Stacy Renee Morrison is a photographer keeping and telling stories between two women, between two centuries. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell where one ends, and the other begins. Much of her artistic career has been informed by a 19th-century trunk that seemingly fell from the sky to become the material makings of the girl of her dreams. But as in the case with all good stories, the through-line of Stacy’s practice can be traced back to when she herself was a child. Pioneering sleep researcher Rosalind Cartwright wrote, “Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation.” In her making, Stacy’s photographs can be understood as a form of creative performance and remembrance, one that records a new moment of being in the space between two histories. Her photographs expose what remains, restoring absence to presence in reverence.
I first “discovered” Stacy in The Creative Independent, and we began our own correspondence, exchanging letters of mutual admiration between two anonymous women. What follows is a conversation that started via Zoom, then continued over email. Many thanks to Claudia Pretelin for the opportunity to make visible Stacy’s work to another audience and to consider the stories we tell, the stories we keep, as well as the stories we keep to ourselves.
Sarah Webb: So much of your creative work explores the interplay between story keeping and storytelling. Can you trace this thread of inspiration to your childhood?
Stacy Renee Morrison: For as long as I can remember, I have loved stories from the past. I can recall doing my homework immediately after school to watch Little House on the Prairie completely unencumbered. I loved reading biographies about women. There was one children’s biography about Amelia Earhart, which I would read over and over again. My father and I read James Fenimore Cooper together. I was always entranced by the presence of a world long gone.
How I became a story keeper, a collector of sorts, who would come to collect dead women began when I was seven years old. It was then when a two-year-old girl named Loraine Allison began to haunt me. She was the only child traveling in first-class who perished on the Titanic. I discovered her in a picture book my parents had given me in hopes of satisfying the fascination I had with the ill-fated ship.
In the photograph reproduced in the book, she wears a white drop-waist dress and has an enormous bow in her hair. She is posed with her younger brother. They look slightly outside the frame as if perhaps someone was waving a stuffed animal to draw their attention to the camera, but they were off the mark. Every night in my Princess Leia nightgown, I would balance the oversized hardcover Titanic book in my small lap and look at Loraine before I went to bed. The enormity of the entire tragedy was defined for me in this small little girl, dressed like a little doll, who drowned.
Then as a teenager, I acquired the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov. My solemn preoccupation with her began with a book about Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the Imperial Highness. In those pre-internet days, I went to the library to find as many photographs of Anastasia as I could.
In one picture, she wears the familiar white cotton Edwardian dress in which she and her sisters were so often photographed. Her long hair drapes over one shoulder, and a portion of a white bow is visible on the crown of her head as she tentatively balances the camera on the back of a chair and uses a mirror to capture this breathtakingly hesitant self-portrait. I made many copies of this photograph and kept one in my coin purse. There was even a time I favored long white dresses in homage to the Imperial Highnesses.
I went on to read every known book about the last days of the Tsar and his family, studying the chapters about their murder in a Yekaterinburg basement. I desperately wanted to believe the claimant Anna Anderson because ruminating on Anastasia Romanov’s miraculous survival felt so hopeful rather than accepting the gruesomeness of her death. In 2007, when the remains of the two missing members of the Imperial family were finally discovered, I grieved for this young woman who died so violently at the age of seventeen.
In my senior year of high school, my AP European History held a salon for the whole school and I portrayed Juliette Recamier, wearing a Gunne Sax dress. As I hosted other history classes in my salon in the auditorium for one glorious afternoon,I felt the past come alive.
My earliest preoccupation with the stories of other women shaped my fascination for my later undercover detective work in women’s history. They instilled within me a devotion to giving these women from the past a present. These strange early obsessions drew my path for me, making me a story keeper.
SW: How (and when) did this process unfold into becoming an art practice?
SRM: When I was an undergraduate, my goal was to pursue a Ph.D. program in women’s history. Then I took one photography class in college that really resonated. I would spend hours in the black and white darkroom and fell in love with the process. I soon discovered that my curiosity about the past could be satisfied within the photographic frame. I could still be a detective and explore other women’s lives, but my observations could be with a camera. My graduate thesis was the first time I pursued this awakening.
