I’ve always been a big question asker (I think it comes with the territory of being extroverted and very curious about other people). Perhaps it runs in the family, because my father was notorious for asking question after question of my friends when I brought them around. When I was younger, I would sometimes get embarrassed, but more often than not, my friends felt flattered that my dad cared enough to ask about who they were.
So it’s not a surprise that a big part of my art process involves asking questions. To some degree all art involves artistic research and questions, no matter what form one is working in. In my case though, I’ve found over the past few years that my questions have become more explicit.
It started with the first Greetings From Motherland workshop that I ran. Since that project was originally sparked by my curiosity about how other mothers felt about their transitions to motherhood, I started the first session by having everyone brainstorm what they would ask other mothers if they could ask them anything. The women exploded with questions, and I think in ten minutes we had about fifty. “What would you have changed about the first year?” “In those very first moments after you met your child, what were you really thinking?” "How did having a baby affect your body and the way you felt about it?” “When was the loneliest time as a new mom?” “How did becoming a mother affect your relationship with your partner?” and so on. Those questions become the basis for many of the artistic experiments we did during the workshops. We wrote and photographed in response to the questions, and we went out and interviewed other mothers using those questions too.
All of that material came together in the final pieces we produced. The writing, the text from the interviews, and the photographs ended up as a moveable cardboard brick sculpture called The Way The World Works, in which audience members were invited to read the testimonies on the bricks and build with them too (although it was the kids who played with the sculpture the most). We also realized we wanted to gather more stories, so at the last minute we decided to set up a postcard rack and give other mothers attending the show the opportunity to write in response to the same questions we had originally brainstormed. They could choose the questions randomly from a bowl, answer anonymously if they liked, and then add their postcards to the rack. It was exciting to see people respond eagerly to the opportunity to share their real feelings and stories in response to the questions that had started the whole project (you can read some examples here).
The postcard rack continued to be an important part of the Greetings From Motherland research for the next few years, and I used the process of starting workshops by brainstorming questions in many subsequent groups. For the final Motherland project that culminated in Landing Gear, we actually started with no topic at all—everything grew out of the initial questions, so we could get a read on what people were interested in exploring.
My new project, Grief Landscapes, is starting with questions too, although I'm beginning this phase of the project on my own rather than through workshops, so it’s a bit of a different process. I brainstormed questions that would begin to uncover how different people deal with grief and bereavement, and then I consulted with grief counselors, as well as friends who have grieved. I’ve already received feedback that just answering the questions alone can be very cathartic for people, because many aspects of their grief have often been ignored by others. I’m continuing to add questions as they come to me, and I wanted to also invite readers here to add to the list if there’s anything you think I’m missing. Grief itself doesn’t have any answers, so it feels fitting that the project is starting with questions. I hope the work I produce in response will generate more.
Help me add to my list of questions:
If you’ve grieved the loss of someone close to you, is there anything you’ve ever wondered about other people who have also experienced a loss?
And if you haven’t experienced profound grief in your life yet, what would you ask someone who has that perhaps you’ve been scared to?