My mother backpacked around the world in the 1970’s, before cell phones and Skype, before ATM machines, even before email. She spent most of her trip in Africa and those were the stories I asked her to tell me over and over again as she put me to bed at night. I had some favorites; when she was sick on the train and the woman in front of her threw out the bucket full of her children’s urine, dousing my mother by accident. Or when she climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, when she ate roasted rats or when she went looking for a camel market by motorcycle. She had been traveling with the man who would later be my father and not to discredit his unique sense of adventure, this part of my story is about her. Her voice all of those nights, describing smells and colors, foods and landscapes – it ignited my imagination and began to slowly burn, forging an indestructible desire to explore, to travel and to challenge myself. My first step was getting my ears pierced.
I was seven years old and I wanted to wear earrings, beautiful dangly earrings that made sound when you moved your head… although it resulted in mostly studs of little animals and quartz crystals. A couple of years later I wanted to get two additional piercings, but this request was denied. Much debate ensued and my mother agreed to a second round of piercings…but only every seven years. After waiting anxiously for the remaining eternity of birthdays, I was in the piercers’ chair again as I turned 14. The next year I started high school and began listening to electronic music, after I turned 15 I went to my first rave. I made friends with older people and some of them owned a tattoo shop near the university. For the rest of high school I spent some time hanging out in the shop and learning about various types of body modifications using jewelry.
While I deeply respected the art of tattooing, it was the piercing that fascinated me. The incredible variety of traditions and Peoples that used jewelry to change the ways they experienced their bodies inspired me, it felt like an adventure into ornate and exotic worlds. I wanted to explore personally what I was seeing. So I started changing my body. I began by removing the second set of earrings and piercing a part of the ear called the ‘tragus’. This is the little piece of cartilage in the ear found closest to the face. Slightly surprising my mother although maintaining the four piercings policy, I was allowed to keep them. Then I started stretching the piercings in my ear lobes. This is done with a metal cone-shaped tool appropriately called a taper. The taper is forced through the original piercing and then followed by a slightly larger earring. The ear is allowed to heal for three months and then the process is repeated. Over the next five years I spent a lot of money on buying new jewelry for my rapidly expanding ear lobes. During this time I moved my tragus piercings to my labret, the area of skin directly below the bottom lip and the fourth to my nose. It was exhilarating to identify myself with a group of people around the world that decorated their bodies, that changed the symmetry and balance of their identities, albeit through – at times substantial physical pain.
A couple of years after graduation I moved to Italy to study art. One of the courses I decided to take was jewelry design and construction. The jewelry studio was near the river in an old stone building with a courtyard of wild and forgotten plants. It was bitterly cold in the studio and I relied on my thermos of hot tea to sustain me throughout the hours of work cutting and filing and polishing raw silver. I made a small ring set with a translucent stone that reminded me of the moon and an extremely large one imitating a singular ‘brass knuckle’. Among the handful of completed pieces, the design and resulting necklace I made as a gift for my mother was my masterpiece. It was a web of Mother of Pearl, carefully stitched together with silver wire. Dozens of pieces were fit and measured to produce a mermaid-like breast-plate which clasped at the neck. I loved working with the saws and torches and files, where many of the other girls felt awkward and clumsy – I excelled. All of the hours spent around my father building in his workshop had acclimatized me to an environment of heavy metal and dangerous objects.
During my daily life in Florence I naturally gravitated to familiar places and on several occasions visited the local tattoo shops. As a student planning to travel for months after my studies concluded in the summer, money was tight. Needless to say, I had no budget for buying new jewelry. So I began to experiment with ways of making my own. My first attempt was with a wine cork I cut down into the shape of a taper and one evening attempted to force it through my ear. It was a very painful prototype and resulted in my ear congealed with blood attaching itself to the porous cork. After a hot shower and a very brave roommate I had removed the cork and began thinking of other materials that were less likely to cause me such pain. Eventually I discovered that by using clay baked in the apartment’s small oven I was able to form a smooth-sided taper. Doubling as an earring, I slowly pulled it through thereby stretching my ear lobes a little everyday. The only downside to the new clay taper/earring came while in the shower. A few days found the clay starting to dissolve and I was forced to construct a new pair. Stubborn and now personally committed the project being a success, I remade the tapers as often as three times a week. This process allowed me to make very rapid progress and within a few months my new held a striking resemblance to the images of African tribesmen I had imagined listening to my mother’s voice in the dark many years before.