Campus workshop and exhibit use the stuff of life to ease the pain of death
In this occasional series, Tufts Now highlights the hidden talents of Tufts faculty and staff.
Editor's note: this story was posted in 2015, and the exhibition took place that year.
They are unremarkable, everyday objects—a recipe box, a Hawaiian shirt, some toy soldiers. They are also keys that unlock a lifetime of memories. The recipe box holds not just cakes and casseroles, but the story of a now-gone mother who depended on it to feed her family. The shirt belonged to a man felled by a heart attack. He reached middle age, yet to his parents, he will always be their child. The olive green army men recall a brother who was trapped in the South Tower on 9/11.
These objects and others are featured in three mixed-media artworks from the collection “The Intimacy of Memory,” which will be on display in November in the Slater Concourse Gallery at the Aidekman Arts Center on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus. The artist, Nancy Marks, is the community service learning coordinator at the School of Dental Medicine. She has had a career as a printmaker, painter, public health advocate and community organizer, and this exhibit, like much of her work, combines the creative impulse with the psychology of healing. Marks listened to those who had lost loved ones, and using keepsakes, she created art to tell the story of those relationships.
“The Intimacy of Memory” has been exhibited in galleries before, and was featured in the online magazine Psychology Tomorrow. For the November exhibition, Marks has partnered with the University Chaplaincy to involve members of the Tufts community. At an Oct. 2 workshop, students, staff and faculty will be able to create a piece of art using their own photos and mementos from departed loved ones. Participants can then choose to have their work displayed alongside Marks’ artwork in the Tufts gallery.
“I really wanted this workshop and exhibition to be one that engages the Tufts community on many levels, because there is so much to be gained by a collective conversation,” Marks says. “I look at it as almost concentric circles—first the person connects with the self; the next circle out, they connect with the person who died. And as part of the workshop, they will be connecting with the people around them. The next layer, after the workshop, is having a broader conversation with the community when the works are displayed. And finally, when the person takes their art home, it allows them to connect in yet another way with those in their own circle,” she says.
“But death and art are not necessarily topics that people gravitate to—both can be scary. For me, the challenge is figuring out how to make this workshop seem less scary and more liberating, as a way to express something that all of us feel at a time of loss, which is a sense of deep connection.”
The idea behind “The Intimacy of Memory” began 15 years ago, when the biological mother of Marks’ adopted daughter died, and Marks went to clean out her apartment. The daughter, Taylor, was 6 at the time. “I had to decide what keepsakes would be important to her, which turned out to be a very complex thought process,” Marks says. “I had to pick objects that would hold the memory of her mother, while imagining what [would be meaningful] when Taylor was 15, or 40.” Marks created the first work in the series, “Taylor’s Bio Mom’s Stuff,” and then expanded the project to include others’ memories.
Our culture emphasizes “privatization” of grief, Marks says, keeping discussion and acknowledgement of any but the most recent loss at arm’s length.
“The fact is, you’re lucky if people can tolerate a couple of weeks or months of someone being grief-stricken,” she says. “But for most of us who have grieved, it doesn’t work that way. My father died 15 years ago, and I think about him incredibly often. But nobody says, How do you feel about your father’s death 15 years ago? We’re supposed to take it and put it in a box and put it on the shelf.” The exhibit and workshop, she says, are “an opportunity to have those memories come forth and sit with them and be creative with them.”
The objects in “The Intimacy of Memory” range from the clearly significant—the wedding rings of a same-sex couple who had to wait decades to marry—to a seemingly mundane travel clock. All have a story.
“Objects are just a way to get back to the memory,” Marks says. “Grief is really remembering how much we love and miss our loved ones. Sometimes I wonder if our fears of death are in some way also fears of the depth of our love.
An opening reception and gallery talk for the Tufts exhibition will take place on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015 from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at the Aidekman Arts Center, 40 Talbot Ave., Medford. Learn more about the art of Nancy Marks: nancymarksartist.com.