Slow Burn and the surrounding tracks have a wild vulnerability to them; enhanced by the atmospheric instrumentation and velvet vocals. Jenny speaks about relationships, burn out, depression, and love. So when I thought about signifying these things, I wanted to show her as the singular focus in the cover; inescapable, a presence who must be acknowledged. At the same time, it felt right for her to be somewhat removed from the audience, as if she was a lost loved one, a timeless masterpiece, or a universal experience.Read More
Forgiveness house was made to explore my ideas and preconceived notions about forgiveness. I wanted to know if it could be conjured or willed into existence, if it required a landmark moment, if it was process, if it was tied to right belief.
Justice is rare. Forgiveness, or symbols of forgiveness, can obstruct the necessary measures and sincerity to affect real change. As a result, privileged cultures and individuals leapfrog responsibility, accountability, and recompense to slap a feel-good band-aid on it; absolving their conscience. Meanwhile, those calling for due justice and change are demonized as bitter, violent, and unforgiving.
I thought I was unforgiving, I realized I wasn’t. I’m just fed up. These were the lengths I went to try to manifest forgiveness, and in the end it was just me in the house. Forgiveness is internal, it affects the self and only the self regardless of how public it is. Justice is measurable.
How far should we ask people to go to forgive? How much can tears and an embrace cover? When are those of us who have been hurt, oppressed, subjugated, abused or neglected aloud to say no? How long should we stay on our knees before it becomes acceptable to stand up and say, “enough,” without it being dismissed?
Happy due date to my sweet friends Kiffy.
A few weeks ago we got together for her maternity session with her partner and their first baby. Now my bag is packed and by the door for her birth story *squeal*. If Kiffy looks familiar, you might have seen her from our Immaculate Conception collaboration.
And! to kick off to the upcoming holidays, I’m offering 45 minute family photo sessions at $200 for sessions purchased now untill the end of November. You can use them for Holiday Card photos or purchase a gift certificate to give to your loved ones. To get on the calendar or to purchase your gift certificate email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
And now! Kiffy and Mike’s maternity session!
“Okay God, If you want me to talk to her, I need to know her name.”
“Sara,” came the voice in my head.
”Ugh. Fine, but it has to be Sara or I’m not doing this.” Walking across the coffee shop, I got her attention.
"Hey, is your name Sara?”
“This is gonna sound weird, but I had the weirdest impression that you could use some prayer. Is there anything I can pray for you?”
She went on to tell me about her parents sudden divorce, her feeling that she was to blame, her deep sadness. I prayed for her and that was that.
I have a million stories like this one.
I spent a month in Zambia when I was 16, and while we were there someone had been cutting open our tents and stealing our stuff. Girls were left with just the clothes on their back. It was bad, real bad. One day, I was sitting in a dirt alley between two buildings teaching a group of 10 year olds about Jesus, a fight broke out at the other end of the ally. They had caught the guy and were dragging him toward us, beating him mercilessly. Without a thought, as if compelled by an outside force, I stepped in front of the children and yelled “Jesus help!” Abruptly, they stopped, stood, and walked him past our group of kids.
I was in a horrific car accident when I was five. My father fell asleep at the wheel, and the car drifted from the left lane, into a jersey wall on the shoulder. I was riding in the front seat, and I looked over to watch my dad’s seat belt give way due to the impact, it sent his head into the windshield, and he passed out onto my lap. We went careening across the highway, losing 3 wheels along the way. My passenger window broke, and all the glass fell in on me. I was screaming for my dad to wake up, begging. He came to and maneuvered the car over to the right shoulder. Miraculously, we weren’t hit by anyone else. Several folks pulled over to help. My dad got out of the car, and i crawled out the passenger door to get to him. His was bleeding from several places. Inexplicably, I suffered not a single, solitary scratch.
One time, Aaron and I were planning to go to a missions conference called Urbana. We were sitting upstairs in my parents house, and for some reason, we just didn’t quite feel like it was a good idea, but we wanted to go. So we prayed, “God, if this isn’t right for us, please make it impossible for us to go.” Instantly, an enormous thunderclap went off accompanied by a giant bolt of lightning and the power went out. No problem, we’ll just register on our phones. Ended up, the cell phone lines had also gone down, and they stayed down until the registration deadline passed later that evening.
I’ve had visions, spoken in tongues, prophesied…. and now I’m an Atheist. So… what do I do with these narratives? How can I balance what I have seen and felt and experienced, against the things that now feel like a blaring, deafening reality. Is it still true if it didn’t happen?
I believed in God. Frankly, I think if God was real there’s no way I could be an Atheist because I went down swinging. I tried so fucking hard to hold on to this thing, and with good reason. I had a lot at stake. My life story, major turning points, major decisions … I used the cross like a fulcrum and everything had to measure against what I believed, “god was telling me,” what, “god wanted.” I prayed and begged and repented and cried and negotiated and worshiped and promised and screamed myself right out of the faith. There was. no. rescue because the mind can create whatever it wants.
And yet, I think these stories, in some ways, were true.
When I met my partner, he was suffering from Charcot Murray Tooth (CMT) syndrome. His mom has it, his grandfather has it, his uncle and cousins have it. When he was born, his mom took one look at the shape of his feet and knew in her guts that he had inherited the mutation. It was obvious. As he grew, every trip, every dropped glass, every pain in his feet was yet another sign of his CMT. The nerve pain grew worse. As I knew him, his stamina fell. He couldn’t stand for a long time, he couldn’t walk very far. We took frequent rests when we were out. We got him special shoes. His motor skills diminished. We had kids super young so they could know their dad before he was in a wheel chair. I started looking for a handicap accessible house. Finally, while pregnant with our second baby, I made him go to a specialist. I was beginning to suspect our son had inherited the same disorder. Several painful tests later, his diagnosis came back negative. He did not have the disease. He had a psychosomatic manifestation of the disease due to the constant reinforcement of its reality over 26 years. He had Munchhausen syndrome. With therapy and time, Aaron’s nerve pain went away. His stamina increased. We moved to NY and walked everywhere, climbed stairs, stood on the train. It was all a giant, “fuck you,” to a disease he never had. But… he did have it. It was real. He had real, excruciating pain. He accidentaly dropped and broke more things in our house than I can count. I opened hard jars for him. We said no to fun opportunities. It shaped our life. It changed everything. It was true for him. It was true for us, and we built our life around it. Aaron’s sickness is still true to me. It just didn’t actually happen. Not the way we thought.
I think about god a lot like that these days. I think god was real. He was. I felt it. I experienced it. He shaped my life, I built everything around it. It just didn’t actually happen. A young girl had a common name. I had been through enough trauma and scary circumstances by 16 that I developed the courage to protect a group of ten year olds in a dangerous and scary situation. That was a real fucking badass moment for me, and I’m proud of it. I screamed my head off and my dad woke up. We got lucky. I could have registered any day before the deadline. I missed that deadline because I was irresponsible and there happened to be a storm. I have always been intuitive. I can read people like a book. Tongues never felt comfortable, and if I wanted to, I could still pray in tongues. It’s nothing. I have always thought in pictures. When I see images in my mind, my body and my brain are trying to communicate something. I will continue to listen to those. I will continue to translate them into art. God was a construct. He was a munchausen syndrome. It was real, it just didn’t happen.
There’s not a good way to begin this post because it is deeply meaningful to me and frankly, beyond words. I’ve known Kiffy for years. I knew her through part of this journey, and I had the pleasure of photographing the birth of their daughter after miscarriage and IVF. She is a dear friend, and I am grateful to call her my first saint. These are the words of Saint Kiffy:
“Everyone’s experience with miscarriage is so, so different. When we miscarried, we had been trying for years, and we were racked with doubt and a little credit card debt. After 6 failed IUIs, a surgery to remove my left fallopian tube, another failed IUI after the surgery, suddenly, with no intervention, we got pregnant naturally. We were elated. We had been lifted up so high with hope. Maybe it was true - like everyone kept telling us - “just give up, stop trying, and it will happen”.
When I look at these photos, I can see the darkness and the light in them. I see the pain and the beauty. Which is really how it felt...one moment you’re world has fallen apart, the worst thing that could happen - did happen...and then I’m looking at Mike in the eyes as we hold our sweet little baby, and I’ve never felt closer to anyone or more loved. We miscarried in the bathtub, so we got to see our tiny baby in the best way possible, in the water. I’ll never forget her tiny little hands. Then we’re laughing about how appreciative I am that he is pulling the blood clots out of the drain. Which is the most badass thing your partner could ever do for you to show you their love.”
“We’ve gone into debt to pursue the family of our dreams. It was worth every penny. When we decided to take the IVF route, we knew we could pay the money back, but we couldn’t make up for lost time. Now that I have our daughter, I’ve learned that motherhood is all of the feelings all at once. It’s overwhelming. It’s beautiful. It’s a mess. One thing that hurt more than anything after our loss was having an uncertain status as a mom. I had lost my baby, but I wasn’t a mom. I felt so out of place.
Sadly, miscarriage happens to 1 in 5 pregnancies. It’s so common. The most unhelpful response we received was that “everything happens for a reason”. Nope. Sorry. You can make lemons out of lemonade. You can learn lessons - so many lessons! But sometimes shit happens. It’s not some higher power pulling some fucked up strings so you can learn a lesson. It just happened. Its just awful. And it’s life. And we must go on. But don’t tell women there was a reason for their miscarriage other than genetic abnormalities, an incompetent cervix, or something else that actually makes sense. Even the best midwives and doctors can’t tell you why every miscarriage happens. So don’t expect grieving women to try to find one.”
“Perspective is everything, and we know there are a lot of folks who have spent a lot of money on IVF attempts. When we got pregnant with our second daughter on the first try, we were even more excited and grateful. I try to be the most grateful mom in the world. Grateful for science. Grateful for a partner who has stretched himself emotionally to understand what this has been like for me. I’ve tried to do the same for him. Life is about the journey, not the destination. We built our family together, and to me, that is everything.”
For those who are trying to conceive
You know better than most of us that the road home is not a straight and narrow path.
It is an unrelenting pursuit of the life you want, a truth given only by the inner voice.
Mother, we honor you.
Mother, we trust you.
You have been dealt one of the harshest blows wombyn experience: A loss of life.
Not just the life of the one you carried but of the life you had built in your mind’s eye from the moment you knew.
Mother, we remember with you.
Mother, we mourn with you.
May your womb and your mind heal with time, patience, stillness, rage, and tears.
May your heart and your hope expand with wholeness, perspective, warmth, and touch
Mother, you are innocent
Mother, we will laugh with you
For now, let there be space to feel and be and sleep
For now, let there be release, solitude and witness in exactly the right measure
Mother, we hold space for you
Mother, we lift you up
Flanked by an enormous statue of Jesus holding his cross and an even more enormous tree, I stared at the plot of land a few feet away. Lowering my head into my hands all went quiet. I felt, really felt, the cool breeze caress my face, giving what relief it could from the oppressive Virginia heat.
Lottie Moon: Empire and Faith
Do you know who Lottie Moon is? Lottie Moon was a Southern Baptist (SBC) missionary to China just after the civil war. She spent almost 40 years in China spreading the doctrine of Christianity. Moon is as close as the Evangelical Church gets to a saint. People give loads of money to the annual Lottie Moon Christmas Offering; funding half of the SBC’s International Mission Board operations.
I Met Her at the End
Driving home a few weeks ago, I passed a historical marker: “Lottie Moon.” Ends up, Moon was from Virginia. After breathing her last in Japan, her ashes were buried with her brother not too far from where I’m living. Past the enormous tree and past the statue of Jesus stood two headstones. A large arrangement of silk flowers filled the cement vase on her headstone inscribed with, “Faithful Unto Death.” At the base of the stone lay a Christian CD, a magazine about rebuilding the nation of Israel, two small Chinese figures, and a cardboard box containing a rock and an inscription; offerings left by the aspiring faithful to the woman who was faithful to the end. But there is more to it.
Next to Lottie’s headstone, was her brother’s headstone, much older and shaped like the Washington Monument. At his feet stood a confederate flag and the Daughters of the Confederacy Cross of Honor. His initials on the foot stone spelled out I. A. M. I AM. YHWH. There it was: the rest of the offerings. The other half of the story.
Moon is the quintessential example of toxic feminism. When Moon wrote “What women have a right to demand is perfect equality,” she meant all white women had a right to demand perfect equality. The Southern Baptist Convention exists because southern pastors (white men) needed to protect themselves from plantation owners by continuing to permit slavery. They taught it was sanctioned from above. They introduced the idea of saving souls and not the body because it would keep slaves passive. Further, her family owned a tobacco plantation, and she helped manage it after her father died in a river boat accident. She was a slave owner. Her family fought with the confederates, and after forty years of dedicated service to her god, she still wanted to be buried with the “masters.” This is the southern saint. This is the effigy that has commanded over a billion dollars from parishioners around the world.
You can trace SBC and slave owner theology through the figureheads of the Evangelical movement: Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Fallwell etc. And lest you think it’s just the SBC that has this problem, you can toss folks like Orall Roberts who was ordained in a traditionally black denomination (Pentecostal holiness) in with the group.
"The Pentecostal Holiness Church was a charter member of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1943 and joined the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America in 1948. At the general conference a year later an attempt at merging with the mostly black United Holy Church failed when the United Holy Church asked if their members could attend the church's schools and colleges.
Christian White Supremacy
Modern day evangelical Christianity is married to oppression. Even if one doesn’t identify or associate as Christian, “fundamentalist” Christian principles, ethics, and teachings have infiltrated the America conscious in such a way as to perpetuate white supremacy. Here are some examples:
Consider this, studies have shown that when white people earn money, they can keep it in the hands of white Americans for 23 days before it moves into the hands of someone from a different ethnicity. Asians Americans and Hispanic Americans can keep a dollar in their communities for a similar length of time. But African Americans retain money in their community for only six hours. Sixty-seven percent of Americans identify as Christian (Catholic and Protestant) and seven out of ten of those Christians are white. 70% percent of Christians are white.
