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once you've slept on an island
you'll never be the same

Ed Fraga


Kathy Clifford  
1948 - 1993

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He went on a big trip the other day and I think I went with him. It’s swaying like a trailer or boat that’s loose; not a storm but you’re in the cabin and can’t look out. No compass. No moon. We all have anchors and I keep hoping they’ll help. I load myself down with them. Keep stones in your pocket. It’s probably better to go on a big trip fast because then you can’t pack so much. When you’re in a cabin things get tossed around—hit you in the head—a big spill.  It’s better not to have too much, I’m certain.

I think you get to go where Mr. Boss says. I like not being in charge. It’s hard to get someone that’s good at being a Boss. When they tell you to get in the tunnel and lock it up you can believe them. The tour guide tells you and that’s it.

—Kathy Clifford 

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Three days after Thanksgiving, in 1993, I walked into my studio and found a shattered snow globe on the floor. A broken Santa head, fragments of a sleigh and plastic white snowflakes lay several inches apart in a pool stain of evaporated water. The globe was given to me by Kathy several years earlier. To this day I am puzzled how it fell off the shelf. Kathy often painted scenes of car accidents at the moment of impact. Worse than War, 1987,shows a tanker truck colliding with a small car as headlights of both vehicles shine at high beam. Her dioramas had a precarious nature to their construction, which at times seem to teeter on collapse. Flickering Christmas lights, miniature plastic toy horses, plastic flowers and doll shoes were elements that made up the narratives in her fantasy worlds, Futurist Farm, 1988/89, Trailer Park at the Valley of Fires 1986, or Vehicle on Alert, 1987One can see in these works the influence of Alexander Calder’s Circus, 1931, (Whitney Museum of Art), yet Kathy’s tableaus are less about capturing the spectacle of an event and more about the expression of an idea.

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She was a painter, poet, sculptor and weaver. She had a sardonic sense of humor who loved to laugh and pull pranks. Her friends called her Clifford. She tended her garden in the parking lot of the Atlas building in Eastern Market, where she lived for twelve years. For ten years she worked for the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, where she taught art to women prisoners. At times it could be a demoralizing job, but she had the ability to always find the humor in a situation and channel it through her work. She had an amazing wit and vast knowledge of art, literature and history as reflected in her titles to paintings, Flaubert in Egypt, 1982, D.H.Lawrence in New Mexico, 1985, and Like a Catherine Wheel, 1982. Her short stories and poetry have surrealistic undertones but come from a personal narrative. Similarly, her paintings and constructions are often recordings of events, episodes and dreams rooted in her own life experience.

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On TV they said
fish do not build cathedrals
fish find horseshoes
in lightning fields
paint spades on walls.

The man in the long skirt bit
my neck as he bowed to me.
He had a mystical name, his father
was a sultan who liked the music
from a nightingale above that world.
The son kept the bird beneath his
hat now. It made his head seem
alive. An odd vibration.

singing in line with all black men-singing
they change your cartoon
you’re swimming
pairs and pairs of green legs
black underpants
heart of palm / a gospel
warm feet / bigger than they should be.
We like you ….. / one street over
born before me
wrong. wrong. right.

The horse and the man
distrust each other /
but they’re looking for
“Story”
Both burn their dead.

The language was
upside down
sometimes
and the passages blocked -
always.
make the same picture
over and over again.
hope someone notices.

—Kathy Clifford

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Many of her poems were written in magic marker and kept in various sketchbooks with her drawings. On the inside cover of one is a photo of Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz. Above O’Keeffe’s head, Kathy wrote, “What is tomorrow? 1. Saturday 2. Sunday 3.Thursday 4. before 5. None of the above.” On one page she wrote, “Take me to Easter Island. That’s where I want to go. We could last 6 years there” and above the words is a taped polaroid of Easter Island taken from a program she watched on TV. She included the TV screen in the photo. A 6 of Clubs is taped to a page with a poem about a dead dog and midway through the book is a newspaper clipping, “Bob Marley: winning the battle?” about the 35 year Reggae star battling cancer. On this page, she has the words “Sky Up” written in ink and on the opposite page a poem about an “innocent flight down a Rio Grande.” I counted 85 poems in the book.

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In a painted sculpture, Cruiseship, 1989, a broken hockey stick suggests the contour of a boat as three waves resembling shark fins are held at bay. On the opposite side of the sculpture, a white number three is painted against a green background. Did she do this or was it a found piece of wood? On a white painted ledge, she composed a still-life with a bowling pin and various balls. In Trailer Park at the Valley of Fires, 1986, an oversized Buddha head peers out at us from the inside window of a trailer home.  “What did the artist mean?” said Kathy to friend Vivian in 1974 after the filming of her Master Thesis project. Vivian tells the story of assisting Kathy in the production, which involved a woman (played by Vivian) dressed in a pink prom dress with a parasol as she traverses through a constructed canopy made of fabric and branches in the forest. She describes the unscripted part of the filming as gunshots were fired in the background, followed by the sound of ducks fleeing the scene.

