St. Joseph’s University

September 15th, 2015

At bedtime, when I was a small child, I used to tell my father that I didn’t believe in God.  He is a Philosophy professor, who graduated from Catholic University, and this statement of mine always hooked him.  He would let me stay up indefinitely while we argued about how an omnipotent deity could allow evil to exist in the world.  I won’t get into the intricacies of our conversations here.  Needless to say, I got to stay up much later than my mother wanted me to.  The reason I bring this up is because of something my father said during one of these dialogues.  I asked him what he thought would happen to him when he died.  “I live on in the memory of God,” he told me.

I’ve thought a lot about memory since then, and especially since becoming a parent myself fifteen years ago.  Parents seem often to be caught up in memories.  How many pictures of you are there on the walls of your mother or grandmother’s house?  And chances are, not very many of them are all that recent.  To you, being two years old is ancient history.  To them it is yesterday.

Photographs seem to be a way to hold on to memories, and memories are our link with the past.  Memory seems to let us move back and forth between various times and places, within our own mind.

However, as we are learning from contemporary neuroscientists, memory is inherently mutable and unstable. 

In Michael Specter’s New Yorker article of May 2014, “Partial Recall,” he describes how “complex molecular interactions…permit us to form, store, and recall many different types of memories.” 

Scientists believe that when we have an experience, there is a structural alteration in brain cells, an “encoding in neural tissue that provides a physical basis for the persistence of memory.”  (The Free Dictionary, online.)  This is called a “memory trace” or “memory engram.”

Specter explains, “Until memories are fixed, they are fragile and easily destroyed….It takes a few hours for new experiences to complete the biochemical and electrical process that transforms them from short-term to long-term memories.”  This fixing process is called, “consolidation.”

We used to think that once memories were consolidated, they were “hard-wired” into the brain, and could be retrieved in the same way as if you were to open a file cabinet and pull out a file.  They would be the identical every time you remembered them.  However, the process is not so simple, it seems.

“In order for an old memory to be recalled, it has to retrace the pathways in which it originated.  Our brain cells, neurons, are programmed by our DNA, and they rarely change.  On the other hand, synapses, the small gaps between neurons, turn out to be highly mutable.  That is to say, a ‘memory might be altered simply by being recalled……the very act of remembering something makes it vulnerable to change.’ Scientists call this reconsolidation.”

Daniela Schiller, a neuroscientist interviewed by Specter, studied memory and found a very personal relevance in it in relation to her father, a Holocaust survivor.  He had never once spoken of his memories of his years in Germany as a child during the late nineteen thirties and early forties.  Recently, he agreed to be in a documentary, and in it, he told the story of how his little sister was murdered.  Schiller realized that witnessing this documentary changed her own memories of her father.  She states that “Memory is what you are now, not what you think you were in the past.  When you change the story you created, you change your life.

The process of “storying” one’s life is the purview of the arts.  On a meta-level, we as artists are constantly making and remaking the stories of our life.  We are constantly in flux as we question, explore, and dynamically create.

And some of us, within the art itself, are engaging in making stories and examining the role of memory.  That is my work in this series of painted collages:  a persistent and disciplined inquiry into the ways in which imagistic memory operates in my life, and how it colors my perceptions of the world around me.

The imagery that fascinates me is that of the Rhode Island coast with its clouds, water, and rocks; that of my children, especially when they were around three and four years old; and that of my animals, especially my dog.

I grew up in Rhode Island.  We did not live right near the water, but rather about a forty-five minute drive away from the ocean beaches.  My parents were very strict Catholics, and we four children had few freedoms granted to us.  I was not allowed to go to the mall, or to drive to Providence, or to hang out with friends whose parents were not at home.  The only place where my parents released their death-grip on us was when we were spending our annual two weeks in July at a dilapidated cabin near the beach.  For some reason, we were allowed free rein at the ocean.  We walked to the end of the breakwater jetty, which was broken down in some places and over which huge waves crashed.  We walked the dirt road to the penny candy store and ate as much as we could afford.  We disappeared for hours as the light changed from day to night, catching fireflies.  We also did all sorts of other things under the lighthouse and between the beached catamarans, but I will not get into that here.

One beach in particular, the beach at Breakwater Village in Pt. Judith, has become for me the single most iconic place of my childhood.  It is where I was happiest and felt most at home.  It is where I felt myself to be most myself, and most free.  As such, it has become the setting for the drama created by my memory and imagination. 

