Meditation, for Janet Sakamoto
Oil on paper, with cotton twine and found wood, 2016
In the last years of her life, my grandmother often asked if I would help her write her life story. I felt guilty for avoiding her requests, but I also resented her reluctance to talk about the past: when we found her box of old photographs, she didn’t even want to see them—she didn’t really want to remember.
Though I have no difficulty recognizing her face in these images, when I see her smile I imagine a woman lighter and more carefree than the one I have known. I wish I could have known her then. But I know that this is a lie: the photograph makes us long for a memory which has never really been. (Nostalgia.)
The photographic image is purely circumstantial—a shadow suspended—but this is precisely why they are so pleasing (and simple, in fact) to paint: they show a memory already flattened into color and shape. And their truth is made no less clear (to me, at least) by their lack of detail.
I paint these photographs because I want to share them, but also because I want to be close to them: I am drawn to the image of the woman I wish I’d known. But the photograph can never really be held—the image it shows is always at a distance—and looking cannot offer wholeness. Painting doesn’t offer wholeness either, but a least there is the completion of the work itself.
I worry, again, that I am simply being selfish—that I am only using her story in order to tell my own, masking the need to express myself with an excuse of tenderness. But I know this isn’t true, at least not wholly so: how else can I tell her story except through my own words?
I wish that this could be the apology I never gave her—for failing to listen as well as I could have. But I know that words cannot undo the past. The best I can do is to keep asking myself: Is what I am doing necessary? Is it compassionate? Is it helpful?