Onto the still, black surface of the river I stepped, crossing the ice to the birch grove on the island opposite my house. I was not thinking of running away. I just wanted to disappear, release the latches binding me to the knife-edged voices at home.
Halfway across the river a flash of color caught my eye. I stopped and knelt to look closely: stark green petals of a birch frond trapped just under the ice. I fanned my fingers to match the arc of each leaf, my bruiseless child hands glowing pink in the wind.
The current flowed fast under the newly formed ice. I heard sharp pops cracking beneath my weight and moved on quickly with little fox steps, to the shore and then the copse of birch and below their naked branches, a hollow shelter of frozen soil. I climbed in.
I could see the lights of my house across the water and did not feel severed, not severed enough. Below the belly of the river, tethered fingers of land joined the island to my backyard.
I turned away from the house and lay my face onto a cold rock. And then I saw it, carefully placed on the slate next to my head: a tiny heart beating without a body, delicate open ventricles with no connecting veins. A living heart, soft and rhythmic. I took the beating heart into my hands, my numb palms warming to its heat. It was the size of a walnut shell. Was it the heart of a bird or an infant god?
I stood up and cradled the heart in one hand, held it gently to my chest, and carefully stepped back over the ice towards home. I imagined what I could do with a beating heart: hide it within the cracked plaster in the wall behind my bed. At night, when the house quieted, I would hear its metronomic pulse.
Several years ago I gave two drawings I’d made in 2008 to someone who later abandoned them in a city a thousand miles away. I hadn’t thought much about the drawings until I learned they’d been left behind and forgotten. Then I couldn’t stop thinking about where they’d ended up. The miscarried gift haunted my imagination daily. Months later a friend texted—he’d randomly found what he believed to be my drawings in a storage unit in that same city—did I want him to send them to me? Yes, yes, I said. Those drawings have never been shown, until now.
The urge to disappear is a longing to be seen.
The title of this show, No Island is an Island, is a line from the English translation of Island, a novel by Danish author Siri Ranva Hjelm Jacobsen. A few blocks from Haynes Court lies Palmisano Park, built on top of a buried limestone quarry. The gallery walls are composed of limestone Venetian plaster, a building material thousands of years old, known for its ability to expand and contract with shifting humidity. The limestone was applied by myself and my dear friend of twenty years, the Chicago-based artist Alice Tippit.
The paintings were all made during the past three months, the summer my mother died. They are named after narrators from books I read during this time, all women who are unapologetic: Edie (from Raven Leilani’s Luster); Esther (from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar); Elena(from Elena Ferrante’s The Neopolitan Quartet); and Joan(from Lisa Taddeo’s Animal). They are unapologetically hungry, horny, hustling and bloody. Their voices propelled my work like the beating of a thinking heart.
Mary Simpson was born in Anchorage, Alaska and currently lives in New York. She received an MFA from Columbia University and attended the Whitney Independent Study Program. Her work has shown at Bortolami Gallery, On Stellar Rays, Rachel Uffner Gallery and Simone Subal Gallery, all New York; David Petersen, Minneapolis; Almine Rech, Brussels; Hilary Crisp, London; Chambers Fine Art, Beijing; Seattle Art Museum; Boise Art Museum. Film Screenings, projects and lectures include the Artists Institute, The Kitchen, Goethe Institute, all New York; Henry Art Gallery, Seattle; CAM2, Madrid.
Image: Mary Simpson, Edie, 2021. Oil on panel.