Art historian Simon Schama says that the artistic depiction of landscape embodies “one of our most powerful yearnings:  the craving to find in nature a consolation for our mortality.” And that this depiction is, by its very nature, subjective.  There is no such thing as an “objective” record of the world.

He quotes Rene Magritte.  “’This is how we see the world’ Magritte argued in a 1938 lecture explaining his version of The Human Condition in which a painting has been superimposed over the view it depicts so that the two are continuous and indistinguishable.  ‘We see it as being outside ourselves even though it is only a mental representation of what we experience on the inside.’”

Schama claims that landscape should not be conceived of as independent from the stories of the people who view it, or who depict it.  “For although we are accustomed to separate nature and human perception into two realms, they are, in fact, indivisible.  Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is a work of the mind.  Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.”

We circle here back to photography, as that is the area of art most likely to be misunderstood as an “objective” depiction of external reality, and most likely to be misunderstood as a stand-in for memory.

I take photographs of the beach when I am back in Rhode Island, and especially have been haunted by the gray hazy days in which the sand and water and sky blend together into a sort of visual limbo, a place “in-between.”  I also am passionate about the intense days when the golden light on the clouds makes the world look like a 17th century Flemish landscape painting.  Taking photographs is, for me, a catalyst and an entrée into the mutable, fluid process of memory.  Because truly, there is no way to preserve the past.  The past is dead.

This recognition, for me, that the past is gone, carries with it a great deal of grief, because I remember being happy in the past, and I am not sure that I will be happy in the future.  I have loved being a mother to small children, and now that my children are teenagers, I am not sure how much they will continue to need me.  And yet, I have a sense that I am a figure in a tapestry of family that is much bigger than my little, individual story.  My history intersects with that of my ancestors, and with the ancestors of my husband and my children.  These are the people who populate my images.

Dogs also occupy a central role in this body of work.  Humans have been portraying images of the domestic dog for thousands of years, the oldest depictions being on the walls of caves, like that in Chauvet, France, from 30,000 years ago.  (Mark Deer, The Wall Street Journal, 10/29/2011)  In Europe in the middle-ages and the Renaissance, “fidelity is often represented by a dog and stands for the secular aspect of Faith, or the trust that exists … in family relationships.” (Wikipedia)  My dog images allude to this pictorial history. 

How do I measure the love that I feel, and the meaning that I make, when I create pictures of my dog and my children and the ocean and the sky?

Artist David Hockney writes that there was a belief during the Enlightenment in Europe, roughly the 18th century, that everything could be understood and measured if we just had the right kind of measuring stick.  This is the realm of Newtonian physics.  Quantum physics today tells us that this is not so.  That is to say, our positionality as observers affects what we are observing. 

Many genealogists, like the ones in my family, like to imagine that they can portray the past objectively through their charts and circles and lists of who married whom and whose name changed to what.  But this is just one kind of story, and it is not the kind of story of the past, the story of memory, that I am primarily interested in.  I am interested in the stories in which the observer affects the observed, the stories in which my memories, as mutable and inconsistent as they are, take precedence over any claimed objective truth.

This why there is so much layering and juxtaposing of collage elements in my work.  This is why I constantly move back and forth between paint and photograph, between cutting and pasting and mark-making.  This is a physical as well as a visual metaphor for the process of memory, for the process of reconsolidation. In art, the form and the content must be inextricably interwoven, and this manner of working synthesizes both my formal and my conceptual passions.

I don’t know if you saw the movie “Interstellar,” but at one point in it the Ann Hathaway character, Amelia Brandt, argues that her crew should aim for the planet to where the man she loves was sent.   She talks about how love is “observable,” that it is “powerful” and that “it has to mean something.”  She is not talking about measuring love in the old Newtonian manner, but rather in a Quantum manner.  “Maybe it means something we cannot yet understand.  Maybe it is some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive…..Love…transcends dimensions of time and space.  Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it.”

Perhaps, as my father believes, we will always exist in the memory of a God who loves us; a God whose world is a work of artistic creation; a God whose story of us is one of beauty, one of children and dogs and ocean and sky and everything else.

Artist and teacher George Bridgeman wrote that it is the things that we know and leave out that give power and strength to our art.  I have a slightly different viewpoint.  I believe that it is the things that we don’t know, and that we choose to put in, that give power and strength to our art.  The process of human artistic creativity is mysterious.  All we can do is show up and do the work.  My father would say it is faith that does the rest.

Thank you.