I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote a long one.

This is a post about my journey as a wet plate photographer.

In 2014 I became completely obsessed with wet plate photography. This was not when I first fell in love with photography, because I had once made a living as a traveling portrait photographer (that is another story for a different time), but it was when I was deeply inspired by Julia Margaret Cameron, Sally Mann, Imogen Cunningham and Vivian Maier. Looking at thousands of black and white images invoking tremendous emotion felt like an aesthetic home to me.

I had been feeling creatively burnt out for some time, after years of running a popular and successful fiber arts business (again a different story for another time) I was looking for a way to express myself in ways and mediums that were largely unfamiliar to me. I do love to knowing that I have a lot to learn, and trying new things has always helped me feel as if something new is beginning.

After months of staying up late pouring over antique photography texts, and reading everything I could obtain about the wet plate process, I was ready to dive in and get my hands dirty. After my Mother helped tremendously with the initial investment on my first camera (for which I will forever be indebted), I was off and burning with passion for my new hard learned skill set.

In early 2015 I entered a tintype triptych in a local art contest and received promising recognition for my work. The next several months were spent painting and prepping an old Victorian house adjacent to a Civil War Museum for my studio. While I made some beautiful photos there, and did several demonstrations for school children, establishing myself there was taking time.

In late 2016 my husband took a job offer that relocated the family a few hours north. I said goodbye to the victorian house and the space in which I made much of my early Wet Plate work, both portraits and still life.

My camera, lighting, and darkroom equipment stayed packed while I weathered the move, the new school adjustments for the children, and a bizarre cycle of health problems that began to plague me. I was in medical care for varying lengths of time for: car accidents, mysterious vertigo, severe depression, wasp swarm attack and random and painful eyelid cysts that required multiple surgeries.

What saved my life during that dark time, was reading. I read one hundred books in 2018 and while my body was cloistered and convalescing, my mind traveled to far away places and grappled with problems bigger than me. I learned so much about myself during that time, that I highly recommend everyone have a mental breakdown and recover by reading 100 books in the subsequent year.

I wrote quite a bit in that time as well, and found that my greatest ambitions in life involve inspiring others who may also be going through difficult times. Whether it be through my artwork or my words, It is my dream to express myself and share an aesthetic connection with others. I am grateful to be on the path to doing so again.

In August 2019 I was able to pilgrimage to the beautiful artistic mecca of Santa Fe New Mexico and revisit my wet plate photography goals. I came home creatively rejuvenated and ready to work with my chin up and my eyes on where possibilities lay. There is so much to be learned with both my artwork and my writing and I have found that I am excited and inspired as much with what I don’t know how to create as I am with what I do.

Still, there is a such latent magic with both writing and my analog photography adventures. Both practices capture something out of thin air- generating images within spaces that are real and imagined.

It is a good way to spend a life.

“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make a soul?” ~Keats

He didn’t mean it in a nasty way, and I didn’t take it like that at first.  When my light-of-my-life thirteen year old son said: “Mom. No one is going to read your blog” truly, it was if a giant weight was lifted off of my chest. What if no one read anything I wrote? What if I had total freedom to write everything, but no one else would see, would I still write? How much does an audience matter to me? Clearly it matters not enough to saddle myself with debt to pursue academic validation, but also enough to publish my words publicly on the internet. At the risk of romanticizing the past; perhaps it is a generational idea in that I cling to imagining a choice there. It wasn’t always obligatory to put oneself “out there” or at least it looked a lot different than it does now.

For one thing, people used to talk on the phone simply to connect. I spent an hour on the phone with my Mother a few days ago and I remember feeling uncomfortable, like something unusual was happening. It was after we hung up and there was that solid silence that closed in on me like a shutting door  that I realized the whole being on the phone and talking thing was what was strange and nostalgic. Sorting things out on a blog and publishing it on the internet for maybe negative billion people to read, is apparently, nothing to give much thought about at all.

    During a creative dry spell recently, when my mind was more hedge maze of self-limiting emotions than anything else, I remembered that Buckminster Fuller used to tell people that he contemplated suicide, but decided rather than throw his life away, he would dedicate it to saving our “Spaceship Earth”. Inspired by this memory, I took my phone out of my pocket and wrote a little note of encouragement to myself- one which I have referenced more than a few times since.

