Phantom Threads: An Evening With Casey Fletcher

“I try to find those phantom threads running through things that seem to not have any commonality.” -Casey Fletcher

The moment you step into the gallery on the second floor of Kresge Library, you are met with the phrase, “cherish grief it is rare and unadulterated.” This phrase was coined by Casey Fletcher, and it provides a framework of viewing for the rest of the works on display, simply because it is the first piece you see when you walk in.

The exhibition opened on Wednesday, October 17, which included a Q&A with Fletcher where he provided the framework and story behind the pieces.

This is a show of “resurrected works,” as Dr. Elissa Weichbrodt described it, because the majority of these pieces are ones that have lain dormant in Fletcher’s portfolio since 2014. But it is also a show that deals with absence, loss, and grief. According to the artist, none of these pieces were necessarily meant to be displayed together to focus on a similar theme, but after the discussion, Fletcher acknowledged that there are certain threads running through all of them.

“History is a huge part of these pieces,” Fletcher said, going on to explain that the history ranged from the general past, such as the story of Emmett Till (“A Monument to Emmett Till,” 2014), to his personal past, like his relationship with his father (“Jim (the Artist and His Father),” 2014). Fletcher’s piece “Cross” deals with this idea of historical grief in the form of a lynching machine. The material itself—2x4s, cement, and rope—add to the weightiness of the idea behind the piece. Hanging from the top of the machine is a net made of rope that is encasing several cement apples. It was in part inspired by the song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, entering the conversation around the “common Christian iconography of forbidden fruit,” Fletcher explained.

The grief aspect comes in through the appearance of the cast apples: “Casting has a deadening effect,” said Fletcher. Dr. Weichbrodt added that it is also a representation of “sin that has become so normalized [that] you are deadened to it.” This piece is grieving not only the history behind the lynching machine and all that that entails, but also all of the times we, as Christians, have turned a blind eye to injustice, allowing it to become so normal that we deaden ourselves to the effect of it.

Fletcher’s personal history is also represented in the piece displayed in the corner window of the art gallery, entitled “Jackson”, (2014)  after his nephew who has autism. This piece towers above its viewers, a curved branch beginning in a wood base that resembles a city, but then gracefully curving upward, where a small house is perched at the very top. Fletcher described his thought process behind this piece, saying that it was “meant to represent [Jackson’s] positioning in relation to all of us.” His nephew, as said above, is autistic, and also non-verbal, but this piece is a beautiful, visual representation of Fletcher’s own wrestling with the situation.

“We’re all made of the same stuff, but we’re using it very differently, or it’s pointing us in a different direction,” he remarked.

This piece in particular does not seem to immediately fit the thread of grief and loss running through the rest of the pieces, but Dr. Weichbrodt helped to tie it in with the show as a whole, by remarking that “Jackson” is a piece about absence. “Absence is when you don’t really know what you’ve lost,” Dr. Weichbrodt remarked, and because of this, absence is a cause for grief just as much as loss is.

The piece to the right of “Jackson” and directly across from the door ties together all of these ideas of absence, loss, and grief. It is titled “Jessica”, (2014) and is an egg tempera on canvas piece that Fletcher painted while studying abroad in Italy with text that reads: “cherish grief it is rare and unadulterated.”

Originally, there was no text. It was simply a landscape painting that Fletcher made for a project, where two people had to paint each other’s visions of Eden. Fletcher’s partner was a girl named Jessica, whose vision of Eden resembled Montana, where she was from. Later, Fletcher added the text.

“Without the text, I like it, but not in a complete way that’s true to her.” The text is startling and a bit confusing without context. When asked about it, Fletcher explained that, while “grief is actually freakishly common, unadulterated, relentless pain [is not]”.

The phrase is to challenge those who have not experienced that kind of deep grief because of the prosperity they have always had. He went on to say that cherishing grief is not the same as celebrating it. To cherish something is to purposefully slow down, to notice what is happening, to not try to speed through it.

“To wallow in grief is useless. But to actually do something with it [is] to recognize its rarity and importance,” he concluded. Casey Fletcher’s show demonstrates that grief can be redeemed without being entirely eradicated. Art gives permission to its makers and viewers to wrestle, to contemplate, and to grieve. That is the beauty of it. It challenges us to “cherish grief, [for] it is rare and unadulterated.”