The Jade Plant Project

I’ve been working on the topic of trauma for a few years now. My visual work is all about it, I wrote my master’s thesis exploring how trauma is represented, I’ve read thousands upon thousands of words discussing the topic, and I’ve been through my own trauma and healing. I’ve become a sort-of-pro on the topic of trauma and expression.

I have a fine art practice, which is heavily based on my own experiences as a survivor of trauma. It works, it gets seen, but I wanted to do more. It’s one thing if I used my skills as an artist to broadcast my own story to the masses, and that was fine for a while, but I have this thing inside of me, that has always been there, that wants to do more. Not just for myself, but for others as well.

Back when I was working my agency job, retouching potato chips and Tupperware all day every day, I would frequently come home crying because I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. It’s a vague thing to cry about, because I was, in all actuality, doing plenty: I was working 40+ hours a week at the agency, tutoring weeknights, and teaching photography on the weekends. Still, I was unhappy, all because I wasn’t out in the world moving mountains or some shit like that.

My work, at it’s core, is to get people to understand that trauma is a complex thing that requires attention instead of silence. That is it, that is what it boils down to. So, instead of just having my fine art practice that centered around my own experiences, I’ve been slowly branching out and becoming a more socially engaged artist and activist.

This is why The Jade Plant Project was born. A few months ago, I was denied a grant that would allow me to work with survivors of sexual trauma, to create a book together about whatever it was the survivors wanted. It could have been anything, as the purpose was to lend my skill set to the group, not to control what it was they wanted to make. I didn’t get the grant though, which is never a good time, but I just shrugged it off and went to have lunch with my friend.

Okay, I really didn’t shrug it off– I vented a lot, and I was upset, but my friend was patient and talked me through a lot of my grief. Before I went home, she gave me a jade plant, even though I was hesitant to accept it. I’m great at accidentally killing plants, but my friend just said “Jade plants are extremely difficult to kill. You’ll be fine.”

It’s probably super cheesy that it was her words and her gift that inspired me to create this project, but there it is. The Jade Plant Project became the name of my new project: creating a publication for survivors to submit whatever they wanted, and it would be published. I envisioned photography, writing, doodles, prose, notes, napkin sketches, pet pictures– legitimately anything. And it didn’t have to be about their trauma, but it could be if they wanted it to be. The submitter could also choose to remain anonymous; that way, anyone, regardless of who they were and where they were on their healing journey, could submit to the publication.

I had a call for entry on a couple of different platforms, like facebook and tumblr, and I had a couple responses via email as well. After months of hard work, we finally have The Jade Plant Project Volume One– a collaborative effort on the behalf of 23 survivors of sexual violence. Additionally, the zine is FREE. I read once that if it wasn’t accessible, it wasn’t revolutionary, so here’s to hoping we can make a difference.

A special thanks to Kaiden Dunn, for the gorgeous cover art, Meg Hughey for being my go-to for all trauma resources, and the Agitator Gallery, for letting me launch my zine in their space! Shout-out to the tumblr community for helping me spread the news about the publication (and if you have a tumblr, feel free to follow us here!)

If you are going to be in Grand Rapids on August 25th, be sure to check us out at the Grand Rapids Zine Fest, where you can pick up a hard copy for FREE!

It’s a beautiful zine, small but powerful, and I am so excited to share it with you all.

To access the PDF of Volume One, click here.

P.S.– we’re already working on Volume Two, which is launching in October– only a couple months away! Since the zine is free, we are looking for donations to offset the cost of printing (each zine costs about $2.83 to create.) If you can spare some change, please donate to our Ko-Fi, which you can find here.

MFA Thesis Exhibition: PERSIST

For the last few months, I have been so busy preparing for the MFA visual thesis exhibition. The exhibition is, in short, the culmination of my work in Columbia’s Photo MFA program. I have spent countless hours preparing and putting up the installation of my work, and in true deo fashion I gave myself way too much to do.

Leave it to me to go into a Photo MFA program and come out as a mixed media artist. My pursuit of the question “How do I photograph trauma?” led me to this point, because I figured out that different mediums can convey different things. Photography can be a mediated experience of trauma. Installation could use more than just our sense of sight, but also smell and hearing and touch. Video, found objects, and performance all have roles to play as well, and as a result my final exhibition became a gallery of different ways to reflect on childhood sexual abuse. My goal was to make something for everyone.

For my readers who couldn’t make it, I’ll give you a little walk-through of the space I constructed (with help– I had a lot of help!)

The installation was two rooms and the exterior walls. On the outside, next to the entrance to the bedroom I created, was the artist statement and my signature book. To the left of the doorway is my piece X Days and Counting, which is a series of Fuji Instax photos of bed sheets I have been collecting. This is only half of the piece, as I had the actual bed sheets in the bedroom (which you will see later.)

