Deep breath 

Kerri Rosenstein honors her father, one stone at a time

Kerri Rosenstein is drawn to the temporary. For her graduate school thesis she took large canvas paintings she’d worked on all year and shredded them, then wove them into ropes. “People would say, ‘How can you rip up your paintings?’” she says. “I’d be like, ‘I don’t know. But it feels really good!’”

A few years ago the local artist started making “dust pieces” in which she took her old drawings, journals, prints and paintings and cut them up into piles of fine particles so delicate they could be dispersed by a sneeze—an idea Rosenstein treasured. In a different dust piece, she crushed 12 red roses into powder, mixed the powder with a solidifying agent and then molded half spheres accented with gold leaf. “It’s like the form coming to dust coming back to form,” she says. “Everything has kind of been like that.”

Rosenstein’s newest project, “father,” is another conceptual piece based on temporary notions. The installation consists of 23,024 stones colored with biodegradable red milk paint. Rosenstein wrote “Rosenstein” in gold on 12,023 of them. The first number constitutes the number of days of her father’s life, the second number the days of her own. Her upcoming Missoula Art Museum (MAM) exhibit invites people to take a stone and return it to nature. In a year, she hopes visitors will have dispersed the entire collection of stones.

Rosenstein calls it a deeply personal project. In April 2008, her father suddenly passed away. Rosenstein had just returned from an artist residency at Caldera up in the Cascade Mountain Range of Central Oregon. She went to the refuge with virtually no supplies, hoping to create art simply by what she found. During her time there she went on daily walks and picked up stones, then painted them in liquid gold leaf and titled each one with the location where she found it.

“I was painting them in this gold with this idea of the richness that’s all around us all the time,” she says, “thinking about the sort of abundance, the littlest things in the earth right below our feet, and just celebrating that.”

But when her father died, Rosenstein’s practice of collecting rocks took on new meaning. It became a meditation of sorts. She began walking every day and picking up stones, this time with the purpose of collecting one stone for every day of her father’s life. She then painted each rock a rose hue.

“My last name is Rosenstein, and Rosenstein means ‘rose stone,’” she explains. “I’ve worked with roses as a material and I’ve worked with stones as a material quite a bit and so it just seemed natural.”

The project remained, at first, a solitary task. But in early spring Rosenstein was hiking with a friend, picking up stones along the way, when her friend asked if she could help.

“It really threw me,” Rosenstein says. “I had to really think about it—the process is really important to me. And then I thought that somebody offering help was such a gift and I said, ‘Well, yeah!’”

For a while, Rosenstein stuck with the rule that she’d let other people help her only if they offered first. But a couple months ago, as the exhibit opening drew near, Rosenstein realized the enormity of her task. She sent an e-mail to a dozen friends asking for help. Those friends, she says, asked others to join in. Soon enough, stones started to show up on her doorstep. Scores arrived in flat rate boxes from her sister in Alaska. A Portland friend intermittently sent one or two with a note saying, “Hope this helps.” One friend gave her two stones that his granddaughters had picked up during a trip to Montana. The friend had kept the rocks in his car for good luck. “Maybe you want to keep those,” Rosenstein said, warning him that she’d paint them and invite strangers to take them from her exhibit. But her friend wanted her to have them.

In the end, more than 50 people sent her stones—from Canada, Mexico and across the United States, including Florida, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, Nevada, New York, Alaska, California, Idaho, Oregon and, of course, Montana.

Even with all the help, Rosenstein says the process has been challenging. For one thing, after a full year of gathering rocks, she feels some anxiety about no longer following the ritual. She also has to let go of her control of the project once the rocks are given to others. She wants them to be returned to nature, but she doesn’t actually know what will happen with them. At this point, it’s about faith.

“The piece is in honor of my father, but it’s not necessarily about my father,” she says. “It’s about life. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to have each person viewing the exhibit take a stone to bring back out in the world. I think the inhale has been this year’s long process. Once the show opens, from then on, it’s the exhale. It’s this big breath in and this big breath out.”

Kerri Rosenstein’s “father” opens at MAM with a reception and artist talk Friday, June 5, from 5 to 8 PM. Free.
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