Art

Art and Grief, a Legacy of Loss

As human beings, we share certain experiences. If you’ve ever owned a pet, you’ve experienced the deep and profound heartbreak that comes with losing that life. They become part of your daily rituals, from feeding them in the morning to cuddling up at night. They rely on you to tend to their needs, and they love you unconditionally for it. No matter what you go through, who hurts you or how you self-destruct, pets are there for you. This month, I’ve lost not one, but two animal companions, including my best childhood friend, Paco. Since I was 12 years old, Paco has been with me for every trial and tribulation that comes with growing up. He was there for sleepovers with friends and giggly adolescent parties, and he was there when I cried over teenage spats and family feuds. He comforted me through intense medical treatments and saw me through countless heartaches. For 16 years, he left his mark on every article of clothing I owned and every piece of furniture in my family’s home. I can’t begin to describe the emotions that overwhelmed me Saturday morning, plucking his hair off a sweater that hadn’t seen daylight since last winter, knowing I wouldn’t be doing it again.

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This January has been full of grief, from mourning a lifelong hero, navigating the illness and death of one pet, to coping with the sudden and unexpected loss of another. I’m not proud to admit that it’s effected my productivity–sleepless nights and mornings spent bargaining one’s way out of bed doesn’t lend itself well to getting things done. But that can only go on for so long. Grief needs to be experienced, but then it needs to be worked through and dispersed.

As an artist, I’ve always processed my emotions through projects–paintings, drawings, essays. John Lydon has said that anger was his primary driving source, Yayoi Kusama painted to stave off mental illness. It’s a common experience amongst artists: no matter your medium, you work through your feelings by producing work. So many amazing works of art have been made as a response to grief–Francis Bacon painted several tributes to his lover George Dyer after his 1971 suicide, and Salvador Dali and Max Ernst (among so many other artists) worked through the grief of wartime by creating truly profound pieces. Barthes wrote his classic essay, Camera Lucida, in the aftermath of his mother’s death, and it contains some mindblowing, heartwrenching thoughts on mortality and its inherent role in art. On some level, I think death is a driving motivation behind all artistic pursuits: the artist creates work to fight against his or her own mortality, unsatisfied with a life that leaves nothing living in its wake.

Julia, marked, in 19-something

 

 

In the days since these personal tragedies, I’ve dived headfirst into my work. I’ve sought catharsis in ink and paper, writing new words, working in new media. For some, the imagery of my recent experiments will be perfectly obvious. They’re not a “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans,” but it’s the beginning of something, some way to understand the role of these lost lives through the kaleidoscopic lens of my own artistic journey. If we are the sum of our collective experience, then the individuals and ideas that impress themselves upon you are also part of that equation. And lately, my work as been entirely about exploring that link been identity and influence. Last year, that mostly meant pouring through photo albums, briefly peering into the lives of anonymous relatives, tied to me only through blood and universal experiences: labour, laughter, love…

Love, circa 19-Something

 

The pain of loss never really leaves us entirely–ten, twenty, forty years from now, we’ll still feel pangs of grief recalling beloved pets, departed family, friends that left too soon. But rather than losing time, sinking in the quicksand of sorrow, use the memories as fuel for the creative fire. The death of someone close is absolute agony, but there is no greater heartbreak than a life gone unlived. Feel your sadness, grieve your losses, but process the pain into something positive. You can’t control when your time is up, but you can construct the legacy you leave. Let’s make this one count…

Self Portrait, Two Decades Removed

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Day in Pictures

Wood Nymphs and Centipede Kings, Exploring the Watchung Reservation

Sometimes, we all just need to breathe. Schedules get cramped; time slips past; places get too familiar. After more than a week inside, quarantined for a virus that drained me of absolutely everything, I was restless and distressed. All of my plans and ambitions had been sucked away, leaving me helpless and confused and sick both inside and out. As soon as my body was strong enough, I wanted to bolt. Armed with my Nikon and a kindred adventurous spirit, I marched out to blaze unfamiliar trails in the Watchung Reservation.

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I’ve never been “that girl,” with her eye glued to the viewfinder of a camera, stopping every other minute to compose a shot or snap a picture–until, that is, I fell in love with a 30-year-old Nikon. Now, it’s rare that the hulking metal contraption isn’t stowed away in my purse, wound and ready to expose a frame. It wasn’t until a week ago that I swapped it out for a newer piece of photo technology, since this semester brings digital challenges my way.

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After a week of painted walls and electric lighting, cough syrup and sugar-coated pain killers, being surrounded by lush green foliage and bright blue sky was a welcome change. Filling my lungs with fresh, fragrant air was better than any steroid or antibiotic imaginable. Though certain uphill hikes left me breathless and electrified, it was well worth the effort and endurance to sweat out whatever sickness lingered inside me. It was purifying.

