Categories
Poetry

Boston: April 15, 2013

by Samuel Fishman | Poetry | Spring 2019

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Image from the Spring 2019 issue

If I ran a marathon,
you say, I would end up
like the guy in the Greek myth.

I would cross the finish line,
rejoice that I’d finished,
then drop dead.

You tighten your grip on the shot glass,
testing its frailty, its resistance to your stress.
know what’s going to happen before you
do, so I ask the bartender for a towel, a
couple of bandaids, rubbing alcohol, and
more alcohol.

I would drop dead, you say, staring at
the front door. When it rattles on its
hinges, you’re so absorbed in its clatter
that you don’t notice your palm as it
splits across the countertop.

Categories
Poetry

Donkey Brains: The Problem Set of Losing Democratic Presidential Candidates Since 1968.

by Samuel Fishman | Poetry | Spring 2019

Image by Enrico Milletti

1968 Problem: The former vice president, and soon-to-be-crook, is leading in the polls. Solution: Allow the presidential convention to take place while a riot is happening outside, and allow the news cameras to film students being sprayed in the mouth with tear gas. Do not refute the soon-to-be-crook’s position as the “law and order candidate.”

1972 Problem: The crook is leading in the polls. Solution: Schedule the nominee, a senator best known for supporting acid, abortion, and amnesty, to give his acceptance speech at three in the morning. When the running mate is revealed to have had depression, support him with 1,000 percent certainty, then drop him.

1980 Problem: The costar of Bedtime for Bonzo is closing in on the president’s lead in the polls. Solution: Keep the president, who was only elected because of the crook, in the Rose Garden, giving speeches about economic malaise and the virtues of wearing sweaters. Appoint the president’s twelve year old daughter as his advisor on the geopolitics of nuclear weapons.

1984 Problem: The costar of She’s Working Her Way Through College is leading in the polls. Solution: Have the nominee, the vice president of the preceding, failed administration who is best known for quoting Wendy’s commercials, confess in his acceptance speech that he will raise taxes. Do not make age an issue of the campaign, while the president is 73.

1988 Problem: The vice-president of the costar of Cattle Queen of Montana is closing in in the polls. Solution: Plop the nominee, a Massachusetts governor whose hobby is writing weekend passes for convicted murderers, in a tank to appeal to veterans. Tell him to smile and point at reporters like he’s a dork trying to impress a prom queen with his performance of “Wonderwall.”

2000 Problem: The former co-owner of the Texas Rangers and the nominee are close in the polls. Solution: Train the nominee, the vice president of the current administration wracked with sex scandals, to act like a disapproving dad from a sitcom during the debates. Have him work in the word, “lockbox,” in all sixteen answers about the federal budget and Medicare reform.

2004 Problem: The misunderestimated Rangers fan and the nominee are close in the polls. Solution: Train the nominee, a Massachusetts senator who has flip-flopped on the Iraq War, to brag about his war record instead of talking about the economy. When Osama bin Laden publishes a videotape, write the nominee a speech saying nothing that the president hasn’t said.

2016 Problem: The second-best host of The Apprentice is doing well nationally.

Categories
Voices

A Fool’s Errand

by Sophie Jones | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Bridget Conway

Carol was beaten to death in her house at the edge of my hometown. There, the developments disintegrate into desert; empty lots and unpaved roads melt into furrows of granite, cheatgrass and manzanita creep back over property lines. When I was little, my dad and I often went exploring in the scrubby dells behind Carol’s neighborhood, tearing the surveyors’ tape off ponderosa branches and pulling their stakes out of crumbly soil. The small-town cops found her body tucked halfway beneath a tipped-over bookcase, as if there by accident. She was wearing a lavender camisole; she had eaten a salad for dinner.

Did my mom and dad sit me down to tell me about her murder, as they’d done with the other things parents are obliged to explain to their children; death of other kinds, divorce, sex? I lingered after dinner to hear the adults speculate, gleaning what I could before my mom ushered me away. I learned how to avoid the topic with her, how to pursue it with my dad. Alone in the privacy of traffic, riding in the front seat—a novel, grownup realm to which I had only just gained access—I calculated the right moment to turn down the radio and ask him a leading question.

Carol’s killer left no fingerprints, no DNA. No murder weapon was ever recovered.

The story of the murder is a good one; now, I tell it at parties. It is scandalous without reflecting too badly on me or my family, depending on which details I choose to share or withhold. Sometimes my delivery is too glib. I am too familiar with the facts of the case, or else in an attempt to prove detachment––from my hometown, my parents, the murderer, the victim––I let too much slip too casually. Both listener and storyteller find themselves too close to the crime to justify morbid interest any longer. That evening, Carol went for a three- mile run in the half-wilderness beyond her backyard. She texted her daughters, she called her mother. She sustained seven blows to the head. She did not feed her terrier dinner. The small-town cops discovered her corpse, wrapped it in a tarp, and transported it to the city in the back of the coroner’s pickup.

That evening, Carol’s ex-husband Steve went for a long mountain bike ride. He had a spare key to Carol’s house, their daughters’ childhood home. There was a club missing from his golf bag. He owed Carol alimony. There were incriminating Google searches on his computer; Steve claimed he was writing a crime novel.

Good true crime writing maintains distance. The writer must know how to tear some facts from court transcripts and police reports, and how to imagine others out of thin air. They must be able to deftly weigh these against each other so the reader never pauses to wonder how the writer could know such things. The writer must decide which details to include—that Steve’s younger daughter made her father a vegetable stir- fry the night of her mother’s murder—and which to omit—that my father and the murderer learned how to roll a kayak in the brick-red spring runoff of the Pariah River their freshman year of college; that the two remained best friends for twenty years until a final rift a few years prior to the murder.

Then, there are details about the case that I’ve almost certainly made up: that Steve entered the house before Carol did and unscrewed all the light bulbs. This can’t be true, because she was home for hours before his arrival. I must have read that somewhere else, about someone else.

Writers omit details about the murdered, or else, as readers, we skip over them. They are too frightening and too small. Get too close, and pain ceases to be palatable.

Steve killed Carol in midsummer, in the desert, in the evening. It might still have been light outside when she died. I imagine that Steve and Carol’s two daughters are the same ages as my sister and myself; they are several years older.

After Carol’s death, my dad began a true crime memoir about her murderer. In his writing, my father is a distant narrator; detailed catalogs of Steve’s skillful manipulation of the legal system, the media, his family, friends, and neighbors. His relationship to my father isn’t mentioned. This is true at least for the drafts I was allowed to read.

The true crime author’s authority comes from their closeness to the story. But if the writer neglects to maintain a strategic tension—allows slippage between what is real and what is embellishment, or confuses sordid details with truly sickening ones— they risk losing their reader. The writer is revealed to be a fabulist, or worse, a leech; simultaneously self-serving and -pitying. When the author becomes too close to the story, their credibility is threatened and they become a character themselves.

I was eleven when Carol was killed and seventeen when Steve was sentenced to life for the crime. I went to middle school and high school, and my dad stopped writing his book. A notable true crime author wrote a brick-sized paperback about Carol’s murder; my dad is quoted on the last page. My parents got divorced, and my dad moved back to the town where I was born, the town where Carol died. Like hers, his house is in a peripheral cul-de-sac that meanders into the scrub oak and granite dells, a landscape of eroded pink stone fractured by new construction. The town is bigger than it was when we moved away.

When I visit my hometown, my dad and I still hike in the dells but rarely pull the surveyors’ tape, it’s a fool’s errand– the houses will go up regardless. One late afternoon, halfway up Granite Mountain, my dad pauses in the shade to consider the sheer, patinated cliff face above us. He and Steve used to rappel there, crack climbing up and then lowering each other back down over and over until backing off the precipice was second nature, until the trust was absolute. He points to a jumble of house-size boulders at the base. Steve could easily have clambered to some anonymous crevice and secreted his bloodied clothes away.

I peel off my shoes and socks and swish my feet in the shallows of a dammed reservoir outside of town. I can feel the ominous sucking current of the dam’s spillways. A year after the murder, the city dredged this lake for the missing golf club and found nothing. My dad and I climb to a fire look-out on top of nearby Mingus Mountain. Directly below us, nestled in the ponderosa, a nameless pond shines like a silver dollar. My dad thinks it is more likely Steve disposed of the weapon there.

Categories
Field Notes

The Genderfuck Art of Stephen Varble: A Conversation with Curator David Getsy

by Nell Beck | Field Notes | Spring 2019

Jimmy DeSana, Untitled (Stephen Varble performing Gutter Art with onlooker), 1975. © Jimmy DeSana Trust.

In 1976, Stephen Varble got out of his limousine and entered Chemical Bank in the West Village of New York to settle a fraudulent withdrawal from his bank account. Wearing a gown of fishing net embellished with sequins and fake dollar-bills, breasts made of condoms filled with cow’s blood, and a toy jet-fighter as a codpiece, Varble silently stormed the bank. A cardboard speech bubble that read, “Even though you may be forged – Chemical still banks best!” was suspended over his head. When he was told by the manager that he could not be helped, Varble punctured one of the condoms under his gown, and used the blood that poured from it to write a check for “none million dollars.” To applause from the customers, Varble turned towards the door and wordlessly exited the bank. He had been wearing only one shoe, to “symbolize his economic loss.” He climbed back into the limousine and drove away.

It was almost by accident that David Getsy, OC ‘95, a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, stumbled upon the work of Varble while doing research for his upcoming book on a different artist, Scott Burton:

“I came across an unpublished interview where Burton was talking about the role of sexuality in the arts,” Getsy says. “He said one of the most radical artists of the seventies was Stephen Varble. He explained one of these performances where Varble spilled milk at an art gallery out of one of his dresses, and I had just never heard of this person. And I thought I knew my stuff! So I filed it away as a name to pay attention to.”

