Because My Heart is Already Broken

A hand over sand holding a ceramic egg streaked with black and gray and redA pit fired egg that was burnished and bisqued and fired in non-hostile territory.

Art Project – Burning Man 2017
Because My Heart Is Already Broken

In pre-historic hearths, archeologists have found small ceramic figures and many broken pieces of ceramic. These are not early kilns where these people fired ceramics to carry grain and clean water — just hearths for keeping warm.

Clay, even when it is dry, holds molecular water. As it is fired in a kiln, it goes through a chemical process that allows it to release that water, changing it from a mixture of alumina, silica, and water to a matrix of alumina and silica. Getting this molecular water out is not without risk. Often it releases too violently, and the clay form cracks or explodes under the pressure. This is why clay is fired in careful slow conditions rather than just blasted with heat.

The theory is that these prehistoric people sat around their heaths and made figures with their hands that were wishes or prayers. They tossed them into the fire and waited. Sometimes they heard the pop of the clay breaking apart and sometimes they discovered a fired ceramic figure in the ashes the next day. I suppose that the broken clay could have sent the wish to the gods, or that the surviving figure could have been an omen for a wish to be granted. Either way, it was thought and labor put into a crafted object that was then sent into fire to be transformed in some way.

This year, life has hurt me in new and interesting ways. I am returning to Black Rock City as a different person than the one who was last there. I am thinking of the way that Burning Man used to transform me by breaking me a little – like clay to ceramic to clay to ceramic to clay.

In the middle of this crazy transformative desert is the craziest of fires, my home hearth, the Car-B-Que. Over the years, it has been host to… all kinds of inadvisable things. I honestly cannot think of a less hospitable place to put clay.

But, my heart is already broken. And despite that, I get up and make wishes every day. I keep building hopes and dreams, even though I expect that they will just blow away in short order. Because my heart is already broken, I can dream without fear.

This year, I will carry a box of clay with me to Burning Man, and I will make some small figures to dry in the playa sunlight. You’re welcome to make some too, if you’re brave enough to let them go. We’ll write messages on them, wrap them in rags soaked in salt and with copper wires, and then nestle them into the most hostile fire I know of. Most likely, we will just pull back shards of wishes that got sent to the gods by a green log. Maybe we’ll pull back an omen, though — a wish for the future, and a reminder that not all dreams blow away.

Salem Identity Mask Project

I worked with the residents at Salem Lutheran Home, an Eden Alternative Care property in Oakland, on a project about identity and community. For the first stage of the project I made mask forms out of clay in conversation with the residents, and then I made plaster molds from those forms. I cast a several of each style of mask.

In the second stage, we did workshops in which residents chose a mask and then used underglaze and transfer decals to illustrate their exterior and interior identities on the mask forms.

In the final creation stage, we had a conversation in which each resident chose some themes that defined their lives: leadership, spirit, family, adventure, etc.

I installed the masks in a tree on the property. All the adventure masks were joined by an adventure ribbon, the spirit by a spirit ribbon, etc. Finally, all the masks were joined by one long ribbon for the community at Salem.

The piece was unveiled at an afternoon community celebration of art and jazz open to both Salem residents and their surrounding community.

Installed Masks at Salem Lutheran Home, Oakland
Installed Masks at Salem Lutheran Home, Oakland
Installed Masks at Salem Lutheran Home, Oakland
Installed Masks at Salem Lutheran Home, Oakland
Setting up for the Art and Jazz celebration at Salem Lutheran Home
Setting up for the Art and Jazz celebration at Salem Lutheran Home

Djinnaya at the Salem Mask Installation


The experience was intense and rewarding. As the guide for the project, I became intensely aware of the fragility of our identities and stories.  Just like these masks, they have to be held gently; but also just like these masks, they have to risk a little damage in order to be seen in all their glory.

I am very grateful to the Center for Art and Public Life for the Kinetic Grant that funded the project.  I also owe endless thanks to Erin Partridge for her expert guidance and support.  I could not have done it without her assistance and encouragement.  Finally, I cannot send enough thanks to the residents of Salem Lutheran Home who trusted me with their stories and their images.  You enriched my life and my work every day we got to work together.