Capturing images is telling a story, but the essence of the story is heightened when the story is personal. Urbana High School art teacher Tracey Ellis-Guss’ journey with her mentor and friend, Brunswick High School digital photography teacher Teressa Blickenstaff-Kitts, “started as a documentary, but I soon realized that it was more than that.”
“An Enduring Spirit,” a photography exhibit at the Delaplaine Arts Center on view through March 1, is Guss’ final gift to her close friend “Blick” whom she met during her first teaching job at Brunswick. “She was a teacher at Brunswick High School for 20 years and taught digital photography. She was very well loved by the school and the community,” Guss said.
Walking through the exhibit at the show’s reception in early January, Guss elaborated, “She wanted me to photograph her when she began chemotherapy. She was losing weight and wanted to see what her body looked like. She had done this for her own husband when he went through chemotherapy.” Blick was diagnosed with Leiomyosarcoma, a cancer that attacks the soft tissues surrounding organs, in 2012 and passed away in December 2014. The project began during the last months of her life. “A small slice of time in a much larger life,” Guss explained of their project that took place in three sessions over a five-month period. “A moment in a life when the spirit has been laid bare.”
As a teacher, an artist and a photographer, Blick was curious about her body from a different perspective, which is how the process evolved. Guss approached it with an artist’s curiosity. When they spoke of the photographic essay, it was not originally with the idea of creating a public show. Guss shot Polaroids of Blick nude except for a simple drape. “I focused on her back, since that was the area she was most interested in seeing. We played with the light and positioned to bring out the play of muscle and bone beneath the skin. After we finished and looked at the images, we recognized there was something more to them than just the changing of her body.”
Images from the second session, which created the “Always Beautiful” portraits, were done using an old Polaroid camera and black-and-white film. “The previous ones had been in color, and I wanted to see more value, light and shadow.” They talked for several weeks in between shoots. “I felt the images spoke more to her spirit than her physical appearance, as if she was being stripped bare to her essence. I found a beautiful strength and vulnerability in the images. Blick agreed. We were onto something and began to talk about putting together a show.”
Photographs from the last photo shoot featured Guss’ daughter Alice, who was 15 then and had not seen Blick since she was a child. “They were magical together. They played and were funny and goofy. They came together as if they’d known each other forever. … It was wonderful to watch. They looked like two sides of the same coin. Both skinny and long-limbed, one with long hair and one with no hair at all. The ‘Play Date’ triptych and ‘Two Souls Meet in a Room of Light’ are a reflection of this. This final shoot also gave me images that I have both physically and digitally manipulated to express Blick’s experience, as I interpreted, from our talks during that year.”
An expansive color tribute, “Butterflies” is both an awakening and a departure. “It was done using layers of photographs and textures—close to 100 in the piece. I went to a butterfly sanctuary to photograph butterflies and manipulated those shots into the piece. It was one of the last pieces I was able to complete and show her, and for me it has become the symbol of her transition from this life to the next.” The image has an ethereal quality as you watch and imagine the coming and going flight.
To sensitively portray such a fierce glimpse into another is a testament to both Guss’ love for her friend and depth as an artist. The portraits are emotional and raw, heightened by the luminosity and shadow of black and white. It simultaneously celebrates a human being and begins the process of grieving for a friend.