Since his death in 1984, Varble had been largely forgotten by the art world, due in part to his own steadfast rejection of self-promotion and publicity. By the time that Getsy, by then a distinguished professor of art history, had first heard of him, Varble was almost completely wiped from the art world’s short memory. In 2011, Getsy was asked by the arts organization Visual AIDS to curate an online gallery of slides, which included photographs of Varble. It was this that finally pushed Getsy to try to answer the question that had been plaguing him: who, really, was Stephen Varble?

Getsy embarked on what would evolve into a years-long project culminating in three exhibitions on the work and history of Varble. Currently, ONE Archives Foundation Gallery in West Hollywood, California, is showing “The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day,” until May 17.

“Varble himself had never had a museum exhibition,” Getsy says. “His last exhibition was over 30 years ago; nothing had been written about him in an art publication since, like, 1977.” Instead, much of Varble’s work was kept in the personal collections of the people he had shared his life with. Films were stored in closets, photographs were packed in boxes, pieces of costumes were tucked away in basements; Varble was scattered all over the place.

For Getsy, this unconventional approach to research involving real people rather than collections was both rewarding for his work and a moving personal experience. “What was great about this process was that even though it required a different kind of research practice, it became very much an emotional, a lived practice… more and more people were excited and honored to share their stories and their memories,” says Getsy. “It didn’t feel like work. It felt like discovery.”

Most likely, that is how Varble would have wanted to be remembered. During his lifetime, he was decidedly opposed to any forms of institutionalization or elitism; a steadfast refusal to conform is what drove much of his work. Would Varble have been happy to see his work displayed in galleries now, if he had been so determined to avoid them in the ’70s? Perhaps not. But, as Getsy argues, Varble’s work is too meaningful to allow it to be lost. “I think that’s the one cautionary tale,” Getsy says. “No matter how self-determined, DIY, oppositional, [it’s important] to be like, ‘What is not just the impact today… but what is the way you think about what the legacy will be of this work? How will it be remembered?” As stirring as it is to deny the legitimacy of institutions, the messages found in Varble’s work deserve a platform today. It feels paradoxical to try to honor an artist who so firmly denied recognition of any sort; yet if Varble preferred anonymity and oppositionality in his life, the significance of his work now reaches beyond that.

***

Stephen Varble was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1946 to a staunchly Christian family. Growing up, he was a choirboy. Varble’s upbringing instilled a deep sense of religiosity in him, one that would carry him through much of his work in his adult life. “My parents wanted me to be a missionary,” he once said, “but I became a monster instead.”

While studying English at the University of Kentucky, Varble immersed himself in Lexington’s LGBT scene by joining the Pagan Babies, a queer theater group. He moved to New York in 1969 and received an MFA in directing from Columbia University in 1971.

Varble soon began to move into the world of 1970s New York performance art, particularly through his burgeoning romantic and collaborative relationship with the influential Fluxus artist Geoffrey Hendricks. It was this relationship, as well as inspiration he found in the groundbreaking work of the filmmaker Jack Smith, that allowed Varble to establish himself as a major figure of seventies queer art.

Varble’s work revolved around disruption and garbage. He constantly placed himself in spaces where he was not welcome, and was an outright challenger of gender binaries, capitalist structures, and the elitism of the art world. He only grew more radical with time. Hendricks largely influenced Varble’s transition from film to theater and performance art. One of the earliest examples of this evolution is seen in Varble’s “Blind Walks;” dressed in all-white and walking blindfolded through the streets of New York, Varble would blast Stevie Wonder songs from a cassette tape recorder and carry a blank board strapped to his arm, Jesus-like. Moving through the city without sight put Varble in an incredibly vulnerable position – yet this was only the beginning of a long career of fearless disruption.

Varble and Hendricks split in September of 1974. Following the break up, Varble developed a female alter-ego whom he dubbed Marie Debris; she would come out not only in staged performances, but also at dinner parties. In this genderqueer costume, usually composed of pieces of trash and everyday items such as chicken bones, pipe cleaners, and milk cartons, he would parade the streets of New York performing various forms of public interventions. For his series Costume Tours of New York, Varble, dressed in his brazen ensembles, led spontaneous and unauthorized gallery tours in SoHo for anyone who wished to join. These tours, like many of his performances, were largely wordless except for cooing and clicking sounds. It was a flamboyant mockery of wealth and class pretensions, as well as commentary on the blurred lines of gender identity.

Varble’s disgust with the classism and celebrity that he saw pervading the New York art scene only grew as he began to gain more recognition against his will. It was inevitable that, no matter how much he challenged the system, the system would eventually conform itself to embrace him, thereby taking away from the message he was trying to send about the perils of hierarchy. Yet Varble managed to deride the recognition he was gaining. He had only one gallery show during his lifetime, which he sabotaged brilliantly. By titling it “The Awful Art Show” and forcing the gallery to price each piece outrageously high so as to prevent anyone from buying anything, he assured the failure of his own exhibit.

But the attention didn’t abate. Varble felt his work was being more and more restrained by it all. “He became increasingly frustrated with how much the most radical actions or the most fantastical costumes would still be absorbed by the art world, by the art institution,” Getsy says. “This is the story of not just Varble, but all institutional critique and oppositional art. It’s built into the narrative of progress that contemporary art defines itself through… absorb[ing] its challenges as part of its reason for being.”

In 1977, Varble retreated from the spotlight, in part in reaction to the newfound attention, but also because he met his last partner Daniel Cahill, a married merchant marine. “Cahill helped reactivate the religiosity that had been part of Varble’s worldview since he was a teenager,” Getsy says. “It really enabled him… And actually the most strident anti-capitalist statements all come from this moment when he’s re-embracing the idea of a spiritual mission of salvation from late capitalism.” During these years, Varble was producing plenty of work—as well as being a performance artist, Varble was a novelist, playwright, and lmmaker—but he focused mostly on video, returning to the medium that had captured him early on, before first meeting Hendricks and falling into the performance world of Fluxus art. But in the midst of making his epic movie, “Journey to the Sun,” Varble got AIDS. With the film unfinished, he died on January 6, 1984, in Lenox Hill Hospital.

***

Varble in the “Demonstration Costume With Only One Shoe” for the “Chemical Bank Protest,” 1976. Credit © Greg Day

In early March of this year, HIV was cured in a man referred to as the London patient, the second such case since the global epidemic began decades ago. Nearly twelve years previously, one other person had been cured of the virus that causes AIDS. The Berlin patient, who has since been identified as Timothy Ray Brown, 52, now lives in Palm Springs, California.

Both men were also diagnosed with cancer, for which they received bone marrow transplants, and it was those transplants that ended up containing a mutation resistant to HIV. The success of the most recent case of the London patient has inspired a newfound hope that a cure for AIDS could be discovered in the near future.

The impact of the AIDS crisis on the art world was monumental. Many artists were lost far too early, but the epidemic led to the production of incredibly powerful and politically influential work. Some more well-known examples might be the AIDS logo series by the collective General Idea, or Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ slowly disappearing pile of candy, which symbolizes the loss of his partner. Today there are many artists, such as Kia LaBeija and Jonathan Molina-Garcia, who are still working to fight HIV/AIDS through their work.

Following his own death of AIDS, the crisis of the 1980s and nineties swallowed Varble’s work of gender nonconformity and replaced it with national fear-mongering and homophobia. To preserve Varble’s queer art, hidden by history, Getsy had to divert from traditional forms of research; he needed to connect with people rather than databases, friends rather than institutions. Because Varble was so opposed to museum or gallery collections, what saved Varble’s work were intimate connections more than anything else, a valuable, but fleeting, mode of conservation. Through Getsy, this memorialization was honored and then expanded upon through the current exhibitions.

Getsy talked to Hendricks, Varble’s partner when he first moved to New York, along with a plethora of others who had, in some way or another, shared a relationship with Varble. “That was what was exciting about it,” Getsy says. “To realize that it was all there, and it was held by his network of friends.”

Varble’s work comments on many of the concerns that still resonate today—anxiety around late capitalism and the false and restrictive nature of gender binaries. As Getsy says, what Varble—an outcast, a queer man who lived and died during the AIDS crisis—did so well was to take what society has “devalued or… discarded, and reclaim it and love it and give it value… I think that’s the big relevance.”

Varble’s story is one of genderfuck, of oppression, of the power that comes from radical self-expression, and of the injustice of the AIDS crisis. Getsy’s work in reviving and curating Varble’s work brings to mainstream conversation topics that were once only found in the corners of society. Varble’s gender nonconformity and his embrace of the trashy and the crude are today at center stage, and it is Getsy who is encouraging us to confront that. And as other 1970s guerilla artists and performers, like the Cockettes, Lorraine O’Grady, and Hunter Reynolds, are also being rediscovered by today’s generation, Varble now seems to fit right in.

Categories
Poetry

Direct Flight to Orlando

by Casey Redcay | Poetry | Spring 2019

Image by Clio Schwartz

We go down
into a land of swamp and ruffle

I hide in my middleness
overlookable, a noiseless witness
hanging over families
like a forgotten Mickey Mouse balloon

smiling though no one is paying me to
I am coming home, Orlando
he greets me:

a catcall
from a beat-up truck
snake tongue but slower

a voice that drags
like a stranger’s hand on my back

I will come home to someone
my man is the one
who brings me hotel soap
shiny and papered
labeled
until placeless
piling on my shelf
my precious

my lonesome body
made clean
and still alone
but clean

my disaster spreading
like a suburban housing development
eating the land under us

spreading like the terror on his face
the man next to me stiffening
the air getting even staler
the plane rattling between clouds
his face squeezing like an orange
in an invisible fist until we go down and
everything stops.