SW: Let’s begin with the story of Sylvia DeWolf Ostrander and how she came into your life. In many ways, her story has evolved into your life’s work. Her presence becoming the girl of (your) dreams.
SRM: My story with Sylvia began with a small trunk filled with sentimental keepsakes discarded for garbage on a New York City street. I photographed all of the possessions belonging to this 19th-century woman. It was her anonymous relics, her nameless past, her story without words, that initially moved me, but soon the woman, the girl of my dreams to whom this all belonged, presented her gossamer face.
In the beginning, my research yielded very little. There was an absence of information about Sylvia. She was little more than a name and dates inscribed in now-fading ink in large leather-bound ledgers, and I had to draw from my well of inventiveness as an artist to make work about her life.
I asked myself: what would she have seen? What would have interested her? What would have held her attention as she walked down to the water from her home? It was her landscape, her childhood world, delivered to me a century and a half later that moved me. It was the streets in Bristol, Rhode Island, and New York City where she once walked, and I now followed. These were places she had once been. I photographed her world of then in the now.
Then I found Sylvia’s great-granddaughter, and soon Sylvia’s life unfolded before my eyes in the form of her ephemera: letters, invitations, journals, hand-pressed flowers, clothing, a lock of her hair, and even her perspiration now stiffly pressed into cotton cloth in one of her coats.
My response to all of this evidence was to let her life envelop my own. Indeed, it has. For almost two decades, I have examined Sylvia’s life through photographs, writing, films, silkscreen, and now a clothing line named for her. Although we were born 133 years apart, I feel like I know Sylvia better than most people in my life that are living today.
SW: I’m always curious how the spaces where stories are shared can physically alter the nature of the story itself. What do we choose to forget, to remember, to conflate, to silence? Can you talk about the multiple ways you have told Sylvia’s story and the ways she has spoken to you differently in place and time?
SRM: All of my work is about Sylvia DeWolf Ostrander. This is certainty. What is not as definitive in the photographs is the conversation between the tangible evidence she left behind, intertwined with my imagining of her world. While any biographer is expected to conduct copious research and remain as objective as possible, it is almost impossible to tell the story of someone’s life without a great deal of subjectivity. As Sylvia’s biographer, the photographs function from both a source of familiarity and obscurity. Ephemera from Sylvia’s world exist, but her world in the way she saw it, inhabited it and experienced it no longer does.
My photographs are based on certainties that I have learned about Sylvia’s life, but her reality is long gone. What has replaced it is my fantasy, a version of her life as I envision it. I rely on both of these particulars with equal faithfulness. As an example, I read what Sylvia wrote in her journal:
Thursday, October 18, 1860
Went to Beacon Street to see the Military and the Prince. Went to the Ball in his honor. Had a magnificent time.
Then I begin to imagine Sylvia: standing in the grand hall of the Academy of Music, slightly dizzy with giddiness within the whirlwind of what is happening before her eyes. Her face appears flushed. Although it is October, and there is a chill outside, the room where the party is taking place was aglow in soft candlelight and the warmth generated from a considerable crowd’s exuberance.
Sylvia stands somewhat nervously, with the silk ribbon of the dance card looped around her wrist. She uses her other hand to smooth out imaginary wrinkles on her delicate pearl-colored raw silk skirt. Multiple, weekly fittings preceded the finishing of this magnificent concoction of silk, lace, and velvet. She feels radiantly happy in her dress and is so pleased to be in attendance at such an important event.
She caught a glimpse of the Prince of Wales earlier in the day when she watched the parade on Beacon Street, but she hopes to see him yet again this evening. From the animated whispers around the room, she knows he had arrived sometime shortly after 10 p.m. The orchestra is just now finishing playing God Save the Queen.
William approaches her.
“Lovely, Sylvia, it is time for our dance,” he says, adhering to the strictest conventions of courtesy but also with a degree of flirtatiousness.
