I’ve been to more art fairs, shows, galleries, and museums, than I would care to admit, and this exhibit is one of the most unique and remarkable I have experienced. Some people choose to make art their life, and then they pour their life into their art, sometimes quite literally. And that is exactly what Julia Franklin did with this exhibit.
An important part of her life is in this exhibit. At 16 her father committed suicide. 26 years later her mother died and she discovered her mother had been keeping secrets about the family, her father, and her father’s death. There must be some anger involved in realizing your mother kept really important information from you.
With just a few boxes of letters, papers and belongings, Julia began to sort through her father’s death and the previously unknown part of her family’s story. She found new clues about her father’s life and death. Why was her father in book about a famous local murder? Imagine the surprise to see an actor playing your father in a movie. She turned detective.
A couple of years after her mother’s death she had put many of the pieces together, and the genesis of an art exhibit was born. “Picking Up the Pieces, A Portrait of My Father” is not only about putting together the pieces of your father’s secret life, it is about picking up the pieces of your own emotions and dealing with your own vulnerability.
Julia went shopping for thrift store items that matched the time period of her childhood. She add the few personal belongings she had received and she re-created the look and feel of her childhood home in Wichita Falls, Texas.
There is no road map or story line to the exhibit. As you wander through the Tucker girls’ childhood home, and other exhibit areas, you get to play detective too. You look through the wall of letters from a mother to her deceased son.
You check out the clothesline collection of letters, photos, and documents, including a shirt created from the letters and documents. You find the police report. You open drawers and find files and letters and documents. And the brick with a stark threat. What does it all mean? As you put the pieces together the story emerges.
The $35,000 on the calculator. The ashes in the waste basket. The stack of past due notices. The song book in the end table below the jewelry box with the cufflinks. The letter from Johnie’s “friend” in the military.
It is a heart breaking story.
Although the artist encourages you to go gently through the files folders and envelopes and documents, I felt twinges of guilt from decades old inner messages. As children we visited lots of family in different parts of the country, so as very small boys our parents taught us not to go through other people’s private things. And that was exactly what I was doing. It felt like a sacred trust to go through such emotionally freighted belongings.
Yesterday evening as I went through the exhibit again and created images for this article, a woman was sitting at Johnie Tucker’s desk. His suicide note was laying on top of the desk in a clipboard. She opened a drawer and pulled out some documents. As she did that, it seemed to me that she looked through the papers with a sense of reverence. She took her time. She was deep in thought.
This is not an exhibit where you walk past the art, nod, smile, complement what you like, criticize what you don’t, and move on. This will take some time. You are digging into several people’s lives.
“Picking Up the Pieces” is a look at the unique story of the Tucker family. But it is more than that. It is about looking at some of the corners of our own lives. Sorrow and difficulty and pain come to us all. In the brave and remarkable openness with which Julia allows us to look through the pieces of her family’s life, it is almost impossible not to reflect on our own. Long ago a friend said to me “Pain that is shared is pain that begins to heal.”
While I was reflecting on Julia’s exhibit, my grandson was in the Tucker girls’ play room. He crawled into the blanket fort. What child doesn’t like a blanket fort?
He came back out of the fort and he played with the Fisher Price Airport. The same kind of toy airport our own children played with when they were young. He played with the plane and he ran a car down the ramp of the airport parking garage. It was a nice and happy counterpoint to the thoughts I was having.
Young children going through exhibit will see an entirely different kind of place than their parents or grandparents. In the bedroom, the Sound of Music is playing on the TV.
Inside the blanket fort a home movie of childhood scenes plays on the ceiling.
Throughout the exhibit there is meticulous attention to detail everywhere you look. Amid all the literal details there is symbolism too. Why is the parent’s bed divided by a wall?
There is something for everyone in this exhibit. Do not miss this opportunity to wander through and savor what you choose. This exhibit is well worth the trip if you live in Des Moines or Independence Missouri. And yes, if you have been keeping track, this is my third article this month promoting this exhibit.
The exhibit is open through Friday, March 1, 2019 at the Helene Center for the Visual Arts, Graceland University, Lamoni Iowa.