Robyn Beattie, photographer, says seeing, collecting, and creating art has become increasingly important to her well-being. She is fascinated by the minutia, and much of her artwork shows only details. She finds beauty in the parts, the portions, without need for borders and edges. Her photographs reflect her fascination with the mysterious and with nature’s processes: birth and death, flow, decay, seeds, and metamorphosis. She often draws inspiration from things that are understated or elemental.
Poet Tania Pryputniewicz and photographer Robyn Beattie Interview, with Nicelle Davis
This series has a wonderful structure; it read almost like a stage play with characters who enact the grieving process. How did you choose this format?
The poems came one at a time over a period of months after Ananda’s passing. I left them in the order they arrived in; I think the format emerged as a type of layered listening that evolved out of a desire to express Ananda’s viewpoint as well of those of us grieving her loss. I ended up with four windows: Ananda speaking from the other side, poet witnessing the grief of the living, photographer sister, the poet’s daughter picking up on the grief and making a doll in response (and knowing intuitively to assuage the photographer’s grief by taking a photograph of the doll), a view of the other side, and finally, Ananda speaking one last time about a childhood memory of the salamanders mating in the creek.
For you, what do the personae as a group capture about grief that they could not on their own?
Braiding together our female (sister/mother/daughter) selves as well as our art forms (photography, sculpture, poetry, doll-making) seemed a natural way to extend our time with Ananda, to be her “eyes” and a way to collaborate with her beyond our loss of her on the physical plane. I know on a cellular level you can’t heal loss by wishing the sorrow away or rushing the grieving process. But maybe you can listen to your dreams (by night) and intuitions (by day) and still communicate with a departed loved one whether or not that loved one communicates back from the other side. It is worth a try—I hope the poems as a group make a bridge of sorts for readers/witnesses to cross.
I love the play between words and images in your work. What do you hope readers will overhear in the conversation between the poem and photographs?
I wanted the images and words to be a continuation of manifest love between sisters, mother/daughters, and women artists. I love Robyn very much and I wanted to comfort her. I think all poets (writers, artists and musicians too) are empaths of varying degrees. I didn’t set out to write the poems, but I was very affected by living in the field of Robyn’s grief during that first year after Ananda died.
Simultaneously I was witnessing Robyn coming into her own as a photographer of beautiful micro-worlds (like Angel Bones, or Blue Rhythm) and frankly I was sad Ananda wouldn’t get to see Robyn’s beautiful work, or who Robyn was becoming. The series features the work of both sisters—dually, in the case of the photograph of the mermaid--in a way they weren’t able to do while Ananda was living because Robyn was just arriving at her passion at the time of Ananda’s passing. I’m curious to know what readers will see, overhear, or be inspired to create themselves.
This is such an initiative elegy. Would you mind giving us more background information about this tribute poem?
Sure, I can talk about the relationships between the people in the poem, as the relationships determined the structure for me. Ananda Beattie was an artist, sculptor and writer living in Oregon. Her sister Robyn Beattie (who also happens to be my father’s wife) is a photographer. Robyn took the photograph of Ananda’s mermaid sculpture. Following Ananda’s brain aneurysm in the garden (which still houses the mermaid sculpture), my daughter made a seaweed doll and asked me to take a photograph, guessing the doll and photograph might help Robyn’s grief.
In the poem it is a child who provides a means for healing. Why do you think it is children who usually present the best solutions for emotional turmoil in literature?
Isn’t it sweet--I think any of us with children have witnessed their purity of impulse. Aren’t we drawn to them for that simplicity, openness, and capacity to be in the present moment…I don’t remember us speaking of Ananda’s passing or Robyn’s grief directly that day on the beach, but it was a new fact for our family and we were certainly all affected by the loss. Robyn had made me an album of photos, including three photos of Ananda’s mermaid sculpture.
The image of the seaweed doll seemed so entwined with the notion of mermaid, or mermaid child. Something unspoken passed between all four of us that day; I was aware of it while my daughter was assembling the doll, and again when I was photographing her holding the doll. I had a strong sense the image might move Robyn.
I think also of the lead little girls in A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, both child heroines who suffer the loss of parents and have to find their way. I think we side immediately with children in terms of their innocence and their station as smaller beings with less power than the adults dictating their circumstances. Yet they persevere against adversity to blossom. They heal by example: observing and translating what they see around them into actions that may make manifest a subconscious terrain they find themselves navigating without guidance.
What new projects have you been working on?
