"Being shaken up like that set me on a journey to get to know myself better."
I started my journey to become an artist when I was 27. I was at a really weird spot in my life. Just a few months before, I was all set to get married to my son’s father, but things didn’t really go according to plan.
I had met my son’s father several years earlier. We both had jobs at the bar in town that my family owned. He was the cook. We got along great. We started to hang out all the time and became good friends. Our friendship became dating. I was young and I didn’t really know what love or romance was supposed to feel like. Actually, looking back I’m not sure how I missed that I didn’t really have ‘Those Feelings’ for him, you know? I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, I like this guy a lot... is this is what it's supposed to feel like?’
We kept dating. Soon, we had a son together. We were a little family, and good friends. I still wasn’t sure about ‘Those Feelings’, but a couple years later he proposed and we decided to get married.
That’s when things stopped going according to plan. I don’t know how else to say it, but we hired a wedding photographer, and I fell in love with her. Yes, with her. I grew up in a super blue collar, conservative community, and I never even knew anyone who was an out lesbian. I had no model in my life for it. But when I met this photographer, I felt things for her that I’d never felt before in my life.
Of course, that was really challenging for a lot of reasons. First, it messed with all my assumptions about myself. I always thought that getting married to a man, having a normal job, having kids… that was what I was supposed to do. I think I was just going along in life with my blinders up, you know? I was living according to what I saw out there, the expectations people had for me, but I wasn’t living according to me. And I hadn't even given myself the space to really think about who I am yet. It was also really challenging because, well, I knew it would be deeply hurtful, and that it would change the structure my little family forever.
My engagement fell apart. I felt terrible. Terrible for my son’s father, angry at myself. It was the worst time in my life.
I did try a relationship with the photographer, and it was all the things that they say. I finally had ‘Those Feelings’. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. We were cut from the same cloth, in a way. Ultimately, that relationship failed, but it showed me something true about myself. Being shaken up like that set me on a journey to get to know myself better.
So here I was, a committed mom, but now a single mom. I was trying to make ends meet. I had just moved out on my own to this tiny little one bedroom apartment. It was the first time that I had lived by myself.
Part of the time I was taking care of my son. We split the time 50/50 between me and his dad. I think because his dad and I were such good friends to start with, we were able to stay good partners in parenting, even though we weren't romantic. It was hard at first, but we kept the focus on our son.
I needed to figure out how to live. First was just paying for everything myself. I took a job at Starbucks, I helped my dad out with his appraisal business, and I bartended. Even with all that I was still on food stamps. I still had - and needed - BadgerCare because none of my jobs provided insurance.
I decided I needed more money. I liked to sew and had been making clothing. I got this idea to try and start a side business selling things on Etsy. All I knew about selling stuff online was that you needed to have beautiful photos otherwise they wouldn’t sell. So that year, I bought a camera with my tax return money. I researched and got the very best one I could afford, and I started to post pictures of the things I was making online. I thought for sure I’d get orders, but no one really cared about the clothes I was posting, they only noticed the photos.
People started asking me to take pictures for them. Then, pretty soon after, they started to pay me to take pictures. Then, I had someone ask me to shoot their wedding. Before I knew it I had the makings of a new business.
I know starting a new business can be scary, but it helped that I was just totally fearless, I think, at that time. Going through the relationship and identity stuff had been so painful, but I was getting through it and I felt like there could be nothing else that could hurt me. So I just started a business. I just lept in.
That whole year was a huge growth time for me. I remember I did a couple things that felt really bold at the time. One was starting my own business, and the other was deciding that I wanted to do an art show. I wasn’t an artist before. I took a leap of faith. I walked down to the art gallery in Green Bay, the ARTgarage, and I put money down to rent out the front gallery six months in advance. I didn't even know what I was going to do. I had a kind a vague idea about using photography to tell the story of women. But I didn’t really know - I hadn’t started anything. I was just trying new things, trying to kind of find myself.
I decided that my art show would be called ‘101 Women’.
I realized I needed to talk to other women. I needed to hear about their lives. I just thought, ‘I'm just going to pick a really big number and I'm going to meet that many women.’ Over the course of 6 months, I met, talked to, and photographed 101 women in my community.
Women started reaching out to me because they wanted to be included. They’d say, ‘I want to be part of it but where do you want to take the pictures? What do you want us doing?’ I would always tell them, ‘Wherever you feel comfortable. Where you feel at home.’ It became 101 women where they most felt at home.
I photographed women of all ages for that project, from 5th grade girls to grandmothers. At the opening, they were all there. It was amazing. It was the biggest opening that the art gallery had ever had.
Being with those women was a super big part of my growth during that time. I found myself sharing these women's stories with everyone. I felt like their stories were my stories, like they were telling the story of my life, too. I felt like I was constantly searching for home, for being comfortable where I was in life. Those women helped me find a way to do that.
While I was still making work for that show, I got an email from a woman named LaVon. She told me, ‘You have to meet my friend Carmella. She's 99 years old and she's living by herself. She was a teacher her whole life, and she’s the most futuristic woman that I’ve ever met. She’s a sponge for new information but her eyesight is going so I read books to her every Monday. You should come meet her.’
Carmella Blecha was a lifelong educator and environmentalist. She was an elementary school teacher, and she worked with Gaylord Nelson to get the Apostle Islands declared as a National Shoreline. She testified in Congress for that. She had never been married. She had fallen in love with this Jewish man but she was Catholic and it just couldn't happen at that time. She did all sorts of amazing things.
Meeting Carmella gave me the idea for my next project. I wanted to honor the women who had been the foundation of everything around us. I interviewed and photographed 30 women over 90.
I got it in my head to go back to the 5th graders I had photographed for 101 Women, too. I thought it could be a cool for these young girls just becoming women do portraits and interviews with the women over 90. So I set the 5th graders up with a few women at an assisted living home, and the girls interviewed three women in their 90’s.
Our show was 33 portraits and stories. We called it ‘Women Over 90’.
When I worked with the 5th grade girls to do the portraits of women over 90, it was really fulfilling. It was just so cool to see them caring about the project and getting into the same thing that I was getting into too. One of the students even came back from the assisted living home and said, ‘I know what I want to be when I grow up.’ It wasn't a photographer, it was that they wanted to work with elders. It was a really inspiring group of students.
The show, ‘Women over 90’, got a little blurb of coverage on the NPR blog. The title of the article they wrote was 'Honoring Elders in Green Bay, Wisconsin'. I was like, ‘That’s good! I'm stealing that.’
I had that title in mind, ‘Honoring Elders’; I kept thinking more and more about it. When I was growing up, I only had my grandma. She was the only one. My mom was already 39 when she had me, and her mom was 47 when she had her, so the other grandparents had all passed on before I got a chance to know them. I realized my next move should be bringing more young people and the elders together. The ‘Honoring Elders’ project was born.
I work with schools. I go in and teach about photography, about light, composition. We go over interviewing skills. Then I take them to assisted living homes and pair them with elders.
Some of the connections are pretty great. I remember one time an activities director at one of the assisted living homes brought down a guy named Bob. She said that he never would participate in any activity. He would mostly sleep all the time, he didn't really want to do anything. But she brought him down and sat him in front of this kid. I can only imagine how grumpy he must have been.
This group of kids were really fortunate because their school had iPads that they brought to record the interview and stuff. By the end of the session Bob was with all the kids, with the iPad, taking selfies. He was so amazed. I remember one of the kids just being like, ‘It's a mini computer, Bob!’ It was such a funny, funny moment. Bob was really brought out of his shell. The interactions did that a lot, brought people together, out of their shells.
That particular group of kids made websites for their stories as part of their lessons. For the second part of the project, we invited the elders to come to the school and sit in the computer lab with the kids. They got to see the webpages that the kids created with their stories and photos. It was really cool, the generations coming together.
Honoring Elders’ has been really rewarding for me, but I think for others too. There was one elder we photographed, and when she passed away her daughter asked if they could print the portrait the kids did as the photo for her obituary because it was so lovely. That feels meaningful to me.
My son is 11 now, and one year I even got to do the project with his classroom. This whole process - finding who I am, becoming an artist - has been such huge growth for me. The outcome of Honoring Elders has been really powerful.
My big wish is that I can grow this project with integrity, and continue to make more collaborative projects. I’m so grateful I took the leap.”