There is an age-old shamanic practice found in many cultures purposed to find the lost pieces of the soul and bring them back home. Its modern name is “soul retrieval,” and it revolves around the idea that the soul breaks into fragments after the blunt force of some trauma.
When one undergoes something traumatic, parts of the soul are lost or hidden as a way to survive and cope. And if these pieces don’t return, it can leave one feeling disconnected and incomplete―I would know, as I have been on the hunt for the lost parts of myself for quite some time now.
I’ve moved around from city to city, person to person, idea to idea, goal to goal, looking for something to fit, looking for someone to feel like home―all the while leaving behind a trail of disappointment and unfulfillment because I am really all that I’ve been looking for.
The other day, a small time capsule arrived from New York City. One by one I pulled out its items, imbued with clues of who I once was and the memories attached to her.
This childhood book of mine was lost and somehow made its way back into my life in adulthood.
My mother used to work at a middle school and one day a teacher brought her the book and asked if it belonged to her (on the inside cover I’d written my name along with the names of my mom and two sisters).
The book’s journey is an unsolved mystery, but what likely happened was this:
When I was around twelve years-old, our house was foreclosed on, and we had a garage sale to get rid of many of our belongings. So I imagine the book was either sold or donated, and in time, it happened to end up in a classroom at the school where my mother worked, and back in my possession.
In 2013, I saw the book and knew it meant something very important when I learned about its strange return. So I held onto it, and after all this time I finally know why it came back to me.
I didn’t remember the book or the story at all, but when I turned to an illustration where death sits at the bedside of a Chinese emperor, it felt as though I was seeing through the eyes of a very old version of myself, and it was very deja-vu-ish.
In short, the fairy tale is about a plain, gray nightingale who’s birdsong was so beloved by all of the Chinese empire that it was given an official post in the emperor’s court. But shortly thereafter, the emperor is sent a gift: an artificial nightingale made of gold and jewels, that is meant to resemble the real nightingale, even singing the real nightingale’s melody. The people and the emperor come to value the artificial bird more, seeing it as superior to the real nightingale. They knew ahead of time what it would sing and besides, it was prettier to look at. The real nightingale was forgotten and eventually banished from the empire, so it returned to its home in the woods. But in the time, the fake bird breaks and can only sing once a year, if that, and it becomes an accessory with no real function. The emperor later falls ill and is tortured by the pursuit of death at his bedside, so the nightingale returns to sing him a song of comfort and hope, and this song conquers death and brings the emperor back to life.
You’ll find no more authentic photograph of me than this: smiling on the outside, struggling within.
It is the best photograph of me in existence due to the fact that it is so indicative of my inner strength and resilience―qualities I have relied upon since this age, up until this very moment.
I have always felt things deeply, but I have also always been very emotionally composed and grounded. As it was told to me, the photographer of this photograph was short and unkind, and if you look closely, you will see tears in my right eye.
However I never let on that he had broken my spirit, and I chose to shine despite it.
This photograph displays one of the most important times in my life.
When I was seventeen years-old, I received an unsolicited piece of mail from the Kansas City Art Institute on the subject of their month-long high school residency program being held the summer of 2002. I applied and got in but I didn’t have the money to cover the tuition, so I wrote letters to various family members asking for help and was able to raise the funds.
Up until that point, drawing was merely an innate skill.
I was born with the ability, it was second nature, I was very good at it, and the understanding that I would be an artist was never a question in anyone’s mind, especially not my own. However my intention was to use it practically. At one point I wanted to design cars and at another point I considered fashion―vocations with a clear, “useful” trajectory. But in Kansas City I was introduced to idea of art as a mode of self-expression.
It had never occurred to me to draw myself, to be my own subject, but it was there that I drew my first self-portraits. I painted my first plein-air landscape in oil. I did nude figure drawing (which my mother was appalled to find out about later).
I met kids so incredibly different than the ones I was stuck with in my small, rural hometown―they were so cultured and cool and knowledgeable, and I guess, like me, or what I aspired to be. My art teachers were nurturing and inspiring and strange―and I can honestly say the experience was more beneficial to me than the four years of my undergraduate arts education, which only served to create a great creative block within me that I still haven’t quiet undone.
The experience opened me up to a new (to me) idea of what being an artist could mean. And it made me realize that not only did I have a voice, but that I had a lot to say.
Why even bring up two pads of watercolor paper?
Because they remind me of the grand disillusionment I haven’t been able to shake since my undergraduate arts education. I left it completely disgusted with the art world and its players, so much so that halfway through I began taking writing classes and went on to pursue that instead.
The openness and freedom I’d felt in Kansas City was diametrically opposed to the restriction I felt at university. It wasn’t about self-expression anymore, it was about being a product. And as a black female, my voice was limited to what was expected of me―basically, going on and on about race is the niche the art world had carved out for me and I wasn’t interested in that at all (I’m exaggerating, but you know). I also wasn’t interested in politics or kissing anyone’s ass.
Since then, I’ve bought art supplies here and there trying to find that childhood passion for it again. And people always ask me if I still draw―which only makes me go out and buy more paper, more paint, and more brushes, only to use them once or twice and never again.
But since I’ve been home in this divinely-orchestrated purgatory I can’t seem to escape, I have found that passion, just not in the way I expected to.
I was always so focused on 2D work, and never interested in much else. But lately I’ve been focusing on 3D and it has been great fun for me because I don’t really know what I’m doing. No cerebral concepts, no artist statements, no point, just doing random things as I did as a child, because I fucking want to.
Here are more random items that I am tired to talk about. But I wanted you to see them anyway:
“The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady” that I got in Spain that belonged to my ex-husband’s mother. A watch that was a birthday present from my former brother-in-law and his wife. A drum I bought from a nice man in Ecuador. A jade pipe. A rattle I got at the National Museum Of The American Indian. A Cherokee smudge fan I got at Stick, Stone, and Bone. A wooden box from some hipster store in Bushwick and a deck of tarot cards I put inside. Red boots made by a shoe company I used to do copywriting for. Some boots I bought probably because of my obsession with Penny Dreadful. I have several books on plants, herbs, and indigenous peoples at-large, but here are two. Not pictured are photos, student loan documents, some dresses and my motherfucking Adidas windbreaker (that is actually a bit too big for me now).
“Travel far enough, you meet yourself.”― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas