Word and Image

Originally published in Provincetown Banner, September 17, 1998

“Elegy for a Murdered Lady,” artist-author Kate Millett’s exhibition at the Cortland Jessup Gallery through Sunday, is a deeply uttered lament for the death of her Aunt Margaret, her mother’s younger sister.

The two sisters, children of Irish immigrant farmers, were women who, Millett tells us, “voted on the first occasion of female suffrage, fervent Catholics and fiercely patriotic Americans, exposed in the last months of life to the most crushing disappointment.” But it is not in death that the sorrow lies, rather, in the degradation, humiliation and violation of her aunt at the hands of an “organized malice”—the willful incarceration, isolation and drugging of a 90-year-old woman by an upscale nursing home and the son who had committed her.

The 12 drawings are rendered in a calligraphic style using Japanese brush and sumi ink, a medium that has held Millett’s attention since she lived in Japan in the early ‘60s, and feature text along with the inked designs. The jet black images rise above the penciled words, stark and somber against the white paper. They are merely parade down marks, lines, sweeps, circles—“tremendously minimalist” in Millett’s view; direct, honest, without irony. Word and image, brought close together, magnify the tone of each piece—the tenderness of voice, the outrage of abuse, the poignancy of Aunt Mig, an old lady in white gloves, under physical restraint, beyond hope of escaping:

What claims you made on life
that they should strangle
you, the children you raised, the
town you were part of
-prim, ironic, obedient to every claim
of family, church &
your envelope in the Sunday
collection, your white gloves
and netted veil, your stockings
without runs, your polished
shoes & purse.

[Text, drawing #6]

Right away, in the first drawing, one recognized the suggested bars of the cage, long a feature in Millett’s art-making. With these images and words, Millett, best know for her sculpture—the silent art, she calls it—returns home, inviting the viewer to accompany her. It is art rooted in personal history. It is about her town, her mother, her aunt. Yet in entering Aunt Mig’s experience, we slip immediately into the universal reality of aging, the heartbreak of our withering elders, the politics of caring for the aging in a “fractured and greedy culture”. The artist confronts us with the most terrifying possibility for any of us…to be confined ourselves, our consciousness blurred by psychotropic drugs, perhaps physically restrained, abandoned, dependent on “the kindness of strangers,” an unlikely resource in a time when elder care is franchised by national corporations. As Millett says, “It’s the same as being buried alive.”

Since 1959, when she made her first sculpture, Millett has made art that reflects her acute sense of vulnerability to oppression. “I’m a human rights worker. You can only do that if you know how it feels to be caged, to be tortured. It’s a matter of point of view, empathy,” Millett says. “To get to that point of view—that’s what I want for the viewer. If we know these things, there is some hope that they can be changed. The idea that some are chosen as less than human—because of race or poverty or sexuality or age or whatever reason those in dominance say—that they can be locked up so entirely,” Millett continues.

“When my mother was in the nursing home, she made the mistake of going to the elevator and pushing the button. She had no idea she wasn’t supposed to use the elevator. She didn’t know she was confined there. Then they designated her an ‘H’—a behavior problem—and wanted to put a ‘wanderguard’ on her, a bracelet that sets off an alarm if she crossed the unspoken boundary.”

The great questions of justice affect
old women
Perhaps the most of all. And by
the manner of their
Death we see whole towns and
counties weighed and judged.

[Text, drawing#9]

Millett relays the experience of the six years she spent in the courts trying to get her aunt Mig out. “I thought it would be easy—I had rescued my mother from a lesser fate several years before and restored her to her beloved apartment and excellent caretakers. But I had not reckoned with the permanent power of attorney which Aunt Mig had long before vested in her son, my cousin Roger, nor with the power of the corporations—the nursing home is part of a huge chain.”

Cousin Roger first charged Millett with the crime of elder abuse, and when that was thrown out of court, the case moved into probate where the will could be considered. “Rogers three [attorneys] and the corporations six attorneys charged Aunt Mig with incompetence and won handily. She was now entirely in their power. Mig remained incommunicado, drugged further and probably under physical restraint until her death some weeks later.”

My mother died 13 days after her sister. They woke me up in Ireland and told me to go home, my mother had died.”

The drawings were done shortly after Aunt Mig’s death while Millett was at Ballycotton, Co. Cork, Ireland. “I was in a state, very confused. I was scheduled to be in Ireland for a working retreat. I already had the ticket. I was overcome with emotion. I was pouring ink, rolling it around. Then I wasn’t pouring it anymore, just using a paper towel and smearing it, to flatten the line, before it could take its own course. The last pictures, I was really swiping the ink across the paper. Everything got so much simpler. I was letting her go.”

Making the drawings, then, was first of all Millett’s way of grieving for her aunt, for that loss, and for the unnecessary cruelty she suffered. Hung in the gallery, they are a call to activism. They are also her plea for forgiveness:

In the long still tunnel of death
Hear me, the one who failed you.

[Text, drawing #11]

“The tragedy is,” Millett says, “it wasn’t necessary. It didn’t have to be this way. We could be having a great time. The idea was to have a great time together. It is a waste of joy.”

©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved