Bird Song, Courtesy of Sins Invalid. Photograph: Richard Downing©2009
The Reckoning, Courtesy of Sins Invalid. Photograph: Richard Downing©2009
Bird Song (Nomy & Cara Page), Courtesy of Sins Invalid. Photograph: Richard Downing©2009
Wall of Fire, Courtesy of Sins Invalid. Photograph: Richard Downing©2008
photo by Caldwell Linker
photo by Caldwell Linker 2007
photo by Caldwell Linker 2007
Totems and Familiars
The body we are born into is one of the single most powerful determinants of who we will be. We may struggle against that shape of our body, or embody it with unexpected potential. The body is the vessel that carries us into our encounters with the world. Through it, we observe our world and it begins to perceive us, in a lifelong war-dance of inner and outer perspectives. Depictions of the body in figurative art allow us to see the interplay between the structure of a body and the contours of a life.
The conventions of portraiture are based on venerable attitudes about acceptable and unacceptable bodies. Traditional portraiture determines who is worthy of being painted, or sculpted, or photographed. Portraits document what we deem valuable. I began to create portraits of unconventional subjects in order to cultivate my own sense of beauty, importance and visual pleasure.
For fifteen years, I have primarily made images of people with disabilities. For people with visible disabilities, the conflict between inside and outside can be intensely problematic. All people experience this dissonance to some degree; but if one inhabits a socially challenged body, it virtually guarantees a collision between appearance and truth. Disability offers us a magnifying glass on a universal struggle.
Bodily impairment is one route towards an understanding of social isolation and victimization through prejudice. Yet we must put disability in context of the gauntlet that every human must learn to endure. I have learned so much in working with people who are able to bring tremendous creativity to bear in times of darkness. Whether my subject is a person with or without impairments, all of my work is concerned with the mystery of survival.
I believe that when we are under extreme stress (and this can include joy as well as sorrow) we reach for internal images that help us remember who we are, to make sense of our experience, and to help stabilize our inner world when it is knocked off its axis. Totems and Familiars is centered on interviews in which I asked people to think about those images and their roles in developing and protecting their private selves.
I began by thinking about metaphor and simile. These aspects of language lend themselves well to thinking about survival. Metaphors act as bridges from one state to another, offering a transmutation into and identification with the other. A child’s earliest literature is full of metaphoric creatures; dressed-up animals, talking teapots and trains that invite her to imagine her self as something entirely different. Each bright page opens into new possibility. The encounter with the alien is lets her locate her own boundaries. As the child learns to dissolve the boundary between states of being, he or she builds a verbal and visual vocabulary for both the conscious and unconscious mind.
I wanted to limit the kind of bridge states in this project, while focusing on the kinds of metaphors that arise in children’s literature. I chose the following three categories when asking the participants of Totems and Familiars to tell me about the important imagery that helped them through troubled times.
1. AN ANIMAL FAMILIAR. This is in the tradition of a witch’s familiar, a creature that provides secret knowledge of the super/natural world, or animal spirit guide. This type of symbol is not a pet, but often a wild animal.
2. A POWER OBJECT. This is a totemic object invested with imaginary magical powers, such as an heirloom, a tool, a garment, a toy or significant gift. Some people chose elements of nature (i.e. water) in this category.
3. A HERO. This had to be a hero whom my collaborator strongly identified with, not just someone they generally admired. The hero had to function as an alter ego and/or role model.
These entities let the portrait subjects transcend their immediate limitations by re-imagining and remembering the self. Some metaphors act as an idea of power; others offer refuge and serenity. Some were fairly abstract (water), others quite specific (Gene Kelly). Even when the portrait subjects chose similar metaphors, they were lived and defined very differently.
Mat Fraser: Sealo Seal Boy
2006 charcoal on paper 30″ x 44″
Lynn Manning: Comet
2007 charcoal on paper 2 panels upper panel 15″ x 44″ lower panel 44″ x 30″
Neil Marcus:A Menorah for Gene Kelly
2007 charcoal on paper 36″ x 28″
Nomy Lamm: Seal
Portrait by Riva Lehrer
2007 charcoal on paper 30″ x 44″