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When you’re deep in the woods, surrounded by the smells of sweet green leaves and damp earth, listening to the music of running water and birds in flight, it’s easy to let go of daily human troubles. We walked together for over an hour into the woods, never once spotting another human being–we began to fashion ourselves as wood nymphs, water sprites, creatures all together different from the human beings we posed as day to day. We were present, connected to the chipmunks, rabbits, birds, and centipedes who crossed our path.

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I am so lucky to live so close to this remarkable patch of nature. In a world where urban sprawl is slowly closing in, where my day is dictated by traffic and transit times, where animals are so unafraid of roadways and travelers, it’s wonderful to have a place like this to get away to, whenever I want. Just a few feet down the path and that world melts away–gone are the highways and the schedules and perils of modern life. All that is left is the wild expanse of wood, green leaves, and water.

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Aesthetics

An Ode to my Nikon FG

Sometimes, it feels like centuries since I was growing up–not so much in the passage of time, but in the way things were done. Waiting for a phone call meant circling the kitchen for hours on end, possibly toting the boxy cordless down the hall and back for as long as it didn’t ring. Recording a school show or family holiday required a giant contraption that only my father was equipped to handle, resulting in innumerable home movies that would make you seasick just to watch. Vacation photos needed to be taken to the local photo lab and picked up days later, shared with family at gatherings and holidays sometimes months after the actual trip had ended. We have boxes of seemingly ancient Kodak prints filed in flimsy plastic albums that came free at some of the nicer labs. Now,  I can instantly show the world which latte I ordered today or get instant feedback on which dress to buy. It’s absolutely mind-blowing to think of how far we’ve progressed in just a handful of decades.

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My grandfather was something of a technological revolutionary, working on computers back when they were the size of entire buildings, so naturally he was the first person I knew to own a digital camera. For my 16th birthday, he gifted me with a boxy Hewlett-Packard point-and-shoot, equipped with one whole megapixel and then some, less than most phones come with now. At the time, it was a novelty. Rather than waiting a week or more to see evidence of the misadventures of my friends and classmates, we could view them instantly on the little LCD screen. If someone’s nose looked too big, or someone’s hair was blown unflatteringly, we could delete it and snap another. I could collect them on my hard drive, no physical clutter acquired. But then, in the Great Desktop Crash of ’04, I lost them all.

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I can’t blame that crash for the attitudes I developed towards photography afterwards. It was also the social conditioning that came with our march towards Instagram and Snapchat that led me to feel like photography was disposable, something trivial and without consequence. I never took cameras on vacations, choosing to write down my experiences or commit them to detailed, purposeful memory. The camera was cumbersome, and I would rather enjoy living in a moment than stopping to dig a recording device out of my purse, boot it up, and fiddle with the settings until I trusted it to capture the scene. When my last digital camera died in 2012, I never bothered to replace it.

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Then, I found my dad’s old Nikon. Specifically a Nikon FG, with a metal body and several glass lenses, heavier than any camera I’ve ever held before, with a vintage Mickey Mouse strap. Both the camera and the strap were an engagement gift from my mother, after months of researching stats and performance and consumer reports. Sitting forgotten in the basement for years, the battery had died and the roll of film inside had expired, but it was otherwise flawless. And now it was mine. Oddly, there’s something comforting about its weight, the way the aperture clicks into place, the heavy thunk of the curtain when the shutter is hit. Rather than simply capturing a moment, taking the picture becomes its own moment. Each photo documents not only what is in front of the lens, but the ritual that accompanies it: determining the aperture size, focussing the lens, checking the light meter, setting the shutter speed, hitting the shutter, advancing the film… The roll becomes a meditation, a series of practiced movements that produce a sense of oneness with the scene. A zen in which I am merely part of the setting, and the camera is the organ by which I can achieve it. Every exposure is precious, an experiment in light and form, waiting to be revealed when I wash away the excess silver.

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When I open the reel and look at the film for the first time, there’s an anxiety released with it. The negative images feel so alien, not at all like the images I thought I took, and sometimes even after printing I don’t remember the picture in front of me. It’s not exactly how my eye remembers it. But it’s almost always how my heart recalls it. A sense of placid calm, a dreamy anticipation, a distant sadness, these are the real subjects. More than any model or flower or mountain rage, the feelings we get from them are the reason to hit the shutter.

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Since my adventures with the Nikon, I’ve amassed an arsenal of old cameras: a Canon Rebel, a Minolta 110 Zoom, a reproduction Diana F+, each producing a totally different sort of image. But when I pack my bag for adventures unknown, it’s the Nikon that finds its way inside. Our love affair isn’t over yet, and despite the age gap between us, I suspect we have many years of tenderness before us. I might find myself out with another camera on occasion, but nothing has been able to replace the feeling I get with my Nikon in-hand.

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