Debbie Baxter built her first nest for herself, using sticks she found in her backyard. She undressed, laid down, and curled into a fetal position. The nest hugged her like a womb and comforted her like she'd never felt. "I'd built a holder for myself," Baxter tells Creators. "It seems that my work as an artist always goes towards healing some childhood trauma I had."
Baxter has since built nests for other people in other places, from a backyard in Brooklyn to the Women's March in D.C., and in Portland, Oregon, outside the train station where a white supremacist murdered two men for defending Muslim women.
Baxter spends about a day collecting materials. Big curved branches make good borders. Straw or moss make good bedding. Sticks, twigs, and vines tie it all together. The nest takes her a few hours or a day to construct. She'll sometimes add a note. The nest outside MAX had a tag attached that read, Let all beings feel safe, protected, and loved, no matter who they are.
At her photo shoots in Brooklyn and D.C., Baxter asked participants to enter the nest naked—"like they entered the world," she says—before she climbed a ten-foot ladder and photographed them with their eyes closed and curled into their own comfort.
"The nest has come to symbolize many things," she says, "but it's mostly about protection and nourishment of the self. It's an awakening from feelings of longing, searching, looking.
Each participant brings a different memory into the nest. Some of her subjects have divulged intimate histories, like the woman who told Baxter about an abused childhood, and how she'd raised her younger sister single-handedly to protect her from the same pain.
"This whole time she was taking care of her sister and she didn't take care of herself," Baxter says. "She'd protected her younger sister, and, now that her sister had moved out, it was her time to take care of herself." Baxter recalls how the women found comfort by herself among branches and bedding.
And there was the man who still wore scars from his sex change. He resented his old name, she says, and entered the nest to reconcile with himself.
The nest helped Baxter herself find courage in an upbringing punctuated by an absent mother with severe mental illness. "She was admitted [to the hospital] the day I was born," Baxter says. "So I went home with my father. Even though he cared for me, I could never fully get a handle on this idea of feeling abandoned."
Many years later, as if instinctively, Baxter built her first nest in her backyard. She asked her husband to photograph her.
"I could finally stop and just hold myself," she says. "I realized [my mother] wasn't going to come back and hold me. I have to do it myself."
Baxter is now being asked to build private nests in backyards around Portland. She's heading to Burning Man (again) this year, and hopes to bring one there.
See more of Debbie Baxter's The Nest project on her website here.