Under Paradise Valley
A PLAY FOR EPITAPHS
Hiraeth is a Welsh word with no equivalent in English. It refers to “the presence of absence” – a yearning for something or someone unattainable or irretrievable, existing beyond place or time, possibly a product of the imagination. This project began with an installation in the contemporary gallery space at Historic Northampton Museum. The installation was called, “Hiraeth in Northampton: An Exploration of Longing,” and it was composed of a series of salvaged windows, upon which I’d printed images of 18th century gravestone carvings from Northampton’s Bridge Street Cemetery.
In the installation, I asked viewers to have their photographs taken through the windows of their choice, paired with captions they’d chosen from a selection of gravestone epitaphs from Bridge Street Cemetery, lines of poetry, and quotes about 18th century New England stone carving.
In the resulting graphic script, I placed the captions back to back to create a “found” text woven together with added dialogue that fleshes out a series of conversations. I took care to assign the characters represented by each window only lines derived from the captions viewers chose for that window. For instance, five viewers who were photographed behind the window printed with a carving from the gravestone of Lt. Jonathan Hunt chose the caption, “The Presence of Absence.” This meant that the character in the graphic novel, Lt. Jonathan Hunt, had to utter the phrase “the presence of absence” five times.
By combining 21st century choices with 18th century words and images, the installation, and now the graphic script, seek to turn the presence of absence into a dialogue between centuries, the living and dead, sentient beings and stones, and graphic and literary expression. One hundred and twenty-five living people participated in the installation along with five dead ones. Their “conversation” serves as testimony that hiraeth is a creative conundrum. We long for the impossible—to meet the dead, to experience the past, to inhabit the same place in another time—and while we cannot overcome hiraeth literally, we try our best to look through distant windows and fill the view with imaginative collaborations.
As depicted in Under Paradise Valley, the five characters bear no association to the men and women they were in life. The text, however, does bear a resemblance to Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’s “play for voices,” which serves as its inspiration.
I am interested in traveling the initial “Hiraeth” installation in order to create a series of playscripts based on different locations — “Under Paradise Valley” is very much a portrait of Northampton, Massachusetts — as well as unbinding the graphic script and presenting it as an art exhibition.