Without Words: Portrait (in progress) 2011

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Without Words Display Table: Before and After, Installation and Details.
Blog Entry June 13, 2013

Without Words (2010 /2 011)
An installation and portrait Sylvia Gray.

Business documents and personal letters uncover voices from the past (spanning 3 generations) revealing a moving story of family, and survival (economic and cultural).  It is through the voices from the past that an image of Sylvia Gray emerges.  Approximately 200 personal letters and related documents (645 in total) have been compiled into an interactive story. The documents were recovered from decaying boxes and bags that had gone untouched for many years and were in a state of disrepair.  An installation with an archival display table was built from existing materials to organize and display selected documents. The interactive portrait is still in progress.

Without Words was inspired was by a month long residency at the Elsewhere Collaborative in Greensboro, NC. The building was formerly occupied by Sylvia Gray who purchased it in 1939 with her husband Joe. Together they ran an army surplus company out of the first floor and lived with thier children on the second floor. In 1955 Joe unexpectedly passed away and Sylvia took over the business, expanding the merchandise to include textiles and second hand goods. In the forty years that followed, Sylvia amassed an incredible collection which was one part hoard and one part meticulous archive. Toward the end of her life she battled a cancer that impaired her ability to speak. She continued to work in the store until her death in 1997. You can read her full story here.

At Elsewhere, I was drawn to Sylvia's paper documents, many of which were untouched in disorganized piles or decaying boxes. I am someone who doesn’t throw away cards, letters, written notes, or to-do lists.  They are a diary of who I was, who I knew and how I engaged with my world.  They describe moments, relationships, and exchanges that are lost, and sometimes forgotten.  They give form to who I was.  They keep me from disappearing from myself and hopefully from others. Seeing Sylvia’s paper material stacked in heaps, covered in dusty cardboard triggered my own fear of having my own life amount to nothing but piles of brittle paper and knick knacks that someone will cart off to the trash or the local Goodwill.

I set out to create a portrait of Sylvia that that unfolds through letters, cards, and other material that was generated through personal exchange and simultaneously began the archiving of her life in documents and scraps. After 3 weeks of sifting, sorting and reading- personalities, relationships, and events took form. At times it felt more like a mystery caper, and for this reason, I made a decision to link the documents very close to the order in which they were discovered.

This project would not have been possible without the tireless effort of Kate Schlauch, an amazing collaborator and super sleuth, Ian Montgomery, and George Scheer Elsewhere's Collaborative Director who gave me access to the documents and allowed me to create with personal history the way others create with material objects.

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