“Mixed Memories,” Plantation artist Judy Polstra’s contribution to the All Florida exhibition at the Boca Museum, is impressive enough as a purely aesthetic artistic exercise. It’s a sculpture in which the ghostly, pocky, chalk-white face – it could be male or female, and from a distance, it almost looks like George Washington – sits atop a body festooned with all sorts of motley accoutrements, including the heads and dresses from baby dolls, strings of beads and dice, and various forgotten toys from her own childhood. It immediately captures your attention, partly because the collection of hundreds of belts piled at the mannequin’s feet, which speak to this installation’s higher purpose: to raise awareness against child abuse.
The belts have been donated, per the artist’s urging, by visitors who, like Polstra, were affected by child abuse. In addition to Polstra’s own healing, part of the motivation for this project was to show others that they’re not alone, and “Mixed Memories” has become something of a communal place to exorcise demons of past violence. And as Polstra tells us, the number of belts only keeps growing.
To reference your own words, what are some of your favorite “strange, everyday relics” that have gone into your work?
I have used everything from buttons, beads, jewelry and toys to hardware, artificial teeth and glass prosthetic eyes. I started collecting “relics” more than 12 years ago when my mother and both grandmothers passed away within a year of each other. It made me sad that no one wanted many of these objects. I saved them and began incorporating them into my art. I’m drawn to objects that strike me as beautiful, strange, “gross” or somehow funny. Many items are now donated to me from people all over the US who have seen my work and have mementos of their own stashed away somewhere in a box or drawer.
Do you wish to share anything personal that might have inspired this piece?
I received and was witness to countless whippings by belts from a very young age. The belt was kept next to a cookie jar in the kitchen – talk about “Mixed Memories,” as this installation is titled. I would hide with a pillow over my head to muffle the sounds of the belt and the screams of pain. For years, none of us spoke about this. When we finally did, some surviving relatives claim either no knowledge or recollection, or deny that the beatings occurred.
I found “Mixed Memories” incredibly moving. Was it emotionally overwhelming for you to create it, or were you able to keep a sort of objective distance from it?
It was cathartic. Coming up with the concept was a huge relief. Finally I felt as if I had a place to “put” these pieces from my childhood. I was momentarily concerned that it might upset some family members, but the urge to “get it out” was overwhelming.
For years I would look at these boxed-up toys and have very confused feelings about them. Some would bring back wonderful memories, others the sounds of screaming – sometimes both within the same toy or doll dress. “Mixed Memories” is to me a symbol of my childhood. Much of it was filled with laughter, but there was always that looming threat of being beaten with a belt.
Approximately how many belts have been added since the sculpture went up?
“Mixed Memories” has been shown three times in the South Florida area, and each time more belts were added. I am always so moved by the many people who want to share with me their stories of similar experiences. Some of the stories I’ve heard are 50-, 60-plus decades old. They never said anything because they were too ashamed and felt alone in their experience. My best guess is approximately 400 belts.
What will eventually happen to all of the belts? Have they become permanent parts of the installation, wherever the sculpture goes?
The belts are a permanent part of the installation. Each belt represents someone who experienced firsthand or has been somehow otherwise affected by some form of abuse. I would love for this installation to travel around and fill a large room with belts so more victims can see that they are not alone. Belts of all conditions and sizes are welcome.
Do you believe that art can be therapy, or vice versa?
Definitely! For me it goes both ways. In addition to healing through “Mixed Memories,” I created two different pieces based on my being car-jacked at gunpoint a few years ago. While I was not hurt physically, my sense of safety and wellbeing was shattered. I spiraled into a depression and just wanted the pain to stop. Out of that, I created a neon piece and a hand-latched rug of over 150,000 loops, with only the words “Put your fingers in my hole.” Referring to the seemingly unending pain that emanated from my gut, I just wanted the pain to stop. The double entendre of plugging that “hole” came to me early one morning and made me smile. Both pieces have been shown from New York City to Seattle. The smiles on people’s faces when they see my work, and then read my stories behind it, are to me as therapeutic as hours spent with my psychologist.