CoRK Arts District: Crystal Floyd’s Cabinet of Curiosities

by Tim Gilmore, 9/25/2017

To step into Crystal Floyd’s studio at CoRK Arts District in North Riverside is to step into each of her artworks and all.

This is a world where a roebuck looks pensively out over a sailfish that arches up and away from a wasp’s nest.

It’s a world where the juxtaposition of a metallic blue Morpho butterfly, a Snellen eye chart, and a cat skull makes just the right sense.

Of course it does. Such instances are the truth in Crystal’s work. The world presents itself to us exactly in this way. It’s just that we shape its presentations into neat packages to make coherent and neatly narrative sense.

Just this afternoon in Five Points, I witnessed a Filipina nun crossing the street beside a sex novelty shop across from a second-floor room where a model train club meets. Bearing witness is an act of creativity.

illustrations of mollusk shells from Seba’s Cabinet

The wunderkammer, one of Crystal’s main genres, is German for Cabinet of Wonder. In the 1700s, a Dutch collector named Albertus Seba created a vast and most stunning Cabinet of Natural Curiosities containing butterflies, sea sponges, crab shells, bird nests, bird feathers, and mollusk shells. Seba set the genre into motion.

To step into Crystal Floyd’s studio is to encounter “three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a dark alley.”

That’s the definition the poet Charles Simic gives for poetry in his strange little 2011 book Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell.

Cornell is one of Crystal’s greatest influences. Since her art consists of bricolage, the collage or collision of objects, mostly natural (if unnaturally preserved), that come to her and come together through a kind of creative happenstance, she doesn’t see art as romantically original. Besides admiring Cornell’s work, she checks it to make sure she hasn’t unknowingly repeated any particular amalgamations or accidental tropes.

In Simic’s preface, he writes, “I have a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other on the street. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. I walked the same New York neighborhoods that he did between 1958 and 1970.”

So the creative contingency of Simic’s poems and Cornell’s art matches the constant accidental creations of all the smallest elements of a city encountering each other even unwittingly. Crystal’s studio is the center of such convergences in Northern Florida.

Cornell’s “shadow boxes,” which might contain butterfly wings or doll heads, influenced Simic’s methods in poetry. In thinking about how Cornell put old and disparate elements together to make new beauty, Simic says, “I had hoped to do the same.”

To step into Crystal’s Cabinet of Curiosities, then, is to enter the accidental poetry of what a mastodon tooth says to cicada shells, what a jar of owl feathers means beside a vial of fish scales.

She trawls yard sales and estate sales, always looking, and as she tells cultural critic and writer Daniel Brown in a recent Folio Weekly cover story, “People think I’m a taxidermist, so they’ll show up and hand me a dripping bag of warm meat.”

She shows me old scrapbooks preserving early 20th century comics cut from magazines and newspapers.

She cherishes a handmade and stapled booklet showing how to assemble art from various kinds of fish scales, then shows me bottles of scales, meticulously categorized and preserved by the original folk artist.

The first handwritten page says, “This is about my fish scale dyeing. I discovered this myself. The secret is the use of vinegar. By experimenting I found how many drops to use for color some take more.” [sic]

The scrapbook and instructions and materials for fish scale art are the adventitious heirloom of Lelah Millsap, whose 1926-27 Putnam County ninth grade writing certificate Crystal shows me from the scrapbook.

Though Crystal never knew Lelah, she feels close to her. She holds in her hands these certifications of Lelah’s early academic success and particolored images, which Lelah cut out and pasted, of clowns embracing horses.

Sometimes, Crystal says, as I stare into a mesh of wishbones, whatever’s left—after she’s worked incommensurate pieces together into the assemblage they dictate—announces itself as already complete. Such is the case with this wishbone web into which I let myself daze and daydream.

Dan wrote of the diffuser wall Crystal’s creating just outside her CoRK studio. Laying yet flat on the floor, the diffuser wall contains an accordion, antlers, a washboard. I stand on the ladder beside it and Crystal stands smiling up from below, a pixie-urban anti-Vanna-White.

As Dan notes, the diffuser wall’s commissioned for Bear Machine Studios, a new music studio on the edge of Riverside Avondale. “Once it hangs on the studio’s back wall,” Dan writes, “it’ll enhance the space both sonically—as it influences the spreading of sound—and aesthetically.”

