Mo Costello

Mo Costello is an artist currently living in Athens, Georgia where she serves as the Lamar Dodd Post-MFA Teaching Fellow at the University of Georgia. Today we share her series, Vitamins for Troubled Hearts, with an introductory correspondence between Mo Costello and Nich Hance McElroy.


Vitamins for Troubled Hearts

Mo Costello and Nich Hance McElroy, from The Ones We Love, Volume 1.

I contacted Mo on the phone in early February. She’d been traveling under a self-imposed communication blackout, or doing something like traveling, or just taking a break from everything. I texted twice to reschedule our conversation, and when I finally spoke with her I could hear her footsteps on gravel. She spoke quickly and apologized for her shortness of breath; she was at a high elevation in Boulder, Colorado, walking and talking at the same time. Our conversation was peripatetic too — it wandered from personal biography, weather, geography, working habits, a brief genealogy of vehicles (“now I have a van”), a strawberry farm, the town in Oregon where her parents met, the particulars of two photographic projects, life as a student and teacher, the Bible, the West, the Northeast. Mo has an ease and graciousness in conversation that reminds me of my favorite teachers. She jumps topics with un-scattered ease, listens intently, circles back to cultural references in a casual, attentive way, and is mindful that storytelling — our shared desire for narrative and understanding — is not just the fabric and substance of her photographic practice, but of conversation as well. By her own description she is a storyteller, and with Vitamins For Troubled Hearts she is creating an agricultural valley analogous to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, a fiction that blends a Biblical world (sacred land, apparent prophets, floods and fires) with the textural nuances that constitute our daily lives: a baby blue Lincoln Continental with a pink-glazed Dunkin’ Donut on the hood, a sink full of dust and human hair, frozen by the camera’s flash, a naked mother gazing at her son. After our telephone conversation I sent Mo an email asking her to tell me about the valley she’s constructing and who lives there. This was her response:

“I begin with confession. I am just getting out of a level one psychiatric clinic. For some sixty days we talked mostly of God and nobody cared for postmodernism or art theory. I fancy my response would be different had you asked me before. But you didn’t. And so we go, blindly and with delight.

I have wicked OCD. I have a hard time getting the people I photograph out of my head. They stay with me for a while, painfully long at times, until suddenly, and miraculously, I am able to walk on my own again. Briefly.

The valley is a useful construct. A structure, by which lives lived in isolation converge into a single town, a single fable. It is as if the valley allows them respite in some form. A place to stay for a while and maybe even commune. Rudy meets Slim, hands him a bible, and I walk away quietly.

The valley offers greener pastures, in the Virgilian sense, and a baby is born. No one need know that Slim sleeps on the floor of his auto body shop, or that Dillan she’s smiling, and softly because she’s on heroin, or that Harold got rickets and so his back is bent bad. You’re safe sweetie, your’e safe.

They taught us to say that.

I’ve been reading about Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Griel Marcus is talking about Clarence Ashely’s “The Coo Coo Bird”. As with so many of the anthems in the anthology, “The Coo Coo Bird” is this type of “folk-lyric” song. The “folk-lyric” is made up of fragments that have no direct, no logical relationship to each other. Instead, they are drawn from thousands upon thousands of floating and fragmented verses, couplets, one-liners. The song then, becomes a compilation. The convergence of a Sunday sermon and the anonymous performance of a wandering street musician.

Gonna build me

Log cabin

On a mountain

So high

So I can

See Willie

When he goes

On by

And a new ballad emerges. The Valley then, becomes a type of “folk-lyric” in which the ghost of a homeless evangelist who suffers from paranoid-schizophrenia stumbles upon a farmer and the aging Jehovah Witness that lives on his couch. Rudy, in desperation, becomes a farm-hand, and joins Berry, the aging Jehovah Witness, in an over-crowded living room.

In the photographs, where they stand now, no one knows. And maybe know one needs to. The work is still young. You’re safe sweetie,

you’re safe. And sausage fingers cling to a faded pink map of the holy land to tell you so.”










To view more of Mo’s work, please visit her website.

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