Prescriptions for Survival in a Time of Global Pandemic
Are these seeds then, or are they pills?
Is this a placebo, one that will gently and blankly inspire me to get better
or is this a homeopathic dose of deadly conjecture? Is this gossip? Is this cruelty?
On Friday, March 6, 2020, Grant Colfax, Director of the Department of Public Health, issued a statement asking 900,000 San Francisco residents to avoid unnecessary gatherings, followed quickly by increasingly urgent messages to cease gathering altogether and, eventually, a directive to shelter-in-place.
Three days prior, in the Desai | Matta Gallery in downtown San Francisco, we had installed Prescriptions for Life, a collaborative exhibition between long-time friends, visual artist Paula Gray and poet Theresa Whitehill. Catalyzed by Gray’s discovery of an intact prescription ledger from 1890, the pair who together share decades of life and their attendant losses — a best friend, parents, a sibling — consider the construction of the body, of health and illness, and of the limits of our knowledge to heal.
Like every other community event that week — from the St Patrick’s Day Parade to sporting events — the opening reception was postponed indefinitely. The gallery — replete with eerily timely prescriptions for health both compassionate and hopeful, if tempered by the complexities of grief and loss — is empty of viewers. As a result, we are working with the artists to bring Prescriptions for Life out of the gallery and into a virtual space. To do so, we now must send emails back and forth across county lines we can no longer physically traverse.
Today, Theresa writes, “Sending good thoughts and blessings. I like to imagine the exhibit inhabiting space in the middle of San Francisco, putting out vibrations of health and concern and whimsy and solace. Much Love, Theresa”
How the Project Began
Who were these people?
What was it like to go to a pharmacy in San Francisco in 1890?
Did a woman in long skirts seeking help for her night sweats have to dodge horse-drawn buggies on muddy streets?
What were the lives of these doctors like?
How confident were they that the medicines prescribed would be effective?
Would cocaine, belladonna, strychnine, do the job?
Back in 2010, Paula was hunting through bins of castoffs in the Salvation Army in northern Sonoma County, not far from where she lives off Highway 128.
The ledger’s cover was shabby and inside was page after page of medical prescriptions pasted in for what I assumed was record keeping by the pharmacist. Prescribed medicines of the day were written by various doctors in that cursive penmanship of the 1800s, at once beautiful and hurriedly sloppy. Pages were browned by age and somewhat fragile to the touch.
As was the custom at the time, medicines were written in Latin, and often included arcane abbreviations that require specialized knowledge to decipher. Directions for taking the medicines are in English, however the vintage script renders them all but illegible to younger generations. Doctors keeping a log of prescribed drugs: Ferri Pyrophosphate, Cocaine, Soda Salicylate, Morphine Sulfate, Belladona Strychinae — alluring, mysterious, alchemical, even dangerous, at a time when much about the body was unknown and unknowable. After studying these mysterious medicaments, Paula decided to use them as the starting point to explore our ongoing search for wellness. Echoing an earlier collage process in which she had incorporated handwritten letters, she disassembled the ledger, recasting the directives and promises of healing in a kaleidoscopic assemblage of fragments and geometries, at once clarifying and expansive. While doing so, childhood memories surfaced of going to the pharmacy with and for her mother, who suffered from chronic illness.
I can still conjure up the smells of the old wood-paneled pharmacy and the familiar soft voice of the white-coated pharmacist. After my mother passed, I had the unsettling task of disposing of vial upon vial of what had become useless medicines.
The Collaborative Process: Working Together Across Distance
Behind me in the golden light at the end of the afternoon.
Laughter, bright spirits at a table under the tree.
Pizza boxes, evidence of the human puzzle.
Paula and Theresa have been friends since 1984, witnessing and admiring each other’s work for more than thirty years. As long-time head of Mendocino College’s art department, Paula had been in a position over the years to hire Theresa to teach, to participate in a group exhibition, or design promotional materials, but they had never collaborated on the creation of a body of work.
Absorbed in the pages of the ledger, Paula thought of Theresa and called her, told her about the project and asked her to think about collaborating. Theresa, too, had learned what it’s like to go through the medicine cabinet of a loved one after their passing, trying to comprehend the prescriptions, what each does once in the body and in combination with the others. By her own estimation Theresa thought for about ten seconds before saying yes. In the preceding year and a half, she had lost one sister and both parents; deep in mourning and always willing to take risks in her work, this presented as the right project at the right time.
I come from a family of seven kids. It was a big family, and we’re very close. And we were all grappling. And I, it just, it was like a miracle…an invitation. Paula can attest, I’d been through tremendous upheaval and I’d been writing and writing and of course everything that came out had to be about these deaths and this grief. And I knew about Paula’s experience…and that we were both coming from periods of grief. So this was…our prayer.
Though new to Paula, collaboration is a long-treasured process for Theresa who, in childhood, had a cousin with whom she spent every weekend and all summer. They held neighborhood bake sales and circuses to earn money for girl scout camp, and together wrote, illustrated, and published a neighborhood newspaper.
Our favorite thing to do was walk downtown on a Saturday morning and go to the ‘five and dime’ — we loved to say it, too. We wanted to buy a fresh pack of paper. And then we’d buy a fresh box of Crayola crayons, the kind with the sharpener on the back? And then we would go home and array everything and we’d each take a pile of paper and then we would each start madly making a story and we’d both be narrating our story out loud to each other as we went.
Many years later, as a young mother newly separated and living in Mendocino County, Theresa was invited into a group of four or five women writers who embarked on collaboratively writing and editing a novel.
