HER KIND: In her poem “Summer X-Rays,” Nina Cassian tells us: “That’s why I swim so far out,/ willing prisoner/ inside the sea’s immense green magnifying glass.” What draws you to the water? How far are you willing to swim and why?
Sally Deskins: First off, of course, thanks for introducing me to Sally Ball and her work! I’m honored and thrilled at the opportunity to have this conversation with her! As well as Nina Cassian’s poem, what an honest delight….
I had never heard of Nina Cassian or “Summer X-Rays.” Before reading the poem in its entirety, my immediate answer to the question “what draws you to the water?” was simply: “peace.”
I thought of my summers spent visiting San Clemente State Beach and Doheny State Beach in Southern California. My mother’s family lived there; each visit was a few weeks of utter respite—the beach to me was a place of peace not only because of its literal tranquil qualities (albeit frigid water itself, sand rough, who can’t resist looking out into nowhere, recognition of your smallness to the vastness, splashing all wild and uninhibited), but because my mother, too, was calm, herself home, back where she was planted.
My first real memory of the beach, was at age three or four, when we just arrived; I was without my swimsuit yet, and immediately undressed to get myself enveloped in the heavenly waves. My mom laughed, smiled, took my picture—something I surely wouldn’t have gotten away with back at home in the Midwest. That photo sat framed in my family’s home for years, which alone I adored, but loathed in front of company—curious, the sense of comfort of nudity in one place, and absolute shame in another. Who wouldn’t choose the former? Why does the latter even matter?
After reading the Cassian poem, I was taken aback—I felt she wrote my experience with the water (which, when I think of “water” I think of the beach—even more specifically, “my” beach in Southern California). The tiny moments, the dread upon leaving, how the beach literally makes you feel humble, content and free no matter whatever else is going on. And savoring that moment, for it’s quick. (This is the inspiration that I’m drawing on for my current series of artwork—my prints are made quickly; I paint various ocean-inspired colors onto my breasts, do a push up, and it ends with a pleasant abstract image embracing this seemingly simple, satisfied feeling.)
I have lived most of my life in the middle of America, far away from the beach water. Still, being born in Oregon, and from my serene summers, I too, feel like being near the water is blissful, home. A few days ago, I moved to the opposite end of the country—near the east coast, I’ve found myself bits closer to the water, but also engulfed in hills, where it seems a trip to the beach—to anywhere—is just out of reach. It isn’t, of course, and this bliss is really simply in my state of mind. Is it possible to have this feeling somewhere else? As they say, “wherever you go, there you are”—then why do I feel so different near the water? And, how can I bring the water feeling to wherever I am?
For, of course, this water I write of, also causes wretched destruction. This is, thankfully and fortunately for me, not what I immediately think of when I think of “water.” Still, it lingers. Which is why I never go out too far . . .
What draws you to the water, Sally B.?
Sally Ball: I think it’s both of the things you mention too: I’ve been around the ocean all my life (or all my summers, now that I live most of the year in Arizona, ocean of dust), and I’ve always been drawn to the water’s edge—for the way it makes us small, and for the allure of that vast body when it’s peaceful, the alternate thrill of seeing it chopped up and dangerous. The ocean is so much, so big: you can’t help releasing your sense of being In Charge. My poem “Tributary” is about this; these are the first few stanzas:
About the sea we love the combination
comfort and menace, the sense of water
gently holding us, of depths engulfing—
we love to be the smallest particle,
germinal, relieved of any prowess
or conviction about prowess,
about control. Inside the sea I know
I love the salty shoring up; I love
the way a wave will take my body
and cleave the foam with me
as with a post. My almost
running out of air.