When predominately white tithe money, goes to predominately white churches it gets put into predominately white banks. There are just over five thousand banks in the US and only 19 are owned by black Americans. While black owned banks provide 67 percent of their loans to black Americans, white owned banks give less than 1% of their mortgage loans to minority populations. So, the overwhelming majority (so much you could almost say “all of it”) of the power, stability, wealth, opportunity, and support cycles back into the hands of white communities. That’s white supremacy.
If you want to know how “right to life” got married to evangelical and catholic Christianity, read this article. Spoiler alert, it’s a race issue. Here’s the deal, black women are 3.6 times more likely to have an abortion than white women. At the same time, that they are 3 times more likely to die in child birth. What happens to women who were denied an abortion but survived child birth? They are 3x more likely to be unemployed and 4x more likely to live below the poverty line. According to the Center for Community Change, “People who enter the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly poor. Two-thirds detained in jails report annual incomes under $12,000 prior to arrest.” During incarceration, the system drains money from their families who support them by covering phone calls, necessities, childcare all while losing the income that person may have formerly provided. African Americans are incarcerated at a 5x higher rate than white Americans. “Nationwide, African American children represent 32% of children who are arrested, 42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially waived to criminal court. (NAACP)” While the 13th amendment “ended slavery,” it still allowed for slavery as punishment for a crime. When the abortion information I mentioned above mixes with its affects on wealth and poverty, the rates of minority populations living in poverty, the disproportionate amount of incarcerated people of color, free prison labor, the removal of voting rights, likelihood of reincarceration … you have a system that subjugates people of color from cradle to grave. To this day, Sixty-one percent of Evangelical Christians (non black protestant) believe abortion should be illegal in most if not all cases. That’s white supremacy.
Here’s the deal. I am not anti-Jesus faith for most people. What I am against is the Church as an institution. At this point, I think we need to burn it down. Why? Because the entire system is corrupt. So corrupt, that we have participated in white supremacy without knowing. We read books about the sanctity of life, the faith of Lincoln, the meaning of marriage…. it’s bullshit, and I’m okay if you don’t agree. Differences aside, the church has consistently been at the forefront of leading persecution against marginalized bodies, particularly those with black and brown skin. And what makes me the most sick is that I, in all my efforts to be supportive of women, to seek justice and love mercy for oppressed people, have unwittingly supported white supremacy for the majority of my life. Not because I didn’t like people of color, but because my culture told me how to think and interact politically and ethically. Surrounded by mostly white folks, I learned the values of my community which meant I unwittingly learned how to discriminate and marginalize people of color. I was just like Lottie moon. Seeking the benefit of my own sex, telling people about white Jesus, while participating in a culture, system, and government that systematically oppresses people of color and especially women of color.
Sitting in front of Moon’s grave, I could see she and I are were the same. Missionary, martyr, crusade, slave owner…. worshiping the empire and dead to the reality of every person who didn’t look like us. I felt the world go quiet. The wind rustled the trees, the birds chirped, traffic passed, but the voice in my head… the eyes of God disappeared, and the statue of Jesus stood with it’s back to me. I left Him with Lottie Moon.
Friends, in this post I talk openly about my experience with depression including thoughts of self harm and suicide. Please use precaution and stop reading if these topics are harmful to your mental health.
Christians teach that the body, the flesh, is inherently evil and destined to return to dust anyway. But the soul is eternal and therefore needs saving. The theology of saving the soul not the body (see also: love the sinner, hate the sin) was adopted by white American slave owners in the United States because they felt it would keep slaves docile and less likely to revolt. In short, saving the soul and hating the body is really a brain washing tool: what happens to you physically isn’t important.
The year I started thinking about hurting myself was the same year I lost all my friends, the same year I started struggling in school, the same year I was molested. I was extremely depressed, and I was lying to everyone about it. It went on like that in secret for three years before I landed at a Christian performing arts camp in Pennsylvania.
Sitting in the gathering room, I furiously scribbled on a piece of paper. We were supposed to write all the sins we could remember committing on that sheet of paper, but I felt so horrifically disgusting, vile, and unlovable that I couldn’t think of anything, I just colored it completely black (that’s called trauma folks, not conviction). “God… I don’t know what I did. I don’t know why everything is the way it is, but I’m sure I deserve it. If you don’t save me… I’m not gonna make it.” With that, I stood, folded the paper, tacked it to the large wooden cross in the middle of the room, and sat back down. The next morning, the staff had replaced every single piece of paper with a clean sheet of new paper. I cried and I believed my soul was saved. That was that, and I stopped thinking about suicide.