She allows him to take her gloved hand in his own, and they glide along the floor for the start of the second Quadrille called Sicilian Vespers by Zerrahn. They would dance together for this and Nocturne by Strauss and finally a lancer, American, by Helmsmuller.
And time bleeds…
Sylvia’s 19th century slips into the 20th, and so forth, the stopping point is now the early part of the second decade of the 21st century where I am found in Newport, Rhode Island, attending an 1860’s ball held by The Commonwealth Vintage Dancers. There I stood above the dancers in the mahogany wainscot balcony overlooking the marble dance floor.
Gone was my century – replaced with hers, as the room lit with candles and swirls of colorful hooped skirts twirling. With my camera on a tripod now becomes a delicate balancing act. I perch dangerously close to the edge of the balcony and seek Sylvia, bringing 150 years of the past to the present: In this moment, I photograph Sylvia as she was, dancing at the Ball on October 18, 1860.
Sylvia and I went from being anonymous strangers, who could only address each other in the place between slumber and wakefulness, to an intimate bond neither undeterred by time nor the fact that we would never meet in person. Sylvia lives in my mind. This graciously allows for specific esoteric directives from the inexplicable realms of what can be understood as the creative process.
My work represents the continuity of (her) life; to attest to the hopefulness that memory does not die. They ask the viewer to remember and celebrate Sylvia, the woman who died so very long ago, and what remains of her life and how she still exists today.
SW: It’s interesting as Sylvia first became known to you from within the confines of a trunk, waiting to be opened. How do you see your role as both Sylvia’s story keeper and her storyteller? How does one nest within the other?
SRM: Sylvia’s trunk was this Pandora’s box. I allude to the myth, not because the trunk remitted enmity into the world, but it did open an incomplete tale, a mishmash of complex clues, and a woman deserving of her narrative. Besides an evident mystery, the trunk made me melancholic and reflective, with its gaze from life to death, and it made me culpable- for the responsibility of Sylvia’s life had now befallen upon me. The trunk, as sentimental and exquisite as it was, was also a burden. Through the early months of forestalled and disappointing research, I clung to the story of Pandora’s box, for what remained inside after it closed was hope.
I was only a story keeper then. Her stories did not yet exist. I had to invent them. Sylvia was historical fiction. After I met Sylvia’s great-granddaughter, who generously allowed me access to her journals, letters, and other ephemera, I could become a storyteller. With her primary materials, patience, inexplicable connections, and webs spun – my images became fixated upon the details of her life that I had learned.
Sylvia was smart. She was bold. She was brave. She spoke up for herself. She was everything that was completely devalued in a woman in the 19th century. In the 21st century, though, she can be everything she may have dreamed of being through me.
SW: Let’s talk about Half-way to the Rail Station in the Hot Summer Weather. Like The Girl of My Dreams, you tell the story of two women from another time. However, these are members of your immediate family on the eve of the Holocaust in Poland. Is it different to walk with, to work through your ancestor’s stories, rather than those of an anonymous woman?
SRM: Half-way to the Rail Station in the Hot Summer Weather is a project that I began about a great-aunt who perished in the Holocaust. I discovered her in a photograph in my grandmother’s album, and I would later learn her haunting story. Sura was my grandmother’s older sister, and she stayed behind in Poland to take care of the family bakery.
My grandmother arrived in the United States in 1927 when she was 13 years old. Eighty-eight years after my grandmother left Poland, I returned. I stood in what was most likely the bakery that had been taken from my family and discovered Sura’s tragic fate of dying in the Warsaw Ghetto. During this process, I learned of another great-aunt named Tunia, and I have expanded my search looking for her life before the nightmare of her death too.
I have discovered very little about these women, no personal details or stories, and those that may have had memories of them are now all gone.
I think about this project as combating the very nature of this cataclysm, where the intent was to erase them completely. I want to return them to their presence in the face of such a formidable absence, to honor their lives that were cut short in the gravest of circumstances.
Finding Sylvia in death was romantic. Losing my great aunts to death so malevolent is very painful to contemplate. We share the same blood. Family wounds differently.
