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‘An affirmation of their love’: Keepsakes memorialize people’s loved ones in new UC Irvine exhibit

Jody Servon, left, and Lorene Delany-Ullman, right, pose for a photograph with the exhibit at the Horace Williams House in Chapel Hill, N.C. in October 2017.
North Carolina-based artist Jody Servon, left, and poet and UC Irvine lecturer Lorene Delany-Ullman show their exhibit “Saved: Objects of the Dead” at the Horace Williams House in Chapel Hill, N.C., in October 2017. The exhibit, which explores how keepsakes are conduits of memories of the dead, is now open at the UCI Student Center’s Viewpoint Gallery.
(Courtesy of Todd Turner Photography)

There’s a photograph of a pine cone that an artist gave her friends.

There’s a photograph of a man’s Avon hair brush whose prongs are coated in Grecian Formula 16. His wife liked to joke he’d had it longer than he had her.

For the record:
2:31 PM, Jan. 29, 2020 This article originally stated incorrectly that the Oaxacan alebrije in the collection belonged to Lorene Delany-Ullman’s mother-in-law.

There are photographs of a Boy Scout shirt, a hammer, a charm bracelet, a plush star ornament, a Christmas shirt, a rubber kangaroo, a jewelry box, a lighter, a glass shoe and many other items.

The only thing that’s constant among the more than 40 photographs and accompanying poetic vignettes in the newly unveiled exhibit at the UC Irvine Student Center’s Viewpoint Gallery is that all the photographs and stories are of the things people kept after their loved ones had died.

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The exhibit — “Saved: Objects of the Dead” — is a collaboration between North Carolina-based artist Jody Servon and poet and UCI English lecturer Lorene Delany-Ullman that explores how ordinary things can become conduits of memories of the dead.

“For the bereaved, saved objects help mediate grief and hold memorial value,” the artists said in a statement.

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A piece called “Daddy’s Leg” is part of “Saved: Objects of the Dead,” an exhibit of things people kept after their loved ones had died.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The exhibit opened Tuesday and runs through Feb. 17.

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For both women, working on the project was cathartic. Servon said she conceived the idea after her father and three of her friends died in one year. For Delany-Ullman, it was a way to cope with the sudden loss of her mother-in-law in 1981, which “continues to haunt me,” she said.

An Oaxacan alebrije — Mexican folk art sculpture — belonging to a friend and mentor of Delany-Ullman is included in the collection.

Servon said friends and colleagues shared their stories of deceased loved ones and the possessions they held onto after their deaths. She said the connection she made with the bereaved led her to photograph the items and want to share their experiences.

“Our project documents the lives, deaths and relationships of individuals whose objects are imbued with their emotional and physical senses, then saved by loved ones and friends as an affirmation of their love,” Servon said.

Delany-Ullman said Servon had about two-thirds of the project photographed before she met Servon at an artist residency in Vermont in July 2009. Delany-Ullman came aboard the project after Servon lamented she couldn’t write down the stories of the bereaved during a presentation there.

“I was in the audience and I was thinking, ‘I could write those stories,’” Delany-Ullman said, laughing.

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Lorene Delany-Ullman gives instructions Monday to UC Irvine staff members Sal Aduna, left, and Alex Nava on how to install an exhibit called “Saved: Objects of the Dead.” The display opened Tuesday and continues through Feb. 17.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

She eventually volunteered to chronicle the stories and collaborated with Servon on the project over the next decade.

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“It’s just not something that I would normally volunteer to do,” Delany-Ullman said. “It’s kind of against my introverted personality.”

The two composed questions for the owners of the objects that Servon photographed, asking about their relationships to the deceased and what made the objects special — any distinguishing characteristics or prevalent memories. Delany-Ullman then composed prose poetry based on the responses. The poems — written in prose form rather than verse lines but preserving other poetic characteristics — are posted next to each photo.

“I think it’s important as a way to not just memorialize somebody but as a way to [say], ‘This person meant something to me and shouldn’t be forgotten.’”
Lorene Delany-Ullman, co-organizer of the exhibit “Saved: Objects of the Dead”

The deceased represented in the exhibit vary from children to grandparents.

“It’s interesting because I think [objects] become imbued with those memories and those feelings and ... on one hand, we’re kind of in this consumerism, materialistic culture, [but] these objects are so much more special than that,” Delany-Ullman said. “Truly, [objects] end up representing that person.

“I can look at a painting on my wall that I have from a friend of mine that passed and when I look at it, I think of her immediately.”

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UC Irvine English lecturer Lorene Delany-Ullman shows pieces from “Saved: Objects of the Dead” during setup of the exhibit at UCI on Monday. She and artist Jody Servon joined forces on the exhibit, which includes more than 40 photos and accompanying poetic vignettes of things people kept after their loved ones died.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“It’s not always sad memories. It can actually evoke happy memories,” Delany-Ullman added. “It’s a way to keep that person alive. It definitely sparks dialogue, even if it’s just with oneself. I think it’s important as a way to not just memorialize somebody but as a way to [say], ‘This person meant something to me and shouldn’t be forgotten.’”

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Delany-Ullman said she’s excited to have the project shown at UCI, where she received a master of fine arts degree in English in 2003. She said she’s thankful to be able to show the project to a large community of students and visitors.

“I think you can think about the importance of the living. ... These are objects that represent people that have died and then also in terms of ‘This is a way to grieve. Here’s another way of working through that process,’” she said. “What we’ve learned is that there is no end to the mourning or the grief, so having the objects ... as a way to help you through that sometimes is important.”

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A piece called “Granna’s Camera” is part of “Saved: Objects of the Dead,” an exhibit at the UC Irvine Student Center.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer )

IF YOU GO

What: “Saved: Objects of the Dead”

When: 7 a.m. to midnight daily through Feb. 17. A reception, artist talk and reading will be held from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Feb. 13.

Where: Viewpoint Gallery, UC Irvine Student Center, 311 W. Peltason Drive

Cost: Free

Information: bit.ly/2t2Zfil

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