Arts & Culture

When poet Jaki Shelton Green’s daughter died, the celebrated writer couldn’t find the words

“Visitations, Portraits for Imani, #1” is included in the exhibit “VISITATIONS: A Photography Exhibition of Portraits for Imani” by poet Jaki Shelton Green and photographer Barbara Tyroler at Chapel Hill’s FRANK Gallery. The pieces are created from historical photos from the family and friends of Imani Shelton Green and photographically blended into original fine art imagery created by Tyroler specifically for this exhibition.
“Visitations, Portraits for Imani, #1” is included in the exhibit “VISITATIONS: A Photography Exhibition of Portraits for Imani” by poet Jaki Shelton Green and photographer Barbara Tyroler at Chapel Hill’s FRANK Gallery. The pieces are created from historical photos from the family and friends of Imani Shelton Green and photographically blended into original fine art imagery created by Tyroler specifically for this exhibition. Barbara Tyroler

After poet Jaki Shelton Green’s daughter died of cancer in 2009, the words to describe her feelings wouldn’t come.

Several years later, in 2015, they started flowing, a few pages at a time.

The result is “i want to undie you,” a raw poem that will be explored in “VISITATIONS: A Community Response to Loss and Celebration” Oct. 21 at Chapel Hill’s FRANK Gallery. The event is part of the exhibition “VISITATIONS,” a collaboration between Shelton Green and Chapel Hill photographer Barbara Tyroler.

“Imani had an amazing sense of humor,” Shelton Green said of her daughter, Imani Shelton Green, who was 37 when she died. She was a counselor who specialized in substance abuse issues.

“She was a very creative spirit,” her mother said. “This is really a celebration, but it’s for everybody.”

Shelton Green is quite a creative spirit too. She’s the author of nearly 10 books and was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2014. In 2009, she was chosen to be the inaugural North Carolina Piedmont Laureate.

Snippets of Shelton Green’s poem will be displayed with photo composites of Imani – as a toddler with a sweet smile looking into the distance, or as a grown woman wearing a cowrie shell necklace, her face lifted to the sky.

The composites, created by Tyroler, will be on view through Nov. 15 at FRANK. The exhibition is part of the month-long Click! Photography Festival, which is bringing photography workshops, exhibits and more to the Triangle.

The crux of “VISITATIONS,” however, is the Oct. 21 community event that will have music, poetry and the debut of Shelton Green’s new book, “i want to undie you,” featuring Tyroler’s images.

The community event, dubbed a community response, will be different from a typical poetry recitation. The reading will hinge on strips of the poem Shelton Green cut up and made into miniature scrolls. She envisions guests picking up the scrolls, looking at the photo composites and reading their section of the poem when everyone comes together.

“All the lines are so interchangeable, so when people are reading and picking random pieces of paper, it just fits,” Shelton Green said. “I will read pieces of the poem into the space. … After every speaker, the musicians will respond to the text. It’s like a call and response. I wanted this to have a ritualistic flow to it.”

“I have a background of working with dancers, musicians, even sculptors who have taken pieces of my work and re-translated them,” said Shelton Green.

The musicians are cellist and singer Shana Tucker, who has performed everywhere from downtown Raleigh’s The Pour House to Las Vegas with Cirque du Soleil; ensemble coordinator Alison Weiner; percussionist Beverly Botsford; and Robbie Link, a master of double bass, cello and viola da gamba. Their ensemble is called mahaloJazz.

Shelton Green and Tyroler have known each other since they were teenagers. Shelton Green went to high school with Tyroler’s younger brother, Skip. They reconnected around 2015 with the intention of collaborating but with no specific project.

“I was working on the poem one day, and I thought we could do the poem,” Shelton Green recalled. “I called Barb and said, ‘I have this vision.’ 

Tyroler digitally combined photos of Imani with other photographs she’d taken and gave them a reddish, sepia-gold tone.

“I used light and shadow, doors and cob webs and things that were symbolic of transitions and memories and loss and love and parenting,” said Tyroler, who has taught photography at institutions like the University of Maryland and Duke University Center for Documentary Studies.

This collaboration has been about trust, she said. “Jaki’s been so generous to have me enter this piece of her life that is so sacred,” Tyroler said.

In part of “i want to undie you,” Shelton Green writes about the stories brought to her from near and far by strangers impacted by her “kooky, funny” daughter who was also a “dead-serious academic” with two master’s degrees and plans for a doctorate.

“Through these many years, I was trying to use my energies as an artist to process some of this,” Shelton Green said. “It’s been a very cathartic process.”

Details

What: “VISITATIONS: A Community Response to Loss and Celebration” with Barbara Tyroler and Jaki Shelton Green.

When: Community Response is Oct. 21, 7:30 to 9 p.m. The exhibit runs through Nov. 5.

Where: Frank Gallery, 109 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill

Cost: $25 for the community response. Exhibit admission is free.

Info: frankisart.com/

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