Some artists are poignantly clear about their artistic journey. Sometimes it takes a specific experience for clarity to appear. It is most empowering when this experience speaks to the heart and offers compassion. This past June I met a painter who shared her story with me.
My mother and I went to the LaFate Gallery located in Wilmington, Delaware to see a friend’s photographic exhibition. While we were there we met the gallery owner, Eunice LaFate. She was preparing to paint but she stopped her preparation and began telling us about herself. Her sharing unfolded partially because she noticed my mother’s accent. She inquired where she was from and my mother responded, “Jamaica.” Eunice then shared she was also from Jamaica. She is from St. Ann, the largest parish on the island’s north coast. She came to the United States in 1983. She explained that she was a teacher in Jamaica. During the summer time she would travel to New York to visit family. However, one summer she visited a classmate who lived in Wilmington. She spent a week there. Days before leaving, Eunice’s hostess had a going-away dinner for her. She had invited a few guests, and one of the guests ultimately became her husband, Robert LaFate. They were married for 31 years. Towards the end of his life he suffered from prostate cancer. She explained that he fought the disease to the very end. She talked of him being active and having a healthy diet prior to the last four months. In the hospital she sat next to his bedside and received a vision to paint. She created a series that spoke to this painful journey.
Eunice talked about the night her husband died in her arms. “The night he passed, the CNA was off…He was struggling and coughing and I gave him water. I saw his eyes bulge, and then he looked at me and I looked at him. And I said, Don’t Go, Dear. Don’t Go. Then he said, Oh My God. And he took his last breath.” She painted a picture called Piercing Heart as a way of representing exactly how she felt when he died.
Eunice LaFate, Gallery Owner
The LaFate Gallery was born out of grief. Her son called it a “Vision Center.” She explained, “When my husband passed away, instead of putting my work in storage I had a vision to open a gallery.” Today she facilitates and teaches workshops in the gallery. She offers various classes that help others to develop compassion and love. One of the classes she teaches is titled, The Heart of Caregiving: Rebounding from Grief to Growth. Another class she teaches helps foster a stronger relationship between parents and children. Her classes are meant to support, heal and love.
Eunice has won numerous awards for her art. She has also gifted General Colin Powell one of her original paintings when he spoke in Wilmington in 1993.
What I learned most about this artist is how she channeled the grief she was experiencing from the loss of her husband. She created a sacred artistic space for others to grieve, grow and give back to the community, and ss she gives back to the community she simultaneously honors her beloved husband.
In recent months I am learning to channel emotions through various forms of artistry (i.e. painting, knitting and writing). Merging the various art forms and allowing myself to feel, on and off paper, is another form of letting go and acknowledging the power of artistic expression, especially during volatile times. When I am free in my expression, I provide a space for others to also be free and expressive. How vitally important this is in my teaching profession. Thank you, Eunice LaFate.
About the Contributor:
Traci Currie is a Communication and Visual Arts lecturer at University of Michigan-Flint, as well as a knit-crochet artist, writer, and spoken word performer. She has been a part of the art world for over 15 years as an art gallery board member; spoken word series organizer; performer, nationally and internationally; and published poet. She believes The PRC will help women reach their highest potential. “The Phoenix Rising Collective is about empowering women to take ownership of their lives, claim their identities and be the positive change they wish to see in the world they live.” Read her latest posts. You can learn more about Traci’s work in creative arts HERE.
There are many characteristics I love about the February 2016 feature, Jade Ponds. Her punching dry wit and her determination to reach personal goals are two obvious aspects that stand out. Also, she has a gentle and kind spirit mixed with tough love. There is a lot to this young woman whom I have had the pleasure of knowing in different capacities.
She was born in Banbury, England but moved to Flint, Michigan as a child. She had written her first poem when she was 10 years old. In actuality, her teacher placed her in “time out” for getting in trouble. She told Jade not to move until she wrote something. Soon after, without ever having written poetry in her life, she produced a poem called Love. Jade years later joined the Navy and served a four-year term, traveling to places like Dubai, Singapore and Hawaii, just to name a few.
I met Jade at a poetry event in December 2007. She came to the venue to support her cousin who was in the first spoken word class I had taught at University of Michigan-Flint. After the event, she approached me. She explained how shocked she was to see her cousin not only perform but sing on stage. This evidently was an anomaly. The next year Jade registered for the course. She wasn’t just a student in the class; she was a mentee. The odd thing about talking about mentor-mentee relationships is that the flow of knowledge and wisdom feels one-sided at times. But that was not the case with Jade. She shifted the tides in how I saw learning because she was someone who wanted to learn everything she could about writing, performing and developing as a person. She always asked a lot of questions – Jade kept me on my toes!
When she finished the spoken word class in 2008, she didn’t just move on to other classes. Oh no! Jade registered for credits to assist me with the other spoken word classes. She started producing the chapbooks for the course while working on her own poetry book. She graduated from University of Michigan-Flint with a B.A. in English literature. She continued her education, graduating with a M.A. also in English literature and a concentration in Creative Writing. I had asked her to emcee a monthly performance set I was organizing. The shift in the relationship moved from teacher-student to friend. Not long after, we started working together at Genesee Valley Regional Center, a Flint juvenile detention center. We co-facilitated a spoken word workshop with young women Monday evenings. Jade (after graduation) accepted a job with General Motors as an UAW supervisor while still publishing poetry books, co-facilitating the performance workshops as well as teaching martial arts on Wednesday evenings. Yes, she is a 4th degree black belt in Tang Soo Do. She is a woman of many talents.
