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Book of the Week: Selected by Karen Jenkins

Book Of The Week Frail Sister Artist's book by Karen Green Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Artist and writer Karen Green's second book originated in a search for a woman who had vanished: her Aunt Constance, whom Green knew only from a few family photos and keepsakes. In her absence, Green has constructed an elliptical arrangement of artifacts from an untold life.
Frail Sister. By Karen Green.
Frail Sister
Artist's book by Karen Green

Siglio, Catskill, New York, 2018.
164 pp., color illustrations throughout, 7½×10".

In Frail Sister, Karen Green has created an elaborate, imaginative archive of a life that might have been. Using photographs, drawings, letters and ephemera, she (re)constructs the tale of her “disappeared” Aunt Constance in an artful synthesis of materials both found and (mostly) fabricated. Yet this is not only an additive project. The story is told as much in its subtractions, via overlaps, masking, and most cleverly, in the diminishing effect of words and images that challenge and contradict.

By bending the familiar tropes of the unreliable narrator and “based on a true story,” Frail Sister both obfuscates and reveals. With varying degrees of respect and irreverence for an absent “truth,” Green builds the story of Constance’s childhood during the Depression in Oil City, Pennsylvania, her escape as a musical USO performer in war-time Italy, return to a tarnished existence in New York, and a gradual diminishment via violence and illness.

Objects of correspondence provide much of the narrative arc of Constance’s story. Sometimes, letters and postcards are the substrates of the layered episodes that emerge from their fertile soil. In other passages, vintage-seeming ephemera (a musical score, ration book, menu) are used as impromptu stationery—the starting point for handwritten and typed messages further transformed with photos and drawings, strikeouts and redactions. As many a researcher must do, Green offers a one-sided version of her subject as gleaned from correspondence Constance (might have) received. A collection of letters from her many male admirers may reveal each man’s particular ardor, but they are also reduced to generalized types in their literal ordering from A (Al), B (Bill), C (Clyde)…to Z. We, like them, wait expectantly for Constance’s reply, only to be met with her absence.

Music figures prominently throughout Green’s story. At first connecting Constance to her sister, later embraced as a vehicle of escape, and ultimately found to be an inadequate shield against life’s harsh realities. Onto a yellowed USO postcard, Constance writes, “We are the bridge in a song, sis, forever linked, together we make the music and there is nothing and no one can asunder us, not even war!” The bridge imagery resonates throughout Frail Sister, appearing at each important junction in Constance’s story. Running the metaphorical gamut from “bridge leading to nowhere” to that which might “bridge the gulf,” these increasingly heartbreaking permutations are revealing of Constance’s present state while foregrounding Green’s nimble command of language and imagery.

Late in the story, Constance returns to New York, trading in her USO past for a burlesque (and worse) future. This tragic stage unfolds in a new wave of letters and manipulated photographs, revealing Constance’s experience of domestic violence and other horrors. A typewritten inventory trailing down the face of a woman in a faded photograph makes explicit the slang term that gives this book its title––frail sister, guttersnipe, harlot, harridan, hussy (again in an alphabetical reduction to type). Deterioration in Constance’s circumstances and resiliency are also suggested in the increasingly illegible handwriting, which delivers missives back home that no longer wear a brave face. The fading of this one (perhaps unknowable) woman permeates a final gallery of studio portraits of anonymous women; their faces stitched in with thread or obscured in overlays of color wash. Paired with descriptions of nameless bodies discovered after violent ends; Constance’s fate is now powerfully intertwined with other vulnerable women lost to exploitation and violence.

The final spread in Frail Sister shows the front and back side of an image of Constance playing the violin; now thoroughly sewn-over with colored threads, forever obscured as if by an invasive vine. With no more strands to follow, I closed the book and immediately saw the cover photo anew. What at first reads as an unperturbed found photograph of two young sisters soon reveals the subtle traces of internal manipulation and embellishment. A crack in the emulsion runs down the side of this aged print, dotted by a few now-shifted spot tone corrections. And a thin run of threaded embellishment emerges from the waist and neckline of Constance’s outfit as if to prime us for the mesmerizing concoction of subtext and wishful thinking to come. Where the girls join hands, a faint fingerprint impression also comes to light. This story has been handled, but it can still offer truth.

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Karen Jenkins earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.