A Creative Inspiration article by Christine Saari
It all began with letters. Letters my father had written to me, his five-year-old daughter on an Austrian mountain farm, before he fell on the Russian front in April 1944. Heartrending letters about being a soldier far away. Letters of love and longing. Letters I could never read without dissolving in tears.
These letters were long my private treasure. But every time another war started somewhere, in Bosnia, in the Gulf, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, I thought of all the soldier fathers who missed their children, of all the children who feared for their fathers’ safety, of warriors who did not return.
One day it struck me – I knew I needed to share these letters, with my grandchildren, with young students, with as many people as possible.
That was the beginning of the inspiration to create “Family Album,” a collection of artful boxes, suitcases, bags and books that would incorporate family letters, documents and artifacts.
These mixed-media pieces would not only tell the story of three generations of my European family, but also the story of others.
They would tell the story of life and death, of celebration and grief, of childhood memory and the journey of immigration, of tradition and change.
I have been working on this project for nearly 20 years now and I keep being inspired in unexpected ways. When my father-in-law died and we found his WWII letters he had sent from Europe, I was struck with the recognition that our fathers were enemies. The result was “Make Love, not War”: three boxes containing letters – my father’s, my husband Jon’s father’s and our own love letters. When my grandson was baptized in the gown my grandmother had sewn, I created a triptych showing three generations of children wearing the same dress, three mothers in different parts of the globe linked by this dress. When we received Finnish Bibles after an aunt of Jon’s had died, I knew they needed a place to be kept. This became “Lutheran Songbooks and Bibles.” That led to “Catholic Childhood,” another container for treasures to honor my father’s and my own upbringing.
Frequently, the inspiration has come from an occurrence that jogged my memory of photographs and artifacts that needed to be in their own shrine. Maybe you have old letters, photographs, your grandfather’s shaving mug, your great aunt’s hair comb or hat? Don’t throw them out! Don’t leave them in a cardboard box in the closet! Honor them. Preserve them for your grandchildren and their children. Find a way to bring them out into the open, to make new from old. If you let yourself be inspired by the spirit of these items, ideas will come to you on how to create a visible record of your family story. You will see the links between the past and the present and you will feel connected to the rest of humanity.
And, do write letters, real letters, written by hand, sent in an envelope with a stamp. They will be priceless keepsakes for your descendants. They will tell them who you were, and remind them of their own place in the long chain of generations.
Christine Saari is a Marquette, MI artist, an Austrian and American citizen, and a packrat.
Reprinted from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Winter 2010 – 2011.