    I read my note again, and the little story about just one day being on the brink of suicide and “deciding” to be a savior of the world just rubbed me the wrong way. I mentioned in my last blog post that I find any “And I suddenly changed” narrative hard to believe in.  A quick internet search for confirmation revealed, the story Bucky told was one he fabricated to hide how long he had lost direction and purpose in his life. How easy was it to be absolutely insane with grief and self loathing to wield the genius that comes from total depression into a tool that convinces everyone around him of how worthy his ideas are? I think being an ivy-league dropout white man helps a fair amount. Although Fuller certainly used dark times to spur his wild creativity, he hit rock bottom repeatedly and his crazy was as wide and deep and well documented as any in history. In a way, finding out that he had to create his own mythology to fuel his creations and throw himself out into the world, trying to convincing others of his own validity could be more inspiring to me than the neatly packaged suicide parable he told everyone.

Admitting that I have been thrown (thrown myself?) for an existential loop the past couple of years is a great downplay. I can leave my quite stale lifelong struggle to find somewhere to “belong” in the world in a box for another day. I now live in a time when I have been confronted with news that most of the world’s living species will be going extinct in my (potential) lifetime. I know I have played my own small plastic role in this destruction narrative and I find even my now-pithy dreams of creating worthy art and abundance in my life, gray and hard to grasp at.

Since no one is reading this, the upside to that is I am free to be a little more forthright with my own inner workings than I would be if I had an Audience. And so. Some time ago, when I was very calmly and shrewdly (dare I say, rationally?) considering ending my own life, which was a departure from other times I had considered it- ones that were laced with very intense heartfelt emotions trailing catastrophic life events. I would turn this problem/idea over and over in my head obsessively on my daily walks. It really was one morning, in which I said to no one: “I didn’t ask to be born. I had no control over it.” to which nature replied in her million billion ways “Choice and control are funny stories. Surrender to change.” I took that to mean I will die in due time anyway, so I may as well submit to that fact and keep walking with the unfolding of life– the seemingly unbearable pain, the heartache, and all. Although it wasn’t overnight, not long after this revelation the cloud began to lift significantly for me. I assume a large part in due to being able to put that idea to rest and therefore had much more energy for living. Very shortly after that, the back to back suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain saturated the already death-obsessed media, and had I not gone through a revolution of sorts, I think I would have experienced that week very differently. Perhaps there is something to be said for overnight epiphanies after all.   

I think about my future death every day now over a year later, but hardly obsessively- or at least not with the same heavy handedness. The more I think about it, the more I read about it, the less afraid I am of it, and I feel less afraid of life, or if  I am- of making the ‘right’ choices to try and control some outcomes that create a life centered on happiness or one I “want” to live and other such nonsense. I make choices with the resources I have access to at the time and a best guess as to what will serve the highest good. My resources are infinite some ways, and non-existent in others. One day I will be dead and I will no longer have the worries and stresses that get to me now, and that is a gift I hope to be ready and ripened to receive when it comes to me.

There are those bottom-places filled with darkness that, in which mysteries marinate long enough and in the right conditions, will birth beauty and light. This is observable in the natural physical world, and in the realm of soul. Is something actually written if no one reads it? I don’t know. If I don’t write and share, there would be the comfortable certainty of no one reading a word. I found that reassuring for quite some time. At first I was resigned that idea, accepting the notion that what I think about and type out on a blog ( or anywhere else) has little to no influence in the world, perhaps very much akin to the way an animal of prey relaxes into the sharp toothed mouth of Fate.

Imaginary reader, that once-resignation coughed and squirmed and turned into something alive that has slowly and repeatedly ripped at my heart enough months that I must consider I am one of those ridiculous people who will waste chunks of their lives writing things that no one will read and making art that no one will see. Much like choosing to continue breathing because I have decided to believe in the reality of this natural order I have found myself inhabiting, I choose to appease my little ambitious animal heart and create. I don’t know how many times I must keep choosing this. I don’t know how many blog posts I need to basically say “here I am”, but at least this one more. I am a no-name fool lacking an institutional education and imaginary audience with the basic ability to upload a blog post on a website.