Categories
Poetry

Triptych for Fainting Alone

by Casey Redcay | Poetry | Spring 2019

Image from the Spring 2019 issue

Even when I’m in the dark
I’m in the dark with you.

Alice Fulton

1

Like an unlucky fish plucked from the blue
I imagine God tossed me
for a reason
a message shot straight through me
so that I’d fall to the floor and pay attention

2

when I was 15 I used to dream about fainting
into my Unbeknownst Beloved’s arms
a plea for the fact of my existence
to be suddenly made obvious
I wanted helplessness
sinlessness, suddenly
made worth loving
I thought falling was a kind of worship
imagine my luck.

3

now I faint alone, dumped onto the icy tile
wake up and the Dog stands over me asking
why are you so graceless
his scruffy visage now a tower
of white light forever

Categories
Voices

Racing Like Turtles

by Zane Markosian | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Julia Friend

In the morning the air smelled hot and a little bit smokey. I rolled over next to Kirby, in the large and plump bed of the “second house.” We were in the smaller house that had been built years earlier—next to the real cabin—in order to provide more sleeping space at the lake.

The real cabin was like walking into a relic of the 1950s and like a hastily put-together set for a vacation dream. It was built of logs and the walls labored under the weight of the kitschy decoration, sagging all around the main room. There were snowshoes and replica skis and fishing poles and old coca-cola ads. There were also amusingly raunchy posters for movies from the ’80s and more than one stylized “gone fishing” sign.

I stepped out onto the porch, eager to get into the real cabin because I didn’t want to miss any summer revelry. The screen door slammed behind me as I walked into the other house and looked for signs of life. I didn’t really expect anyone to be awake though.

The day before, we had all driven across the state in order to get to Simone’s cabin, and we had spent far too many hours on the tiny gravel roads of eastern Washington. We were staying at Simone’s cabin in the Okanogan and we were celebrating the end of highschool. This was our big grownup vacation and we were lucky enough to be living in temporary opulence. She had driven over a day before us all in order to unboard the windows and to get the cabin ready for the summer.

Hayden, Kerry, and Dory all drove up in a red pickup truck with a canoe in the back, and myself Kirby, Emily, and Patrick followed. Emily had been trying to play the most summery pop music that she could find, and as we bounced over dusty hill, Patrick and I boldly made up words to the sections that we didn’t know.

It turns out that it’s very difficult to find a one specific valley in the middle of the Okanagan region. At the top of one pass, we had come to a t-intersection and Emily directed Kirby to the left but he hesitated. The road was cordoned off and a Forest Service ranger explained that because of a forest fire, we would have to make a detour. One other fire-induced detour like this one and a handful of more self-imposed navigation errors meant that it was late in the day by the time that we finally arrived.

I remember almost falling out of the car when we pulled up the cabin—I was so desperate to stretch out and I was eager to take in the surroundings. We were at the end of a narrow valley and steep hills rose on either side. Behind the houses there were woods, but it was dusk and it was difficult to see much beyond the immediate and pine scented clearing. The other car—with Hayden, Dory, and Kerry—had arrived hours before us because somehow they hadn’t been as messed up by the detours, and everyone rushed down to greet us and to welcome us to summer.

Standing there in the garishly decorated kitchen, I was so eager to get my friends up-and-going. I felt this restless urgency as I squinted through the window, but there really was no prescribed plan. I opened up a package of bacon while I peered through the decades-old panes of glass above the kitchen sink, and I watched some birds swooping across the lake.

It was really more of a pond than a lake. A dam had been added in the ’50s in order to create a reservoir for fishing. Back then, this whole place had been a fishing retreat. It was rented to wealthy businessmen coming from Seattle or Spokane. But that business had dried up (though the reservoir remained), and Simone’s dad had bought the land in the ’90s and built another cabin as well as a little garden plot.

We ate a breakfast that was almost entirely bacon and fruit, and we headed down to join the birds at the lake.

***

Down by the water, the noise was incredible. There was a constant hum of activity: cicadas in the reeds, mosquitoes hovering around our ears, dragonflies snapping their wings. In some effort to banish all this chaos, Simone brought down a speaker. She put on The Shins and we listened in the sun.

You led no celibate life
No skirt while chemicals danced

in your head
You stole the keys to this ride
And your fables are falling tonight

It was almost noon at this point and I was recovering from what had turned into a race against Patrick. We had set off leisurely at first from the edge of the dock.

We pushed into the cool black water and towards the far edge of the pond. I looked at him between strokes—alternating my head left and right with each motion of the arms. His shoulders bulged and even in that dusty afternoon it had been clear that he was a strong swimmer. I felt my heart pounding. We sometimes found ourselves competing viciously with each other and I never understood why. The calls from the dock came to us in between our strokes.

“Whoever gets to other side first can have my second Mike’s…”

“You can’t let him beat you like that…”

Patrick pulled forward a bit and I kicked harder. In an instant I was so mad. As I pulled the water past me I couldn’t help but catalog all the times that he had made people laugh more than I had. And I thought about the undefined—and yet dire—feelings of competition that whirled between the two of us when others were around.

Oftentimes, I brushed these feelings away with thoughts that it didn’t matter, that it was immature to even care what people thought about the two of us, that maybe no one else but me and Patrick sensed this silent perpetual war. But in the water, I could think of nothing else.

With a frenzied splash we both smacked the cliff of the other side. It had been an almost exact tie and the anger was all gone. We bobbed laughing, gasping for breath, and treading water. In a good-natured manner, we fought to shove each other into the rock and I laughed as I felt the cool stone scrape my shoulder and saw small streaks of blood on his. I felt big and I knew that he did too. We swam back together, laughing. Later we would split the promised Mike’s hard lemonade and then have two more together.

***

Emily lay down next to me on the edge of my towel. She curled her wet back over towards me and our arms pushed against each other. I twisted my own body a little bit to my right, away from her. My shoulder left the damp towel and rested on the wooden dock which felt like a thousand degrees. The white, rough wood had been catching the sun all day and it was hard to even walk across barefooted at this point. Still though, it felt okay against the back of my shoulder which was damp from the swim. In middle school I had had a little crush on Emily but now that we were older, and had grown into markedly different people, it felt natural to just be friends.

Simone sat next to us on the dock but because I lay on my back, it almost felt like Simone was sitting above me, hanging over my head. She flipped a page of her book. Without raising my head to look to the water, I kept track of Kirby and Dory as they paddled in a canoe around the little lake. They were circumnavigating it all and they were paddling lazily. In my hand I grasped the now-lukewarm last drops of a Mike’s and the sweetly smell of that drink mixed with the intoxicating smell of Emily’s hair.

Suddenly Simone shrieked and tumbled onto myself and Emily. She had—in an instant—drawn her feet out of the water (they had been dangling) and she laughed as she recovered her balance.

“It was a turtle! A huge turtle just swam up and rubbed against my toe—are there more?” We pulled ourselves up and bent over the dock. “Oh wow there’s another one… and a couple more!” Emily exclaimed while pointing out towards the center of the water. “They’re fast!”

“What happened?” Kirby called to us as the canoe slipped easily up against the dock. We hadn’t even noticed him and Dory paddle over, attracted by the wild shriek.

Mischievously, Dory reached down for a small net which lay in the bottom of the canoe and she asked “want to try to catch one?” Of course we did.

Kirby excitedly declared “Someone can come into the canoe with us and we can paddle while you use the net, and someone else can sit on the surfboard and help us corral one of these turtles.”

I pushed the surfboard off of the sand and I sat towards the back, with the front angling up and out of the water. I watched Simone precariously lower herself off the dock and into the waiting canoe. We were set.

Leaning over to put my chest against the board and my face close to the water, I was able to move forward by drawing my arms through the water. We were so effortlessly quiet—on the surfboard and in the canoe—as we smoothed over the water. The cicadas had persisted and now that The Shins were no longer playing, the late afternoon had become loud and chaotic. But it was much quieter in the center of the pond.

“There’s one!” I called to the others.

They circled gracefully over to my side. “Oh I see it!” But as they drew closer, the turtle startled and dived deeper. We followed in the direction in which the turtle had seemed to shoot himself and the four of us saw him surface a couple yards ahead of us.

Breathing softly so as to not disturb anything I said “I’ll circle around him and try to direct the turtle to you all.”

Dory back paddled in order to slow the advancing canoe, and I turned my board and pushed towards the center of the pond. I rounded back towards the reeds, keeping the turtle on my right side.

“Okay I see him.” Simone crouched in the center of the canoe and reached the net above her head. “What’s our plan?” She asked.

“Let’s get a bit closer,” Kirby answered, “and then go for it.”

“Zane, if it comes to you, you might have to use your hands.”

I really didn’t know if I would be able to touch a real live turtle with my hands. Everything around us stood still for an instant and then Simone plunged the net down. There was a loud splash—followed by a quick scream: “He’s coming to you, Zane!”

I swept my arm through the water, trailing a frothy disturbance behind my spread hand. I had completely missed and my hand swung up empty. The turtle had slid under my board and out to the other side.

The surface of the water became a chaotic frenzy as we all madly tried for the escaping turtle.But we finally got him. From the dock, Patrick, Hayden, and Emily whooped and cheered for us. Dory held her paddle above her head in triumph and Simone dropped the turtle into the base of the canoe. She was afraid of its snapping beak and so as soon as the turtle was extricated from the net, she let him fall.

This went on for hours. In all we probably caught about five poor turtles. At some point Kirby paddled back to the dock in order to grab Hayden’s nalgene and he used the water bottle to scoop some pond water over the turtles in the bottom of the canoe.

