2008 Artist Statement//Grace Disguised
In January 1999 my mom was diagnosed with gliosarcoma, a rare malignant brain tumor projected to take her life within six months. As I ventured into the final semester of my eighth grade year, she began intense chemotherapy and radiation following a craniotomy surgical operation to remove the tumor. Miraculously the tumor remained stable four months shy of five years. In August 2005, the start of my second year in college, doctors reported the stomach-dropping news of tumor re-growth. She quickly underwent treatment called gamma-knife radiation.
In the years that followed she began to face radiation necrosis as a result of her 1999 treatments. The necrosis, or death of brain tissue, caused her major physical handicaps and hindrances in communication and mental awareness. That August marked the reluctant yet inescapable first plunge into darkness that has characterized the past three years of my life and the lives of my family members. Paradoxically, that dark plunge has been full of light. In Grace Disguised, named after a book by Jerry Sittser, I seek to convey that which I once thought mutually exclusive—pain and joy—through photography, drawing, and digital manipulation. My intention is that the viewer would come to understand my reason for hope and seize it for themselves in the midst of their own loss.
In order to reflect on loss I must first visually tell my story with documentary photography. I have documented either an object or scene from daily life that the viewer might recall their own suffering, whether it be cancer, divorce, unemployment, abuse, or foiled dreams. Though the content is somber, I chose a lively color pallet and varying facial expresses from contented to pensive or sad to reveal the partnership between grace and pain. It is most often not in moments of prosperity that we are forced to wrestle the question of a creator‘s existence and reconcile his goodness and sovereignty with suffering, but in moments of agony; I continue to find myself in that predicament. I have never felt so broken, yet I have never felt so whole and secured by God’s promised plan to use my loss for gain.
The paradox is that he is using pain to prove he is more than a crutch; to reorient my priorities on eternal matters; to give me perspective on the pettiness of wealth, the American dream, and the applause of important people; to make me more patient and sensitive and sincere; to teach me that loving people means putting their needs before my own; to teach me to spend my life like it's running out; to teach me true thanksgiving; and most rewardingly, God's empathy in pain is making me love him more.
The remaining prints aspire to remember the past and compare it to the present documentary photos. They force the viewer to observe the obvious differences that years and suffering have brought on. Some prints deal with the theme of the past in a more metaphoric way. They were born out of the idea that happiness would be found if I could reverse my circumstances to an earlier time absent of pain. Like my wishes, I attempt to recreate the past in these pieces.
A year ago, at the height of these bleak reflections, I began reading A Grace Disguised. Sittser lost his wife, youngest child, and mother in one fatal car accident. In the book he expresses similar desires to regain what he lost. He explains that the problem with this desire, if it were miraculously fulfilled, is that we would eventually lose what we regain all over again. No matter the miracle, death ultimately wins by ending our lives. These recreation photographs, like a miracle’s temporal and inadequate solution to death, inadequately recreate the past. The lighting, the positioning, the facial expressions, and even the people are not the same. These pieces manifest the powerlessness we feel beneath the conquering hand of death.
Sittser went on to explain that we need not a miracle of reversing the clock, but altogether new life: a resurrection forever and assuredly defeating death. As far as I know, Jesus of Nazareth is the only historical figure believed to have resurrected. His resurrection snatched the victory out of death’s hand that we might place our hope on the other side of the grave. As a Christian, inexhaustible joy and courage in pain is found in recognizing that my circumstances are temporary and small compared to resurrecting into a place forever absent of sorrow, wheelchairs, medicine cabinets, brain tumors, and funerals.
I know that every viewer, and every human for that matter, has or will experience varying degrees of loss. The fact that we live in a fallen world means that suffering is as much apart of life as breathing. In creating art reflecting my suffering, I feel humbled at the thought of the hardships belonging to viewers that supersede my hardships. The goal of my art is not to naively demean your loss by declaring it no big deal in light of eternity or its gains, because it is a very big deal. The good that has come from my suffering does not justify nor erase the badness of my mom’s tumor, nor does it make it something I wish on another. Pain and grace are surely related, but they are not interchangeable.
The goal of my art is to implore you, and to remind me, to make the most of loss. Our response to it and perspective on it dictates the kind of impact it will have on us; whether or not it will be destruction, or grace in disguise.