If you know me, you know I love Vermont, and when I first drove around Rutland this past summer–with my mentor, Stephen Schaub and fellow photographer Susan Weiss, I had no idea what might interest me. But, then I began to notice the many statues of the Madonna—looking as she had always been depicted over the years from my parochial school experiences in Bayside, Queens.
It raised questions for me as to the depiction of womanhood, maternity, and autonomy—questions I wouldn’t have asked, necessarily, in those early school years—and served as a catalyst for this project.
It was a journey for me—to explore where I was then and what I wonder or ask about now. I photographed select images in Rutland, but then when I returned home to Long Island, NY, I began to think about the history and religious ideals that I had taken in so many years ago and began to recall and reminisce about the meanings associated.
Once I photographed and printed the select images at Indian Hill Image Works, I moved to my writing space—working from memory and seeing the trajectory of my feelings and ideas around the iconography. I first wrote some brief prose poems, recalling early experiences in Catholic grade school—the ones that cocooned me—and then moved into more difficult questions about the embodiment of womanhood—my mother’s story of her motherloss and the loss of a baby brother living just a few hours after birth. This was all in contrast to the more ideal story of Christ’s birth and Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Virgin Birth.
Tossing through shoeboxes of previous writings, I came across a high school class writing titled: “Religion,” dated May, 1966. I was curious and surprised to read my own words then—words that reinforced a supplicant role for a woman in a marriage to a man. I was surprised. While I was taken by the challenge, at the time in high school to translate portions of the Ecumenical Council report from Latin to English, I apparently didn’t think deeply about the ideas I was professing.
That’s when it became clear to me that the work in The Alley Gallery should be displayed as a collage—the only way to execute the complex ideas and feelings without telling a viewer what to deduce or conclude.
I am left with more questions than answers. But, as I neared the completion for exhibition, I was deeply saddened by the death of poet Mary Oliver in January. I turned to her works and reread, and was struck by the first lines in her poem, Wild Geese, a counterpoint to the mid-60s admonition to fall into an auxiliary role:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles in the desert repenting
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
This excerpt became the final piece in the overall installation. A review at the Rutland Herald described it as “a strange and emotional installation.” It was right on.