Max With Papaya
Loss is something all too familiar for photographer Susan Worsham. Having lost her father to a heart attack at the age of 13, her brother to suicide at the age of 18, and finally her mother in 2004, Worsham has begun to fold these pieces of loss and love together through her work. Bittersweet on Bostwick Lane is an exploration of Worsham’s childhood home as well as her oldest neighbor, Margaret Daniel, who she describes as “one of the last remaining threads from my childhood and was the last person to see my brother alive.” In a series as rich with nostalgia as it is with daylight, Worsham pulls together a poignant collection of life, death, childhood and connection. We asked her to tell us more about the work and her relationship with Margaret.
Lynn with Red Towel
Your work is very auto-biographical and personal. Could you talk a little bit about the events in your life that have inspired your work?
“In my work I am coming to terms with loss. I lost my father to a heart attack when I was 13, and my mother in 2004, but it is my brother’s death by suicide when I was 18 that seeps into my work like a slow forming stain, and has become a stand-in for the others. My brother took his own life on his first visit home after severing his spinal cord in a motorcycle accident. What always comes to my mind is the first few lines from his suicide note. “I arrived home just about the time the honeysuckle blooms.”
“Russell was not the sort of person to notice flowers, so I find it really beautiful and achingly sad at how poetic it was for him to stop and see the beauty around him if only because he knew it would be for the last time. The last person to see my brother alive was my oldest neighbor Margaret Daniel and it is fitting that she has become the strongest thread throughout this work. She told me the story of his last day while she sat for our first portrait. “I made your brother my homemade bread, his favorite…I buttered a slice and took it up to him, and he said, ‘Margaret, can I have some more of that bread?’ He finished the whole loaf…and then me and your mother went for a walk down the lane and when we came back he had shot himself.”
What is the significance of some of your titles?
One day when I was visiting Margaret, I looked out of her large picture window and saw a nest of red berries hanging like a hammock in the winter trees. I asked her what it was and she answered, “Bittersweet.” I answered back…”Bittersweet On Bostwick Lane.” It is also an invasive plant that spreads and slowly chokes. A metaphor for such a beautiful childhood speckled with bits of death. Titles are very important to me because this body of work is just as much about story as it is about images. A photo of winter trees in Margaret’s front yard down to the smallest branches becomes “Front Yard Capillaries” like the smallest of the body’s blood vessels. I am not only photographing the landscape of my childhood (the flora and fauna), but the emotions and feelings as well.”
Hearse in My Childhood Driveway
Bittersweet in Basement
What is the significance of towels and fruit in your work?
“I think a body of work is strongest when the understanding of it is not just resting on the surface, but layered throughout. When there are different meanings/readings at play, some clearer than others. Meaning of course also changes with the viewer.
In answer to your question, the red towels could be a stand in for blood/ripe fruit/poisonous fruit like the color of Bittersweet. Holding a head wound/soaking up the stain. Red is a very rich and alive color like blood when oxygen hits it. Blood gets darker as it dries like fruit that goes from red to brown to black.”
Black Walnut Bride
What inspires you in general as an artist and more specifically what inspired some of your photographs?
“My biggest inspiration comes from the little bits of life that I experience at Margaret’s house. I take audio of our conversations which have become just as important as the images and sometimes more so. She was a biology teacher her whole life, and I am always learning. We study her microscopic slides with labels like butterfly’s tongue, skin of unripe fruit, and even section of human umbilical cord. I weave the images of the slides into my story, and our conversations play in the gallery when the work is shown.
“One photograph looks like a large cotton candy pink watercolor. The image, called “Human Blood Stain” is actually a detail view of a bloodstain on a microscopic slide. Its partner caught in the same pink shade is called “Bread Bacteria Stain.” Another image called “Communion” is of Margaret’s homemade bread. I took a piece straight from the oven and I let it rot, watching it slowly change as it decayed. Later when I showed her the photograph, instead of being mad she was excited and started naming the different types of mold resting on the surface. One was penicillin, which is used to heal. Now I am beginning to realize that a project that I thought was about death has become about growth and healing.”
Human Blood Stain
The Last Jar of Crabapple Jelly That Harrison Ate From Before He Died
Blood Stained Mouth
Bittersweet On Bostwick Lane