I think a lot of this show, too, is about responsibility. Like this piece over here, [a picture of Julia and her sister Jana, adolescents, displayed under a glass cloche]. At my mother’s funeral a year and a half ago, we kept being called “the Tucker girls”, that’s our nickname, and we’re in our forties, and were still called ‘The Tucker Girls’. Were still seen as that 16-year-old and that 13-year-old — you know, under glass, protected, and shielded from everything. And here we are in our forties going, “what the heck?” Because, when we asked people, “did you think our dad was gay?” They’d go: “oh yeah! We thought you knew that!?” Everyone thought that was the case. Why didn’t they tell us? So yeah, it’s about that responsibility. May be they didn’t want to change the way we thought about our dad.
— Julia Franklin on her show Picking up the Pieces.
Prologue: Arsenic murder, family intrigue, embezzled money, and a posthumously gifted box whose silence is deafening but whose contents are heart-piercing. These are just some of the many general facets to Julia Franklin’s story: a father who worked as an accountant, possible latent homosexual and witness to an arsenic murder, committed suicide when Julia was sixteen, and may or may not have been involved in an embezzlement imbroglio as to save his family from the gridlock of debt (a case which has received public attention in the form of two reenactments in documentary-style programming, and one true crime novel entitled Fighting the Devil; Julia’s father is portrayed, albeit two-dimensionally, in all three dramatizations). A story that came to her by way of a trove of letters her father left in an ordinary cardboard shoebox. All of this Julia quickly summarized to us, her Art History class, in speaking about her new gallery show at Simpson College: Picking up the Pieces. Suffice it to say, I sat there in class a bit dumbfounded, mind-reeling. The following week I was en route to Indianola to see the show and conduct an interview with Julia. Unfortunately, the first half of the trip didn’t run smooth by all means. After a sharp corner coming out of town, a coffee that I had purchased on Linden Street performed a bell curve trajectory to the floor mat (where all its contents remained under an unseasonably warm Iowa day). Then, shamefully resupplied with Kum and Go “coffee” which tastes suspiciously less like coffee than something extracted from the Earth’s core, I came across a traffic stop on 69 North where, after fifteen to twenty minutes, a traffic director gave me the O.K. to proceed. Still, as I was driving through the flat, late-summer-green to Osceola, I was mulling Julia’s story over and over.
I’ll refrain from mentioning as to why exactly I gravitated towards the central themes of fathers, homosexuality, murder, et al (naturally, ripe material for any artist), but, if I did any justice in relating to you just how emotionally taxing this all is, you should be intrigued as equally as I. Sure, may be this write-up was just a justifiable excuse to burn Indianola-bound fuel to see the show and take it all in; but that’s only half of it. Few opportunities present themselves in which you actually get to sit down with the artist and pick their brain, and, luckily, Julia went on the record and I now have the pleasure of sharing it all with you. Besides the more conscience-grappling, self-centered reasons for wanting to go see the show it’s part of our human condition to make sense out of tragedy. From the fragments of the past and the half-truths we’ve been inculcated with, we piece experiences together bit by bit to create some narrative of truth. However, as it never fails to do, some one thing runs across the middle of the road, some piece of thread snaps, and everything shatters — an unaccounted for detour. Fortunately, art as catharsis is one vehicle we can use for this process of reassembly. We pick up the pieces and start anew.
It’s debatable, but I believe that no matter how far the artist attempts to distance themselves from their work, there’s still at least an iota of their personal narrative that gets mixed in. Your show is extremely personal, edging on the autobiographical. How does it compare and contrast with your earlier work?
I never have done intentionally personal work. This was the first.
What was your initial reaction to all of this?
It was twofold. We never talked about my dad. But yeah, to see this box, and see his ties, and not realize he loved cufflinks that much [laughter]. Then there was this letter he wrote my grandparents during the Korean War. It really gave me insight into who he was as a young man in his twenties, stationed outside of New York City seeing Broadway Shows when a war is happening! That’s the actual shoebox the letters came in. It read: “do not open until my death. For Janet and Julia.” I opened it in January, and that, for me, got me into this whole other part of the story. Yesterday, in Critical Thinking, we were talking about the difference between narrative and history. I said here’s my narrative, here’s the story I’ve been telling myself for the last 25-26 years and then suddenly I get new information and it changes. Some of the information I can verify and some of it I can’t. It also became clear, going through some of the letters, that he might have been gay. You know, there’s
just this kind of question. This man had been in our lives for so long. [My mother and father] had been connected in some way, and how cool is that, but also how sad is that? Even some of the work I created seems detached, I’m still not going all the way in. It’s a wild story.
It’s a given that visual art is obviously your medium of choice. How did the medium, here, function as a coping mechanism or how did it function as a process to work through this emotionally charged material? And, understanding that your past work has predominantly implemented found objects, how did that carry over to this show?
Over twenty years I’ve always used found objects in my work. Always. So, literally, when this box landed in my hands it seemed pretty obvious. It was as if the Universe was saying, “you should be doing this.” It seemed as if everything was saying that. But this show was challenging because, as an artist, where do you show your hand. how do you show that you’re a part of something? So I’ve explained this as the art of display. Its more about me putting these objects together to suggest a meaning. Here, I’m mixing the real with the false. I look at this as a first start to process things. And I’m doing it in public which is a little weird [laughter].
Your father was portrayed in several mini-series that depicted dramatizations of the events, and in the novel Fighting the Devil. Any reaction to this?
In the TV shows it never says who my dad is, it’s just an actor who’s reenacting an accountant who discovers that 35,000 dollars. Again, that’s the amount that [my family] were told we were in debt of, and it’s the same amount involved with the murder. That’s where I’m like: there are too many coincidences here.
What’s your advice to young artists who may be grappling with heavy, personal, and/or emotional work?
Anyone who attempts something like this has all of my respect. It’s so vulnerable, and you have to be in the right place emotionally. For me, I’ve had 26 years to process it, move on, and talk about it and I don’t get emotional. But if I tried to do this within the first year of his death, I don’t know what kind of show it would be, and I don’t think physically or mentally I would have done well. I would need additional support. In this case, I’ve had [my husband] and my sister. You have to have a support group. You shouldn’t be doing it alone. It’s risky. People will be critical and I don’t know how people will take this show. You have to separate the work that is made from the events that have happened.
To view some of Julia’s past work you can visit her site here: http://www.juliafranklinart.com
Epilogue: I was back on Highway 69 headed south, the spilt coffee evaporating, its smell familiar and musky. Approaching the traffic stop at the junction for Osceola, I was thinking about the show and my conversation with Julia (naturally, heavily edited above). It was eerie and mesmerizing — a father’s shirt reconstructed from his own letters; obituaries, the coroner’s reports, and police manuscripts; letters from a young father to his parents, and letters from a young Julia to him; objects of the home, sentimental keepsakes, family artifacts reassembled and composed; and, the miniature house blanketed in Julia’s father’s suicide note. Something Julia had said also stuck with me. Going back to her concern of “where to show your hand,” she had asked, and I’m paraphrasing: how do my specific, personal experiences translate universally to others? How and to what extent do we show our hand when reaching for another’s? As artists, instructors, students, etc., I think this the kernel of our struggles. It’s the core of our empathy and, as Julia says, our responsibility. I waited not too long in another queue of new cars, crawling towards my turn. Finally, the same traffic director from hours before waved me on. I smiled and held my hand out, thinking perhaps he remembered.