This is the first Qeepr Q&A in what will be an ongoing project of interviewing fascinating and inspiring people within the world of funeral professionals, death and dying and memorialization. As a digital artist and personal historian, Gershman is a master at custom creating that one perfect memory in the form of digital photomontages she calls “Dreamscapes." We came across her website, Art For Your Sake, and became instantly intrigued by her work, her passion and the concept of memory manipulation and healing. We had the chance to ask Nancy Gershman some questions and her answers may surprise you:
Can you tell us who you are and what it is you do?
The term “memory artist” used to be associated only with conceptual art, but I found that it really resonated with people better than saying “Oh, I’m a digital artist and I do legacy work.” My work is digging deep down your timeline, way past your resume. In short form, I’m interested in forensically reconstructing a picture of your greatest memories (for which you have no photos) - or memories you wish you had. And into those “Dreamscapes” - especially the healing ones - I embed so much more than just memories. There will be meaningful objects and hidden meanings and inside humor, knowable only to that audience of one, or more people. In long form, I custom create Remember Me books, which are luxe, illustrated personal histories with a Dreamscape created for each of (10) first person narratives. The beauty of all this celebration, legacy and healing work I do is that it now endows an artist in residency I have at Visiting Nurse Service of NY’s Haven Hospice.
In addition, with my colleague Audrey Pellicano, I co-host Death Café New York City, where strangers meet over pots of tea to talk about things they can’t bring up with friends, family and co-workers.
I am a member and spokesman for Bereavement Artists, a community of artists and artisans who create custom art from your loved one’s memories and belongings.
And I’m creator of Tragicomedia, an oral history project where I interview comedians to teach mental health professionals and the bereaved about the healthy ways comedians process loss and regrets.
Can you tell our readers a bit about “narrative therapy/memory re-consolidation”?
Every time we retrieve a memory, we modify it. Add to that the re-contextualization of a photograph, as I do, and now the viewer is no longer seeing a 4-sided photograph calcified in sadness (because it’s an irretrievable past) - but instead is experiencing their deceased pet or person within a new context (infused with humor, irony, symbolism and other good things). This new memory, according to cognitive neuroscience, then gets incorporated into the old memory via the processes of reactivation, re-encoding and re-consolidation. The way I arrive at what this new memory looks like is through consensus-building with my client.
Commemorative art seems to involve an interactive element. Is this the case with your artwork? How do you work with your clients?
When I first spoke with Ruth (not her real name) over the phone, she was extremely distraught. For weeks, she had been in the process of organizing her mother’s belongings, and every time she’d pick up a photograph, its association with her mother’s death would devastate her.
Playfully and with humor, I coaxed Ruth to think about what her mother would say if she saw her in her current state (i.e. much raw pain). What came out of that conversation was amazing. Ruth had completely forgotten the events leading up to her mother’s death the day after Christmas. As she remembers it: “We were in Bellevue Hospital and Mom was dying. There was lots of decoration all around and I distinctly remember thinking: I hope she dies soon so she can go off with Santa. There is that time difference … he has to go around the world. But if it's the next day, Santa won’t mind waiting for her.“
That self-healing flight of fancy became the primary concept for Ruth’s Healing Dreamscape. To get her fully aboard, I engaged Ruth’s skill as a photographer, having her shoot a piece of sculpture in her mother’s apartment, which greatly reduced, became the snowman. It should be noted that the location rooted in happiness was the family home, circa 1960, and that the snowman in the original photograph was obscured by a friend of Ruth’s. The search for an alternative snowman led me to discover that Ruth’s mother was a sculptor, and that one of her pieces looked just like a snowman. Ruth’s circle of healing was created by the problem-solving and then by the seamless digital photo manipulation of her photographs.
How do you see your artwork evolving in the future with the advancements in digital technology?
Perhaps one day the successive layers in each photomontage will be animated. Audio on these layers might conceivably be activated by the viewer, and these could include sound bites or even musical selections tied to the deceased. With the advent of QR codes on cemetery gravestones and on granite markers and bronze plaques in mausoleums, or even cremation urns at home, people may soon have a completely immersive experience about the deceased, akin to the first kiosks. One click, and an animated Dreamscape could pop up. Another click could bring up beloved belongings (too fragile to keep forever), virtually displayed like museum artifacts.
You art seems to blur the boundaries between memory and truth. How do you work with your clients to navigate their memory and your re-creation of that memory, and has that process ever created any tension?
A good memory artist plumbs memory and creates a preferred story together with the client, and always in the service of healing. My line of questioning is all about teasing out the emotional truth about an event or experience involving the deceased; something deeply personal, and not necessarily felt by others.
As much as survivors try to faithfully describe the truth, what happens instead is that we come up with a commingled memory which feels truer than the facts. We strive for honesty and authenticity, and in the process end up having a great time constructing a backstory composed of factitious facts, embellished scenes and pure fantasy.
Co-creators are often friends of the family – not the bereaved themselves (although they will be intimately acquainted with the deceased) - who purchase Healing Dreamscapes on behalf of those most torn up by the loss.
Where do you see your work within the larger realm of memorialization (grief counselling, memorialization websites, death blogs)?
Memory artists are problem-solvers. Our work is not an off the shelf solution by any measure so we live by word of mouth. Healing Dreamscapes are both a service and a product: highly customized and entirely dependent on a person to person conversation -- so also, less likely to be a fit for an online store. In the same vein, Victorian hair jewelry was highly customized, with the client suggesting the incorporation of very personal themes or artifacts into the final design. The process was clearly as healing for the bereaved as the deliverable.
What is the most rewarding part of what you do?
The most rewarding part of what I do is presenting the Healing Dreamscape, and watching everyone blink twice, so to speak (yes, even on the phone) as they try and enter the piece to find out where each memory begins and ends. To watch the tears fall, knowing these are tears of a different sort because they now have something truly tangible to hold on to. To see a Healing Dreamscape make it to a screensaver or a T-shirt to be worn around the Thanksgiving table, or under a graduation gown, because it’s now good luck.
Thank you to Nancy Gershman for generously offering her time to answer our questions! Be sure to check out her incredible work: ArtForYourSake.com