I’ve just arrived back at the Jersey shore, where Sandy’s destruction dominates the landscape. My mom’s house is still here, but lots of people I know lost everything. Or lost more than they can recover from any time soon. Last night I drove north about two miles, and there was a crew dug into the middle of the main road, in a trench as deep as they were tall, five feet wide and as long as a school bus, lit by klieg lights, that they’d dug in the late afternoon, and which was closed and paved over this morning by 8. AmeriCorps volunteers worked in a friend’s garage all day yesterday. People trade stories about the kindness and muscle of the National Guard, and groups of veterans who appeared right after the storm to help. There is still heaps of debris in people’s yards, vast open spaces where yards and houses used to mark off the landscape square by square. So many trees and plants are gone, washed away, and among what’s left most evergreens are brown and brittle. Teenagers ride their bikes around the detritus (broken clapboard, washing machines, hunks of torn concrete, stuff you can’t tell what it was. . .). Sunday afternoon my kids pulled a florist’s square-sponge base and its glass bowl (wired together, still trailing some sturdy stems) and a leaf blower out of the bay. Someone’s kitchen table, someone’s garage.
So I have been expecting mixed feelings about the water.
Today I went to the beach for the first time (usually I go on Day One: I must’ve been —scared to see it? scared to love it (or not love it?) after all this?) I turned out to be alone; a lot of New Jersey is still in school, making up the days Sandy shut them down. I stood knee deep in the cold water and tried to think about it à la the pathetic fallacy, à la the objective correlative, and it just didn’t work: the water doesn’t care, has no will, etc., etc. Uh duh.
I’m reading Geraldine McCaughrean’s excellent Theseus to my youngest son right now. So as I went in a little deeper, I thought about Poseidon, about Greece’s need to have someone moody to appease.
The water distracted me with its beautiful not caring.
The water rippled past incredibly clear and clean (almost no shells, no seaweed, no fish today, nothing) crisp bubbles and docile crinkled waves. I went out further, dove into it, tasted the salt. The first plausible wave I paddled with, rode without thinking—whoosh. This is my ocean, I thought (like you, “your” beach!), relieved, maternal and daughterly at once—not despite but because of knowing how much itself it is.
Sally, I want to see your paintings! They seem like they would exactly match this it’s mine, it’s utterly itself sort of feeling (not to mention the pleasure of lying down in the sand, which yields a little—quick to relinquish whatever shape we press into it.)
SD: First of all, I love “Tributary”; even the excerpt you shared is so lovely to read—“comfort and menace . . .depths engulfing . . .relieved of any prowess”—just perfect! Thank you for sharing that! I hope to read more of your work.
And you are from the Jersey Shore—wow—I cannot imagine what it has been like going there. I really had no idea there was still such destruction and need for rebuilding—disappointing not to read more about it in the media, as I’m sure you are as well. Still, the way you described your solo visit to the water was calming—“the water doesn’t care”—so simple yet so profound actually! I never thought of it that way, but exactly! And, “maternal and daughterly” is, too, right on. I am so honored to read your words!
On the note of my work—I’ll include one or two examples here. I started about a year and a half ago, doing body prints inspired by Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries” which I knew of, but when I saw them in person in an exhibit in D.C., I was speechless and had to do it myself—in a feminist way, of course: myself as model, director, and artist.
Anyways, my first series focused on womanhood and body perspective. I used quotes from women I’ve interviewed and various colors of paint—more just expressive and fun.
“Objectivity is Myth,” acrylic on canvas, Sally Deskins, 2012
Then, I did a motherhood series exploring my body/sexuality and motherhood roles, which I did body prints and nude drawings along with childhood imagery. One of my pieces, I decided to just print my breasts a number of times for practice on one sheet, and a friend saw it, and said, “hey, you should draw those into monsters or something.” And I thought, hmm, that’s cool, but they kind of look like fish swimming around in a fishbowl. So this was the result, which has been by far my most popular piece—it sold last year in Philadelphia, after being in a few shows and published twice:
“Breastfish,” tempera and pencil on paper, Sally Deskins, 2012
So, though it wasn’t my favorite, I thought more about what fish meant to me, and a whole series came to fruition—sea life, the blissful fleeting beach feeling, and the ironies/humor of women’s bodies and imagery.
