Hey everyone, tomorrow I fly to San Francisco to help plan how my portion of the “Changing Face of What is Normal” exhibit will be hung. (Providing Logan in Boston is open for business. We had 20 inches of snow here in Western Massachusetts overnight, and Boston got totally wailed.) I’ll try to post daily from out there. I don’t know how much free time I will have, if any, but if you are in the area and want to meet up for a brief visit, just send me an email. It might work. This photo is from Flora T’s case. I think I published it in an earlier post, but lately this image has been sticking with me. The print I made is absolutely beautiful.
I have always given primary credit to Craig Williams for saving the Willard suitcases, and his contribution to the preservation of these objects was enormous. But if it wasn’t for Beverly Courtwright’s connection to Willard and her tremendous respect for the patients and their lives, the cases would have been lost forever. On Saturday I got the chance to meet her for the first time, and thanks to the corrections folks who now control the site, we were allowed to go into the attic for a few minutes. It is behind this door that in May of 1995 Bev “rediscovered” the cases. She had become one of the Willard employees heavily involved with the transition team responsible for shutting down the psych center. As a storehouse clerk, part of her task was to go through all the buildings to determine what should be saved and what could be thrown out. She described the first time she opened this door and saw the cases stacked up as a surreal experience, and told me that she felt a “whoosh of energy” sweep over her.
She grew up in the area, and as a child remembers Willard patients coming to her home through the Family Care program that allowed for patients not in need of direct care to live temporarily in private homes.
This is what the attic now looks like when you walk through the door. The racks are on either side of the attic with men’s cases on one side and women’s on the other. When Bev was talking about being up here for the first time it literally gave me chills.
You can see the letters on the racks representing the first initial of the surname of each patient. Whomever set up the system did an amazing job. I find it so interesting that as in the residential parts of the buildings, men and women were segregated up here as well.
There were a very few items left behind that could not be linked to a specific patient. This coat was one of them. / As my work on this project continues, I am constantly overwhelmed by the people I meet and the stories that they have to tell. Late last night I got an email letting me know of a new comment on this post. Scroll down toward the bottom of the comments section and read what Stephanie had to say. / Getting into the attic and meeting Bev really tied together everything that I have been trying to say with my work on this project. She is a truly remarkable person with a huge heart and the ability to convey a great sense of connection to the people who were at Willard, and I just want to thank her for all she has done.
For much of last week Stephanie Bailey from the Exploratorium in San Francisco has been at the museum picking out objects for the exhibit that will be also featuring my suitcase photographs. I went out to Rotterdam on Saturday to meet her and help out a bit. Karen Miller and Craig Williams were there as well. Details are mostly in place, and while there isn’t much information available on the web as of yet, the title of the exhibit is “The Changing Face of What is Normal”. In addition to my photos, there will be a number of Karen’s poems and around 15 of the suitcases themselves. I have seen the design for the display and it is going to be amazing. It will open on the 17th of April when the new Exploratorium itself opens in the Embarcadero on (I think) Pier 15. I will be there for the opening which should be a huge event. At some point in mid May I’ll come back out for some programming to do with the exhibit. And we are hoping to set up an “artists talk” sometime in the Autumn.
Some of the cases that are traveling to the exhibit were new to me and it was nice to see more of the possessions of the patients.
Madeline was a French teacher before she came to Willard. This is a very beautiful copy of an illustrated Petit Larousse.
Her little coffee pot is nice too. / It is amazing to me that some of the personal possessions of Willard patients will be shipped all the way across the country to be seen by a huge number of people. As I have tried to handle the objects with great care when photographing them, the Exploratorium is showing great sensitivity in the way they are preparing the exhibit. I really think it is going to be amazing. As I know more about the timing of things over the next few months, I will post updates. This will be an incredible and rare opportunity to see the cases up close. The exhibit will run for at least six months, and we are hoping to have it extended for a full year.
Since Hunter’s “Collector’s Weekly” interview with me came out earlier this week, a lot of attention has been drawn to the suitcases project. He did such a great job capturing my voice and I am really grateful for his interest. It has suddenly opened up some very interesting new doors, and has driven a ton of traffic to this blog. Occasionally when people come here expecting to see suitcase photos, they see my other posts and get confused. It has been intentional on my part to mix up the suitcase updates with my other stuff because I want visitors to get an idea of who I am as a person and a photographer. But when someone comes here looking for Willard suitcases and sees a picture of my dog in the back of the car, they might be thinking something along the lines of WTF (as the kids say). I have been giving this a good think, and here’s my solution. I still want everyone to see everything, but to make it easier on people I will link to some of the earlier updates. So here we go: Dmytre, Frank, Flora, and some earlier ones: Charles, and the first one I ever shot which explains the genesis of the project, Frieda. For those of you new visitors who are adventurous and have some time on your hands, just click on the archive links to the right and wander around a bit.
I have received so many notes from people saying that they came to this site to look at the suitcases but were excited by what else they saw. And I want to thank you all for being interested in my work and my life.
