I hated him.
These three words molded my life. At the age of nine a kid is supposed to hate lima beans and going to the dentist, but I put my grandfather into this harsh grouping.
He was a Methodist minister, educator, artist, musician, poet and my personal piano teacher. Every Thursday I had piano lessons. When getting off the school bus I would cringe at seeing his 1970s mustard-colored Olds Cutlass parked outside my house.
I hated piano lessons. I hated practicing. I hated when he was frustrated with my lack of practice and permanently marked the oak piano in a rage of scribble. I hated him as my teacher.
I can’t even remember how many times I wished he wouldn’t show up for my lesson - I wished him away for good. And one day it happened. He died suddenly just a month before my tenth birthday. When you’re nine years old, you believe you have the power to make wishes come true. From that moment, my fascination with loss and death defined who I am today.
As my years of guilt lessened, my higher education days began. I produced my first body of artwork and I didn’t have to dig very deep for inspiration. My work naturally centered on my grandfather, religion, loss and death. The series consisted of religious vestments, embellished coffin covers and body bags, bibles made from hand-dyed silks and screen-printed symbols, funeral pill box hats and artist books made from his image and his poetry.
It seemed as one body of work ended, another loss in my personal life was on its way. My grandmother, his widow, was slowly deteriorating from Alzheimer’s disease. Again, this new body of work took a natural progression. Even though my grandmother was present, I was already struggling with her loss. I desperately tried to understand what she was experiencing with this disease.
The series consisted of a crocheted afghan screen-printed with her image. Over time, the afghan unraveled and re-wound into an imageless ball of yarn. One of her old purses cut into two, revealed an empty space of a crumpled tissue, a few coins and a wallet covered in handwritten reminders. A collection of her hankies, preserved in clear Plexiglas boxes with the anniversary date of her husband’s passing engraved on the front, one for each year of mourning until the year the disease took away her last memory of him.
As my grandmother was in the last stages of her disease, I followed in my grandfather’s footsteps of pursuing additional academic studies. I continued on with my own next level of education, keeping my worries of loss and lack of control over death. All the while, I remained convinced that this series would continue when her life ended shortly after I began this new stage in my life.
Then, a pivotal suggestion was proposed to me that changed my work: “It’s not about how the disease has affected your grandmother, but how you are affected by lack of control and loss.” I realized that through my cleaning and organizing obsession
I could cope with the uncontrollable things in life.
As an only child, you are the one to keep things in order, take control and be responsible for your own actions. There were no siblings to blame or to lean on for support. I found comfort in cleaning and organizing. In that way, I could find a better more efficient solution to keep order; essentially gaining the control I desire.
This, my system of “ordered living,” became the foundation for my work. I focused on making the viewer consider his/her own fixations, as well as the importance of my own behavioral observations. The controlling aspect of the series was not only reflected in the work, but also in the size. Working in miniature allowed me to have complete control over the space and to safeguard the piece. My obsession to control created dust protectors to cover dust protectors, hair protectors for my long hair to guard against contact with subway dirt, and miniature dioramas exposing dirt crimes that occurred in my personal space.
As my formal education came to an end and my life as an artist began, I embarked on the largest creation of my life. With my admiration for my grandfather’s theological studies, my fascination with all things macabre and the love for historical buildings, I designed our home after two churches in Bucks County. I am the keeper of my family’s heirlooms and my home encapsulates them in a perfect cocoon. Many who visit say that I am essentially living within one of my miniatures.
In my current work, I consider myself the “Collector, Protector and Keeper” of our family’s heirlooms. Similar to meticulously detailed Victorian human hair wreaths that often represent the family tree or one family member, I use miniature furniture as representation for the objects in my home, my family tree. I obsessively cocoon the miniatures in thread colors of human hair in order to contain and preserve; nearly suffocating them in the process.
Many decades have passed since I hated my grandfather. That rage of scribble that leaped from the music sheet when I was nine, remains on the piano today. I’m not any less afraid of loss and death, nor am I even slightly in control despite all my obsessive systems. My morbid curiosity grows each and every day and that alone brings me comfort and understanding.
Rebecca Reeves is a mixed media artist based in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Her work has been displayed in numerous art exhibitions nationally. Her aesthetic and mode of living is reflected in her ordered and beautiful home and studio, that was recently featured in Prairie Style magazine.
Collector, Protector and Keeper
Mixed media, 2013- 2015