Launching Grief Landscapes in 2016

After actively collecting stories and making images for Grief Landscapes for the last few months,  I’m ready to move to the next phase. It’s time to go live, to start sharing what I’ve made so far, and to collect more stories to complete the project. 

When I started, I wasn’t sure how many images I would ultimately make; I was just feeling my way as I went along. It’s finally starting to take shape. I’ve decided to post one Grief Landscape each week, starting the first week of January. It’s been a very intense and moving experience to make images in response to other people’s losses. It feels like a heightened and risky exchange sometime, but I’m happy that participants have reported it as a positive and cathartic one.

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I'm currently recruiting more people to participate, and will continue to choose the stories I will shoot for the remainder of the project. I’m especially looking for men (many more women than men have responded so far), and for people sharing stories about bereavement experiences that tend to be rendered invisible by our culture (but of course I want to hear from everyone, as each grief experience is unique). I anticipate that I’ll receive more contributions than I can photograph, but all of the responses and testimonies I receive are extremely helpful, and I hope to use them all in some capacity during the course of the project.

So check back here soon. I'm taking a short break, and I’ll start posting Grief Landscapes on the first Thursday in January and then every week thereafter.

Please help me get the project out into the world by sharing the project on social media, and forwarding it to friends and family. And if you have any suggestions or connections to organizations that deal with bereavement that can help spread the word, that would be great too. Thanks for your help!

New Book Cover: What's Cooking, Mom?

Some nice news to share! An image from Greetings from Motherland has been chosen as the cover of a new book: What’s Cooking, Mom? Narratives about Food and Family (edited by Tanya M. Cassidy and Florence Pasche Guignard, Demeter Press). Bryn Scriver, one of the participants in the first Greetings from Motherland workshop in Madison, Wisconsin, set up and photographed this image that was a part of the miniatures project You Are Not Where You Were

A description of the book from the publisher's website:

“What's Cooking, Mom? offers original and inventive narratives, including auto-ethnographic discussions of representations, discourses and practices about and by mothers regarding food and families. These narratives discuss the multiple strategies through which mothers manage feeding themselves and others, and how these are shaped by international and regional food politics, by global and local food cultures and by their own ethical values and preference, as well as by those of the ones they feed.”

If you’re interested in buying the book, you can use the coupon code MOTHERS to save 40%. 

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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Why I'm Making Art About Death

When people hear the word ‘grief’, many things come to mind in addition to bereavement, so a lot of people have asked me why I’m focusing only on death in my new project Grief Landscapes. As someone who is deeply interested in people’s stories, and who tends to want to include everyone in everything I do, drawing a line around the project sometimes feels hard. I know there is a lot of pain out there, and I think that pain is often lessened by sharing our stories of loss, no matter what those losses are. 

I’m restricting the scope of the project because the number of stories out there about death alone are overwhelming, but also because I’m deeply curious about how different people learn to live with the specific permanence of death. Maybe it’s also because I’m now in my forties—isn’t that the typical time when we turn to thoughts of the second half of our lives and what’s inevitably in front of us?

Ball, 2001

Ball, 2001

It’s interesting though, because when I look back at many of my projects, I’ve noticed that I often make a new body of work to deal with specific losses and changes in my life. The first photography project I ever did was documenting old playgrounds in New York City in the fall of 2001, shortly after September 11, when loss and grief had enveloped the city. I didn’t have a direct connection to anyone who died in the terrorist attacks, but it was impossible to be living in New York then and not absorb in some way the impact of those immense losses. In the shadow of all that, I found myself drawn towards documenting these old metal play structures—geometric jungle gyms, a lone merry-go-round, skyscraper slides. 

Slide 2, 2001

Slide 2, 2001

I loved those structures because they reminded me of my childhood, which was comforting, and I was also at that point having a quarter-life crisis. I was in my late 20’s, confused about what I was doing with my life, and although it probably sounds naive, it was possibly the first time I was really confronting what it meant to have things change around me so drastically. The inevitability of change ended up becoming literal through the project, as much of the equipment that I photographed was torn down only weeks after I took the photos.

I didn’t set out to do a project about loss, but it ended up becoming one, even if the connection was oblique. The children who ended up in the photographs were cut off, facing away from the camera, or running ghost-like through the frame. The one little girl whose face you see is in a domed cage-like jungle gym and looks a little scared, with an adult figure in black behind her. I ended up calling the project This Playground Closes at Dusk, based on the signs posted at the entrances to the playgrounds.

