The working title for Myrna Keliher's first-ever big-time Seattle show, which is on view at CORE Gallery through June 24, was Alright, I'm awake already, and I'm fucking tired.
She shortened it to Awake for reasons that are still unclear to me, but I imagine it has something do with the fact that Awake just looks better on the page.
I met Keliher down at CORE just before the show opened earlier this month. She's a kind soul with a warm voice that breaks easily into laughter. She only tells a story as fast as she needs to, and she seems genuinely curious about the way words, those little bearers of meaning, can be magnified or altered or abstracted to mean something else entirely.
Her love for the form of the word might have something to do with her background in science. When she was younger she wanted to be a surgeon, so she took pre-med classes in college. But then she walked into a print shop. "That was it. I just dropped everything else," she said. Though she's been printing now for 10 years, four years ago she founded and still maintains Expedition Press, a literary letterpress based Kingston, WA that publishes poetry books and broadsides.
With Awake, Keliher has perfectly executed an idea that's likely crossed the mind of any dedicated journal-keeper. Ripping out pages of your diary and displaying them to the whole world is what many diarists secretly want to do, anyway, with the caveat that they be seen as literary artifacts of the utmost quality.
Keliher more or less has done just that, but she's done so in a very clinical, procedural, craft-heavy, thoughtful way.
She wheat-pasted her "morning pages"—groups of approximately three pages of automatic writing she does every morning—in chronological order on 6' x 6' maple panels, each of which ends up representing about three-and-a-half weeks of writing. She sourced the pages from journals going back from January 2012 up to two months ago.
Keliher said she wasn't interested so much in exposing her secrets to the world, though some of them must be floating around in those pages. The whole project started, after all, she said, when she picked up a book called The Artist's Way in a therapist's office, where she was referred following a marriage counseling session that didn't work out too well. That personal therapist didn't show up for the first meeting, so Keliher swiped the book on the way out as a form of payback for having to wait so long in the lobby for no reason. The book's author, Julia Cameron, claims writers can benefit from starting a "morning pages" practice. Keliher said she opened up the book and it felt like it was talking to her, so she followed Cameron's advice.
When she began writing, she said, she realized that she was really unhappy but that she really didn't want to admit it. Now she's happily divorced.
But mostly the writing is mundane stuff. Daily notes about projects she's working on and random observations about the morning. So, rather than focusing on all the personal stuff in these pages, she's interested in the visual patterns.
If you pan out a little, you'll notice her mark-making changing over time. Her penmanship gets consistently sloppier, but she crosses out fewer words. The variability of the physical properties of her work—her preferences for blue or black ink, for ruled paper or the parchment brown of Moleskine paper—seem to reflect her artistic process over time, too. She told me her process changed most dramatically during years three through five, and indeed, those years contain the most hectic-looking and pale panels.
She says she's also interested in that moment when the brain decides to read. That moment when her squiggles become "morning" or "divorce" or "Oooo, I really want a new pair of Sambas." That is, that moment we can't help but read the writing on the wall.