Bittersweet on Bostwick Lane

Susan Worsham

2009 - Ongoing

Virginia, United States


In this body of work I am coming to terms with loss. I have lost both my father and my mother, yet it's the suicide of my brother that seeps into my work like a slow forming stain, and has become a stand in for the others. My brother took his own life on his first visit home after severing his spinal cord in a motorcycle accident. What always comes to mind is the first few lines of his suicide note.

"I arrived home just about the time the honeysuckle blooms"

Russell was not the sort of person to notice flowers, so I find it really beautiful, and achingly sad at how poetic it was for him to stop and see the beauty around him if only because he knew it would be for the last time.

The last person to see my brother alive was my oldest neighbor, Margaret Daniel. It's fitting that she has now become my subject and the strongest thread throughout my work. The first time we sat together to make a portrait, she told me the story of Russell's last day.

" I made your brother my home made bread, his favorite... I buttered a slice and took it up to him, and he called down, Margaret can I have some more of that bread? He finished the whole loaf, and then me and your mother went for a walk down the lane and when we came back he had shot himself."

Margaret gracefully weaves stories of buttering my brother's last slice of bread with memories of me as a young girl, wanting to eat her homemade strawberry jelly on my new white bedspread. She laughs as she recalls finding me with fruit all over the bed. Blood and jelly, two very different stains. I thread these stories together, of pain and loss and of the sweetness of childhood memories.

My memories become intertwined with hers as I rediscover my past through her stories. Together, we've created a family album of what was once the intangible landscape of my childhood. Each time I visit Margaret I enter through the kitchen door, and each time she has a new story to tell which enriches my work like a complex broth. The kitchen and the yard are where we do our fieldwork, as we pick fruit and remove the rotten parts to make a more palatable jelly. This process has become a sort of poetry for me, as I document her showing me how to strain the last remnants of sweetness and color from crabapples, using bandages to catch the pink-stained juice. The work encircles itself as our conversations about native flowers, life and death become the seeds of my photographs.

One day I remove a piece of Margaret's bread straight from the oven and I take it home to let it rot. As the decay forms over the surface I photograph it. When I show the picture to Margaret, instead of being mad that I ruined her bread, she excitedly starts naming the types of mold that rest on its surface. One is penicillin which is used to heal. I realize that a project that I thought was about death is actually about healing.

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  • "Max with Papaya"

  • "Margaret's Azaleas through Section of Cat's Esophagus" The pink stain of Margaret's Azaleas viewed through the orange circle of a cat's esophagus. Seeing life through the stain of death.

  • "Light on Walnut" The most valuable lesson that my work with Margaret has taught me is the role of death in life.
    In one of our recorded conversations Margaret picks up a dead branch from a Black Walnut tree and shows me the fungus growing in clusters across its surface, a special fungus that grows on the fallen branches of Walnut trees and an example of a symbiotic relationship: “...look what it’s doing, it’s eating it up, taking it back to nature. It’s a mold, look at it, see what it does, it’s a wood rotter, it rots the wood, and takes it back to nature.”

  • "Pollen Knife (Margaret with Collected Pollen from my Mother's Camellia)"

  • "Skin of Man with Perspiratory Glands" At Margaret's table we cut cake and examine her microscope slides from her days as a biology teacher. Each one holding, beauty, death, and an appreciation of life in it's pastel stain. Their labels like small poems, Skin of Unripe Fruit, Hairs of Man, Woman, and Child, and Butterfly's Tongue.

  • "Communion"

  • "Mom and Russ"

  • " Blood Stained Mouth" A portrait of my neighbor Margaret with a slight ring of blood around her mouth after a trip to the dentist. It is an image that echoes the story that she tells of taking the children to the persimmon tree and how my brother always had a ring of persimmon stained around his mouth.

  • " Hearse in my Childhood Driveway"

  • "Margaret with Giant Camellia Japonica"

  • "Buttercup Smut" I collect the names of flowers from the Virginia Landscape. Solanum dulcamara-  (Bittersweet Nightshade), Eupatorium serotinum-  (Late Flowering Boneset), Lonicera fragrantissima-  (Fragrant Honeysuckle, Winter Honeysuckle), Myosotis macrosperma - ( forget me not). I also collect their diseases. Buttercup Smut, Rose Rust, Black Knot, Fairy Ring of Carnations, and Sleeping Disease of Tomato.

  • "Diospyros virginiana, ( Virginia Sugar-plum)

  • "Icing Fingers"

  • " Mosquito Bites"

  • "Persimmon Grave"

  • "Georgia in the Neighbor's Pool"

  • "Night Moth Wing" Night Moths are one of the pollinators of Night Blooming Flowers. As a child I remember them fluttering around the neighbor's porch lights at night. I also remember one night when all of the neighbors gathered in Margaret's yard with flashlights in hand, and formed a circle in her garden. They were there to see her Night Blooming Cereus, a flower that blooms only once a year for one single night.

  • " Persimmon Lap"

  • "Georgia with Jellies, Deltaville, Va"

  • " Mom Holding Russ Through Butterfly Moons"