The Artists of 'Mom and Dad' Explain their Work
WILLIMANTIC, CT (03/29/2018) The Art Gallery at Eastern Connecticut State University is exhibiting "Mom & Dad" from March 8 to April 19. The exhibit features a collection of long-term photographic projects from artists Nelson Chan, Kalen Na'il Roach and Mariela Sancari. On March 22, Chan and Roach held an artist talk at the opening reception to discuss the motivations behind their snapshots.
For Chan, a picture is priceless. The thought and precision needed to capture exactly what he wants within the 8x10 frame exceeds any sort of limits he could imagine. Yet he assigns very specific values to each photo that stem from a reason, a memory, a longing or desire to understand the true meaning of family.
For decades, Chan's parents lived apart from each other. While his mother resided in New Jersey, his father often spent his time running the family toy business in Hong Kong. Their relationship was one of cold and silence, yet some equal level of understanding. For Chan, it was especially difficult to understand this at such a young age, all the while splitting time between the two homes.
To better understand his parents' relationship, Chan undertook "Mom & Dad," a photographical exploration of his parent's relationship. Now 13 years into the project, Chan explained what it has taken for him to reach this point in the work where he is ready to share the shots.
"They were embracing in their office, and I thought it was a very tender moment between the two of them," he recalls. "I remember saying to myself that I would give the shot to my mother as a gift. When she came back to New Jersey I gave it to her and she was not happy about it at all. This photograph that I describe as my parents embracing each other was actually my mother embracing my father, and my father, who was very distant, looking out into the distance. When she opened it, she whispered something to herself, and I heard it. She said, 'He doesn't love me anymore.'"
Chan described the moment as earth-shattering to him. At the time he was simply a college student trying to figure out what it meant to be a photographer. For a truth like this to come from a gift of good intentions was mind-blowing to him, and helped him discover the unintentional power that photographs can truly contain.
"In that moment I realized pictures can mean so many different things to so many different people," said Chan. "I decided I would begin this project of photographing my family after college. Not just to better understand my family, but to better understand myself."
While Chan takes a more traditional approach to presenting his work, Kalen Na'il Roach has mastered the unorthodox. His art hangs from the gallery walls in the form of vibrant cloth banners. Images of men from decades past center the streamers, a collage of different backgrounds and colors laid out behind them. It is as dazzling as it is confusing to the eye. The men are Roach's family members, a theme central to his art.
Art had been an integral part of Roach's family lineage dating back generations. His father was a photographer and his grandfather was a painter and jazz musician. Before he became a photographer Roach was a talented painter himself, but, "It was my father who put the camera in my hands first." His father passed away in October 2017.
Roach's fascination with his family's work stems from a vast collection of photographs left behind by his father and grandfather. "I had found these images that my father took at parties. He would take these portraits of people and sell them for $5 a pop," said Roach. "One day I found these images that he hadn't sold, and they were all pictures of my family, I was shocked at the performance of it all and how much photography can be performance; how it relates to portraiture; and how it related to my experience with my family members. In the pictures they were putting on their best selves, but I knew so much more."
The more he mined this archive of photos, the deeper his understanding grew, but it was never enough. While Roach's ultimate goal of his art is to honor the legacies his father and grandfather, he also yearned to fully comprehend the relationships of his family especially that of his mother and father. While the two were close, they were not together- separating when Roach was three years old. Despite all the photos of his family he had unearthed, one of the hardest things for Roach was that he did not have a photograph of him and his parents. It was only a short time ago that he set out on one of his most ambitious projects yet- to take that coveted photograph.
"I tricked them into doing a shoot together," explained Roach. "I told them to wear black and meet me at my mom's basement, and that it was an emergency and that I needed them both. I knew there was no other way to do it. I needed to create this image of them together because we didn't have it."
Roach describes how he used this photo for his first-ever solo show, the deeper motivations behind the shot, and what it took to capture this elusive moment. "I was playing with the idea of what our family really was and what our family looks like," said Roach. "I thought it was going to be like pulling teeth, but once we got together they were all-in. We had a great time, but I forced them to be stoic. I told them what to be, how to look and how to act. I was so controlling with it because I wanted it to be as made up of a picture as possible, so when you looked at the awkwardness of it you could see the tension. It was an acronym of what two people who have a kid together and aren't together anymore- but love each other- is."
Although she was not able to attend the opening reception, Sancari did leave a message explaining the meaning behind her portion of the gallery. Her photography explores how memory shapes identity, and how it shades into fiction. In her photographic series "Moisés," Sancari confronts the lingering uncertainties surrounding her father's life and death by photographing men in their 70s- the age her father would be today had he not committed suicide when she was a child.
The Art Gallery is located in Room 112 of the Fine Arts Instructional Center, on the Eastern Connecticut State University campus. Gallery hours are Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from 11 to 5 p.m.; Thursdays from 1-7 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays from 2-5 p.m. Parking is available in the Cervantes parking garage and in the Student Center parking lot. For more information regarding this and other exhibitions at The Art Gallery, please call (860) 465-4659 or visit www.easternct.edu/artgallery.
Written by Casey Collins
Eastern Connecticut State University is the state of Connecticut's public liberal arts university, serving more than 5,300 students annually at its Willimantic campus and satellite locations. In addition to attracting students from 163 of Connecticut's 169 towns, Eastern also draws students from 26 other states and 20 other countries. A residential campus offering 40 majors and 65 minors, Eastern offers students a strong liberal art foundation grounded in an array of applied learning opportunities. Ranked the 25th top public university in the North Region by U.S. News and World Report in its 2018 Best College ratings, Eastern has also been awarded 'Green Campus' status by the Princeton Review eight years in a row. For more information, visit www.easternct.edu.
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