For the exhibition, By and by…at home with Sam and Livy, Artspace curators Sarah Fritchey and Rashmi Talpade remake the rules of a game played by the American author, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, in his Hartford home, bringing it into the white cube setting. Presented at The Gallery at Constitution Plaza in the Connecticut Office of the Arts, the exhibition features works on paper by 13 artists who share Clemens’s aptitude for storytelling, humor, and symbolism. The curators selected the work from Artspace’s Flatfile Collection, a growing body of works on paper by 150 regional artists and counting.
The rules of the game were simple. After dinner, Sam and Livy Clemens would gather with their daughters in their library, where Sam would stand in front of their great oak mantelpiece and tell a series of stories. The rule, set by his daughters, was to always start with the painting of the cat in an Elizabethan ruffed collar (commonly referred here as the ‘cat in the ruff’). Then, Clemens had to use every item on the mantel in the story in some way, in order, from the cat to the Impressionist painting of a lady in blue, who they had named Emmeline. If he skipped an item, went out of order, or repeated a story from a different night, he had to start over. Of the objects on the mantle, Clemens said “Those bric-a-bracs were never allowed a peaceful day, a reposeful day, a restful Sabbath. In their lives there was no Sabbath; in their lives there was no peace; they knew no existence but a monotonous career of violence and bloodshed. In the course of time the bric-a-brac and the pictures showed wear.”
Today, the Mark Twain House displays 13 objects on the mantelpiece, including a conch shell, gold plate, white marble statue, painted portrait of a lady, miniature harp, sculptural relief of Clemens, 3 alabaster blue vases, and the painting of the “cat in the ruff”.
Visitors to the Artspace exhibition will find 13 contemporary objects on a replica mantelpiece, provided by the 13 artists in the show. The curators asked each artist to identify one object that relates to their selected body of work. The artists were allowed to interpret this prompt as they wished, with one simple restriction, that the object be small enough to fit on the mantelpiece. Visitors are invited to handle these objects, and rearrange them to activate a new imagined story. Should they wish, visitors may curl up in the reading chair, placed in front of what would be the fireplace, to record a one-page version of their story.
13 Artist selected objects
She walked past the cat by the sill, past the cake covered with pillars of melted candles, left the house to walk by the waves. She was going to leave, never come back. The cat would be the only one to know as it watched her in timeless patience. Then she saw the shell, laying in the curling foam of waves. She picked it up and held it by her ear. It said… -Clymenza
On the birthday to someone special for him, the cat balanced a candle on his paws. It was his tradition to constantly balance a candle. The cat got to his feet, shifting the candle to his head, and walking into the kitchen. The friend’s cake rested on the table. But something was off. Next to the cake was a strange shell. Curious, the cat put his ear to the shell, and closed his eyes. He heard the ocean, and when he opened his eyes he was there. The vast ocean spread out in front of him. A small bottle rested at the shoreline. He walked over and looked at it. He remembered seeing this in his friend’s bedroom, as the boy loved the sea. The cat looked behind him at a forest. Entering it, a bear stood among wooden spikes, motionless. Behind it was a large looming (red? real?) thing. The cat ran from the bear. The candle nearly fell. The shell appeared in front of him, and quickly the cat put his ear to it and thought of the boy’s colorful room. Soon enough, he was surrounded by a rainbow, each color hanging over him, a cage. Across the floor was a pile of rusty spoons. The same ones the boy ate from. Curious again, the cat slid out of the cage. He ran across the spoons. They looked aged. But across the room was another mysterious object. A compass. It strangely pointed west. The cat touched it, and the room shifted, the walls falling. He was staring at a large pair of teeth in a large glass. The boy’s grandfather’s. An object used to remember the dead. The cat was scared. Too much was happening. His candle wobbled from the (illegible). A loud noise came from above. A toy plane flew over his head, crashing into the glass. Free, the cat ran. All around him was black, and the cat could see nothing. The boy loved airplanes and had one that looked like it. The cat then ran into a man with claws, snapping at his face. Turning back, he found a wall. This statue was the boy’s mother’s, something she bought and kept close. The boy loved to play with it. The cat ran past it, and found the shell again not far away. He put his ear to it as the man chased after him, clicking. He then heard chirps. A bird, the cat’s favorite food. When he lifted his head, he stood in a tree, a nest. A small broken egg lay in it along a small bird. It chirped at him, blind. The cat licked his lips hungry. But when her reached down to eat it, the candle fell from his head, reminding him why he had it. It could celebrate the birthday of this bird as well, and he left the nest without it. Returning home, the cat remembered what he went through as things he and the boy played with. These memories left a warm impression upon him, and he decided to cherish life even more. The boy was something so important, that he lived a tale the boy told him. And when he returned home, he was suddenly in his kitty bed, staring into a dark room. The clock on the wall showed it was still the day before the boy’s birthday. – Tina Anisley, Meghan Holland, Amanda Marinelli, Eliza Byrne
Her cat inspected a bird’s nest enticed by shards of shell only to find that they were not shell but tooth. Teeth scattered, milky blue, reminding the girl of the seashells that she had gathered – so luminous when still dripping with sea water, drying to a dull paper white. White like the muslin dress that she had dripped bright yellow juice on, watching the fabric soak in more and more, why not add red and purple until the dress became a rainbow inside the kitchen. Outside a bear roared and the girl sent out a fleet of paper airplanes to investigate, but they faltered in their mission and bent and tore among the tall, wet grasses. Her nine-year-old self would not have followed them, but her ten-year-old self must, with compass in hand. The roar of the bear receded as she ran and the compass needle shook and turned. It pulled her away, away to the place where she had seen the creature whose eyes were long yet milky white with blindness, their green color hidden in cloud. She shivered at the thought of all the color bleeding away and ran back to the kitchen where she dripped every color she could find onto the dress in great wet spoonfuls. – Angela Parker
The Lobsterman wading through the shards of weather worn glass, carefully picking tiny pieces by pointed claw hand, placing them ever so carefully in apothecary’s bottle. Across the vast mountain range a vast constellation shifts in hours, the bear, starlight bathing Lobsterman, broken glass, apothecary bottle. Beneath the shade of the elaborate nest planet a spirit of a cat balances a lamp, its flame extinguished now. The cat spirit listens, listening to a silent gliding of a prehistoric spy plane crashing in slow motion. It settles into a fossil forever, it fades and shimmers and morphs into a sea shell. Echoing sound from far off seas, seas, oceans, constellations, broken fossils. Suddenly a white dolls dress hops off of its pedestal. Jauntily the dress strides towards a birthday cake. 17 candles, the girl invisible just turned 17 her dream requires careful study. She makes a wish blows candles out wish comes true. To taste the wonderful cake requires 5 spoons. She finds floating nearby. Tenderly untying spoon, easts cake chewing with giant castes of teeth, the cake, as its eaten, dances through the invisible in the jaunty white dress and by osmosis becomes a rainbow whisk rainbow shadows, constellations of shadow being surveyed by the engineer from beyond space and time using the golden compass. The compass has recently just returned from surveying the next planet where our story begins. – Curt Parker