above: Gray, “Waiting Room”, papier-mâché, acrylic, oil paintings, needlepoint, paper, fabric, yarn, wood, etc., 16x2x10 feet, 2018
8 Oak Drive is not only a source of endless inspiration for me, but it has been the home of my grandmother, Valerija Kuceris since 1977. At age 87, she currently sits in her living room watching Court TV, surrounded by relics from the past 70 years. A small notebook from her Confirmation in Displaced Persons Camp in Germany, with friendly notes in Latvian from her friends, rests in a cabinet. A plastic California Raisin figurine graces the top of her dresser (no doubt from the 80s), a small chipped creamer gifted to my grandparents on their wedding day in DP Camp sits on a shelf, and an Easter egg, once decorated by my aunt in the 1970s, still hides in the fridge. The yolk sounds like a loose marble when you shake it gently.
She’s proud to say that all of the things within her home were gifts from others, and though her eyesight is incredibly poor and the dust begins to form a blanket on her knickknacks, she still finds it difficult to be without many of these things. My grandparents had so few possessions when they came to America, that when my grandfather was able to gift her a foil-wrapped chocolate Easter bunny their first year here, she not only didn’t eat it, but she saved it for over 31 years. This precious, beautiful, brightly-colored treasure was the most beautiful thing that she’d had in years.
And so her home remains full of these sentimental objects. Since I was a child, I’ve been so in awe of 8 Oak Drive, as time feels like it stands still in this space. My home was regularly redecorated by my mother, so I’ve always felt comfort in knowing the sights, sounds and smells of my grandma’s home. While her kitchen appliances may break and be replaced over the years, most things remain the same. More interesting is how some objects will inexplicably be moved around from room to room, as if my grandmother is carefully curating these same objects and spaces repeatedly over the years, as if it’s a rotating exhibition for me and the few other people who enter.
In 2002, I picked up a camera and ended up majoring in Photography at RISD, just a short drive away from 8 Oak Drive. Whenever I felt a creative block or needed inspiration, I’d grab whichever camera I was using at the time and drive on over for a lunchtime visit. She’d offer me Manischewitz wine and I’d ask her questions about growing up in Latvia. She’d tell me about how she had to hide in ditches next to dead bodies as her neighborhood was being bombed…then immediately tell me a story about her years working in a Massachusetts donut shop.
Over the years, I continued to photograph within her home, sometimes capturing the same portion of a room from the same angle…sometimes different. It’s become a form of self-soothing to me. A meditation. During my last few visits, she has begun to give me some of her things, mostly cookbooks, as she can no longer read the recipes, and for her safety, she shouldn’t be cooking anyway. In return, I’ve begun to recreate several of the objects that she has given me with papier-mâché and needlepoint primarily (media nodding toward temporary qualities, both fleeting and generational). Through recreating these objects (and creating other objects inspired by her and her home), I preserve and honor the histories/stories of each item from her home.
Valerija tells me to take anything that I want home with me since she can no longer see her possessions now. Two visits ago, she asked my parents if they would take some of the photographs on the walls down. However, she has since asked my father to return the items, stating that my grandfather (who passed away over 20 years ago) “wasn’t happy with the changes.” Both she and I would prefer to maintain the authenticity and sanctity of her space. In an interview by a local newspaper about her foil-wrapped Easter bunny and her early years in America, she was asked if she has since returned to Latvia . She responded with “it wouldn’t be the same; I want to remember it the way it was.” I feel the same way about her home, even though these days she can’t see enough to clean, so things are slowly being buried by dust and falling into disrepair. I want to remember 8 Oak Drive the way it was, and in many ways still is.