I recently saw an interesting exhibit at the art museum at Bowdoin College. Artist Jona Frank created an immersive exhibit that portrayed her childhood in the affluent town of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. With photographs, artifacts, re-created events and a doll house size replica of her childhood home, she established a confining, claustrophobic vibe.
In one photo, what could have been a happy mother-daughter experience of baking a pie comes across as forced and rigid. Despite the smiling faces, there is something creepy about the spotless kitchen and matching outfits. When I bake, flour ends up on the floor, on my clothes, sometimes in my hair. Here, there’s not a speck anywhere. A feeling of unease burrows under the too perfect gloss.
The tension remains, even when mother and daughter are apart. Some mothers will feel fulfilled, maybe even joyful, when dishing out food, but this mother is near tears. Will her food measure up? What will the family say? She seems tortured by her private thoughts. (By the way, these photos are contemporary re-creations, with Laura Dern standing in for Frank’s mother.)
Alone in the living room, the daughter seems both lost and constrained. The patterned wallpaper, a similarly patterned dress and a cross on the wall create a feeling of claustrophobia, almost vertigo.
In a birthday party scene, Frank arranges a series of cakes that spell out an explicit message: “You are not enough.” A girl must learn to bake a perfect pie, serve a perfect meal. But where does this message come from? Is it from the father (not pictured), suburban life, strict religious adherence, society in general? Frank leaves the viewer to reach her own conclusions.
Frank’s point of view is that of a girl growing up in a constricted environment, and she dedicates the exhibit to girls like her:
for every girl
in every town
who ever thought
Frank’s “what else” is at the heart of my work as a writer. Her concerns and mine are aligned. Yet I also felt empathy for the mother. Donning matching outfits and baking a pie with her daughter may be the most she can imagine. A mother myself, I wanted to consider her point of view as much as the daughter’s. But isn’t that the way it always happens? Our personal experience colors the art we see, hear and read.
I will leave you with that thought and write again in July. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you and hope your summer gets off to a great start.