Woman Crush Wednesday: Elizabeth Claffey
Interview by Anna Robertson
I am incredibly interested in your process. How do you create the transparent, ethereal quality of your work? Why do you think it is more impactful or more in line with your artist statement than if you had photographed the clothing, the Kleenex, in a more straightforward, documentary way?
I think of these items as carrying secrets; knowledge of the past, one’s body, family stories, joys and traumas. In order to reveal those histories, it was important to translate the garments or objects instead of documenting them; I wanted to access a truth as opposed to a fact. I work on a lightbox in order to create the transparencies. Initially, I started out in the darkroom making photograms but got pregnant with my second daughter soon after starting the series and couldn’t use the chemicals necessary to continue. It turned out to be a gift in disguise because working on the lightbox allowed me to bring out more detail in the objects and also handle them more intimately.
What is the importance of material things, specifically clothing, to you?
I am a collector… it has taken me a long time to use such a friendly term. I always considered myself a pack rat, and I’ve tried so many strategies to change. This work was my redemption! My partner, who is super organized and not sentimental about things, teases me because my sister, mother, and I have bags of old clothes that remain in rotation constantly. Matrilinear was moved forward by six undershirts that belonged to my grandmother… I just couldn’t let them go. We live in a society of disposable goods but I was raised by two storytellers who saved everything. My father grew up in Queens during the Depression and my mother was raised in the deep south with very little money. Many of the items I’ve kept were handmade and cared for with the sense that they would not only be useful but also provide comfort to future generations – there was no assumption that life would get easier or better. These items represent a cross-generational conversation, a link between people who have never met but impact each other in terms of identity and experience. It is very moving to hold an item that your grandmother or great grandmother considered precious. Clothing also represents ritual—making, sorting, folding, dressing—these are individual as well as collective actions, both mundane and memorable.
It says in your bio you received a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies. How do you think your photography has changed, benefited, from your interdisciplinary education?
In my experience, art making is not only about making art, it’s also about expressing concerns or ideas, personal stories—of intellect, experience, or imagination—that might have universal implications. Photography is one of my activisms, and my education in women’s studies, humanities, politics, and social sciences was the big reveal. It put language and evidence (both qualitative and quantitative) to my experiences and also widened my perspective so that I could see the gaps in my knowledge. It taught me about my privilege and my struggle; I learned about power and its fluidity; structures and hard-to-discern systems that must be challenged. Above all else, my liberal arts education taught me how to construct dynamic questions that I could return to throughout the highs and lows of my studio practice. This ongoing education strengthens my drive and feeds my curiosity.
What made you decide to photograph these Kleenexes, and, more importantly, what made you frame the images in an oval, rather than their original rectangle format?
The oval references both a portrait and a womb; it’s a cradle and a grave—exploring the plane of existence that is birth and death. These are both topics and times of life that are difficult to examine and explain, and painful to connect. I reference the portrait as a way to assert the meaning of mundane objects that are often overlooked. These disposable items carry some of the most intimate elements of our body: tears, secretions, mucus; all signifiers of a physical and emotional experience, evidence of our humanity.
This series was a surprise – I should give context to the work by saying that for most of my artistic life, I’ve looked through a wide-angle lens (literally and figuratively), exploring context as opposed to details…. Over the past few years, my attention has shifted, perhaps to the point of obsession as I record and collect the details of caretaking. While going through old clothes, I was struck by how many tissues I found hidden inside pockets and sleeves. I struggled to let them go, not for a specific moment or memory but for all my memories. In this space of interaction with my ancestors, parents, siblings, and children, letting go of one thing can feel like letting go of everything. These small items uncurled into representations of skin, scars, time, vulnerability, and strength – elementally birth, death, illness, and recovery. More often than not, I’m making this work because I feel that if I can capture the essence of these objects, then I can let them go.
Describe your creative process in one word.
If you could teach a one-hour class on anything, what would it be?
Trust. Trust in self, process, uncertainty, community, intuition, intellect, and instinct. It’s easy to think of photography as an expression of one’s eye but it’s a tool to connect hand, heart, mind, and body – you have to trust that all of those parts keep knowledge that is not necessarily available to your conscious self.
What was the last book you read or film you saw that inspired you?
Book: The Argonautsby Maggie Nelson
What is the most played song in your music library?
Anything by Bruce Springsteen or Chance the Rapper
How do you take your coffee?
Really, really strong
To see more of Elizabeth’s work, visit her site here