First Year of Graduate School? Check.

This time last year, I was getting ready to graduate from Michigan State University. I was excited to have two degrees, but I was nervous because I was getting ready to earn my third one: the MFA in Photography.

Now, a year later, I can say I survived it. It wasn’t easy by any means, and I’m proud of my accomplishments this year. My brain feels like complete mush and my body is physically sore and whenever I stand up I feel woozy, but hey, I did it with the help of my fantastic colleagues and professors.

My year culminated in the for form of my final review, where I had faculty members and three guests from the art world come in to critique my work. The faulty who were present were Dr. Greg Foster-Rice, Judy Natal, Alison Grant, and Kelli Connell. My guests were Natasha Egan (Associate Director of the MOCP), Aimee Beaubien (Artist,) and one of my favorite photographers, Jeff Wolin. They gave me excellent feedback to think about over the summer, and I’m already looking forward to next year.

But enough of the text– y’all want to see some work, right? This semester I worked on 5 projects, all covering the topic of childhood sexual abuse and trauma. Here is my semester statement, which discusses the pieces:

I was molested when I was seven years old.

It has been approximately 5,716 days and counting since the trauma. I know I probably lost some days, like how I lost myself as a result of the PTSD. I am always on guard; after all, there are 1027 registered sex offenders within a 5-mile radius of where I grew up. I know I’m not the only one to carry such a burden, as 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before the age of 17. With a statistic like that, it’s understandable that childhood sexual abuse is a topic that is multi-faceted. There are many emotions, reactions, and connections to this topic. It is far from being one-dimensional.

This semester has been devoted to exploring the different ways I can address the issue of childhood sexual trauma visually. I started with more personal avenues to express my ideas, with my self-portrait project titled It’s Hard to Explain. With the self-portraits I was trying to explain the complexities of surviving and living with a traumatic past in a visual manner, drawing on bright colors and poster-like treatments to draw in and inform my viewer. My interest shifted away from photographic prints to mixed media, resulting in the quilt (Untitled,) which still uses personal imagery of my own objects and embroidered narrative. Untitled takes the form of a recognizable object, a quilt, and subverts its average connotations with dark colors and sinister patterns, to hint that a domestic space may not be a cozy as it seems.

It’s All Because of the Bear, is a video installation piece that references the destruction of childhood and the obsessive nature of trying to destroy a bad memory, which is something survivors or trauma oftentimes try to do. This installation, paired with my labyrinth of sheets, is just part of the control I try to exhibit over the viewer. The last piece in the maze is 1027 Sex Offenders Within A 5 Mile Radius of My Childhood Home (only 480 shown), which features the homes of sex offenders found on the Michigan Sex Offender registry. Each home is printed on a razor blade, to reference not only the personal wounds I inflicted upon myself (the scars as evidence of these acts in It’s Hard to Explain,) but also the potential danger residing in each and every house. This rendition of my ideas steps out of the hyper personal and into a more general and social commentary.

The first thing I should probably mention is that I created an installation to house my works for the review. I’ve been collecting bed sheets since last September, one sheet for every day since I was molested. Right now, I need over 5,716 sheets to catch up to today alone, and I did some math and it’s going to take me about 6 years to catch up to today’s number. I’ve also been photographing each sheet with a Instax Wide 210, playing off of the idea that there is only ever one photograph of these objects, like how there is only ever one day– one day that I can’t take back. I’m also playing with the history of photography with this collecting and photographing, since the original instant film, the Polaroid, was used rather perversely back in the days before the internet, to photograph pornographic images, especially those involving children. They used Polariods because they didn’t have to go to their local film developer to get the images made.

But anyway, I made a giant sheet-fort-labyrinth installation.

Here is a video of a walk-through of the entire installation. I apologize that it is a little shaky, but it’s still cool.

So after the wall of instant images of the sheets, the first body of work is the self-portrait series, It’s Hard to Explain. I’ve been working on this series since the end of last semester, and the goal was to try and visually convey the complexities of living with a traumatic past. I used digital collage and physical collage to create these images.

