Cynthia Atwood—Alphabet of Weapons

September 8 - November 15, 2017

Sticks and stones can break my bones and names can never hurt me.1
Common, c. 1862
Questions’re bullets.2
David Mitchell, 2006
For art to be any use at all to us, there must be a tension between the actual circumstances of perception and the continuity of conceptual habits…This purposelessness is at the heart of what makes art a possible ethical sanctuary; far from removing art from the spheres of political power and importance, art’s hypothetical and incomplete aspects are vital to both its conceptual freedom and its capacity to bear ethical orientation.3
Susan Stewart, 2005
I make objects that confront my body and that of my viewer with sensuous humor and some provocation.4
Cynthia Atwood, 2017
Cynthia Atwood—Alphabet of Weapons is the first exhibit of four in the With Eyes Open exhibition series. At its heart, With Eyes Open celebrates New England women artists and feminism. In the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: "We Should All Be Feminists."5 With Eyes Open was assembled to acknowledge a greater need for an intersectional point of view in an age of non-binary, critical gender politics and the general appreciation of feminist inquiry over the last 5 decades on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the recurrent displays of misogynist attitudes documented in the media throughout the recent presidential election. The women’s march of early 2017 was born out of such polar circumstances—a cultural rebuttal to the blatant sexism emanating from the Oval Office. We begin our series with Cynthia Atwood—Alphabet of Weapons: a body of 26 sculptures that challenges viewers to open their eyes to their unseen armory of emotional weaponry. 
Initiated after several years of reflection on the events of 9/11 and the palpable fear America experienced in its aftermath, Cynthia Atwood began working on Alphabet of Weapons in 2006 in order to explore myriad human emotions and how they can be tooled to work against self-care, civility, sisterhood and brotherhood. Inspired by her reflections on the individual Weapons, in 2009 Atwood began a Buddhist meditation practice, which also inspired and informed the Alphabet. ”My understanding of the Dharma and my practice of using it as a point of view for my life spurred my interest in the weapons we use against ourselves, and others, even those we love.6 The 26 sculptures of Atwood’s Alphabet of Weapons raise questions that can only be answered by the viewers of this timely body of work. How do you interact with and treat others, when you are faced with emotions that tug at and direct your actions?
Cynthia Atwood (b. 1952 New Briton, CT) lives and works in her studio home in the Berkshires, where she has been producing art for the last 30 years. She earned her BFA in printmaking and painting at the University of Kansas (Lawrence, KS) in 1976 and her MFA in Visual Arts/Sculpture at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (Montpelier, VT) in 1999. Atwood runs a sewing business, creates art, and has taught art through programs such as the The Body Project in Great Barrington, MA—a project for women of all ages addressing body image and adornment—and as a visiting critic and artist-teacher at New Hampshire Institute of Art’s MFA program. In 1997, she was awarded a New England Foundation For The Arts Sculpture Fellowship, and in 2005 she was awarded an Alfred and Trafford Klots International Program for Artists Residency. Atwood regularly shows her work in local and regional venues here in New England, including Montserrat College of Art, Beverly, MA, and the De Cordova Museum in Lincoln, MA, and has exhibited outside the region in Arizona, California, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Baghdad, Iraq.
Atwood describes herself as an “engineer,7…motivated by attraction to materials and the pleasure…in handling them.8Viewers are encouraged to wonder about the armatures and the combination of elements that makes up any one of the Alphabet sculptures, which are thoroughly synthesized objects retrofitted for particular associative possibilities. Each sculpture works as a stand-alone concept while also enhancing the overall ensemble. Viewers are encouraged to look for and contemplate juxtapositions and relationships between objects and explored themes. Atwood creates sculptures that fuse several traditions into single objects, often incorporating any combination of a wide variety of building techniques: drawing, painting, sewing, woodworking, metal work, subtractive construction, and the revealed or concealed use of found objects:
 …I practice my avocation congruent with a sewing business. The use of sewing techniques in my business and in my studio practice has brought an integration of the real and the surreal into my everyday life.9 
