An antique slot machine. A set of forks from World War II. A plush star ornament. These are among the items photographed for “Saved: Objects of the Dead,” an exhibition examining how material things can embody the otherwise abstract emotions of loss and memory. At the UCI Student Center’s Viewpoint Gallery from Jan. 28 through Feb. 17, it’s a collaboration between UCI English lecturer Lorene Delany-Ullman and North Carolina-based artist Jody Servon.
The women both turned to creative expression to cope with grief. Delany-Ullman, who earned an M.F.A. in English at UCI in 2003, had been grappling with the sudden death of her mother-in-law. She began to write. Servon, who had lost her father and three friends in one year, began photographing people’s mementos of deceased loved ones. Ten years ago, they met at an artist residency and decided to blend their projects.
“Saved: Objects of the Dead” features Servon’s images on striking white backgrounds, each paired with a poem or story carefully crafted by Delany-Ullman from a survivor’s memories of the item’s onetime owner. “The descriptions are not always sentimental, as the photographs are not,” says the UCI alumna. “The point is to focus on the object and its meaning.”
One image depicts a small, yellow chili container from Wendy’s. The text accompanying it, by Delany-Ullman, reads: “In her cookbooks, hundreds of dog-eared recipes. Or sometimes she wrote on strips of paper: I like this because. Everybody thought she was a redhead; she was the cool mom on the block with shades and wigs. She cooked her favorite five, though her son only remembers three: Hawaiian pork chops, chuck wagon mac, and BBQ spare ribs.”
Delany-Ullman and Servon invite anyone to submit their own items to be included on their social media pages. Having a platform for expressing grief, they note, encourages connection in times of pain.
“It acknowledges that mourning is independent but also a process that needs community support,” Servon says. “People are generous with the objects they share, and they reinforce the idea that this community of objects is a way to remember the people you’ve lost.”
The exhibition has appeared at numerous university campuses, museums and galleries across the country. Most recently, it was hosted at the San Juan Capistrano Library.
Last fall, Delany-Ullman decided to bring a piece of the project to UCI undergraduates through her writing course. Students read poems, memoirs and fiction about grief and discussed and wrote about their own encounters with it.
“They responded to the class really well. I was surprised by how many of them had experienced death and traumas so strongly but didn’t have an outlet for their pain,” Delany-Ullman says.
She hopes that students will engage with the project on both academic and personal levels and that it will inspire them to work through their emotions via creative means, as she and Servon have.
“With poignant art such as this, you can open new worlds to people. So many stories are never expressed but nonetheless special to us. This exhibition allows space for those stories,” Servon says.
For more information on “Saved: Objects of the Dead,” sponsored by UCI Illuminations, see http://illuminations.uci.edu/events/2020_01_28_Saved_Objects_of_the_Dead_Exhibit.html.