I was at the gallery for the opening and a man who kind of looked down on his luck approached me and asked if he could share something with me. He led me over to one of my paintings that depicts a group of people in an irrigation canal, their faces all turned toward the setting sun. It’s called “Mistaking Every Sunset for the Rapture.” It was an image that emerged from my subconscious. I painted it, hoping I’d understand it, discover the why, and I never did. But the man pointed to the figures in the painting and said, “That’s us. That’s us.” He knew what the work meant; he didn’t need to know why I’d painted it.
I am the daughter of immigrants, and I grew up well aware of the pain that comes with leaving one’s country behind and how it can engender a sort of double-life that dwells in the imagination, wondering what life would have been like if one had stayed. There is no undoing of that trauma of loss, even when there is much to be gained by the sacrifice and arrival at the idea of “a better life.” Immigration is an act of tremendous courage, but it can also be one of devastating consequences.
In the case of El Salvador, an estimated 75,000 people were killed in a twelve-year period, so there was no way of getting away from that violence. Such experiences colored survivors’ worlds by making them somewhat numb to the brutality—poetry helps me capture that dichotomy. After all, how can we use rational terms to explain the brutality of war? How do we explain that life goes on other than by providing images of children playing in the backdrop of cadavers? The answer for me is in poetry.
I spent a month and a half this past summer down in Oxford, Mississippi photographing in different landscapes. And one of the landscapes I ended up photographing was Rowan Oak, which is the William Faulkner estate. And a woman of color, Caroline “Callie” Barr Clark, took care of Faulkner and his family for many generations and had a cabin back behind Rowan Oak. There was the big house and then her cabin. And I was permitted to have models and light and to go into her cabin and shoot and work all over the Faulkner property and bring a new narrative, literally, to that story of Faulkner, Oxford, Ole Miss and all of that.
That is what memories and dreams do. They affect everything. They affect how we face the day and how we interact with one another. So I am interested in working with them. But I like to learn about other people's memories too. Whenever I meet someone, I really want to hear all about them, not just how they see today, but what they carry with them. What memories are they dancing with or trying to get rid of? We are all in this process of trying to release things that we are clinging to, and to hold on to other things that we still need, like traditional medicines. And that is such a human thing.
Geneva Southall, the University of Minnesota musicologist and professor who devoted her professional career to studying Tom and who wrote a three-volume biography about him, argues that Tom was a musical genius along the lines of Mozart but that America could not accept the idea of a black genius in Tom’s lifetime. Of course, we all know that most white people of the nineteenth century believed that they were superior to black people, that we lacked true intelligence, that we were more animal than human. So how could such a populace entertain the idea of a black genius?