Dory was done and while Kirby grabbed the Nalgene, she climbed precariously out of the boat and onto the dock. This led to a grand reshuffling: I stepped first onto the dock and then into the canoe, and Patrick—who until then had been sharing a Mike’s with Emily—pushed himself onto the surfboard. I noticed that she touched his arm as he got up from the dock.

The two-craft flotilla set out for one last conquest. It was a waiting game and while we waited for the turtle to rise back towards the surface, we drifted towards the point that we had seen the turtle last. Then we tried to position our two crafts around the swimmer and we came to the critical moment.

Patrick paddled well on the surfboard and as I swept the net through the water (Simone and I were taking turns), Patrick back-paddled deftly. He could see that the turtle would startle and would shoot between the two of us. And he was right, the turtle darted away from the canoe and towards the center of the pond, and patrick was able to be exactly in the right place. He had timed it expertly.

From the splashing chaos, he drew his hand up. And in his hand, he held the turtle. He was triumphant—and he was the only one of us who had caught a turtle with his own fleshy hands. I had caught at least two with the net, but the net absolutely provided some kind of a distancing.

Patrick tossed the little guy into the canoe and simone scooped some more water to pour over the crawling mess of turtles. We had them all and we began paddling back. Not to the dock but, this time, to the beach. We pushed up the canoe and Patrick stepped up off the surfboard, into the shallow water.

***

I looked back to the beach and I saw Patrick greet Emily with a little smile plastered across his face. Just hours earlier we had been straining through the water side-by- side and I had been intent on beating him. Somehow it was always like this.

When we had been younger, a year- or-so before the cabin in the Okanagan, we had gone up to Lost Lake to spend the night. It was the most haphazard of plans—within a couple of hours, we all had decided we were going, packed some backpacks and set off. And the trip really had been driven by some summertime sense of audacity.

Our tents were on a tiny island in the middle of the lake, and there were narrow little planks going back to the shore, offering a muddy walkway. We wanted to do something big before dinner and so we slid across the planks back to the shore, and set off to circumnavigate the lake.

Almost halfway around we ran into a towering boulder sitting on the side of the water. Moss made a sheen all the way over the water side of the rock and I thought it was crazy to even consider us sliding past on that side. Instead I proposed that we head to the right—away from the water just a little bit—in order to get back around to the left and to get back to our dinner. Patrick balked and I remember myself immediately going on the defensive: “well what do you think we should do? Do you want to slip down the rock? Try to come up with a better plan.”

He smirked. “All I know is that I don’t think we need go all the way around.”

We finally did go my way but it ended up being a much longer detour than it seemed. By the time that we made it back to the campsite it was dark, we were hungry, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how smug Patrick must have been. Remembering back to that day, I’m not even sure that he had been gloating—but I remember thinking of the feud as inescapable.

It was this same strange resentment that floated over my head as I watched him hold a turtle out for our friends to inspect. I also felt a little bit bad for the turtle; his little legs spun, unproductively in the air and there was nothing else he could do.

***

Looking back into a boat full of desperate scrambling amphibians, Simone had an idea. “What if we draw a line in the sand, release the turtles up there by the grass, and place bets as they run back into the water? I can take these ones.” Simone pointed to the three turtles in the front of the boat. “And you guys can have these ones.”

We all loved the idea. I had bent over to reach into the boat and, with a canoe paddle, started to shunt the remaining turtles away from the ones that Simone had claimed. Patrick had joined me by my right side.

“Let’s call this one Escobar,” he pointed to the biggest of our team.

“And let’s call this one Julio,” I answered.

Emily brought down some generously sized tupperwares from the kitchen and we had been using these to transport the turtles. I felt Escobar repeatedly throw himself against the side, in an effort to get out.

The day had become colder very quickly. As soon as the sun dipped behind the wall of the valley, it was as if a curtain had been drawn on the show. After spending hours laying on the scorching pale wood of the dock, I was actually chilly and so I was eager to get these turtles released and back into the water.

Opposite Simone, I scooped the first leathery turtle out of the “boys” team’s tupperware. Julio squirmed unexpectedly in my hand and I almost dropped him. I reached down and held him inches above the wet sand, watching his feet swirl through the air. He must have been so desperate to get back into the water. It didn’t seem totally fair that we were forcing these turtles to race—especially when just an hour earlier they had been happily swimming.

We released the turtles in pairs. There were three races in total and each race was accompanied by screams and cheers from the two teams. The turtles scrambled headfirst towards the safety of the water—an instinct which must have been programmed deep in them.

***

Later that night, we sat around the table and laughed while picking over our remnants of dinner. The pasta was still in a bowl on the table in front of us and I set down my fork, in favor of—instead—just using my fingers to pick out some cherry tomatoes.

I think we were prouder of ourselves back then than we really deserved. Earlier Simone had worried about how salty the pesto should be because her mom usually made it one way. We were all still trying to be like the grownups. She licked her spoon and mused, “you know—I think we nailed it.” Patrick reached across to give her a high-five and we all laughed.

We sat for awhile, content to just laugh and talk over the food on the table, but after while Kirby got up and he came back with a deck of cards. He dropped them on the table and suggested that we play hearts.

“Hearts, really?” Dory asked.

“Yeah—come, on let’s okay,” Patrick responded. Somehow it had become his idea, to play, and he grabbed the cards from Kirby to begin shuffling.

Hayden got up to clear the table and I slinked after him into the kitchen. “What is it with Patrick?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” Hayden asked.

“Well I just feel like there’s always something to prove.”

“Are you guys still talking about the race?” Dory asked as she walked into the kitchen with a stack of bowls from the table.

I shot Hayden a grimace before heading back out to pick up more dishes.

When we were all back around the table, cards in hand, I looked down and realized that I could maybe shoot the moon. I worried about being too bold but there in front of me were the cards: a run of high hearts, some high diamonds, and the King of Spades. With a subtle little

shrug of my head, I played my first card. Someone slipped in a low heart and I played everything off as if—“oh shucks I guess I can roll with that.” But really I was thrilled.

Patrick reacted to me stomaching a heart and what he said was: “Oh yikes that’s okay, Zane.” But what I heard was “you must be so embarrassed.”

Hearts is one of those games where points are bad—but what’s special is that if you somehow have the gall to take every single point, then you actually win. This is what I was trying to do: take every single heart, as well as the queen of spades.

I tried to hide what I was doing. I asked Emily about her plans to run cross country in college in order to distract from my taking the eight of hearts. I asked Dory how she felt about moving to California while I took the four, two, and seven. I asked about the future because that was the biggest distraction that we all shared and I hoped to deflect from my plan until it was too late to be stopped.

But with every point I took, I felt little jabs from Patrick. Even though I wanted to keep my head down and to just play my cards, I couldn’t help but to engage in the back-and-forth a little bit. Trick after trick, the two of us teased each other and tried to appear bigger than we actually were.

Simone put back on the Shins album that we had listened to earlier. As we went around the table, putting down cards and picking at food, Patrick and I kept making small comments. I was eager to laugh a little too loud when he spilled a Mike’s and he was quick to teasingly ask me about how I had cried while cutting the onions for dinner. Our back-and-forth continued throughout the night. We were listening to the same song that we had been while down at the water. But this time a different part stood out to me.

The dust from a four day affair is
now landing
All over the floor and your brown
legs
The gold-plated legs of my rival
Whose eyes had no reason to fall

I still had those lines running through my head as a I fell asleep later that night, next to Kirby. I knew that in the morning we would wake up and do it all over again and the air would still be hot and smoky. We would still be wrapped up tight in the beginning of summer, and Patrick and I would still be racing, just like turtles.

Categories
Voices

The Movement of the Myth

by Gabi Shiner | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Haley Johnson

Editor’s Note: This piece contains mentions of mental illness, suicide, and sexual violence.


Getting wheeled up to the psych ward is like that beginning sequence in a concert documentary where you follow the star through the bowels of the arena to the stage, but sad. A nurse moved me from one drab, tiled hallway to the next as we made our way up to 3 East. With each leg, I let a little more go. Bye resistance. Bye dignity. Bye working so fucking hard to keep myself from going back to the hospital. Going into treatment felt like coming out of some sort of prolonged lobotomy. The blankness I felt by the time we came to the double doors left me smiling.

During my first ten-day-long institutionalization, I probably smiled a total of 15 times. The first thing I did at the hospital was to sob in front of twenty other fuckups and their therapists. As I hyperventilated my way through my introduction, I looked around the circle at their colorful, plastic chairs, then out the window at the world I’d so abruptly been barred from. My goal from day one was to get out. Staying would mean admitting that I had failed to take control of my narrative.

I don’t remember when it started, but at some point I started narrating my own life to myself in my head like an autobiography. Whether or not I counted an experience of mine as pathetic depended largely on whether or not I could fashion it into dryly humorous prose. I could almost hear the amorphous sound of my voice reading this non-existent prose several years later at a hip bookstore meet and greet, like someone yelling garbled words in a dream. It was my own neverending, sinister free credit on Audible.

The part about OCD was already written for me when I got to it. I was five. I paused the Dora the Explorer three times to go wash my hands, and I knew I was doomed. Walking back into the living room the third time was like walking into uncanny valley. The swirly designs on the rug started to look computerized. My parents looked at me like I was a criminal. There is no way to tell when the inception of “things changing” was, but I know that after that day I was at the mercy of my bizarre, repetitive thoughts and the host of remedies that my parents employed to erase them. Every time I refrained from snipping invisible ribbons in the air, I got a gold star sticker on my OCD chart. Every time I couldn’t control horrible visions of stabbing my family in the middle of the night, I got a stern talking to. My OCD story ended in the same quietly destructive way it had started. My parents told me I couldn’t see my therapist anymore because she wanted to give me drugs, and I was crushed. She had wanted to hear about how painful it was to imagine these violent things against my will, and now nobody did. I would adapt. If I had a problem, it would be anything but perverted, ugly OCD.