In the works is a series of poems based on iconic women like Amelia Earhart, Sylvia Plath, Joan of Arc, and Nefertiti. I have been making photo/poem montages (setting voice recordings of the poems to music—with for example, my father on piano--and slideshows of Robyn’s photography).
The collaborative process between Robyn and I has evolved from me simply pilfering photos from her growing image library (as I did for Anand’s Line and Lady Di) to handing Robyn a stack of poems that she keeps in the back of her head as she goes about her photographic life. She’s been shooting new images (shot specifically for the photo/poem montages we plan on completing soon). That feels even more collaborative and inspiring to me because she is creating new images and we are playing together.
Though this collaboration between you and the poet was more static than your current collaborations, what would you say is the effect of the words and poems together in Ananda’s Line, for you, as the photographer? What do you overhear, or hope a viewer/reader, might overhear in the conversation between words and images?
Ananda means "bliss" in the sanskrit language. While creating art, my sister embodied that meaning. Given a chunk of clay, she would "follow her bliss" during the creation process. She loved to swim, and often jumped into clear cold mountain streams. I believe she fancied herself a mermaid, with her long wavy red hair flowing behind her in the water.
I photographed the mermaid after she died. It (the mermaid) was sitting with her tail in the reflecting/gazing pond that Ananda built near her home in Oregon. To my eye, the mermaid is infused with my sister’s fantasy/dream world.
What does having the finished collaboration published mean for you? Did you want to say anything more about Ananda’s work, or how she might have responded to your photographic work?
I am glad that Tania's poetry is being recognized. She seems to pick up and retain so much, often in one short moment, and her imagery is lovely: "pale violet of her downcast eyes" and "the milklines of sea salt mazing my chest".
I am honored that Tania has included my images in so many of her submissions, and that I have now been published in a number of venues through my collaborations with her.
Somehow my grief is married to the beauty I experience when I think of my sister. Part of the mystery is that when I am missing her, I feel joy mixed with my sorrow. They feel inseparable, as if they are in solution together. For that, I am grateful. It makes the sadness bearable.
Even though Ananda's own artwork is still with us, her paintings, drawings, and sculptures, the fact that poetry written about her is now being published makes her stamp upon this earth more indelible.
Ananda's response to my artwork is something I may never know, but I am sure she would have encouraged me to keep at it, knowing what joy it brings me.
Can you talk about your photographic process?
My camera is almost always with me. Many of the images I take are literally stumbled upon: noticing an alleyway while walking to the ice cream parlor, looking into dark cracks, eyeing holes in the road, peeking into abandoned buildings. I look for shapes in the ashes of a fireplace, decaying metal, broken glass. I am often amazed by the integrity of the discarded and beauty of the overlooked.
Time seems to stand still when I stop to take photographs. I am "lost", absorbed in the beauty of the moment, in the possibilities.
How does shooting photos to poems change your photographic process, or eye?
I have really enjoyed creating images that may be used in one of Tania's existing poems, and capturing others that may inspire a poem. Tania and I often prefer photos that imply or suggest, rather than being literal. There is so much variety in her work, and in mine as well. We both are attracted to ethereal and dreamy images, so it feels like a good match. It is a rich way to work and play together.
“...the changing skies are charged with ions..”
--Ananda Beattie (1958-2008), Upbeat Downtown, The Drain Enterprise
I. Mermaid (Ananda to Robyn)
For now, your eyes must do for both of us,
charting the border where I last stepped
and you, sister, begin:
the honeyed foam of horse’s bone,
the tan corridor of piano hammers--
hipped, blue-backed—awaiting hands,
the ethereal hum of flower’s dome,
the indigo butter where petals
swirl sunward from their stems,
the milklines of sea salt mazing
my chest and neck and cheek,
the red rutted clay of my hair
still damp across your lap.
IV. Other Side
Black jade of lawn,
solid chill beneath hem of skirt
along shins, bare feet in wet grass.
Past the bonfire’s light
and the grown-up’s easy banter,
the lime wink of fireflies:
one trapped in your hand,
its rear bead a tiny dusty lantern
for you to see her by
as she nears the crossing. Kind,
but unapologetic: she’ll remain
in the charged dark of dream.
V. Mermaid II: Bliss (Ananda to Robyn)
Because you’ve dreamed me here,
on occasion with sudden clarity
I see the black of rocks
obsidianed by water
and the tips of your knees
touching mine as we crouch
side by side to the persimmon glint
of water over salamanders—
hundreds—mating in the creek.