The project that evolved during my sabbatical year was a set of prints related to the birth of our second child. The images usually begin with photographs that are scanned into the computer and then altered and combined with other photographic images. I took the resulting computer files to Wichita and had them put onto a photographic negative, which could then be printed.
Talking about the process is relatively easy in art. Figuring out what to say about the image's content is much more difficult. I always hope this kind of discussion is like an interview on Fresh Air, one of National Public Radio's talk shows. Hopefully the conversation is interesting and maybe it reveals something, but it is not really essential to your understanding of the book discussed, or in this case, the art.
I have a level of mistrust for what I say about art, because the process of working in the studio is so different from the process of going back later and trying to figure out what to say. It is legitimate, maybe even better, to decide that what is communicated is in the artwork in the gallery and talking about it is unnecessary, but I do not do that. I hope I can say something useful to make connections between a viewer and the art. I would just suggest you critique what you hear even more than what
Parenting has given me a somewhat stronger orientation towards the future than what I would have had before. That is particularly intense waiting for the birth of a child because we had so little information to go on. All we knew was that our child, our second after Seth, was a girl and that she had Down Syndrome. And there was a significant level of denial of even that. It was easy to think "Maybe there was a mistake. Maybe she will be a mosaic (a rare form of Down Syndrome where only a percentage of the body's cells are affected). She is so active in the womb. Her measurements seem right on and so on." We named Emily quite a while before she was born, probably to add another piece of information to what little we had, to try to diminish the impact of the fear of what we knew.
The first series of prints grew out of our knowledge of Emily at that time. They begin with scans of an amniocentesis report and a sonogram. The amniocentesis image shows the three chromosomes in what is usually a pair in the 21st position. That is what causes Down syndrome.
The next set of images is a way of considering the experience of seeing lots of statistical information about my children: height-age, weight-age, head circumference -age, etc. A natural response includes at least a little anxiety, wondering if your child will be normal. In a less structured way, comparing your child or yourself with the performance of others never ends. I think most of my life, in things people measure, I've found myself on the side of the bell curve where people want to be. For most of Emily's life, again, for things people measure, she will be on the side people don't usually choose. Of course, what people choose to measure is a part of why that is true. I have been fortunate, for example, that not many people have their ability to dance measured and Emily's test scores are lower because cuteness and warmth are not considered important developmental indices.
Comparing similar information and experience in a general way and specific physiological data statistically are valuable tools, but that information is often used as a some kind of measure of the child's success. Kris and I do that tooEmily walked at 18 months, something a friend who is a physical therapist had not seen in the 5 years she had been working with Down syndrome children. That makes us proud of her. Pride is not a bad thing, but the flip side is that another child is walking later than any other child the same therapist has seen and that child is trying just as hard and worth every bit as much as anyone else.
Used inappropriately comparisons can simplify a situation in a way that distorts it. Much of the process of perception, of making sense of the experience of life, is finding order. That need is strong enough that I think we are sometimes tempted to see a system or structure as less complex than it is. IQ does not measure the contribution an individual can make to her world, not even the potential for that contribution. I'm sure my colleagues in the Psychology Department are not arguing with that. The problem is that I don't believe it, or at least I don't function as if it is true. Emily is doing wonderful things, but another boy at the childcare center talked more than she does 9 months ago and sometimes that is discouraging. My sense of how Emily is doing can vary tremendously, depending on how I orient my thinking.
What I choose as my ideal to which I compare children and how I construct those comparisons can make a big difference in what I think of them. The process can be useful or it can generate serious misconceptions.
A colleague and I were talking about the piece with the chromosome triplet shown in red (#19) last year at a Faculty Show and I was trying to describe a kind of reversal in my work. Earlier sculpture was always about noble ideals using a rough/coarse form. In contrast, this form is slick, glowing sensual, but it is the alteration that causes Down Syndromean evil. Even then I would not have used the term evil. I probably struggled to find a good word and tried a few: negative, bad, something ugly, but they are all wrong.
I don't know what a New Earth and New Heaven will be like. But if God will be with us, if he will wipe every tear from our eyes, take away death and mourning and crying and pain, I would have surely thought that Down syndrome would also go. But now it seems to me the Jesus who says heaven belongs to children will really ask me to change more than he asks Emily to. She is probably closer, somehow to heaven than I am. That is not to make her fundamentally different than me. Saying that negates all the real gifts she has to offer. She will also struggle with good and bad and self-centeredness and all the rest, but I do think she is in some kind of privileged position. And I think I need to learn from her. That doesn't mean using my intellect to think about her, it means learning what she knows. I need to know, what she knows and I can only do that by knowing her well.
This work came out of a unique timeI don't think I will be able to do a series about Down syndrome again, at least not in the same way. The significance of Down syndrome in my understanding of Emily is decreasing as other qualities' become more significant. When we used to go to Dillons I would think about what people thought of the man with the Down syndrome child, or what they thought about the child. Now that may be part of my consciousness, but I am at least not often aware of it. There are still experiences that bring that part of who she is out, and I am sure many more of those are still to come, but usually she is Emily, who climbs on everything and gets ear infections like her brother and wants to be held at my side and not on my chest.
I would like to especially thank Jean Janzen, Raylene Hinz-Penner, and Jeff Gundy for the poems they have contributed to this exhibit. I wrote each of them, telling them about some of the ideas I thought might be somewhere in the series of prints I was working on, asking them if they would be willing to send poetry they thought worked with similar thoughts. The work they sent adds tremendous richness to this experience for me.
One of the issues that is constant in my art is the question of what is holy. I think that question is embedded in some way in all of the images here (verbal and visual). I treasure the momentary experiences of the sublime. And I think I could set Emily up as the Indigo Bunting in Jeff's poem, a gift, maybe a gift we miss. That would be legitimate. But I actually think that she is a grackle, just like I am. Still somehow God is here and uses us grackles to do holy work.