Saved: Objects of the Dead
As collaborators, Jody and I live and work on opposite coasts, yet a residency at Artspace, gave us the opportunity to work side by side, and enjoy the synergy, camaraderie, and insight that our collaboration, a creative environment, and a community inspires. In July we spent time working in the Upfront Gallery and in the Raleigh, Durham, and Cary communities where we talked with folks and invited them to participate in our project, Saved: Objects of the Dead. This project celebrates life and death through everyday objects and the memories of others, often making the difficult topic of death, dying, and loss a more accessible conversation.
Throughout Jody’s six-week PNC Pop In Residency, we promoted a new phase of our project—online Facebook and Instagram pages where anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one can honor their deceased family member or friend by taking a photograph of an object, memento or heirloom that once belonged to the departed, and then briefly write about how this object still holds memories and stories. As we conversed with local residents about what they might have saved after the death of a loved one, and encouraged them to post their photographs and stories to our Facebook page or Instagram, we were astonished by their willingness to tell us, friendly strangers, the most loving details of their loss. People opened up their hearts and shed a few tears as they devotedly told stories about their father, son, mother, sister, friends, grandparents, and even a Sensei who has departed.
For example, at the Five Points Center for Active Adults, we invited their members to bring an object from a deceased loved one and share their stories during a two-hour session. We met an elderly married couple who had recently moved to Raleigh from Hawaii. The wife, a gregarious individual, volunteered to speak first for what she called “show and tell.” She stood at the front of the small classroom, and carefully set up a display of her Sensei’s tea bowl and tea-whisk—key utensils in her tea ceremony. She fingered the edges of the bowl and occasionally swept the whisk around it while speaking. She told us how her Sensei, as a young Japanese American girl, had been interned during World War II at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California, how the internment did not deter her from becoming a spiritual leader, and how, years later, her Sensei died bowing during her morning prayers. The details of her relationship with the Sensei were so deeply engrossing that we kept asking her questions to prolong her storytelling.
Later, we visited the Pullen Arts Center where Lauren Brockman, an instructor at the Center, welcomed us to the monthly social meeting of the clay artists. We sat on one of two couches with the other artists and sampled the snacks Lauren had provided for the informal gathering. Feeling welcomed into the group, we shared stories of what inspired our project and information about how they could participate in Saved Objects. Then, a woman sitting across from us tentatively began speaking about how she’d lost seven people within two months. In a kind of trance-like account of their deaths, she spoke of each family member and friend, when he or she died, and the how of their deaths. Her courage to speak about such grief elicited an incredible outpouring of sympathy from all of us, and especially from those she worked with who had not known she’d suffered the loss of so many dear to her. Each of her stories was heart-rending, but the story of her son who was accidently shot and killed by her 13-year-old nephew was devastating. All of her son’s belongings are still in Seattle, Washington—those “things” are the material legacy of his death that still carry his identity, character, and her memories. This woman’s story is an example of how our project allows us to get to know the intimate details of people we’ve just met and make genuine emotional connections with them rather than the polite exchanges that typically occur upon meeting someone new.
We also had an artwork, Dad’s Boy Scout Shirt, from our collaborative photography and prose project included in the summer exhibition CAMstellation at CAM Raleigh. Dad’s Boy Scout Shirt is a photograph of a worn Boy Scout shirt that one of Jody’s students, Blair, saved after her father passed away. After interviewing Blair, I wrote the prose piece that is paired with the image in the exhibition. During CAMstellation, Jody and I approached visitors, talked about our work, and encouraged them to participate in our online version of Saved Objects. At a lunchtime food truck event, Jody asked a man waiting for his lobster roll if he had any items that he’d kept from a deceased loved one. The story of his sister’s death tumbled out of his mouth. As a teenager she was murdered by their father who later killed himself. This man spoke about how he treasured his sister’s soccer cleats and had completed a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to buy a purple bus (her favorite color) for her South American soccer team. His story stunned Jody, and she realized how simply asking a question about the objects we cherish after the death of a loved one was all it took for this stranger to share his tragic story and the generous way in which he chose to handle his grief.
After our visit to the Five Points Center for Active Adults and the Pullen Arts Center, Jody remarked on Facebook: “Today was one of the most emotionally powerful days I have ever experienced as an artist…One of the most rewarding aspects of creating participatory projects is providing people with a safe space in which to feel and express their emotions.”
We are moved by how brave and frank people have been when sharing the details of their lives and losses. And we are pleased to announce that the sharing and healing continues on our Saved Objects Facebook and Instagram pages. For example, Susan McCarty recounts why she has kept a tube of Chapstick for sixteen years:
I took this Chapstick from the bedside table of my dead ex-boyfriend in October, 2000. He was a junior in college when he was diagnosed with an osteosarcoma. I was two years older and had graduated already. I was trying to start a life in New York, while he suffered through chemo and surgeries in Houston. We’d broken up a few months before the cancer but we were still in close contact during the course of his treatments. He sent me a lot of emails. He couldn’t believe what was happening to him. The pain, the fear. It was monstrous. When I arrived at his parent’s house, where he’d been in hospice before his death, his older brother showed me to his bedroom, which was unrecognizable with medical equipment. The Chapstick was in my hand before I really had a chance to think about it and when I was alone, I put it on my own lips and felt close to him. I can’t imagine throwing it out, though I don’t think about it much anymore. I move around a lot and every couple of years I bump into the Chapstick and it makes me feel like he’s everywhere around me, just for a second. For me, it’s a talisman. It kind of collapses time and space.
We are honored to have met such warm, giving individuals. Thank you for generously sharing your time and memories with us. And thank you to Annah and Mary Kay at Artspace for organizing these events for us.
To participate in our project, and to honor your deceased loved one, family member or friend, take a photograph of a unique or utilitarian object, memento or heirloom that once belonged to him or her, and then write a paragraph or story (limit 250 words) about how this object holds memories and stories related to your relationship with this deceased person.
-Lorene Delany Ullman is a writer living in Newport Beach, CA
-Jody Servon is an artist based in Boone, NC.