We practiced a collaborative writing process called “hooping” that derives from a Native American tradition of oral storytelling. The creative part of the work was a revelation to me, and we wrote in amazing synergy together, creating a body of work that none of us could have come up with on our own. When we got to the editing, that’s when friction entered. We had fights you wouldn’t believe. And it completely liberated me. It was a defining moment in my writing growth. Along with it came these techniques and a critical approach that actually worked for me. So anyway, we wrote together for five years. Ever since then I’ve been fearless about my writing.
Like the artists MAV and SCB in Project 3191 who live that many miles apart in Portland, Maine and Portland, Oregon respectively, taking and sharing a photograph each morning, Paula and Theresa’s collaboration happened at a distance. And though coming from different histories with collaboration, Paula and Theresa share a trust in letting the creative impulse and process lead, allowing a deepening understanding of the work to emerge along the way.
For Theresa collaboration is “juicy” — it has been a regular part of her process. In the early 2000s, Theresa even collaborated with chef & author Shannon Hughes, who commissioned her to write culinary poetry, which Hughes illustrated with her amazing food. Paula, in turn, focuses on process, concerned about that thing that does, in fact, sometimes emerge in collaborative practices, ego.
In the early ideal stages it’s magical and then when people’s egos get involved and they’re not in concert anymore, it can become painful. The most important thing is the process that we go through. The most important thing is the process that I went through to do these collages. The most important thing is the process you [Theresa] went through to do your writing.
One afternoon, by chance, Theresa was left alone in Paula’s studio absorbing the early collages, sitting with the phrase “Prescriptions for Life,” and leafing through the partial pages from the pharmacy ledger. Drawn to research since childhood, Theresa went down to the library at UCSF, where she pored over their collection of ledgers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eventually learning to decode the symbols, the handwriting, and the Latin text, wanting to develop a poetic language that mirrored the structure of the prescriptions. In the ways that we gain energy from the discoveries of our collaborators, Theresa’s research echoed for Paula, enlivening her own.
The fact that she did that and that she came across the ledgers and it just sort of, to me, it just sort of opened up what I was doing….I’m excited that it has taken on a different life…because of being juxtaposed with Theresa’s thoughts and Theresa’s work.
Approaching History: Fragmentation as a Focusing Lens
Paula’s exploration of patterns is an exploration of the universe superseded by patterns so large or so small that they cannot be perceived by the human organism. This has been accompanied in our time by the near extinction of elephants, the melting of the ice caps, the ending of a climate that can sustain our species. And at one corner of this vast dilemma, Paula holding up one edge of the tablecloth and drawing my eye to a few seemingly small blessings while I respond with alphabets and prayers and ecstatic sequences of thought, prayer for happiness, a soliloquy on morphine, a prescription for new baby girls. That’s how I saw the mechanics playing out. There was a sense of liberation. There was a sense of honoring the past and being respectful about the responsibilities of people at that time. What were their needs and necessities? What were their limitations?
What is our commitment to the individuals named in those prescriptions? Paula gave herself permission to dive deep into the pages, cutting them into geometric forms, respectful and exploratory without being precious. She let the presence of text and the mysteries suggested by the language evoke rather than describe.
When I’m looking at a whole page, I’m looking at what’s there and what the possibilities are. For example, like here when I decided to cut this circle out, I’m looking for things that I can reference compositionally. I’m paying attention to the read and the composition with color and with pattern. There are places where I composed it so that the script picks up on something else.
That approach captured Theresa’s imagination.
I had also wanted a parallel with whatever I was going to present … I wanted them to be somehow also fragmentary in nature. There’s a couple of complete pieces, but again, I saw in her technique of cutting the handwritten scripts into circles and rectangles, an intensifying geometry. There’s actually a magical act that was involved from my perspective in what she did. I wanted to bring that same power to bear on my pieces using fragmentation as a focusing lens.
How do we hold grief, for loves lost or for the existential catastrophes of climate change, species extinction, or a global pandemic, while holding up the edge of the tablecloth to be attentive to small blessings? A prescription seems full of promise, a roadmap to healing, to health, to a desired outcome. Paula chose to focus on prescriptions for things positive, healthy, and hopeful: air, water, happiness, clarity of thought, and new baby girls, among other ideas, hopes, and dreams.
Theresa — whose role in her family was as a truth teller — has found in the losses of loved ones, new ways to be brave:
If the depths have taught me anything it’s to be brave in a different way than I was when I was younger. I called up my friend and told her I wanted to dedicate one of the poems in the exhibit to her and it’s called “Prescription for Friendship.” And she was like, “Oh, my husband’s the only one who’s ever written a poem for me.” And so I said that “I want, if it’s okay with you, I want you to read this and let me know if it’s okay with you.”
How do we balance the desire to be positive with a commitment to be real?
Working with the real components of our life. And so there’s a lot about forgiveness, there’s a lot about grief, and so there’s challenging things. And this is like working magic with it, or casting prayers, or…
In the simplest terms this exhibit is made up of a prescription ledger, found and then cut into small geometries, collaged, and a series of fragmented writings letterpress-printed on textured paper. And in reality, it is woven through with decades of life lived. Like a caregiver balancing the bodily intimacies of the patient with the existential understanding of our mortality, this collaboration is both. Positive and real, prayers of compassion and grace, while also contemplations of tone, line quality, and composition, words and phrases, alphabets and universes.
Written by Deirdre Visser, Curator of The Arts at CIIS