08 August, 2007

When Your Newborn Dies, Hug Their Custom Photocutout

(Figure 1. Kari-Ruth in Intensive Care ) (Figure 2. Kari-Ruth re-envisioned as a "Lost Baby" photo sculpture)

Even after Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and the seven stages of dying; the establishment of umpteen grief and loss support groups; the politically correct funeral home pamphlets - good people still don’t know what to say to a grieving mother. Oddly enough, what people think is the wrong thing to do (like bringing up the subject) is exactly what the mother pines for. You see, a grieving mother is bursting to talk about losing her baby, even in the face of everyone wishing the day would just erase itself from the calendar.

All this may change, though, with a miraculous, three-dimensional photocutout a mother can give herself, or others can give to the mother. I call it “A Lost Baby.” How these precious personalized photocutouts came to be, how they are teaching etiquette to family, friends and strangers, and how they are connecting mothers with their lost babies, days or even decades after their deaths is at the heart of this story.

Why Photograph A Seriously Ill or Lifeless Baby?

It all begins with a baby in the making 35 years ago; a baby who came into this world and left without a trace - without a photo or even a name on the death certificate (a form of denial at the time, says his mother, Gae-Lynne). If a name was picked out, it evaporated at the sound of her husband’s words, ‘Our baby has died.’ His little body was given to the hospital for study, so there is not even a cemetery plot with his headstone on it.

Gae-Lynne can still hear those words, and they don’t make any more sense today than they did back then. One thing she knows for sure is that she had a “fourth son” who today is very much a part of her life and the life of his brothers. Even the youngest grandchildren know about Baby Stewart and often ask questions about the Boy Who Would Be Uncle. She brings him up in conversation because, well, he’s part of the family history. No question, Gae-Lynne has come a long way since those first two decades, when his short life was not even a subject fit for conversation.

Thirty-five years ago, Gae-Lynne had to beg the nurses to let her see her baby. She asked again and again, and each time was refused. “You don’t want to see him, Mrs. Stewart, ”The baby’s started to turn gray.” Gae-Lynne knows she could have seen past his coloring and seen only his beauty. For seeing him would have made him ‘real’. And oh, how she wished she had a hospital bracelet or a lock of hair, a tangible other than that death certificate.

Today, hospitals routinely let grieving Moms and Dads hold their little ones, bathe and dress them. If the parents don’t take pictures, the nurses do. Sometimes the parents don’t want to take those pictures home after their baby has died, so the hospital puts them in the baby’s records. Once their grief is further along, the parents return to pick up the pictures, or for that lock of hair.

The First “Lost Baby”

The very first Lost Baby I created was for Ruth Brown. It is a photo sculpture of her daughter, Kari-Ruth, fashioned from a dreamscape I made for her. The photo on which it is based is Kari-Ruth lying deathly ill from a brain tumor in her incubator, with breathing tube plainly visible.

Fast forward 15 years, and hospitals are now feeling comfortable about having cameras in the intensive care unit. On the third day of Kari-Ruth’s life, when the prognosis looked grim, Ruth’s husband Randy was encouraged to shoot an entire roll of film of his daughter. Ruth brought in a tiny dress for Kari-Ruth to wear.

Ruth Brown pasted those photos into an album she kept tucked away for years with all the other baby books of her children. But taking it out just made her sad until July of 2007, when she came across a company called Photocutouts.com. Ruth became enthralled about the idea of making custom photo cutouts of all her children to stand on the piano. Al, who makes these personalized photo sculptures, suggested three options to Ruth. He could cut out the picture as is. He could ask a photo restorer to use Photoshop® technology to remove the tube and restore her face. Or he could ask me, a digital artist specializing in custom therapeutic photomontages, to "dreamscape" the photo into a custom photo collage before he makes it into a photo-sculpture. Ruth chose the dreamscaping option.

It was very important to us both that the final image (which would be publicly displayed) find the right balance between camouflaging the unpleasantries and being careful not to squelch the opportunity for tender questions to the mother.