Atwood learned to sew when she was nine years old from her mother, “who sewed every party and prom dress, who looked at clothes I liked in stores and said, ‘I can make it better.’10 Sewing is a prominent activity for Atwood’s studio practice. Beyond the tradition of sewing, which she embraces, sewing also enhances a potent metaphor in her work: a psychological makeup of an individual’s identity is like a tapestry or quilt or garment that we don and shed, picking it up to use again when it suits us. Atwood’s studio practice is punctuated by the inward search for clarity and sewing allows her to conjoin pieces of the interior puzzle. She embraces this “domestic” practice, “because weaving, the work of thread has always been present in domestic life. Just making a stitch relates to that legacy.11 Atwood acknowledges that “sewing is no longer ‘only’ a gendered tradition.”12 
I use “woman’s work” to represent the concepts I work with in the studio. My mother sewed, I sew; this tradition has long grown into the contemporary art studio and is now shared by both genders. “Woman’s work” began with the village women who were responsible for spinning and weaving of cloth. The church gave women one of their first opportunities to “express” their skills in public by embroidering vestments and altar cloths. For me, these domestic skills are deeply ingrained and come out of the home plot—family. I approached the Alphabet from the point of view of home and relationship, and the extended “world” family. This aspect deepened over the seven years that I worked on the Alphabet.13
Domestic process is intrinsic to my life. I do make a home, cook, clean, and I sew for a living. This same thread travels into the studio and is integrated into the whole. There becomes a moment when sewing is ritual, an aspect of domesticity that is the thread that holds the world together. The work is not necessarily about domesticity; I just think that domesticity is inherent in the work.14
Classifying Atwood’s work is problematic because there are no artistic traditions today that everyone practices simultaneously—as was the case in Medieval Europe, for example—and her work is an amalgam of a great many attributes and independent interests. Louise Bourgeois—an artist Cynthia Atwood greatly admires and studies—puts it this way:
What modern art means is that you have to keep finding new ways to express yourself, to express the problems; there are no settled ways, no fixed approach. This is a painful situation, and modern art is about this painful situation of having no absolutely definite way of expressing yourself. This is why modern art will continue, because this condition remains; it is the modern human condition... it is about the hurt of not being able to express yourself properly, to express your intimate relations, your unconscious, to trust the world enough to express yourself directly in it. It is about trying to be sane in this situation, of being tentatively and temporarily sane by expressing yourself. All art comes from terrific failures and needs that we have. It is about the difficulty of being a self because one is neglected. Everywhere in the modern world there is neglect, the need to be recognized, which is not satisfied. Art is a way of recognizing oneself, which is why it will always be modern.15
Concomitantly, Atwood points out that while the term “soft sculpture” is apt to some extent for the kind of work she creates, it is ultimately not an appropriate designation for the subjects she addresses within the work:
I realize that the designation “soft sculpture,” on its surface, simply describes the difference between soft and hard materials. Could these terms describe masculine and feminine polarities, more and less, which we have been trained to connote? Bronze is more important than fabric? Is this an unconscious form of sexism? Perhaps these terms are passé and narrow and sculpture is just sculpture. I can only work from a woman’s perspective. I use soft materials to make a hard edge. I give my work skeletons—bones that are either found or fabricated. The work is padded, stretched and folded. I immerse myself in the materials, the hand of them, hard and soft together. Every detail, even the smallest, has import. The source of materials is important, the glove lost and found again - a hole chewed in it, the locust thorns my brother collected for me and sent from Kansas. Every moment of hesitation is a moment for a new choice/perspective in the process of making. Formal decisions become content.16
While Atwood embraces many feminists, writers, artists and theorists, she points out that Alphabet of Weapons belongs to a humanist category: “’feminism’ is too small a category for this work, it is plural.”17
