WHEREIN FURY TAKES FLIGHT...”the time of our silence is over” “Who I am is not at all removed from the work.”
History meets the ineffable in the work of artist Alyson Pou. A New York resident for more than 30 years, she is still intensely Southern, a born storyteller, capable of evoking the language, culture and emotion of the Mississippi Delta region back a hundred years. Call her a naive sophisticate: she brings the tactics of post- modernism to bear on deeply personal, multidisciplinary material. The results are often beautiful and moving.
“Storytelling, in the Deep South, is how you communicate. I spent a lot of time in the swamps of south Louisiana, we’d go out all day in small dugout canoes called pirogues and then return to recount our exploits and catalog our spoils.” She loves science, doing historical research and reading historical fiction.
She’s spent decades “coming to terms with personal history and family relationships to understand the strength and beauty they have to offer” learning to “own that history, embody it, and then let it all go to find your own uniqueness.”
Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1952, she’s “a Delta girl” who “never quite fit in with my intensely patriarchal family.” She was raised in the hardscrabble era of the civil rights movement, in close contact with a lot of rural poverty. “It was a turbulent time of change but most of what surrounded me evoked another era. I used the same textbooks my mother grew up with. Time didn’t matter. Past and present were equal in my experience and imagination.
Her mom, Cary, was from Memphis, her father, Dudley, from Mississippi. “My mother was a commercial artist at the Commercial Appeal, a daily newspaper. She quit working after my younger sister was born. My mother’s father, Daddy James, always had some business scheme going and had no sons. My Mom was headstrong and difficult so he just raised her like a boy; Mom designed toys in his factory as a teenager. He sent her to live in Mexico City when she was 16, she meet Frida Kahlo there, then she married my father at 19; they ended up on Guam after World War II, came back to Memphis, had my older brother, then me.
“My father had been an airplane mechanic during the war and he became a self taught electrical engineer. The company he worked for took out lots of patents on his designs. He made motorized model airplanes that we flew in the cotton fields. When I was a kid Daddy James was building lakes and dams, and then selling the property around the lakes; Mom designed the houses. I spent a lot of time on construction sites. It was a colorful childhood.”
Pou graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974, with a major in visual art and minors in history and theater. She went back to Memphis to teach special education for a year, then went to Georgia State University in Atlanta, where she received an MVA. During this time she began to create works of “live art” in old storefronts and other found locations, combining film, objects, and performance. She joined the Atlanta Art Worker’s Coalition and the Atlanta Women’s Art Collective, organized shows for herself and other artists, and began to study dance at The Dance Unit, a freewheeling, sometimes communal dance/theatre group led by choreographer Leslie Morris. Pou was also interested in New York’s Judson Dance Theater, and was “attracted to the intellectual rigor of the minimalist movement.” Feminist exploration of ancient matrilineal cultures, the history of women’s role in western civilization, and the politicization of the personal also informed her work and thinking.
Pou came to New York in 1980 to do a show at Fashion Moda and found “a rigorous and lively community of peers engaged in making and defining live art.” She also found the fifth-floor walkup on the Lower East Side where she still lives. It gets great eastern light. She’s taken all the walls out; the space, about 350 square feet, feels like a small loft. For over 30 years this room has been her home and her workshop. Under the bed she stores the whole catalogue of her career as an artist, her fabric collection, and her mother’s sewing machine, a Singer Featherweight from 1939. “I learned to sew on this machine and have used it to make every garment and art project since then,” she says proudly.
In addition to being an artist Pou is committed to helping sustain a strong and viable arts community. She was the Director of Programs and Public Relations at Creative Time, Inc. from 1984 to 1997 supervising production of many public art programs. In 1999 she joined the staff of Creative Capital where she has played a key role in creating and implementing its Artist Services Program and Professional Development Program. “Part of our mission is to help artists gain the skills to thrive and have successful, satisfying careers for a life-time.” But her own art making is her ballast and her center.
On the wall above a long white desk in her studio are four pairs of antique scissors in a frame, a photo from her recent piece A Slight Headache, and the New York Dance and Performance Award a/k/a Bessie, that she received in 1993 for what has become her signature work, To Us at Twilight.
Closely related to WHEREIN FURY TAKES FLIGHT, To Us at Twilight (TUAT) was a performance/installation first shown at Manhattan’s PS 122 in 1989. “The territory I addressed in TUAT is almost like ancestor worship. We didn’t have a lot of stuff growing up but we knew who everybody was in the graveyard.”
Like FURY, TUAT was composed almost entirely of “stuff” —black dresses hung on the walls were dripped with honey, encased in red clay, armored in thorns, and adorned by dirt-tangled roots, with typewritten captions attached to all and many
more dresses used in the performance, scattered over the floor. Each dress had a story.
TUAT toured widely and was reprised at Artists Space a few years later. Onstage, talking and wandering through the field of clothing, Pou stacked all of it neatly and burrowed under the pile, tied it to her waist with a couple of long sleeves, got up and flounced about like a matter-of-fact Cinderella, full of as much mystery as her Southern relatives. The dresses, which had been the scenery and the costumes, ultimately became a road she took as she looked back on her ancestral tales and recounted her mother’s hopes for the future of her baby girl.
Shadows of those ancestors—her great grandmother, who died the day she was born, her mother and sister and aunts—populate several of her works, and her dream life.
“I was outside looking into a large room filled with black dresses twirling, hovering, flying, and colliding. Then suddenly, I was standing in the midst of the storm of dresses. The next morning I got news of my grandmother’s death. After her funeral, I kept having recurring thoughts and dreams of this room full of black dresses twirling, dancing, spread out across the floor, or hovering around the ceiling like ghosts. This dream compelled me to create To Us at Twilight.
“Now, 20 years later, having lost all the women in my family. I enter the room again. This time the silence is over; they’re whipping up a mighty wind, deciding to move, to leave behind the desires, the secrets, the hardship and anger of the past.”
WHEREIN FURY TAKES FLIGHT consists of seven dresses—recycled from contemporary thrift store finds that Pou has taken apart, sometimes dyed or embellished and then reassembled. The resulting garments are contemporary but at the same time evoke another era. They hang from the gallery ceiling on armatures attached to small motors that set them spinning. A warren of rabbits stands along the gallery walls.
“The rabbits, of course, represent fecundity, and also symbolize transition and transformation. They come out at dawn and dusk, the witching hour, the most vulnerable time of day, when things slip from life to death, from evil to good. They’re gathering to bear witness, and support the movement from stasis to change.
“They also represent the underlying secret world in my family that I learned about as a child and visited through observing the women around me. In unspoken ways they instructed me and gave me glimpses into the depth of their experiences. Through them my imagination was drawn to the past and a desire to understand the women who came before me.
“In my work I seek to create a place open to curiosity and wonderment, a place for viewers to enter and conjure their own memories and stories, and perhaps visit their own secret world.”