How many days did Kari-Ruth live? What did she die of? What was it like slipping on that beautiful dress, knowing Kari-Ruth would never live to see the picture?

I began by lifting Kari-Ruth into a wishful reality that lays her down on a grassy field that seems to flow right through her wicker basket. On her ankle, I left the hospital bracelet. And quivering over her tiny lips, I placed a butterfly that matches her polka dot dress. The object here was to let the butterfly and the bracelet relay what words could not … that this dreamscape puts the focus squarely on Kari-Ruth and her beautiful life, however short and sweet, instead of on her struggle to live.

Hug a Personalized Photocutout?

When Ruth saw her daughter in that basket and at peace, she told me her heart just melted. She hugged her Lost Baby to her heart and told me: “I never saw my baby in any other setting but in the hospital. Seeing Kari-Ruth outdoors made it kind of a fun picture.” This is true of course; each mother perceives something totally different in her child's dreamscape. In another mother’s hands, the same scene might be spiritual, conveying that her baby is in heaven. To a more pragmatic mother, her baby is "flowing with time." Always though, the custom photo collage artist is a kind of healer.

You see, the grieving mother can’t bear to glance at the original photos. They’re often just too loaded with sorrow and failure rather than the pure soul of the child. Yet if an artist masters an effect where the scene is not only wholesome but transformational and magical, it makes everyone’s eyes light up: the mother, her friends and family, really anyone who sees it on the mantle. Which brings me back to the etiquette of grief, and the courage of such women.

Before Ruth Brown discovered our work with Lost Babies, remember how she was planning to display Kari-Ruth's hospital photo, as is, on the piano? And remember how Gae-Lynne would have liked to do the same, but had no photo? It’s worth noting that both mothers believed the same thing: namely that mothers are proud of their children – all their children - the ones that lived and the one that died. As a mother myself, I too have come to understand that a mother’s pride begins when her child is thriving in her womb. That surge of hormones and nutrients flowing back and forth is as valid as making cookies or going shopping together. For some, it’s the only time they'll ever spend together.

The moral of the story being when a hospital photo is all the memory you have of your stillborn or dying child, I believe it’s ok for the custom photo collage artist to start there with capturing the interior life of that child.

Personalized Photo Collages vs. Photo-Sculptures

Sure, you could frame the hospital photo. Or you could frame the dreamscape. But Al and I discovered that there are two big benefits for creating a 3-dimensional version of the custom photocutout:

A Lost Baby opens a door. A grieving mother’s deepest fear is that she’s going to forget she ever had a baby who died because everyone around her wants her to "get over it." This happens because people think bringing up the subject upsets the mother. But when a Lost Baby is displayed proudly next to its siblings, anyone who comes into your home knows immediately that once upon a time there was another baby. It urges us to ask the good questions like: “Oh, who’s this picture of?” The Lost Baby does it all, with grace and beauty.

A Lost Baby makes the baby’s birth seem more real. Maybe it’s because you can literally hug a Lost Baby if you want to. Would we hug a photo that's in a frame behind glass with sharp corners? Not likely. We’d probably do what we always do: peer intently at the frame, step back, cry, and never touch it. A Lost Baby photosculpture also feels more substantive; it's thicker and curved to follow the shape of the object, which is your baby! So of course, you’re inclined to want to hold it.

A Birthday Photo Gift for Your Lost Baby

Only when Gae-Lynne sat down and read a first person account about another women’s stillborn baby five years after her own baby’s death, did she realize the universal need for women to talk about their grief and loss. And guess what was the biggest epiphany of all? That even if you lost a baby, you’re still a mother! In fact, after that, she felt like writing “Ode to Grieving Mothers Everywhere”:

Did you go through a pregnancy? And through labor?
Did you buy your baby a crib, toys and outfits? Special linens, towels and spoons?
Did you have plans for your baby, just like everyone else?
Did your baby look like a little angel?

Then you’re a mother, darn it, and you’re due a celebration!

After all the cards, flowers and casseroles, it’s up to you, Mommy, to keep the conversation alive. When the first anniversary of your baby’s birth comes around, celebrate the two of you.