Crystal points me toward a strange little oval painting she’s worked into the diffusor wall. A visual pun on the name of the studio, the image shows three bears—no Goldilocks—in the foreground of a wooden cabin cozily lighted within among wintry evergreens.

What Crystal’s added to this old oval is a blueprint amidst the bears, so they seem to have a knowledge superior to that of the people inside the cabin who assumedly know nothing of the conniving bears without.

It’s true the diffuser wall, measuring 17 feet by five, is the largest artwork Crystal’s created.

It’s also true that the largest artwork Crystal’s created is the wunderkammer that is her studio. Structurally, Crystal’s art is organized like a crystal, or a hologram, from which any piece sliced from the larger can be found to contain in itself the whole structure of the larger original.

Let your unconscious categorizations of butterflies and cicadas and bird skulls go, and you’ll find your experience of the crystalline structure of this wunderkammer studio to be precisely so.

I have in my possession several items I’m constantly tempted to give Crystal on commission—owl feathers, a cat skull, a blue jay skull, 100 year old Jacksonville souvenir spoons, childhood images of my mother, old prints of Central State Hospital, Milledgeville, Georgia, the sprawling mental asylum where my schizophrenic uncle spent most of his life. Am I too afraid to let such pieces go? Am I jealous of what anyone else might make of them?

Mary Oliver’s poem “The Kitten” keeps occurring to me. She could’ve given the stillborn one-eyed kitten to a museum, she says, or called the local small-town newspaper,

“But instead I took it out into the field / and opened the earth / and put it back / saying, it was real, / saying, life is infinitely inventive, / saying, what other amazements / lie in the dark seed of the earth, yes.”

I thought it important to write about Crystal’s Wunderkammer on this hurricane’s eve because in my writing, I’ve made strong distinctions, then blurred them, between the World and the Earth, for years.

The World is what we’ve made of the Earth and which always falls apart. The Earth is what exists before and outside the World and contains the World and ever makes itself new.

We couldn’t think about nature, the environment, the Earth, if we did not live in the human-made, the artificial, the World. Only from the World can we see the Earth, just as only the World could have sent us to the Moon, from which we have our best images and understanding of the Earth as a lone living planet in all outer dead space.

Comfortably, not taking herself too seriously, Crystal navigates the space between the World and the Earth. Or. More accurately. The landscape from which the World can consider the Earth at all.

In 1988, Hurricane Joan began to brew off the Western coasts of Africa, churning and turning and germinating anger, just as plagues of African desert locusts stripped green life from Senegal to Morocco. Timed perfectly, the nascent cyclone waters and winds whipped the locust plagues into the growing storm, transporting them across the Atlantic Ocean and dumping the swarms on Caribbean islands. Islanders feared the locusts would strip all the vegetation from the Caribbean as they did North Africa in times of plague.

But the locusts that covered tankers and government buildings and villages so that no human-made structure could be seen beneath their bodies wilted in the Caribbean humidity, nearly starved in their hurricane passage across the Atlantic, having survived apparently by eating each other at sea, and so began, upon settling in a wriggling and buzzing carpet across the Caribbean, to wither, to die, and to fall by billions into the ocean.

Likewise, a shark’s jaw tops a cow skull and deer antlers curve down and out from that bovine face like grasping fists as whiskers.

Likewise, an astronaut’s helmet floats up behind an alligator skull.

Likewise, an exoskeleton of briars flares sharply into a radiant web of thorns up from a lantern and a tiger, for this is the World and the Earth in which we live, about which what more could anybody say more beautifully, more truthfully, more wondrously?

I walk the nighttime railroad tracks from Crystal’s studio and come to a table for one at the corner of Rosselle and King. An old lamp flickers a warm saffron glow. I sit down to a ceramic cup of hot green tea. A bearded woman in a lab coat hands me a religious tract, Jack T. Chick, 1972, The Gay Blade. I hand the tract to a small night vulture who will use it to line the nest in which she leaves her necrophagous trash and feeds her chicks. A nearby squirrel sings, under his breath, “Mammy’s little baby loves short’nin’ bread,” but the corn grows strong in the early fall. The carpenter ants throw themselves a masked ball. A bake sale. A fish fry. Surely, then, is there hope for us all. No question. A rent party. Look deeply into your crystal (Floyd) ball.