Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Cairn To Celebrate Memories Past & Present

A cairn to celebrate life. June, 2013. Iceland. One of 
a kind image on Harmen Direct Positive Paper. 

Today marks my 20th day in the wonderful country of Iceland. While I can't express enough the spectrum of life that now fills my heart and soul from being here, I must say it has been quite a struggle. Physically and mentally, I feel marked by my time here. These struggles come from an odd mix of circumstances. I have still not completely digested the fact that I finished my MFA and thesis show, then had a week and a half after to pack my whole life up and put it in storage. There is also a slight unforgivingness to the land here that has not only weathered me down emotionally, but has also had its effects physically. However, and more important than anything, the loss of my mother has weighed on me significantly. I was told of her loss on my third morning here. Already jet lagged, and not used to the constant light, I will never forget that day.

One of the hardest decisions I ever had to make was the decision not to go to her funeral. Not only did I know the travel back to the states would make me sick, both mentally and physically, but in the end, I am fond of my last memory of her. I didn't want to change that. I decided to stay here and celebrate her life the way I needed to. Though I cannot speak for my mother, I think she would be happy with my decision to not only deal with the circumstances the way I felt best, but to also keep looking ahead. Since I had just graduated two weeks before, I didn't get a chance to really talk to her about it, but I know she was extremely proud of my accomplishment in school and for my residencies. I am very glad she got to see such things. She always said she was proud of her son. That means so much to me.

The next three days might have been the hardest days of my life. Forget stressing out over framing and hanging a thesis show, or moving across country, or not having a home to come back to. This was the woman who brought me into this world. The loss of her was so outstanding to me beyond my limits of thinking. I couldn't begin to know how to treat that. She was only 49.

A few days later, I rented a jeep as part of my plan to circle the ring road of Iceland in search of lakes, rivers, and the sea as part of my project out here. Other than these projects, the only other thing that I knew for sure I wanted to do while out here was to make a cairn. Cairns are man made piles of stones, which have been used for various things such as path markers, monuments, or for ceremonial reasons. I learned about the countless number of these cairns in Iceland some years ago, when one of my favorite artists, Christopher Colville, made a series of tin type photographs of them during his travels here. I learned of how people made them as a symbol of their journey, whether for spiritual, religious, or other personal meanings.

On the first day of my four day trip, I already knew that this was how I wanted to celebrate the memory of my mother. I also looked at the map and instantly knew where it had to be: north of Raufarhöfn, the most northern part of the mainland in Iceland. This area was two hours away from the ring road, and not anywhere I had planned to be for this trip. It seemed completely relevant to not only have to make more of a journey out of this, but it felt very symbolic to do so in the most northern part of the island. The location on the map referenced the symbolism of looking up to the sky, the idea of where heaven is, of where our lost ones go. I am not a religious person and question those kinds of beliefs, but in that moment, it was what felt right spiritually.

I made it to Raufarhöfn late on the third night of my trip, which of course didn't feel late since the midnight sun was hiding behind very thick clouds amongst the Arctic Ocean. I took a seascape photograph of the ocean, dodged an attack by birds (for the third time), and spent an hour searching for stones and building my cairn. I then, hesitantly, took one photograph of it, on a positive film that acts the same way as Polaroid, which gave me one original print. I didn't originally want to photograph the cairn, because I felt it went against the ideas it represented, but in the end, I really wanted my family members to see it. I knew they would have a great appreciation for this, and understand the beauty I try to find in celebrating her life.

This cairn represents the loving memory of my mother, Terri Clarke, and the journeys ahead, in which she will always be a part of me.


DBrann said...

Excellent Johnny!

Kristiana said...


earthymom said...

wow! this was beautifully written and I cried through the whole thing. Love.....

John Steck Jr. said...

Thanks everyone. Earthymom, who are you?

Unknown said...

Wow! What an amazing way to pay tribute to your mother Johnny! I cried like a baby! I believe earthymom would be my sister-in-law Laura.
Take care of yourself!