X Days and Counting is a project where I have been collecting one bed sheet for each day since I was molested as a kid. I need over 5,000 (and counting) at this point, so I have a bit of catching up to do.

The entrance to the bedroom was marked by a rainbow bead curtain, made with bear and heart beads. But I’m not showing you the bedroom yet– first imma show you the other exterior walls.

YAY TOUR VIA THE INTERNET!

 

 

Around the corner was a TV installation titled It Was All Because of the Bear, which featured 23 mins of me destroying a white teddy bear in 10 different ways such as:

  1. in a blender
  2. burying it “alive”
  3. drowning it
  4. slicing it with a razor
  5. setting it on fire
  6. blowing it up with fireworks
  7. dragging it behind a car
  8. hammering it with nails
  9. hanging by a noose in a closet
  10. via table saw

Perpendicular to the television set was over 150 small white bears, tacked to the wall, awaiting their turn.

Shout out to my mom for all of the sewing she did. I love you.

 

Now, around to the other side of my massive sprawling set-up were my still photographs I’ve been creating for the past year. I couldn’t just not include them– this is a photo program, people!

And I really love them. I used a lot of the same imagery and objects in the still photograph that I used in the installation, so their inclusion was apt.

Believe it or not, hanging the photos was more agonizing than anything else. Well, the plans behind them, anyway. You see, when you’re doing installation, you gotta take every last single thing into account. I knew I wanted to hang my still work on the outside, because like I mentioned at the start of this whole thing photos are a mediated experience, but I knew I didn’t want to hang them in a traditional gallery style in a linear line side-by-side. So I went with salon style, like how people hang family photos in hallways and living rooms and such. I went with simple black frames (sans glass) so the frames wouldn’t detract from the image, like with normal-more-ornate frames you find in grandma’s house.

I had to edit down out of like, 50 images, but the 11 that I decided on looked good together.

 

One of my images was even chosen for the promotional material. You bet your butt momma is getting this poster framed:

So, that makes up the exterior walls. For the rest of the installation, there are two interior rooms. The first is a bedroom, complete with bed, side tables, carpet, lamps, bulletin board, and reading nook. I had a few things hidden around the bedroom that hinted at childhood sexual abuse, some obvious like the razor blades and others that you really had to look for, like notes on the bulletin board or the text on the color guard flag. There were also more oblique hints, like the stacks upon stacks of sheets behind the bed (but no sheets on the bed itself, just a gross stain,) or the 160 children’s watches tacked to the wall.

 

 

Super-special-awesome shout-out to my BFF Christine Elliott, also known as Spooky Art Girl, whom I commissioned the wall paper pattern from. She’s amazing and she puts up with my insane demands so you should check out her work!

Here is her facebook!

And her etsy store!

The title of the watch piece is 160 Children Are Molested Each Day in the United States. This was a piece that I’ve been working on for over a year now, when I was like “Huh. Watches. Children’s watches. Broken. Lost time. Time stopped. TRAUMA.” Sometimes my thought processes are really elegant (ha) so I started purchasing watches and did research on how many kids are molested each day. I hung the watches in my studio for the past year, trying to figure out if the piece was just the watches or something more, and the answer was: it’s the watches. Children like to collect things, and adding the collection of watches to the installation built on the already existing anxiety I inserted into the installation.

I mean, massive amounts of things, everything organized in a rainbow, grids, lines… Whomever this bedroom belongs to, the child is obviously a very anxious one with systems of organization to abate the nervousness.

Okay yeah, I was totally projecting myself there.

The final room in the installation was the “closet.” It was much larger than an ordinary closet, but the entrance was marked by a closet rod and some clothing, which led into a dark room with black walls and a black ceiling. In this room played my video, titled A Controlled Performance Portraying an Event That Was out of My Control.

This piece was very difficult for me to create. As an artist, I want to incorporate all of myself into my art-making, and one of my skills that I hadn’t used was color guard. I was in my high school color guard for two years, and also a part of the Spartan Marching Band Color Guard at Michigan State University for 4 years, and a member of the State of Art Independent Winter Guard for a season. I coach this sport to high schoolers, and I love it. But I didn’t see how it worked into my practice.

Then I was like “eh fuck it yolo” and decided to give my body power. You see, my agency was forced away from me as a child. Using forms like dance made me more comfortable in my skin once more. My tale was very difficult to tell, as any tales of sexual abuse are, so I sought out flag and dance to share my story. Mitchell Clark, my amazing boyfriend, composed the music for this piece, which was projected in the dark closet. This was the part of the installation that shared my secret, my trauma, my healing.

