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Kananesgi/Spider: An Outdoor Art Installation

Winter 2017
Winter 2017
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Frank Brannon, a native of East Tennessee, lives in Fairfax, Virginia. He is a graduate of the MFA in the Book Arts Program at the University of Alabama, and is proprietor of SpeakEasy Press. A member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, Brannon has been an art instructor with Western Carolina University, Penland School of Crafts, and Colorado College. His focus as a maker includes reinterpretations of the book form in consideration of the cultural and historical elements of specific location. Jeff Marley received his BFA in studio art with a focus on painting and drawing from Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, North Carolina in 2005, and his MFA in visual art from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, Vermont in 2013. He is a member of the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual in Cherokee, North Carolina. As an enrolled member of the Eastern band of Cherokee Indians, Marley's work explores decolonization in ways that allow him to reconcile issues of race, identity, and culture, as well as his place within those concepts. Steganography is the action of concealing information in plain sight. Working together, we have developed outdoor art installations based on this concept. What follows are statements by each of us that detail the background of this project, and our thoughts on the steganographic nature of paper, a foundational element in our installations.

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frank brannon: When I was a child I would go to the chicken house to collect eggs with my grandparents. I looked forward to that time of day as the eggs seemed to miraculously appear since the previous visit. The cycle seemed to only require handfuls of grass and food left from our own meals. Along the way we would stop often at the tool shed to look at the work of the "writing spiders" which I now know as yellow garden spiders. I later learned that the prominent zigzag pattern of heavier silk on their web is called a stabilimentum, whose purpose is unclear scientifically, but to my grandparents there was no mystery. They told me that the spiders were trying to communicate with us, yet we did not have the language with which to understand them. I was confused by their certainty as no one in a science class had ever suggested a spider might have the sentient qualities to communicate with us. As an adult I started to work with artists in the Cherokee community in western North Carolina. I came to view the 85-character Cherokee writing system developed by Sequoyah to be steganographic in nature. Without knowing the language and the culture, Cherokee remains at best, unrevealed, or at worst, poorly interpreted and potentially appropriated by another culture that had no understanding of its meaning. My artwork began to reflect these ideas, including two outdoor art installations I developed with my friend and colleague Jeff Marley. For the most recent such installation, Kananesgi/Spider (2017), we worked with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians' Travel and Tourism Program to produce a one-day event held in the Oconaluftee Islands Park. The Oconaluftee River flows through the town of Cherokee, and the park—situated in the Yellow Hill (Elawodi) community—contains a stand of bamboo where we staged the installation. We equated the bamboo analogously with the "invasive" cultures that came to the area in the form of European immigrants. To weave the web, I used mulberry paper, that I made by hand from hand-harvested fiber. Our desire was to return the fiber back to a natural environment from which it came, while also questioning the precious nature often ascribed to handmade paper. We added letterpress-printed text to the paper, and remembering the story of two hungry Anglo printers who had moved to what is now northern Georgia to print the nineteenth-century Cherokee Phoenix newspaper, I concealed in the web the words iya gadu, or pumpkin bread. Knowing no Cherokee, the two Anglo men just managed to get something to eat on their journey to their new jobs. In the same way I did not understand the writing spiders I encountered as a child, these men did not understand Cherokee, and they went without nourishment because of it. What am I not understanding? jeff marley: The water spider holds a lofty seat in the hierarchy of Cherokee cosmology. As the purveyor of fire, the water spider brought to the Cherokee people one of the most essential elements. For the installation, I wanted to tap into the idea of the helpful spider, but celebrate a species more common. The typical brown house spider, seen on many porches, soffits, and overhangs provided the inspiration. While it does not bring us fire, the brown house spider is subtler in the assistance it offers. It typically feeds on small insects and moths as a natural pest control. It is a reminder that the language, symbology, and cosmology that define our experience are always there, always around us helping in ways we cannot immediately detect. The spider acts as a metaphor for our own awareness of the cultural elements that make us who we are; language, art, and environment. We interact with the spider in the same manner in which we interact with our culture—knowing it is there peripherally, yet not fully engaging until it is unavoidable, until we are in crisis mode of self (or cultural) preservation. In creating the spider for the installation, I utilized unprocessed mulberry fiber. By including the source of the paper web—the raw bast fiber—I create a visual link between the spider and web. It is the narrative of the maker and the materials, and a strong sense of purpose: the spider creates its web; the artist, by his own hand, creates paper from fiber. Embedded within the artistic process, further enhanced by a collaborative approach, is the functionality of communication. We create to communicate. So, too, does the spider, although we may only observe it as a means to obtain food. Yet for both, the result is nourishment. The authors wish to thank artist and papermaker Aimee Lee for her help in bringing to fruition the ideas in this installation.