The Swan Towel.

posted in: Day In The Life, Work 16
Swan/sentinel, whatever. Photo: Me.
Towel swan as sentinel. Photo: Me.


Greetings from Mattoon, Illinois, where the cornfields are wide, the quilters are smart, and the towel swans are thick and absorbent!

While we’re on the subject of towel swans, I’d like to talk about them. I’d like to talk about towel art in general. It’s a thing. I don’t think about towel art much because it’s not something a person comes across too often — even a person who travels as much as I do, which is worth pointing out — but there was a towel swan waiting for me on my bed when I arrived in Mattoon yesterday, so towel art is very much on my mind; that thing scared the crap outta me.

Have you seen this towel art? Do you know what I’m talking about? For the uninitiated, towel art is exactly what it sounds like: It’s… Well, all right, maybe it’s not exactly what it sounds like. The “towel” in “towel art” is accurate — towel art is made from bath and/or hand towels — but I’m not sure about the word “art.” It’s tricky business to go around saying what is art and what isn’t, but I’m more comfortable calling the swans, hearts, ducks, dogs, and various other creatures that get the towel treatment “towel sculpture.” These terrycloth figures are definitely sculpted. But are they art? As in, move-me-to-tears, someone-put-that-swan-in-a-climate-controlled-gallery-and-plan-a-gala kind of art? I have not yet encountered a towel piece that qualifies in this way.

But who cares, right? Who cares if it’s art or if it’s just fun? And can’t art be fun? Verily, I say: Art can be fun.

But here’s the thing: I think towel art — or sculpture, whatever — is weird. I don’t like the idea of someone putting their paws all over my towel to make it into a nubby, dubiously charming inanimate object without eyes and then positioning it in the place where I will eventually sleep. And I don’t care who it is who might be doing all that, by the way: If a loved one of mine was all up in my towels, twisting and folding and molesting them this way and that, I would tell them to knock it off.

And yet.

The towel swan in my room also caused me to experience something called mono no aware. This is a Japanese term that is untranslatable in English. Here’s how Wikipedia defines it:

Mono no aware (物の哀れ), literally “the pathos of things”, and also translated as “an empathy toward things”, or “a sensitivity to ephemera”, is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.

Beautiful, right? The impermanence of a towel swan. The beauty of being in this old, single-level hotel that, judging by the way the place wraps around the pool, was a swinging joint in its heyday but surely will never be like that again. The fact that the first time I ever saw a towel sculpture, I was with my mom on a cruise ship. I was in my early 20’s and I hadn’t even met my ex-husband at that point. I didn’t know I’d get sick, I didn’t know I’d get divorced, I had made exactly two quilts.

Mono no aware is not sadness. Or maybe it is, but it’s a sweet sadness, which is to say that mono no aware is life itself. And if a towel swan in a hotel room in Mattoon, Illinois on a Friday night makes me feel mono no aware, then doesn’t it follow that a towel swan in Mattoon, Illinois is life itself?

I shouldn’t be okay with that. But remarkably, all of a sudden, I am.