However, the information above is not the story I want to tell about Jade. The story I want to share is specific. It’s about the shift in her life. I begin this story by sharing an excerpt from her poem Fair Exchange:
Life hangs in the balance
Balance no longer an option as one side dearly
Outweighs the other
Death is near
She is set to be a mother
Complete with belly rubs from well-wishing strangers
Never knowing the danger lurking around the next bend
Much closer than before as she
Blacks out and falls to the floor
Not just a throbbing
Or a stabbing
Or a shooting pain,
But a combination of all three times ten
Accompanied by blood
Horrific at best
With no chance for rest before rushing to the E.R.
Scenes skipping from one to the next
to the next
This poem speaks to an experience that made her rethink her life and the sort of legacy she wants to leave on earth. In July 2009 Jade was at her annual family reunion in South Carolina. Big family. Lots of children. All sorts of food. Playing games and talking smack – what every reunion should have, right?
She explained what happened on this particular summer day:
I woke up that morning because I am an early riser. I was also the only adult who would play with the kids. We were on the trampoline around 8 in the morning for about an hour, jumping up and down like kids do. When I got off I couldn’t stand up without feeling like I was going to fall over. I felt a pain in my abdomen – the lower right side. I ignored it though. Although the pain persisted, I kept moving through the day playing other games. Around 6 in the evening I was unusually tired. My mother-in-law gave me two Tylenol so I could lie down on my back because my stomach was really hurting. It got worse. I stood up to get somebody and then I passed out. I ended up waking up and calling Mike (her husband) but then I passed out again. I was rushed to the hospital. There were moments where I could see everything in front of me but then it got darker and darker until I couldn’t see anymore. And that’s when I had an outer body experience. It was sudden. It was like stepping outside of myself and seeing me on the hospital bed, along with Mike and the doctor. It was peaceful and I didn’t feel any pain.
What I learned was I needed an emergency surgery. My fallopian tube was removed because I had an ectopic pregnancy. Unlike normal pregnancies, the fertilized egg stayed in the tube instead of moving to the uterus. I was 7-weeks pregnant and the baby was growing in the tube, which had ruptured. Essentially that day, I had been bleeding in my belly. I had lost the baby.
This moment of awakening represented both death and new life. On one end, my child had died and I could feel my life draining out of my body. For a moment I thought, “This is my last day on earth.” And it could’ve been. I asked myself how were people going to remember me. And I didn’t like the answer. What I understood about myself was that I had been holding myself back in life. I was the person that didn’t allow people into my world. I was very guarded (and still am to a degree). But I wasn’t living up to my full potential. I was not fully writing my truth or loving completely and fully. I might have to be responsible for other people’s feelings, especially if I impact them and I connect with them. Yes, I was shy, but it was more than just being shy. I was afraid of publishing my book because I was afraid to share. So this brought on that question, “How am I going to be remembered?” It was time for me to recognize the things I liked to do. For example, I liked helping people. But it was also time for me to recognize the experiences that placed me in a corner. In the past, I didn’t want to give people an opportunity to get to know me. And I think that stems from my hurtful relationship with my dad. He was the first person who truly let me down in my life. When I started to acknowledge resentment from within, I also had to acknowledge the discomforts and vulnerabilities related to our father-daughter relationship. I listed the discomforts:
On my dad’s watch I was molested.
On my dad’s watch I didn’t feel a sense of security
On my dad’s watch I felt like he wasn’t listening to my heart.
On my dad’s watch I felt unloved.
Although Jade acknowledges these experiences and feelings, she also admits she is still healing. And she doesn’t shy away from the anger or frustrations she feels about her dad today. She writes about it; She talks to trusted people; She uses her experiences to empower and help. When I am with Jade I am pushed to the next level of artistry because she reminds me that my truth should be spoken and shared, if for no other reason than to release and speak aloud as a way of acknowledging myself in the universe. That is where my healing begins.
It’s befitting to end this article with her words I carry, especially during times when I want to shut everyone out, “What I have learned is to treat each person as an individual and not as a collection of failures.” Yes, what I have learned is that there are some people who will show you how to trust. I’ve been fortunate to connect with a woman who shows me what trust means in my artistry and in myself.
Thank you, Jade Ponds!
Traci Currie is the Art + Creativity contributor for The Phoenix Rising Collective. She is a Communication and Visual Arts lecturer at University of Michigan-Flint, as well as a knit-crochet artist, writer, and spoken word performer. She has been a part of the art world for over 15 years as an art gallery board member; spoken word series organizer; performer, nationally and internationally; and published poet. She believes The PRC will help women reach their highest potential. “The Phoenix Rising Collective is about empowering women to take ownership of their lives, claim their identities and be the positive change they wish to see in the world they live.” Read her latest posts. You can learn more about Traci’s work in creative arts HERE.