Generations of my bloodline settled across Appalachia, down to the swamps of Florida, and out past the hollows of Tennessee. While researching where my kin has been, I looked past the stories that have been passed down and digested, and instead sought the stories kept alive in census records and jail files and gravestone decor. Accounts of tempering, enslaving, preaching but never learning. Moonshining, fighting, and sinking under their vices.
I wanted their dirt.
I smashed and swirled and compressed the soil from their farms and homesteads with porcelain, and pinched each blended wad between my thumb and palm. Sterilizing their dirt with heat, purifying it from growing anything again, I wanted to wipe clean their stolen sustenance through the ceramic process—to petrify them in some small way. I craved a retort bigger than my body, one that would stretch out past my lifespan and last for millennia. This process archived the lot of them in a heap too big to carry, but too labored to leave.
After the frenzy of finding and rolling and pinching dirt from across the country together with pure porcelain from Florida, I digested my unearthing by spinning and looping and tugging thread into patterns, by holding tension in a distinctly muliebral way. I attempted to lace it all up—though I know this is just the start. Winding and twisting my wrists while I wove, while I untwisted the tales passed down as truth. These frail threads—these small gestures—when amassed, have begun to tug at the grounded heap I’ve collected
Karen Tharp’s unearth reflects upon and celebrates family history, communal knowledge and memory, and domestic labor through the artist’s transformation of two materials: thread and dirt. A laced “bone structure,” supported by hundreds of strands of thread affixed to the ceiling, defines the composition of the installation. Tharp spent countless hours at home crocheting patterns that she recalled seeing at her grandmother’s house; then she laced those sections together inside the gallery, expanding the thread into a web of information and knowledge about domesticity.
A robust batch of ceramic “pinches,” weighing 400 pounds in total, fill the web and spread out on the floor, imposing a tension along the diagonal structure of the work through the juxtaposition of porcelain with thread. To create the pinches, Tharp mixed porcelain mined in Florida, where she grew up, with dirt sent by strangers she met on the internet from 20 areas across the country where members of her family had once lived. She then shaped the materials by pressing them together between her right thumb and left palm, leaving her finger and palm prints on their surfaces. With distinct coloration that corresponds to the geographical origins of the soil, the pinches resemble shortbread cookies, of the kind often made within her own family.
The two separate components of the work, the “pinches” and the crocheted web, share many commonalities: they both reference manual skills Tharp inherited from senior family members and they are tediously repetitive and labor-intensive to make. These laborious and lengthy processes are essential to the project, in that they parallel the time and labor it takes to investigate and digest all of one’s history and to forge an identity within that knowledge. Spanning 30 feet, unearth monumentalizes its repetitive small components while simultaneously overwhelming the viewer. Tharp sophisticatedly and painstakingly orchestrates an engrossing installation that is not only visually compelling but also likely to provoke or resonate with viewers’ questioning of their own family lineages and histories.