Here’s a link that my friend Tom Bollier sent to me earlier today when it popped up on his Google reader. I had no idea that this was being done, but she did a nice job. More news to come soon, I hope.
I like voting in my little town. Paper ballots, and it usually goes pretty smoothly. I asked if I could photograph in the booth but they said it was against the rules.
Just a note of welcome to all of you who read about my Willard suitcase project on the Collectors Weekly site. Those who haven’t seen the story can check it out here. Hunter did an amazing job and he asked great questions. I am very pleased. It even made it to Digg for a while yesterday. If you are new here and just want to see suitcase posts, check out October and work your way backwards. But I hope you will be interested in my other posts as well. Thanks, Jon
I happen to know more about Dmytre than most of the other suitcase owners as he was one of the featured folks in the original exhibition at the New York State Museum. This photo shows him at the institution with one of his paintings. He was quite an artist. In the early 1950s he was committed to Syracuse Psychopathic Hospital and in 1953 was sent to Willard. He was there until 1977 and was discharged to a county home. Dmytre died in 2000. Many of his paintings hung on office walls at Willard until it closed in the 1990s.
I like the looks of this case.
It has a solid feel to it even though it is a bit beat up.
As usual, I have had to obscure the last part of his surname, but you can see by the tags that he arrived at Willard in May of 1953. I’m not sure why there are two dates on the tags.
It was an interesting case to photograph, as the contents seemed so personal.
Dmytre was from Ukraine and spoke English with a heavy accent, which made his life difficult at times.
If you look closely you will note that the flower piece in the case is the same one that the woman in the photograph is holding.
I have always had a thing for small lapel pins, and this little Red Cross one is beautiful.
The above photo should be familiar to my Kickstarter backers as it was one of the reward options.
The Washington, DC thermometer is touching as Dmytre’s problems started in that city when on a visit there in 1952 he claimed to be married to Margaret Truman and was detained by the Secret Service.
This postcard is amazing. Somewhere I made a note as to what it said on the back, but I’ll need to dig up that information.
Here’s another of the many small wooden dogs that are in the collection. I wonder if he carved it.
There were a lot of hand-written notebooks and science related texts in the case. He was clearly a very bright and creative fellow.
And one large manilla envelope contained these cutouts which look to be plans for building models and other small craft objects.
And lastly, here are some personal correspondences and a brochure on Social Security.
I hadn’t planned on doing a post just now, but I wanted to mention that this case is on it way to Baltimore to the American Visionary Art Museum for some sort of exhibit. I went to their website, but was not able to figure out when it will be featured. Anyone in the mid-Atlantic who is interested in seeing one of the actual cases and its contents should check with them.
Thanks for all your interest and continued support. I also wanted to mention that Peg Ross, who has helped me so much on this project came over to my studio today to help out with editing the photos for the Exploratorium exhibit. I really appreciate all her insight and encouragement.
As I mentioned in my earlier post, I have completed the initial shooting portion of the project. These cases belonged to Frank C.
This foot locker was not wrapped in the usual way. I am guessing it was a bit too large.
Frank was a pretty interesting guy. I know a bit more about him than some of the others.
His two cases contained an interesting mix of practical items and remnants of his military life.
Again, I have had to obscure his surname for legal reasons.
Many items referenced the fact that he lived in Brooklyn for much of his adult life.
I am always interested in the ephemeral aspects of the possessions of the Willard residents. It is always a bit frustrating to have so little time to look through the printed materials. I could easily get lost in the War Department’s Basic Field Manual.
So many cool shipping tags.
I wonder what sort of idea this sketch reflects. It was the only drawing of this sort in the case.
The rubber stamp is interesting, and the blue box contained some kind of laxative. I’m pretty sure it was Ex-Lax.
There were several layers to this trunk. The above items were from a shelf that sat inside the case covering up the contents on the bottom.
I tend to not think much about the practical aspects of life during war time, like rationing. It is good to reminded of such things. It makes me realize how little we are asked to sacrifice in the face of what’s going on in our world.
This gun was a toy. I have no idea what the plastic items above it are. Someone out there must know.
Frank had a lot of these small photo booth pics. There are more in his other case which you can see below. He was a very handsome gentleman.
Ok, I am about to look up “catarrh”.
Frank’s military clothing was in amazing condition. No moth holes; each item looked almost new.
The underwear was especially pristine. So even though there is clear evidence that he served in the Army there isn’t much sign of wear on his uniform.
Clothing always presents the biggest challenge for me to shoot. To the point where I really grumble a bit when a case contains lots of it (Ask Peg). I always try to avoid over arranging the objects and the clothes present a problem that I am not too skilled at solving. It is why I shoot lots of details. This tie was tied when we came to this shirt.
Buttons. (Is is obvious I’m running out of things to say? It usually happens with these post with tons of pictures. Sorry.
Here’s Frank’s other case from the collection.
Since I have been shooting some of the larger trunks that are not wrapped, I have been missing the materials used to preserve the smaller cases. It was nice to see the cotton string again.
