Photo of the Year

“She emerges three-dimensional from the flat, plaster setting as though breaking through water—though whether she is coming up or going under is unclear. Her position is contrapposto, arms raised as though awaiting the click of my camera. The energy of her nude body is wound tight and ready for release. Her next move is a mystery; only she knows if another step, a sweep, or even a leap will follow this pose. Perhaps she would dance from this very exhibit space if there were no glass walls to hold her back. I do not know how long I have been standing here, collecting angle after angle of the story through which she is moving. She does not notice me. Her body faces mine, but her head is turned, tucked away in its 2-D/3-D silhouette. Her face is soft and gentle, pensive beneath a coiled crown, and strategically poised above a strong torso and defined legs. To me, her pose holds a willingness to be looked at, to be seen. It is an invitation that draws my eye to certain curves, a summons to linger over her gestures. It allows my mind to imagine the rest of her dance as though I might contribute to the story that she has already written, one that will continue after we have both moved on. I want to know who she is. In whose likeness has she been molded?  Is she a figure model, a celebrity, a faceless form drawn from Augusta Savage’s imagination? Could she be Savage herself, characterized through a fantastic self-portrait? Must she be anyone at all? Can she be a Female Dancer without a name? I love that I do not know.”

A month ago, I thought this would be it. This was the photo that could summarize the past two semesters. It captured the triumphs; the growing pains; the shaky first steps; the life—less stiff, but still new—that I’m slowly breaking in.

With this photo, I wrote a promising first seminar paper. I found a desire to engage other Black creative work with my own, a desire that I will continue to fuel as I go. I used the voice I knew I had, to advocate a visibility I didn’t know I needed.

Because of this photo, I’ve started to unpack a brilliance that I have carried around for years but was too afraid to claim. Before, I would kick it behind bigger flaws. I’d try to crush it beneath a heavier insecurity. Whatever that is, it ain’t mine. Now, it has at least been unearthed, partially opened, tentatively displayed, piece by piece. It can be mine.

A month from now, I will have completed my first year of graduate school. I will have found new academic interests, a result of finishing four seminars. After carrying out these last few weeks of French 2 instruction, I will have polished two more steppingstones on the path toward a full teaching philosophy. In a month, I will have hopefully survived Year One.

Today, my biggest, worst, most irrational fears suddenly seem rational. I have done nothing but stare at a growing pile of unfinished work. I am stressed beyond belief, a carefully molded mess. I want to go home. I want to crumble. I have no control over the next 24 hours, the next 24 days. I over-analyze every bodily ache and twinge. I am afraid to breathe too deeply. In case, one day, I can’t.

***

I exist from within a shroud of anxiety. Usually, my shroud is manageable. I move with it; I look through it. It is a wisp on good days and a cloud on bad days. Right now, it is a brick wall. I am cement.

Last night, I slept for exactly 4 hours and 56 minutes. I have days left of work to do before my next double-teaching day, which will inevitably turn into a three-hour seminar night. It is 9:30 pm and I’ve only eaten a scoop of ice cream and a piece of chocolate. I am behind on…everything. Was I supposed to have completed the book or the film by class this week…? I just tried to make tea but broke the mug. I want to burn this desk chair. I have SO much grading left. It just keeps coming. My shoulders are next to my ears.

None of that is particularly new. It has been my life for the past eight months. Between those pockets of stress, I have always counted on reassuring office-hour sessions with mentors and professors. I looked forward to holidays spent at home with family, I’ve found solace in meals with the colleagues that have become dear friends. All of those things are still a click away, technically. But the pockets are now envelopes. I can’t scale this wall. I can’t ask for a hug. I have never, ever wanted to not know if I’d see my family again.

The days have blended together, but there are only two of them. I either push through gracefully or I can’t see through my tears. I am either a grad student or an instructor, often both but seldom human. I am either calmly aware of my family’s and my good health, or warily calm as I wait for a phone call, a tickle in my throat. I pray when I inhale and disinfect as I exhale. On most days, I can keep it at bay with a little bleach, half an onion, and a prayer. On others, I’m afraid to leave my room. If I do, it might find me.

There is ample guilt in my lungs. I have a roof safely above me—two, if you count my family home. There is food in the fridge. I live within walking distance of Walmart, but I can afford to keep avoiding it. I still got paid at the end of March. My humble, grad-student savings are savings, nonetheless. My family has not been too put out; working from home was always doable. I can go for long walks without running into anyone. I have hobbies, chores, grad school to distract me.

Right now, I can keep on breathing as though this virus can’t touch me. Unless it does, I have to. I have to finish preparing 34 French 2 students for French 3, I have to write that critical engagement, I have to work on that presentation for next week. There still a month left in the semester. An entire month of sliding past due dates and trying to annotate PDF readings and struggling to sit still for three hours, four nights a week, in front of two laptops. An entire month of fervent prayers that my family, friends, colleagues might stay healthy. An entire month of failing to adjust Canvas due dates in time and frantically recording French lessons several hours too late and losing track what I’m even talking about if I ever get this far into a sentence. An entire month of bracing for the “entire month” after that.

