Letters to the Dead

The Letter

“I love it because the woman looks kinda like a ghost.  You can almost see through her.” This ten-year-old girl gazed up at me with her big brown eyes when she said these words.

I am the director of an art museum in Greenville, North Carolina and my students are working on designing their own exhibition of art works from the Museum’s permanent collection. The Letter by Jodi Connelly is the piece this student chose.

The woman in the painting looks ephemeral. She is in the midst of despair.  She is surrendering to the reality of her mysterious circumstance as her body leans over a chair and her face is cradled in her arms.

I am amazed that this young student chose The Letter.  It is a small and insignificant painting in the Museum’s art collection. Far and away from better-known art works, like the large color field target painting by Kenneth Noland or Louise Nevelson’s black and brown cardboard collage.

Created by an East Carolina University art student in the mid 1990’s, this obscure artwork usually stands obediently and quietly in one of the racks of the Museum’s art storage vault.  It reminds me of a shy child waiting to be picked to play on an elementary kickball team, making as little noise as possible but hoping to be chosen for the team and ultimately recognized for her potential.

As I look at the painting, I am intrigued by the woman’s crumpled posture on the chair and I think of a friend who recently and tragically lost her father and the grief and alienation she now feels.

Many of us have been there… crying over the last letters or words our loved ones wrote before they died. If only we could write them back and they could read our letters.    I wonder what these letters would say?  What would I write to my first husband who has been gone for almost six years.  The death of the people we love is devastating and the feeling of loss lingers on throughout our lives.   It is hard not to feel a tinge of anger about their departure, and I am certainly not above holding a grudge, especially towards the dead.


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