Everything was fine until 11th grade when I was sitting in Our Town rehearsal, hazy from Abilify, delivering Mrs. Gibbs’s lines about going to Paris like a bad casting temp reading at an audition. Listening to myself catatonically speak was a sure sign that my social identity, good grades, friends, whatever had melted in a depression garbage fire. One of the worst things about this depression was that it severely impacted my performance and thus my narrative of self. At that time, performance and narrative of self were interchangeable for me. In high school, I relied upon the narrative control I had in plays. Theater was the respite I needed from my inability to sit with myself without picking at her. Onstage, I could connect to everything ugly, but I could aestheticize it through performance. I could release it in a way that was choreographed and cathartic. When I got depressed, I was so swarmed by gloom that I didn’t have the ability to convert the ugliness. I was just drowning in it, lethargically miming corn shucking and oatmeal cooking as Thornton Wilder’s American masterpiece required me to do.

The depression garbage fire was actually just obscuring a taller, more toxic OCD garbage fire a few miles away. At that time, my intrusive thoughts concerned my being an unfuckable, awkward, inadequate nothing baby. In the fall of junior year, my best friend started dating the boy I was in love with, which was what we in improv like to call an extreme “heighten.” The self-berating and depression became so unbearable that I stopped being able to function. My parents and therapist decided that I had to take time off from school and go to a residential therapy program for severely depressed teenagers.

Luckily, I lived only 20 minutes away from McLean Hospital, where the program was housed. If you’ve read The Bell Jar, you might recognize McLean as the hospital where Sylvia Plath got electroshock therapy. If you’ve seen Girl, Interrupted, you may recognize it as the hospital where Winona Ryder’s character is sent after her suicide attempt. My point is that this mental hospital is a cultural landmark, a fact that I now frequently wield for social capital when the fact that I have been institutionalized comes up. Being in the hospital felt like a fluke assignment. On some level, I knew that I was in the wrong place because I was in the wrong treatment. The therapy I was doing was for general depression, and I was learning zero strategies for managing my spiraling, intrusive OCD thoughts. On a conscious level, however, I was convinced that a person like me did not belong in the program. The other patients, I disgustingly convinced myself, were actual problem children for whom moving between adolescent residential programs was the norm. I tried to frame what was happening in a way that made sense to me. In my room during free time, I took out my journal and wrote:

I am in the fucking hospital. I feel
like Piper Chapman.

Okay, yeah, that could be my hospital identity. In the TV show Orange is the New Black, which was all the rage in 2013, white entrepreneur Piper Chapman gets yanked from her brownstone and thrown in prison for trafficking drugs in her Smith days. After nights and nights of crying, Piper immerses herself in prison life and eventually works her way into a clique with her ex, who is also in prison? I can’t remember. But. The wrongfully imprisoned Type A. Off the charts problematic and right in my wheelhouse.

To my advantage, the structure of the program gave me a clear trajectory for proving wellness (read: superiority via downward comparison). Patient progress was measured through a merit based levels system. Everyone started on Level Two, and as you demonstrated investment and active participation in group and individual treatment, you moved up levels. This meant gaining privileges: Level Three’s could go out to restaurants on weekends, when there was no programming. Level Four’s could leave campus to visit friends and family. The way to move up levels was to be on your best behavior, and the higher up you moved, the more apt a candidate for discharge you seemed. I was great at seeming great, so I turned on the charm. I treated group therapy like it was AP English, giving my most thoughtful comments about the teenage ethos while we discussed the toxic high school friendships that made my peers suicidal. I never complained when we had to turn the TV off at night, and I volunteered to give new admits the tour of the snack cabinet. I lead daily goal setting group with the congeniality of Tracy Flick from Election on a mood stabilizer. “We look forward to seeing Gabi as president of the United States,” beamed the head of the program as I set down my expo marker at the end of the meeting, leading everyone in a rousing round of applause for me/his ability to teach marketable interpersonal skills to the troubled youth. I breezed through levels like some of the longer term patients breezed through Mario Kart levels every night in the game room. After ten grueling days, I finally got released and went back to school, feeling like raw hell as I prepared to kill it in Pippin.

One morning before school, right after I left McLean, I was crying hysterically in the shower. I felt like I had a medicine ball in my stomach. Suck it back suck it back. Holding down a deluge of despair in an effort toward continuation. And that was when I turned it around, the autobiography said. I decided it was over, so it was over.

***

Joan Didion famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” My slight, context-dependent amendment to that would be that we tell our therapists stories in order to collaboratively maintain a tragically beautiful self image. The summer after freshman year of college, when all the same things were still wrong, I took my mom to coffee and tearfully told her that I felt a deep disconnect with intimacy and sex. I needed to be in therapy, which I hadn’t been in since McLean. We brainstormed options. A family friend knew a cool therapist from when she got raped in her Brown days. I set up a session and felt hopeful.

A year into phone sessions with my therapist, I realized I had been sexually assaulted the summer before college. I was very relieved. This was an explanation with huge, ancient implications. I was part of a whole community and history of pain, not just a weird anomaly. I had been stewing in this nondescript melancholia, and now there was a whole fucked up history to analyze. That summer I saw my therapist three times a week. Each session, we rehashed a different episode of abuse that had occurred two summers before, reframing what I’d been through in an antiparallel narrative. Then she’d send me off with a semi-satisfying takeaway about why “assholes are seductive,” one I’d mull over to Exile in Guyville as I drove home. I figured that if I collected enough mini revelations, I’d get to the big one that would make me comfortable with my past and decisions and body and sexuality and selfhood. When I wasn’t in therapy, I was running around the Chestnut Hill reservoir. Fast. Daydreams of burning down my rapist’s house and snapping his guitar fueled me through miles. I ran around and around and around.

Seven months later I couldn’t leave my bed. It was fine because I looked like shit and who wants to see that? I was weeks overdue with scripts for creative writing classes but there was nothing in my psyche that wasn’t too humiliating to let see the light of day, so I didn’t write. No use in turning my redundant pain into a one act play, it was just too ugly. In fact, it was all irredeemably ugly. When the school year wrapped up, I began to pursue dying. With this I was creative. I faked out falling onto scissors, teased walking into oncoming traffic. I floored the gas and swerved in an intersection before pulling into the parking lot of a children’s swim school and placing my first ever suicide hotline call. Every morning, I dumped a pile of Prozac into my hand and dove into it face down, mouth open. I let the pills stick to my lips before spitting them back into the bottle. I never went through with it. I did take a few dramamine pills though. My dad told me to call poison control.

“What’s going on?” said the lady on the other end of the line. She sounded like that cute girl in AT&T commercials who says “psst, over here” to customers in the tech store and lets them in on the secret of AT&T’s very affordable monthly plan.

“Hey, sooo, I swallowed some dramamine,” I said breezily.

“Why?”

“Um…”

“Why?”

“I don’t super want to be here.”

“You need to go to the emergency room.”

“Like, now?”

“You need to go to the emergency room.”

“Okay.” I hung up and went back to googling “reasons to live.”

Twenty four hours later, I was at the Newton Wellesley Hospital low acuity psychiatric unit.

***

Around 8:15 PM that first night, I’d reached my daily limit for tolerating existence and went to my room. Alone, my self-berating intensified. Self loathing thoughts stacked in my head like bricks. I sat under my paper thin covers and let it happen for several minutes. Then I took out the novel I’d been reading, hoping it would make me want to kill myself less.

I’d been doing a lot of impulse book buying in the weeks leading up to the ward. During that period, I was in the business of obsessively trying to remind myself that I a) still had a functioning intellectual brain and b) wasn’t utterly isolated in my feeling that everything was lost. I turned to my old method of trying to find texts in which I could lose myself (or what was left of myself ) for respite. One hot day in late May, I was wandering the streets of downtown Boston, zonked out on my own brain chemicals like a less stylish Olsen twin circa 2008. I stumbled into a used bookstore and found a book devastating enough for me to relate to: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Oh, Jonathan Safran Foer, the Jewish fiction wunderkind that I would never be, especially now that I was, as my father put it, “troubled.” I sat next to some stoners in Boston Common and intently read the part of the book where the kid’s dad dies in 9/11, furiously doing the mental math to analogize his pain and mine. I too have experienced a shock of losing the self deeper and more seismic than any loss I have known before, and who knows whether I will come back from it. That was the extent of my ridiculous, self-aggrandizing analogy, and I knew it. Still, I read on, hoping I would find any resonance in this story that was fundamentally nothing like mine. I needed a sign that what I was going through symbolized something. That way, I would find my story beautifully tragic enough to be worth continuing.

That night in my hospital bed, I picked up where I’d left off, annotating the text with the pen I’d used to fill out my intake forms. I underlined places where the narrator said “I” and interpreted in the margins, trying to sound like I was still smart. What is “I?” loss = fracture of I = can you reclaim “I” once you know it is disruptable national trauma and national “I” disruption. 9/11 is so sad. 9/11 was so. Sad. Oh my god. The level of loss. So dark. I thought about it and felt like I’d just sipped bleach. My whole body was in pain. I had to put the book away. I took out the blue spiral notebook I’d brought with me and turned to journaling. If I couldn’t find myself in a text, my plan B was to start writing my autobiography while institutionalized. A bestseller from the depths. Literary theory teaches us that the self… I stopped writing. I’d pick it up in the morning. I was too stupid to talk about that shit anyways.

