I Don't Want to Wait Until Tomorrow
Last August I found myself walking through the most charming and inviting cemetery that I have had the pleasure of discovering. My introduction to this place of bones and lives past came about as a result of the birth of my granddaughter. Yes, I know that all of this may sound a little strange, hang in there with me.
When my daughter-in-law went into labor, I was on dog-walking duty. Prior to the arrival of the greatly anticipated day, I had been shown the walking routine to which Dodger (the canine in need of walking) was accustomed. If you were to go on this journey you would find yourself on a short walk through a small New England neighborhood, going up a hill and entering into, well, an enchanting cemetery. The shift and difference in time and energy can be felt as you crest the hill, even before any stones or markers come into view. The multiple paths of this particular cemetery meander around corners, along the edges of woods, around a centrally located gazebo, and then loop through rows and rows of eclectic, ornate, simple, crumbling, unique, impeccably kept, and grand tombstones. Along the way you may find carefully tended fairy gardens, children’s shoes immortalized and resting atop headstones, pinwheels, wind chimes, kneeling angels, flowering plants, blossoming trees and more. You may also find yourself listening to the breeze and the movement of branches and leaves, wondering about the lives and stories of those whose bones rest beneath the ground that you are walking upon. I did.
Simultaneously, I experienced a shift in the work that I was creating in my studio. I had recently come across a series of illustrations created by Dr. Louis Crusius in the late 1800s to early 1900s which consisted of skeleton figures. I found these figures so curious and oddly compelling that I engaged in a little research and discovered that they had been utilized as advertisements for the Antikamnia Chemical Company. A company that was founded by two former drugstore owners in St. Louis in the late 1880s. The purpose of which was to sell a medicine designed to combat pain and fever (the name comes from Greek words meaning “opposed to pain”).(1)
The story of the Antikamnia company is an interesting one unto itself, but what I was more interested in was my own curious feelings around the strangely clad skeleton figures. I felt compelled to extricate them from paper. I began creating a variety of collaged scenes through the layering of frames and images of different objects and placing the bone people inside moments of everyday living and life. This resulted in a growing collection which I called “The Other Side”. I began thinking of them as an ongoing exploration into echoes. The echoes that are left behind by those we have loved and lost, the echoes of parts of ourselves that we have left behind, or pieces that are frozen in the past.
Life moved on and we welcomed our beautiful granddaughter home and into the arms of our family. By this time I had become so enamored with wandering the enchanting cemetery in the early morning hours that I began taking my dog there for morning walks. The more time that I spent wandering the rows and markers the more curious I became about the lives of those who had come to rest in the cemetery. I began noting dates on the tombstones and would on occasion find myself commenting when passing by. Saying such things as “It’s your birthday tomorrow, Henry. I wonder how you passed your birthdays when you were here walking among us.” As we were solidly in the second year of a pandemic, quietly wandering through the cemetery as the sun rose on another day and contemplating the nature of life and death seemed natural and somehow necessary.
Time continued to pass and so did the daily reminders that for all living things life includes death. They are inextricably linked. The numbers of those lost to this pandemic continued to climb. The sweet canine who I had first walked with among these rows closed his eyes upon his last day; as did another sweet familial companion who had gifted all whom she encountered with important reminders and lessons of love, vulnerability and indomitable spirit. I continued using sharp razors to extricate the images of skeletons from paper and reinsert them into new scenes of life.
Underneath our clothing, the color of our skin, our gender, our familial ties, our lived experiences, and all the other myriad of ways in which we claim and establish our identities lie our bones. Bones that seemed to be pointing us toward our shared humanity and the quintessential way in which we are alike. More than anytime before I found myself aware of how short our time on this earth actually is and how the time we are given is truly our most precious gift. Every atom of calcium in our bones was created inside a star before the earth was born. We began as the dust of exploding stars. How magnificent and precious is a life that begins as the last evolutionary stages of a massive star? The poetry and beauty of the life and world that we have been given make me weep.
The other night as I was about to lay my head on my pillow, I found myself wondering what artists before me had worked with the images of skeletons. I consulted the great internet oracle and quickly discovered the term Memento Mori.(2) In short, a Memento Mori is a Latin phrase meaning ‘remember you must die’ and is an artwork designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and the shortness and fragility of human life.
What does all of this mean? It is a message about willingness and connection. I no longer want to wait until tomorrow to have the conversations that seem too hard to have today. I have become deeply aware of the gift of someone offering me their time and the gift of my own. We all carry and have individual gifts to offer. I believe that we also carry a unique purpose in contribution and service to our collective story. It is through connection and context with one another that these gifts can be most effectively offered. We need each other.
I have run out of the vintage bone people images that spurred such curiosity and creativity in me. Now new bones have found their way to me. They are different. They are without clothing and there is no way to discern who they may have been in their individual identities. I do not think of them in the same way. They are not stuck in the past or pieces that have been lost. I am placing these within scenes that tell stories of how we are all connected. They shall remember their dance among the stars. They shall entwine and share stories with nature and mystery. They will be stories of finding our way home and of finding our parts, purpose and each other.
“A people do not throw their geniuses away. And if they are thrown away, it is our duty as artists and as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children and, if necessary, bone by bone.”
In willingness and the spirit of connection,
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