 I hate that I do not know.

***

“My main attachment to this photo is that it is mine. I captured it, thought on it for many days, stressed over it in many languages. I was uncertain about which image to “meet”—this photo or the artwork therein —before ultimately deciding on both. I also used this double image to anchor a critical analysis of the ways in which the white male and Black female gazes can interpret—and misinterpret—the black female body. I imagine that I will return to that topic. I saw the Female Dancer after learning that she was birthed by the mind and hands of an iconic Black artist who had not been a known icon to me. Thus, it was impossible to miss certain physical features (the full lips, fuller hips, tight hair coils) that I also carry, ones that are otherwise hard to get “right.” As for the photo itself, I did not originally plan to create an image around this image. Savage’s Female Dancer already transcends the concept of image-making in that she has created a multi-dimensional likeness of a nude female body. As viewers, we are left to decide what we see in this image, its meaning, even the being—to some degree. During her career, Augusta Savage primarily created busts and sculptures of Black people. Her work mostly comprised likenesses of models, but she was known to accept commissions from friends and colleagues who wanted busts and sculptures of themselves. Many details in this low relief strongly suggest it is yet another recreation of a black body.  If so, I have added another dimension of Blackness to Savage’s original work. This photo is the creative product of a Black woman, who has observed the work of a fellow Black woman, who has created the likeness of another Black woman. I hope to learn if Savage’s intention was to make an image of the black female body, or if this piece was sculpted with a specific black female body in mind. That question, like this Female Dancer, is doubly encased in plaster and glass.”

***

I’m trapped.

I fell asleep and missed the extended deadline.

Am I on the come-up, or do I have to go under first?

No, I didn’t read that book, but for the record: I REALLY wanted to.

Everyone is watching me.

Sorry, can I take that tutorial back? I did it wrong.

I don’t know this dance.

Are we allowed to exist?

I understand her now.            

***

Penn State announced the switch to remote learning on 11 March, smack in the middle of Spring Break. I don’t think I’ve taken a full, belly-deep breath since then. I only checked two items off my vacation to-do list. I haven’t even glanced at Female Dancer.

One of my goals was to go to Lupita’s with my friends, as many times as we could stomach. I wish I’d gone one more time. I wish I’d stopped to truly savor that last lamb taco.

Another goal was to finally decorate my room with pictures I set aside months ago but never found the time to put up. With a call home and a lot of math, I did it. By 13 March, my many photos had been divided into four themed displays.

The art-themed corner is a moon-shaped arrangement of 17 photos.

The Europe-themed wall consists of 22 photos in the shape of a star.

My friends smile at me from the basket-weaving pattern by my bedroom door.

And right next to me, watching me work and urging me to keep going, is my family.

2 Replies to “Photo of the Year”

  1. This is such a beautiful post, JoAnn, and for what it’s worth, most of the remote teachers I know are feeling the same: flats of depressed procrastination, jolts of guilt and wild activity. I know that describes me! Hang in there. Also: “I pray when I inhale and disinfect as I exhale”–that captures it so perfectly.

    Like

  2. Hi JoAnn-So good to hear from you. This is very compelling reading. Your stress comes thru load and clear, bordering on frantic. You obviously push yourself very hard to do perfect work on every task. I line about not reading the book was a welcome relief. I hope Penn State cuts you some slack during this difficult time of isolation.

    About Savage’s piece: I think the artist is making a reference to classical sculptures in which women (and men) were shown as perfect beings — the human body in it’s most toned and shapely state. Maybe she’s commenting that POC should rightly be included in art that presents the idealized human form. I don’t know I’m just guessing. In those classical sculptures, women are posed in calm positions, unless they’re fleeing a rapist or something. Savage’s woman is clearly energetic and moving. The tension throughout her form is amazing. Maybe she was making a statement by creating this energetic woman.

    We are hunkered down in LA. Moved here a year ago when hubby got a great new job. We are in a very quiet neighborhood. Few people on the street normally and we’re a mile from the ocean. So the virus feels far far away. Still we’re being super careful. I’m cutting patterns for masks to that are getting donating to a hospital and Meals on Wheels.

    I’m flattered that you call my work with you so fondly! I’m still doing essay work in private practice and working with a boarding school in Tanzania and a nonprofit here in LA pro bono. Happy to be in the sunshine but a miss the green haze over Braddock Road in the early spring.

    Please just breathe – In 1,2,3,4,5. Out 5,4,3,2,1. Eat protein and drink chocolate milk. Much love, Karen

    Liked by 1 person

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