By Regina Connell.
We live in the age of vanity, oh baby, do we ever. And the apex of our vanity? Selfies: those private moments concocted to be shared social media, the stories manufactured solely for public consumption. The handmaidens of that vanity? Our smartphones, of course.
But like many other things about smartphones, the original is better than the bright shiny new thing. And for many of us, the original smart phone—at least when it comes to images—is the mirror. And why are they better? Precisely because they don’t share.
They keep our secrets, our dreams, every last one of them. The night before. The morning after. Hook ups. Break ups. The good choices and the bad ones. 5 pounds, 5 years. Looking like your mother. Looking like your cat. Your anger/your love/your boundary-setting/your “I’m. Done”/your WTF faces. And those new jeans. Oh. Ohhh.
More than your partner, your therapist, your journal, your cat, no one—nothing—knows more of your truth, your soul, than your mirror. Nothing keeps your secrets as well, nor accepts them, either. They are portals to truth. They are the safest of safe harbors.
Mirrors have been on my mind of late, courtesy of artist Heather Palmer, who reminded me that mirrors aren’t just about our secrets and our dreams, but they can be about art as well. But tinged, as they are with our secrets, our dreams, our hopes… the art changes, isn’t just about the art, but about us as well. Interesting.
Thinking about it all, I realized that I’d always glimpsed the provocative possibilities of art involving mirrors. They’ve been around for a while. I can remember the moment 7 or 8 years ago that I started to understand the possibilities in mirrors as fine art courtesy of Sam Orlando Miller at San Francisco’s Hedge: mirrors that play smartly with that fine juxtaposition between the surface itself and what is reflected in it. It spoke to me.
Then, some fewer years ago, I fell in love again with the possibilities of mirrored materials when I saw a show called Creatures, featuring the work of glass artists Alex Abajian and J (Jerry) Lin-Hsien Kung at Vessel Gallery. Mirrors, again, were sexy, cool, powerful.
But it took Heather—an artist who often works in glass, with an inquiring, edgy, curious soul—to bring me back to the more intimate, secret-harboring but still-artistic possibilities of mirrors. Her latest work? A deeper, darker, more sophisticated version of the gorgeous glass art she’s done before, something richer, and far more powerful. The antiqued yet organic quality of the mirrors and their size, make these mirrors at once more modern and modern, mystical and powerful than their more sculptural cousins. Yes, of course, they still reflect and maintain all your secrets. But they also have a few of their own, a world of meaning, craft, artistry, and alchemy locked into the glass.
And it turns out that it all relates to the Creatures exhibit. Funny how these things happen.
But the true start of it came when Heather lived in San Francisco, when she’d find herself picking up old warped and distressed mirrors that people would put out in the street, drawn to their reflectivity, their space-changing qualities, their light. She played around with mirror making, but let it stay there: just a little bit of light hearted experimentation, a way to flex her creative artisan’s muscle.
Years later, she and her studio mates—Alex and Jerry—were mirrorizing their blown work and a technique she’d played with from time to time came back on her radar. But this time, it tugged at her, morphing from experimentation to more thoughtful, intentional, exploration born of something far more than the love of the craft.
Heather loves the process and the look, but what drives her is the richness of the symbolism that build on the mystical, portal-to-truth nature of the “looking glass.” “I have pages and pages of notes about mirrors. They are in fairytales and mythology and literature. You can go really deep with the symbolism if you want to, and that gets me as excited as the process of actually making them. I feel like they could go in a lot of different directions with aesthetics and meaning.”
She describes her mirrors as “swirly and watery like portals to someplace else. That reflects (no pun intended) all stories, myths, and superstition about mirrors swirling around unprocessed in my head. Plus they look layered, imperfect, mysterious, deep.”
“Mirrorizing” is a complex process that blends the glassmaking skills Heather’s perfected over the last few years, with a heavy dose of chemistry—the type that allowed 17th century artisans in Murano to have a monopoly on making mirrors using mercury, for near-perfect and undistorted reflections. “Tinning” the glass with a chemical, she then applies silvering chemicals which need the glass to have been “tinned” to react. The silvering is left on for a few minutes and she rocks the glass around to deposit the chemicals evenly.
After it develops (which Heather says is almost like developing a photograph), she rinses the glass. “At this point you can do a number of things to affect the silver if you want to change the appearance. You can remove parts of it, or add chemicals that react to it. Or you can just paint over it to keep it from being exposed to air, and to keep it in place.”
The best thing about one of these mirrors (or better yet, a grouping): you’re always part of the art, and they—or rather, Heather’s artistry—become part of you. In their smaller sizes, they become icons for living. And any any way, they still hold your secrets, your self, your soul. What stories will they tell? Or will they keep mum?
Heather Palmer online