I am a firm believer that we are all here to learn lessons. I have been made aware this month of two lessons, one from long ago, that I apparently needed a reminder of; and a new one… a very important one.
I have been making narrative work since 2009 when I designed the Tall Girl Series: A Body of Work which was based on a long-repressed personal story of trauma. It was one of the most challenging things I have ever done, but with a strong mentor in Marion Coleman, who later became a treasured friend, I pushed through it and discovered on the other side that telling my story of trauma was actually healing for me, and others by default who saw the work through its’ many exhibitions.
Marion and I followed that series with our Defining Moments: Stitched Perspectives on Becoming a Woman series, which again taught me much about my own personal stories, her personal stories, plus our shared but very diverse recollections of history, racism, social justice, women’s rights, etc. Since those two bodies of work, I have since created narrative work.
One thing I have never considered until now though is just because a work teaches us or more importantly reminds us of trauma, does not mean we need to live with it. I need not live with my beautiful work, Defining Moments 12: NO Means NO. It is a spectacular work which served to release me from the trauma of my campus sexual assault some 50 years earlier.
I clearly recall the nearly repeated trauma of being interviewed about the work at the opening of Quilt National ’17. It was difficult emotionally to speak about such a personal event, to a very kind and patient young man; who was likely the the same age of my rapist many decades before. Or to discuss sexual assault with the husband of another artist. Two or three times since, I have been present at an opening where that same work was on exhibit, and have found that my explanation of the piece has become more and more concise. I simply do not need to relieve that trauma by personally re-telling the story.
When I completed Fire & Flood 1 in 2019, my cousin remarked how much she loved that piece and implied she might like to buy it. It had been juried into a traveling 3-year exhibit, so I told her we could revisit it later, when the work returned. The piece was inspired by the catastrophic wildfires in our region and the subsequent flooding of the river, not even 3 months later. She had grown up the river flooding region so was well aware of that and had also lost her home and property in the devastating Tubbs fire. No wonder this work spoke to her.
Fast forward three years and the work came home from traveling. Before I submitted it to other exhibits, I queried if she was still interested in acquiring it? She responded she was not, that while she had loved it initially, she had realized in the years since that to have it in her home would cause her to continually relive the trauma of losing everything in the fire.
Of course! Why had I not thought of that? That makes complete sense to me. Just like I will not install work in my own home, that reminds me of past traumas, nor will she. I am so grateful to her for her forthrightness, rather than just saying, no I am not interested.
There is an old expression about letting the work speak for itself. It is traumatic events like these when this is more important than ever. We need not relive the trauma by having daily exposure to it, no matter how beautiful the art may be.
This of course got me to thinking further about how much of my work might stir old wounds in others. I won’t dwell on that though, as making narrative art, for me at this time in my life, is what I was meant to do. After all, I have been telling stories since I was a kid….and some of them are true!