Art and creative writing faculty members address the psychological effects of modern society and the human condition.

By Samantha Stainburn

One often-overlooked aspect of improving health is finding ways to deal with the psychological and existential fallout of living in a world that is unpredictable, frequently violent and continually perplexing. How can we process a loved one’s death? What does it mean when a child goes missing? Why are we poisoning our world with plastic? How do we go on after cataclysmic events like the September 11 attack on the world trade center or Hurricane Katrina? At Adelphi, faculty in the english and fine arts departments tackle such questions through their creative work. Here, four faculty members discuss their latest efforts to better understand the human condition.

Recognizing the Missing

The Felix Pollack prize-winning book of poetry, Last Seen (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011) by Associate Professor Jacqueline Jones LaMon, J.D., M.F.A., was inspired by case histories of long-term missing African American children. But the poems are not about the children. The book depicts the world the children, and others who’ve disappeared, left behind.

The poems describe mothers, fathers, siblings and classmates of missing children. The absence of the missing impacts society, Ms. Jones LaMon explains in a conversation in her office in Harvey Hall. A runner wins a race because a better athlete went missing, she says, or an honors student who was abducted never becomes a scientist. “Who knows what contributions this person could have made,” she says.

More than half a million people are reported missing each year in the United States, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. They’re abducted by strangers or family members or they run or drift away. In 2010, about 77 percent of the people reported missing were children under age 18 and about 33 percent were African American.

Though we may not be conscious of it, we hear “the voice of their absence” in our daily lives, Ms. Jones LaMon believes. “We have holes in our society that we’re trying to not acknowledge,” she says. “Any or all attention that can be given toward those voids is a step toward healing.” Acknowledging the gaps also reminds us to “honor what we do have,” she adds.

Ms. Jones LaMon, the director of the M.F.A. in Creative Writing program at Adelphi, often writes about the missing, the voiceless and the invisible people in our society. Her previous work includes The Legend of Clarence Thomas, a chapbook that investigates how the early years of the first African American Supreme Court justice created the person he is now, and a series of poems about Aunt Jemima and the actresses who’ve portrayed her over the years. Poetry is Ms. Jones LaMon’s chosen medium because, she says, “I can write a prose poem that is so layered that it conveys four levels of meaning. I can’t necessarily do that in an op-ed piece.”

With Last Seen, which also received an NAACP Image Award nomination this year, Ms. Jones LaMon hopes to push readers to contemplate the ways they might be missing in their own lives—in relationships, for example, or by the way they cut off parts of themselves to fit into different categories or situations. “The work was inspired by missing children, but it became larger,” Ms. Jones LaMon says.

Dealing with Loss

In a solo exhibition this past winter at the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut, Assistant Professor of Art Carson Fox, M.F.A., hung 112 icicles, which she’d cast from resin, from the ceiling. Ms. Fox, whose work can be found in the Museum of Arts and Design (New York) and the Royal Museum of Belgium, among other permanent collections, also cast hundreds of snowflakes out of resin, then arranged them on the walls. Her sculptural installations push back against the fear of loss and inevitability of death, themes Fox began exploring in depth after her mother died 10 years ago.

“In this controllable world, I can prevent icicles from melting, create larger-than-life snowflakes in preposterous configurations and freeze flowers as they bloom,” Ms. Fox explains in an artist’s statement. “In the fantasy of artificiality, the fleeting moment is held in stasis and death is denied.”

On a personal level, Ms. Fox says, making art gives her “a way to work out all the things that haunt me.” She explains: “Loss doesn’t go away. But art helps me think about broader issues of mortality. What do I want to leave behind, and why is that important? What am I getting out of this particular moment? It helps me think about things that are bigger and deeper than I would otherwise.”

