Artist Hannah Reeves stitches memories together into mementos
We channel so much of our movement through the world toward these two words. Choices about our life's work, the relationships we cultivate and the spaces we exist in — all act like arrows pointing a certain way, the way we hope to be remembered.
Hannah Reeves addresses memory and loss, what we hold fast and what we let go, from another angle. The local artist approaches her work as one choosing who and how to remember. Exercising the compassion of a friend and the careful eye of a collector, Reeves creates mementos invested with attention and soul.
A recent body of work, displayed at Sager Braudis Gallery this month, bears Reeves' hands, head and heart. Attempting to wrap her mind around what we enshrine and how we grieve, she united found objects and time-intensive portraiture.
The resulting pieces express affection for the living and the dead while acknowledging the small but meaningful choices we make every day.
"We affect what we collect in our set of memories," she said.
Reeves, also the gallery's director, often joins different media in her work — detailed stitching, found objects, drawn or painted elements. These pieces consider what we sift and what we discard; and, by taking the form of inherited heirlooms, they unite whispers of the past with Reeves' present-tense concerns.
Before a current body of work crystallized, she prepared a series based on the 19th-century practice of ghost, or spirit, photography. Part creative and technical advance, part spiritual hustle, part genuine search for comfort, the genre employed double exposure techniques to show mourners what they wanted to see — the spectral presence of a beloved one.
Reeves hired models and readied reference images out of an interest in how death's weight might affect what we're willing to believe — or tell ourselves.
Then, the world and work turned. Creating during the pandemic, amid cycles of life and loss, Reeves' vision changed. The portraits she began reflected choices we make while building our own storehouse of memories.
"We collect people. We have to construct our mementos — and, really, we have to construct our memories in a way," she said. "At least, we file them away and I think we make some decisions about how we file away our memories."
Portraits capture their subjects in moments of repose or uncertainty. These images fit within objects Reeves collected over time: antique mirrors, frames, jewelry and more. Often ovals make the shape of keepsakes, of quite literally holding someone close to our hearts, in lockets or cameos.
Each object arrives with its own history, with the touch of previous owners. Working with and back into them, Reeves preserves some of the object's own memory while crafting something new.
In this series, Reeves sometimes introduces her subjects to wilder conversation partners. Blooms seem to emerge from a subject's head; a young figure starts losing their shape, uniting with the branches and birds around; flowers softly, sweetly threaten to swallow a body.
These interactions investigate the strange peace brokered between transience and permanence. We live out fleeting existences, gone in 80 or 90 years at best; and yet we rejoin a natural world that preceded us and will live on for eons more.
In the studio, Reeves met a guide into the maze of her own grief. Revisiting "In Memoriam A.H.H.," an epic poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, she encountered an artist laboring to make sense of death.
In line after line, Tennyson sought both intellectual assent to what death is and a deeper solace about what it might mean. He found possible answers in practices like prayer or the idea of life renewing itself, Reeves said. But the mental and spiritual toil of abiding death comforted her as much or more than any single phrase.
Tennyson's words became like "visual presences," moving around her in the studio, Reeves said. Catching one from the air and comprehending its influence, she matched certain lines to her pieces, fostering mutual empathy and understanding across time and art form.
Reeves' portraits take these lines as their titles — and take their place in a greater family with Tennyson's poetry and other creative explorations of death. They include:
"To Sleep I Give My Powers Away";
"The Shadow Sits and Waits for Me";
"In Words, Like Weeds, I'll Wrap Me O'er";
and "All is Dark Where Thou Art Not."
Between the beginning and the end
Many great artists work out a single, enveloping idea throughout their careers. Perhaps Reeves' one, true concept is accepting how each of our worlds begins and ends. With each series, she inches ever closer.
She leaned toward familiar themes in this body of work, yet experienced ripples and revelations. For the first time in her own memory, she completed a single piece before moving to the next. Reeves typically works on three or more pieces at once, she said; somewhere, she internalized the notion that a body of work loses its cohesion if the artist doesn't spread their energy around.
Completing a piece at a time also afforded greater interaction with her found objects. She slowed and stilled herself to understand what they wanted to be, she said, and how they might interact with the portrait inside. Reeves achieved degrees of closure, fully attending to one subject before approaching the next.
And yet, Reeves knows we don't create memories one at a time. Even if we narrow our focus to a single moment, other experiences crash over us like breakers and waves.
This reality was reflected in the way Reeves installed her work this month at Sager Braudis. Pieces shared a wall, arranged as if accumulated over time, rather than lining up single file, she said. Our collections change and grow over time; each constituent matters, but they begin gathering together, affecting one another by the sheer grace of their presence.
The significance of this series is only beginning, Reeves said. She sees how this work will influence future acts of making and collecting. We all try to discover the path we'll take through life's richest, most devastating realities; Reeves believes she might have found hers in the past year and a half.
"Maybe over my life, I’ve tried all these different ways — like Tennyson. Maybe your brain just searches and searches for a way to conceive of the loss," she said. "And you can’t really. And you can’t fix it. And you can’t go back to the things that are only in memory."
By repeating motions and serving each stitch, Reeves engages her memories — and the people inhabiting them — in a way that seems right.
"I know that I’ve gathered, and I’ve decided and I’ve tended — and that just feels like a fit," she said.
In doing so, she extends a compassionate promise — that someone will keep choosing to remember.
Some of Reeves' recent work will likely remain on display at the gallery after the August exhibit, she said. See more of her work at https://sagerbraudisgallery.com/hannah-reeves-summary or find her on Instagram.
Aarik Danielsen is the features and culture editor for the Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com or by calling 573-815-1731.