Approximately 5 months ago I lost a very important friend named Elizabeth. Elizabeth was an artist. I first entered her world as a co-teacher during the teaching certification program at Tyler School of Art in 2005. Twelve years later Elizabeth’s friendship has extended my friendship family, as the people that surrounded her in life celebrated birthdays, marriages, retirements and the birth of children/grand-children. As a teacher, she was warm and welcoming giving me the chance to teach personal lessons, walking me through daily responsibilities and showing me how to build a relationship with students. She always stressed the importance of packing a full and balanced lunch just in case you had to stay late or share with someone in need. As an artist, Elizabeth was knowledgeable of materials and was great at technique – especially when working with small items that required little hooks or trimmings. Elizabeth shared with me her silly escapades and how to handle life always ending stories with a shrug and a smirky smile. I often laughed long and loud in her company.
Twelve years later, I found myself without Elizabeth and invited, at the request of her family, to help clean out her home. Elizabeth, lived in a small suburban area outside of Philadelphia. Her home was a traditional three bedroom house with a main floor consisting of a living area, dining room and kitchen. A built-in bookshelf unit, cozy sun-room and eclectic furniture provided ample space to hold and categorize her many everyday objects. I met Elizabeth’s and my mutual friend Tania there to share in an intimate dialogue as we took stock and went through her curious collections. How do the things left behind represent a person? How can we as both friends and artists recognize the mark left by her life?
The Artist’s Curiosities
“In her home, Elizabeth’s objects were placed according to a logic that made sense to her. I needed them to stay that way. Objects were sometimes placed inside of other objects out of serendipity, or to make a visual pun. We knew her fascination with collecting well. – T. O’Donnell
Tania (T)– Entering Elizabeth’s house soon after she passed, I had this desire to turn her home into a visual museum in my head. Do you remember, the first time we entered? Her items were all still in place.
Sarah (S)– Yes. Her large furniture and storage items were as they had always been. I think the smaller movable things, like books, dishes, food, and donations were already packed up or shuffled around. To me, it felt as if we were helping her move out.
(T) I was given her California Case or Printmaker Case Drawer, I’m not sure if that’s really what it’s called. It held the small items, oddities and buttons she had collected. Everything, in that case, is where she put it. Right away, it was like having an “Elizabeth Museum.” I wanted the whole house preserved, but I know that can’t be. Her precious collection case was untouched, even the dust was in place. I wanted something of hers to stay assembled and it became the one thing that brought me satisfaction.
I didn’t like the feeling of ‘taking things apart’. For instance, removing the glasses from her cabinet disturbed me. It felt like I was unknitting our connection and unmaking her personal space. But, there was also a voice that said I was taking the glasses to toast her life. I wouldn’t have felt that way about the objects if I hadn’t personally removed them.
(S) Yeah, that box was always a talking point with visitors. I remember it had buttons, which provided many of my coats with mix-matched fasteners. It even held the dollar coins from when she finished tutoring my son in math.
That case was just one of the many collections she had. I’ve seen two separate rock collections, shoes, shoe images, baskets, hats and the drawer of eye-glasses from her dad’s doctors office. I received her box of bugs, termed the ‘Victoria’s Secret box’ by way of her friend, Michael. It contained a variety of winged insects including bee/wasp, cicada casings, a grasshopper, roaches and a fish skull. I used it for a project in my class and realized how sensitive I was about the students mishandling it.
(T) Yes, I totally get it. Having a friendship with Elizabeth allowed me to feel validated about my childhood curiosities and current collections. Her need to collect and sort lead to her own personal enjoyment and forced narratives. Silly, goofy or whimsical, it never mattered to Elizabeth that people knew about that the part of her. Growing up, I was made to feel obsessive but she was okay with that as an adult, which allowed me to be okay with it.
(S) I remember I returned back a second time to her house to pick up her shelf-unit. The house was pretty empty at that point. When you lose someone so fast, you are still waiting for a call or text to come through. Forever is the inability to reach her. Returning to her house was a way for me to communicate with her. For a moment I felt that conversation through her things.
The Artist as Giver
“That act of categorizing also allows you to feel some sort of control as adults. Her dying was the greatest loss of control. At that point, we all became witnesses to what was happening”. -T. O’Donnell
(S) Being her friend was the hardest position to be in. You’re not the immediate family, but you want to be. And the badges that were passed out at her funeral were…I don’t know. You can respond.
(T) It was mind-blowing. She had Christmas presents for all of us and embroidered badges. Her hand stitching the badges for us during her illness shows the caring she had for others. I try to do this with my artwork, but she applied it to her life.
(S) I knew the badges were being made. I knew that people would receive them but I didn’t know what the response would be, even from me. To see that each badge had a personalized symbol and once you turned the pin over it read “hero.” It was the bravest gesture. I’ve never received something like that. She was the hero. We were just doing what friends are supposed to do.
(T) Me too. Elizabeth put a clock on mine. I was thinking about that ever since I received it. I don’t spend the time with people that I should. It’s hard for me to prioritize what is important. And then my day is over and I haven’t spent any time with people. She wanted me to pay attention to that.
(S) Mine is a bird. I know it is about my fear of flying and at the same time about the relationship that I have with my kids. I have always referred to them as birds. I want them to fly or conquer the world. We had a conversation about that on several occasions.
(T) As younger teachers, Elizabeth became our matriarch. Before Diane, Michelle, and Barb retired the department had a sisterly relationship. When Dan, our colleague, moved on too, and she became the “go-to” person. She went from being my mentor to keeping track and taking care of me. I remember on Mike’s first day of teaching he looked nervous at lunch so she decided to help him relax and understand his new colleagues: She pulled out the drinking straws and taught him how to play his armpit as an “instrument” to make fart noises. She followed with “yup, all along your teachers have just been farting around”. (Laughter ensues!)
Artist as a Curator
In visual art, you take it all in at once. Then you slow down and you can look again. When you saw Elizabeth’s basement, you saw her life right away. You got a quick glance of her life by just looking at the multitude of items in the basement. -T O’Donnell
(S) Downstairs in the basement, I felt like the collection of art was “remains”. There was a collection of student work, her personal subject matter that we knew of – like her buttons, and then artwork throughout the years. What grouping of images do you remember? What were you surprised she had?
(T) I was surprised by how many figurative works she had. I didn’t know that she had that much experience with the figure. Her volume of work was also surprising. You could feel her energy still in the marks even though she was gone.
When you recognize the marks of a particular artist, it is like understanding your student’s character. With Elizabeth’s work, you see the same marks in her color fields as you see in her landscapes. There was an immediate need to hold on and in that act she was present. I didn’t want to leave.
(S) Yes. I remember us trying to make groupings of her works. We collected some teaching examples for our classrooms, we grabbed some items for student giveaway. The final group was of personal work we assigned each to one of her friends. We decided that would be a great holiday gift.
(T) Michelle did text me to tell me how special it was to receive the landscape.
(S) Yes, Christy, Dan, Heidi and Tina, our previous colleagues, and newest members of the high school staff, were all very pleased to receive a work of art by Elizabeth.
(T) The one piece I took was a circle, dot, and grid piece. I’d never seen artwork from her like that before. I don’t know if it was a 2-Design class she took or just the exploration of an idea that was never fully developed. But it showed me a different part of her brain.
After reflecting on our conversation, I realized just how Elizabeth’s objects were a representation of her spirit and her space. The gathering of Elizabeth’s things truly defined her quirky personality. I now understand how these remnants held her essence as an artist and as my friend. “Enjoy Your Time”, were the last words she said to Katie and me as we left her house.