Sylvie Harris is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. She grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania but spent much of her childhood near her mother’s family in New England. Her work is focused on her relationship to family cultural traditions and ephemera both tangible and intangible, that are left behind after death. She photographs mainly at her family’s center in Springfield, Massachusetts where her great-grandparents immigrated from Poland. Harris received her BA in Studio Art and Art History with a Minor in Photography from Drew University in Madison, NJ.
A clivia plant sits on the wooden shelf between my two bedroom windows, in partial sunlight, deciding whether and when to send out its explosion of vivid orange blossoms. All of the many women in my extended family have a version of this same plant, descendants in multiple generations derived from the “matriarch” plant first cultivated by my Polish great-grandmother. For nearly a century, each of us has combed out the long root systems of this beguiling plant, uprooting and untangling the offspring, displacing soil and repotting, then passing a fresh shard of green to the next young woman when she sets out on her own.
The clivia is one of the many objects and traditions that link me to previous generations, a connection I find myself constantly searching for. My nostalgia for family I never knew is likely a product of how death was a topic that pervaded my childhood. Because of my upbringing by a journalist father whose main subject matter concerns death and dying, I often consider the implications of passing on and the ephemera, both tangible and intangible, that we leave behind. A family death during this past year, as well as my photographing of the natural burial plots where my own parents will be interred, have fueled my nervous curiosity of what remains, and what endures with time.
Along with my search for connection to family members who are no longer present comes the pressure to preserve those memories through religious and cultural traditions, many originating in Poland, from which my maternal great-grand-parents immigrated. This pressure comes not from family but from my own desire not to be the weak link between generations, to not be the one who lets those customs, the old Polish ways, die out. I will have to learn to cook the recipes, cherish and preserve the family homestead, and commit to propagating Babcia’s heirloom plants. These pictures, centered around the care of our clivia plants, document family ephemera, traditions, and places.
To view more of Sylvie Harris’s work please visit her website.