Words and images by Tracie Noles-Ross
In my work, discarded and forgotten objects are reconfigured, braiding themes of memory, place, identity, and environmental issues; encouraging a shift in perspective. This process disguises the object’s original form and purpose and brings forward new narratives. Strongly committed to understanding the place I am from, I am always exploring aspects of the biologically diverse Alabama landscape and concepts of family and southern culture–often deconstructing them for the purpose of improvement and growth while concurrently protecting, preserving, and celebrating this place I call home.
I have experienced a lot of change over the past few years. I have lost several family members. My studio burned. My life has changed shape in sudden and dramatic ways. Our planet and our society are also going through monumental shifts. The works in my mixed media series, After the Apocalypse, are reactions to these changes. They speak to the idea of rebuilding after a period of devastation. We have all experienced loss in one form or another over the past few years. People, jobs, ways of life, trust, relationships—so many things have been broken, altered, taken away, and with all of that destruction, we’ve left a trail of broken objects, hearts, and stories. I am exploring what it might mean to build something without knowledge of or a need to reconnect to a time “before.” I’m trying to shift the context or purpose of objects in order to change perception and maybe instill hope. This is not about nostalgia or about passing judgment. It’s about an urge to create—to find joy and humor in the rubble. I am exploring ideas about nature taking back the planet—exposing then erasing our mistakes and hubris.
At the same time I was working on this very personal series about change and loss, I was asked to make work for The Black Cherry Tree Project, a project organized to memorialize victims lynched in Jefferson County, Alabama in the 1800s and the mid-1900s. I thought it would be good for me to step out of my head for a while and make something with others in mind. I began reading about Alabama’s history, trying to get a feel for what life was like for the man I was honoring and it didn’t take long before I unearthed tales of a grim, destructive period of racism and murder in my home state.
I had Robert Macfarlane’s book Underland in mind when I started my post-apocalyptic assemblage work and was just starting to think about all of the secrets buried in our pasts and in the earth–or in the case of my research, in the muddy creek bed behind my house, in the ashes of a studio fire, and in boxes and drawers of deceased relatives. What I was reading carried over into the work I was doing for TBCTP. In Underland, MacFarlane writes about the relationship between humans and landscape, the fluctuations and fragility of time and place, and how in this apocalyptic Anthropocene age our past is pushing up to the surface and forcing us to reckon with our origins, our ignorance, our mistakes, our recklessness–our sins.
Because I was looking at the world through the Underland lens, it made perfect sense to honor a man to whom I was connected by geography. In 1886, a man named Otis Brown was lynched near the creek that runs through the place I live so I started to glean items from the creek bed to represent this connection, as an act of remembrance. I used the objects I found to create a memory urn that bears his name. Soon after I completed the memory urn and TBCTP exhibition opened and closed, I started to feel a different sort of connection to the creek. I’ve always imagined the objects I gathered held memories and stories but they were abstract. After I started doing work for the Black Cherry Tree Project, my perception changed. The objects I gleaned, I soon realized, were not just trash from my upstream neighbor’s yard–yesterday. They were–they are forever ghosts.
I found an afro pick in the mud of the creek after my urn was complete and had been exhibited. When I saw it, I wished that I had found it for my urn but then, I imagined it was a nudge from Otis. I tried to capture his story in that urn but I know now that his story is still buried in the mud of this creek and washes past my house every day–as are the stories of so many others. I am also part of that historical soup. I wonder often what parts of my life will make their way downstream for others to find and to hold in their hands and imaginations.
I’ve always been fascinated by psychometry (object reading through touch). It is referred to as pseudoscience but there is something about the idea that you might be able to read an object’s history by holding it in your hand that appeals to me. It’s also a little scary–the stuff of scary sci-fi thrillers! There have been studies that prove that objects that are haptically explored generate complex memories. They can’t be read by others but we know they can trigger memories if touched by the same person. I know this is true because touching an object I’ve made in the studio, that I’ve spent time manipulating and molding binds memories of stories I was listening to (audiobooks, podcasts, movies) as I was making and I have definitely recalled snippets of them later. The combination of visual and tactile familiarity with these objects triggers memories. It’s like playing an old worn-out cassette or video tape or like trying to recall a dream–fuzzy and broken–but the recollection is there. I know this is happening in my brain but I’ve always imagined these objects held recordings of a point in time. If that were really happening, imagine the stories we could learn by picking up an object dropped or lost by another.
Obviously found objects can often tell us something. Context and geographical locations can help us piece together stories. We intuit and interpolate and deduce the rest though, and weave in characteristics of our own life experiences and language. This is how the story of history is pieced together. But what happens when the objects are taken out of context and combined with other objects? Objects from different places and different stories juxtaposed shift narratives, distort truths, make poetry. My post-apocalyptic assemblage pieces have been created to mark a point in time–a point in space, but the stories are jumbled. They are a mash-up of objects converging in my Thicket studio. Brought here by water or transformed by fire, objects that had no connection to my life before are now tethered to objects left behind by deceased loved ones to create odd emotional rebuses. I cannot resist trying to piece together stories, stitch together fragments of memory and assumption and imagination.
Over time the After the Apocalypse objects have moved beyond descriptions and stories about the individual parts. I have started to forget (what a blessing!) and when others view my work, they rarely know the origins of the bits and bobs that make these completed fetishes. These objects have become something more than the culmination of broken parts. They have become something new, free of history and memory and full of suggestion and potential. There is something to learn here about memory and displacement, trauma and healing, intention and regret— recontextualization and renewal. I was using the language of conjuration when I made them. I often spoke of counterspells as I tried to make something meaningful or beautiful out of the sharp-edged shards of a blasted and broken past. At some point I started calling these objects ghost catchers. Somehow, this work has become about the lifting of burdens.
So what remains after you lose everything? When water or fire or clumsiness or meanness or a pandemic or cancer or war or ignorance and obsolescence changes everything–breaks everything, what do we do with what remains? We make art. We interpolate and imagine and we tell stories. We stitch the scraps together and make clothes and blankets and sails. We redraw maps and clear new paths and make up new languages and songs. We keep walking and sleeping and crying and talking and laughing. We put on plays and write poetry and make quilts. We sow seeds and make gardens and babies.
This body of work is made from lost and found objects, remnants of a life — of lives before. I took objects that broke free or slipped away from someone else’s life upstream and I taped, glued, wired and stitched them to other scraps I fished out of the ash of a fire or found run over in the street or tossed out onto a curb to be taken away. I have woven fragments and shards and imagined stories together and I have tried to make something new —because, as Emily St. John Mendel, author of Station Eleven says, “survival is insufficient”.
Tracie Noles-Ross is a multidisciplinary visual artist and storyteller living and working in Birmingham, Alabama. She is a member of the Ground Floor Contemporary Artist co-operative, the PaperWorkers Local artist co-operative and the Alabama Women’s Caucus of Art. Noles-Ross is a recipient of the 2022-2023 Individual Artist Fellowship from Alabama State Council on the Arts. She holds a B.A. from the University of Alabama in Birmingham with a concentration in Visual Arts and Creative Writing. See more of her work at tracienolesross.com on Instagram at @tracie.noles.ross and at This, That, and the Other.
Noles-Ross is showing these works in August at the Georgine Clarke Alabama Artists Gallery in Montgomery. She will be exhibiting as one of this year’s recipients of the Alabama State Council Individual Artist Fellowship.
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