A central question I think about is the parallel fates of my grandmother and her sister, what staying and what going meant, and how these fateful decisions were the difference between life and a most horrible death. I also reflect upon the precariousness of time, and what it meant to be born then and there compared to when and where my own life is lived.
SW: Grace Paley once said, “You write from what you know but you write into what you don’t know.” How does this resonate in regards to your approach to artmaking?
SRM: A great deal of my inspiration comes directly from Sylvia’s own words in her journals. Nine journals remain dating between the years 1858 to 1869, from when Sylvia was 17 to 28 years old.
Before I met Sylvia’s great-granddaughter and the discovery of her diaries, whispery pictures would flash through my mind: quick bursts of light and color, a striped dress, a funeral coterie, a house, a carriage speeding down the street, snow, candlelight, ink-stained hands. These images projected like an unedited, over-exposed Super 8 film, but after reading Sylvia’s journals, images were now directly formed from the words written by this woman a century and a half before.
Through the meanderings of my imagination, I was able to see even before I knew exactly what it was that I saw. A lot of reimagining and fantasy beclouds each picture.
Sylvia’s journals are quite small. They measure 2.5 inches by 3.5 inches on average. There were spaces for only a few words each day. I wish she expanded more at specific points, and I even yearn for her to have embellished because she omits so much. Still, these tiny diaries, for what they were, for when they were written, and the fact that they still exist, are perfect time capsules. Tender daily tributes, a summary of her every day. For within the quotidian is the potential for the remarkable.
I love knowing when the weather was cold, when she went walking with the girls, danced at Anita’s, ate dinner at Delmonico’s, saw Faust at the Opera, heard Dickens read; each entry expanding the portal into her world. Her journals made her story possible. Her words created my photographs.
And with her own words, I would come to learn so much about Sylvia, with the paradox becoming, the more I discovered, the less I knew. I now had many more questions for which there were even fewer answers. For with Sylvia, I both write and photograph into those many things that I may never know.
SW: Has your experience in mining the archives of others affected your keeping of objects and ephemera? Have you considered what it might mean for you someday to become the site of (re)collection for another artist to interpret and explore?
SRM: I often wonder if there will be some woman almost a century after I am gone who, with the same painstaking earnestness, love and devotion, will dedicate themselves to the task of making sense of my life.
I do plan to leave behind some clues for this aforementioned potential heroine to salvage my story, and with the utmost graciousness, I grant her permission to interpret my life in anyway she sees fit.
I wonder too, what the latest technologies will be. We have this digital footprint right now, but what if this is no longer accessible in one hundred years? Are we doing ourselves a great disservice by not committing things to pen and paper, a black and white photograph printed archivally and pressed into an album? Will the clouds that store our memories one day disappear? I offer no predictions.
I think of all the collections I have built and of the archive of my artwork. I think of my closet, which brings me such joy-filled with vintage clothing collected over more than thirty years, and how the coats, dresses, and purses contain not only my memories but also those of anonymous women.
I want my dear friends to each take some belongings that they can then enjoy. I don’t want these objects dispersed in solemn remembrance. I want them to go back out in the world and create another story.
And one last message to the future woman who may one day rewrite my legacy; I am still undecided if I will destroy my journals.
SW: What is your favorite instrument of memory?
SRM: Lockets. For what is inside always lies close to your heart.
IoM: Thank you, Stacy!
Stacy Renee Morrison often forgets what century it is. She received a grant from the Rhode Island Council of the Humanities to research and make photographs about the life of Sylvia DeWolf Ostrander. She has exhibited her photographs in New York City, Rhode Island, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Toronto, Parma, Italy, Cordoba, Argentina and Jeonju, South Korea. Morrison is currently working on a book about Sylvia called The Girl of My Dreams. She also recently launched a silkscreened clothing line with images of Victorian women and ephemera named Sylvia after her beloved 19th century friend. Morrison teaches in the MFA Visual Narrative Department and BFA Photography and Video Department at School of Visual Arts. She is also a still-life photographer who makes quiet, polite, and sometimes-macabre photographs. She never misses an opportunity to dress up as a 19th century woman.
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