The next room of my labyrinth housed my quilt, Untitled. The images from the quilt were created with images I took last semester of my own objects. Last semester I was interested in the narratives these objects told, but my idea fell short and didn’t really convey any narrative. I decided to try and do something about this, by using embroidered text. I embroidered thoughts and narratives that I associated with these objects to create the squares. The other squares on the quilt are a square I created digitally and printed out, using a traditional quilt block pattern but instead of using the ordinary bright and cheerful colors and patterns we associate with quilts, I used dark and violent images.

Using these sorts of images wasn’t the only way I subverted the usual connotations of a quilt. I used black as the predominant color (and how opposite of bright and colorful can you get than with black?) Also, with all the histories attached to quilting and quilt making, making a quilt about sexual trauma is quite subversive. In the room with the quilt I also included stuffed animals, to be “witnesses” to whatever hypothetical violence could have taken place on the bed, on the quilt.

This was one of my favorite pieces I made this semester. Shout out to my mother for helping me piece it all together!

The next room in the maze was where I put my video piece, It’s All Because of the Bear. This was my other favorite piece from this semester, and as perverse as this may sound, I had a lot of fun creating it. This piece opened up another perspective for me. With my work so far, it has been really dark and helpless, but that’s honestly not a fair encapsulation of what it is like to have lived through childhood sexual trauma. Sometimes, life is humorous. I put a bear through a blender for goodness sake– and it was funny, and that is okay. Trauma doesn’t have to be a one dimensional thing, and quite frankly viewing it in that way is unfair to survivors, who are multi-faceted, highly complex human beings.

I recorded many different ways of destroying a teddy bear. It was a lot like trying to destroy a bad memory, or another reading could be the destruction of childhood as a result of trauma. I chose to play the videos on old CRT TVs, since those are the televisions I grew up with, and surrounding the piece is an assortment of movies that feature bears. Any mention of a bear, whether it be textual or visual, was scribbled out– further evidence of an obsessive need to “forget.”

Now I didn’t mention anything about the audio in my statement because it’s not finalized, but because this is a blog post and you’re reading it, I guess I can let on a little info about it. For PTSD treatment, there is something called “exposure therapy.” I went through this last summer, and what that entails is a re-telling of the traumatic events. While telling the story, you are being recorded. Then, you have to listen to the recording everyday until the next therapy session, where you verbalize the trauma again. This recording is from the very first time I spoke about what happened to me.

For the review, the lights were turned off. I had to turn them on to get good records of the piece. And, gonna be honest here– it was really difficult, scribbling out my favorite Care Bear, Cheer Bear. I’m sorry Cheer Bear, I still love you and your rainbow tummy.

Since you can’t really see the videos that well in the recording, here are some of the videos for your viewing pleasure:

My labyrinth continued, winding a little bit, into a room with whatever sheets that weren’t hanged (hung?) up for the maze. Mind you, I only have about 250 sheets of the 5,000+ I need, so just imagine how tall this pile will be once I’ve caught up in the collecting.

This pile of sheets is also very comfortable for napping on after you’ve spent an accumulative 10 hours setting up for your final review…

The last room in my maze had my most recent piece, 1027 Sex Offenders Within A 5 Mile Radius of My Childhood Home. The inspiration for this piece came from my colleagues’ fascination with the scars on my body in my series, It’s Hard to Explain. I was thinking a lot about the violence I enacted upon my body, and wanted to create a piece that alluded to that. I went on the sex offender registry, typed in my old address, and got all of the addresses of sex offenders within a 5 mile radius of that address. I plugged the addresses into google maps, screenshot the houses, and printed them onto real, double edged razor blades using an acrylic gel transfer process (shout out to Professor Word, who taught me this process in undergrad!) I only have 480 made, but the final product will have 1027.

I channeled a little Boltanski for the lighting set up, since I wanted it to be dark and grim. I also used black acrylic to mount the blades, and even though you can’t really tell from the images, it had a reflective quality. The viewer could see their reflection through the blades.

Thing about acrylic– it attracts dust bunnies like whoa.

And, that’s my installation for final review. I worked my tail off to get it put together, and I had some help from my lovely classmates (thank you Sarah for pinning up the Polaroids, George for running around handing my things, and Whit for hanging up sheets where I couldn’t reach, and Anahid for helping me fold.) I believe I had a very productive year, and I’m looking forward to whatever challenges next year brings!

But first, I’m going to need a summer of napping.

3 thoughts on “First Year of Graduate School? Check.

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