I’ve been working on a new work of art for several weeks now. As a visual artist, I have been developing a body of work called “Family Myths” to investigate the concepts of false memory, nostalgia, and melancholy.
When I started the work that would become the series more than 3 years ago, I was looking for ways to rediscover and retell my own life story. After losing my grandmother and then my mother just 10 months apart, I suddenly had a deep need to reconnect with their stories. After they were gone, there was only memory, stories, photographs, and the items they left behind.
I started with the story of my parents’ honeymoon, and after talking to my dad about it, I learned that what I grew up believing as fact was my own made up fiction. The details of their trip were less idyllic than I had made them out to be. With that truth revealed, I wondered what else did I not actually know about my life. Through a series of collage and assemblage works, I have tried recounting my own self-generated myths by putting together found objects that had meaning for me.
At least that’s where I started.
Then I made the piece from a jewelry box, with all of the objects inside painted black. It took me a long time to make that piece; I needed it to exude a certain kind of feeling. It needed to evoke the vision of small, child like hands sneaking into the treasured box, fingers running over watches with dead batteries, necklaces missing clasps, rings that no longer slide over thick, arthritic fingers: a grandmother’s collection of forgotten trinkets – all magical and mysterious luxuries to a 6 year old granddaughter.
And I thought that’s what it was all about, until I read a poem by Thomas Hardy called “The Shadow on the Stone.” The poem is poignant and powerful, and it sort of broke something inside me. I wanted to make a piece about the poem and started working on what I thought would be a sort of homage to that poem. I wrote out the lines of the poem and set to work, carrying in my mind an image of what the poem would look like as a work of art.
I’ve been working on this piece for many weeks now. I’ve had other artists give me ideas and advice on what it needs. I’ve told so many people about the Hardy poem and what I’m trying to do. One of the artists in my studio has cranked out several works and I’m still working on this one piece.
Or rather, I could say the piece has been working on me.
It finally dawned on me that what I’m dealing with, working through, and digging out is my grief. The last several works I’ve done are all about the loss I feel for my mother and grandmother. There’s this deep, deep sadness that isn’t really expressed on a day to day sort of way and I’ve been moving through life, making work about what I thought was my life story.
Somewhere along the way, I’ve moved to creating works of art, assemblage pieces born of a wound so deep and profound. I dare say that I’ve struck a universal chord with this work, based on some of the comments and feedback I’ve received.
It’s a strange thing to make something out of nothing, to conjure a moment remembered, breath hanging in the air while you try not to lose the image or feeling from a treasured memory. This work is inspired by the fleeting moment in the Hardy poem where he imagines, hopes, he sees the familiar shadow of his deceased wife on a stone in the garden. For one eternal moment, Hardy resists turning around to confirm that she is not really there with him. For one perfect and breathless second she is with him and he is not alone.
“ I thought her behind my back,
Yea, her I long had learned to lack,
And I said: ‘I am sure you are standing behind me,…”
In the end, he resists looking back and prefers to hold the dream of her behind him.
“My head unturned lest my dream should fade.”
That’s the moment and the feeling I’m working in. That’s what the piece, eventually, turned to discuss. It isn’t about the poem, but about that instant of needing a person to be there and not wanting to end the illusion.
I think I’ve finally completed this piece, except for a bit of final touches. I don’t know how others will experience the work but I hope I get to share it and, maybe, release a little more of the grief that lurks in my being still.