Lessons from the Past

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Over the past year, I’ve become really interested in using old photos in my artwork. I think it’s a two-fold interest. First, I love exploring antique shops, flea markets and yard sales for old things. And I feel especially drawn to photos, maps, letters, and postcards from the past.Image

There’s something about sifting through boxes or scouring the different booths to find just the right thing…something that makes my heart pitter patter. It’s part Indiana Jones, part Nancy Drew. I’m looking for clues from the past and the messages those long-gone people wanted to leave us.

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Secondly, I love what I can do with all this paper ephemera. I love that I can make something new out of these old elements. I collage with them. I paint over parts of them. But I always leave their faces. So they can live on in my work.

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I feel like these images are miniature time machines that allow us to see into the past–what were these people wearing, where were they going, who were they with? Sometimes, I like to make up stories about their lives and imagine what they were like. Was this couple happy? Did they plan on living together forever? Did they? Who lived out their dreams? Whose were cut short? What did these women do on a daily basis? Did they feel free or confined? What would they be like if they lived today?

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I also really enjoy seeing pictures of my neighborhood from the early 1900’s. Seeing how the streets have changed and the businesses have evolved is really amazing. To know that not that long ago, the paved road outside my apartment was nothing but dirt and that horses pulled buggies and ice trucks along the bumpy lane is almost unbelievable. But it shows the fleeting nature of things in the scheme of time. Everything changes.

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There are more lessons to be learned from these photos. Time is precious. We don’t get an infinite number of days. What we do with our time is who we are. And what we make–our children, our writing, our art, our contributions to bettering the world–will one day be all that is left. That and some old, yellowed photographs.

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It reminds me of Robin Williams’ character, Professor Keating, in Dead Poet’s Society. He takes his students into the hallway where black and white photographs of alumni are housed in glass cases with trophies and awards from the past. He urges the students to listen closely to what the alumni boys are saying. As his students lean in to “hear” the photos, Mr. Keating whispers, “Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” The boys from the past speak to the boys in the present. And they say, “Go for it. Live your life. Make mistakes. But keep on living. And make the most of this beautiful, wonderful, and mysterious life.”

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