In the weeks preceding the anniversary, stand your Lost Baby photocutout in a busy spot in the house, where everybody can see it and say hi as they pass by. On the anniversary, light some candles and make a toast with your husband or partner, girlfriend or sister. If the spirit moves you, go ahead and say, “Wow, what a beautiful baby.” If you’re the concerned husband or girlfriend or sister, go ahead and say something like, “Oh, what a cute dress you put on her.” Or “She was just perfect, wasn’t she?” because these are the things a mother loves to hear. These are the things she’s dying to talk about.

So tell me, if anything was possible, both artistically or technically, and you miscarried or lost your baby. If all you had left of the experience was a hospital photo:
  • What would you do with your deceased child's hospital photo?
  • Would you display it, as a photo, somewhere publicly, where it could be seen by all?
  • Would you transform it into a 3-D photosculpture, or
  • Would you do something entirely different with your deceased child's hospital photo?

26 June, 2007

Thank Sponsors with a Custom Photo Collage Recognition Award

Custom photo collage recognition award commissioned by Special Olympics Atlanta for Publix.
In addition to the four Special Olympic images collaged together, the sky, stadium
floor and filled-to-capacity bleachers were added in by the artist.

Say, you’re the Director of Marketing & Special Events. Or you’re in Philanthropy or the Development Department and in a couple of months you’ll be wrapping up your big annual event. How will you thank your corporate sponsors? You’d love to find something that looks expensive, but isn't -- something that will stand out from all the look-alike awards we see all the time sitting inside a company's Glass Case of Achievement.

Does anybody ever really stop and study a football or bowling trophy? Naaah. The last guy who took a closer look was the guy who won the trophy. As for those walnut boards with the brass engraved plates – maybe they satisfy requirement number one in terms of the shiny brass, but none even come close to meeting requirement number two: artistic design.

Fine Art in a Made-to-Order Award
This is where the magic of a custom photo collage award comes in. Remember the photographer you hired to take candids the day of your sponsored event? Remember how much fun everybody’s having in those pictures? The only problem is, 9 out of 10 photos show people having lots of fun, but one third of those photos are spoiled by somebody scratching their nose or somebody else running in front of the camera.

What if you had an artist cut out the best parts of each photo, optimizing them in terms of color saturation and sharpness and then seamlessly combining all these elements into One Perfect Print? And even if there were missing elements, say an upbeat, blue sky for example, the artist could just retro fit it in! In the end, you’d have an awesome memento with everything your sponsor could possibly want, caught in a single take:

  • Performers caught in unforgettable attitudes
  • Crowds brimming with excitement
  • Your sponsor’s corporate banner fluttering perfectly in the breeze

Good Feelings, Good PR
When a made-to-order recognition award is composed of pictures, what a difference thT makes. Suddenly a newsworthy photograph of a sponsor's special day is elevated into fine art, and it rivets their attention. The custom photo collage award starts to have real personal meaning for the recipient.

There’s another reason why custom photo collage is such a powerful corporate thank-you gift. It’s great PR. Think about every visitor who will pass your sponsor's Wall of Achievement and spy your award hanging there. Nothing quite catches the eye (and the heart) of a visitor like a photograph, and that translates into good corporate relations.

Framed Prints or Photo Sculpture?

Whether you decide to frame your custom photo collages awards or give them as 3-dimensional photo cutouts, either way your thank you gift will stand out from the pack.

You see, if a wall plaque is 3-dimensional, then custom photo collage cutouts are 4-dimensional - the fourth dimension being emotion. At the awards ceremony, the minute you present your custom collage gift and say, Mr. Sponsor, without you, none of this would ever have been possible ... well, everybody is going to be in tears, including the Board of Directors. A brilliantly conceived photo collage award says more about an event, winner, program, donor, or milestone than anything off the shelf.

