When I started photographing the suitcases, I really had no idea what I was doing, or where the project would go. Very early on, Craig Williams introduced me to poet and psychiatrist Dr. Karen Miller, and it has been amazing to “share” the suitcases with her over the five plus years that we have had access to the collection. Because of her, I was included in the Exploratorium Exhibit in San Francisco, and because of her, I gained so much insight into the lives of the patients at Willard. She has illuminated the human side of the folks who, in many cases, lived their entire lives at the institution.
I have always seen the suitcases and their contents as a reflection of who the patients were before, and during their time at Willard. Because Karen went through the lengthly and difficult process of gaining access to the medical records of the suitcase owners, she was able to explore the clinical and bureaucratic side of their lives. On many occasions, we worked side by side at the museum storage facility in Rotterdam and were able to talk about what inspired us about the collection.
In many ways, I didn’t want to learn too much about the reason these folks ended up at Willard, since it was important to me to feel a connection to them through their possessions.
So it was with some trepidation that Peg Ross and I made arrangements to spend the day in the New York State Archives photographing some of the massive case files of the suitcases owners. Karen spent quite a bit of time getting Peg and me access to this otherwise closed collection, and I want to thank her so much for her efforts. It was a remarkable day, and so nice to be working close to Karen again.
I am still not sure what I will do with these photos, but I do know that they’ll eventually be a part of whatever happens with my work on the suitcases.
As I was profusely thanking Karen for all that she has contributed to my work on the collection, she remarked on something that really resonated with me. I’ll paraphrase here, but she said something to the effect that the most important things she has done in her life have been in collaboration with others. I feel that so deeply. Without Craig Williams, I would never had been able to begin the project. Without Peggy Ross I would never have photographed the entire collection, and without Karen I wouldn’t have anywhere near the insight as to what life as a patient at Willard would have been like. It is so fulfilling to be part of a team of such creative, smart, and great people, and I am so grateful to each for their help and support.
I drove to Ithaca on Friday in order to attend the annual Willard Psychiatric Center employee reunion. Saturday morning, Peter Carroll and I started our day in the usual way; breakfast at the Lincoln St. Diner and then a photo of him jumping. It is the best diner breakfast anywhere.
I seem to remember a time when the Happy Landing was open, although I never did eat there. It is on Route 96 between Trumansburg and Willard, and I have driven past it hundreds of times. Love the sign.
I have been to the employee reunion before, and it is an amazing event. Peter came along this time so that Peggy Ellsworth could introduce him to some of the retired staff. It looks like he and Deb Hoard will be making a documentary on the suitcases project that will include some interviews with former employees. It is something Peter and Deb have been talking to me about for a while, and is very exciting. It’s still early days, and funding is a big hurdle, but I really think it will happen.
After the event, we drove over to Ovid to look at the “three bears” buildings in the center of town. I noticed that the public library was still open, so I went in to say hi. Librarian Katie Fontana was just closing up but was happy to show me the room where I will be speaking on Thursday the 24th of this month. I would encourage any of you who are nearby to come. There also will be some sort of brown bag lunch the next day. Here’s is a link to the library web site. Hope to see you there. And this is the BEST sign ever.
On our way back to Ithaca, we had time for a quick stop at the Rongovian Embassy in Trumansburg for a beer with Craig Williams and Helen McLallen. Quite a place with lots of history.
On my way out on Friday, I had noticed more goldenrod than I’ve seen in ages. This shot was taken about 3 miles East of Bainbridge, just before I got back on Route 88 for the drive home. The hillsides are covered with it.
If any of you can make it to Ovid for the talk, shoot me an email. Maybe a bunch of us can meet at the Rongo for a beer afterwards. Cheers, y’all.
At times I struggle a bit with most of the long-term projects on which I spend a great deal of time and energy. I realize that it is a normal part of the process, and having questions about what I am trying to do actually gives me a chance to think and, I hope, eventually get some answers.
During the first phase of this work, most of the cases that I was shooting were quite full of items that folks brought with them to Willard. Craig Williams rightly thought that since my time was limited, I should concentrate on the most “interesting” cases. Once I became committed to a complete documentation of all of the roughly 430 suitcases, I realized that most of the ones that I hadn’t shot were empty. But empty is a relative term here. In addition to the paper tags that identify the owner of each case, there is a beauty in the suitcase itself, and in the fabric lining, and in the straps designed to hold people’s clothing secure during transit. Occasionally there will be some other random object; a hair pin, a button, a luggage tag, a newspaper clipping.
