Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

A Stack of Water by Micki Watanabe Spiller

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Micki Watanabe Spiller was in residence on Governors Island from May 21-June 24, 2018.

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Summer Memories Retrieved by Novels, as well as the Sights, Sounds, and Smells of a Site

My mother—a Christian in a sea of Japanese Buddhists—lifted my name from the Judeo-Christian Bible. Everyone knows Psalm 23, even if you are Hindu or Muslim. It’s the one recited at memorials or spoken by the British minister in the movies:

The LORD is my Shepherd I shall not want.
He maketh me lie down in green pastures
He leadeth me beside still waters.

My birth name Migiwa is a literal translation from Japanese of the phrase “beside still waters.” I was always uncomfortable growing up in the Midwest, where my name gave me an outsider status. As an agnostic teenager, I spent summers in Japan with my evangelical mother. Those sweltering Augusts were both painful, as I played the returning prodigal child, and rejuvenating, as I learned the culture of my seaside homeland through more mature eyes.

Both memories reappeared last summer during my residency on Governors Island. My artistic practice has focused on reading, writing, and sewing, where literature influences the structures and garments I create. My task on Governors Island was to read novels with the word water in the title, looking for themes and quotes to embroider into a new body of studio works.   

Every day, as I rode my bike along the East River to the Governors Island ferry terminal, I would come to a section of the path under construction, and the smell of the brackish water would signal that I was nearing the terminal. At the same moment, an image of a little girl with her grandmother sitting in the undercarriage of a ferry would appear in my mind. In Japan, I grew up riding a ferry with my grandmother from Oshima to the mainland to shop and visit cousins and friends. Though the body of water may be different, the Governors Island ferry felt like home. The ride across the slip of water surrounding New York City is shorter than my childhood ferry ride, but I walked upon the same uneven surface of the boat, smelled the same diesel fumes, and felt the same wind whip-tangle my hair.

On my first morning commute, I met a city kid on his way to the high school on Governors Island. I thought of that slow island life in Japan. I would have commuted to the mainland for high school had I stayed. He told me about his plans to graduate and get the hell out of New York City, to work as a tanker mechanic and sail to Japan. He will traverse my route in reverse, and I am certain he will see the world as I have.

As I walked from the ferry landing to the old paint-peeling officer’s house in Nolan Park, I thought about Marcel Proust. There are two routes from the ferry landing. Just as the narrator of In Search of Lost Time had a “front way” and a “back way” on his Sunday strolls, each of my routes to the house evoked different memories. The front way took me along a historical, Wharton-esque, tree-lined, brick road to Nolan Park 5B, where I climbed the wooden steps, passed the porch swing stirred by a slight breeze, and finally entered the front library foyer. The back way took me past the Billion Oyster Project, through wafting smells of shellfish and decomposing organic matter, past the port-a-potty, to enter the house by the back kitchen, where I suspect the servants used to come and go.

There is a lot of water imagery in the Christian Bible: baptisms, renewal, rebirth, cleansing away the wrongs of humanity. Trying to be open-minded about my mother’s religion, I hoped to encounter these themes in the chosen stack of books while sitting at my window in Nolan Park, looking out across the watery expanse toward Brooklyn. But as I read novels such as The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro and Daniel Kraus, At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen, and Dead Water by Ann Cleeves, I found distinct and varied stories, from sappy romances to mysteries. Most were macabre, as water became an ominous and sinister place for hiding, dumping, or punishing.

These are some of the places I traveled while sitting still: Baltimore, South Carolina, Houston bayous, the reservoirs of Wyoming, El Salvador, Brazil, Scotland, London, the Shetland Islands, Istanbul, Sicily, France, and the waters surrounding the islands that make up Japan. The resulting piece, currently in-progress, combines narratives I lifted out of the novels along with recollections of my Japanese island, which are embroidered on fabrics that will be made into a book jacket. This work now sits in a cold studio in Long Island City, weaving together old and new memories while histories of a place are overlaid through titles and fabrics—the flotsam and jetsam of a narrative life.

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