9/11 is what really instigated this body of work. I knew the world wasn’t going to be the same any more and I knew I wasn’t the only one who felt that. I moved from trying to comprehend the gross use of airplanes loaded with passengers as weapons to the subtleties of the ways we hurt others and ourselves. This is what inspired this body of work. I started thinking about how to focus on fear in a body of sculptures. Fear harmed us as much as the actual incidents of 9/11—and is more long-term and much more insidious. The idea of fear, and doing things out of fear—because you do not have an alternative to have something other than a psychological response—combined with objects not normally associated with being weapons, together propelled the project. The combination quickly became personal, and that allowed me to think in new ways.18
Integral to her work is a fascination with the “fantastic”; Atwood herself credits Surrealism as one of the important threads of modernism that fuels and informs her work. For Atwood, Surrealism allows for the juxtaposition of the strange with the familiar—the perfect vehicle to present abstract reflections on common emotional tools for harming others found within unusual settings and housings. But the exuberance of the forms she creates are not as much about Surrealist art per se as they are about examining the human condition with an acute interest in the relationship between invisible, interior consciousness and the visible, outward expressions of the body, including vocalizations and bodily gestures. In her general artist’s statement found on her website, Atwood notes:
I am interested in the unrecognizable, the repressed. What is beyond our immediate reality? What is the mystery of our associative, psychological state in regards to our perception of what is underneath our skin? Often there are details of clothing in my work, zippers, piping, buttonholes, referring to the fashion we cover ourselves with, our facade. My work is an exaggerated reference to the body. It reflects the paradox of intelligence opposing bestiality, the body couture. Our facade is an obsession. The materiality, sensuality, and labor invested in my work are expressions of the body.19
Alphabet of Weapons builds off the common idiom of language and common tools of destruction, but those tools are emotional as opposed to physical. Atwood’s abecedarium is surprising and often eye opening—exposing things we may not necessarily know we do, or, worse, exposing sentiments we would otherwise try to hide. As Atwood hauntingly points out:
The way we hurt each other in relationships is represented in the Alphabet of Weapons and we internalize these deployments.20 
We’ve learned these weapons!21
Alphabet of Weapons reminds us that violence is not only found in the obvious objects of destruction, but is often couched in the small things we do and say: Sticks and stones can break my bones and names can really hurt me.
Todd Bartel
Gallery Director, Curator
Thompson Gallery
1. Note: Gary Martin suggests that one of the earliest occurrences of the original phrase—“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never break me”—appeared in The Christian Recorder of March 1862. Gary Martin, The Phrase Finder,,  retrieved July 24, 2017
2. David Mitchell, Black Swan Green, Random House, New York, NY, 2006, p. 223
3. Susan Stewart, The Open Studio—Essays on Art and Aesthetics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 2005, pp. 16-17
4. Cynthia Atwood, July 25, 2017 telephone conversation
5.Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists, Anchor Books, A Division of Random House Books, New York, NY, 2012
6. Cynthia Atwood, Alphabet of Weapons Statement, retrieved October 2, 2016 email
7. Cynthia Atwood, August 17, 2017 telephone conversation
8. Cynthia Atwood, general Artist’s Statement
9. Cynthia Atwood, Bio,, retrieved, August 17, 2017
10. Cynthia Atwood Interview, Republic restaurant, Manchester, NH, January 14, 2017
11. Cynthia Atwood, July 25, 2017 telephone conversation
12. Atwood, July 25, 2017 telephone conversation
13. Cynthia Atwood, Alphabet of Weapons Statement, October 2, 2016 email
14. Atwood, July 26, 2017 email
15. Louise Bourgeois Interview with Donald Kuspit (1988), Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Second Ed. Revised and Expanded, Ed. Kristine Stiles, University of California Press, Berkley, Los Angeles, London, 2012, p. 41
16. Atwood, August 28, 2017 email
17. Cynthia Atwood, October 2, 2016, email
18. Atwood, July 25, 2017 telephone conversation
19. Cynthia Atwood, general Artist’s Statement,, retrieved, August 17, 2017
20. Atwood Interview, (Manchester, NH), January 14, 2017
21. Atwood, July 24, 2017 telephone conversation

To read the ArtScope Review of Cynthia Atwood—Alphabet of Weapons follow the below link:

Cynthia Atwood Review

Alphabet of Weapons Catalog


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