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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.

Week 24 // Veiled

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I’ve been wanting to experiment with this sort of imagery in the project for some time now. I’m finding already in the first shoot that there are a lot of stories to glean from it. There’s many different meanings tied into the idea of fog when relating to grief. It represents the odd, hazy way that we operate in the world after a traumatic loss. It also speaks to the insulating quality of that haze… how – even though it is confusing and sometimes frightening to us – it is a very real necessity in our healing. It is a brilliantly evolved automatic response to extreme trauma. I also see fog as a spiritual symbol that can speak of the boundaries and connections between this life and the next, between souls still living here and souls living on in the hereafter. For the next few weeks I’m thinking that I’ll be exploring the stories that lie here.

People who have been through any kind of horrible trauma will be able to tell you about a thing called “the fog”. It was one of the most frightening and confusing aspects of my fiancé’s death. It felt very much like being only half existing in this life, and half existing in some surreal other world that no one else could seem to see. It felt insulating and isolating at the same time. It was sometimes calming and other times incredibly frustrating. I was entirely incapable of organizing my thoughts for even the most basic things after he died. I could not plan or make appointments or pay bills. I went 6 months without paying a credit card that only had $200 on it because I couldn’t remember and because I just didn’t care anymore about a thing like credit. I could not remember much of any new information. I forgot entire chunks of old information – including simple tasks I had spent the past four years doing at my job. For about the first year after his accident, I floated in this world most of the time. I felt completely handicapped – as if I had suffered some blunt force trauma to the head indirectly from his accident. And in a way I did, because emotional trauma really can affect your brain function in some very tangible and major ways. That in itself was scary.

The fog is absolutely necessary for healing though. We need to be removed from our overactive brains and the bustle of daily life. We need to be disconnected, to have a veil up for a time so that we have the quiet needed to listen to our own pain and feel through it. Even though its new and unfamiliar territory – I think it can help to see it as a beautiful response of self protection when we need it most.

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 23 // Iron Will

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This week I wanted to share one final shot from the ropes. Unlike most of my images which are very still and calm – I was drawn to the movement of this one. To me, it likens the energy of a wild mustang fighting to break free.

There are times in the midst of grief when we are so fully depleted and exhausted that we haven’t the strength even to hold our head up. I’ve talked a lot about those times in my past images. But there are also times when we have the chance to rise up… bucking the despair off our backs and fighting like hell to break out and embrace life. I think sometimes fighting can be a bad thing – when you are resisting feeling the emotions that need to be felt. But there is a different kind of fight, too. Fighting not against our emotions, but FOR the expression of them. It is the kind of fight that throws us up into the wind with our faces skyward to remind us that our story is worth expressing. And not only THIS part of our story, but the rest of who we are too. Painters, dancers, writers, mothers, humanitarians, friends, sisters…. although we are tied closely to our pain, there is still a soul within each of us wanting to be fully expressed.

I’ve felt this kind of fight in me so often since my fiancé died. More than in all my previous years combined. And the thing I am learning is that this beautiful fight is not in spite of the pain and the grief, but because of it. Being tied to the pain and having to struggle with it daily has made me fight harder to enjoy life, to express myself, to have compassion, and to stand up when I feel like falling. My pain has brought me the lessons which have taught me that I have the capacity to rise up and not give up. And pain has somehow (even though I don’t want to admit it) made my life far richer than I ever knew possible.

Of course we can’t always succeed at fighting for a new life after losing someone we love. We all have times we just get exhausted and must give up for a while to recharge. And that’s okay. It’s vital to be kind to ourselves, allow rest, and trust that we will regain our energy eventually. There will always come a next moment, or a new day, that will bring a renewed strength. It may not be tomorrow, but it will come. We must trust this as best we can. And when it arrives, let’s choose to rise up and fight to express our soul and embrace what is left of this beautiful life.

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.

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