MEMORIES AND MIRRORS         NARRATIVE PHOTOWORKS 1982--2004

        Curaotor's Essay by Carole Anne Slatkin



I think that it is particularly appropriate that we are gathered here on Labor Day weekend to honor a photographer the work of whose hands, mind, and heart celebrates the labor of others. When I first met Ellen, saw her photo-narratives, heard about her settlement house work, and began to understand something about her commitments and her vision, about how she sees, and how she has caused her community action work and her photographic pieces to inform each other in a rich and potent way, I was put in mind of some lines of Robert Frost:

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

I want to express my deep gratitude to Ellen for bringing to us her particular passion for the life that pulses through those who build -- build relationships, buildings, works of art, communities -- the workers as well as those whose connections with the work of building have in some way been severed. Ellen has taken the notion that, in this day and age, "if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention" and concretized it by presenting to us artfully, with dignity, and with unusual compassion those people, many unknown, some well-known, who have built things, working with actual or metaphorical concrete and mortar. She focuses on the way both the great and humble among us stitch our lives together, the ever-shifting ways in which we bear witness to our own experiences and those of others. Through her works of community action and her works of art, Ellen helps us think about our obligation to feed each other's hunger: for food, shelter, love, understanding, recognition and creating. She helps us face unblinkingly and honestly both the individual and the collective memories that permeate our unconsciousness, as well as our conscious thoughts, at every moment. And she reminds us that none of us can really be considered tabula rasa; that, to paraphrase the words of the remarkable musical group, Sweet Honey and the Rock, hundreds of decisions made by dozens of people down through the generations have caused each one among us to be alive, to be here today, and to be who we are -- and to all those we owe deep allegiance. And as the same group further reminds us, "for each child that's born a morning star rises and sings to the universe who we are."

Mounting an exhibition is a hugely complex and involved process with myriad details needing attention simultaneously. Having been a grateful participant in this exhibition's coming-to-be, I want to acknowledge and honor those who helped to build every aspect of it:

Edward Brohel, the Director of the Museum, who enthusiastically accepted the idea of having the show, and has facilitated it at every step; Diane Fine, professor of printmaking, book artist, and immediate past Chair of the Art Department, who has guided me with expertise and the deftest touch through the intricacies of bringing an exhibition together; David Driver, Preparator and webmeister, who began to prepare this feast for the eyes before the pictures even arrived at the Museum, and made sure that the presentation of the work -- on the walls and in the elegant website -- would be immediately appealing, and also that art students Michael Shanley and James Juron would graciously see to every finishing detail; Norman Taber, professor of Graphic Design, whose sumptuous brochure integrates the photo-narratives and e. Frances White's deeply insightful text in a seamless piece that exhibits and connects both to the best advantage of each; Robin Brown, College Photographer, now retired after 30 years at SUNY Plattsburgh, who brought her practicality and comforting capacity to be sensible to virtually every decision that went into making the exhibition on these walls a reality; Marjorie Coughlin, Department Administrator, who many times parted the administrative Red Sea and brought me out on the other side, ably and most pleasantly assisted by Alice Jolly; Sue Lezon, professor of Photography, who encouraged both her beginning and her advanced students to engage intensively with Ellen and her work in the classroom setting; Ceil Esposito and Mary Lou Beauharnois, Art Department stalwarts and dear friends, who offer the best moral support anyone could ask for; the Art Museum docents, who, with the skillful training of Marguerite Eisinger, have taken on the responsibility of helping to engage the public with the many-layered subtleties of Ellen's work; and Laura Slatkin, the generative force behind this exhibition, who insisted in the first place that I must give myself the gift of exploring Ellen's pictures and understanding why they deserve a wide audience.

I am deeply grateful, too, to the Art Museum and the Student Association for providing all the resources necessary for Ellen's Visiting Artist Talk, her classroom meetings, and the exhibition itself.

In closing, in celebration of Ellen's achievements, and in honor of all work that minds, hands and hearts produce, I recall Marge Piercy's poem, "To Be of Use":

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

"To be of use" by Marge Piercy C 1973, 1982.
From CIRCLES ON THE WATER C 1982 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and Middlemarsh, Inc. First published in Lunch magazine. Used by permission of Wallace Literary Agency.


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