When my son, Tomo, was born five years ago, I gave up thinking about making art for nearly a year.
Days melded together and I lost sense of time. In those early days, I tracked the intervals between feedings, bowel movements and naps. At six months, I turned my attention to the markers of development, the emergence of teeth — watching for the proper time to introduce solid food. I tracked my son’s language development and traded in reading novels and poetry books for long dissertations on brain science and early childhood development. Mothering was not yet intuitive to me, in the way that caregiving came effortlessly to my acupuncturist husband.
I started taking walks with Tomo in Carkeek Park, where we visited Piper’s Orchard, one of the oldest fruit orchards in Seattle. I’d been contemplating a project in the orchard based on a long poem I’d written about the history of that land — an argument for heirloom species in reaction to news of the genetically modified Arctic apple circulating in school lunches nationwide.
I held my son aloft so he could pluck antique apples from branches. He had just begun to explore language, words like “mom” and “dad”; “butter” and “raisin” but had stalled out. I’d racked my brain for strategies to make language more approachable to Tomo.
Two ideas emerged — printing words from my poem on the ripening skins of apples in the trees with sunlight; and reorganizing my thoughts into an alphabet poem, where each letter could begin a new stanza related to some aspect of the orchard: A for Antique, D for Delicious, F for Found. In this way, my poem became a field guide for visitors to the orchard, a text where I could impart to a reader or listener everything I wanted my son to know about the orchard.
That project, which became “HEIRLOOM,” marked the first time I brought together my interests in photography, installation, text and sound — parts of my creative practice that I had held separately. Mothering required integrating the many identities of being woman, daughter, wife and artist — but a whole other series of internal shifts were beginning to take place.
How I thought about the approachability and experience of language transformed. Tomo became my guide, based on where I could engage his developing mind. At the age of 2, he developed a love for balloons. So for an outdoor cultural festival, I printed balloons with short poems and handed them out to families and visitors.
A year later, my partner and I introduced Tomo to educational cartoons on PBS. As I watched my son take in this information and the quality of his attention, I thought about how a text that I’d written on the city of Redmond’s initiative to expand its tree canopy could be reimagined as viewable animated piece. With the help of the city and a designer, I worked to transform the text into an animated poem which we projected onto the back of City Hall.
This past August, I took over one of the rustic cabins at Camp Long in West Seattle with artists Michael Barakat and Tom Stiles. The Arts in Nature Festival invited me to make a site-specific work related to the environmental history of Longfellow Creek, which runs throughout the park. I studied up on the history of Camp Long and its connection to scouting and created an interactive installation that could appeal to children, as I imagined things from Tomo’s perspective. He’d moved on from television to iPads.
I staged the cabin with scouting paraphernalia borrowed from the Boy Scouts of America’s regional office and placed a vintage ViewMaster at the center of the experience. Using the handheld viewer, a visitor could click through a custom-made ViewMaster reel, as if it was a low-fi animation. The reel itself scrolled through frames of a poem that I wrote exploring the erasure of Longfellow Creek, a tributary that runs through West Seattle. Beneath the bunk bed, we installed a sound system that played recordings of Longfellow Creek to animate the cabin.
Tomo visited the cabin when the installation was complete. I watched him clamber onto the bunk bed and settle comfortably back on a pillow, where he peered into the ViewMaster. At that installation, kids knew intuitively what to do, scooping up the handheld viewer and guiding their parents, who stopped to regard the Pinewood Derby cars, waxing nostalgic on childhood.
The presence of a young child in my life has helped me to orient to the notion that poetry is alive everywhere around us. I contemplate the full sensory experience that poetry can be beyond the written page. And when I listen to my son, I hear a kind of intuitive creativity at play, a curiosity about the relationships between people and things in his world. How he rhymes the word “placenta” with “Santa,” taking measured pleasure in language — the apple never falling far from the tree.
Shin Yu Pai served as poet-in-residence for the Seattle Art Museum and was the fourth Poet Laureate of the city of Redmond. She is an award-winning visual artist and a proud mother. Follow Shin Yu Pai at shinyupai.com.
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