On Monday I was beginning to think that my interest in these empty cases was somewhat misplaced. The project had gotten so much attention early on, and I understand that it was due primarily to what the cases contain, and what those contents say about the individuals that own them. While shooting, I was feeling that fewer people would be interested in the empty ones, and I was bothered by that. I thought about it a lot during my drive home from Rotterdam, and I began to remember what I always talk about when speaking about art and creativity. Ultimately, the only reason to create art is to please the person who is creating it. If others are affected by it, that is a huge bonus. All I know right now is that I look at the photographs I took of this case and I see a life. I see that her name was Elizabeth and that she came to Willard on 30 November, 1951. I see that she had a beautiful leather suitcase, and that someone in her family had the name Mary. And I am really moved by this and hope to be able to move others when they look at these pictures.
So I am really jazzed about continuing. The video for the next Kickstarter appeal is done and I have to decide when to get it up and running. Right now I am thinking that early to mid January is the time, and I will certainly post about it here. In the meantime, thank you all for following the project. I really appreciate the comments and emails that come my way.
I will be talking about the Willard Suitcases project at the Tompkins County Public Library in Ithaca, NY on Thursday, 24th October. Craig Williams will also be there and it should be a fun evening. The event will take place in the Borg Warner room at 6.00 PM and is, of course, open to the public. It would be a good chance to meet those of you who live in central New York and can attend.
I like this photograph from John C’s case as it shows how carefully the staff at the New York State museum worked to preserve these delicate objects. I have just uploaded his suitcase to the willardsuitcases.com site, so you can now see what else John had with him at Willard.
I have always given primary credit to Craig Williams for saving the Willard suitcases, and his contribution to the preservation of these objects was enormous. But if it wasn’t for Beverly Courtwright’s connection to Willard and her tremendous respect for the patients and their lives, the cases would have been lost forever. On Saturday I got the chance to meet her for the first time, and thanks to the corrections folks who now control the site, we were allowed to go into the attic for a few minutes. It is behind this door that in May of 1995 Bev “rediscovered” the cases. She had become one of the Willard employees heavily involved with the transition team responsible for shutting down the psych center. As a storehouse clerk, part of her task was to go through all the buildings to determine what should be saved and what could be thrown out. She described the first time she opened this door and saw the cases stacked up as a surreal experience, and told me that she felt a “whoosh of energy” sweep over her.
She grew up in the area, and as a child remembers Willard patients coming to her home through the Family Care program that allowed for patients not in need of direct care to live temporarily in private homes.
This is what the attic now looks like when you walk through the door. The racks are on either side of the attic with men’s cases on one side and women’s on the other. When Bev was talking about being up here for the first time it literally gave me chills.
You can see the letters on the racks representing the first initial of the surname of each patient. Whomever set up the system did an amazing job. I find it so interesting that as in the residential parts of the buildings, men and women were segregated up here as well.
There were a very few items left behind that could not be linked to a specific patient. This coat was one of them. / As my work on this project continues, I am constantly overwhelmed by the people I meet and the stories that they have to tell. Late last night I got an email letting me know of a new comment on this post. Scroll down toward the bottom of the comments section and read what Stephanie had to say. / Getting into the attic and meeting Bev really tied together everything that I have been trying to say with my work on this project. She is a truly remarkable person with a huge heart and the ability to convey a great sense of connection to the people who were at Willard, and I just want to thank her for all she has done.
On Monday I shot the last of the Willard suitcases for a while. I hope to use the rest of this month to begin editing the images for the Exploratorium exhibit, and knowing how my brain works I knew I couldn’t attempt to edit while I was still shooting. I was surprisingly emotional about the whole thing; an important part of the project ended and I am not sure when it might resume. It is also significant to me that it marks the end of the Kickstarter phase of this work. So some thank you’s are in order. I could NEVER have gotten this far without Kickstarter and the incredible support of the almost 700 people who backed me. Thanks to Alex Ross for the long term “loan” of his lights and soft boxes. He is a true friend. Craig Williams and the New York State Museum gave me access to the cases and Craig’s support was instrumental in keeping it all moving along. And Peggy Ross kept me organized. Without her help in unwrapping, setting up the shots, helping me see things I would have missed, and putting the objects back where they belong I would never have made it through as many of the cases as I did.
