Some time ago, after watching a DIY video by a very creative Brazilian lady named Ronilda Oliveira, I decided to follow her idea of upcycling glass bottles to turn them into dolls. In doing so, I adapted some of the material she used in her demo. For my own creations, instead of her “massa de biscuit” (cold porcelain), I build the upper body with salt dough, which is a mix of corn meal, salt and water. I also define the face with 3D facial features instead of painting the doll’s eyes, nose and mouth on a ball face with no reliefs; I think it makes the doll more human-like. Finally, I dress the doll with both acrylic paint and fabric, and I use wool for the hair. Here is my very first ‘bottle doll’: a beautiful Native woman who rocks her shiny black regalia over the once green bottle.
I wanted to ‘immortalize’ my very first creation by photographing the doll, so I made her stand against an adobe wall. As she enjoyed the rays of sunshine on her newly created self, it felt as if the doll and the wall, through their two types of clay, were having a silent dialogue about what it had taken for them to be created. Whereas the wall was once erected thanks to a mix of mud, straw and water, my doll’s body emerged from mixing cornmeal, water and salt: ground staple food taking in ‘the stuff of our tears’. In the inner I felt that the contrasting ingredients of both the wall and the doll had a deeper meaning than meets the eye. Something to do with creation and destruction, origins and endings, forgiveness and rebirth…
After the photo shoot, I observed the broken shadow the doll casted on the wall and stared at it for a long time. My pupils expanded to their dark full moon selves, eclipsing their sunny irises to vanish in the darkness of the black hole of the doll’s origin. There and then, in that garden, something was taking me back in time, in another garden, through the eyes of a black cat.
They say that when a person lives long enough with pets they will start to look alike… I say that when we tap into cat’s magical magnetism we receive their blessed presence in our lives, to be gifted with immense, unconditional love and psychic abilities. They are here among us to remind us to remember… sometimes through the selfless, supreme gift of redemption demanded by our self-cast curse, even though it comes mainly from a very deep subconscious cavern where not too many of us are eager to penetrate. Generally we will understand this beautiful mystery several years after our four-legged companions have left this earth. Below is a picture of Sammy and his adoring hu-mom when the feline king was resting on a rug decorated with planets, stars, the moon and the sun.
Every time I watch the night sky to admire the moon crescent, when darkness has eaten everything but a thin shimmering sliver of its magical lantern, I paint on the canvas of my memories the China ink ocean where one of Sammy’s claws shines. Years ago when my black cat was still very much alive, on a hot summer night as he stepped over me to go on his night patrol, he extracted a piercing shriek from me. He had scratched my nipple with one of his rear paw claws as he jumped from my bed. As I cursed in pain and cleaned the blood drop from my bosom, I had thought that maybe it was his symbolic way to say that, sure, I had been a mom for him in almost all aspects of his life since he was a few days old, but I had not experienced the physical pain of real, mammal motherhood, birthing another being and letting that being suckle my breast. “Was it necessary to be that realistically, graphically sensorial, Sammy? Got it though, thanks!” I thought…
But maybe I had not totally ‘gotten it’ in a more spiritual way… Maybe I had not let Sammy’s teaching go far enough into my psyche, just like a biological mother needs to let the nipple go far enough back into baby’s mouth to stop experiencing nipple pain. For a split second the analogy reminded me of this Sufi parable of the three butterflies in front of a candle flame. I remembered hearing it for the first time in Bab ‘Aziz or The Prince who contemplated His Soul, an amazing movie by Tunisian filmmaker Nacer Khemir.
