Fellow Artist: Laura Ricciardi, A selfie of family and legacy

Artist Laura Ricciardi conceived her thought-provoking body of work “Bedda Da Nanna” as she witnessed her maternal grandmother struggle through dementia. This in an attempt to answer a lingering question. “If art gives form to what otherwise seems formless, inexpressible, imperceptible, how does that translate for a person whose thoughts & memories & mind & words are slowly losing form?”

When did you know you wanted to do this project?

I’ve always been drawn to projects about family & legacy. This one specifically grew out of a comment that my grandmother made while we were trying to take a selfie one day. She saw her face on the screen and declared that she had gotten old and ugly. It was the first time I had ever heard her say something like that, and it felt so dissonant. I had been taking photos of her here and there, but it was in that moment that I decided to take a series of portraits, exploring beauty & aging. It grew from there, but that was the initial impulse.

Was she open to do it?

She was open to having her photo taken, but the project really evolved based on her sensibilities. My initial idea was to create these chiaroscuro portraits, like a Caravaggio painting in black-and-white photographs. When I showed her the first few frames, she asked me why half of her face was in the dark! I really wrestled with the question of her as a subject, and at one point, I suggested that she take my photo, and then we’d switch. I was curious about what & how she saw. She wasn’t interested in taking her own photos, but she was always willing to let me photograph her.

Do you consider your grandmother an archetype? If so, which?

I don’t. I can see how she would fit into certain archetypes, but to me, she’s my Nanna.

I think there’s always a fine line when you create work about someone you love. How do you create something that doesn’t reduce or abstract that person? I don’t think that referencing an archetype is necessarily reductive, so maybe the answer to this question is yes, but I am resisting the categorization. Looking back, I can see how I used, if not exactly archetypal imagery, then at least certain constructs of beauty to comment on them.

What memory or story did your grandmother hold on to the most?

One of the things that struck me, as her mind began to slip away, was how her hands remembered how to do certain things. I’d often ask her to tell me her recipes, as a way of engaging her in conversation when she began to retreat. She would forget the ingredients to the simplest recipes. Later, she could barely get the words out, but if you gave her the dough and began doing the motion together, her hands would remember.

How can young girls without a nanna discover the acknowledgement of beauty?

My Nanna cared about her outward appearance, but she didn’t fuss too much over it. A lot of that is because she came from a time and place where there that just wasn’t the cultural norm in the way that it is today, at least here. There was an earthiness about her that was so beautiful to me. And I think there’s something to that. If you recognize beauty as this force of nature that exists beyond you, as something that cannot be tamed or owned or maybe even defined, it starts to become recognizable in all its variations. That’s really what it is: to understand that beauty takes many forms. Art plays a key role in giving shape and voice to those forms. So in the simplest way, what I would say to young girls (and boys) is that when you recognize beauty in the world, in whatever form you see it, you recognize beauty in yourself. They are one and the same.

What non-physical trait did the two of you share?

Strength in softness.

Now that you see it realized as a project, what have you learned about

your own creativity?

I often have this dialectic within myself about speaking & not speaking, being seen & not seen. A lot of my work lately has been about drawing the eye in, inviting the viewer to come closer, to notice the unnoticed, to consider what is barely perceptible. This piece is different, because it feels very declaratory. You can see elements of the seen/unseen dynamic in it, but it feels like a new space for me.

The other thing, and this comes up nearly every time I make anything, but I learned that, when I am stuck, what unlocks things for me is to think about how a person will be interacting with the piece. That’s always the key for me. That, and allowing for cross-pollination. I originally thought of this as a project in a gallery space. I envisioned these giant, gorgeous prints of my grandmother. I’d walk her into the gallery, and she would see herself as a work of art. It’s so absurd and grandiose that this was my fantasy, but it was. A month or so before I took the last photo — I didn’t know that it was going to be the last photo, but it turned out to be — , I was reading a book by Elaine Scarry called On Beauty and Being Just. One of the ideas that Scarry explores is that beauty compels replication. It made think of replication in the context of offspring & genetics, but also in the replication of image in a digital age. That’s when I started to envision someone looking at the photos not in a gallery, but on a screen, with dynamic diptych that looped through these repetitive images in different configurations.

What was the very last photo of her that you took?

The last photo that I took that appears in this series is at the top of the “Words” section. We were in the car, on our way to renew her passport so that she could go to Sicily. Halfway through the ride, I looked down and realized that we had been holding hands. The very last photo that I took of her was a selfie of the two of us on an August night in our town square in Sicily a few weeks before she passed away.

What can males learn from Bedda Da Nanna?

I don’t think of this specifically as a female piece, but I can see how so much of it is about womanhood. I’ll leave it to men to decide for themselves what they get out of the project, but I do think that beauty transcends gender. We rarely call grown men “beautiful,” but I see a lot of beauty in men. Keats famously wrote that “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Truth knows no bounds.

Can we expect another installment or a body of work similar to this one?

I’d love to find a way to continue this work. One of my thoughts is to create a platform for others to do similar projects with their families, or to continue with a series of portraits that explore the grandparent-grandchild relationship in adulthood. When I think about my creative work, I’m struck by how much of it is for or about or in some way touched by my grandparents. It’s not surprising that my impulse to create (& to send that work out into the world) grew stronger as I witnessed my maternal grandparents struggle through dementia. Maybe the next iteration of this project is memory work with those afflicted by illnesses like dementia & Alzheimer’s. If art gives form to what otherwise seems formless, inexpressible, imperceptible, how does that translate for a person whose thoughts & memories & mind & words are slowly losing form?


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