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"Anti-thesis" by nat raum




The light in the studio (read: closet) was starting to wane as the sun sank behind the apartment building to the west. Kara hopped up and flipped the wall switch, knobby in its many layers of latex paint applied in between tenants. The apartment on a larger scale was a landlord special—sloppy paint job, bad overhead lighting, and minimal direct sunlight among its many delightful features—but Kara hadn’t been in a position to be picky when she was moving. Her bedroom at the shared house she’d frantically vacated in June had plenty of floor space to work on her sculptures, but the house also held a darkness in the form of a horrifically loud and rude roommate named Lila.

Once Kara realized that Lila’s tendency to blast Enter Shikari in the shower every morning was probably not going away, no matter how many times she asked them politely, she realized she needed out. So Kara, strapped for choices at the height of student rental season, had moved to the first mold-free studio apartment in Mount Vernon she found. And with the state of her studio practice, she was finally starting to admit that it was not going great. She had almost nothing for her thesis review in just over two weeks’ time. Earlier that afternoon, Kara had picked up her hot glue gun in a fit of creative energy and dumped out the half-empty box of plastic forks she’d somehow acquired, gluing them together at her kitchen table with no real aim.

After lighting herself a motivational joint, Kara quickly found herself entranced by the feminine curves of the forks and began to emulate them with the ways she glued them together. It hadn’t been long before she ran down to the corner store for another two boxes of forks, and she found herself at an impasse now, as the sun began to set: she was almost out of hot glue. She thought for a second about seeing if she could get it on Instacart, but she felt bad about making a shopper drive to her apartment at rush hour and closed the app as soon as she opened it. Sighing, she shoved her feet into her threadbare fleece Birkenstock slippers, shrugged on a flannel over her SLUT ERA t-shirt, and grabbed her bag and keys.

She’d parked a few blocks over on Chase Street, near The Spot, since that was the only space she could find after getting off work at three in the morning last night. A couple on a first date (she’d overheard) had stayed at her bar talking until 2:30, and the barback working with her had broken a glass in the triple sinks after they’d left. She yawned and took a sip of last night’s Red Bull in her cupholder as she turned the key in the ignition. The engine whimpered before ultimately coming to a halt. Ugh. Kara slung her patchwork tapestry tote back over her shoulder and got out of the car. She scuttled down to Eager to wait for the circulator, skimming Instagram on her phone as she waited for the bus to lumber across the potholes on Saint Paul to pick her up.

Paula from Visual Thinking 1 was at a residency in Napoli—lucky. Skip. Someone who worked at XS posted that they were hiring—shocker. Skip. Ugh, Mina from that summer program is ranting on main again. Skip. Kara groaned out loud as she swiped and swiped in the November chill. A shiver ran up her spine as the bus finally pulled up and she locked her phone to board. She popped her airport newsstand earbuds in and sat down, coming face to face with a very interesting proposition when she unlocked her phone again—the local gallery Oliver did his internship at was running a juried sculpture exhibition in January, and Chrysanthemum fucking Hayes was the guest juror.

The chance to impress a queer sculpture icon who’d been a Sondheim finalist the previous year was too great to pass up; Kara took a screenshot of the call and pulled out her sketchbook. She frantically sketched the architecture of a large fork made of the smaller forks, noting where she might have to use a heat gun to create the curves with which she was so enamored. Her pen waggled across the page as the bus continued to barrel towards the harbor, where Kara caught the orange line as far east as it would take her, still sketching. She caught a Lime scooter the rest of the way to Canton Crossing, where she skidded to a stop in front of Michaels.

Kara was a kid in a candy store—once she had the hot glue, she caught a glimpse of the silk flowers in another aisle. What if I adorned the finished fork with flowers? she thought as she held a bundle of faux gladiolus. Or even better, what if I painted it pink and did that? She wandered over to the paint aisle and thought about spray paint before remembering the tragedy of Ava Ray’s Forms and Figures final freshman year. She’d made a dress out of quart containers she’d stolen from her on-campus café job, but she tried to spray paint it purple in the last hours before class and it melted holes in the dress. Kara chuckled to herself, grabbed three tubes of hot pink acrylic paint, and headed for the checkout. Her previous work about femininity had been poorly received and subsequently scrapped, cited by her most critical classmates as vague and inarticulate. If what they wanted was obvious, Kara would just have to give them obvious, she guessed. A lot was riding on this coat of pink paint—now to pull it off.

◎◎◎

In Senior Thesis that Thursday morning, Kara could barely keep her head off the table. Oliver poked her a few times when she started to really doze off, but she was down for the count; she’d been up for almost 36 continuous hours working on the fork sculpture. It was due for finals in a week, but the deadline for the gallery show was on Sunday. She knew Oliver was just trying to protect her from being called out by their snarky graduate teaching assistant, but god, she was tired.