The first butterfly approached the flame and said, “I know about love”; the second one touched the flame lightly with his wing and said, “I know how love’s fire can burn”; the third one threw himself into the heart of the flame and was consumed: he alone knows what true love is. Years after the night of the piercing claw, Sammy had grown old and was in constant pain. He had turned into a shadow and was extremely thin, as though something was eating at him from within. It was best for him to go, but it was oh so tough though. On his last night on earth, he gifted me with another claw, when life left his body while he was gasping for air. After his soul bid farewell to its earthly envelope, I bathed the empty cloak of his dark fur in warm tears and water, dried my cat and buried him in the garden. When I went back to the bathroom to wash my dirt-covered hands, the mirror had turned black like my cat, because I had let a candle flame burn too close. In the foggy reflection, I saw only portions of my somber face. Wiping a last tear from my cheek, I looked into my eyes, took a deep breath and searched for a vessel to keep the claw. A tiny Chinese porcelain box that my dad had bought for me would be the perfect shrine for the moonlike crescent of my cat’s last grip. From there, I figured, it would summon my cat’s spirit every time he wanted to find his way back from behind the veil.
A Chinese legend has it that cats were chosen by the Gods to be the timekeepers of the world. In their morning eyes shine black pools rimmed with gold. At noon the same eyes turn into a dark slim dancer in the center of a golden record, like those music boxes with a ballerina spinning in front of mirror walls in a velveteen room. Finally in the evening the cat’s eyes morph again into a dark round pool that will project their light beam into the sky, to switch on the moon while the sun takes a stroll in the underworld. When a cat purrs, the soothing sound unveils cosmic secrets. It lets us hear the discreet hum of the machinery that moves our world in the heavens. Should all cats cease to purr, our world would first be plunged into a terrible silence, then the seasons would come to an end and the earth would stand still in the sky, losing even the echo of the dance steps we once took in the spiral of time.
As I re-read the description of the cats’ eyes at midday, I received a vision. I was in front of the music box I owned when I was a little girl. I believe it was a gift from our landlady, who lived in Spa if I remember correctly. The Belgian town is famous for its wooden “jolités” (lacquerware), and it gave its name to the thermal concept worldwide, since the place is renowned for its sources of natural mineral waters (Poûhon in the local dialect). Spa’s numerous tourists like to visit the specific Poûhon named after Peter the Great, where the Russian Tsar and his wife Katherine spent some time in 1717. They hoped to cure the Tsar’s ailments due to his heavy drinking. Maybe the spirits he drank intoxicated me too, because now the white ballerina spinning in the music box was slowly turning into the shadow of a dancer on the golden record evoked in the metaphoric description of a cat’s eye at midday. More than a thin vertical line, the dark spot at its center looked like a keyhole with a headdress on top. What did that shape remind me of? As I tried to gather my thoughts to make sense of the vision, the spinning motion of both the record and the ballerina jumped inside the mechanism of the music box to show me the spiral of its clock spring. Its motion activated a wonderful miniature universe made of gears, a rotating drum and pins plucking the teeth of a metallic comb. For some mysterious reason, I was starting to see it as a reflection of the microcosm of our lives caught in the macrocosm of the universe, or vice versa. I was feeling that every event is actually triggered by our own actions, words, thoughts and emotions, which turn the winding key of the music box that will start playing the tune set by the specific program we designed in that guise. As we let go off the key, it will start to slowly unwind. The cat-purring hum of its delicate motor will sing the tune of spiraling stories planting their needle in the furrows of a descending spiral. Our actions, words, thoughts and emotions will spring like tender shoots that will create the pins on the rotating drum of the universe, which will pluck each tooth of the combs called lifetimes. “In every comb of your hair…” a story is being braided, a knot is being tied, waiting to be retold, hoping to be sung back…
What was the specific melody played by my childhood music box again? As I closed my eyes, I heard it as clear as if I had just wound up its mechanism in the here and now: Lara’s theme, from Doctor Zhivago… Here we were back in Tsarist lands! I saw the Empress of Russia drinking from a glass of Spa water while admiring the wooden “jolités” her husband was so fond of… When she put her glass down, I felt like placing it close to my ear, hoping that its hollowness would act as a resonance chamber to whisper what her spirit wanted to share with me. Instead, the Tsaritsa used the box as a spyglass to show me a glimpse of what I had drawn when I was about to celebrate my twelfth birthday. The music box was a real catalyst: my teenage self’s artwork showed another ballerina, or petit rat de l’opéra as we call them in French. Her Chinese ink eyes cried over faded roses, the metaphor used by Belgian poet Maurice Carême to urge a young girl to take her time before she becomes a grown up, because “never a rose will go back to the rosebush once her petals were plucked”.
