Gazing down from their neat rows of white plaster corbels, 163 terra-cotta heads gather in silent assembly, invoking the solemnity and honorific atmosphere of a memorial hall. Though inspired by the heroic tradition of marble-bust portraiture, these heads are far from classical; nor, on the other hand, do they seem fully conversant with the informality of the contemporary world. They peer from the folds of history with the poignancy of shades unable to participate in the present despite an obvious attraction to it. The air of nostalgia that envelopes them can be attributed partly to the distinctive details of their clothing, hair styles, and eyeglasses, which speak a fashion dialect that lost currency at least four decades ago. Even more suggestive of the passage of time is the principally grisaille color scheme that alludes to the now largely antiquated medium of black-and-white photography. At the same time, the youthful freshness and expression of enthusiasm characterizing each individually rendered face escapes the absolute inertness of the past and makes of the array of heads a curiously living monument.
The ceramic heads-components of Idaho sculptor Marilyn Lysohir’s ambitious installation Good Girls 1968-represent every female student who graduated from high school alongside the artist in Sharon, Pennsylvania more than forty years ago. In this respect the installation indulges in the kind of personal reminiscence that has constituted acceptable content of art at least since the beginning of the modern period. Good Girls 1968 is not, however, defined exclusively by the boundaries of the artist’s memory, since it includes portraits of individuals with whom she had little or no meaningful interaction, as well as those who were once close friends. Ironically, this has meant that certain members of her audience, whether recognizing themselves in the representation or discerning the features of old friends or relatives among the depicted students, have exhibited stronger attachment to particular portraits, and succumbed to deeper effects of reminiscence in relation to these images, than has the artist herself.
Of course, familiarity with the specific individuals portrayed is no more crucial to the viewer’s experience of Lysohir’s installation than is first-hand knowledge of the sitters in group portraits from Rembrandt’s Syndics of the Cloth Guild to Manet’s Bellelli Family. Portraits need not incite reminiscence to be meaningful as works of art, but when they do stimulate the memory, the experiences they conjure are naturally the viewer’s own. Anyone who has attended high school may immediately recognize in Lysohir’s installation the premeditated smiles and regimented representation of yearbook photo grids. Beyond those catalysts, however, the meanings that materialize will be far more particular, for some reviving long-dormant feelings of youthful pride, as-yet-untempered idealism or eager anticipation of a future that has all too quickly become the past. For others, the memories are bound to dredge up adolescent feelings of inadequacy and awkwardness, academic struggles or even a vague sense of despair.
The historical and mnemonic dimensions of Good Girls 1968 are consistent with themes running through much of Lysohir’s previous work, in which installations have evolved around stories of her father’s service in World War II, the lives of four aunts who never married and the experiences of ancestors who arrived in the United States as emigrants from the Ukraine. The idea for a piece relating to her own past experiences came fortuitously in 2001, when she returned to Sharon, Pennsylvania in order to assist her elderly parents. “I was putting gas in the car,” she relates, “and I heard someone say my name. I didn’t recognize her, but she recognized me. She’d been in the band in high school and remembered that I’d been a majorette.” The impact of this unexpected encounter was profound, and as Lysohir mulled it over in her mind during the next two years, the idea for Good Girls 1968 began to form.
Undaunted by the challenge of creating 163 distinct portraits, she drew on past experiences with multiples to standardize her process and to make efficient use of materials. Throwing a pedestal on the wheel and sculpting a generic head to sit atop it, she created a prototype from which to produce a two-piece mold. “The model had a lump for a nose, a set of lips, some hair, and low-definition ears,” she explains. “When I made the individual pieces I left the back half in the mold and set it up to look at it. Then I started to add clay and to shape the piece in relation to the picture in the yearbook. The nose was hard to see, so I had to guess at that, but the likeness relied most on the lips and shape of the face.” Depending on the skin tone of the person portrayed, Lysohir sculpted the features from a low-fire white clay body or a red terra cotta both of which she coated with terra sigillata of a corresponding hue. After a bisque firing, she applied black, white, gray, and green commercial underglazes, wiped them off so as to accentuate the indentations, highlighted certain details with limited color, and added a bit of clear glaze to the lips and whites of the eyes.
Despite the labor-saving measures she employed, Lysohir had completed only 40 of the heads-slightly less than a quarter of the planned work-by 2006. Teaching stints at Washington State University and the University of Idaho and the proprietorship of Cowgirl Chocolates, a successful business that she had founded in 1997, had demanded much of her time. Fortunately, Chris Bruce, director of the Washington State University Museum of Art, had seen the heads in Lysohir’s studio. Offering the opportunity to hold an exhibition of the finished installation in May of 2007, he presented Lysohir with the challenge of completing the 123 remaining portraits in the space of a year. “That was all I needed,” she asserts. “The fire was lit. I remember that when I was teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1993 Ken Ferguson had asked me, ‘Lysohir, can you run without the ball?’ I realized that what he was asking was, can you still make art if you don’t have a show? I answered, ‘Yes, I can, but I run slowly. When I do have the ball, I can really go.'”
Rather than approaching her process in a more detached and expedient manner in response to the time constraint, Lysohir unexpectedly found herself becoming increasingly psychologically engaged with her subject matter as the series progressed. Working alphabetically through the yearbook photos, she had arrived at the R surnames when she realized that she had completely lost touch with once-close friend and fellow-majorette Karen Rudge. Her efforts to locate her former classmate and catch up on the events of 40 years proved rewarding, and from that point forward she attempted to contact as many of the subjects of her portraits as possible. The result was the development of a new documentary dimension to Good Girls. As Lysohir began receiving letters and photographs, she mounted them in frames, incorporating them into the installation when it debuted in its entirety in 2007. “Some of the letters were poignant and moving,” she says. People were reading them. I was surprised by how curious people were and how they compared the letters to the portraits.”
While Good Girls 1968 has naturally incited interest among Lysohir’s former classmates-four of whom traveled from Texas, Florida, Arizona, and Pennsylvania to attend the opening of the 2007 exhibition at Washington State University, and scores of others who lingered over the busts when they were displayed at the artist’s 40th high school reunion the following year-the degree to which the installation has moved beyond personal reminiscence and the limited scope of self-expressive art is evident in the interest shown by audiences with no immediate connections to the portrait subjects. It is also noteworthy that the work has transcended the boundaries of the medium of clay. In 2007, Lysohir began work on a documentary video treating the creation and reception of Good Girls 1968 and situating the installation within the multiple contexts of history, place, memory, association, biography, and artistic license. More than a record of events, the documentary film will signify the consummation of Lysohir’s project, which, like all of her previous art work, was from its inception geared toward eventual broadening from specific to general. “The pieces that I do always come from something personal,” she asserts, “but you can’t be successful unless you take the personal and translate it into something universal.”
the author A frequent contributor to CM, Glen R. Brown is a professor of art history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.