Next time you’re planning an awards ceremony and want to do something special for the sponsors of the event, think about this:

  • Why not have a digital artist combine the best parts of your event photos into a single collage gift that looks like a professional photographer took the picture (and not just like an unsophisticated photo puzzle)?
  • Why not make a 3-D photocutout of this wonderful photomontage made by a digital artist, instead of stuffing all my event photos inside one giant costly frame that will look awful in the sponsor's boardroom?

To get your sponsor photomontages in time for the awards ceremony, contact me, Nancy Gershman, at 773-255-4677 or email me at Nancy@artforyoursake.com.

23 May, 2007

Change Somebody's Life with a Custom Fantasy Photo Collage

In this custom Mother's Day portrait by Nancy Gershman,
a sparring mother and daughter are de-clawed with a little humor.

Shrinks listen to our hit lists and wish lists, and then note our sorry habits and patterns. Architects ask us to describe our dream house and then watch how we really use our space. Interior designers ask us whose lifestyle we envy, and then study the magazines we read. What's this say about humans? We can't really see ourselves; we don't often know what's good for us; and according to these professionals, we're not alone in our misery and wants.
We yearn for quick fixes which are enduring, and that's why we go to professionals.

Not only have they seen it all. But professionals offer something priceless: the professional distance to see our lives with 20-20 hindsight. When they encourage us to talk about our hopes and dreams, they allow us to be children again. With their solutions and suggestions, they let us try on new looks without the risk of making a misstep that we’ll  regret later. 

Change Your Luck with Custom Wishful Reality
Just as there’s a professional for sprucing up our personal space, our wardrobe, and our choices in life partners, did you know there’s also a professional for our inner well-being and our outlook on life? She's called a Memory Decorator: a custom photomontage artist who creates (custom) fantasy photo collage gifts. She'll sit down with you and your photos and ask for the back story on each one. The more you tell her about all the negatives (like regrets), and all the positives (like secret dreams), the better read she'll get on what kind of a wishful reality you want in the form of your digital photo collage.

Better yet, she's a professional with humor in her arsenal. She'll employ irony, symbolism, exaggeration -- anything that will move you over from the negative to the positive.

So here's an example of what she does. If there was something you could change about your life, what would it be? Is it a better relationship between you and your mother? Tell this digital artist, and she'll repurpose your personal photos, adding backdrops and meaningful objects from her own photography. With a new and improved reality in the form of a custom photomontage, you get a new lease on life -- not just in the past, but in the present and future too! Your life becomes a work of art: impossibly real, fantastical, and empowering every time you pass it by.

So think about this:
  • Are you (or someone you know) pining for peace in the family? Are you tired of all the stress and the bickering?
  • Have you just experienced the loss of a loved one, and feel like a piece of you is missing?
  • Has a friend ever (secretly) divulged a dream they've held onto after years of regrets?
  • Do you want to feel hopeful again - without cosmetic surgery, changing jobs or moving to a new city? Without spending thousands on a new wardrobe or renovated kitchen?
If all you had to do to change your life was have a digital artist play with your photos until you have a brand new past, present and future, would you do it?
Sure. Why not? Eveline and Ilse finally called a truce after receiving this Mother's Day photomontage.


20 May, 2007

Hire a Real Artist to Make Your Personalized Photo Collage

Eleven photos from Curtis's family collaged together by digital
artist Nancy Gershman and then set against a brand new sky.

Behind every artistic product is an artistic mind, not a web-based graphic service advertising "personalized collage art." Look a little closer and you’ll see that what these services are actually promising are art effects, not art.

If you want original, custom artwork and not a stock photo image you've seen on somebody's coffee mug, stick with real artists, not designers paid to offer off-the-shelf effects with photo collage or mosaic-making software. E
mployees, afterall, are not paid to be artists who think freely, out of the box. That's why you want to find a digital artist for hire who can:

  • critically select photographs on the basis of quality, not quantity
  • extract elements, re-juxtaposing them for aesthetic/conceptual reasons
  • give special thought to hierarchies of lighting and scale
  • search for fresh images for geographical/historical accuracy
  • inject meaningfulness and a goal into the artistic composition

Digital Artists Who Do Art For Your Sake

Let's say you want a custom photo collage made from your personal photos. You've got three options. If you go to a graphic service company, they'll take your order (as long as it’s listed in their website drop-down menu of special effects). If you go to an artist who only does art for art's sake, they'll want you to leave them alone so they can create their own idea of what's art (but at your expense, and in their own sweet time).