I’d like to point out that the sound bled from the closet room into the other parts of my installation, so yeah, while walking around looking at watches and photos, you could hear the occasional sob.

Finally (yes, FINALLY) the last, and maybe the most quietly important part of my work, was the book I created.

Here is the thing about this book. I blogged about it briefly last fall, but then kinda gave it up, because I was told that it was “too much,” and “you don’t tell a stranger your entire life story.” Granted, I was kinda like “whatever I’ll do it anyway,” but I just didn’t make the time for it. However, I made some mock-ups of it and left it on a table during my final review last fall, and one of my professors picked it up and said “This has some serious potential.”

I’m so thankful for that professor (Paul D’Amato, you are a hero,) and to Kelli Connell, who helped me work on the book this past semester. The book will have it’s own blog post about it, but I wanted to bring it up because it is a 364 page biography about my trauma, starting with Kindergarten to when I disclosed the trauma in therapy in 2015. It’s super heavy, but I’m so proud of it as I feel that it is a good centerpiece to the sprawling installation I created.

 

I’d like to thank God, my mom, my Mitchell, my thesis advisors Alison Carey and Greg Foster-Rice, my professors, and Starbucks for helping me pull this insanity off. Special thank you to FeiFan Zhang and Sarah Hiatt for staying with me really late during install, and for my cohort who took this entire mess down while I was off messing around overseas.

OH YEAH THAT’S A THING I’M IN ASIA.

KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR POSTS ON THAT.

HAPPY SHOOTING!

 

Constructions of Childhood Trauma

Last time I checked in with my work, I shared my book, which is a work in progress. I haven’t given up on that– never fear– but I have spent the last month and or so photographing my life away. As you do.

I’ve been dragging around my handy-dandy 4×5 camera and constructing scenes for it.

My work explores the complexities of childhood sexual trauma, identity, and memory through constructed photographs, the personal archive, and metaphor. Childhood sexual abuse is a topic that many shy away from, but I wish to create a safe space to talk about these issues, especially since they are so prevalent. This kind of abuse is hiding in plain sight. By working in the studio, in the real world, and in a world of make-believe, I intend to create tableaus that draw a viewer in and make them contemplate and uncover the trauma hidden in the images.

By using a large format camera, a saturated color palette, and childhood symbols, I create tableaus that subvert the connotations of an idyllic childhood. The use of a large format camera allows the images to be huge and immersive. My color palette references bubble gum, cartoons, and children’s bedrooms. The toys are the toys of the every-child; recognizable and therefore a vessel to project the personal onto.

The act of constructing these scenes harkens back to playtime as a child, where we created our own worlds. I am now creating plays for the camera, drawing from my own experience as a survivor of sexual abuse, to create a visual language that can be universally understood. There is a delicate balance I work from, teetering on the fine line between chaos and order, awful and sweet, and presence and absence. Materiality assists me in exploring these binaries, as I use dollhouses, bed sheets, and obsessive collections. The anxiety found in the images reflects the anxieties of not only my experiences, but the experiences of others who have suffered and survived by any means necessary.

This current work is a long term project that I am looking forward to continuing. Childhood sexual abuse is a topic that is ingrained in our cultural psyche, but is hardly ever spoken about. By using my personal experiences, my hope is to open up a space where others can share their stories. To reconfigure the cultural matrix to include this topic is my ultimate goal.

I have a lot of ideas left in me and some metaphors to explore. 4×5 is making me really slow down and pay attention to my process– and can you blame me when it is about $5 a shot? Yeesh. Despite that, I’m really excited about this new work and I feel like everything is starting to come together. I worked last year on installations and now I’m basically making installations to photograph. Things DO make sense! Wow!

Happy Shooting!

Coming Out With Trauma

My last year of graduate study has started, and with it came a new set of problems for me to solve.

I had an idea at the start of the summer, which was to compile an archive of my past. Now that I have opened up about the trauma I experienced as a child and allowed myself to think about it instead of trying to shove it down into the recesses of my memory, I came to the realization that everything I have ever done could be linked back to that one event. I decided to start “An Encyclopedia of Trauma.”

Now, it’s a huge archive, perhaps its too much information, but I’m trying to take my old certificates, drawings, photographs, notes, diaries, whatever and put them in chronological order, to create a timeline of my life. I’m including anecdotes and constructed images in this mess– and that is what it currently is. A mess. There is a ton of information, some think perhaps too much.

Here is a very abridged sample, from the earlier part of my timeline:

It’s hyper personal, as I reveal my thoughts, my prayers, my mental illnesses. Right now it is completely raw, maybe even unhinged. But I can’t stop– I need to do this, and not just for myself. Sure, maybe it is a great therapeutic activity, but I wouldn’t just define it as that, because quite frankly, it’s more than that. I want to create this book because I know I’m not alone, that my story has variations that other people have undoubtedly lived, and we need to look at the uncomfortable truths that come with living through life with the weight of trauma bearing down on everything a person does.

