The tea cozy–a fuzzy knitted covering to keep a teapot warm and extend the social hour. It’s an everyday object, a throwback from Victorian England–just not in the hands of artist Elizabeth Demaray. She upholstered a tea cozy to ensconce a 10-ton nuclear missile at Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, Calif., in 2001. This particular tea cozy required 88 yards of quilted light-blue satin.
Demaray’s nuclear missile tea cozy will be on view inside the Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery until Nov. 4. It opened for the Jersey City Artists’ Studio Tour last weekend.
Hi Elizabeth. Who are you, and what do you do?
I’m a sculptor and Head of the Sculpture Concentration at Rutgers, University, Camden where I’m an Assistant Professor of Art.
You have an exhibition at the Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery at New Jersey City University in October 2010. What are you showing, and why should everyone come to the exhibition?
I’m showing a 27 foot-long stuffed Nike Hercules Missile along with photo work, interactive sculpture and a video.
For this piece, you upholstered a tea cozy to ensconce a 10-ton nuclear missile. This is an odd couple-the cozy and missile. Can you describe the Nike Missile Cozy Project, from conception to development to execution?
Sure, I was an artist in residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito CA, which is situated in a decommissioned military base at the mouth of the Golden Gate Bridge. At the time I was upholstering stones and making artwork about the connection between game playing in children, competitive sports and warfare.
My studio at the Headlands was up a hill from the last decommissioned Nike Hercules Missile base in the US. So while I was working in my studio, I could look out my window and watch visitors at the missile site interact with the warheads, which they would bring up out of their silos on the weekends and I kept thinking about how I would really like to upholster a missile. At the time I had figured out how to hand map stones for upholstery-which is no easy feat because you can’t just nail upholstery panels onto a stone, you actually have to carefully hand map the stone so that the seams between each pattern piece share equal stress in every direction.
So, one afternoon I took my portfolio down the hill and went to introduce myself to the three ex-military guys who ran the missile base. And surprisingly enough they really liked my art work and said “Elizabeth, why don’t you come down and do a piece at the missile base?” And I said, “Wow, thank you so much for the invite. What I would really like to do is to upholster one of your war heads.”
And they all looked at each other with concern at which point I said that I knew that it sounded odd but that I had been upholstering stones and had figured out how to hand map three dimensional objects in such a way as to not have to nail into them. I also said that I was pretty sure that I could map and create a covering for a missile without damaging it in any way. So they let me hand map the missile in its silo for two weeks. I then took the pattern to a giant gallery at the Headlands Art Center, quilted the satin cloth that I used on a quilting machine and proceeded to sew what was essentially a giant cozy for a missile.
The resulting piece is titled The Nike Missile Cozy Project, and consists of a 10-ton Nike-Hercules Warhead upholstered in eighty-eight yards of light blue quilted satin. I then took the cozy off the missile and stuffed it, creating a lumpy, soft bodied variant of the original form. This stuffed missile, titled Effigy, from the Nike Missile Cozy Project, will be shown at the gallery at NJCU laid out across a series of sawhorses.
How did you wrap the tea cozy around the missile?
Very slowly. It was the morning of the opening at the missile site and I was worried that it wasn’t going to fit.
How much money did the project cost, and how did you finance it?
I had a small grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation in conjunction with a two-week residency at the Headlands gallery. I honestly don’t remember the total cost but it was probably below $400.
A twenty-seven foot satin-blue cozy will dampen the potency of any missile–no matter how much Viagra it’s given. The intent of the Nike missile was to eliminate the threat posed by the bomb. Its mission was to safeguard us from the blast, fire, and radiation. By 1974, the missiles were made obsolete because of new technologies – as a result, they were decommissioned. In 2001, what were your thoughts on the bomb, and the Nike missile? Have your thoughts changed in the past ten years?
There is a great video that I’m showing at NJCU titled “Missile Talk” which is just a video of John Porter, the director or the missile site kindly answering my questions about missiles. In it I ask him about why the missiles were nuclear. It was one of the things that occurred to me while I was lying on top of the missile during the pattern making part of the project.
Why were the missiles nuclear if they were really just supposed to be our land to air civil defense? They were just supposed to just take out incoming Russian or Chinese warheads, so why were they nuclear? In the video Captain Porter explains to me that the missiles actually had really bad aim, and to ameliorate this problem the military made them nuclear. That way they would be sure to take out everything in a five-mile radius.
I think that story is emblematic of how I feel about our cold war civil defense system. It was a bunch of folks with primitive technology attempting to do what ever was in their means to keep us safe.
I am also interested in the missile as an object. If you had to critique the scientists who developed the missile on aesthetic grounds, what would you say to them, and why?
This is such a great question! I chose the oldest missile at the site, it was a model from 1958 and it looked like a rounded go-cart, like something out of the 1930’s version of Buck Rogers in the 21st Century. It looked completely hand-made and I would tell the scientists who created it that it was obvious that a lot of care and aesthetic consideration went in to what they made.
I had reoccurring nightmares of nuclear war throughout my childhood. The nightmares persisted, and followed me to art school. I shared my growing anxiety about the imminent holocaust with my professor, Gerry Nichols, one day in class. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “Brendan, nuclear war is so passé.” The year was 1994. Still, the bomb-and the threat of nuclear war, is one of the defining symbols of my childhood. What is a defining symbol of your childhood?
It’s hard for me to pinpoint one thing in relation to my childhood. It does however seem to be that the loss of life in the oceans, ozone in the atmosphere and viable habitat in which to live have become the defining threats of my adult world.
Have your perceptions of Nike Missile Cozy Project changed since its first unveiling in 2001? If so, how and in what way?
Wow, that’s another great question. In retrospect I am frankly amazed by the project. I’m amazed that I accomplished the entire endeavor-the pattern making, the sewing the fitting and the stuffing-in the space of one month. It also never ceases to amaze me that the missile site actually allowed me to do the project in the first place.
In the novel Mao II, by Don Delillo, he said terrorists would eventually replace novelists, become the new storytellers, and shape the narratives we live by. Mao II was published in 1991. Al-Qaeda transformed the jumbo jet airplane-an everyday object-into a weapon of war on September 11, 2001. For me, your work- Nike Missile Cozy Project and The Story of the Donner Party-showcases the proximity between banal objects and catastrophe. So, what part of your psyche-and how much of it, is occupied by disaster?
To be absolutely honest with you, I think that I am one of those people who can never be completely overjoyed by anything, because I always have the feeling that disaster is right around the corner. There is an old adage that “comedy is tragedy in hindsight” and I think that the humorous part of my work speaks to that.
If you had to design a tea cozy for one person, place, or thing in Jersey City, what would it be and why?
I would like to upholster a stone that’s part of the Harsimus Stem Embankment, the elevated stone structure that runs for a half mile along 6th street in downtown Jersey City. Right now there is an Embankment Preservation Coalition, a non-profit group, working to preserve the Embankment, develop its top as open space, and integrate the site into a network of local and regional pedestrian and biking trails. Anything that I could do to bring publicity to that project would be worth it.
The original post may be found here.