But if you're lucky enough to find a digital artist who takes commissions - who does art for your sake, you're in business! She'll ask you questions that go above and beyond the call of duty:

Is there a special message you want to convey? Or a take-away impression you want to leave with the person you're making it for? Should the collage concentrate on the past, present or future, or all three? What about adding some wishful reality to the piece, creating a landscape that’s rich in meaning? Do I have permission to look for a better backdrop that would make your images really pop?

The digital artist for hire who creates custom artwork for your sake is serious about the images she selects and combines for you, because she is always raising the bar for herself and the art world. Commissioning an artist specializing in custom photo collage to make you a personalized photo collage portrait or custom photo gift is kind of like hiring a world class artist, photographer, curator and confidante, rolled into one.

Is Hiring a Custom Photo Collage Artist Costly?

When it comes to personalized digital photomontage, my advice is to always hire an artist who 1) has a considerable digital photo collage portfolio; 2) who takes the time to look at your photos and talk with you before you take out your credit card, and 3) who lets you pay in installments if you have to.

Then when you're ready to order your personalized collage gift like a portrait or a popout made from your photos, it may cost you a touch more, but your labor of love is going to be worth a fortune!

To get an idea of what I mean by artistic photo collage, stop by my online studio, Art For Your Sake. Or let's brainstorm over the phone: 773-255-4677.

Custom Photo Collage as a Tasteful Sympathy Gift

A custom photo collage of Carly where she appears to have achieved
everything she ever wanted to accomplish in acting and fashion.

What do you give a grieving friend or relative who doesn't seem to be springing back from their loss?

Alone with their thoughts in between your visits and phone calls, depressed individuals are asking themselves heart-wrenching questions like:

  • Why me?
  • What’s there to live for?
  • Why am I still alive?

For someone who hurts physically, mentally and spiritually, you need a sympathy gift that's more than a gesture. You need a gift that speaks to the unhappy person in your absence, nudging them back into the world of the living by stimulating their imagination. In a word: wishful reality through therapeutic photomontage.

This unique art form nurtures wellness through idealization. The custom photomontage artist listens to the stories behind your photos and then creates a custom work of art that acts like a soothing dream. Fabricated from personal photos and the artist's own photography, the resulting custom artwork is nothing less than transformational. Everything in the final print looks completely real as if all the objects, people and places in the picture were there from the very beginning … only they’ve been deliberately put there by the artist:

  • to evoke new memories, rather than stir up longing and regrets,

  • to give an alternate ending to the past, and

  • to create the illusion of completion or closure

Where does one find a custom collage artist to make personalized healing artwork? So-called personalized sympathy gifts abound, but most are off-the-shelf items that offer engraving of initials or a place to slip in a photo. But for someone who is greatly pained by looking at the photo of a deceased loved one, this really isn't the best option.

But … if you are lucky enough to find a website dedicated to healing artwork or custom memorials, your best bet is checking if there are healing artists mentioned on their Resources or Links pages. One such resource - Art For Your Sake - is my studio. I specialize in custom wishful reality for both celebration and healing; such as custom sympathy gifts or personalized memorial gifts or artistic memorial portraits.

With such a meaningful gift in hand, your thoughtfulness should work wonders.

08 March, 2007

Precious Photo Gift Idea to Buy for Your Adoptive Mom

A healing dreamscape featuring Liz’s biological mother (upper right as an adult)
and in B/W (as a young woman). Liz's adoptive parents hang on a wall (above the Easter basket).

I have this belief. When adopted kids are all grown-up with kids of their own, I believe true maturity blossoms - maturity that allows them to finally put their teenage angst and abandonment issues behind them and see their adoptive mom for who she really is. Their mom.