But what about the body? What about the place where my trauma lived? I colored that page black because I believed I was an inherently awful person and no one in that room second guessed it. I shoved all that trauma down the moment I saw clean white sheets of paper because it gave me a way out of my body and my mind. I could move on and be, “free.” But the body. fucking. remembers.
So instead, my trauma seeped out of my pores slowly, and I’ve dealt with it as it’s come. When I posted New Saints, all those years of being, “free” rolled back, and I realized I hadn’t come as far as I thought. Like a thawing cryogenic chamber filled with sickness, coming clean loosed the despair I shoved down, and I started having intrusive thoughts about killing myself for the first time since I was thirteen. In short, my body still believes this pain is all my fault. It still believes I bear the burden.
Thankfully, I’ve been in therapy for six years, and I started back on medication several months ago. I’m in a healthy place from which I could objectively connect the dots in my mind. I was able to get calm, look for the source of the pain, reach out, and make a plan for myself should things escalate (Thank you to every therapist I’ve ever had). So, I’m okay. But I know that’s not the case for every person going through this.
A few days ago I found a small statue of Mary at a thrift store, and I bought it for a dollar. I began intuitively gathering objects to create a symbolism around her so she could speak to the things I’ve shared with you here. For those with bodies that remember.
Monstera Deliciosa: suffocation
Blue Agate: trauma release
Peach Tree Sap: eternal life
Orange Smoke: abundant joy
Chewing Gum: new ways of thinking
Buddleia (Butterfly bush): resurrection and new beginning
False lashes: protection
Sideling up the aisle, I glanced around the room before snatching the left-over communion bread as I did at the end of every service. Robin, my ballet teacher, mom’s best friend, and all around wonder woman, winked at me. It was definitely not a secret. Everyone knew, but she let nine-year-old me feel the thrill and adrenaline of being sneaky anyway. Over my adolescent and college years, I worked and volunteered in just about every capacity at the evangelical church we planted when I was nine years old. From disinfecting toys to leading parts of the service, I was devoted to the church and her people whom I still consider my family. I could tell you a million stories of the twenty or so families and individuals who were at every birthday, graduation, dance recital, school play, holiday, wedding shower, baby shower, anniversary party, and most recently, we gathered for the memorial service of one who had been such a big part of all of our lives. They knew us well before I walked on the earth, and they are still there today; faithfully serving the congregation alongside my parents twenty to forty years later.
My dad, the head pastor, has always felt strongly about liturgy, church history, and the importance of symbolism. I am grateful for that gift in my life. He holds to three tenants of worship: song, word, table. Table being communion which was, and is, extremely important to him. Every Sunday we would line up to receive the eucharist, and my dad would quietly strum the guitar, looking just down and to the right. He always seemed lost in thought. I would peak over just as I walked past him, longing to catch his eye when suddenly, he would glance up and wink at me. I felt seen and loved, and in all my life I have never met a group of people more loyal and devoted to one another. What they have between them is a rare gift of charity, commitment, and strength. I love these people.
While all the goodness is true and will always be true, the clock of my life stuck midnight and the ghosts revealed themselves.
After a repressed memory of childhood sexual abuse surfaced during my junior year of college, I began an extremely long process of seeing the corporate entity we call, “The Church,” (in every denomination, creed, and region though most of my experience is in the Evangelical Church) for who she is: broken. Immeasurably, historically, fundamentally, she is fucked up; a devastating system that is hurting humans on a global scale, particularly women and people of color, and I think it has probably been like that from the beginning,
Unfortunately for me, I learned those lessons through violence. After confronting the man who perpetrated the abuse during my childhood, he felt he needed to confess to our mutual church pastor at the time. The pastor thanked and praised him for protecting me by not raping me. Another pastor, in another church, publicly declared that my ex-boyfriend hadn’t raped me so I had nothing to be upset about (even though he admitted to verbally, emotionally, and sexually abused me for eight months). In both of those cases, these men were more concerned with my hymen than my mental, emotional, or spiritual health.
An old woman would, among other things, make me strip naked in front of her, stand on the bathroom scale, and stare at the number, while she informed me of all the reasons I would grow up to be fat, disgusting, and shameful. Then she would feed me a sugar sandwich for lunch. There are still people who know this story and don’t understand why I will not engage with her as an adult. They are concerned for my soul if I cannot forgive, which has to look like total social engagement.
