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Poetry, images and the process of healing through Hatch
Jenny Montgomery's Radius Gallery pop-up show, titled Hatch, explores the parenting of her son, who was born seven years ago with no signs of life. Nurses at the remote, rural hospital revived him and he was immediately whisked away from Montgomery and her husband, Ryan, to a large urban facility where modern technology enabled his survival. Hatch documents Montgomery's experience, substituting the medical jargon and technology with images and poetry. It's an exhibit that touches on ancient ritual traditions surrounding death and the afterlife, the romantic idealization of childhood and the near-fetishization of medical "cures" and pharmaceuticals. We spoke with Jenny—you may also know her as co-owner of Montgomery Distillery—about this intensely personal exhibit and her uncommon son, Heath.
What came first, the art or the poems?
Jenny Montgomery: The poems came first.
Have you always written poetry?
JM: I had been a writer all through my 20s, and then when Heath started kindergarten my day was free, and I began to think of things in terms of poetry again. This work just started to emerge. I got with Chris Dombrowski and the 406 Writers Collective poetry workshop. He really helped to shepherd these poems along, along with the other members of the workshop, and I really didn't know what was going to come out. So I think of this collection of work as being in some sense a ritual of gratitude.
How did the installation initially come about?
JM: I was visiting a gallery in Olympia [Wash.] called Salon Refu and I started speaking to the gallery owner, Susan Christian, about this collectionwe had known each other when I lived in Olympiaand I sent her some of the poems. She said, "We're gonna put these in the gallery! We're gonna print them on huge pieces of paper and put them on the walls!" I thought, well, that's an interesting idea, but people won't like it. They won't want to stand there and read. So in the course of mulling it over and just imagining, I came up with ideas for installations that were extensions of images that were in the poems.
Do you have a background in visual art?
JM: Well, I got really interested in imagery as a student at the Evergreen State College studying with an artist named Marilyn Frasca, who was a big formative influence on me. I was sort of trained on the idea that a lot of material was going to come out of dreams, or any imagery that arises out of an unconscious state. Then Melissa Kwasny's work in Pictograph and her essays in Earth Recitals, about images as being something that are quite alive, also had a big impact on me. So for this gallery installation I started to think about working with images from things around me.
Like the child's coat with Heath's medical records inside it.
JM: Yes, his medical records all shredded up. We had all kinds of this medical "stuff" just left over from Heath's treatment. The coat was actually my dad's coat when he was little. I had this idea of a child's coat all stuffed full of these records. When I finished it didn't have the right feeling so I went to the medal store and bought this medal to put on it. I mean, what the hell do you get this medal for—it's like an angel flying through the air? So I get this little $3 metaphysical medal and it somehow finally makes the piece into what I was going for.
What does that particular image mean to you?
JM: I think it's an image of survival and pride and the history of our injuries. There's an ambivalence that runs through the whole show toward medical culture, the medical/technical culture.
Ambivalence in maybe it's not all it's cracked up to be?
JM: Well, it's incredibly alienating, but also it saved this life. It saved the life of my son. If all this hadn't unfolded in a hospital, he wouldn't be alive.
What exactly is Heath's disability?
JM: He has an unusual form of cerebral palsy called Dyskinetics CP, which is actually closer to Parkinson's in terms of controlling muscle tone and coordination.
And it's a condition he was born with?
JM: Heath was born with the umbilical cord wrapped very tightly around his neck. He was born in a small country hospital in Tennessee, but was then taken away to Nashville where he spent 35 days in an intensive care unit. I didn't get to hold him or anything, so hours later, after getting stitched up and going through the Burger King drive-thru, I meet my son and he's in a nest of machinery that's keeping him alive. I'm so happy that he's alive, but it's really unclear what's happening for some time.
We learn that he is doing quite well, considering, but that he's sustained some injury to the motor portion of the mid-brain, and so we know that there will be some disability but we don't know what it's going to be. Very shortly after that he begins to smile. As he gets stronger, and we are preparing to take him home, I just got a very strong sense that there was no problem. I don't know if this was a result of trauma, or just a lesson I was already getting from this person about resilience. But I knew we were going to be okay.
Chris La Tray
The Radius Gallery Sidecar presents Jenny Montgomery's Hatch installation and poems Thu., Sept. 22 through Sat., Sept. 24, from noon to 6 PM, with a reading on Saturday at 5:30.
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