These days, the p.c. thing is for adoptive moms to present their child with a scrapbook that traces their adoption journey when their child is deemed "ready" (something that's occurring at an ever more tender age.) I propose doing it the other way around. Why not have the adult daughter or son give their adopted mom a personalized photo collage gift that traces their adoptive mother's love, from before you were even born to the adult child you are today! Give it to her on Mother's Day, when you've been a parent yourself for a couple of years and know what it means to bond with your child.

Not long ago, I created a custom photo collage for a biological mom to give to her daughter, showing her the many things she had in common with her daughter, down to the way they wore their hair, or the many Celtic and Polish connections that flowed through their lives by birth or marriage. The photo collage also paid its respects to the parents who raised Liz. In a 19th century Polish kitchen that anchors the photo collage, I hung a photo of Liz's adoptive parents' from a little peg, highlighting their faces in a warm light.
Since making that custom photomontage, I've thought many times that one day Liz will make her adoptive mom a present as well. For now, the photomontage is seen through the lense of Liz's biological mother. I believe every adoptive mom would relish a photo gift celebrating the sacrifices they made to find you, the love of their life. You might even want to accompany your photo gift with a letter or poem where you can pour out all the feelings you never gave voice to before. The voice that answers those nagging worries of the adoptive mom, like:
  • Am I a good parent?
  • Does my daughter know how much I love her?
  • Am I putting up with her nonsense some days, only because I'm scared of what she's really feeling?

Make Mom a Heroic Photo Collage Gift

Here's how I would get started on a heroic Mother's Day photo gift for your adoptive moms:

  1. Interview your mom about your adoption and the journey to find you. Type while she's talking or turn on a digital tape recorder. Use photographs to help jog her memory. Ask her how she felt, how she fought for you, and where she got the courage to do the things she did.
  2. Collect the photos the agency or orphanage clipped to your file from the very beginning.
  3. Grab any maps to these faraway places. Identify with arrows exactly where she found you. Embellish the page with her plane tickets.
  4. Make a copy of every form Mom personally filled out and tear out the portions where you see her handwriting.
  5. Find the first photos where she holds you in her arms, as well as the best pictures of the two of you at every point in your life up till now.

Now here's the important part. Enlist a talented digital artist to incorporate all these photos into a beautiful non-linear photo collage or dreamscape.

If you have some concerns about how to pull this off, read my FAQs --

Q: What if I don't have a great photograph of the two of us together at that point in time?
A: A really good digital artist can take entirely different photos and seamlessly combine them as if everybody was already there and somebody snapped the picture!

Q: What if I can’t find any pictures of Mom at the orphanage in China or Russia?
A: With amazing picture-sharing sites like Flickr and WebShots, a digital artist can track down photographs from the most obscure spots in the world, and ask permission from the photographer to use them in your custom photo collage for a small fee, or no fee at all!

I promise that as you go through the process of tracing your mother’s love, you will become the Family Historian and Guardian Angel. And when you present your personalized photo gift on Mother’s Day, you’re going to walk on water. But then again, you always did, and always will.

05 March, 2007

Healing Artwork for a Death Bed Refresh

Four pictures of Lyuba plus one chimpanzee
collaged together in an apple orchard.

You can love a person to their last dying day, and still not want to remember a thing about their dying. That's normal. It's also a fact that we have little control over memory. The shock of watching a person leave this world for the next seems to engrave itself on our very subconscious.

A year ago, I started to work with a family where the grandmother was beginning a steady physical decline: portly in her 60s, 70s and 80s she was now sunken and frail. Yet even before this physical decline, Lyuba’s family saw a creeping negativity begin to color her features and knit her brows. “I’m not an idiot,” she’d say. “I know what you’re up to.” If Lyuba was in slightly better spirits, she’d call her daughter-in-law a Petty Sadist, or an “Artistka” (as in con artist).

For a pediatrician who loved castor oil and the miracle cures in her Russian language health magazine, Lyuba now was a guarded patient who wouldn’t take her medicine. Why should she? She had seniority over most of her doctors. Of course, she knew better how her body would process the dose ….

