Checking Boxes

by | Aug 1, 2016 | On a Personal Note

Guest Written for ABOUT by Liz Chrisman
By and large, humans prefer order and categories that fall into checkboxes of choices. Some of mine would include caucasian, female, under 30, artist, and Arkansas. “Tattooed” or “not tattooed” isn’t usually an option. But, if presented with, I would darken the bubble next to “tattooed.” Initiation into the tattooed started a few months after my 18th birthday with a simple black lion as a symbol of my English heritage. Many have said that once tattooed the itch for more follows, and I fell down that slippery slope. From the crease of my elbows to the base of my back, I’ve spent the last 12 years adorning my body with a series of black and gray characters, words and pieces of my personal history. In my experiences, there is an overarching theme in discussing these permanent marks: it’s a documentation of experiences. Some markers of time are so profound that they beg to be unforgotten, therefore etched into our flesh. While my body sports many, there is one important piece that has served as a storyteller for a few of my personal values.
Twenty-five years ago, my mother and stepfather were married in one of those quintessential country churches in Denning, Arkansas. The whitewashed pine planks, steeple (that my stepfather’s family helped install), and a sizable bronze bell served as the main aesthetic points of this structure. It represented purity and solidarity. This image of the church came back to me  in the early spring of 2010, and a large framed photograph of the church seemed like a perfect gift for my mom’s and stepfather’s 20th wedding anniversary. Many childhood memories flooded back on that crisp evening as I descended the hill and spotted the abandoned church after my decades-long absence from the area. The sun parted from the clouds and I proceeded to capture it in its then state of abandon. One year later two starkly different events occurred: I gave my parents the gift and they hung the chosen frame in their bedroom, and the church was destroyed after a series of tornadoes ripped through the rural area.
2011 was a year of tornadic weather that many will never forget. I dedicated that summer to traveling all over the region (Joplin, Vilonia, Altus, Clarksville, etc.) documenting the aftermath and presented a solo showing of my favorite photographs at “Between Tree Lines: a memoir” at the University of the Ozarks’ Walton Art Gallery during their 2011 fall semester gallery exhibition schedule. The frames holding the photographs from the show were roughed out and crafted by my parents and I, which turned into a wonderful bonding experience for the three of us. During the course of capturing this work, the same favored wide-angle lens that was used to capture the church suffered a fall that left it in a state of disrepair.
The month that the show opened, I took the remainder of money that I set aside for film and asked my tattoo artist to help me craft a piece that would live on my calf as a reminder of the whole experience. The tattoo that resulted speaks of suffrage and commitment. The church is rendered very simply from its front facing angle and the cracked camera lens that created the image sits at rest in the grassy foreground. The element that usually catches the eye of many passersby and sparks conversation is the tandem bicycle. Tandems require two riders pedaling and a good deal of communication between the two to operate. While riding one can be a lot of trouble and downright work, it’s pretty fun sharing the experience with a good friend. Marriage operates in a tandem; both partners work diligently at life and the pursuit of a quality (and fun) ride. To me, having a tandem bicycle propped against the front of the church perfectly represented my love of cycling and my ideals of marriage.
There’s another very common checkbox that I changed two months ago — “married.” The symbols of the church, the lens that I captured it with and the tandem bicycle have taken on an even more personal meaning as I move into this exciting phase of life.

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