But her work has a public health benefit as well. While Ms. Fox’s pieces frequently spring from specific memories or dreams—shortly after her mother’s death, she dreamed about icicles melting, and she’s used resin flowers in her sculptures in reference to flowers her mother grew—viewers often see their own personal histories reflected in her work. “Everyone has this similar narrative of loss,” Ms. Fox says. “I find the more personal I get about my experience, the more universal it is.”

Viewing a piece of art that makes you feel there’s someone else on the planet you connect with can provide relief from the darker aspects of the human condition, like isolation or death. “As human beings, we desire that feeling of union because we feel alone most of the time,” Ms. Fox says. “In art, there can be these little moments where we don’t feel all alone.”

Paying Attention to the Environment

America’s transformation into a society that throws away 28.5 million tons of plastic a year happened without much public discussion, but Associate Professor of Art Jennifer Maloney, M.F.A., is drawing attention to the consequences of that choice in her new series of paintings which depict discarded plastic spoons and bottle caps. The bottle-cap paintings look like attractive abstract compositions until you get up close; then the meticulously painted caps, most of which Ms. Maloney picked up off the streets of Brooklyn, seem upsettingly numerous.

Ms. Maloney is an observational painter who likes to place everyday objects in new contexts to prompt viewers to question what they know of the objects and make new associations. For the past few years, she’s painted what she describes as her version of 7th century German Wunderkammers (‘cabinets of curiosities’)—collections of objects, specimens and oddities designed to educate.

Her Wunderkammer paintings describe specific people or moments in her life. A painting that she completed after her father died from cancer includes objects from his hospital stay and items she found in his car—a pill bottle, his eyeglasses, a torn Sweet ’n Low packet, an extension cord, a mousetrap.

Certain objects reveal truths about who we are, she says. “Even though it’s autobiographical, I make art to understand the world better, what things mean.”

Surviving Tragic Events

Associate professor of art Christopher Saucedo, M.F.A., a sculptor from Brooklyn who recently returned to New York after 20 years in New Orleans, makes art that tries to advance a philosophical discussion about what it means to be alive.

For September 11 (Please Stop Saying 9/11), a solo exhibition that opened on the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center bombings at the Good Children Gallery in New Orleans, Mr. Saucedo produced 10 different views of the World Trade Center complex floating in the familiar blue sky of that day. The images of the buildings are made from layers of linen pressed into large sheets of handmade blue paper, giving them a hazy, ethereal feel. Mr. Saucedo’s youngest brother, Gregory, a firefighter, was one of the 2,600 people who perished when the buildings collapsed, but his body was never found. “The most mysterious thing is that my brother Gregory has vanished,” Mr. Saucedo says. “His body was literally consumed and pressed into the World Trade Center, and he’s gone.”

For another recent show, at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, Mr. Saucedo perched a tiny chair on a platform of glass and wood atop a one-ton pile of oyster shells. “Saucedo astutely observes that while relentlessly resilient, the Crescent City forever rests on less than solid ground,” art critic Bill Sasser wrote in Art Voices magazine. Mr. Saucedo experienced that reality firsthand during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, when his house in Gentilly was flooded by seven feet of water.

“My personal involvement may have been a driving force in why [these pieces] came to the surface, but in both cases, I’m trying to approach [the ideas] from a shared perspective,” Mr. Saucedo explains. “I hope the work is personal to everyone, in that all citizens of the planet understand that being in a house on a pile of oyster shells would be fragile. People understand that cloudlike images in a blue sky with a geometric overtone might imply architecture and then loss, because they’re floating in the sky.”

Although Mr. Saucedo tends to explore unsettling subjects, he maintains an optimistic view that art promotes higher-level thinking which can lead viewers to make the world a better place.

“Art has a responsibility to help people see things differently, to record the world around us and to promote social change,” Mr. Saucedo says. “I’m not trying to tell you what that direction might be. Good art doesn’t ask a question and tell you an answer. Good art asks you a question and shows you multiple answers.”

This piece appeared in the Erudition 2012 edition.

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