To be honest. I have tried to reach out to the church many times for help with my trauma only to be gaslighted, dismissed, publicly humiliated, accused of lying, or given an awkward hug and told to forgive. The soul can only bear so much from a culture that, when the truth comes out, cannot bear to look you in the eye as they blame you, your trauma, and your response to that trauma. You are the real problem, not the damage done to you.
So where does that leave me?
I have changed, and I feel I’m drifting out to sea, away from everyone I love still there on the shoreline. It seems they occupy an island of cannibals and wolves in sheep’s clothing, yet they sit by the campfire eating smores, drinking coffee, and singing along to my dad’s guitar. I feel I’m screaming from the boat, and no matter how hard I row, the current is taking me with her. I can’t get back to the safety of the fire, and more importantly, I don’t think they will come with me no matter what emerges from the jungle behind them.
I cannot unsee, unlearn, or unknow all that I do now. I don’t know where the boat is taking me, but for now I feel I have no choice but to oppose the theological and political climate I occupied with those beloved people for so long. I loved the campfire. But the island is out for blood. Worst of all, as my dad is still the head pastor of the church we planted twenty years ago, I feel I am secretly at war with him even if he isn’t with me. That is to say, I am at war with a piece of my own heart while materially, nothing has changed at all. It’s a cancer in my gut, and it’s eating me alive right now.
Instead of a divergent path and an internal, one-sided, but very real war, I wish I could stand before a expansive, lush, delicious feast where everyone was in and no one was out. Where I could receive the bread of life, and the wine of the a new covenant, Christus Victor, then look over to my dad and catch a wink before turning to a vast and wide congregation of people from every walk of life who are all in it together without having to justify themselves to each other, or to their own souls. I wish I could tell the truth of everything I have been through, all of it, right now. That I could let the poison out, be seen as a complete and dynamic and resilient woman without ruining the lives of other people. I wish I could set boundaries and know that the people who have hurt me would still be loved and welcomed in. I wish that pastor could have forgiven my abuser along side of me, let me teach him and the abuser about real forgiveness, real grace, and real mercy from the one that has been violated rather than downplaying my suffering to preserve the fragile ego of the offender I wish the church as I have known her had space for me now, but I don’t think she does anymore. My family will always be my family.
But I will seek out new saints.
I’ve been obsessing about what to shoot next, where to go from that last post. The vulnerability left me with a hangover and it stopped me for a few days. But, I decided I need to keep shooting, even while I’m mulling those things over.
With no idea where to go next, I went to what I would call my photography security blanket: macro. When I first started taking pictures I would spend hours outside investigating the minuteness of nature and all the beauty it offered. While I’m not sure they are conceptually relevant at this time, I still want to share them with you.
While working on those macro shots, I took two images that moved the conceptual needle just a bit.
Powdery, red Virginia clay gave way under my feet as I wandered between plots of land that had clearly not been dug deep enough.
I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of dying as much as I’m afraid of what remains. Dead things freak me out. So, as a woman who’s making her partner check the mouse traps before she gets out of bed in the morning, it’s really not in my nature to go wandering around cemeteries. Still, there I was hopping onto one foot because the soft ground seemed like it was going to swallow me up. Ridiculous.
I eyed a few threatening holes - positive I’d see a body if I looked too closely - before sitting down on a mossy patch of ground. Was I sitting on a dead person? Probably, but I convinced myself the civil war era headstone to my left was just a plain ol’ rock and read the new text on my phone.
Aaron: “How’s it going?”
Me: “I’m photographing family and child graves. So, you know, I’m clearly in a good head space today.”
Snapping a photo of the view before me, I sent it off to Aaron who responded with an, “Oh, goodness.” Classic.
Morbid? undoubtedly. But, I’m a little rusty, and I haven’t worked up the courage to ask any strangers to sit for me in a portrait. I mean, there are people in these… technically … right?
Smirking at Aaron’s predictable response, I stood up and moseyed over to some strange headstones a few yards away. To be honest, I think they were made from the dense glass tiles used in illuminated dance floors years ago. Mourners had placed trinkets inside the squares and set them in the dirt. I couldn’t see inside, but one of them had been turned sideways.
Kneeling to the ground and peering in, I found a cracked, faded Virgin Marry sitting inside. It was obvious she couldn’t see out either.
I’ve been thinking about family and particularly curious about the tensile strength and elasticity of the threads that hold them together. Passing between the plots of land, I started to wonder: Do the small, repetitive injuries over a lifetime and the massive falling-outs suddenly disappear at the graveside? Do the estranged meet only when one of them is under-foot? What keeps descendants placing flowers on the graves of their ancestors 30, 50 sometimes 100 years later? And what about the not yet dead? Why do some feel so strongly about extended family laying side-by-side in death that they will line up the blank stones next to each other with names but no dates?