The next day was a Saturday, so there was no therapy programming, and I had all the time in the world to write. I sat down at the long table in the day room, opened my notebook up to that same page, and brainstormed to the background noise of Chip and Joanna Gaines on HGTV. Literary theory teaches us… No. I had to stop. I put the notebook away and started reading an issue of People. Well, first I tried to read an essay collection they had in the day room, which was a bunch of feminist scholars on 9/11. Then I got too sad again and read People. I didn’t pick up the notebook again the whole time I was there.

Sometimes several connected events occur and we arrive at the intersection of those events much later and all at once. In the fall of 2018, I took a literary theory class and read “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” by the theorist Jacques Derrida for the first time. In “Structure, Sign, and Play,” which was given as a speech at the 1966 MLA conference, Jacques Derrida renounces structuralism and the rules it imposes upon thinking and reading (not that he like, invented any of these ideas). He explains that up until the fateful event of his speech, every discourse in the human sciences had been tethered to the practice of finding a center: the irreducible kernel of truth at the apex of all interpretation. Some examples of the center: God, your childhood trauma, the smallest atomic particle. The center is the idea underneath it all that tells us our stories make sense the “why” that we yearn for. Our stories don’t make sense, so the center is a trick of the eye. You can see whole narrative arcs where there’s only stasis, because the center projects illusions and the promise of a release. In this way, the center is a home base that can’t support the weight of the things that really happen to us, or the way that they happen.

Derrida says, “In order not to short change the form and movement of the myth, that violence which consists in centering a language which is describing an acentric structure must be avoided” (Derrida, 1966). You can only avoid this violence if you dedicate yourself to moving through your life, regardless of whether or not it looks like you thought it would. This means responding openly to the unwieldy, stupid ways life moves you. The modus operandi of open response is “freeplay.” Freeplay is enabled through accepting that your life isn’t supposed to mean anything (after all, no center), so you’re allowed to respond to it however you want.

Derrida ends by saying he has no idea what it will be like to carry on without the center, but promises that carving an acentric path will be either glorious, ugly, or both. Through freeplay, you can get crafty and welcome the violence in gorgeous ugly ways.

I, or some version of me, knew I had to give up on finding meaning in the horrible shit that had been happening for so long. Why this was all happening and what it made me look like to the rest of the world was irrelevant. The shape of my narrative was irrelevant. If I wanted to want to live again, I would have to be the active player in my story and stop self-ironizing. It was only hurting me to view my healing from a critical distance.

Sitting in my apartment, I knew that I had just read something I needed to know. Sitting in the day room, I understood it as a challenge. But I didn’t put all this together until much later.

***

I fumbled my way through a new approach.

Stupid joy was a good way in. A few days into my institutionalization, my friend Lauren and I were sitting on the patio during Fresh Air time. Fresh Air time was the daily 15-minute slot when we were allowed to go outside to the gated rooftop patio. It was sunny out, which made for some nice shadows on the brutalist concrete. Suddenly, Lauren, who was always stretching, did a backbend. The nine-year-old failed gymnast in me was jealous and delighted. It was Stick-It perfection.

“Dude. That’s like, an amazing backbend.”

“Thanks. Yeah I used to do gymnastics.”

“For real? Like, how seriously?”

“Aly Raisman and I had the same coach.”

“Holy shit that’s amazing.”

Lauren started to cry. I looked at her, then looked down, then looked at her.

“It’s just like, it could have been, I’m just thinking about how it could have been and it’s whatever.” She wiped a tear from under her glasses. Tears kept coming, but she sucked them back with little sniffles.

I understood. I was probably too fucked up to ever perform again because if I ever had to do method acting I would only have this humiliating experience to draw on, and then I would hate acting and quit performing. I had basically already quit performing when I decided to not go to school for theater. Everything I was a part of made me so unhappy, and I had decided to be there. I was the one who begged my mom to sign me up for that horrible sleepaway camp. If I hadn’t gone to summer camp and gotten bullied by those girls I would have been happier and fucked more people cause I wouldn’t have been so ashamed of my body. I had fucked up every pivotal narrative checkpoint. Whatever. That backbend was so sick. Lauren looked so cool in the sun, just moving her body playfully. I asked her to do it again. She was too upset.

Something changed on the roof. I could breathe a little more. It happened again in arts and crafts group. If you’ve been to a psych ward, you know that arts and crafts is desperately employed to placate people who really need to be in intensive therapy at all hours when there are no therapists on the unit. Historically, I am quick to emotionally withdraw from group therapy activities. That day, however, I was so hopeless that I felt compelled to invest. I needed a break from regretting literally everything I had ever done on repeat in my head. I waited for instructions at the group activity table, which was prepped with magic markers and paper.

“Everyone. Today, we are making gratitude charts,” said Jess the social worker with a cloying smile. She took off her Lululemon warm-up jacket. Just a quick pop-in to help the deranged after her jog.

“A gratitude chart is where you draw a circle, or any shape of your choosing, and write the things you are grateful for in the middle, or coming off of the sides, like a sun.”

Jess pressed a button on her boom box and knockoff Enya began to play. This was our cue to begin. After a couple minutes of dodging thoughts about how I had nothing to be grateful for because I had ruined my whole life and needed to keep reminding myself so that I could stay on my toes and make sure it didn’t happen again, I tried to access a sense of gratitude. I started with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (food, water, shelter) because that’s low hanging fruit. The visual of Crayola ink dancing across a page was kind of comforting. I looked up. Everyone around me was smiling and drawing like they were using markers for the first time and it made me incredibly angry. Being angry gave me a stomachache. I turned back to the paper.

What actually mattered right now? Maybe another way into this was thinking outside of my ruined ego. I visualized brushing it aside like it was a big stone blocking a cave. Almost instantly, I realized that so many people in my life were working so hard to hold me together. My friends picked up every time I called from the payphones in the hall. Sometimes, they even went through the front desk and the you are placing a call to a patient at the Newton Wellesley low acuity psych ward voice message to get to me. My mother, whom I had terrified and traumatized, visited every single day. I filled in about half the circle. It was not revelatory. I was hopeful. I hadn’t been hopeful in five months.

Arts and crafts were not Jess’s only trade. She also led low impact aerobics once a week. This sounded like a nightmare to me, but I was beginning to worry all my muscles would atrophy from sitting so much, so I went. Aerobics was held in the common space between the high acuity ward (for psychosis and related disorders) and the low acuity ward (for depression-and-anxiety). The turnout was surprisingly high. Everyone was wearing colorful sweats, which looked especially bright under the fluorescents. Jess walked in with an iPhone speaker. “Alright everybody, you ready to move?” she said, looking none of us in the eye. She turned on “Everything Now” by Arcade Fire and started us with very slow marching. “Right then left, everyone!” It was helpful that she was telling us which foot was right and which was left, because I forgot.

When I looked around after the Arcade Fire song, the crowd had thinned out significantly. Behind us, someone laughed. It was a patient from the other ward.

“You guys look fucking dumb!” he yelled. We did.

I wanted to leave. So badly. No one was blocking the powered-off TV at the front of the room anymore, so I could see my whole reflection. My hair was in a greasy ponytail. I looked sedated. I would have kept cruelly ogling myself but then “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake came on and everyone started doing grape vines and ski jumps. The fray was moving faster around me, multicolored sneakers traveling from side to side.

A deeply specific humiliation set in. It was like I was simultaneously participating in every dance class warm up that had ever made me want me to exit my skin. Like theater troupe when I was ten. Ten years of maturity down the drain. Mortifying body. My sad stupid situation floored me as Jess yelled “come on!” Do something. I was going to die because I was going to live. Like when you have to stay awake for so long that it hurts. There was no way to un-live what I had lived. No beautiful tragedy. Assault was a cop-out, McLean was a cop-out, and this was the rock bottom truth of how fucking pathetic I was. It was so embarrassing. No community of heroes here. Nothing I can see but you when you dance dance dance dance fuck you, Justin. Don’t look at me. So sad and ugly with a horrible autobiography I couldn’t un-write. Stomach ache. Dance dance dance dance. No way to have a narrative I was even remotely okay with unless I did something to advance it. Evil catch 22. Agonizing dissonance between the ugliness that happened and the rest that I didn’t know yet. I had lost everything. Ugly lights. Everyone’s faces so sad and ugly. Guilt and no art. I ski jumped. I had nowhere else to be. This was the only place on Earth I could be. I ski jumped. I had nothing. Nothing. Fuck it.

Categories
Memoir

The Act of Mapping the Soul

by Eliana Carter | Memoir | Spring 2019

Image by Benjamin Stevens

Before I was born, a house fire destroyed most of my dad’s family photos. His life has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Save for a wallet-sized photo of him when he was around seven years old, I have little idea what he even looked like as a kid or young adult. I know my grandparents and their families migrated from rural Louisiana to Oakland, California, before my father was born. They made their new life there, where my dad was raised. Too many relatives to count now call Oakland home.

Though my dad grew up in California, I am East Coast born and raised. Growing up, we’d board a plane every few years to visit his side of the family. Grandma would cook her famous gumbo on the stove, big pot boiling. Dungeness crab pulled from West Coast waters––a delicacy on our East Coast tongues. Each time I’d show up feeling like a new person, like a lifetime had passed. (If you ask them, they’ll tell you I look the same, just taller.) There’s always been this great distance between me and Oakland, both physically and temporally.

As I grew older, and tried to find my place in the world, understanding myself through my family history became more and more important. What were they like? What did they do? What was left behind in pursuit of Oakland? How far back can we trace my family’s history? I sat down with my dad on Christmas to ask him what he knew. I wanted to finally learn about my family’s history. I wanted to know why they moved, what kinds of stories he heard growing up. We sat down at the kitchen table. In a neighboring room my brother played Christmas tunes on the piano, while my mom read a novel on the couch. It was mid-afternoon, and our dinner was cooking in the oven. Soon we would be gathered around the table to eat, but first, I wanted to sit down and talk. Much to my dismay and surprise, he didn’t know much. I didn’t understand. How couldn’t he?

