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Week 29 // Knowing Unknown

 

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It has been a week since I last wrote, in quite a state of turmoil about losing the dress I have shot this series in each week for the past 8 months. It rained that day… all day. Unusual for Texas. And it was chilly out… so the skies had that solemness that only winter can bring. It all seemed to match my mood entirely to well. I spent a few hysterical hours on the phone with a girlfriend of mine. At one point I jokingly said “well… this means that it’s going to either have to be a totally different dress, or NO dress at all.” The moment I said it… I knew. “Dammit” I told her, “This means I’m going to have to go get naked in the woods doesn’t it?” To which she agreed with a sly grin I could hear on the other end of the line. And so there in the midst of the loss – a glimmer of where to go next. A very horrifying glimmer, but a glimmer nonetheless.

Know matter how much I didn’t want to… I knew I had to shoot it. I couldn’t let the raw emotion of the day pass me by. I could not back down from the challenge to go somewhere that felt so vulnerable. So I grabbed my gear and out I went into the cold and rain. There in the quiet of a dry creek bed, with only the sound of the gentle rain tapping on damp fall leaves, I set up my camera with a rain poncho over top… stripped down to nothing, and began shooting. I would like to point out to anyone who doesn’t know me, I’m an extremely modest person not at ALL comfortable with my own nudity being out there… particularly in such a permanent fashion as what I am doing right now. But I discovered something in doing this shoot. It is not in fact the most naked I have ever felt…

The day he died and I was left behind… everything was stripped from me. I was too lost to even move. Waiting, wondering. I could not feed myself for weeks. Or drive. Or do much of anything on my own. For months I did not spend more than a few hours by myself for the paralyzing fear of being alone with my own heart. I was completely broken open. Nothing has ever made me feel so fully exposed as his death. To my surprise, even physical nudity does not compare to how naked I felt then. But it as close as I can articulate it visually I think.

It has not been an easy, this project. There have been many weeks in which I just wanted to walk away from it. Many days it has brought me to tears with frustration. The past few months especially have been a struggle… my motivation dwindling. And so perhaps the loss of the dress came exactly when I needed it to. It has shaken up everything. For the first time in months, I am feeling some excitement about the unknowing of it all. I’m feeling a spark of desire to explore how I will deal with my body for the remaining images… what coverings will I use? Fabric? Nature? None? And what part of my story will this now begin to tell? Perhaps it is about stepping outside the confines of a label like “widowed”. Or exploring beyond who we thought we once were to find that we can in fact be all number of things in this life. Or about stepping more fully into our true selves. Or all of this.

I don’t know where it will go… and that is both scary and exciting. To be right where we are… at an ending in the middle. An ending unplanned. And thusly a sort of new beginning before we wanted to begin again. A new direction when we did not want or ask for one. That is life, is it not? And death. If we so choose to live it as such – which my fiancé very much did. It is one of the most important lessons I learned from him after all… that no matter what direction life takes you, there lies an adventure waiting before you.

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“Still, Life” is a year-long self portrait series exploring the journey of living with loss. If you’re new to this project, you can read more about it in this post. Or to see the full image gallery visit 2014 PROJECT. Please share with anyone who you feel can relate to the imagery, my hope is that it gives many others a visual for something they are going through in their own lives.

The Missing Dress Melt Down

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I’m completely devastated today. There was a horrible mixup while I was out of town last week and I discovered that the dress for my portrait series has been lost forever. It is just a dress – but it is so much more. I have been through some of the most intimate and vulnerable moments of my life wearing this dress. We had, in some way, become woven into each other over time. The final shot of the series was actually going to be just the dress itself, on the ground – dirty, torn and tattered from our year-long journey together through this rough terrain. It was to signify my stepping out of this phase of my journey. Of leaving some of the pain behind. Now… everything is up in the air.

The irony here is not lost on me. I have just lost my most important prop in a project all about losing my most important person. Right as this journey was gaining a beautiful momentum - without warning, without my having any say in the matter. Gone. World uprooted. Now what will you do? It is all too familiar a story.

I know somehow, losing this most important piece will come to mean something very deep. I know it will take things somewhere new… somewhere it would not have otherwise gone. Which is – I suppose – entirely appropriate for a series about death. This is what death does to our lives… it pulls the rug out from under us – forces us to re-evaluate everything. Helps us to make changes and reminds us what’s important. Brings in new perspective and focus. Despite my realizing all of this deeper meaning - I still hate it. I still want desperately to have this dress back. And the love of my life back. And our future together back. And thus, it has been a long, rainy afternoon of dramatic arm-failing, tears, and curse words. A lot of curse words. Oh – and you can bet I will bury my face in a tub of ice cream tonight. And I won’t even feel slightly bad over it.

I will make this work somehow… just as I’ve continued to make this life work since he died. So I know, I will figure it out. But just like my life without him - things going forward will be different now. It will still be beautiful, and meaningful, but it will not be what it was going to be. It is one of the most painful parts of living with loss. Seriously. I’m so over loss.

