By Ron Wagner
The figure seems to hover, an apparition just out of full view. “East is east, and west is west…” the voice says. Gazing expressionlessly back at you, is she emerging into the light? Or being pulled into the darkness?
Outlined by a faint frame, this must be a painting. Until you notice the feet. Clearly outside. Is it a doorway? To an even blacker, emptier place? M.K. is her name, and she’s carrying a baby, clutched tightly against her chest. Except it’s not. What’s that? Fur? Round ears? A teddy bear? Is this not a woman after all, but a child?
All the while, a stream of verses plucked from some of the most revered prose of all time are methodically recited. Rudyard Kipling’s The Ballad of East and West becomes William Blake and eventually Shakespeare’s Henry V. Then M.K. is gone, replaced by Ruth, head on hands, surrounded by a sea of empty red chairs as she sits alone in what appears to be a theatre. There’s the voice again, but now clearly speaking for the woman in the picture.
You’ll go on to meet Amber and Maeve and June, Naomi and MAQ. They’re creations of Watkins artists Annalyse Moncrief and Jazmin Lara for their collaborative exhibit I Litter My Walls.
Every photograph is of Lara taken by Moncrief, and it’s Lara’s voice reading text written by Moncrief. The images in the exhibit were coupled with a pair of CD players and headphones, which allowed viewers to listen the audio while reflecting on the visual components.
Moncrief came up with the idea while working on an unrelated project for another class, and what started with a few photographs in Lara’s on-campus apartment sparked by fading late-afternoon light mushroomed into a work that took four months to complete and drew from inspiration from the book Voices from the Attic: Poetry & Fiction from the Women’s Creative Writing Center at Carlow College, Volume II and The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
“We wanted to create these characters that other people could recognize themselves in, and we wanted to leave it ambiguous and we wanted you to have that question of, okay, is this the same person portraying different characters, or are these all different aspects of one person?” Moncrief says. “We really wanted to show these different pieces of personality.”
Ruth is pondering ending a relationship in the safety of solitude. She’s followed by Amber, who is wrestling with unspecified bad news. Maeve is bundled in a coat, looking back at the camera over a stairway railing as she tells a lover she’s leaving for good. June reaches up to open her apartment (or dorm?) mailbox, her mind racing through a series of mundane daily obligations until she is jarred back into the moment by the arrival of an anticipated envelope. Naomi is just a shadow on a wall in failing light, struggling to come to grips with a problem she doesn’t know how to solve, and MAQ is barefoot outside, holding a cigarette and leaning against a pallet propped against a graffiti-covered tin wall as she rages about a sexually aggressive woman, you assume, inside.
“We just started playing around with a camera in her apartment on campus and discovered there was this really neat light happening, and suddenly these stories started emerging,” Moncrief remembers. “It was great because (Jazmin) was willing to direct from the other side of the camera and collaborate on making these personalities happen. And once we got two or three down we started seeing these were all different characters and we started playing off of that.”
None of the seven has been captured in happy moments, and the name—I Litter My Walls—stems from the female character in Gilman’s story, who goes insane in a room and starts to peel the wallpaper off the walls in an attempt free another woman she is convinced is trapped in the patterns.
“It’s a really interesting look at the psyche and how women have been treated historically and just the mental state of being,” Moncrief says. “And we thought it was a really interesting connection to the work itself.”
Moncrief majored in photography, with a focus on book arts, and that urge to express herself artistically through the medium of pictures found an outlet when she teamed with Lara.
“Annalyse had an idea about doing these images. She didn’t really know where she was going to go,” Lara tells. “We were thinking, what are we going to do with these? They’re a lot better than we had originally planned … It wasn’t for any class. It was just the two of us on our own.”
Moncrief met Lara in a digital imaging class after Lara transferred into Watkins from a community college in her native Kansas, and by the time they graduated in May 2017 they were good friends. That comfort level helped with “I Litter My Walls.”
“I was wanting to take pretty intimate photos, and I felt like she and I were pretty comfortable with each other and that would work really well,” Moncrief says. “It was just a happy accident, and things just really jived.”
Though the exhibit has been taken down, Moncrief has uploaded “I Litter My Walls” to YouTube. It can be viewed here.