In 1942, my family moved from rural Louisiana to Oakland, where my father was born and raised. I’ve never known much about what prompted this move. There was racism. They lived in fear. But that was all I heard. When I ask my dad about why his parents and siblings uprooted and transported their home some 2,000 miles West, he doesn’t know much either. He is able to re-tell me the story that his uncles had told him. One day, a group of white men come knocking on his grandfather’s door in rural Louisiana.

My dad tells me,

So they came to him and they said, ‘We saw your son,’ which was my father, ‘With a mule down by the water,’ and they said, ‘You know we could have killed him right there but we didn’t. We didn’t do anything to him.’ They went on to tell him about all the other members of the family and how they had observed them and that they were just letting him know that if he didn’t do what they were asking, they would have trouble. That’s the time when they left the farming life and moved into the city.

So they packed up and moved. I can only assume this was merely one of many instances of racialized violence my family was faced with in Louisiana. My great-uncles told my dad this story; his parents wouldn’t. For my grandparents, the terrors of the South were a dark secret to be kept hidden away from the light. The trauma they endured was to be left there: in the past. No wonder my dad didn’t know much. The information I was looking for wasn’t available to him, even when he asked. As much as they tried to leave the South behind, they carried relics of it with them into their life in California: in the way they talked, the food they ate, and the way they saw the world. Under the surface lived this world of Southern influence.

My dad continues,

It was funny, it was a strange thing. But at the same time there was this sympathetic world right under the surface that was all Southern. There was Southern cooking, people would get together and talk about the past… The kinds of things that they knew about this other world that they lived in. So when they would sit around and reminisce, it was all about this other world. Even though they tried to stay away from it, they brought everything with them.

Listening to my dad talk about this, I begin to crave these stories. What is lost from their insistence that the past was in the past? I understand why they wouldn’t want to speak about these things. There’s something very American in that assertion that the past is in the past, unable to reconcile with histories of slavery. Buried in our history books, it is the insistence that we can all move forward in our own right. That our past does not affect the future, that it doesn’t matter after all. We like to bury the terror and trauma that our families lived through. But when we abandon the past for the present, what are we left with?

The history of my mom’s family is well-documented. It can be traced back centuries, well before they immigrated to America from Hungary. I know a great deal about my family’s lineage on my mom’s side. I could tell you where and when they immigrated, where they lived before that, even the names and occupations of the specific family members. But with my dad’s family, not only could I not trace the movement of my family from one state to the next, I couldn’t even locate them before America. Where did they come from before Louisiana? Africa? Our history, and the history of many African Americans in this country has been erased. Because those who were enslaved were considered property, they were not granted marriage certificates, medical records or census records from which a typical genealogy would be constructed. Pre-Civil War family research for African Americans means sifting through auction records, property ledgers, and bills of sale. A lost cause for many.

Image courtesy of the author

It’s no surprise so many African Americans have little connection to their ancestry. During slavery, children were often forcibly removed from their parents, parents were sold to different plantations, and families were forged, not by blood, but through communities. My last name, Carter, was most likely picked up by my ancestors, who were enslaved by a family named Carter. Our name is not our own.

My dad thinks about this differently, seeing ancestry traced in different ways that don’t always rely on an oral or written history.

Like me, he once believed our history was untraceable. Then my mom got him a DNA kit specifically for African Americans to trace their DNA back to before their ancestors were brought to America.

He explains,

Your mother got me this DNA kit. Called African DNA or something like that. I tried it and it’s like, all of a sudden, you know that there are links to these different African groups. It made it really fascinating. All of a sudden, here’s a concrete thing. It’s in your DNA. Generations of slavery didn’t wash this away. It’s still alive. We grew up as African Americans; we had no connection to the past, really. Except for our families, you know. And to look beyond that was kind of hopeless for a lot of people. We didn’t have any idea we could do that. Only some vague idea of Africa. But I remember my father was always talking about, you know, we’re Americans. We’re not from Africa. We don’t know anything about Africa, so people pretending that we do, that’s really silly. You can’t let people take away your being an American away from you.

Africa—not just some vague idea, but actual groups of people can be linked to my family’s history. We came from somewhere. Not just an entire continent, but actual places and of actual people. We have a history that extends beyond Louisiana. Now we have something that can connect us and it’s something concrete. It’s in our blood. But it’s more than just our DNA. My dad claims he can recognize the legacy and influence Africa has had on his family. He notes the similarities in customs, in ways of making community, in ways of seeing the world. It’s all there under the surface. It was futile to try and leave it all behind.

My dad continues,

The civil rights movement started in Louisiana. Not just Plessy [v. Ferguson], we can go back to Plessy. But even before that there were newspapers, there were political parties, there were support groups, there were some of those groups that were involved in Mardi Gras and those kinds of things. Those kinds of independent societies that were established to support one another. They’re not only some of the oldest in the country, they’re very similar to African societies that are developed for the same purposes. When you see people dancing in the Mardi Gras, those are African dances.

In the early 1990s, a surge of Black films began to be created about Black families going south in pursuit of their roots. In one, Down in the Delta, directed by Maya Angelou, a single mother is sent to live with her uncle for the summer to get her life together. She has no job, and is struggling to support her two children, who are cared for in great part by her mother. She is threatened by her family knowledge. If she does not prove to her mother she is willing to care for her family and understand her family’s history by the end of the summer, her mother will sell their only lasting family heirloom from the slavery period: a silver candelabra that was sold in exchange for her great-grandfather. In this film, and in many others of this time period, knowing your roots is power. To know where you come from connects you to a broader sense of identity. It brings you back home, it reminds you who you are, and it propels you into the future.

Being a descendent of enslaved people means reconciling in some way with the past of slavery: how it shaped you and how you see your role in today’s world. You can’t sit back and look at your ancestry as an African American without thinking of struggle and pushing through. There is no other option but to work for a better future.

In the late ’60s, African Americans began to re-connect themselves to Africa. This was around the time my father was born. Scholars and artists began to re-connect themselves with the idea of Africa as a homeland. Nina Simone famously fled to Liberia in 1974. What began as a visit to see South African musical legend Miriam Makeba ended in Simone’s three year stay. In her memoir I Put a Spell on You she writes, “The America I’d dreamed of through the sixties seemed a bad joke now, with Nixon in the White House and the black revolution replaced by disco … Africa, half a world away from New York. Maybe I could find some peace there, or a husband. Maybe it would be like going home.”

People like my grandfather pushed back on the idea of Africa as a lost homeland, a homeland to return to. We’re American, not African, he said. We don’t know anything about Africa.

My dad continues,

There are things that are just there. They’re a part of your life. And this was infused in the world that I grew up in, too. Things that are considered for most Westerners inanimate are not considered inanimate for Africans or people from my community. So, like, a tree, or a stone, or whatever it is, they’re considered to have some sort of spirit, some sort of intentionality in the world. And that’s the way I grew up looking at things. It was almost like people were joking—but they weren’t really joking. It’s like the way that you treat things in the world and the way that you regard them. You regard them as they are other beings in the world.

There’s a spiritual element, too. A cosmological one. No matter how Christian they were, the way my family saw the world was different, and this was informed by African cosmologies. Many African Americans today take from African spiritualism to inform their day-to-day lives. As a way of connecting to Africa, many African Americans follow Yoruba or other religions derived from Yoruba, a religion stemming from southwest Nigeria. Many Yoruba people were spread across the Atlantic slave trade, and around the world people of the African diaspora practice Yoruba beliefs, which include reincarnation and ancestral guidance in the form of energy and spirits.

I realized that there’s a whole other world that’s informing their existence, but they don’t talk about this much. I remember when you were there eating gumbo one day at my mother’s house, and people were like, ‘Oh, look at that child eating that gumbo. Look at her. Oh, she’s an old soul. No one had to teach her. She’s been here before. But they’re really saying, you know, you’ve been here before. You’re not just new to this world. You’ve been around. You’re a spirit that’s been here. That’s the way they talk but they’re really kind of serious about it. They’re looking for these signs of belonging in something like that. The way you eat something. The way you do something. That’s what makes you one of us.

The predetermined cosmological viewpoint, the ancestral guide which leads you toward goodness, which moves in your step… I’m not sure I believe in this type of thing. Reincarnation is a word that sits like a question in my mouth, but I’m drawn to love it if it means belonging.

Back before we came, Grandma cooked gumbo on the stove in Baton Rouge: sassafras, okra, celery stock. She passed away when I was sixteen. At her funeral, I read Psalm 23. It goes like this:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

It’s a similar sentiment, God as a spiritual guide. Before I started this, I was having trouble placing myself in my family’s history. I was having trouble with the lack of knowledge I had, about who we were, and where we came from. As I continue to learn more about my family’s history, I remember these sentiments: to think of your ancestors as guides, and to walk through life in their memory. This much I can take forward. There is an implicit honor in this—this, to me, is legacy.

Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Eva Kocher

interviewed by Bridget Conway | Visual Processes | Spring 2019

Works by Eva Kocher

Bridget Conway for Wilder Voice: Give us a brief introduction to your art. What themes and ideas do you work with? What materials?

Eva Kocher: Since starting at Oberlin, I’ve really been driven by my identity. I have been making work that relates to my Blackness and my struggle to find a place as a biracial person who comes from a displaced Black heritage. But my personal story is what I usually tend to draw my inspiration from. Dealing with these different struggles, I’ve had to find my own voice in art history and I think a lot of when I first started making work I was doing all the photography and making art that spoke to that very explicitly.

