News from the (Basement) Studio

First, some amazing news: I was awarded an Ontario Arts Council Visual Arts grant for Grief Landscapes! I’ve been working extremely hard, so it feels incredible to get the recognition and support for this project. I feel grateful to have landed in a country that supports individual artists in this way, even if it’s not always easy to string those grants together. 

To be honest though, I would find a way to do this project no matter what—it’s been a deeply meaningful artistic and personal experience making this work so far. Since launching Grief Landscapes at the beginning of January, I’ve published the first four stories, and have started to receive more from all over the world. Every single submission moves me. I’ve also heard from many others about how reading the stories so far have already helped them learn a lot about how other people grieve. 

The main thing I’m focused on now in addition to photographing is continuing to generate submissions so I can select a wide range of stories for the project. I’ve been spending time writing grief counselors, bereavement organizations, online grief support websites, and anyone and anywhere I else I can think of to help get the word out.

Photographing a new story in my basement studio. 

Photographing a new story in my basement studio. 

I want to hear about as many experiences with grief as possible of course, but I also want to uncover stories that aren’t often told. For example, I would be very curious to hear a story from someone whose boyfriend or girlfriend died, either from a young or older person. How did his or her family treat you in the aftermath of a loss like that? I’m also very interested in how it feels to grieve someone with whom you may have had an unresolved complicated relationship. Or what about losing a close mentor or teacher? An ex you were still close with? A twin?

Another thing I’ve been thinking about is that a theme that I keep coming back to in my art practice is “questions and connections”. I touched on the topic of questions before in a previous post, but as this project expands and more people are taking part, I’m realizing that even though I’m not working with people in person this time, the same dynamic of honest questions prompting honest answers that lead to new connections is still here in the online space. I hope it keeps growing. I’m not the kind of artist who likes to squirrel herself away in her garret to make a body of work and then present it to the world fully complete. I can’t help myself—I’m a total extrovert, and my process involves needing and wanting a feedback loop that invites anyone who is interested in the topic I’m working on to chime in. I like having a room of my own, à la Virginia Woolf, but I like that room to have the door open a lot of the time with a big welcome sign on it. 

If you have ideas or thoughts about the kinds of stories you would like to hear in Grief Landscapes, or if you have any questions you have about grief that you’re curious about that you would like to see addressed through the work, please comment here or on Facebook, or contact me. Also, if you have ideas about places or people that I can get in touch with that will help me expand the reach of the project, that’s really helpful too. 

Kindergarten Art Star

In my elementary school, each week a new artist-in-residence was chosen among the students. And no, the residency didn’t come with a private office and time away from class with three meals a day—the piece of artwork that landed someone the gig was put up in a central place outside the Principal’s office. When I was 5, I made a collage based on my grandma, and was chosen as the first kindergartener artist-in-residence in the school, the youngest ever. I barely remember it, but it clearly made an impression on my parents; they were very proud. They took a picture of it, and for years I heard the story of that early artistic accolade. It was as if I had won the Guinness World Record at Edgewood Elementary. 

It felt funny to me hearing that story over and over though, because although I was a creative kid, I wasn’t particularly attracted to making visual art as a child. I didn’t like to draw, and that always seemed like the main measure of whether you were a “good artist”. 

            The blurry photo of the award-winning artwork.

            The blurry photo of the award-winning artwork.

I discovered photography only at 27, in a continuing ed class. I had always been curious about the medium (one my favorite books as a child was The Family of Man, a book based on a well-known MOMA exhibit ), but I had never considered trying it beyond snapshots at camp or on trips. I never took a photography class during high school or college when I had the option, partly because I think I was intimidated by the technical aspects of the camera. 

It was my ex-husband who pushed me to get over my fear and take that first class, for which I am still grateful. Very quickly, something clicked for me, no pun intended. I ended up actually enjoying figuring out the f-stops and shutter speeds, and all of the other technical things I needed to learn in order to go out into the world and play with and transform what I saw through the camera. On an extended trip to Asia the following summer, I brought along my new 35mm camera (with film, which feels kind of hilarious and ancient history now—it was 2001). I was in between jobs and not sure what I was going to do, but I remember thinking at one point while I was shooting that whatever I did next, it would involve photography. I had never felt that sure about anything that I liked or was good at. It felt right.