I can’t promise I’ll get an image up this week. Or even next week. I don’t really know what will happen from here. But I will at least keep writing in the interim. For anyone else out there having a crap day – grab a spoon. We’ll bury our feelings in a tub-o-mint chocolate chip together. Here’s hoping that tomorrow brings some new promise.

Week 28 // Unity

 

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I’ve been shaped by death nearly all my life. Not only the recent death of my husband-to-be, but reaching back to nine years old when I lost my mother to breast cancer. And at 27 when I lost my father. Death has challenged me to look at everything differently and one of the most significant aspects has been a relationship to soul.

This piece speaks to the idea of our perpetual oneness with soul. It explores a continuation – of being created from and dissolving back into this unified soul space once gone – and of the relationship that exists with this while we are here on earth. I was not a particularly spiritual person before my fiancé died, but I have been drawn to spirit and to soul ever since in some surprising ways. Many of my images have begun to feel more like a partnership – between myself and something greater. Frequently I have visuals appear at random in my mind – clear as day – and something seems to be willing me to create them physically. I know there must be some greater force at play there because these are the images that always seem to resonate the deepest with people (and with me). It is a curious journey and one of the greatest gifts to have emerged from his death.

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“Still, Life” is a year-long self portrait series exploring the journey of living with loss. If you’re new to this project, you can read more about it in this post. Or to see the full image gallery visit 2014 PROJECT. Please share with anyone who you feel can relate to the imagery, my hope is that it gives many others a visual for something they are going through in their own lives.

Week 27 // Lost in Confusion

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I know a lot of the entries I’ve posted recently have been quite long, so this week I decided to keep it short. This image for me speaks of struggle. Of those times when the pain of grief covers our eyes and ties our hands so that every movement we attempt to make in our life feels restricted… or that we cannot even begin to move at all. It is an intentionally uncomfortable image. I was actually standing when I shot this, leaning over as far as possible as to create the illusion of laying. The image is cropped tightly to remove any visual indicators to tell you whether I am standing or laying, and then rotated to do more of the same. It is meant to speak of the disorienting nature of grief – of suddenly not quite knowing which direction is up anymore – and of just how paralyzing that feeling can be.

Week 26 // Stardust

 

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This image marks the halfway point in my year-long self portrait project. This is both exciting and also a little bit nerve-wracking. When I look back… it is hard to believe that just six months ago, none of these images even existed. It’s almost impossible to believe in fact, because they are so much a part of me that I cannot imagine a time when they did not exist. Perhaps in some way, these images have existed inside me far longer than I will ever realize. It’s a curious thing to wonder about. It’s nerve-wracking because, well let’s face it, I have no idea where I am going from here. I have so completely started my entire life over since my fiancé’ died… diving head first into the unknown… its naturally scary to wonder just what will happen when the final day of this project comes.

What will I do with all of these images? Will I be able to showcase them as I truly dream to – in a solo exhibition printed large and sprawling across walls, ten feet tall? Will I be able to find a publisher to create a book of this journey, as I so dream to? What on earth will I do next year? At halfway, I’m struggle more with worrying about what lies ahead… with the next stage of building this new life. But, as I remind myself often, there’s no going back. So I might as well keep on moving and just trust whatever is going to happen will all work out okay. (We all know that’s easier said than done though!)

This week’s image is quite different from all the others I’ve done up to this point. It came about in part by accident. While processing the original image, I switched to the wrong blending mode in photoshop and created something of a double exposure look. Originally it was just a duplicate of the figure, but once I saw the effect, I instantly got a visual in my mind of using stars and nebulae. So while the original feel of this image was more of a searching into a white void… it became instead about a beautiful, mysterious interconnectedness. It became about the connection that each of us has to all those we love who have died… our mothers and fathers, our sons and daughters, cousins, friends, sisters, brothers, grandparents and far away ancestors. They all make up this grand, collective energy that I believe wants to help guide us in this life.

I personally do believe we are very much connected with the spirits of those passed and the universal energy they create and reside in. I know it in my heart, because I use that connection every single day to guide me and help me decide things in my life. I’ve followed intuition along every step of the journey since my fiancé died. To me, those gut instincts come from that greater universal collective - not really from me at all. Often times, I get very specific visuals for photos to create – that seem to arrive out of thin air. Some of the most popular of my images in fact have been such. And those I believe come from some collective energy of souls guiding me. We are all connected to that every day. Even if we aren’t aware of it, I think in the quiet moments – if we get still enough to really hear it – we all can find the guidance we need… it lies in the stardust.

 

“You are stardust, as am I… And one day I too will return to the sky.”