In the last week of Lyuba’s life, when low caloric intake reduced her body to sinew, her grandson came to say goodbye. To make a record of her life, he took photos of everything in her apartment. The very last picture he took of his grandmother was from her bedroom doorway. What you see is a kind of tent: someone in bed with their knees pulled up under the sheets. Behind the knees to the right is Lyuba’s face tilted upwards, her mouth open in a dark, shapeless maw. Two days later when the phone call came, Lyuba’s 56 year old son came to supervise the ambulance attendant and give comfort to the caregiver. What his son recorded on film is more or less what he saw too in those early morning hours.

After everyone paid their respects and the family cleaned out Lyuba’s apartment, the number of Lyuba photographs in his possession rose dramatically. Yet however much he tried, that last dying day became the only picture of her he could keep in his mind’s eye. He'd try to refresh the picture, but the photos kept reflecting back the same image … something straight out of Munch’s “The Scream.”

For a time, his wife tried re-framing the photos and putting them in contemporary frames: Lyuba as an army nurse, Lyuba on cross country skis, Lyuba on the floor playing with her grandson (the one who would come to take her death bed picture). But the attempt at making the Lyuba Photos look like antique accessories was still misfiring. Now the son couldn't get Lyuba’s last dying year out of his mind, and was beginning to feel guilty about it. Why was this happening?

Falling in Love With Multiple Personalities

To remember Lyuba as a more integrated personality, we decided to co-create a “new and improved” Lyuba. Using the medium of digital photomontage, we'd contain all her former selves in one location! For this I needed all the photos of Lyuba at a certain age (in her 70s and 80s) when she was most likely to be wearing a favorite green pantsuit – a polyester number worn with the same white blouse. We ended up with four full body photos of Lyuba in her green pantsuit: two of Lyuba picking apples in Indiana; one of Lyuba biting her lip as she stands – a bit out of sorts - on a foreign street and another of Lyuba resting her head on her son’s shoulder at her 75th birthday.

The most intriguing part of the photomontage is seeing that Indiana orchard populated with four Lyubas, loving one another in a sisterly, motherly or childlike way. The multiplicity effect is nothing short of stunning because it proves that the root of Lyuba’s more negative, cynical self - and her more na├»ve, trusting self – no doubt existed some time before her dying days. Ultimately, you can’t help but fall in love with all her multiple personalities.

A friend once sighed how she wished she could capture how funny her mother really was and how much they made each other laugh. Part of what was so sad about her mother’s death at 62 was how close they had become just in the last few years. Now every time she thought of her mother, Marlene couldn’t conjure up the vivacious, funny woman she remembered. She could only see the more recent image of her mother emaciated from cancer.

“It’s as if time collapses,” Marlene would tell me. “Like one of those timelines of earth’s history you see in text books – a yardstick long. Here are these different developments – and then there’s mankind, and it’s infinitesimal!” For Marlene and for many of us, all we ever want is a way to magnify those tiny little ticks on the yardstick we call Life.

People often ask: why in that apple orchard did I decide to drape Lyuba’s arm around a chimpanzee instead of her own son? Here is my answer: magic in symbolism. The year in which Lyuba died was The Year of the Monkey. Tradition has it that monkeys possess the complete opposite extremes of character: foolishness and accountability. “It is because monkeys are most similar to human beings … reflections of man as represented in animal form,'' explains Lee Tae-hee, researcher at the National Folk Museum of Korea.

By making Lyuba’s object of affection a monkey– I am creating a piece of artwork that begs for interpretation. Is Lyuba nurturing those two extreme qualities of foolishness and accountability in herself? Is she deriving sustenance from the chimp, and that’s why she appears in all those incarnations, full of purpose and pep? In therapeutic photomontage, there is a time to keep family in and a time to keep family out, depending on who’s the patient. In this story, it was important to take Lyuba’s multiple selves out on a class outing … and leave the family at home.

28 February, 2007

A Creative Sympathy Gift for the Motherless Child

Photomontage enhanced by the symbolism of two
chocolate kisses, sitting on a couch against a graffiti wall.