A collaged luggage tag from the  Landing Gear  installation.

A collaged luggage tag from the Landing Gear installation.

If I had never taken that class, I might never have found my primary medium and become an artist. And through many years of playing with that medium, I’ve realized that I’m kind of a “found” artist. One of the main things that I do in my art is to take what’s already there and transform it into something new. I do that in how I choose to compose and frame an image, or by playing with long exposures, a flatbed scanner, or currently, with macro photography. Collage finds its way into my work often (some things do come full circle), and I love found poetry (like the erasure poetry we did for the Average Baby installation). I’ve never liked to make things up from whole cloth. I’ve never been good at writing fiction or making up stories, and I still feel uncomfortable drawing something that’s just in my head.

It seems obvious to me now that one can make art and be an artist without liking or being able to draw or paint, but I still meet people all the time who think they need to be able to do so in order to cross some invisible threshold. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “oh, I’m not a good artist” from someone, and they’re only talking about those mediums. It’s one reason why when I run workshops we work in a number of mediums, and they’re mostly found ones—photography, collage, audio interviews. I find people are less intimidated when transforming something that already exists. It’s a way into the creative process that can often help us get past the gatekeepers in our heads telling us we can’t make art unless we start with a blank page. I’m glad I got past mine.

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How to Turn a Poppy Danish Into a Mountain

I’ve had a nice response so far since starting to get the word out about Grief Landscapes, and people’s stories are starting to come in. I’m finding my rhythm, and it’s interesting to see what comes up as I navigate the tricky terrain of interpreting someone else’s grief visually. Primarily I feel very grateful and honored that people are trusting me with their accounts. That can’t be an easy thing to do. And as I’m finding, neither is making an image in response, but I have to say that I’m really enjoying the challenge.

Poppy Seed Danish, 2015

As I’m shooting a new image, I have to keep in mind three or four goals that I need to reach in order for the photo to be a successful reflection of a person’s grief experience. First, it needs to resemble a landscape, and some objects are easier than others to transform in this way (clothing, fabric, anything with an undulating surface, for example). It feels relatively easy to take a beautiful but non-specific close-up image of a familiar object, because there’s so much there one can’t always see with the naked eye. But to make it even slightly resemble a landscape turns out to be a lot harder.

The second thing I’m aiming for is to have the tone of the image reflect the person’s grief in some way. Sometimes it’s clear, and something jumps out from the text that’s vivid and an obvious path to represent the terrain they’ve described. Other times, their grief unfolds over a longer period and I have to either choose which aspect of the person’s story to portray, or try to get it all in there. I’m also trying to avoid being too literal or obvious, because then I risk veering into the sentimental (something that feels particularly easy to do with a project like this).

The third dimension is whether the photo feels like it truly represents the person it’s about, which emerges from the objects suggested for me to shoot. And sometimes I get that wrong. My friend Jordana submitted a beautifully written account of her father’s death, which followed years of dementia. In her text, she writes about how different she and her father were—he was a Holocaust survivor; a working class, salt-of-the-earth mensch who didn’t always understand her, but loved her deeply and unconditionally. There was a simplicity to her grief, which she recounted. 

For the objects, she suggested a greasy poppy seed danish, which her dad loved to eat, or a ladder, since he had been a roofer. I jumped at the danish, since I thought it would make a really interesting landscape, and it did. The poppy seeds looked like black boulders, and the white icing like glaciers on the side of a mountain. I was using the black and white nature of their relationship as the jumping off point and I was excited to share them with her. But after I did, she gently told me that while the images were beautiful, they didn’t feel like her dad. They were too beautiful, and he was a man with dirt under his fingernails. It just didn’t fit.

So I took another crack with the ladder. I had one in my garage, so I hauled it out and shot it outside from all different angles. This time, it all came together—the straightforward nature of her grief reflected in the straight lines of the ladder and the image, the choice to have a narrow depth of field to reflect the dementia at the end of his life. She thought I had nailed it, and so did I. I still love the danish photos, and it's hard to let them go, but I love the ladder images too, and each image is ultimately a collaboration.

   Ladder, 2015

I’m excited to keep going, and I look forward to hearing more of your responses as well as starting to share them in the coming months. I also wanted to clarify the object aspect of the project, which some people have been confused about. The object does not have to be something currently in your possession; it can be something in your memory, or an object that represents an aspect of the person. In most cases I am recreating the object anyway (some people don’t actually have anything from the person who died, or what they have wouldn’t work with the text or as a landscape image). Keep the stories coming.

Getting Over the Fear of Putting Myself Out There

One of the things that is both exciting and challenging about being an artist is the reality of starting over with each new project. Of course, I love it because I get to follow my curiosity about a new subject and see where it takes me. I enjoy the sense that when I’m exploring a new idea and trying out different things artistically, it’s as if I’m solving a mystery (albeit a mystery without any hard and fast answers, usually just more questions, but that’s fine). On the other hand, for each new project, there’s a shift, and sometimes I feel as if I’m starting over again with my art practice, figuring it all out again each time. 

It definitely feels that way with Grief Landscapes, because although the project is building on a lot of ideas and work I’ve done before, the form of it feels really new for me. For the first time, I’ve decided to put the work out there in the world at an early stage in its development. In order to do that, and because of the necessity of recruiting people for the project, I’ve realized that it’s time for me to get over my fear of exposing myself online and in social media, and of reaching out and letting people know what’s going on with the work and my process.

The New One, 2005 

It’s funny, because I’ve been working on the Internet in some form literally since the web began, in 1996. My first job after college was as a copywriter at Prodigy, an internet service provider that actually predated AOL (anyone remember that connecting modem sound?). I spent my days surfing the early web and writing pithy headlines and puns for home pages of links. Then I worked at NBC, in a tiny division called Interactive Television, in which we were developing content that attempted to combine the internet and television (to pretty boring effect, I must say). After I became a photographer, I launched SingleShots in 2003, shooting online dating portraits for hundreds of people. 

Since I’ve been working online practically since the beginning, you might imagine that I would be totally comfortable sharing what I’m doing here. And it’s not that I haven’t made any attempts—I kept a blog about Greetings From Motherland for a while, and made occasional updates to the Facebook page I kept about the project. But I had trouble getting past the icky self-promotional feeling, or how vulnerable it made me feel to write things and put them out there.

So what’s changed? I’ve started to realize that when I share my work, or the process behind my work, I’m letting people in and bringing people closer to it. It goes beyond the work itself — the work becomes the catalyst for the relationships that are developed and the conversations that are sparked. I’ve known this intrinsically when I’m face to face with people; it happened quite naturally with all of the Greetings From Motherland workshops I ran. 

It feels time to expand that circle with this new project, and start treating the online space as I would a workshop I’m leading. I have to trust that those who are interested in what I’m doing will want to hear more, even when I’m not sure who is reading and listening. But my real wish is that with time I will be able to develop a community here and elsewhere online, and we will start to be able to have those conversations that I’m hoping to have. Grief is not an easy thing to talk about, for example— I’ve already noticed that when I tell some people what I’m working on, they look away, and clearly want to change the subject. I’m hoping that here that will be different. 

I plan on updating this blog once a week (I’m hoping that by saying that out loud I will stick to it), I’m regularly updating my Facebook page now, and I’m posting images on Instagram and Pinterest. I'm starting to build my email list from scratch so people can get direct updates (it had been so long since I used it, MailChimp wouldn't let me send anything out. Speaking of which, feel free to subscribe). 

It’s like I’m putting my toes in the water, and finding out that it’s really not that cold. Anyone who knows me knows I actually hate getting in the water—I’m like an old lady who splashes herself and takes a half an hour to get in. And then does the doggy paddle once she’s in. But here I am, proudly doing the doggy paddle. It feels like I’m finally in the pool.