The evocation of the rose brought me back in the bottle doll’s garden where I had let myself be aspired through the black hole of my spiraling mind. I was remembering that the person who had given me the bottle wanted to practice new Spanish words with me and kept referring to it as “la verde botella”. It sounded a bit weird, since that expression uses the English syntax to say something that should be in reverse in Spanish: “la botella verde”. Oh well, it didn’t really matter. I was actually remembering a funny expression that used ‘green’ in both “directions”: “c’est chou vert et vert chou”. The saying means “this is green cabbage and cabbage green”. In Belgium we use it to express that whatever one’s choice, it makes no difference in the end. China seemed to be a recurring guest in my symbolic world that started unfolding in the garden, since in the Asian country it is customary to carve a cabbage out of half white / half green jadeite and to hide a grasshopper or bush cricket fetish in its leaves. The image conjured up diverse and contrasting thoughts. The grasshopper could be seen as a plague or the nickname of a famous Kung Fu apprentice. The carcass those insects leave behind was also a symbol of death and rebirth, reenacted every month by the moon and its cycles. The feminine roundness of its wholeness called upon the protection of the Chinese goddess of compassion, Kwan Yin, sometimes seen in the company of a cicada, in its real form or as a charm. Chinese people love to keep crickets as singing pets in copper cages where a prisoner’s chant is a warden’s soothing. White and green were the official colors of the Andalusian land where I lived, but also those of my hometown, Verviers, because its popular etymology evokes “vert” (green) and vieux (old), an age symbolized by white hair. Those two adjectives put together still had something else to tell me, but I could not yet put my finger on it, so I decided it was time for me to go back to creation.
After making several dolls with the “verdes botellas” or “botellas verdes”, I thought that I could experiment with other shapes, sizes and materials, using plastic as well. Such decision actually gave a respite to my immediate surroundings as I turned my morning walks into trash-treasure hunts. If I found bottles that I could upcycle, I would give them a thorough wash and then use them to birth a new symbolic life in the shape of a doll. There is a strange satisfaction in the process of cleaning an object someone else discarded in such an indecorous manner. First of all, it warms your heart to sense that the neighborhood, its flora and fauna smile at you as they recognize your efforts to make the place a little bit cleaner, a little bit greener. It feels good to try to prevent at least one bottle a day to meet its peers in the contamination frenzy that pollutes our streams and end up in the ocean. And from the water of the earth to the water of our bodies, the cleansing process made me think of the unclogging of an artery enabling the blood of life to finally flow freely again. But I was taken from my allegory by a sound similar to the far-away horn of an ocean liner, and in the back of my head, I heard these words: “Listen! It speaks of separation! Listen! It’s longing to return…”
The sound was coming from one of the empty bottles, turned into a wind instrument by an invisible mouth, the same that was pronouncing those words. The butterflies had lit a new candle in my memory to bring me back among Sufi thoughts again. So I heard the words of that beautiful poem that talks of love laments. It sings of the wound of a homesick reed turned into a flute that is longing to go back to the green shores where it was taken from. In that moment, the only green element I saw while looking for a new bottle to use was a fence against which I had arranged more ‘trash hunt trophies’. Green seemed to want to be associated with the bottles again, like an old friend who does not want to let go… Old, green; green, old… Here was the expression I was looking for! Viejo verde! Maybe I had just found a new meaning for it!
