Visual Art

In the Texas Theatre's New Safe Room, an Artist Uses Tiles to Mine Her Memory

We indulge the word memory in a utilitarian way, as though it were a physical space, crammed full of ancient locker combinations and emotional residue, a kind of messy junk drawer full of neural sparks that you'll sort through, someday.

In Cassandra Emswiler's new solo show Canticles of Praise, on display at the Safe Room, a new gallery within Texas Theatre, we see the opposite. Her memory is an aired-out series of encounters and archival family history. Here, we're given visual storytelling as lovingly arranged by Emswiler's focused mind.

Presented as a collection of ceramic tiles, each piece's pattern is a condensed code. When united, we learn a story dating back three generations as Emswiler's family migrated through Oak Cliff. From the acid-loving pink azaleas that guarded her grandmother's home to a big-bellied light fixture installed in one of her mother's early residencies, these matriarchy flashbacks are given points of honor -- their tips touch one another, hand-holding across time's divide.

It's a fascinating concept, especially for anyone who's ever dealt with the business end of a home improvement project. There's a downright depressing banality to the mass-produced tiles we use to surround our bathtubs and support our families' bare feet. Here that structural element is bolstered through a punchy color wheel and a charming hand-me-down narrative. In Canticles, Emswiler shares all.

If forced to explore the collection on your own, you'd pick out certain images correctly, like construction site floor plans of an old family home. Or the stars gracing the exterior walls of Texas Theatre, which get some of the most forthright representation here. But without Emswiler's verbal CliffsNotes, you can't guess the rest. A muffler-shaped form is drawn from an Oak Cliff auto shop Cassandra would bike by on her way home from school. As a child, it was her landmark, a visual indicator that home and family were near. In another piece she points out a pile of stones her mother collected passionately as a young girl.

The outlined shapes are filled with equally sentimental photographs, like a blurry snapshot taken from an bedroom window, or the fun-loving pink color of the central diamond on "Raw Nandina," which came from an unannounced visit by Cassandra and her mother to one of their former residences. They popped by, just checking in. The home's current owner was wearing a wild pink shirt. It made its way into the work.

When they align, these tones, stories and shapes tangle into kaleidoscopic patterns, paying a downright beautiful tribute to Emswiler's family history and its ties to Oak Cliff.

The graphics of "Stable Cross" mirror the original tile of the Texas Theatre's lobby. Another, "Azalea Star," is modeled after the building's exterior front facade, complete with a rounded half-dome representing the ticket window.

Emswiler's show is the first for the Safe Room, which some know as the claustrophobic VIP lounge for the Oak Cliff Film Festival. The trippy, geometrically darting floors were left striped, a touch that's noted in two sets of the Emswiler tiles. In one corner of the room sits the gallery's namesake, a massive, unmovable, vault that's making itself useful by holding a pair of speakers. From them bleeds the echoing sounds of harmonic praise. It's a childhood recording of Cassandra's mother, from her years spent singing soprano with the Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church's Westminster Youth Choir. Back then the church sat just blocks from the Texas Theatre, completing the circuit of geographical continuity. It's a moving, gentle serenade; an auditory incense that billows through the space.

Emswiler's construction methods involve a time-consuming image application technique, but only for now. She seems antsy for the next phase, which she says with create "legit" tiles. After a great deal of scouring, she's found a local couple with a specific variety of tile press that will allow her to replicate these pieces at less expense and greater output. They'll also produce a stronger, more durable piece of art.

Once that's in place, Emswiler plans to donate selections to Habitat for Humanity for inclusions in new area home constructions, meaning her family's legacy with Oak Cliff will merge and nestle into another's, providing an alternative storyline at a new address.

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Jamie Laughlin
Contact: Jamie Laughlin