-Excerpt from a poem of mine, Stardust

 

Week 25 // Let Go

Portrait_Week24cI’ve felt this way a lot lately… like I am just beginning to walk out into a great big unknown. Like it is time to loosen my grip from the past and begin to step into the present and embrace life more fully. My life since my fiancé died has been a huge unknown – but for the better part of of these two years I have been in hibernation. I have, in a strange way, carved out a comfortable existence living within the beauty of my past. And it can be easy to want to stay there. I cannot see anything concrete ahead of me for my future after all. To face walking out into the vastness – with a fear that I will be alone and that his love will not follow – quite frankly, it scares the hell out of me.

And on another level, I have known for a while I need to start to build a community of photographers and galleries around me to continue to grow as an artist. This too scares the hell out of me, because it means everything to me. To take my images – which are very much a part of my soul – out into the scrupulous art world in bigger cities feels incredibly vulnerable. To walk out into that means that I have no clue what the landscape will look like or where it will take me. That’s scary for any artist.

But the past few months have been different. I have felt deep in my bones a push to move forward. It feels strangely automatic – like my soul is gently prodding me that it is time. And also a little bit like he is telling me so too. But it isn’t something I’ve been ready for at all. Cue the freaks outs and fears and tears that have run rampant in me for months now. It’s a daily struggle that few in my life have even known is going on.

There is a tremendous amount of pain in accepting that its time to let go, and begin to step out into this big unknown future that I must create now. The struggle has been in the fear that if I let go of whatever small solid ground I feel like I have, that I will lose my connection to him and perhaps to myself in a way.

I want to be clear here, by “let go” I do not mean let go of him. I think people get this confused… that somehow we got the meaning of this phrase all mixed up with the idea of letting go of a person. It doesn’t have anything to do with that. Why would anyone want us to let go or someone whom we love and who brings beauty into our world even after they have died? Of course not. The phrase “let go” is about trust. It means to let go of the fear. The fear of losing our connection to them. The fear that we are incapable of handling what’s ahead.

So that is place I have been for the past few months, the next lesson that I have been asked to learn I suppose. Trusting enough to let go. Learning it has meant being caught between this paralyzing fear of losing more and this insatiable pull to embrace my future and create more. It has meant learning to choose trust when I really want to choose fear… because I find trust is often more about a decision to commit than anything. This part of the journey has brought me to this image. To this new place where I’m gaining enough strength to decide to let go and trust… both in the unknown and in the idea that he will be with me no matter where life takes me, for all my years to come.

What an Age-old Process Exposes

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Artist & Instructor Timothy McCoy explaining tonal variations on a sample print.

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to take part in a two-day workshop on albumen printing taught by the talented Timothy McCoy. What I discovered in this process was far more than I’d imagined to find. I’ve been doing digital work since I began shooting about give years ago – but have been itching to try some alternative developing techniques this year. So when I saw this class, I jumped at the chance. Albumen printing was invented in 1850 by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard, and was the first commercially exploitable method of producing a photographic print on a paper base from a negative. It uses the albumen found in egg whites to bind the photographic chemicals to the paper and became the dominant form of photographic positives from 1855 to the turn of the 20th century, with a peak in the 1860-90 period.

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Albumen coated papers drying

The developing process for albumen printing is quite slow and tedious. Many washes in various chemical solutions and baths… ten minutes in water, another twelve in gold toner, eight more minutes in two other baths and a final two minutes in a fixer before one last six minute wash. And that’s not including the 30 or so minutes of exposure, the time converting digital files to film negatives, coating all the papers with both albumen and silver nitrate and the dry time for each of those. It takes hours to produce just one or two prints. But it is all worth it for that moment you walk out of the darkroom to see that print. And for me, it was worth a lot more…

As I watched my first image slowly develop… there were many moments that tears nearly came to my eyes. As I rocked this precious piece of paper so gently and tenderly in each solution - I fell into an mesmerizing private world. For a time, it was just us… no one else’s eyes had yet seen this print. That moment was for me and me alone, and for my late-fiance – who set on fire my love affair with photography in the first place. I felt an overwhelming connection to my own story… a mix of pride and pain, child-like wonder and deep soulful love. It sounds overdramatic I know, but the metaphor of creating something quite literally out of the darkness was not lost on me. It is what I have been doing for the past two years – and now, literally doing. There was something incredibly moving about being so delicate and careful with a piece of myself. And a piece of him… of us. Of spending painstaking hours on a part of our story.

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My two final prints

And then the moment came to walk out of the darkness. I can say that nothing has compared to the experience of walking into the light with this piece of myself in my hands and seeing it for the first time. I was awe-inspired. Beautiful warm brown and purple tones and subtle textures unlike anything you could ever achieve via printing. And then laying it out in the open, exposed, for all to see. It is what self expression is all about – the private moments between you and your story – which gives you one gift – and the moment where you allow yourself and your story to be seen, which gives you another.

I long already to do more of this process… more importantly, I feel like I discovered another part of the journey that my Still, Life collection needs to go on. I will most certainly follow where it’s leading me.

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