“Yes, I guess one could call me that…”
I was startled to hear words in my head, as if someone else was pronouncing them through me, in an inner dialogue. In Spanish, “viejo verde” means “old green”, a metaphor for a sleazy old man. I wondered who was the one speaking, but I went on choosing the bottle for the next doll creation, which turned out being a nice Latina woman.
She was born out of one of those mini liquor bottles that people throw away so infuriatingly close to waterways. I liked her, even though I had the strange feeling that she needed to tell me something sad. There she was, at the same spot where the “viejo verde” thought had appeared. Wondering about the secret that she wanted to tell me, I looked into her deep eyes that had not gained their sparkle yet: the tiny white spot that makes a huge difference when one paints a face… Two white dots later and despite the newly added sparkle, I could not yet brush off the uneasiness that her eyes conveyed, and soon I started to see in her face a character from a movie I liked: Alma Gitana (Gypsy Soul), about a young girl torn by the strict rules of her Gypsy father and her forbidden love for a Payo (non-Gypsy) flamenco dancer.
Then the doll took over and she made me add props around her: a mini Turkish carpet and the photo album of my parents’ trip to Turkey. Was it really the doll or that strange poetic voice that had mentioned the longing of the reed and took for itself the sleazy meaning of green and old? Willing to know more about what was taking place as the magic of creation unfolded, I honored the inspiration flow that urged me to grab a new liquor bottle to see who would be created out of the bottle’s emptiness.
The ghost-like figure of a dancer was revealing itself as it dried under an electric sun waiting for the rest of the creation process… Even though my mischievous eyes could not help seeing in its funny-looking first stage a beheaded chicken wearing a ghost sheet, I clearly saw that the creation would evolve into a whirling dervish.
“I am grateful for your work,” spoke the voice in my mind again. “In the flesh, I was ‘made’ almost eight hundred years ago. Your two ladies, the Native American and the Latina Gypsy, remind me of myself when I wandered eternally, and also of a young woman who suffered a lot because of me. I preached about death before dying, I dictated rules about love… However a precious creation of God was lost because of me and my misaplaced pins on the rolling drum of life. I am Shamsuddin Tabrizi, Sufi dervish and companion of Jallaluddin, the one you call Rumi. Please complete my doll self soon so that I can whirl again, and in so doing, I will be able to speak to the young lady whose life was lost.”
Sensing that I am about to be gifted a story as tragic as the frustrated love told in Doctor Zhivago, I am eager to hear the tune of this particular melody in History. I feel that another man from another time needs to let go of the frozen grip of his sorrow to see daffodils bloom again under the caring eyes of aspen trees. I know that if I hurry to finish my dervish doll I will be able to help this man sing his heart song again, clean the dust of oblivion from the writing desk of his soul, plant a new tree where the weeping willow stood frozen in time and help him shed light on a dark secret for him to melt the snowflakes of his longing. I don’t want him to be waiting in vain, lying in the cold trenches of his inner torment. I know I can soothe him and let his voice speak through me, turning myself into his hollow reed.
I sculpt his face and let the salt dough dry, I paint him and dress him in white linen, and I needle felt his dervish hat as fast as I can. Those hats are said to represent a tomb that symbolizes ego’s death. However, instead of a tomb, I see a sugarloaf.
“I remember the day I stayed in that inn of sugar merchants in Konya. Finally I had found the one I was looking for, but our circumstances were too complex and our destiny sealed. I wish the death I mentioned was only metaphoric, but there is a dark side to my story, one many biographers choose to leave aside when they study me, maybe because my name means Sun and they want me to always shine. Every time you punch this needle in my doll hat, I am remembering the knife that stabbed my skin, but I also have glimpses of another young life ending, because of and by me. Please, hurry to finish my effigy, I need you to write my words to Kimia…”
Once I am done placing the hat on the dervish’s head, he starts whirling in my creative space, generating a rainbow vortex that colors the words he wants me to transcribe in a long letter to the one he calls K as in Kimia.
(To be continued HERE)