When my mom died, grief grabbed me so tightly I could barely breathe. It wouldn’t have mattered whether I had dreamt the exact hour and minute she would pass away, or if we had
fought like cats and dogs the night before. The next day was a black day.

Had I been unable to move past my sadness, I probably would have turned to secular or faith-based bereavement programs. Luckily, I didn’t have to. Time healed me. But 25% of people’s hearts live “in a place whose size is zero,” (a line borrowed from my wise old son, Sam). These are human beings who don’t have the energy to seek out new objects of affection. They live inside their heads, poring over the same photographs, allowing happy memories and catastrophe scenarios to fight for the same airtime. Outside, the real world looms, an unholy place filled with happiness and irony. In a word, they’re Profoundly Depressed.

Now to some of us, all that melancholy comes off looking almost martyr-ish. Wouldn’t they be happier if they just packed away the triggers that make them sad? Or is there something else we could be doing with those photographs to make them smile more and ache less? Something life-changing that when they see it, they’ll burst out crying - only not tears of sadness, but tears of joy?

There is, and it’s called therapeutic photomontage: a custom portrait of the departed composed from multiple, superimposed photos.

Dreaming Their Way Back to Happiness

The Profoundly Depressed want nothing better than to wake up from their nightmare. So it’s no leap of faith for them to embrace a wishful reality where salvation is almost palpable. No other medium has this uncanny ability to make a believer out of those in quiet despair than digital photomontage. Playing with the people, objects and landscapes in a personal photograph, a digital artist attuned to healing can create an entirely custom made reality, layering different elements into a single photograph until it feels like a snapshot from a dream ... and not a nightmare.

If you know someone who's profoundly depressed, here's what you can suggest. Say you found an artist who's helping you make a healing dreamscape about Aunt Myra. (As if it's already in the works.) Tell her it’ll contain everything she loves about Aunt Myra, and will show it in a completely magical way. Ask for favorite photographs of Myra, but also ask Myra's friends, family members and caregivers for photographs so you can have yet another perspective. Narrow down to candid photos where everybody's expression feels authentic – in other words, no forced smiles or awkward poses. Don’t worry if there aren’t any good photographs of Myra with, let's say, her husband or her favorite poodle. A good digital artist can extract Uncle Sid and the poodle from other photos, and then expertly reorient Sid and the poodle to look as if they're engaging with Myra right there in the picture.

You remember when I said “a digital artist attuned to healing”? These sought after artists specialize in art for your sake. What this means is that your insights and their intuition greatly affect the piece you co-create together. That's why you don't want to spare a single detail. Tell them the back story on every photograph, but also about the Black Day itself, and ghostly visitations, too (anecdotes provide strong visuals). You see, everything is relevant when it concerns the sad person’s state of mind before and after the loss.

In the therapeutic photomontage, the more depth of field there is, the truer the shadows and the more realistic an object’s scale, the more believable it is as wishful reality. The idea is to make the healing dreamscape as ripe for interpretation as possible. Allowing the Profoundly Deoressed to make as many free associations as they want is an integral part of the therapeutic process. It lets them actually see a new beginning … or even an alternate ending to the past.

Ideally, the dreamscape holds everything and anything. It's a place of comfort, and also of safety. The God-Fearing are likely to feel less oppressed as they realize they’re not inherently unlucky or a target, and that the Black Day was merely a random act. In a similar vein, the God-less begin to look at their lives more philosophically, less judgmentally and richer in meaning.

By definition, everything in a dreamscape holds meaning, and this is no accident. A sensitive artist deliberately puts them in to draw out the Profoundly Depressed in an imaginative way. That’s why they often add unique objects which evoke specific memories and feelings – say, a spinning apple, a runner's bib, a cascade of rose petals – if the interpretation invites playfulness and not a feeling of dread.

By revealing hidden messages, the dreamscape appears to talk to the Profoundly Sad, while also giving them someone to talk to. It erases that sinking feeling we've all felt at one time or another when we got separated from Mom in the department store: Hey, you left me behind.