Monday’s Portrait: Portrait of a Jetty
Recently my kids’ art teacher sent them home with a research assignment. She gave them an index card that read, “Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson,” and told them to find out what it meant. I had never heard of Robert Smithson or the Spiral Jetty, so I helped them search for clues online. This is what we found:
“Robert Smithson’s monumental earthwork Spiral Jetty (1970) is located on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Using black basalt rocks and earth from the site, the artist created a coil 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide that stretches out counter-clockwise into the translucent red water. Spiral Jetty was acquired by Dia Art Foundation as a gift from the Estate of the artist in 1999.” (From the Dia Art Foundation website).
I was surprised to learn that such an interesting work of art existed so close to my home, and that I had never heard of it. My kids and I looked at the images of the jetty, talked about it a little, and that was it.
Until last week when I saw another work of art inspired by Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. It was a photograph by Bastienne Schmidt from her upcoming book Home Stills. The photograph features the artist standing in her backyard in the apex of a spiral of laundry. The dirty clothes circle around her in concentric rings, seeming to trap her. The sun is setting, shadows are lengthening, and a solitary tree is an autumnal red. In the distance the artist’s young son is running toward her, but she stands in place, seemingly unable to move.
Schmidt says of the photo: “The spiral repsresents the repetitive, seemingly endless tasks that come with domestic life and motherhood . . . Rethinking the household domain as an artist allows me to see these tasks in a new and almost whimsical light, so I can mentally clear away the clutter to start each day fresh.”
I wanted to laugh and cry at the time when I read those words. I looked at the woman in the photograph and saw myself, trapped by the mundane but necessary tasks of a homemaker. I felt the frustration of spending my time cleaning or cooking instead of enjoying my children and their fast-fleeing childhood, so poignantly captured by the setting sun and crimson leaves. Those were the tears. The laughter came from the change of perspective the photograph allowed, and the artist, when she spoke about purposefully seeing household tasks in a new light in order to clear away mental clutter. Looking at the laundry spiraling around her, I was able to see it for what it was. Just colorful pieces of cloth carefully laid out on the lawn. Not chains. Not shackles. Just dirty clothes that need to be washed. Dirty clothes that maybe I take a little too seriously.
But even after laughing, the photograph still unsettled me. That feeling of being trapped was too profound. I went back to the image of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and saw something that was missing from Schmidt’s picture. The jetty. The tail flaring out from the spiral that connected it to shore. I got out my dictionary and looked up the definition for jetty: “a structure extended into a sea, lake, or river to influence the current or tide.” Smithson’s art work is more than something pretty to look at. His jetty is disruptive, in a way. It reaches out into the lake and impacts the current, changes it’s direction, leading it on a new path through the spiral.
It is a reminder to me that I am not trapped by the circumstances of my day-to-day life. I get to choose how I think, how I feel, what I do. I am in control of the currents. That is all too clear when I see how my words and feelings influence every person in my home, big or small. I am a jetty. And how I decide to shape my current is up to me.