Gallery Going: An Artist Grieves, Heals Through Her Craft
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Hope Esser was in one of her studio art classes at Oberlin when she got a phone call from her father informing her of a tragedy: Her close friend, Julia Armstrong Minard, who was also an artist, had been murdered in Belize at the age of 20.
It was the first time Ms. Esser, who was 21 at the time, had lost someone close, and her grief overwhelmed her, until she found a way to cope: through her art.
Ms. Esser remembered that she had a shirt her friend had given to her, in a drawer at her home in Brooklyn Heights (she met Minard at Brearley). It was a man’s shirt Minard had received from her father before he died. Minard, an avid sewer, had tailored it to fit herself.
“The shirt was kind of the perfect icon, to channel all my energy and anger and grief,” Ms. Esser said in a telephone interview Saturday. “It was easier to take an object than to address my whole relationship with Julia, so I started from there.”
Ms. Esser decided that she wanted to transform the shirt into something else, but she wasn’t ready to do that immediately. “I wanted to have some documentation of the shirt in my own hand before I did that,” she said.
She painted the shirt, portraying its three-dimensional qualities and its softness. She also drew the shirt, using a sewing machine, conveying its material weight, its stitching, and its construction.
When she finally cut the shirt to make it into a scarf, she filmed the action.
The works became her senior thesis at Oberlin, and evolved further into a show at Chelsea’s Atlantic Gallery last week.
The show succeeds because it charts the creative, powerful way a person grieves. Like a worn, soft shirt, the grieving process as portrayed in Ms. Esser’s art can be comforting.
That a viewer never learns very much about the artist’s friend is one of the strengths of the work. There are two videos of Minard, one the artist took and one that another friend took, but they are both projected in bowls of water, and remain murky to the viewer.
“I wanted them to look more like a memory, like there was some kind of barrier,” Ms. Esser, who is now 23, said.
The show continued to evolve when Ms. Esser graduated from Oberlin in 2007 and returned to New York.
“When I moved back, I kept thinking that I saw Julia when I was waiting for the subway or on a crowded street, and I would do these double takes before my mind had a chance to say that it wasn’t possible,” Ms. Esser said.
The sewn faces she created as part of “The Crowd” are intended to create that kind of experience of recognition for the viewer.
One of the last pieces Ms. Esser added to the show is a mirror with silhouettes of herself and her friend, which has attached to it the photograph the silhouettes are based on. It’s the only clear image of Minard in the show.
“It was taken right before we went to our senior prom,” Ms. Esser said. “Julia is wearing a dress that she made herself, and that to me really just embodies who she is.”
Minard was on her way to study weaving in Guatemala when she was killed. Ms. Esser plans to donate a portion of sales of her art to Weaving Works, a micro-finance facility that Minard’s family is supporting.
“A small amount of money will go a very long way,” Minard’s mother, Elizabeth Bailey, said, adding that helping women achieve financial stability in Guatemala is the best way to protect them and their children against violent crime.
When Ms. Bailey saw the show going up, it was difficult for her. “I felt it should have been Julia’s show,” Ms. Bailey said. But at the opening, so many of her daughter’s friends shared memories of her, and she saw how the exhibit was a beautiful tribute to her. “For me, in fact, it was a very important point, a turning point in my own grief,” Ms. Bailey said.