One day in July I got an email from Jacqueline Moulton.
"Hey" she wrote - "if you would ever be interested in doing a show would you let me know? I curate a gallery and I love your work."
Can you imagine how I felt?
Think about us artists, alone in our dark rooms, practicing and practicing and always trying and feeling the thing we are trying to say is just out of reach. Like most artists, I'm self taught. That means 8 years of self-tutoring. Hours trying to educate myself on the great artists and great photographers (thank god for the library!) of the world. Days spent reading such riveting titles as 'Understanding Exposure' and 'How to take pictures of People' with a dictionary at my side. Inventing new challenges. Convincing new people to be interested in what I am saying. Convincing old fans to stay interested. trying trying trying.
And then to have someone notice!
And to have that someone be Jacqueline!. Her show The Anatomy of Grief in 2011 was so influential to me that I blogged about it. Then when she wrote a volume of poetry and had The Day I was Too Afraid to Jump Off the High Dive, an art show, well that show changed how i felt about my own body. It changed how I felt about my fears and my not enoughness. It changed who I am as an artist. In fact just the week before Jacqueline had contacted me I had done the thing where i was skulking around her social media wondering why she was so cool and how i could get a piece of that action. AND THEN IT HAPPENED.
It came at a perfect time. I had just quit my job so i needed a creative outlet and I had lots of time on my hands and was looking for a nonprofit to volunteer with. Jacqueline invited me out to see what the The Commons were all about and to see if I was interested in their artist in residence position. The Aurora Commons are a local nonprofit that provide a neighborhood living room for the unhoused to "prepare a meal, connect to resources and collectively create a healthy and vibrant community." I was hooked. I love nonprofits that don't try to change or fix their clients but rather come along side and I love my city and couldn't wait to get involved. I wanted to do a show about something that had been swishing around in me for a long time. I decided to base the show on something my friend and wise woman Jenny had said to me which was "grieve and celebrate as you are able Leanna."
Its always the simplest phrase that hits us the hardest isn't it?. The clearest words that speak the most truth. Therapists and pastors and politicians spend their time thinking up dazzling words and then our little hearts turn on the dime of a very simple phrase.
I thought about release and celebration and grief. About Irish funerals and jazz funeral marches and the elaborate coffins of the Ashanti and how i feel when i go back to my parents for the holidays. I thought about it while I was practicing yoga in the quiet mornings at home and sometimes I cried out in pain and sometimes I cheered. I watched my friends join and part, their marriages grow stronger and dissolve. I approached friends to ask if I could use pictures of their children near toilets and I asked my husband if i could use a picture of him with a 4 foot bong.
My man built me frames. Four iterations of them as he perfected his design. My father helped me hang each print and my mother cooked and took care of my son so I could think and think and sort and think.
We hung the photographs in the Commons and we laughed with hysteria and pleasure.
I was invited to speak at Awake Church about the show and they called me a prophet. I told them that I am a photographer of real life because I believe our ordinary messy selves are better than our pretend perfect selves. I said please let me take pictures of you crying and laughing and laying and walking and and doing everything you do. I said I am interested in humanness as it is, not as we pretend it to be. I said I have chosen to see clearly and I believe it is worth it despite the pain.
I said "I promise you - your messy self is so damn beautiful."
OK. I don't remember a single word I said, but that's what I was feeling.
At the gallery we had a reception to herald the making of the work. It was a huge party and I felt all the things I felt at my wedding which is so many confusing feelings and ordinary feelings and exceptional feelings that I can't even begin to name them. When I woke up the next morning and walked into my kitchen and saw the kitchen table covered in makeshift vases holding the bouquets my friends had pressed into my hands the night before I burst into happy overwhelmed tears.
The next week I went back to The Commons and just hung out. I met people and I was fed and people told me their story and people didn't tell me their story. Upon hearing I was a photographer, the photographer who had taken the pictures all over the walls, seemingly everyone I met pulled out their cellphone and showed me their favorite picture they had ever taken. I was so privileged to cluck approvingly at every single one.
I taught a photography class and it was good.
My residency is a four month gig. Next week i will go back again to take Christmas portraits of volunteers and clients and in January we will hang the client's photographs and celebrate our entry into a new year by sharing a storytelling night where clients and volunteers and all who desire will tell a story of Celebration or Grief.
I'm so excited and privileged to be a part of it all. If you want to join in too, you are welcome to stop by the commons and hang out. all are welcome. If you are feeling a little more practical than that, the commons is in desperate need of clothing for adults. And always coffee and creamer and sugar. Please considering including them in your generosity these holidays.