Archives, Art, Mortality, Ephemerality, Empathy, Trauma…and Memorials

Longest blog post title ever. Today is Memorial Day – it’s been awhile since I’ve written – and the reason I am writing today is twofold.

Photo from “Steve Gordon, Denver Artist Remembered,” by Lauri Lynnxe Murphy

One: it’s a three-day weekend and for the first time in months, my house is semi-clean and groceries are bought and – even though I have a million things I do still need to do – I am not in a fog of simple carbs and caffeine and anxiety over how behind I am on seemingly everything. Two: I attended a memorial service yesterday/Sunday for Denver artist Steve Gordon.  I never met Steve, though I was somewhat familiar with his work – but I do know one of the people who dedicated herself to his care-taking during the last months of his life, Katie Taft – so I went, for her.

As an archivist, I spend a lot of time thinking about – and with people who are thinking about – their legacies and their mortality. I’m also the child of parents who are/were hyper-aware of mortality; for context, the most recent e-mail from my dad is a detailed update to his medical power of attorney documentation.  My mom died of lung cancer just over 10 years ago. I teach with professors who structure their writing classes around the rhetoric of memorials. You could probably say I’m steeped in an awareness of and, to a degree, am comfortable with talking about, death. I’m amazed I wasn’t goth-ier as a teenager. Still, we’ll see how I feel about it when mortality is closer at hand in my own life.

In any case, Katie and I talked a bit during the service, and she shared that she had been working with Steve to collect some of his materials to donate a time capsule to ArtHyve, a community arts archives that we’re both involved with, which is also how we met. Steve, an artist to the end, chronicled much of the last year of his life in a journal and a series of artworks that are still being released, called End/Stage, some of which is available via BandCamp. In the readings from Gordon’s journal, you hear:

“What do I do? Plan my legacy somehow? What the fuck does that look like? My art? My music? My instruments? Are those my contributions? So be it.”

This quote, independent of context, makes Steve sound far more sanguine about dying than he was – his journal is raw and honest, full of fear and reckoning – it’s beautiful. His musings also made me realize how, probably inevitably, my own personal history and narrative gets into my thoughts and conversations about the intersection of mortality, legacy, and archives. My family’s own history with illness and archival donation comes up a lot; my mother’s chronic illness (diabetes), and then her terminal illness (cancer) is ever-present. I frequently reference my maternal grandmother’s meticulous notebooks when I talk to donors, using them as examples of how personal papers can be used for research and teaching. My mother was born in 1945, and was part of the first generation of Type 1 diabetics for whom the diagnosis was not a death sentence – these notebooks are invaluable to anyone studying what daily life was like for a diabetic in the late 1950s. Gordon’s journaling about alone-ness, loneliness, and facing terminal illness as a single person with no children hit home as well, both in my own life, and in a number of donor relations conversations. I was also reminded of Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez’s amazing presentation on suspended grief and trauma as part of the “Radical Empathy in the Archives” session at the 2017 Society of American Archivists’ annual meeting. All of this is there, in whole or in part, whenever I think about or discuss archival donations. I really do mean it when I say that my main goal is to find the collection its best possible home – sometimes it’s not with any of the archives I’m affiliated with, and that’s ok.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the necessary incompleteness of either art or archives as a documentary record, and also how art and archives, together, as a form of creative inquiry, can memorialize and extend legacy while reckoning with trauma. Art Spiegelman’s Maus is not only an illustration of his father’s experience of the Holocaust, it is also Art’s exploration of his own experience as a child of survivors. Colorado artist Kaitlyn Tucek’s most recent works have engaged with her experience as the mother of a daughter with a serious congenital heart defect. There are countless other examples of people who have taken their broken heart(s) and made it into art, which I love, have always loved.

This brings me back to ArtHyve, its mission, and the community that it aims to represent. Katie will be submitting a time capsule of some of her work, which will live alongside Steve’s, and hopefully many other of their artistic collaborators. She also shared with me that some of her students had made her some folded paper cranes while Steve was sick, and that she was going to burn them in remembrance and commemoration.

So on Memorial Day, I say:

Not all memorials should be permanent.

Not everything should be saved.

Sometimes the best home for a collection isn’t an archives.

Show up for people you love while they’re here, and honor them when they go. ❤