Child, 2001

Child, 2001

In a larger sense I guess I’m continually drawn to making work about what it means to deal with change and loss on multiple levels, and how those changes transform us and our relationship to the world. And I find myself wondering whether one has an easier time dealing with change if you’ve already lived through a specific type of grief about the ultimate change: the disappearance of someone who was in the world, and then wasn’t.

I don’t know where this project will go, and who knows? Maybe there will come a point where I will open Grief Landscapes up to other categories of loss. But for now, I’m finding that there is so much variety and diversity in people’s stories of bereavement, and enough challenge in capturing each unique account, that I’ll have my hands full for a while.

Leave a comment to let me know what you think about the relationship between death and other kinds of loss in your life. Has experiencing the death of someone close to you made it easier to deal with change and loss subsequently?

How It Feels

When I was a kid, I was semi-obsessed with the photographer and author Jill Krementz. She was most famous for a series of book length photo essays in which she profiled kids who excelled at various sports and creative endeavors, told through their own words and with candid photos of them living their lives. There was “A Very Young Dancer”, “A Very Young Gymnast”, “A Very Young Skater”, “A Very Young Circus Flyer”, and a few more, but not enough for me. I used to go back to the shelves where they were kept in the children’s room in the library when I was 6 or 7, and will for another one to appear, I loved them so much. I liked projecting myself into what I perceived as their very exciting daily existences (okay, a bit of wish-fulfillment) but I also just liked the combination of words and images about real kids’ lives. Most picture books I read as a child were fiction, and the non-fiction kids’ books available were mostly full of straight facts, not good storytelling. These books stood apart.

A few years later, I stumbled upon another series she wrote, called “How It Feels…” “How It Feels To Fight for Your Life,” “How it Feels to be Adopted,” “How it Feels When Parents Divorce.” Once again, but in a different way, I was fascinated by the first person accounts by regular kids of what it was like to go through challenging experiences I had never been through. The interviews were paired with straightforward black and white images of the kids, and again I kept scouring the shelves for more volumes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that series lately in relation to my current work. Another title for Grief Landscapes could be “How It Feels to Grieve” (which Jill Krementz essentially did a version of, with “How It Feels When a Parent Dies”). What I find myself drawn to again and again is people telling their own stories, in their own words, about things that we often don’t give ourselves permission to talk about. 

In the preface to her book about the terrible loss of a parent, Jill Krementz writes, “I hope the book will help such children to realize that they are not alone—-either in suffering so great a loss, or in the feelings that have about it…Most of all, I hope the book will show children that there aren’t any right feelings or wrong feelings; that acknowledging how you feel and not being afraid to express it is what matters—-and helps—-the most.”

We often talk to children about how all of their feelings are valid, and yet I’ve noticed how when we become adults that quickly goes out the window. There becomes a dominant narrative for how we’re supposed to feel, whether that means putting pressure on new moms not to acknowledge difficult feelings of pain and ambivalence, or on urging people grieving someone who died to “get over it” after a certain prescribed period of time. And it seems that sometimes we can’t win either way. I’ve also heard from people who were given a hard time because they didn’t feel particularly devastated when someone close to them died, but somehow felt they were supposed to act that way.

And maybe I’m even being overly romantic about how we let children have all of their feelings. That pressure of having to be and act a certain way depending on what’s expected of you can start early. In 2011, The New York Times published an article about Stephanie, the little girl in Krementz’s book “A Very Young Dancer”—one of my favorites in the series. The book described how Stephanie had danced the lead in The Nutcracker for the New York City Ballet, and it ends with her happily continuing to study dance. But the article, looking back over thirty years later, tells a different story. A few years after her starring role, she was asked to withdraw from the ballet school due to faltering attendance. The book had put her in the spotlight, and she didn’t feel that she could tell people what had actually happened. So she covered up the pain of the rejection by saying she had quit, and kept up that fiction for three decades. The shame that followed led to many struggles and episodes of depression through the early part of her adult life. Although she acknowledges in the article that she might have had a hard time regardless, and it’s often hard to find oneself after leaving an all-encompassing pursuit, I still have to wonder if she might have had an easier time of it if she had been able to be honest with herself and the world about how she really felt.