Winky Lewis and Susan Conley: Stop Here. This is the Place.
I am always intrigued and excited by collaborations in art, and in the case of photographer Winky Lewis and writer Susan Conley, two mothers raising their kids side-by-side in Portland, Maine, have joined their artistic voices to create a year-long meaningful project resulting in a beautiful book, Stop Here. This is the Place. Stop Here acknowledges that time moves too fast with no ability to push the pause button to rewind and reflect on lives lived. This collaborative book is a poignant reminder to slow down, reflect and appreciate.
The artists share their story and process:
Photographer Winky Lewis and writer Susan Conley have lived on the same street for 11 years. While juggling motherhood and busy careers they grew from neighbors, to close friends, to a type of co-parenting unit as they shared school runs and babysitting duties. Because motherhood constantly felt like a race, the women decided to embark on a creative journey together. Each week for an entire year, Lewis sent Conley a photograph from their world – their children playing, the street where they lived, the nature that surrounded them. With no discussion, Conley would respond with a short story inspired by the photograph.
“The collaboration started with no strings attached, which I think is the best prescription for a book collaboration,” says Conley. “Winky casually asked one day what I thought of the idea, and I said ‘Yes please!’. It was easy to say yes because I love her photography, and as a writer to get that sort of inspiration is a gift wrapped with a bow.”
Once the decision was made, Lewis and Conley didn’t discuss the project further. They would see each other sometimes a dozen times in a day – exchanging kids and dogs and emergency cups of coffee -but never spoke of their experiment. There simply wasn’t time. But what happened while they weren’t looking was that their experiment began to slow down time.
“Each week I would receive Winky’s photo and in them I found the essence of what it means to be a kid, and I wanted my words to do that as well. They were thrilling in that they allowed me to engage in a kind of time travel back to my own childhood,” notes Conley, whose prose at times pair perfectly with the photo and at other times form a more abstract reflection.
“Every time I received Susan’s response I would stop dead in my tracks. A few times I laughed out loud, but more often I would cry. It amazed me that I could feel so much from the words and how she brought new meaning to each image,” says Lewis.
The result is a captivating and nostalgic time capsule. We see their kids physically grow, eventually losing any trace of baby in their faces. It reminds us of this ephemeral world to stop and take note because motherhood flies by.
“We all seem to need more time these days, and parenting can sometimes feel like a series of small endurance competitions. But inside the pages of our book, the kids appear to already know almost everything we mothers could teach them: how to hold their breath underwater, how to build cardboard wings for flight. There’s more time in the photographs to stand stock-still in a field, or idle the hours away talking to crows. No one hurries them. Least of all the camera.”
Conley and Lewis hope that their book will inspire other parents to slow down and appreciate life’s quiet moments. Perfectly placed at a time when families come together to reflect, Stop here. This is the Place.
I think the earth from outer space is like this. Some kind of watery, Indigo blue.
Dark lines for rivers. Lighter blue for oceans.
Did your know water tells the story of everything?
Did you know how much there is of it?
And then the green trees painted around the sea.
The trees are harder. The ocean talks to me
and tells me prehistoric things. The trees just whisper not yet.
Sometimes the question is how we fit into the picture. Head, shoulders, knees and toes.
If you were here, I’d try to tell you how some days I can float above my body.
It’s not quite like flying. And I’ve never been able to put it into words.
It’s as if everything becomes available at once. Everything says yes, this is your life.
Then the leaves sing on the trees. I can hear them. And the clouds and all of my cells — they all say yes.
I’m in my body but outside it at the same time. If I want to, I can touch the sky.
I speak other languages on the island. English yes.
Chinese, a little. And dog. Bear and I take the boardwalk
to the cove, and he’s really old now so I don’t think he can hear me,
but I whisper to him anyway, and I swear he understands.
He’s gentle like that. We swim, and the wind make that high whistling
sound in the trees — saying summer, summer, summer, this is the summer of your life.
We slept in canvas tents on wooden platforms at night,
and I could reach my hands up and poke the sides
where the rain pooled. I liked that tent.
I liked how the night sounds were all around me,
and we were almost living in the woods.
What would that be like really?
If we had to survive on our own?
Liza and Kimmy and I all passed the swim test
so we could jump off the high diving board, and this helped.
I missed my Mom so much that I knew it was better
just to swim and not talk about the missing.
This is just to say
I have eaten the black raspberries that were in the field
so tart and so sweet
and which you were probably hoping were for dessert.
Today the ocean is blue like a galaxy in outer space
where you swim through stars and black holes
and the forcefields of moons, and it never ends.
If I think too much about infinity, I have to close my eyes.
Down here the earth is chained like a little dock to the rocks.
We spin and spin and we don’t ever let go.
By the end of the summer my mother calls me something more animal than boy.
And imagine if you could talk to the wolves.
I mean really talk to them.
Would you give up being human?
And what if they taught you their wolf language?
Would you walk away from your mother and your father.
to live with them? Would you never come back? And once you chose,
would you be gone to the people you love forever?
