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Witness
Art - - Allegra Samsen
Witness

My freshman year of college I took up boxing to let off steam. My hands would tremor uncontrollably for up to 24 hours after. Boxing was new to me and the force was a foreign feeling. That same semester, I was in drawing class with one of the hardest professors I’d ever have. She drank bulletproof coffee straight from a mason jar, wore red nail polish, and smelt of Le Labo. I fucking idolized her. She challenged me on every mark I made. Eventually, we transitioned to charcoal. “Squint your eyes,” she’d say, and I learned to see shapes as values and bodies as degrees of dark. She had an intuitive understanding of measurements and could always spot when my shit was off. If my line wasn’t proper, she’d have me measure it again and re-do my mistake.  

I was so nervous to attend drawing the day after my second attempt at boxing class. My work, already disproportionate and fuzzy, would be even messier. Surely my professor would sip her bulletproof coffee in displeasure, frustrated with my ineptitude. Do I draft her an email? Let her know before class? I ran through my options. Eventually, I straight out told her.  

“My work’s gonna suck today. My hands are all shaky from... boxing.”  

“Well, lean into that”  

That's all she said to me. To use the shakiness. She’ll never know, but I pocketed that like a winning  lotto ticket. I got a B in the class. 

Drawing class final

I’m half-laying half-sitting in my bed. The election runs its 20th hour and CNN flitters in the background. Biden has a slight lead. Does America mean something to you? I realize it doesn’t to me and maybe never did. I think of my friend Storm’s work for an exhibition class we are currently in. A giant faded and worn American flag covered in image transfers of 44 past presidents as little boys and teens. Young men with beady eyes and coins in their pockets to throw on the sidewalk. Someone’s son. Because it’s always someone’s son, right? Boys who snicker and lick their lips before tying their shoes. Faces on sons that aren’t our own. 

 

Our Mothers’ Boys by Storm Bookhard

 

In September, I had an assignment where I had to to sit and observe the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. While I was there, a man in a wheelchair raised his palm up to an image of a woman on a pearly tombstone, maybe his late wife. It’s possible her hand still met his all the way up until 2017. Flowers littered every decadent tombstone. It reminded me of how I would try to bring flowers to my Uncle’s grave over summers in New York. If I went over to my friend Dani’s house  for a playdate, I’d make a point to first eyeball what old flowers I could swipe from my home, then I'd make a pitstop on Middle Patent Road to visit Uncle Willy’s grave. Three different times I placed three different types of flowers. First lilies, then pink lilies, and then forsythia. The lilies dried out too easily. Once, while visiting in the rain, I smoked my cigarette on the mound of earth. The flower pile never formed the way I wanted. On the side of Willy’s grave, it says “K.I.S.S.” Mom told me when I was younger that it meant “Keep It Simple Stupid.” I realize grave flowers last longer in Los Angeles. 

From Uncle Willy’s Grave

Then, in October, I walked past the gutted storefront to the retail shop I had worked at until March. Knowing that it’s a privilege to miss the things that I miss doesn’t make me miss them any less. You remember the porch from the shop, don’t you? Where I used to sun my face on the stoop and eat honey crisp apples, the most interesting to eat. I’d commute for an hour and 25 minutes. A 48-55 minute metro to the downtown Santa Monica station, then the 1 Bus from Colorado, then the 4th to Brooks. Something scares me about forgetting those bus stop names, though I’m sure they’ve already forgotten me. Now an empty room to a shop once alive, I think my ghost lives there. It’s weird, right? How space can’t prove you were there once you’re gone. That the things I miss are things I mourn, too. Maybe what ties together everything I miss is that they were my very own and no one else’s. That I witnessed it, and it witnessed me.  Lately I make images with only the sun. Without access to the darkroom at school and with the climbing  expenses of film development, I just can’t be fucked over any more. I started making cyanotype  images. So fun and simple, you can either pre-dye fabric or cloth and then expose your desired  images. More tactile than the click of a shutter, I took to this process as a ritual. Everyday before my 3pm class, I’d be outdoors taping, constructing and exposing my cyanotype for the day.  Eventually, I would get the light wrong. My compositions were leaky and underexposed, but mistake made me happy, an invitation to interrupt something that was once precious. 

Underexposed cyanotype

Background noise from CNN is still in my ear. There was a time when I was younger and I woke up from sleep with the walls reversed. The room was no longer mine, and when I searched the space with my fingers, the dark got darker. The room changed and never told me, but it was only  perspective. My curious sleep-self shifting orientation in my sleep. I was reminded of this when a  girl I went to high school with popped up on my newsfeed. The same girl would get frequent sport  concussions. I remember her telling me she was so bedridden and light sensitive that all she could stand to do was sit in her room with the lights off and shades drawn for days on end. This kind of situation is a reverse camera to me. What is produced in place of an image is nothing. An image that eats itself. The one that can never be made.  What happens when we cannot show proof? When the tree falls but you convince yourself that  branch snap was a buzz notification instead? The act of witnessing can so easily float away if we do not first graft it to something. That is my attempt. My only goal. To stick to paper the wings of what I do not want flying off. I just need to tell myself there was proof.   My mom told me over summer how she’d monitor my sleep as a baby. As a recently hired nanny, I  expressed concern over putting the child down for nap time. How will I know when the child’s asleep? The last thing I wanted was a fussy toddler, roused awake by the clumsy nanny. One  pointer finger under the baby’s nose to check for that small puff of breath, mom said. Evidence.  I come back to evidence like cats do yarn; forever wrestling strings too tangled to weave, pining for clarity in space murky for all the right reasons. And maybe that is the point, that evidence is never linear just as witnessing is never reliable. But it matters to witness what matters to me. Mistaken marks, images I can never make, breath too soft to hear- I think of it all. Let that be evidence that it once was.