought for sure my mind would be lost in mental preparation, but Margaret Atwood’s wit and sense of humor were such, that I was completely engaged right up until I was called up on stage.
I prefaced my speech with the fact that public speaking was not my thing and that I’d been asked only that morning to speak AFTER Margaret Atwood, so I’d be doing my best…
“I’m from Port Huron (across the river) and as a female citizen of the United States my hope is to inspire women to support each other in these uncertain times that we live in. Women’s rights, much like American democracy as a whole, are at risk of being undermined by the current Trump administration.
The original piece was made from the actual pages of the book “The Handmaid’s Tale”. They were dyed with cherry juice, coffee, charcoal, ash, ink and marker. I considered how the written word had become illegal in Gilead and used it as an ironic medium. I then collaged the pieces together in a composition that, to me, is reminiscent of the iconic promotional poster for the Broadway musical “Wicked”.
My thought is that the words women use with one another are a double-edged blade- they have the ability to cut deeply (such as with gossip) or to lift each other up. When women are oppressed in societies or their freedom threatened, I can see only one way forward for us. We must stand together. Lift each other up. Nolite bastardes carborundurum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
The audience of 700 cheered.
Women stopped me to take pictures with me.
Americans commiserated about the Trump administration.
People told me that I did well up there.
Amidst all that, I asked Margaret Atwood if she’d sign the original for me. She graciously obliged.
It was an incredible night two years in the making.
As if that wasn’t amazing enough, two days later Margaret Atwood shared this photo on her Instagram account.