Shards / Shells

As I’ve written before, I often work in pairs, compositional bookends or thematic opposites - or both, as in “Falls”, 2003, and “Yield”, 2005. When I finished “All the Missing Pieces” in 2011, I thought of it as a close companion, or more precisely a fraternal twin, of “The Keys to Everything” from the year before. Even their 4-word titles belonged to the same family, phrases that would make suitable headings for the conclusive final chapters of mystery novels but that, isolated and attached to my images, seemed to stir up unanswerable questions.

In the fall of 2012, when the idea for “Shards” began to emerge in my mind’s eye, I couldn’t help asking myself: Is one of my pairs turning into a series? Am I reverting to the series as a springboard for my imagination after an almost 30-year hiatus? Yes, and no. Yes, because I was toying for the third time with the notion of packing a small collection of similar objects into a tiny niche of exactly the same proportions I used in #’s 1 and 2. And no, because #3 was, in one particular way - one way I cared about - subtly different. The leftover keys and jigsaw puzzle pieces were inadvertent collections, things that gathered themselves in the backs of drawers, saved but not saved for any purpose, parts disconnected from wholes I had no access to, even in memory. The piece to which puzzle? The key to which lock? But I had actively preserved my little cache of shards with the conscious intention of summoning up, in the future, remembrance of things past. They were mementos of places and people, moments and eras, and I knew exactly where each of them had crossed my path and how it felt in my hand when I bent down to pick it up: a bit of an Anasazi vessel near my sister’s house in Ojo Caliente, for instance, or a fragment of Grueby-green roof-tile blown off by fierce winds from the roof of the Hershey Hotel. There are souvenirs we buy, and souvenirs we find, like Whitman’s “letters from God dropped in the street.”

“Shards” finished and frame, it occurred to me that if I’m in the business of constructing a series, I should string them together in thematic pairs. Shells next, a beachcomber’s harvest, perhaps the most familiar of all casual souvenirs we pocket on our travels. But my own dusty handful of shells disappointed me. They were too sharp-edged, too perfectly pristine. I wanted shardlike fragments of shells, surf-worn, pocked, pale as bone - the mere memory of shells - and the very kind of souvenir, as it turned out, that friends of ours, Phyllis and John Norton, have always brought home from their beach getaways. And, what’s more to the point, have saved. So I did my own beachcombing in an oversized Tupperware box in the Norton’s basement, where I sifted through a deep layer of ocean detritus for just those smooth spirals and arcs that seemed to find their home in the image taking hold of me, another metaphor - like “Shards” - for the lost past.

Physically lost, at least to us, whose bodies cannot travel back in time to hold in our hands what was once unbroken, or to return, except in recollection, to those sweet moments we hope our mementos will revive. It makes sense to me now that both “Shards” and “Shells” suggest the body, its skeletal structure in the first, crammed into its tomb, and in the second the complex layering of its internal organs. After all, our bodies contain our pasts, preserved in the cells of our brains in fragmentary and unstable form, waiting for a precipitate: a taste, a scent, a riff of song, a twist of shell, a chip from the rim of the broken bowl.

-G. Daniel Massad

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