Hello and welcome to the Studio Diaries.
If you’re here, you’re probably curious about one of a few things: who I am and what my work is about. Maybe you’ve been led here from social media, where I speak, in brief, about the origins of my work and you want to know more. Or perhaps you’re a fellow artist looking for kinship and some shared (virtual) studio time. Well, you’re in the right place for all of it.
I’ve started this blog to discuss the stories behind my work, as well as to give you the opportunities to peek inside my studio to see my works in progress. In sharing these things I hope to create a safe space to talk about art, and the things that bring us to create art as well. Because in case you haven’t noticed in my work, it comes from a dark place. I use art, primarily, as a healing modality to explore and diffuse the traumas of my background.
First a little background
You see, I was born into the Unification Church, which is more commonly remembered by the pejorative term “The Moonies.” The church originated in Korea in the 1950s, and was allegedly born out of a sex cult practice called pikareum. The Unification Church is described by the media as a primary example of a cult, and it achieved notoriety in the 1970's and 80's during the height of the cult hysteria in the United States. Parents were terrified of losing their children to these groups, and sometimes arranged extensive sting operations to kidnap and deprogram their children.
A note on why I use the word cult
The word cult has an extremely negative connotation, and some people feel it’s an insulting word that shouldn’t be used. Certainly people within these groups that are labeled as cults disagree with the term. Even some survivors that have left are uncomfortable using it.
To tell the truth, for almost a decade after I left the Unification Church, I was uncomfortable calling it a cult. Sure, my friends and I in the group referred to ourselves as “Moonies” to reclaim the word, and would jokingly use the term “cult” as a way to diffuse the word of its power. But as I have created distance from that world and healed, I have looked back on the way I was raised to see its isolation, trauma and despair. To me it has become important to use a word that potently and powerfully invokes those aspects of my background.
In their book Escaping Utopia: Growing up in a Cult, Getting Out and Starting Over authors and social scientists Janja Lalich and Karla McLaren describe a cult as:
A […] group or relationship that stifles individuality and critical thinking, requires intense commitment and obedience to a person and.or an ideology, and restricts or eliminates personal autonomy in favor of it’s worldview and the leader’s wants and needs.
The Cult Podcast, which did a fabulously in-depth three part series on the Unification Church, describes a cult as having some, or all, of the following traits:
- a group that rallies behind an entity or a leader who espouses beliefs outside of the norm.
- organizations the require physical or monetary sacrifice as a condition of membership.
- organizations in which the doctrines followed by the leader are different than that of the followers.
- organizations in which isolation is encouraged, either by commune living or by a policy of disconnection from outside relationships.
- organizations that actively recruit new members.
My parents joined the Unification Church in the 1970s, and I the eldest of five children who are considered Second Generation or Blessed Children. We were believed to be born without original sim which my parents interpreted as meaning their children would be both sinless and perfect. No pressure.
Because the Unification Church was so controversial, my parents spent their early years in the cult in deep fear of being kidnapped and deprogrammed. Though the hysteria had subsided by the time I was born, there was still a deep concern about judgement and intrusion from the outside world. So although we were sent to school with “fallen children,” we were taught to keep our identities as Blessed Children and our belief systems a secret.
I left the organization in my very early twenties after fighting for several years to leave a forced arranged marriage. For many years afterwards, I did not share my background out of shame and fear of judgment. Slowly and selectively I began to trust the "outside world," which I had always been taught to fear.
In safe, supportive spaces and relationships I began to share my story. It was through this process that I learned we need to share our stories. There is an inherent healing process that takes place when we acknowledge our history; we move out of shame and into a space of resilience and integration.
I believe that when we share our stories, it gives others permission and a safe space to share their own. In our sharing, others find the words they needed in order to begin articulating their stories and begin their own course of healing.
Today my mission remains rooted in sharing my stories as a means of healing and for others to discover their own inner authentic voice, and permission to use it. My artwork, my writing and my mentoring all focus on helping others tell their stories and heal through their own creative practices.