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The sea is a recurrent theme in works like Lagoon, 1984, The Gunner, 1988, and Red Tide, 1987, a small painted sculpture of a magnifying glass perched atop a piece of carved red wood resembling a wave. Could this be used for the big trip she wrote about? “It’s swaying like a trailer or boat that’s loose; not a storm but you’re in the cabin and can’t look out. No compass. No moon. We all have anchors and I keep hoping they’ll help.” Perhaps she created Red Tide to help in the rescue.

In a memorable scene from Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1949), Jean Marais, the actor who plays Orpheus, having just returned from Hades (after retrieving his wife) is in search of inspiration for his next great poem as he sits in the front seat of a Rolls Royce listening intently for cryptic messages playing through the shortwave radio. What did the artist (Cocteau) mean? But then it comes to no surprise that Cocteau—novelist, poet, artist and filmmaker, who denied being a Surrealist, lived in the world of dreams.

the bird sings with its fingers —Apollinaire

—Ed Fraga

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I am your mermaid
you are my violin
I swim by you
and hear you playing
trace notes
they catch me
I wave to you
and touch your fiddle
we float forever.

The dancer in the South Seas
with the minister reforming
her.
Their partners.
She wants those lights
to work.

But she was banging on the car?
He convinced me
it’s worth a try.
You don’t need a fancy
suitcase.

The dervish knows exactly
where he is at all times.
He could be the tomb keeper,
so he went to The Source and
The Source said the root
would bury him.
The door would open
and it would close them in.
Far from the planet earth
a slam is heard.

The language was
upside down
sometimes
and the passages blocked -
always.
make the same picture
over and over again.
hope someone notices.

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You see me at a table, making my sculpture, and ask, “Was that piece
in a dream of yours?” I agree it might have been.  After you remind
yourself, you remind me.

So I could say, memory is the strongest force to deal with; the
recollection of a story we already know.  Different stories. We are
left with reflections; possibilities within our story that lead us some-
where else.  The space is memory.

When being taken into a notion or led through a fable,  the space
opens.  Black fog is still space.  An atmosphere.  You question there.

* * * *

What directed your hands?
……… to make shelter
Are you medieval?
………. usually
Is there ceremony?
………. I think so
have you been to the Théâtre Funambules?
……. when I feel good,  I feel of that age
What happened to the shrine?
……. are you a tourist?

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—Kathy Clifford

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Kathy earned a Bachelor of Arts in printmaking at Olivet College in 1971. She later earned a Master of Fine Arts in drawing at Wayne State University in 1974. During the late 1970’s and the 1980’s, her work drew attention both in Detroit and throughout the midwest. She was one of twelve artists in GUTS, Detroit in the 80’s (1981) at the Herron School of Art, Indiana University-Purdue. She was in a two person show, Painted Wood Works  in 1979 at the N.A.M.E. Gallery in Chicago with her friend Nancy Pletos. In 1978, she showed new work with friend Vivian Wanless in Two Girls at the Feigenson Gallery. As an independent, artist-run space, the Willis Gallery opened in the late 1960’s and closed in the early 1990’s. Kathy exhibited her work in three shows at the Willis; Conflicts/Configurations (1984), Two Detroit Girls (1977) and Three Artists (1977). In her resume, she wrote under Collections—many personal friends and artists throughout the Continental United States.  Some of her close friends were Gordon Newton, Bob Sestok, Bradley Jones, Vivian and Jim Wanless, Ann and Ken Mikolowski, Stephen J. Neale, Holly Branstner and Sharon Zimmerman.

Kathy had a degenerative connective tissue disease which progressively worsened as she got older. She died at age 44.

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A special thank you to Kathy's friend Robert Hensleigh who documented her work for years and provided digital transfer of slides for this piece.


figures:

  1. Kathy Clifford
    Once you've slept on an island, you'll never be the same
    , 1987
    oil on canvas
  2. Kathy Clifford
    Untitled, 1983   
    mixed media
  3. Kathy Clifford
    Untitled, 1980   
    mixed media
  4. Kathy Clifford
    Futurist Farm, 1988/89
    mixed media with lights
  5. Kathy Clifford
    Pile Up,
    1987
    oil on canvas
  6. Kathy Clifford
    Worse than War
    , 1987
    oil on canvas
  7. Kathy Clifford
    Lost Horizon, 1981
    mixed media
  8. Kathy Clifford
    Like a Catherine Wheel
    , 1982
    oil on canvas
  9. Kathy Clifford
    Piano Head, 1981
    mixed media
  10. Kathy Clifford
    My Shoe Collection
    mixed media
  11. Kathy Clifford
    Cruiseship
    , 1989
    mixed media with lights
  12. Kathy Clifford
    Cruiseship (back view)
  13. Kathy Clifford
    Trailer Park at the Valley of Fires, 
    1986
    mixed media with lights
  14. Kathy Clifford
    Red Tide
    , 1987
    painted wood with magnifying glass
  15. Kathy Clifford
    Lagoon, 1984
    oil on paper
  16. Kathy Clifford
    Untitled
    oil on paper
  17. Kathy Clifford
    Untitled
    oil on paper
  18. Kathy and Max
    photo: Emin Kadi 
  19. Kathy Clifford
    That Spinning Devil, 1987
    mixed media
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a journal of art + culture(s)  
link - issue 28: May 2016

This text is by Ed Fraga in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

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