I’ve made over 100 prints to get drawing on, in my new oceanic color scheme. Here’s one that you can kind of see the fish shape already taking shape.
Untitled in progress, acrylic on board, Sally Deskins, 2013
And one I drew a rainbow fish on.
“Rainbow fish,” acrylic and pencil on board, Sally Deskins, 2013
I plan on drawing more—octopus, jellyfish, maybe some sharks, seahorses and other types of sea life. I planned them as singular for a commission who requested a series of six single fish—though at this moment, water is taking on a more singular role.
In this apartment complex where we’re living, there is a rather small community pool, which, of course, my kids love. Usually it is packed. None of the kids care, though, still running into each other, jumping in where they almost land on each other, using everyone’s toys, yelling, splashing, etc. It is amazing to me—I hate crowds and would rather (since as long as I can remember) stay inside than go to a shoulder-to-shoulder place (though I prefer cities to countries, not when they’re jammed!). However, this is, to them, bliss. This tiny patch of water, which to me feels so confined, is heavenly to them, no matter how little space—and water they have.
So I guess, with the second part of that question, “how far out do you go?” I would say, just as far as I can go, on my own.
I wonder how your week is shaping up. And how far out you like to go!
SB: Sally, wow: the fish! I love them.
Also I love the description of how your work began and how it moved to where you are now—
I’ve been thinking all day about that kind of shift: from willful to fanciful, from shocking to normal (today is goodbye DOMA day). This morning my son Oscar said he was amazed by his own acceptance of the wreckage here. He said, “At first, it was just awful, scary, everywhere you look, OHMYGOD. Now, it’s, like”—shrugging—“you’re used to it, you don’t even notice.” He’s eleven. (So the “you” suggests maybe a little potency remains in the mounds of broken everything.) We talked about the brain for a little while, the way it gets used to stuff, and about Theseus constantly thinking things will be hard that turn out to be easy.
How far out do I like to swim? Far enough to get a little scared. Far enough to feel that cuspy space between home and lost. Less far than before I had kids!
Cassian’s poem is especially moving because her perfect day by the sea occurs despite some darker knowledge: “I know what’s awaiting me—/ the winter of my discontent./ I have a reservation/ outside on a hard bench/ holding a bag of frostbitten potatoes.” Her poem is about recognizing, even claiming, joy in the fleeting moments where it’s possible to feel it. I think her obstacle to joy was the repressive Romanian regime. The water’s edge seems to be where the usual certitudes break down, a site of great paradox (it’s peaceful AND wild; it’s “mine” and it’s NOT; I’m safe here or it’s menacing—); the water’s edge brings us to the edge of ourselves, too. The brink.
Theseus is sent to fight the Minotaur, and he promises his father he’ll sail home with a new white sail if he wins (instead of the black one under which he sets out). In the excitement of his victory (which occurs thanks to crafty-but-oafish Ariadne, whom he ditches at Naxos on the way back to Athens), jolly Theseus forgets to make the switch, and as the ship approaches, his father sees the black sail and jumps miserably (mistakenly) into the rocky sea.
How far out shall we swim? What have we got to lose? What do we need to let go of?
Sally, I don’t know about you but I think these are impossible questions! I also think that’s why coming to the water’s edge is so appealing. Cassian wonders if to live without fear is a trap, but her poem savors its fearlessness. I think we reckon with our fears, with their hold on us, with the possibility of breaking free of them, when we go out into the water. I like to go right to where the waves are breaking, dive down under them, fly up the other side.
(Caveat: yesterday they found an unexploded WW2 British MINE in about a foot of water along the beach near here! And the Navy came and blew it up! I’m not sure I can assimilate worrying about mines into my fears of sharks, riptides, giant storms…)
But I’m over-emphasizing the fear, because the most seductive thing is the opposite of that, the sense of being at one with the universe even if you also know you should be cautious. Do you know this lovely paragraph from a speech JFK gave at the America’s Cup in 1962?
