I was aware of two things as I walked towards the Prichard Gallery to meet with installation artist Gerri Sayler: one, that I was feeling a little unprepared — for the interview, yes, but also for everything else in life at the moment, and two, that I was looking forward to meeting Gerri.
My week hadn’t been bad. But it hadn’t been great. You know when you let things accumulate and start shoving them all into that one closet to deal with later and then you go to pull something out of it and suddenly 12 things are falling on top of you? Yeah. That. It was nothing big, I’m not storing anvils in there, but I’ve got a small mess on the floor. It happens sometimes.
As to why I was glad to be talking to Gerri, I don’t know. I’d never met her, knew hardly anything about her — like I said, I really hadn’t done my research going into this. All I knew was that she made cool-looking stuff and seemed down to earth. That sounded nice at the moment.
When I walked into the gallery, I saw Gerri sitting on the floor with her back to me, hunched over what looked like a pile of black used tissues. A white notebook and cup of juice sat to the side, next to a pair of hiking boots; she was working barefoot. Somehow I knew it was her even before I knew it was her.
She turned to see me and hopped up, introducing herself. Not a second later, she was tearing up, explaining that it had been an emotional day. The piece she’s working on is based on a poignant last memory with her father before his health declined. She’d been twisting a stack of black mesh squares into a fluttering form. A number of them were already suspended from the ceiling to create a loose black cloud. Whatever it was, I liked the way it looked.
Soon she was describing a walk with her father, where they had come upon a huge flock of crows in a field. Suddenly I knew what the cloud was. I watched the birds scatter in flight at being startled. I saw their shifting shape, the outliers lingering on the ground. I heard their loud call echo into silence.
It wasn’t my memory, it was hers, but now her moment is woven into mine too. It’s familiar, sad, precious. This happens within three minutes of knowing this woman.
As quickly as we arrived at the flock of crows, we go to Lake Missoula. Gerri uses her whole body to tell its ancient story — the hugeness of the lake, the heavy fixedness of the ice dam holding the water in place, its eventual collapse and the scraping of the flood water against the lava landscape of Eastern Washington. The Scablands that resulted are the inspiration for the sculpture that will take up the far corner of the room. Panels of molded black mesh will tower into forms reminiscent of the rocky landscape. It sounds compelling, but I don’t yet know what it means.
We wander over to some sculptures by the entrance and then up to the second floor. Gerri’s mouth and body don’t stop moving the entire time. My notes are incoherent scribbles. I decide she’s a tiny tornado who leaves beauty in her path instead of destruction, though her studio space looks to be something in between.
I’m not sure if she’s always like this. For nine months she has worked in residency in the gallery’s second floor studio, so this may be the equivalent of the breaking of the ice dam. I am flooded with stories and insights, landmarks of her creative process.
Working with a singular medium — ordinary black aluminum screening — she gains focus. She uses it to create wildly diverse forms, as well as the shadows that emerge when light shines on them.
“There’s always been dark. There’s always been light,” she says.
She’s talking about art and spirituality, then about the Renaissance and also the current political landscape.
The studio has allowed her a place to retreat from the chaos around her and create an internal space of truth and beauty. She’s disturbed by the darkness, but not flustered; she knows the light is coming.
I realize that’s what the main floor “Scablands” are, at least in part. They stand in recognition of the forces outside of us — the laws of the universe, the stories of the past — that remind us we are not in control, that things fall apart and eventually are restored to order.
Her words resound in me as something I had forgotten. As I take them in, they fill a space inside that had been empty, waiting for them.
She floats from piece to piece in the gallery, her words spilling out as I try to collect them on paper: The magic is in the doing. This is still trying to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. If you don’t have a big space, you don’t think big. If you make enough marks, you figure out what marks are important to you. The flood comes and it cleans everything up. All of this, it’s nuts — it’s just aluminum mesh.
I scribble these things down because I know they belong somewhere inside. It’s not until later that I know where or why.
Before I leave, she learns I studied art years ago and that I had been interested in using mesh. I tell her that I remember going to the hardware store and staring at the dark material — touching it, bending it, imagining what I could do with it. What I don’t tell her is how vivid that memory is because of how alive the possibilities had made me feel, combined with a regret of never having explored them. The magic is in the doing, her words repeat inside me.
As we share final words, her hands are busy with a pile of mesh scraps. She’s forming a final gift — it resembles a blossom or a nest. She puts it in my hands. I’m not supposed to accept gifts as a journalist, but this one I take with me. Later I look at this piece and hear her words about one of her pieces: it is still deciding what it wants to be when it grows up. Just like the rest of us.
We said our goodbyes and I returned to my car. I sat there for a moment, still. I felt full in a way I hadn’t felt when I came. The mess that had fallen on the ground around me earlier that week seemed smaller or at least more doable. I could see that some of these things weren’t important and needed to be thrown away.
What I had gathered in the gallery, the words, the shapes, the ideas, the nest I held in my hand, they had slipped into the spaces where they belonged, and somehow things seemed a little more how they ought.