We went down to the creek on our second night here. Hillary was eager to show me her home. We had been talking so much about the painful parts but now that we’d arrived she needed to show me all that was gorgeous, too.
Hillary pulled her black socks over her knees and we covered ourselves in bug spray. As we were leaving, her father reminded us to ask permission first. It was almost dusk, and we were rushing to get to the creek before nightfall.
“Who are we checking in with?” I asked as we emerged from the circle of trees that surrounds her parents’ house.
“Oh, the Millers,” she said, pointing to a little house across the field. “The creek is on their land, so we have to ask them first.”
I wondered aloud what of the land her parents owned. Hillary pointed behind us to the circle of trees and then to an expanse of tall grass to our right. She explained that all the land on Davis Road was once part of the Millers’ farm. Over the years they had sold off parts of it in five acre tracts. Now in their 80s, the Millers live quietly between their daughter’s and son’s adjacent plots.
This is a typical narrative in Clermont County: the sectioning of farms, the clustering of families on a generational homestead. This lasting connection to the land, almost unfathomable to me, is what first fascinated me about Hillary’s family history. I can only imagine it is similar to how I feel when I visit the homes of my relatives in Italy — except I am removed from that history. My grandfather, a first-generation Italian immigrant, reconnected with his Italian cousins during World War II. He dedicated his life to the study of Italian literature, language, and culture, and he passed on that pursuit to my mother, although he gave her an American name: Stephanie. My mother, a professor of Italian, felt safe enough two generations removed to name my sister and me after Italian literary heroines. My sister received her name from Romeo e Giulietta; I was named after Francesca da Rimini from Dante’s Inferno.
My Italian heritage has always been a source of pride for me, and I recognized a similar pride in Hillary when she spoke about her home in Ohio. I also recognized the urgency in her effort to recover what was lost in the sale of her great-grandparents’ dairy farm. I understood why this attempt needed to become part of her work, as it was akin to how memory and history had become integral to my own practice after my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
More than losing her family’s ancestral land, Hillary had lost access to a well of generational knowledge. Her alienation from and attempt to reconnect with her family’s agricultural past resonated with me on a deeply personal level.
Hillary’s elegiac thesis work, For Clyde and Anna Lee, mirrored my thesis project, Frail Places. Her improvised bulk milk tank hummed across the room from my work in the gallery, its borrowed motor failing to turn the milk at a steady speed. When it faltered and the milk spoiled, I helped her scoop out the curdled remains. We tried to scrub out the tub like we’d seen her great-grandmother do in home videos.
Walking up to the Millers’ door, I became suddenly aware of my appearance. Before leaving the East Coast, I had cropped my hair short for ease of maintenance, but now it seemed like a billboard for my outsiderness. I wondered if people here would be wary of me, and I found myself hanging back a little on the front stoop while Hillary knocked on the door. An elderly man answered. He recognized her right away and ushered us into the living room where his wife was watching the news.
“Doris, it’s Hillary,” he said.
Doris greeted Hillary warmly, and then she turned to me. “And you must be Francesca.”
I shook her outstretched hand.
“I feel like I know you already, ” she said, smiling. “You’re all over Hillary’s Facebook.”
Laughing and a bit astonished, I wedged myself on the edge of the couch next to Hillary and listened as the Millers brought us up to date, passing around pictures of their grandchildren and asking us about our project with Empower Youth.
As I looked around, their home seemed somewhat familiar to me. Its pleasant smell flooded me with nostalgia. There, next to the television, was a small ceramic tree, three bunny figurines dangling from it on swings. I had received the same statuette one Easter as a child. I instinctively glanced toward the window over the kitchen sink, thinking of my grandmother and how she used to wash dishes and look out at her backyard. To my surprise, a grey and white cat sat perched on the outside sill. When I stepped closer to the window, she tried to rub her face on the screen as if she could reach through and touch me.
“That’s the mama cat,” Phil told me. He pointed out the sliding glass doors, where a heap of kittens was wrestling on the patio.
“You can have one if you’d like,” Doris called from across the room.
My anxieties about how I would be received began to dissipate in the Millers’ home and were replaced by the pull of possibility. My instincts as an artist kicked in. I briefly wished I had brought my camera to document this first connection, a new line in our incipient social drawing.
Documentation or no, I knew the work had begun. Like Hillary’s, my work is investigative, but my material is the richness of place, of memory and history. Whereas the making for Hillary is tactile, my making consists in research, assembly, performance, and documentation.
I often don’t feel “correct” as an artist. My methods are convoluted and generally produce little tangible output. However, I’m not concerned with output, but with discovery and interrogation. I’ve taken to calling myself an “artistpoet” because the term, for me, is pregnant with potential. Like a poet, I traffic in the mysterious and unknowable qualitative. I abandon the quantitative and allow myself to fail again and again. My work is frustrating, painstaking, and impossible.
Frail Places consumed the better part of my two years in graduate school. Simultaneously a meditation on, a poem to, and an investigation of sisterhood, Frail Places was an attempt to understand something I knew could never be fully understood. The ravenous hunt for that kernel of truth — that answer to “What is sisterhood” or “How does one live as a sister?” — prompted me to consider an unusual moment in Italian history when Renaissance philosophers attempted to construct quantifiable memory systems using theatrical models. When the project began in 2015 as an experimental collaboration with my sister, I never imagined I would end up scouring my mother’s dissertation and compiling resources on Giulio Camillo and Giordano Bruno.
My husband Matt often reminds me, “Your art is smarter than you are.” I try my best to listen to it.
In the creek that runs through the Miller’s property, the stones are flat and jagged, and their surfaces are mottled with tiny fossils. Almost every rock we turned over had prehistory inscribed on it. There were shells of long-deceased mollusks, weeds, and what appeared to be coral. The abundance of fossils, their utter commonness, was nothing short of unreal to me. We scrambled over the rocks, deciding which were the best to keep.
We stayed out too late and had to wade home through waist-high grass in the waning light.
The work we would make in Bethel had not become clear to me yet, but it was starting to reveal itself. This beautiful, painful, complicated place was whispering its secrets to us through the Millers and their farmland, through the ancient stones in the creek bed.
Francesca Fiore is an artist from Pennsylvania whose process-based work explores familial intimacy, history, and failed systems of memory through research, pedagogy, performance, video, installation, and text. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from Parsons School of Design and received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts.