The Marie Lieb connection…
Marie Lieb’s Cell Floor with torn strips of cloth 1894
I first encountered the two photographs while at a lecture on drawing and was instantly struck by the stark beauty of the pictures. The photographs, taken in 1894, are the only known evidence of the existence, and creativity, of a woman named Marie Lieb. They show torn strips of linen cloth arranged on the floor of an unidentified German hospital. The captivating patterns are suggestive of flowers, snowflakes, blossoms, letters and possibly a boat. The arrangement has a strong performative/installation quality, and though it would be termed ‘outsider art’, it remains for me intriguing, almost modern.
Her forms remind me of Matisse’s ‘Polynesia‘ (above) – things in motion, in flight, quivering with life, with an energy we cannot see but can feel. As the lecture moved on I was left with a feeling of wanting to know more about these two mysterious photographs and the person who had created these abstract mandala-esque structures. The hospital psychiatrist’s report detailed her incarceration in the asylum and her complete lack of communication. The only documented interaction were her nightly artistic creations …each night the nurses would clean and tidy the room where Marie Lieb slept and every morning when they returned they found she had yet again used strips of her linen sheets to create these amazing forms on the floor of the asylum. It was the only communication she used – silent apart from the marks on the floor that no-one could make sense of.
I wondered about her for a long time after that lecture. I wondered who she was, what had happened to her that she ended up there. Had she been an artist, a writer, a gentle soul looking out at a world she couldn’t make sense of? I had no idea who she was but the more I looked at the photographs the more intrigued I became. I wondered if she had had a notebook and a pen maybe she would have written something down or drawn a symbol or made an attempt to speak but all she had were the very sheets she slept on. Were the episodes of mania, her voice stripping cloth, her one quivering legacy, reminiscent of any woman of history who had an artistic soul, who had ideas, shapes, contours and space playing out in her mind while others around her talked of daily tasks, teas, costumes, important dates? We won’t ever know the answers to any of these questions and that is part of the mystery of these photographs. They continue to haunt long after they are out of view.
In recognition of her small yet sublime legacy I wanted to give a voice silenced by history an opening to be heard or at least the chance of an echo. So I decided to write her a poem and then the poem became a whole project incorporating artist’s books, ceramic containers for the artist’s books and many months of work…
During the initial processes of the work I began to recall the first exhibition I ever saw in Wexford Arts Centre when I was just a young teenager. It was titled ‘Memento Mori‘ and the impact it had on my senses, and my sense of who I was and who I was to become, was beyond measure. The paintings in that exhibition spoke to me and sent a direct message to my soul. They spoke of being the person you are born to be, and of leaving everything else to the wind. They spoke about going towards your destiny as an artist, so that you fulfill some greater plan beyond your limited understanding. They gave out an energy of bravery, of a battle being fought; of grappling with, and the possibility of mastering, the unknown abstract elements of this life I was beginning to live. They said too ‘memento mori‘ straight to my face, straight to my soul. They said – remember death, remember all things impermanent and ephemeral and beautiful and hold them up to the light of wonder and awe. It was a battle already begun, and from then on each time I stepped out into the world it was with the eyes and ears of an artist, of someone who knows intuitively what they have to do. And though it feels like a battle you somehow know the soldier’s suit fits you, it was made to measure.
It was this notion of remembering death, or being aware of the brevity of life, that struck me as I began the process on Marie Lieb’s legacy. Maybe she too was saying memento mori each time she painted her floor with cloth. In remembering death she was living, in living she was remembering death. It was with this sort of sensibility of being aware of the privileges of freedom that I was privy to as a young female artist, the freedom to act, to make art, to create without boundaries, without historical confinement, that influenced the form of the work.
The beginning of the project was to find a way to create objects to ‘contain’ the poetic idea of the Marie Lieb story. I made these ceramic containers/book object using bisque-fired clay and impressed it with lace patterns and blue paint to create a fragile/feminine effect but used strong strips of bed-linen as the pulling-together effect for the spine of the book – I wanted that tension in the object of fragility and strength and preciousness and ordinariness – sometimes the book stays open and empty and sometimes it a container for the words and symbols of the small artist’s books I made with the words of the poem I wrote for her…
Then I began to create small circular ceramic containers – bowl shaped with fragile edges and cracks. They look aged, as if they have a story to tell themselves. Inside each one I placed small circular books – intimate pages the shape of the moon that lit the nights for Lieb to create the floor forms – on each page I used a colour wash on found papers, sumi ink, handwritten text and hand-drawn symbols reflecting those on Lieb’s floor
These pages were created using found papers and linen printed using woodblock technique, cut into circle form, threaded spine, hand-written text and hand-drawn symbols using sumi ink and fountain pen
These pages were created using hand-painted fabric, collaged with paper printed with symbols, hand-drawn symbols and poem text using sumi ink, inserted on a feather spine