“Let’s break for ten to get coffee,” professor (and renowned fiber artist) Jenna Donovan suggested. “You all seem a little fried this morning.” Kara raised her head and shuffled out of the room with everyone else, jaywalking across the avenue that bisected campus to get to the bookstore café in the nearby Fitzgerald Building. She ordered an iced latte and dumped a few Splenda in before heading back to the classroom, already slightly more awake having taken a stroll through the morning air.

“By the way, before we get back into the lecture,” Jenna started. “I wanted to let you all know that we’ve confirmed our guest critic for the individual thesis reviews next week. We’re pleased to be joined by local artist and curator Chrysanthemum Hayes.” Oliver nudged Kara hard. It seemed she was getting a double dose of her absolute idol this semester. It could be said that Chrysanthemum inspired everything Kara was making right now—their emphasis on flawlessly executed craft work had been one of many contributing factors to their local celebrity. And when she’d seen Chrysanthemum’s work at the BMA for the Sondheim show last year, Kara never would have thought she’d get to meet her at all.

Here’s hoping my sculpture holds up, she thought as her stomach dropped a little.

◎◎◎

The fork was a fucking failure. Kara was absolutely certain of it. She had hot glue strings everywhere, her heat gun work was sloppy, and the leftmost tine of the fork was a little too thin compared to the other three. She’d also given herself second-degree burns on a few fingers from the glue gun. But it was getting close to ten at night on Sunday, and she needed to get painting if she wanted the paint to be dry in her documentation photos. Kara had hauled the piece to her campus studio, which was mostly full of her studio mate’s work, but she’d carved out a corner to paint the thing hot pink. While the paint dried, she glued the silk flowers across the handle and scattered them up the tines. She started to cry a little as her phone dinged.

Central???? Oliver had texted the group chat.

Down, James is too, their friend Evonne replied. Grand Central was the bar down the block from where Kara lived. She’d been going with Oliver since before either of them could legally drink, originally making it a tradition after their Tuesday night Intro to Metal class sophomore year. Crying, actually, Kara responded after a second. Wtf??? Oliver sent back only seconds before FaceTiming her.

“Oliver, it’s so bad,” Kara said. “Like, terrible. My studio mate gave me this look like she pitied me.”

“So?” he replied. “She doesn’t fucking like anything good. She thought Rivera Ann Langley’s mud wrestling paintings were gauche. Doesn’t that tell you you’ve done something right?” Kara sniffled.

“Show me,” Oliver said. She shook her head. “Turn the camera around and show me.” She sighed and flipped the camera to show Oliver the fork.

PLEASE!” he said. “That is a gorgeous object. It’s such a powerful commentary on the expectations of femininity. You’ve got nothing to worry about.” Kara smiled a little. Oliver always gave it to her straight if her work was bad. They’d become friends after their first Intro to Painting critique freshman spring, when Kara was fresh out of a breakup and realizing she wasn’t as into men as she thought she was. She’d gravitated towards Oliver, who seemed so comfortable in his identity and was also welcoming, but honest. He’d told her as kindly as possible during that critique that the banana in her still life looked like a penis, and later apologized for his honesty on their lunch break. Luckily, Kara had been in art school for long enough to realize it was worth having someone honest around, and the rest was history.

“You really mean that?” Kara said. “You don’t think it’s a poor attempt at craft?”

“One thousand percent. Now come on, I’m gonna hang up so you can get those photos into the gallery. We’ll meet you at your studio.” Oliver hung up. Kara hustled the giant fork down to the documentation room and started to set up the lights. She peeked at her watch—10:56. At this point, it was far too late to make any other changes to the sculpture. Kara would end up like Ava Ray if she did. She picked up the camera and began to photograph.

At Grand Central, Kara ordered a whiskey ginger and grabbed a seat on the velvet banquette against the wall. On her first sip, she grimaced as she realized that a hefty sip of pure Jack Daniels was sitting on top of the drink. She started to stir it in with a cocktail straw as Oliver walked over and sat down next to her.

“I think we should cheers to Kara’s sculpture,” he suggested to the group. Everyone laughed and Kara protested in jest, but she ultimately raised her glass to the fork sitting in her studio—the one she’d gotten uploaded to the gallery’s submission manager by the skin of her teeth. She drank the whiskey ginger and tried to forget about it. Maybe her level of craft wouldn’t match up to Chrysanthemum Hayes, but the piece worked as proof of concept, and maybe no one would really notice its shortcomings. Kara chuckled nervously as she took another sip and vowed to put it out of her mind now, for real this time.

◎◎◎

The following Thursday showed up quicker than Kara expected. She dragged herself out of bed with her last alarm bleat of the morning, brushing her teeth with a shaking hand. It had been easy to forget about the giant fork sitting in her studio when she was at Central with Oliver and her friends, but now that she was about to bring it into thesis, she was panicking all over again.

