Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Perfect Memory

 "All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was". -Toni Morrison

I have two projects ahead of me with my artwork. One is a body of work on loss of memory which I will be exhibiting at a conference mid-year. The other is a piece on the theme of water for the Jewish Artists' Lab exhibition. Ever frugal, I am trying to find a way to knit the two together so I get some additional use out of the piece for the lab.

In this year's Artists' Lab we have a series of artist led sessions. Along with another artist in our group I led a discussion on the topic of metaphor and memory. We examined how water is used metaphorically in both the Bible and our language. I soon discovered that I had stumbled across a rich topic. Metaphor by its nature lends itself to artwork, creating layers of meaning.

In researching this topic I ran across the quote at the top of this page and found it quite thought provoking. Morrison talks of how for writers the act of imagination is bound up with memory and equates it to flooding, trying to find our way home. Here's what she says:

"Because, no matter how "fictional" the account of these writers, or how much it was a product of invention, the act of imagination is bound up with memory. You know they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. "Floods" is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.

Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory - what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our 'flooding'."

So how does this relate to loss of memory? One of the things I've observed in my parents as they lost memory was the way they clung to their prior identity. As I explore the question of what happens to identity as we lose memory, I have concluded that identity is very persistent. Even if they no longer possess the capability to do the tasks of their prior identity, it remains an important part of how they see themselves.

My late father was deeply involved in technology in his day, a man before his time in many respects. Then time passed him by. His identity as a tech savy person was deeply embedded and in his later years he had a propensity to purchase technology even if he could no longer comprehend it. He returned to the path he once carved.

Similarly my mother who had been a first grade teacher collages every day, but she calls it "cutting and pasting". She has a wall on which she has pictures of things that interest her that she calls her "bulletin board". She returns to deeply engrained aspects of her life as a teacher. Their world narrowed as they aged, just as the river's path was straightened, yet they flood its banks, seeking the life they once lived, the person they once were.

I've begun to play with some paintings on the theme of water. I've been away from painting for awhile so I have this barrier to crash, an uncertainty about where to begin. I find the best way to push past that gatekeeper in my brain is to just start, no research, just paint the imagery in my head, reminding myself that I can always paint over it. The images in this blog entry were a means to jump start myself and are likely to go through many iterations. The one above is on the concept of Flooding as Remembering.  I may write the quote over it when it is further along.

When I first thought of memory and water I was reminded of language that links the two, how we talk of memories bubbling up and streams of consciousness. Have you ever followed how a memory arises? Sometimes it can arise quite obliquely. Something triggers a tangentially related memory which in turn triggers another and another until there is a wave effect. The small paintings were an experiment in stepping into my mother's mind and creating waves of memory, Each image associated with one nearby.

She has been pondering lately if her father was left handed. A thought of her father might trigger a thought of her brother who her father asked her to look out for or of a dress he made for me as a child (he was a tailor). Memories move like water, fluid, wavelike, taking us places that may be far removed from our starting point.

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