It was three years ago this November that I bought my first digital SLR and made a commitment to seriously reenter the world of photography. What spurred me to finally plunk down the big bucks for the camera, extra lens and all the requisite doodads was Grassiela. She is not a graceful muse with a lovely Spanish lilt to her voice, or even a photographer. Grassiela is an obsession, a six-foot hummingbird.
It all started with a trip to the DeCordova Museum Sculpture Garden. Up 25 feet in the trees was a school of 3-foot long metal fish, swimming in a circle. These fish took up residence in my imagination and would not leave.
"I have tall trees in my yard," I said to myself. "They need some creatures. How had I not noticed this before?" The fact that I had never made a piece of sculpture in my life was totally irrelevant. I bought a bag of pipe cleaners and started thinking about armatures.
And then I broke my foot in several places. So I spent a good part of the summer, watching hummingbirds flit about and through the ornamental grasses around my deck. When the seed heads on the miscanthus emerge, their soft forms hold delicate patterns of maroon, grey and brown tones that make me think of gorgeously rich Italian wool suiting fabric. This is what I wanted on my bird, on my obsession. I wanted her clothed in beautiful warm tones of autumn grass.
So I began gathering grasses of many types, colors and textures and letting them dry. A cardboard prototype was created and after many hours of cruising the aisles at Home Depot I decided to build the armature out of sheet rock lathing. It is sturdy, flexible and cheap. My smart husband made me buy a good pair of gloves and wire cutters and I was off and running.
Cars were banished from the garage, which became my studio. With all of my old rock and roll albums playing loudly on my iPod, I was in a state of complete happiness with a look David coined as Debby Demento. Each day I was figuring out how to solve new problems. And each day, my grasses continued their natural progression from smooth sweet patterns to wild "poofiness" so they could fly away. But I was not deterred. Thousands of feet of fishing line later; we hoisted her in the trees. And while she didn't look much like my original idea, I was proud of my first attempt.
In the intervening years, I did the research I should have done and learned how to dry grasses so they maintain their soft shape and part of their lovely color patterns. I learned how to use floral dyes so I could create a ruby throat of miscanthus. This November, Grassiela 2.0 took flight. She has a warm brown undercoat of burlap and her color and texture more closely approximate my dream. The top and underside of the wings have different patterns and textures that utilize the seed heads and the stalks and there is still much to learn.
But what does this all have to do with photography? How did a giant grass hummingbird propel me into photography? At different points in time cameras had been an important part of my life and work. But they were always tools used for documenting. Photography was an adjunct to storytelling, a journalist's tool. Grassiela was strictly a creative impulse, about making art, something I had never done outside of a required school project. Once she took flight I knew I could pick up a camera again and use it to make something very different. Grassiela gave me the courage to believe that with time, patience, practice and study I could learn to make art with a camera.