In the room where she was expected to present her work, a pedestal had already been set up on the far wall, per her request. As if it were a baby in her arms, she gently released the fork she was cradling onto the heavily scuffed pedestal and gulped hard. Her classmate across the room was finishing an install of papercut manta rays across the other wall and offered Kara a half-smile from up on the ladder when she saw the fork. Kara dragged a metal stool over to the pedestal and sat next to it, bouncing her foot until she heard the familiar voices of Jenna and her other faculty bounce down the marble hallway. She froze as her classmate scuttled out of the room to give her privacy for the critique.

“Hi Kara,” Jenna called from the doorway once she’d arrived. She was joined by Josiah Williams, the metalsmith and previous Guggenheim fellow, and Vidalia Metz, ceramicist and noted hardass. Kara had Vidalia for Forms and Figures and she’d picked up and dropped someone’s polymer clay sculpture on the ground during a critique once, making a point about deconstruction as its little plasticky pieces scattered across the linoleum. She gulped while her critics filed into the room.

“And of course, Chrysanthemum Hayes.” Kara felt her soul leave her body when her art crush walked into the room, wearing an appropriately yellow floral jumpsuit and surrounded by an aura of calm power. The fork felt like a big risk, but Oliver had talked her up. Kara put her shoulders back and introduced herself to start the critique.

“So, first, I’m going to have everyone respond to what they see initially without you speaking,” Jenna began. “And then I’ll open the floor for you to respond after that.” Kara nodded. The critics fixed their eyes on the hot pink fork before them.

“Right off the bat, I’m really struck by the sculptural work you’ve attempted with the heat gun, but I do wish the craft matched up with the conceptual aspects of the piece,” Vidalia said after a moment. “I think it could be such an interesting exploration of the ways craft work is regarded as women’s work.”

“It’s also not bad enough to be intentional, you know?” Josiah piggybacked. “The proportion is off in a few places, but not enough that it’s deliberately exaggerated. There could be such an interesting dichotomy between the craft of the piece and the fact that it’s craft work, and I just feel like that’s missing. I don’t know, I kind of want to see it in metal forks and not plastic ones.”

“I almost wish you had explored the idea of multiples,” Jenna added. “Instead of working with the silk flowers. I mean, I don’t think those really add to the piece. But can you imagine if there were three or four of these in different sizes, maybe different cutlery?”

“I absolutely agree, Jenna,” Chrysanthemum chimed in. Kara winced on the inside. “I can see where you were going with the silk flowers, but I think they make the piece look like it’s trying a little too hard, you know? Same with the hot pink—I just think it’s all a little too obvious.”

“Definitely,” Josiah said. “I think there’s still a direction for this, you know, maybe painted blue or purple and pushed more with the heat gun. And I don’t disagree about multiples—what if you made an entire place setting of these?”

“Or an entire kitchen, really,” Chrysanthemum suggested. “What about a frying pan or a blender?” Kara continued to sit in the din of four highly respected artists tearing her piece apart as she thought about the gallery show. If by some miracle she got in, her piece would probably be hung by the emergency exit if this was how Chrysanthemum was responding to it. But honestly, her hopes weren’t very high anymore. Why had she listened to Oliver?

Jenna’s voice snapped Kara out of the trance she’d found herself in: “Kara, did you have anything you wanted to add?” Kara’s face was blank.

◎◎◎

Kara rolled over in her bed on the following Tuesday morning, still hesitant to open her eyes just yet after another late shift the night before. She checked her watch to find that it was almost noon. Begrudgingly, she opened her phone and scrolled through her notifications, wrapped in a blanket like a burrito. The group chat wants to get brunch on Saturday. Grubhub coupon. Rain alert from the Weather Channel. Kara paused as she caught the subject line of the first email in her inbox: Groff Contemporary juried exhibition results. Her stomach plummeted and she tapped the notification. Thank you for your submission to “Queer Forms” guest juried by Chrysanthemum Hayes. We received a substantial number of excellent submissions and regretfully, yours was not chosen by our juror for the exhibition.

Kara hauled herself out of bed and walked across the room to the giant pink fork she’d leaned against her kitchen table. Well buddy, she thought. You’ve served me well, I guess. Kara threw open her kitchen window and, after only a moment’s hesitation, dropped the fork four stories down into the alley. The handle held together surprisingly well, but the tines shattered off in various directions. Kara then reached for the gin on her kitchen table and poured a shot out for her fallen friend.





nat raum (b. 1996) is a disabled artist, writer, and genderless disaster from Baltimore, MD. They’re the editor-in-chief of fifth wheel press, as well as the author of you stupid slut, the abyss is staring back, random access memory, and several chapbooks. Find them online: natraum.com/links.

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