“I arrived home just about the time the honeysuckle blooms,” is the opening line of Susan Worsham’s body of work, Bittersweet on Bostwick Lane. It was also the opening line of her brother Russell’s suicide note.
“Russell was not the sort of person to notice flowers,” Worsham explains in her artist’s statement, “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.”
Worsham’s journey back to her hometown of Richmond, Virginia, to the street she grew up on, Bostwick Lane, led her to her greatest muse: her mentor and oldest neighbor, Margaret Daniel, who is also the voice on audio recordings that often accompany the photographs. In the recordings, Daniel recounts a lifetime of memories on the street, including Russell’s last interaction before taking his own life:
“I made your brother my homemade bread, his favorite . . . I buttered a slice and took it up to him, and he called down, 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.”
Communion (2012) depicts a loaf of Margaret’s bread in a state of decay on a simple plate. Margaret teaches Worsham to see the miracle in this – it’s not just any decay, it’s penicillin as well as other healing molds. The lesson here is not lost. “I realize that a project that I thought was about death is actually about healing,” Worsham says.
The series By the Grace of God is also an exploration of the uncommon in the everyday: chance encounters with strangers that lead to eureka moments and stunning portraits — ripe persimmons fallen atop a grave, close friends, flora and fauna. Reflected in them all, there is the spirit of Worsham, a photographer who has worked her way through the mire of grief to find the beauty that surrounds her.
A small sampling from Worsham’s body of work is currently on exhibition at Atlanta’s Jackson Fine Art through December 23. ArtsATL corresponded with Worsham about the show, her process and the themes behind the imagery.
ArtsATL: Though Bittersweet on Bostwick Lane is primarily a study in grief, I’m interested by the ripeness and abundance in many of these images. The colors are often bright – turquoise, pink, reds and purples. There are often adolescent children with very forlorn, adult expressions and kool-aid dyed hair. Fruit is also a common factor, the fruit you work with Margaret to develop into jelly. This use of color palette, subject and metaphor –were these intentional and staged on your part, or did the themes reveal themselves as the images were developed?
Worsham: The colors in my work are the colors that I am drawn to, just as a painter’s palette often holds his certain mixings of color. I am drawn to a certain shade of pastel yet bright pink that iced my favorite cookies growing up. A certain red, bright with a touch of orange, like the color of blood or ripe fruit.
Today I photographed a scene of rotten crabapples, where there were many colors but all in the same family. I took a piece of petrified pink birthday cake stored in my freezer and put it on the pile, and this sort of electric thing happened where one color activated the other. It can work in the same way that light hitting a subject can make the scene more beautiful, and make the subject stand out.
I use metaphor often in my work, and as much as I have ideas for photographs, things are always revealed the more I sit with the work. In one of my recordings of Margaret, she tells of taking the children of Bostwick Lane to the persimmon tree and how my brother always had persimmon stains around his mouth. I went to find the tree at the University and found stone structures that look like graves holding fallen, drowned persimmons in their shallow indentions. I took a photograph and named it Persimmon Grave for the resemblance and the fact that my brother is no longer around to eat the sweet fruit of our youth. It was not a planned photograph, yet, as soon as I saw the resemblance to a grave, the metaphors poured into my head and I had to make that picture. I then started to think about photographing rotting fruit.
The themes and connections reveal themselves the more you make work. The more photographs I take, the more threads I have, and the stronger the fabric of my story becomes. I have found many different ways to talk about the same thing.
ArtsATL: There’s one specific young girl that appears throughout, as well as Margaret in this series. Do you also see that as a parallel between life and death or youth and decay? In some way do you see them as extensions of yourself, the young girl a reflection of you in your youth, and Margaret as an ambition or anticipation of the future? It feels, in regarding the images, that though you are not in frame in their portraits, you as a photographer are very much reflected and present.
Worsham: The young girl in my work is Georgia, my friend’s daughter who represents me as a young girl in my work. I photograph her in Margaret’s basement where I played as a child and in my childhood backyard.
She is herself and yet me at the same time, just as Margaret is my friend and neighbor but also a mother figure, and an aging figure simultaneously. There are many themes that you have picked up on. Ripeness against decay, age against youth, life against death. These are the themes that make my story relatable to everyone yet very personal to me at the same time.
ArtsATL: Your brother, Russell, wrote in his suicide note, “I arrived home just about the time the honeysuckle blooms.” You note in your statement that he wasn’t the sort of person to notice flowers, but were you, before he wrote that? Have flowers gained a new kind of significance to you and your work since that moment?
Worsham: Flowers have become a big part of my work through spending time with Margaret. She names the flowers in her yard after neighbors that have died. “Look over there, the Frannies are in bloom, and the Mrs. Macs have just come out.” Moving them from their yard to hers once they have gone. She shows me my mother’s Camelia still growing in my childhood backyard barely visible over our neighbor Jerry’s woodpile.
Just like Margaret’s daddy taught her about all the wildflowers on the mountain where she grew up, I too collect the names of flowers from my own Virginia Landscape. With names like: Sambucus canadensis (American Elderberry), Cornus foemina (Gray Dogwood), Eupatorium serotinum (Late Flowering [Boneset]), Centrosema virginianum (Climbing Butterfly Pea), Mertensia virginica (Virginia Bluebells), Collinsia verna (Lady By The Lake), Rubus argutus (Southern Blackberry), Fragaria virginiana (Wild Strawberry), Solanum dulcamara (Bittersweet Nightshade) and also Lonicera fragrantissima (Winter Honeysuckle).
A sampling of Worsham’s work is on view at Atlanta’s Jackson Fine Art through December 23.