Spirits Within: Building a new body of work.

I’ve been dealing with death in my work for a long time though it’s never particularly been an impetus or subject. As the time passed between my thesis work and my post-thesis work (in which my primary subject of birds shifted from dead specimens to living ones) I found myself pondering the place and purpose of mortality in my ever evolving perception of identity.

M. Levacy, Untitled (Eulogy Series #10), 2011, detail

It’s not that I didn’t address such concepts in my thesis work – it was an entire chapter after all – it’s simply that I addressed it from an observational standpoint in that it was part of why I chose to depict my birds as study skins as opposed to reanimating them as Audubon and others did. I touched on the facets of what humanities confrontation with mortality could stimulate in terms of self-reflection and assessment but in some ways I rejected that the work was in fact about death because I wanted it to be about modern relationships with nature more than anything else.

But, things can only really be what they are despite how metaphorical and poetic their eulogizing.

So now, a good four months from my last complete body of work (“Charting A Course”) I find myself on the brink of something new but also something rather familiar. My newest work is about death… again… specifically associations with the idea of the afterlife. But, because I can’t just let anything be exactly what it is and everything has to have something else to it (hey, we all have our little things), this new work is also largely about self-deception and barriers.

In a lot of ways I think that this work – which is consciously rooted in questions of mortality – will be more about the other things whereas my masters work was based on other things but predominately about mortality… odd how these things manifest. And that brings me to the research…. (speaking of “manifesting”).

After my post-grad body of work I took a breather and decided to regroup. I didn’t know where I wanted to take my work but I had this manic sort of anxiety that if I kept pushing what I was doing I was going to beat it to death and never want to do it again. I didn’t want this to happen because some really interesting stuff was happening and there was (and is) a lot of potential in some of the media and compositional explorations I touched on near the end.

So I gave myself permission to regroup and threw myself into my teaching until the end of the semester. Of course, I did make work (check out the “Daily 4×4” project in previous posts) but it wasn’t anything toward a new body of work – it was (in a sense) visual research. I played with media the way I similarly dabbled in a variety of diversions and interests. Because I felt uninhibited in terms of time constraints and subject I pretty much just went in whatever direction I wanted.

I watched a lot of documentaries on Netflix about nature, science, space, religion, and politics – all heavily interspersed with “ghost-hunting” shows like Ghost Adventures (a personal favorite) and Paranormal State (which I find irritating). I read books, listened to NPR, sketched my tree frog, and baked a whole lot of bread.

After a while the itch started to worm its way back in…. I started actively seeking out connections and reflecting on my interests and interactions. Despite my qualms at exploring more paranormal topics (because they frankly seemed rather out-sider-y and… insane..) I made the shaky decision to see where it led me anyway. Turning something that is simply a guilty pleasure into a more academic pursuit is always a bit challenging for me – I struggle to maintain a sense of conscientiousness that normally eludes me when I’m in it just for fun. Eventually, the analytic side always wins out and my background in art-history and researching starts to rise to the occasion.

I can now say I own more books on the history of spirit photography than I do on birds in art… this is not quite something I ever thought I’d be able to say, much less something I’d need to say. I also have a file on my desktop labeled Ectoplasm. Art, like love, goes where it will…

I became interested in spirit photography after looking at examples of modern ghost photography. As a photographer I was very interested in the concept of tangibly capturing the intangible on film. My exploration of pin-hole photography during my Eulogy series heightened my awareness of the deceptive nature of film and so the images I discovered became fascinating studies in the willingness to believe.

Of course, we’re all unique and different and what I’m willing to see someone else might not see and vice versa – therefore, what we choose to recognize is a matter of who we are as individuals and another way of being able to explore not only our ability to perceive but also our perception of self.

Image of medium (c. 1913) with personal notes. Click to enlarge.

This idea became the catalyst for more research (which temporarily lead to tarot and mysticism) and eventually I started to most interested in images of mediums from the early part of the 20th century. These photographs are often beautifully obvious works of artifice to the modern eye but at the time they were taken they were capable of deceiving even the most scholarly of scientist (at least for a time). The level of deceit only increased as the demand and skepticism rose. (If you’ve ever read Spook by Mary Roach, you know exactly what I mean by this…)

Image of medium (c. 1913) with personal notes. Click to enlarge.

I find that I am most drawn to the photos in which a woman – a ghost – is shrouded and veiled in a gauze or fabric.

It was some time before I realized that I’d taken images like these as part of my senior photographic study as an undergraduate and was drawn then by the same qualities I am now, 6 years later. It’s interesting how many times we circle back on ourselves throughout our lives.

M. Levacy, details from shoot w/Leslie, 2006, digital scans of 35mm film (a lot is lost in this process and the machines I used to do this in 2006 aren't what they are now)

So now, I’m formulating a body of work based on this type of imagery – a body of work that is suggestive of these images and themes but wholly its own entity.

In my next post I’ll talk more about this work and provide some of the preliminary sketches and ideas I’m currently working on. I’m quite excited about all of it but everything is still very much in the development phase so only time will tell what physically results.


  1. I’ve been collecting images of seances, though I’m not sure why yet. It’s funny how you can have a clear attraction to something, but feel uncertain how it pertains to your work/subject. But that’s one of the main things that attracts me to art — how it can surprise you. Without the surprise, the unplanned element, it would be far less powerful.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next!

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