In my junior year, I decided that I wanted to take a step back from creating images that felt a little bit too obvious or heavy-handed. I wanted to go back to working with my hands and try to evoke the same sort of visceral reactions that I was trying to do in my photography through physical objects. Finding this abstractness in this relationship to Blackness. When I was first beginning to make work I related it to my history, my Blackness and my identity as a woman of color, specifically a biracial woman, and existing in this world, but also in Oberlin College––I felt like I really needed to prove myself as an artist.

There’s just so much pressure to create work that talks about my identity, so I wanted to step away from that and create work that just spoke to me. I trust that it all has to do with who I am and the experiences that I have, but it isn’t trying to prove anything to anyone else. It’s more about an experience of catharsis for myself, a rebuilding and recontextualization of my history and where I exist in history. I began making more sculptures and, in my junior year, I started working a lot with hair, as you can see here. I am going back to that this year which I’m really excited about. Hair for me has always been this very charged thing.

My mom is African-American, my dad is white, blonde. I always was told that I grew up with “good hair,” that’s just a term that’s used a lot in the Black community. Being biracial, I had looser curls and I was told to love my natural hair. There are all of these ideas of class and gender and femininity wrapped up in hair. My mom has a lot of struggles, a lot of internal conflict. She grew up in an upper-middle-class Black family, so there are all of these things that she hung on to. She was trying to live vicariously through me, her light-skinned biracial daughter. Me and my mom are super close and so I always hung onto every word that she said and I really wanted to always be the best for her. Once I came to college I connected to the Black community here and found myself in that community in a different way––separate from my own family. I was thinking about ways in which I could exert my own autonomy by changing my hairstyles: getting boxed braids and getting extensions with synthetic hair and using that as a way to connect myself to this culture that I was always told I couldn’t be a part of.

My work is very process-based and a lot of the work that I make comes out of a very long contemplative process. Creating work and going through the ritual is doing these certain things which will then ultimately lead to the final production. So, I started off doing a lot of braiding with various materials––I was using a rope, I was using synthetic areas, using real hair and making these long braids. I was doing that because the ritual of braiding felt very important. It felt very connected to this history of braiding in the Black community, which is something I wasn’t really exposed to in the same way that a lot of other Black people were. But not having done that disconnected me from something. I started doing that and was creating a lot of different sculptures with hair. I created a few prints using hair and seeing how I can insert myself this thing that I wasn’t really a part of.

I also did a photography project with my mom during junior year where I had her dress up in different traditional styles, like hairstyles that are a part of Black culture. I had her wear a wig, I had her wear a durag, I had her hair natural, I put a scarf on her head and wrapped her hair, and took these portraits. They were these very raw depictions of her. That was really important for me moving forward this year. Work in the past has often been very emotionally taxing for me––constantly making work that is meaningful. I was kind of trying to step back from that, so I started doing a lot of drawing this year, going back and making things that were more abstract.

I started thinking about the other ways I’ve been empowered as a woman of color. I started thinking about sports: expressions of aggression and movement and music. I was forcing myself to trust my intuition and trust that all these things are a part of me. Creating art as a woman of color in itself is a revolutionary act, and Black abstraction is not something to stray from. In a lot of ways, it has been even more empowering to be able to make work that is inherently tied to who I am but doesn’t have to speak explicitly to my experience. Or translate that experience for the viewer and create work that feels good and is coming from a very real place.

Coming into my final thesis exhibition, I wanted to go back to making work that didn’t speak very explicitly to my experience. I’m working a lot with generations. Something that was a huge part of my family history was tied to Martha’s Vineyard. My mom’s family was one of the first Black family to own property on Martha’s Vineyard and my family’s been going there for the past seven generations. I’m the seventh generation, and so the number seven is coming up a lot in my work. A huge part of my displacement and disconnection from the outside of my family is because there’s a complicated history resulting in my family having to give up a lot, and not really being able to continue that connection to Martha’s Vineyard. A lot of family trauma has been caused by that and that has been like a really really difficult experience that I’ve grappled with for a very long time. I’m trying to go back through it and recreate my own, I don’t want to say history, but try to create a future that feels less tied to trauma and more about rebuilding in the way that I know how to. I am trying to focus less on the things that I feel detached from and I tend to dwell on the negative parts of my history. But I want to focus on my history in a way that’s meaningful for me and not for anyone else.

BC: I’m really intrigued by your charcoal drawings. Can you explain what you’re referencing and your process for them?

EK: I’m really inspired by the work of David Hammons. He’s incredible. He’s a Black installation artist, activist and performance artist. He has these pieces that are whole-body prints. In some of his earliest works, he covered certain parts of his body in oil and printed basketballs and stuff like that. That’s a body of work that is really inspiring to me, especially when I was first working with hair. So I have had these boxing gloves for a while. As a woman of color, I often feel like I’m defending myself and having to find ways to feel empowered within myself. I’m working with the ideas of protection and femininity. I am also thinking about the exertion of anger. I’m highlighting the beauty and light in anger and aggression- -not just as a woman, but specifically as a woman of color. I am thinking about that a lot. There are lots of associations with boxing and African-Americans. So I have these gloves, and they are making me think about a lot of things.

Outside of that, I was really fascinated by how they’re cracking. It reminded me a lot of human skin and self-preservation. I was wondering how I could I find a way to print this because I really wanted to use this texture. Originally, I was going to paint a page and print it. But then I realized that wasn’t going to work. I was like, maybe I could use charcoal. So I covered that original piece of paper with charcoal and tried to put my fist to it, but it didn’t show up. Obviously, it didn’t work out at all. But then I wondered how I could get the charcoal off of my gloves, so I punched another piece of paper to just try to get it off and I really was fascinated by the way the charcoal came off of the paper. When I punched it, it just felt really beautiful. It felt like a performance in a way that felt really empowering to me. So I started making these prints, and I was like, what if I was able to capture this action on a piece of paper? And what if you were able to see the vibrations and see the power that I put into this, and find some sort of like beauty in that? So, I started creating all of these prints, and every time I did it, I would do a different combination. They feel really serious, but they’re also very playful. I was like, okay, I’ll frame them to give them this reverence, but in this very playful way. Every time I did a different combination, I would write what I did. I was thinking of the titles as a way to explain the way that each one made me feel. I decided to tie it back to who I am rather than the actual icons of boxing because boxing is something I don’t really have any experience or history with. But this act was really meaningful and a huge part of my process and my thought process in this whole project that I’ve been working on like this whole body of work it just felt really essential. I felt like there is a need to sort of just like put my own personhood into the pieces and it’s kind of like what the newer titles are related to.

BC: Could you talk about the various pops of color around the studio? How does color figure in your work?

EK: In my house, there is a lot of African art. My great aunt was a figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She had a lot of pieces with a ton of color in them. That was my first inspiration and my first example of a successful Black female artist. I think just having these big pops of color have always kind of like brought me back to that. I’m thinking about the history of African art and work from West Africa. I was also inspired by the colors we considered in class with Matthew Rarey. So I started doing a lot of investigation of that. I was also part of a group called Dance Diaspora which is West African dance. It was one of the many ways that I was able to really find community here among other students of color. I was very inspired by the prints that we wore in the performances. Those colors are important to me. The color red has also always been important–it’s in the American flag, and to me it symbolizes blood and pain. It’s also in the Swiss flag. I always go back to red. I’m always attracted to red. With the black and white, I don’t really know if there is a reason. I’m really attracted to like very simplistic things, and there’s always been this like cleanliness and order associated with like just like black and white images for me.

BC: Who or what do you count as inspiration for your work?

EK: It’s hard to say, honestly. I have so many inspirations. My first and foremost inspiration is my mom. She’s a part of everything I do, every work I create. And by extension, my grandma (my Nana), who passed away when I was eleven. She continues to be a huge part of who I am. And then my dad, and my family in general. I’ve always been really really close to them and they shaped me into who I am. They are behind everything in terms of my artistic inspirations. I am also inspired by David Hammons, as I mentioned earlier. One of my hugest inspirations ever. And he continues to be. And Johnny Coleman is one of my greatest inspirations and mentors. There’s like a lot of different artists I’m inspired by that I haven’t mentioned. I kind of go in waves of who’s inspiring me at the moment.

In my house, there is a lot of African art. My great aunt was a figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She had a lot of pieces with a ton of color in them. That was my first inspiration and my first example of a successful Black female artist. I think just having these big pops of color have always kind of like brought me back to that. I’m thinking about the history of African art and work from West Africa. I was also inspired by the colors we considered in class with Matthew Rarey. So I started doing a lot of investigation of that. I was also part of a group called Dance Diaspora which is West African dance. It was one of the many ways that I was able to really find community here among other students of color. I was very inspired by the prints that we wore in the performances. Those colors are important to me. The color red has also always been important–it’s in the American flag, and to me it symbolizes blood and pain. It’s also in the Swiss flag. I always go back to red. I’m always attracted to red. With the black and white, I don’t really know if there is a reason. I’m really attracted to like very simplistic things, and there’s always been this like cleanliness and order associated with like just like black and white images for me.

BC: Who or what do you count as inspiration for your work?

EK: It’s hard to say, honestly. I have so many inspirations. My first and foremost inspiration is my mom. She’s a part of everything I do, every work I create. And by extension, my grandma (my Nana), who passed away when I was eleven. She continues to be a huge part of who I am. And then my dad, and my family in general. I’ve always been really really close to them and they shaped me into who I am. They are behind everything in terms of my artistic inspirations. I am also inspired by David Hammons, as I mentioned earlier. One of my hugest inspirations ever. And he continues to be. And Johnny Coleman is one of my greatest inspirations and mentors. There’s like a lot of different artists I’m inspired by that I haven’t mentioned. I kind of go in waves of who’s inspiring me at the moment.