This project is daunting, and I need to take it step by step. I need to first finish scanning in and collecting my archive. Then, I can cull through it and pick out what matters and what doesn’t. The thing with graduate study is you oftentimes get demands disguised as advice. The important thing to remember is to consider it, pick it apart, and apply it the way you feel you need to. And that will be my challenge this year. How do I take something so raw and personal and make it into something an audience can swallow? Is that what I want to do? How personal is too personal? Can I show the world my insides and be able to call it art? Does anyone care?

These are the problems I need to work through. I’ve always loved a good challenge.

Happy Shooting!

Bargaining as Overachieving

When something bad happens to someone, they go through the Five Stages of Grief. The stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, and we all experience these stages, and not necessarily in the above order. But I want to talk about just one, and that stage is Bargaining.

I experienced trauma when I was little, and I went through the stages. I didn’t know it at the time. But I’ve been working on this body of work about childhood trauma, and I’ve been exploring it on a personal level and looking at it with my own history. It’s been really freaking hard.

I’ve been photographing objects as signifiers for a traumatic event. I was challenged by a professor to talk more about myself as a person instead of someone who was traumatized. I interpreted this as photographing objects that said something about me, so when I was visiting home for the Thanksgiving holiday, I photographed some things. Actually, I photographed a lot of things. About 100 things. Things that had everything to do with my achievements growing up. Trophies, medals, pins, cords, tassels… Basically any form of accolade imaginable, I had earned in high school or college.

As I was photographing these things, I grew sad. Which may seem weird, because these objects are celebrations of my accomplishments. But they were covered in dust. The feeling I had towards them wasn’t pride, but shame, because I finally understood why I had all of these things and why they felt so empty to me.

They were my way of bargaining. The better I did at school, the more sports I played, the harder I worked, the more I could ignore what had happened to me. By working myself so hard, I could ignore– no, I could deny– what had happened to  me. The logic was how could someone who had something so terrible happen to them be capable of all of these wonderful things?

*You can click on the image to see it larger.

Some of my classmates asked me how I did all of this. The answer is, I honestly don’t know. What I do know what that I was hurting myself.

Trauma is a complicated thing. Healing is even more complicated.

I’m still working through this project, and there will be more updates to come. I have a lot of ideas to execute over winter break, and I’m spending three weeks in Ireland for a studio intensive course. Then there’s the whole thing about having three semesters left of graduate school… So this work is going to change. I’m looking forward to what is next.

Happy Shooting!

Graduate School Update

I am halfway through my first semester in graduate school, and wow. Just… Wow. Here are a few facts:

1.) I’m tired and my brain feels like a strange mixture of oatmeal, jello, and sadness.

2.) My brain is so filled with knowledge on photography things, there isn’t much room left for important things, like pressing the “down” button on an elevator when you are trying to leave the 12th floor.

3.) Naps are the most important thing. I thought they were important when I was in undergrad, but man. This is a whole new level of commitment.

4.) I was hesitant about jumping into a graduate program straight from undergrad, but I am fully confident I made the right choice.

5.) My work is getting heavy and I’m okay with that.

I miss blogging multiple times a week, but grad school is literally my life. It’s sad, but true. When I’m not reading for classes, I’m shooting, and when I’m not shooting, I’m editing or brainstorming, and when I’m not doing that, I’m having an existential crisis, and when that isn’t going down I’m sleeping or eating potato chips while watching DWTS. Is this adulthood?

No, it’s grad school.

For the next two years, I get the joy and pleasure of focusing on a thesis body of work. I made my initial decision about 6 weeks ago, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes from here. I’ve already created a series that is a work in progress, and it touches on what I’m focusing on: Childhood Trauma and PTSD. It’s different than my usual work, which involves sets, characters, tableau… I just photographed objects with a single light source. I think the juxtaposition hits on what I’m trying to talk about.

I have a lot more work to do with these, including re-photographing them with different light. There are a lot of ways I can explore my thesis, and I’m super happy I’m surrounded by peers who have a passion for photography and can talk about it in an informed way. Undergrad was okay, but grad school is much more my speed. I love a good challenge especially one that takes years off your life and reduces you to a poptart eating sorry excuse of a human.

Overall, I may be frustrated, tired, hungry, and crabby, but I am inspired, excited, and in love with where I am. It’s definitely hard, but everyday I feel myself becoming more informed about the field I love so damn much.

So, yeah. Here is a little update for anyone who stills follows me. Happy Shooting!