I wonder these things because I’ve been testing and exploring the boundaries of my life up till now.
A few months ago, someone on a podcast said the the words, “Purity Culture.” A quick google search, and just like that the fabric of my worldview unraveled.
I grew up ensconced in the conservative, evangelical christian culture. Books like Passion and Purity, My Utmost for His Highest, Redeeming Love, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and countless devotionals filled my book shelves. I went on Missions Trips to third world countries and developing nations where I hugged babies, prayed for people, and did little plays meant to tell others the gospel. I led Bible studies, read the Bible daily, spoke at events, and, as a good-christian girl. I, “waited,” till marriage.
While the conservative Christian Church has precious little to say about sexual violence, they have more than enough to say about the virginity of young women. I can tell you, none of the promises that accompanied, “waiting,” or any other of the conditional Evangelical promises came true for me.
It’s not that it was all bad. It’s just that… I think I see it for what it is now, and I can’t hold on to that version of faith anymore. My perspective has fundamentally changed. While I feel more alive and spiritually grounded than I have felt in a long, long time, I spent the better part of the last three months panicking over it.
There are so many stories from this part of American culture in which people are losing their loved ones and communities because they leave the fold. While I think the, “fold,” is much wider than I originally believed, I know there are others who will count me out. I guess that’s how I ended up at the cemetery and the four that followed over the next six hours. Why not start at the end? If the worse comes true…. then what?
One particularly depressing plot featured matching heart-shaped tombstones. Talia Ina, had been laid to rest at the age of four. The other stone read Tatiana Talia with a birth date two months after the death of her sister. She’s seven now, and and there was no death recorded for Tatiana yet.
More photos from today:
I’m excited to say I’ve begun an art residency in Virginia. I’ll be living and making work in Rice, VA over the summer at the Unruly Retreat.
While the majority of my recent work has focused on my personal experience with motherhood, I’m eager to look outward for a season. My hope is to photograph mothers with their children from different age groups, cultural histories, economic backgrounds and sexual identities.
As for now, I’ve only just begun. We’ve been getting settled for the last week and a half; exploring the rural part of Virginia where we’re living and getting to know our hosts (who are amazing).
As of today, my kids started daycare and I am over the moon to get to work. First order of business is start making connections and inviting people to sit for a portrait with me. In the meantime, I’ll be tightening up the work I’ve made with my kids over the last few years, and submitting it to a few places.
If you or someone you know would be interested in sitting for me, please reach out to me here: https://www.jenmakeswork.com/booking .
Lastly - here’s some pictures from the last two weeks. Talk soon!
For the last couple years, Julie has been exploring the seemingly oppositional. Most recently, through her own disparate experiences growing up in rural Floyd County, Virginia yet living out adulthood in the urban metropolis of Manhattan. Her personal history has been recontextualized in the third-culture emerging between her Manhattan daughters and rugged, Blue Ridge nephews as well as the liminal space these children occupy between childhood and adolescence.
Sometimes I can hardly believe that I live here and am raising my family in New York City. The contrast is somewhat indescribable. I have to remind myself that my children won’t be milking cows or gathering eggs like I did. It sort of breaks my heart, but at the same time I love the fact that their life is completely different from my own upbringing. My children are street smart and independent. They are New Yorkers!
As Julie meticulously staples together the canvas with the wooden frame, there’s an assurance and comfort in her body language. It’s a small detail alluding to her life before Manhattan. Growing up in 1970’s Appalachia, Julie experienced what she calls a continual, rural recession. Some mornings without running water, lambs and calves warming themselves by the fire, she was well acquainted with the struggles of rural America. But those harsh conditions had their own benefits as they gave way to a wild, Eden-like childhood. Days were spent horseback riding across the vast, rolling hills of Floyd County and picking blackberries by the bucketful on long and lazy summer days. That kind of physical exertion can’t just be erased; it gets ingrained in the body. Physically building her canvases, stretching her arms across big surfaces to paint, these are all things that are intrinsic to Julie’s work. But Julie also works small on occasion. Sometimes she paints little vignettes or parts of faces, alluding to the more cramped, moment-by-moment experience of living in New York City.
The country certainly calls to me! In my work and even in my surroundings, I try so hard to hold on to all of it. Sometimes I am moved to tears. It’s all very emotional. I always try to bring it all back - the antler sheds, the bee’s nests and the skin of a fawn - to where I am living my life at the moment.
