The First Supper

Presented by: Mark Nelson

Two families move to a new place, far from their old homes. One family has matching dishes and chairs. The other family has pieced together their table settings, doing what they can. Nevertheless, both celebrate the first day of a new life, joining together as they look to the future. However, the past is never far away, either as reminder or as memory, the past always in view when looking forward to the horizon. Memories can become cleansed, sanitized, but they keep coming, returning to the surface no matter how often they are pushed back into the washing machine. Over time life, like nature, wears away the differences between those who start with more and those who have a little less, and it is ultimately a story about who stays together into the future. Each new day becomes a First Supper as the future beckons just over the threshold.

The First Supper is an installation in a corncrib that is part of a row of ten corn cribs adjacent to community gardens and fields that are part of a new county park. A woman donated her family farm to the county, and it is being converted into a unique site that is both symbolic and practical; Hmong farmers grow vegetables, other farmers grow corn, young people learn job skills, while others come out to watch and celebrate the passing of the seasons with apple cider or bouquets of flowers.  The corn cribs are a powerful figure on the landscape with potent symbolic and mythical properties, referencing an individualistic agrarian culture that is metamorphosing into new forms. While they once stored corn, the cribs now store memories and dreams.

My installation consists of multiple pieces that reflect different aspects of settling into new places. It is a commemoration of my own childhood as a military dependent, moving every few years and constantly having that First Supper in a new house, a new trailer, a new barracks or a new mess hall. I found myself remembering a past that I had forgotten about as I put together the pieces for the installation. Christmas in a travel trailer. Sleeping on the floor. Eating in a mess hall. Sharing bathrooms with other families. Living for months in a house with no furniture other than mats on the floor and two chairs. Getting used to new foods, new smells, new climates, meeting new friends. The corn crib represents a place to return to, while at the same time it does not completely shut out the elements, and holds multiple families, lives and dreams in a close embrace. It is a celebration of making do with what you have, and weathering whatever storms come your way.

In addition to the dining table, there are several other intertwined elements to the installation. The washing machine is both reassuring and ominous. It promises to clean the past, rinsing and spinning away unpleasant memories, while at the same time it has the potential to gobble up everything and eliminate good memories as well as bad. The table with the head on it is like a security blanket, offering comfort and presenting a familiar face, while also symbolizing the way time defaces memory, wearing away over the course of a year. The tower of chairs is the reminder of the Last Supper in the old home, never really usable but always hanging around and threatening to obstruct the view. The chandelier and decaying wood items on the ground always have the potential to become something new, but can just as easily clutter the present, and eventually sink into disrepair.

Most of the elements for the installation came from St. Vincent DePaul’s Dig and Save Store, which is where things go when they do not sell at the regular thrift stores. These are things that were rejected by people who often had little to begin with. The installation has been up for almost a year, and some things show the effects of time and weather, while others are surprisingly unchanged. The installation evolved as a response to the site and the materials, and the narrative came as things evolved.

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