Elizabeth Perkins Essay
When Elizabeth “Lizzie” Perkins gets interested in something, she tends to stay interested. It was love at first sight when she saw glass blowing on a third grade field trip to the Jamestown Glasshouse. The Virginianative is still blowing glass, although it is now almost always part of a larger project, usually involving a variety of materials—even site specific architecture.
Though Perkins has traveled, lectured and demonstrated in many places and studied with artists like Jack Wax, Boyd Sugiki, Lisa Zerkowitz and Therman Statom, she recently settled into a long-term project centered on the Virginia farm where her hard-working grandfather and mother were born. The deed to the property, which now includes a sprawling residence, its outbuildings and surrounding land, is dated 1816. “My great grandparents lived there and when my grandparents were married, they lived with the greats. When my great grandmother passed away, my great grandfather remarried and built a brick house. . . . If need be, my great grandmother would get on a tractor and work with crops. She made three big meals a day. My grandfather loved the land. They both did.” Perkins is particularly inspired by a trove of love letters written to one another by these grandparents through much of their married life living together in the same house.
Today, Perkins is the only member of her family who wishes to live on the farm and is able to do so. Her grandmother, injured in a fall at the beauty parlor, currently lives nearby with Perkins’ mother. Although she’s unlikely to become mobile enough to return to her home, Perkins’ grandmother visits in a wheelchair. Perkins says, “I’m taking care of it for her. I have tried to involve her in the decisions that I’ve made, like asking about paint colors.”
The country farm setting is gorgeous, Perkins says. She shares it with her partner, woodworker and illustrator, Kate Hudnall. “It’s quiet and there’s lots of room to work.” The buildings also contain an undisturbed, veritable archaeological record of the farm’s many inhabitants, who seem to have saved artifacts of their daily lives and labor in an orderly manner. Tools and records, like calendars and records of canning, have been preserved in rooms and buildings which were used for specific, often seasonal activities. Sometimes, as in the case of a beautifully-shaped pattern for a mule harness, things were saved for potential reuse, but Perkins believes, many of the old things remain because when new family members moved in they brought their own things and were reluctant to disturb the possessions of others’.
A huge collection of leather gloves amassed by her grandfather is a mystery. “It’s an ‘accumulation issue,” Perkins speculates. “I think it runs in the family.” One manifestation is “counting things. I see myself doing it in my work. It’s record keeping.”
She’s keenly sensitive to the narrative element inherent in her own family’s artifacts and tries to balance the personal by making her work “more fictional and less biographical.” She used her grandfather’s glove collection in a floor installation and notes, “I feel strange about using those things. They’re all skin. If I could take them apart, I could make a new body.”
The mule harness pattern is the basis of one piece, Perkins addressed at CGCA. She plans to free blow the pieces to conform to the paper pattern and to tint them. She tries to avoid obviously “glassy glass” and prefers “light earthy colors:” five or six shades of amber, whites, beiges, straw color, and muted pink. Though there’s the occasional bright yellow. “I think the color palette informs [the work] of being both living and dead; It’s old and still alive. It somehow makes it richer.” At CGCA, she used more opaque colors while remaining faithful to the pale neutrals.
“One thing I do like about the process of glass blowing is the repetition and I do use it in my work,” Perkins reveals another personal accumulation issue perhaps. A string of mold-blown glass hams in real plastic netting (Perkins appreciates the resemblance to Italian cane work) was made to be displayed on the farm. The translucent, almost tear-shaped hams hang from of the loft of a weathered old barn. “They smoked the hams and hung them in the meat house.” Perkins remembers hog slaughtering from her early childhood and, especially, the combined smells of feces being boiled out of chitterlings and pies her Great Aunt Lucy would simultaneously bake to sweeten the smells from the kitchen.
When making the mold for the glass hams, Perkins cast a real dry cured country ham, but she couldn’t afford one of the very best hams, a Felts ham from South Hampton County Virginia.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that Perkins’ devotion to her family and their material records is neither fully appreciated nor well-understood by them, but she is not really disturbed by this. “I make all this work about my grandparents and the romantic relationship that they had with one another. But my parents think that being an artist is an irresponsible way to wander around through life. I think it’s wonderful. I can’t imagine doing anything else.” So, what does she wish for? “If I had money for one leisure thing it would be to buy any book that I want. If I had money for catalogues I would feel successful.”