Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Viola Arnold Memorial Postcard Project

After my mother died I decided to continue sending daily postcards in her memory. Each of her 11 closest relatives (2 children, 3 children-in-law, five grandchildren, one great-grandchild) got a month of postcards. My sister, who had been Mom’s daily caregiver, got two months of cards. At the end of each month, I asked the recipient to send a postcard to a friend in memory of Mom.

While Mom was happy to receive random cards and messages, I thought I needed a little more intellectual rigor in what I sent to other family members – after all, who but a mother could sustain interest over a period of years in what her darling fixed for dinner? So I decided to have a theme every month.

January’s theme was “Art By People I Know.” February’s was “The World (Book) of the 70s.” I have a set of World Books bought in the 70s when my kids were little -- and what is so obsolete as a 30-year-old hard-copy encyclopedia? I decided I was willing to cannibalize it for art, and found 28 articles on old technology, current events that had yet to be upended by history, and downright dumb things, like the lavishly illustrated and totally imaginary depiction of interplanetary space travel, which would be happening any day now, or so the World Book said.

March was called “Room and Board,” a collection of old cards from hotels, motels and restaurants.

In April, however, I fastened on a new approach, which took vigorous root and, I think it’s safe to say, changed my life as an artist. That approach was to start carrying my camera on my daily walks, in search of photos for the monthly theme. April’s theme was “Pathetic Landscaping,” and it turned out to be easier than one might hope to find 30 really striking examples! Those cards went to my brother-in-law, an avid gardener whose own landscaping is the antithesis of pathetic.

So what was so life-changing about this perfectly ordinary concept? I learned that my style of photography is not to search for beauty or grandeur – it’s to look for and document small themes and ironies in ordinary surroundings. Four weeks of keeping an eye out for pathetic landscaping, for instance, made me notice how many people in one part of town chose the same lawn ornament.

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