My interest in the isolated, insulated lives of Roman Catholic nuns began as a child born into an atheist family. I remember vague stories of mysterious and sometimes malevolent robed women. I have often felt that my only connection to a grandfather and great uncle I never met were images of the nuns who ran the orphanage where the two boys lived in the 1930s. Thus Arthur and Gilbert would likewise take on a haunted, grainy template in my memory.
I have spent the last two years exploring and, in many ways, absorbing the now-vacant building, which was once called Saint Joseph’s Providence Orphan Asylum and Hospital and home to those two destitute family members. One of the first social institutions in Vermont, Saint Joseph’s opened in 1884 and was overseen by the “Sisters of Providence.” At one time, it housed as many as 200 children. The photographs I have taken within the hollowed-out, once-hallowed space have gone through several incarnations and discoveries, each presenting a different shade of inquiry regarding my personal history and revealing a larger context: the nature of an isolated/insulated life within religious communities of women. It grew clear that the women who oversaw the orphanage and its occupants were confined to the space as steadfastly as the helpless orphans had been, bound by solemn vows.
In researching the history of the orphan asylum, I found one portrait of a woman presumed to have been a member of the Sisters of Providence. Sister Jane Doe was sitting at a desk in what was once the designated sewing room; the desk sits there now covered in dust. Rather than an archetype of spirituality, she seems to represent a persistent image of woman as other, abject, and inert. I culled several other portraits of anonymous nuns, many who worked for other Catholic institutions in Burlington, Vermont, and brought them into the abandoned orphanage. Projecting these images within various rooms on the second floor, where documentation states the sisters resided, I was able to rearticulate those images I had created in my mind many years before, now through a wiser aperture of memory. Illuminated by projection light, I re-photographed each sister as she posed for her classical portrait, gazing directly into the lens.
An otherness emerged within each portrait, a sense that seemed to highlight the sisters’ holiness, their monstrous nature. They were robed in rigid black and white. Time had dulled them into a safe anonymity. What had begun as an attempt at knowing Arthur and Gilbert had expanded into a desire to illuminate the sisters' dark authority. Arthur and Gilbert, a little more haunted now, were bound here by tragic necessity, the sisters by reverent choice.
These images represent a response to the ways in which cultural tensions were expressed in Japanese erotica, most notably in Shunga engravings created between the 1700s and 1800s – a famous image being that of Katsushika Hokusai's woman who is sexually devoured by father and son octopuses. Those curious expressions of sexuality were sometimes violent, death-obsessed, satirical, and often provocatively inclusive of animals. These visual studies aim to address my curiosities regarding the subtexts of Japanese erotica and to furnish a comparison between the restrained and sometimes shame-ridden representations of sexuality as expressed in post-war American culture.
When my best friend, creative collaborator, confidant, poetic magician of a father became ill four years ago, I began fervently documenting our time together, his space, his collections, his paintings, and that soulful spirit which continues to guide me, followed by light.
These photographs represent more formal portraits, while those that comprise the KIP MEAKER PROJECT include more immediate, cinéma vérité-like documentation.
These images are rural-centric and often consist of desolate roads, backwoods homes, and those objects we associate with abandon. Also central to this ongoing series of photographs are empty interiors, the walls of which may be composed of memory-oriented, familial artifacts.
My grandfather, Sheldon Meaker, Sr. was a banker, a father of three, a husband, and a photographer. His favorite subject was his wife, Bonnie, a painter and antique dealer.
They traveled often, many times to small beach towns where Sheldon followed Bonnie in her long skirts as she relished the landscape, wild flowers, and smooth, ocean-polished stones to paint on. These images have yellowed in family albums for the last fifty or so years, cherished only by immediate family members. I have since unearthed them and will continually update this series as I scan and edit, bringing to light both an inherent talent of my grandfather's and the sweet love Bonnie and Sheldon shared.