Her loose but accurate style lives somewhere between Impressionism and the American Renaissance, a fitting mixture having an unlikely but enchanting crossover. While visiting her studio, she was beginning a new work. Sketching in their figures, a young boy stands in the center holding a recently shot rabbit, a rifle over his shoulder. The girls, framing the boy, posing in a type of pin-up style. The children are beaming, proud of the catch, and none of them are aware of the massive culture clash occurring between them. The wild innocence of the whole scene is striking. But Julie’s approach is radical and thought-provoking. Where one might be uncomfortable with the tension in this image, Julie leans in to protect the innocence of the young people, preserving the moment where they are on the cusp of cultural responsibility yet still permitted to be who they are in their natural state.
The scene for this painting evolved so quickly! It was an instant reminder of the oppositional way that I am bringing up my daughters. Painting this image was a way to convey the idea but also to hold onto the moment. To hold onto the innocence and the naturalness of the life in the country.
There was something romantic about the house as I walked up the tree covered path. The blue home with it's wooden door felt dreamy against the lush green grass and bushes populating her front yard. Amanda met me at the door with her waist-high Great Dane, and total scaredy cat, Annie.
"I fell into painting in college. I had always been creative, but I never considered it to be something I would pursue as a career. I'd been told art wasn't a practical choice, I would never be able to support myself with it. So, I entered college as a criminal justice major, prepared to join the military or law enforcement, but I still wanted my quintessential liberating college experience."
Amanda led the way through her house to check on a painting experiment outside. The warm hue of the walls, the wooden chest serving as a coffee table, the straw sunhat resting on the counter. It all matched her. It all matched her work.
"I found out there were modeling positions for figure drawing classes, and I went to the art building to sign up. When I entered the building, there was an overwhelming sense of belonging. Paint was everywhere, on the floors, on the walls, on the chairs, on the tables. I had such a guttural reaction to my surroundings that I decided to listen to it; I never left. I started modeling that very semester. By the next, I was on the other side of the easel."
After a tour of both her studio spaces, we settled into the downstairs studio. Classical music wafted through the cozy home, and I was transported. Her paints rested on an old rolling wooden table where a candle burned, filling the room with eucalyptus and peppermint. We move the easel around a few times to find the right light, but once we did, I felt I could be living in a painting by the old masters. I mean... a bunny literally showed up outside the window as she painted. It was like a Beatrix Potter meets Davinci.
"My work is mostly about using art history as a way to reflect on aesthetics and societal body standards. I explore representations of the female body in past works by renowned artist from different influential art movements (mostly the Italian Renaissance at the moment). The female figure has always been the subject of artists' gaze, differing in representation based on its contemporary society. Seeing the physical changes of "the female muse", we can see how flexible the concept of beauty is."
"I hate seeing women with crippling self doubt and insecurity because they believe they don't fit into societal standards. I want women to take life by the balls without concerning themselves with thigh gaps our Toblerone tunnels. I am no different, I am not above the insecurity. I have fallen into the same cycle where Ive tried to morph myself into someone I think people will admire -not my wit, intelligence, or sense of humor- my body. It's something I still work on every day. I want women to see other body types that are different but still celebrated. Bodies that were once considered the ideal figure. Then they can begin to understand that beauty standards contradict themselves. They are fictional, fluid concepts that change with every new audience."
Music drifts across the apartment as I walk back to grab a different lens from my bag. Aimee sits on her bed; guitar in her lap and lyric books spread in front of her. She’s working on a new song with a catchy hook and a gentle melody.
I can hear tinges of her influences, including Patty Griffin and Norah Jones along with the subtle blending of Harlem jazz, rockabilly, and folk music, woven across her music. Their commonality being the emphasis on vulnerable, story-telling and a deep connection to their place of origin.
"I think music just ... has a way of cutting into the soul and into feelings that are hard to reach any other way. We make the art that we make because it's a part of ourselves that we want to carry outside so that other people can see it." says Aimee.
Through her new album, Enough, Aimee's voice rises and falls, saturated with nuanced feeling. She soars across an ode to finding a home far away from family in No One Can Tell Us No. Then she maintains her strength while letting us into the grief of her mom's passing a few years ago through, Enough, a song sung with mournful hope to her mother
"I remember, when my mom died, not being able to play or sing for several months afterward. I couldn't bring myself to do it. Then one day it just felt like the time. I ended up sitting down with my guitar on my couch and playing through one of my favorite Patty Griffin songs. I was crying all the way through it, but in a way that felt cathartic and healing... It felt like she was there with me a little bit ... That opened up being able to get back into it again and sort of, move through."
Somewhere in the middle of our session, we have a cup of tea together, bonding over our mutual love for Harry Potter via a mug that turns into the Marauder's Map when it gets hot. This nerdiness is a perfect example of the thing I love about Aimee, she's willing to talk about all her perceived shortcomings, but she's also unequivocally herself.