In school I learned the word chrysalis. It means outer shell,
the place where the butterfly turns into an adult. The hard casing.
My shell is soft like silk after I shuck corn.
Gossamer. My teacher said when the butterfly hatches,
its wings are like this word, gossamer. So delicate you can’t touch them or they’ll break.
It got so I didn’t want to go to the circus. At first it was just the clowns
who scared me. I told my Mom how I thought they might kidnap me.
I was six. I was always talking about kidnapping
because who does that? Something so mean?
The rest was okay. The Arabian horses were better than okay.
But then the elephants came out, and I knew we could never come back.
There were three of them. Their trainer wore a green sparkly dress
and cracked a whip by their feet. Then they climbed up
on three red stools and looked so ashamed.
Their eyes were like doe eyes.
Like the eyes of kind old men, but much bigger,
and they all said save me.
Some nights I got to lie in her bed and watch my mother
choose a dress from her closet, then brush her long hair.
She hardly ever wore perfume except those night
when her friends came over. I knew her body
as if it was my own. And it made me feel so good
to know where I came from.
The fields have tufts of green hair
and the sky is so big and flat
that everything feels entirely possible.
Everything feels within reach.
Which is why you should come with me.
What about the part where there’s just me and no you?
I know it’s late. I know I should be asleep.
But can we talk about that for a minute?
Because this is the part I don’t ever understand.
And yeah we’ve gone over it before.
But tonight it feels like a blizzard in my head.
I’m walking for miles and miles through the snow looking for you.
Always looking for you. Where are you? Where are you? I can’t see you.
The forest was green and lush like Narnia and the rivers had women’s names:
Amazon and Nile and Mississippi — I think she would have been the one with long hair.
Small animals walked on the paths, and there was never any bad news.
Just plots of land where people planted rice.
In second grade Mrs. Norton played the guitar
if we finished our lesson in the Rainbow Workbook.
I liked the clicking sound of the locks on her guitar case
almost as much as the sound of the chalk.
Mrs. Norton was already one of the good ones,
but then she’d sit on the round table near her desk and sing,
and I loved her with all my heart. No one else ever sang like that.
Our little school was in the woods, but when she played,
I thought we were at the center of the universe.
This is the part after the beach when the sun still feels like it’s burning my brain.
It was such a good day but now I say things I don’t mean and need you to figure it out for me.
I want you to come closer when you’re standing right there.
Come closer please. But all I say is go away. When I was little, you told me
I found you in the yard and put my arms around your leg and asked
“Where are you Mama? Where are you?” And you said, “I’m right here.”
You’d think I’d stop testing. You’d think I’d believe you by now.
It’s different with you because when I’m with my brother
I can’t see outside of him and me. It’s like we’re swimming
in the same water all the time. But you’re over there trying
to get the baby doll to wake up so we can go tell the queen,
and I don’t have to say anything. We just think the same
and maybe that’s better than brothers.
It’s the time of day called the gloaming, but I don’t know the word
for that yet so it’s just sundown when all the boys run in the street,
and I feel like I’ll live forever. I mean how could I ever not be here?
We have one street light that blinks, and a long cool crack
in the tar. The boys can be stingy, and I’m mostly the only girl.
When the frisbee sails down on me like a spaceship,
I know I can catch it. I’m the girl in the picture. I can do this.
Susan Conley is the author of Paris Was the Place (Knopf, August 2013), an Amazon Fall Big Books Pick for fiction, an Indie Next Pick, and an Elle Magazine Readers Prize Pick. People magazine calls it “a satisfying cassoulet of questions about home, comfort and love, served with a fresh perspective on a dazzling city” while Booklist says that “Deftly exploring the complexities of friendship, family and commitment, Conley adroitly demonstrates her infectious passion for Paris through an extensive and intimate portrait of the inner workings concealed behind its seductivefaçade.” An American novelist, nonfiction writer, poet and creative writing professor, Susan’s memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune (Knopf 2011), was excerpted in the New York Times Magazine and the Daily Beast. It was an Oprah Magazine Top Ten Pick of the Month, a Slate Magazine “Book of the Week” and a finalist for the Goodreads Choice Award. It won the Maine Literary Award for Memoir. Other work of hers has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, The Huffington Post, Ploughshares, The Harvard Review and elsewhere.
Susan Conley has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Breadloaf Writers Conference, and the Massachusetts Arts Council. A former faculty member at Emerson College, she has also taught at Colby College and Simmons College. She currently teaches at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program, and is the Jack Kerouac Visiting Writer at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. She’s also the co-founder of The Telling Room, a nonprofit creative writing lab in Portland, Maine, where she leads a variety of workshops.
Winky Lewis is a photographer living and working in Portland, ME. She studied photography at Princeton University with Emmet Gowin. She worked in NYC as a wedding and events photographer until moving to Maine in 2002. Since then she has been working as a commercial and fine art photographer and raising her three children. In 2015 she was chosen as PDN Photo Annual Winner. The German publishing house, Galerie Vevais has just published a book of Winky’s photographs, edited by JockSturges. Winky is a 20×200 artist.
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