I will work on a post later today showing the last case in the queue, as it were. It was a great one to end on.
I have been spending a lot of time in Albany photographing the cases. I have been a bit overwhelmed lately and have had a hard time deciding what to post as an update. There is so much material and most of it is fascinating. I have been averaging at least one shoot a week, and it still feels that I have a long way to go.
Just as a case this one is nice. Very well made and quite stylish.
It belonged to Steffan K. (although his first name was spelled differently on some items. On one envelope from a druggest it was written as Steve.)
I especially appreciated the way that the staff wrapped and preserved the items.
My interest in the wrappings and the bows has actually increased. The three women that did most of the work each had a different style. Sarah Jastremsky, Christine Allen, and Karen Chambers worked for months going through the cases cataloguing and then stabilizing each item. At some point I’ll get try to get together with them and find out who did what.
These items seem so personal to me. The calendar was from 1929.
I never intend to fetishize the items in the cases, but this clock just blew me away.
It is a very early example of a Westclox Big Ben. Steffan clearly brought it with him when he arrived at Willard, and my guess is that it never left the box. Both the box and the clock are in perfect condition. It just made me sad to think that it was packed to go to along with him and he might have never used it there.
As I spend more time with the suitcases and talk to people who worked at Willard, I am becoming quite convinced that the reason the cases were never thrown away is due to the fact that the employees developed close and lasting relationships to the patients. When they were discharged or died, the personal connection was so strong that it made it impossible to just toss them out. Anyway, that’s just my theory, and I know the whole issue of how the state chose to treat the mentally ill is a complicated one.
Thanks as usual to The New York State Museum, and especially Craig Williams for allowing me access to the cases and facilitating this project. And to Peggy Ross for her great help with the process of shooting and re-wrapping each case.
I couldn’t count the number of times that I have been on Interstate 90 in New York State. About 2 years ago, I started noticing this view from the Westbound lane just before the turnoff to Albany. There was something about the look of this rural road that always made me happy. About a year ago I knew that I wanted to photograph it, but stopping on the highway seemed a bit foolhardy. On Tuesday I was at the museum shooting suitcases and realized that I would have time to take a side trip on the way home. I have a New York State Atlas & Gazeteer in my car so I pulled it out an figured out where I could access this road. I am quite directionally challenged, but after some trial and error, I found the spot. The above view is taken from the bottom of Hanley Road where it forms a T with State Route 32. From where I took this picture it is Columbia County, but up the hill it becomes Rensselaer County. Coming from Albany, I went to the town of Nassau on Route 20, turned south on 203 and then left onto Hanley. It is really beautiful on the top part of the road; lovely farms with sizable ponds.
This view is looking West on SR 32. The semi is on the eastbound section of the 90. As I was heading home, I drove through the small town of Chatham and was happy to see a church that I had photographed for Craig Williams years ago.
This suitcase belonged to Mary W.
Hers was the second wicker case I photographed last Thursday.
As I have mentioned before, I haven’t any idea what I will find when I unwrap the cases. This one felt a bit heavier than others and when I opened it, it was mostly filled with fabric and lace that I am assuming Mary had made.
There was a lovely feel about the material as I unwrapped each piece.
A mark similar to the one above was on several of the towels. At first I thought it was a date, but I am not so sure.
I believe these tags are from Willard and not the museum. It looks like her case was entered into the system in the 1960s.
The detail on the lace pieces is beautiful.
Lots of interesting shapes and sizes.
Thursday was very productive. Mary had only the one case with the lace and towels, but I also shot 3 cases that belonged to another person. I’ll edit those photos and get them up soon. Many thanks to Peggy Ross who helped me rewrap the cases, and as usual to Craig Williams for all his support. If you are seeing these for the first time, please check out my project on Kickstarter.
I had a great day shooting Willard suitcases in Albany yesterday. I usually stop at the Donut Dip in West Springfield on my way out. The shop has been there since the ’50s and hasn’t changed much since then. I buy a dozen, eat one and let Craig distribute the rest to various people he works with at the museum. The volunteers at the front desk were the beneficiaries this time. Incredible donuts.