THE BONE LADY
As most of my friends know, I was privileged to receive a Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony Fellowship for this winter—essentially, two weeks in Provincetown to write both in a private condo and in Mailer’s house—and I arrived yesterday. Already, I am in love with this place. There is so much to do here—art openings, movie nights, film showings, poetry readings—that just about every night I have some wonderful activity in which to engage.
Last night, I attended the Fine Arts Work Center Fellows Exhibition opening at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. I enjoy art, and everything I saw had something interesting to offer. But there was one piece that I was so taken by I wish I could own it.
I discovered that it was actually part of another exhibition on display until February 14 called Generations. The piece was called “Cannibal’s House” by Martha Dunigan. I personally have a hard time accurately describing art, so I won’t try. I’ll just be blunt and write that it was a three-dimensional wooden house about two feet high filled with small, yellowing bones.
I was fascinated. I don’t know why I was so fascinated, but I think that’s just the way my interests work: I’m often drawn to places, people, objects, and certain historical occurrences and never know why. I do know that when I’m attracted to a piece of art it has the specific feel of rubbernecking (the only three pieces of art I own all make me feel that way). At any rate, I stood studying the work for a long time. Then I made a conscious effort to pull myself away and look at the other exhibits, but after two or three peeks at some paintings, I was back at “Cannibal’s House.” I did this three or four times.
Finally, I decided I should ask someone about it. I wanted to know more about it, and I wanted to find out whose bones filled the tiny house. I headed over to the serving table and asked the bartender, who pointed to a woman whom he said was the curator.
The curator of the exhibit turned out to be the artist’s daughter, Breon. “That’s my mother’s piece,” she said, seeming touched. She quickly disengaged from her conversation to take me back to it so we could talk.
Breon, herself an artist, said her mother worked mostly with found objects, and when I asked her what creature she thought the bones belonged to, she said “probably seagulls.” She explained that her mother had grown up in Provincetown and had always had a fascination with all things water. In, on, or around. That Martha had spent many, many hours walking the beaches and picking up objects, but especially bones, to use in her artwork.
I asked Breon what she thought her mother’s attraction was to the bones. She wasn’t totally sure, but her best guess was the decay. That things that are around water, which is usually considered to be very life-giving, have a tendency to fall apart faster.
What she’d said led me to think about the nature of tears. When we cry it is usually because things are falling apart. In many cases, though, these are things that need to be broken so that we can be healed, release ourselves of what is negative or stagnating, and move forward into something positive.
The piece is part of a private collection, which is fine, since I couldn’t have afforded the price tag if there had been one–I’m not sure they sell artwork, they may just display it) anyway. I asked Breon if there were any postcards of it available, and there weren’t, but it turns out the museum had something better for sale: the catalogue from a 2003 posthumous exhibition of Martha Dunigan’s work. The book showcases many of her pieces, but best of all, there is a photo of “Cannibal’s House,” so that I can always remember what it looked like. It also has information about Martha and her art told through both the eyes of those who knew her and some of her correspondence.
I walked back to the condo I’m staying in with the book in one hand and a cigarette in the other and thought about what a magical experience I’d just had. For me it was more about discovering a piece of art; it was about legacies. How sometimes we all need to look ourselves and our lives and remember what is really important. There was a woman who spent her whole life collecting bones on the beach, made something out of it, and years later, it gave a complete stranger an epiphany.
By the time I got home, I had an idea for a new short story—“The Bone Lady” (tentative title until revision time, I’m sure)—which I’ve just finished. I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything with it, but I do know I learned a whole lot about the world, and my place in it, today.
Thank you, Martha. Wherever you are.