And that, my friends, is why I decided to start this blog.
It all started when
My grandfather (who was not in the cult - more on that another day) had been an amateur photographer, and he gave me my first camera when I was 14. It was a film Pentax point and shoot, and the gift was conditional. He handed me the camera and two rolls of film, instructing me to shoot both rolls and come back with the prints for him to inspect. If I had an artistic eye, the camera would be mine.
Though I knew nothing about photography, I knew I wanted the camera. So I dragged my sister outside and demanded that she be my model. She obliged, and I quickly filled those two rolls of film, eagerly awaiting my grandfather’s pronouncement.
Despite having a long way to go in terms of my artistic development, my grandfather granted me the camera. I brought it with me on church missions to rehabilitate schools in Central America, to pro-abstinence marches across the United States and Europe, to conferences that I helped staff in Korea, and to visit the stranger I had been married to in Norway. And though I reveled in being able to document the people and places everywhere I went, I didn’t know how to translate my emotions into the photos. In fact, I always felt a disconnect between the scenes I was documenting and the turmoil within.
Meeting a Mentor
In the typical storytelling arch of the hero’s journey, there is a mentor to be met. That wiser, older figure helps the hero gain skills and insights that help them on their quest. In my story, my mentor was an older photographer that I met a few years before I left the church. Through involvement in theater I had hired him to do my headshots. And what started as a business relationship deepened into a a friendship where I learned more about the art of photography and translating one’s inner life onto the film.
He gave me my first DSLR, and I began use the camera to explore more deeply. Still, most of my early photos were not self portraits. It felt easier to turn the camera on others, leaving myself safely in the dark behind the lens. But the truth was I was afraid to photograph myself; I wasn’t sure that I could bear tapping into the ugliness that I was sure was buried inside.
Occasionally I would allow myself to step in front of the camera, but I always ended up feeling an immense sense of guilt for in expressing my unhappiness. In my upbringing, negative thoughts and feelings were strictly forbidden and seen as being in the realm of Satan. So by documenting my struggles I felt that I was betraying both God and my upbringing.
Even after I left the church I struggled to give myself permission to take self portraits. The old guilt still haunted me, and a new guilt began to crop up. Though challenging, my life outside of the cult was infinitely better. “How dare I take pictures that show sadness when my life is so good,” the old cult programming chided. Though I hadn’t realized it, I had transferred all of my old behaviors into my new life, keeping my past a secret and feeling guilty for everything less than perfection.
Then in 2012 Rev. Sung Myung Moon, the cult leader, died. Something in my lifelong It felt as though my abuser had gone to jail for life, without parole, and he couldn’t hurt me anymore. Though this was somewhat of a fallacy, in that members of the organization and my own parents were my biggest abusers, it cracked something in me. I had a breakdown, crying for weeks at a time, desperate to talk to someone about what had happened to me. And though I had always been warned away from therapy growing up in the cult, I decided it was time to seek out help.
And it was in those early years of therapy that the Burdens of a White Dress project was born. Images began to pour out of me because, many times, I didn’t have the words to explain what happened. I hadn’t been allowed the language to describe the trauma of growing up in an abusive, closed system. So I used the gifts I had been given and began to turn the camera on myself to try to explain what happened.
At first I created the images in secret, being so laden with fear and guilt that the thought of sharing them made me dizzy. Eventually I began sharing the images with other women who felt safe, and they began to tell me that they saw themselves in the photographs. Even though our stories were different, we had a shared language of trauma and survivorship. It was through these fellow survivors that I began to unlearn my fear, shame and guilt.
Which brings us to today
It’s been six years since I created the first image in the project. To be honest, I don’t know if and when the project will end. It' is simply like an internal archeological dig, and every time I discover something new to heal, I document it. So my intention with these Studio Diaries is to take you along with me. I hope that you enjoy being here, either for the art sake, the artistic communion, the healing, or all three.