There were more clothes in this case including these bathing trunks and a brand new white cotton union suit that still had the label attached.
As well as several wooden coat hangars; this one from Max Moscowitz’s store.
Among my most favorite items are handkerchiefs, especially ones with art deco designs.
The remainder of the papers we found mostly relate to wartime issues.
The question of why all of these items were saved is mostly moot to me, as is the broader question of what was going on in his life before Willard. It is just so interesting to look at his possessions and build up some idea of his world (that may or not be at all accurate). And ultimately what I have figured out from this project is that each of us who views these remnants of his life can come to our own conclusions. He was a real person and people are complicated, so even those who knew Frank well didn’t have the whole story. Including the psychiatrists who treated him at Willard.
There were a couple of complete New York Daily News pages in his things. They must have been at the bottom of the larger trunk since there are no folds. I once spent a couple of days in Aachen and it is a beautiful little town
I’m runnin’ out of steam a bit, so I’ll wrap it up. Not sure if it is possible to read the letter on the left with the blue ink but it is from Frank’s sister and obviously came after a visit to his home in West Virginia.
And finally, a few more pictures of some of the women in his life. So evocative and so beautiful.
So thanks for following and staying with me on this. I will no doubt post more as I work through the editing process, although probably not in as extensive a way as I have done here. Most of my energy will be spent on figuring out how to display the photographs for the Exploratorium exhibit, and then figuring out some way to publish a book. Cheers everyone, and thanks again for all your encouragement and support.
On Monday I shot the last of the Willard suitcases for a while. I hope to use the rest of this month to begin editing the images for the Exploratorium exhibit, and knowing how my brain works I knew I couldn’t attempt to edit while I was still shooting. I was surprisingly emotional about the whole thing; an important part of the project ended and I am not sure when it might resume. It is also significant to me that it marks the end of the Kickstarter phase of this work. So some thank you’s are in order. I could NEVER have gotten this far without Kickstarter and the incredible support of the almost 700 people who backed me. Thanks to Alex Ross for the long term “loan” of his lights and soft boxes. He is a true friend. Craig Williams and the New York State Museum gave me access to the cases and Craig’s support was instrumental in keeping it all moving along. And Peggy Ross kept me organized. Without her help in unwrapping, setting up the shots, helping me see things I would have missed, and putting the objects back where they belong I would never have made it through as many of the cases as I did.
I will work on a post later today showing the last case in the queue, as it were. It was a great one to end on.
I am working very hard to keep up with shooting the suitcases, which is slowing down my ability to post updates here. This case belonged to Flora T.
There are a lot of nice details on the case itself. Just handles and clasps could be an entire chapter in a book.
And those of you who have been following the project for a while know my fondness for tags and labels.
This trunk has three distinct levels. There are two removable sections and below them, the main compartment.
Flora clearly liked to sew.
I would be interested to find out what this particular item was used for. I assume spools of thread went on the posts, but other than that I am lost.
These small sewing boxes are always interesting and so personal.
I like the little flour pin in this container.
The top of this mirror has an interesting design.
This was the first I had come across detachable collars for a woman, although I would guess they would have been common for the time.
I wonder how long Henry Likly & Co. produced trunks. As you can see in the opening photo it is quite beautifully made.
It is at this level where things get interesting.
Before Willard, Flora was a nurse and was over 100 years old when she died there.
But I am not sure about her use of injectable strychnine sulfate. I looked around the net for information as to its use, but didn’t have much luck. At some dosages it could be used as an anti-convulsant, so it is possible she had epilepsy.
Again, I just don’t have any words to describe seeing and photographing these objects.
I try to be informative and provide some context, but ultimately the photos pretty much speak for themselves.
The case also contains many letters and some amazing photographs which help to fill in some idea of her personality. I’ll try to get to those in part two. As usual, thanks for all the continued support and encouragement. This project has turned into a huge undertaking, but is so incredibly satisfying.
This is not a suitcase per se, but Henry L.’s possessions were in this cardboard box. As I continue this project, I occasionally come across different ways the museum has preserved the items. This box was not wrapped like the others, but was in an archival box of its own.
I was particularly moved by this box.
Sometimes I don’t know what to write about these remnants of someone’s life.
As usual, I have obscured his surname here.
The quality of the his artificial foot and leg was amazing. I am not sure when it was made as there was no date of Henry’s admission on the tag attached to the shoe.
The parts on the brace above were machined beautifully.
Thanks to you all for following the project. And now for some really great news. I have signed a contract with the Exploratorium in San Francisco to have a large number of the suitcase photos in an exhibit to be called “The Changing Face of What is Normal”. One third of the exhibit will deal with mental health issues and my work will be a part of that component. I am so excited and proud to be involved in this. There will be a formal opening on 19 April, 2013 in their new space at Pier 15 in the Embarcadero and it looks like I will be doing an artist’s talk a few days after that. My friend, the poet Karen Miller will also be involved. She has been working with many of the same cases and her poems are amazing and evocative. So I will look forward to seeing some of you next April in San Francisco. Again thanks for all the feedback and support.