I am writing.        

When fairies move to the prairie, they eat biscuits and cry.

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Yesterday, I wept at breakfast with my family. We’d walked under an expansive cloudless sky to the nearby truck stop where two interstates meet and where since moving here, we’ve learned they have both the best biscuits and gravy on the open prairie, and the best trucker conversations to eavesdrop on. I reveled in stories about offloading in Anchorage and how there was a warmer chill than the shoe-sticking cold of Chicago’s sidewalks this week. I live for ear food like this. A sentimental old trucker stopped by our table on the way out to wish the kids a merry Christmas, and turned to say he wished Santa could bring them “just, everything”. He was so wistful- so goddamn sincere, it hit me square in the chest.

The day before, a woman at the bank brightly chirped: “Did your candidate win?” I was disarmed by the raw sincerity behind her eyes. It was as if she’d wanted to high five me in the hall after a home game. I replied with a reserved “no”, and her face changed with sympathy and gave me a conciliatory “Well, at least his family looks normal!” as she nodded her empathetic little head in my direction. Tell me, stardust; what else could I have done besides laugh until it was unclear to both of us if I was indeed laughing or crying? I am a sincere animal, too.

I’ve felt this before. I am a living, breathing, organic archive of emotion and I know these feelings from previous travels in the arid desert of the Middle East. A certain sun-soaked open-skied honesty lives there that supports an overbearing presumed collective aspiration of religious idealism and family-centered simplified living, while it simultaneously marginalizes and radicalizes the individual with blazing ray-like intensity. I wondered to myself if there had to be a supernova… point at which divine intuition was suppressed so far down, it finally turned in on itself into a moebius black hole of dogma where the light of empathy is bent into a merciless endless night.  How often do we contemplate the other side of these things before they appear on the evening news? Not often enough.

I sat with my family and cried over my steaming gravy burdened biscuits and spoke to the kids about how chickens have this natural tendency to gang up on the sickly or malformed and peck them to death. Being a chicken is competitive as hell. Chickens can teach you to love and care for creatures whose consciousness is so brutally, honestly ignorant, you can’t help but be revolted enough to consider those parts of yourself.

Jung once wrote: “To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light. Once one has experienced a few times what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the self. Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.” The middle. The crossroads. Where the devil and the divine meet and drink and dance. The point where even if  we head off where we shouldn’t have gone, but can still go back and choose another direction before we completely lose our way.

Warm gravy will make the coldest of us reminisce. I spoke about those brief liminal years in my late childhood when it was my turn to raise chickens. I told them a little about how I’d let other people hurt me, about how I never felt like I fit in, about how much of my personal shadow work circumnavigates shame, but also how I believed I was loved. I want them to understand loving is the dead simplest, most difficult thing to do in the whole world. Between tear salted sips of good bitter coffee, I wanted them to know if loving is ever to be sustainable, that we’d have to start by first finding the contours of the darkest parts of ourselves. I don’t speak of this enough.

It’s one thing to observe fear on a diode lit screen, and another to kiss it on the forehead when it tries to smother you in your sleep. Jung wrote: “If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all his projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a pretty thick shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a serious problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against… Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.”

I miss the graffiti of my hometown. It leaks out from silent faces at the bus stops at night in brightly colored spray paint onto anything that will hold the message. It’s resistance reassurance symbol soul language from the underground on trash bins, brick school walls, virgin sidewalks, broken bar windows and outdated ATMs. That is the kind of news you can’t hide from your digital social feed or switch the channel from. When I walk across this interstate in the mornings, I sometimes fantasize about what I could paint and drape over the side, illuminating an imaginary underground interstate of fellow star people toward my particular hue of enlightenment.

I find myself now here on the winter wheat planted plains, unable to turn a face away from the daytime programming at the bank, and at the restaurant. There is no where to go under this open sky except deep inside where, armed with a lantern of love, I no longer trip over my own feet in the darkness. Feeling along the edges, I find a solitary solace from which to do the work. The hard stuff: the loving. It is from this new stronghold at the convergence of light and dark where I will be found, integrating it all until there is nothing left of the divide.

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