I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it is because in addition to the fact that the sea changes and the light changes, and ships change, it is because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.
SD: Oh wow, isn’t that exactly right? No, I had not read or heard that excerpt of JFK’s but it’s right on. Funny how you think you’re so alone or special with your thoughts sometimes, and conversations like this make you feel so much less alone and humble. I just love that quote and think I can also utilize it when thinking about my work and the body’s connection to the sea. Thank you!
I cannot believe—or maybe I can—how your 11 year old is now accustomed to being around such destruction. No doubt the experience has opened his eyes and made him tougher than most people can imagine. Yes—I love Cassian’s referral to the knowledge of darkness, too—its like, even when you’re in a great place, you know (or at a certain point in your life perhaps) it won’t last, and/or that bad things/happenings can occur anytime.
Its been raining here in Morgantown today, the pool is locked, the kids walking around the apartment complex with their little umbrellas. My son searching for worms, my daughter hoping not to find any. Rain, too, is comforting, I think, like a renewal, sometimes a forced rest, time to sit and reflect. Also, it causes destruction—I saw on Facebook someone’s whole sunroom was ripped off. This is, obviously, very small compared to what you have witnessed in New Jersey.
Though still, just like JFK said, just like the sea, rain makes us feel human—alive and connected. Being an Oregonian, rain never bothers me—in high school for one year, I woke up at 5am to go swimming at the pool in town every morning. One morning it was a terrible rainstorm, and a tree had fallen on the road—I couldn’t see it and drove right over it. Didn’t hurt my little Hyundai. After the sun came out and I finished my laps and went outside, I saw the flooded parking lots, school had been canceled; my road was blocked off for the destruction. Woops! Oh well, I got home after all. . . .
I’m feeling more at home here every day and thanks to this conversation, more excited about this series of work—the wet paint on my body, a connection to feeling it in the ocean or rain, and the quick imprints, the fleeting calm moments. The drawing of fish over them, well, okay, still getting used to that idea. I have such an ego for the “naturalness” of the original prints, it’s still hard to draw over them. But I guess that’s the release, the water’s edge, and my extent to how far I go! Shall I? Or shall I stay in comfort? I don’t know . . . the water doesn’t care, right?
SB: The worm search! The umbrellas! And your young self swimming through a major storm. (Louise Glück: “You’ll get what you want. You’ll get your oblivion.” That’s also a water’s-edge poem—) It’s been a real pleasure talking with you about all of this. I’m lingering with the fish question: your attachment to the naturalness sans-fish, and the imposed clarity of the sketches on top of the abstractions. How important is it to know how the painting was made? More important with the fish than without them?
Here’s part of another favorite poem, from Louise Bogan’s The Blue Estuaries, the opening of “Night”:
The cold remote islands
And the blue estuaries
Where what breathes, breathes
The restless wind of the inlets,
And what drinks, drinks
The incoming tide
I think I’m winding up here because the poem suggests that the water’s edge makes demands on us. There’s a kind of reckoning that happens there, shaking us out of ourselves and into the world.
SD: I just love these quotes and excerpts you’re sharing! You raise a good question, the importance of how the painting was made . . . with or without the fish . . . I don’t know. For some reason, though, I just thought of a totally irrelevant quote I remember seeing on T-shirts in the 1980s: a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. . . . Ha! Maybe I should make them into fish on bikes…hmm, I suppose what I have to do, is just breathe, drink in . . . and start! Now, back into the rain puddles . . .
Sally Ball is the author of two collections of poems, Wreck Me and Annus Mirabilis. She’s the associate director of Four Way Books and teaches in the MFA Program at Arizona State University. Her website is saralouiseball.com.
Sally Deskins is a writer and artist who examines the female body and identity in her work. She keeps a journal on women in all forms of art, Les Femmes Folles, and lives with her husband and two young children in Morgantown, West Virginia. See more of her work at sallydeskins.tumblr.com.