Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

My Left Hip

Posted in on November 3rd, 2010 by karendavis – Be the first to comment

Art as Life; Life as Art

#7 from My Left Hip: Art as Life; Life as Art by Karen Davis

It was a shock that the pain was arthritis and that only surgery would help.

Photographing the event, before and after anesthesia brought a feeling of control where there really was none. I photographed the hands of all the players in my hospital stay – from surgeon to blood tech; from occupational therapist to housekeeping.

When I was recovering, I began to sort through the photographs of hands I regularly make – samplings from paintings, sculpture and other media –  when visiting museums.  I found pairings – thus the diptychs and a French-Door artist book were born.

My bum hip reminded me of childhood when my sister’s physical handicaps made me jealous for attention.  The story follows the diptychs.


#1 from My Left Hip: Art as Life; Life as Art by Karen Davis



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old snapshot my sister and me after oxfords

Fallen Arches

When I was eight, I was highly motivated to help the healing profession find something wrong with me.  Years of tagging along to outpatient clinics with my mother and younger sister, Cheryl, disabled from birth, had most likely unleashed this desire.  I finally succeeded when the orthopedic resident at Children’s Hospital in Boston brought my mother into the examining room and, in a quiet voice, said, “Well, the x-rays don’t reveal very much, Mrs. Davis, but it does look as if Karen may have fallen arches.”



He wrote a prescription for arch supports and advised that I wear sturdy oxfords.


Two weeks later, I had arch supports and a new pair of brown Stride Rites.

My exhuberance faded within months as I realized there would be no patent leather Mary Janes for me.  As soon as I grew enough to require a new pair of shoes, I declared myself cured and never looked back…. for more than a half a century!

A Post-Midlife Procedure

Half a century later, the periodic shooting pain in my groin was beginning to intrude on my life.  I assumed the problem was tendons and tried stretching more.  Sometimes the knife-like pain appeared while jogging on the treadmill – sometimes not.   I switched to the recombinant cycle – I took fewer walks – I stretched. Maybe I was pronating. Maybe I needed arch supports.

My internist recommended an orthopedist. I had X-rays and met with the doctor.

“You have arthritis in your left hip.”

“What’s the cure?”

“Hip replacement surgery.”

(Insert expletives here).

I got a second opinion.

“You have arthritis.  The only cure is surgery.  You’re certainly a candidate; but some people prefer to wait – others, not.”

He suggested ibuprofin.


“You might try a cane,” he continued.

Oh no!

Does it hurt going up stairs?


Does it hurt lying down?


Within two weeks it hurt on the stairs;  within three, lying down.

I called his office, “How fast can we get this done?”

We set a date five weeks ahead.

I have confidence in the medical profession, but surgery means a loss of control.  You’re in someone else’s hands.  Not just the doctor, but everyone connected to your treatment.

For this reason, I assigned myself a task – something that could  provide me with a sense (false) of control.  I would document my experience with photographs.  If I was to be in the hands of strangers – their hands would be in mine.

On our back deck that warm August evening before surgery, Mark and I shared some wine and I began my project.  The first “subject” was a stainless steel model of an artificial hip – an artifact/paper weight from Mark’s days in MIT’s bio-mechanical lab.

At 6 a.m. the next morning we reported for surgery – my first post-midlife “procedure.”

Everything went well.   The staff – to a person – was kind and helpful.  They were also agreeable photographic subjects.

While I was in the hospital, Mark built a recovery room for me.  I needed to be on the same floor with the bathroom and kitchen for a week or two. He cleared space in my studio and bought a mattress and box-spring. Then he built a twin-size bed – complete with headboard and reading light; purchased and set up a dvd player with surround sound, and positioned my ibook on  a TV table within easy reach.

My recovery went smoothly.

  • Four days in the hospital.
  • Two weeks in my studio (then sold the bed on Craig’s list.)
  • One week with a shower stool.
  • Three weeks with an adaptive toilet seat.
  • Two weeks on crutches.
  • Three weeks with a cane.
  • Eight weeks of special exercises.

I no longer had to weigh the idea of walking to the Square.  No more cane or anxiety about the next sharp pain.  No more distress on stairs. I resumed sound nights of sleep and work outs at the gym, – although getting there enough continues  to be a challenge.

Nowadays, I’m only reminded of my foreign body part at the airport.  My left hip sets off the anti-terrorism alarm.  I’m scanned with a beeping metal detector and patted down as I stand spread eagle, stare off, and pretend no one notices the frisking.

A small price to pay.

Central Square

Posted in on March 9th, 2009 by karendavis – Be the first to comment

In 1973, a single mother with two small children, I moved to Western Ave. Cambridge, MA.  Rent control, space heaters, political activism, shared childcare and potlucks … the six-unit apartment building on a noisy truck route became the center of my life.  Shabby Central Square, while a bit threatening, represented diversity, determination, and community in a time of personal and political upheaval.

By 1993, my Western Ave. world had dispersed across America. The children had graduated from high school and college and moved on to new adventures.  Married to a man whose own life changes led him to Central Square, in our home off Western Ave., I began a three-year project, documenting the storefronts and people of Central Square. The series has become a marker of two decades of my life in Cambridge and those early years of new found independence.


Posted in on May 30th, 2008 by karendavis – Be the first to comment

In December, 1999, I spent three weeks in Vietnam. My guide and companion was my son, Jonathan. Fluent in Vietnamese, he had been living in Vietnam for almost two years while he gathered data for his doctoral dissertation. I gradually learned how to cross the streets (an act of faith) and sit behind Jonathan as he negotiated the narrow, congested, pot-holed roads on his Honda motorcycle. Our grandest bike adventure was a 220 mile journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat. From there we bussed, flew and taxied through Da Nang, Nha Trang, Hue, Tam Ky and Hoi An until we reached Hanoi.
(Jonathan’s bike made that trip by train.)

Tinh the Barber, by Karen Davis

Tinh The Barber, Nguyen Cong Tru St., Hanoi

It was almost dusk when we pulled up to the part of the wall where Jonathan’s friend, Tinh, has his barber chair and business. Of all the people I met, Tinh and I perhaps had the most in common – a passion for photography. Through Jonathan, we talked about the kinds of photographs we enjoy seeing and taking. After he sat for this picture, we switched places and he took my portrait. When I returned to the U.S. I printed one pair for me, one for him.

Auntie Huong, Hanoi by Karen DavisAuntie Huong, Hanoi

Auntie Huong sells tea and cigarettes ten hours a day, seven days a week, at a little stand in front of her house on Hang Chuoi (Banana) St. Above her head, out of the frame of this picture, is a partially shuttered window. Behind it, one can just make out the reclining figure of Auntie Huong’s husband. In his late seventies, he has been bedridden for several years. Her income supplements his meager pension.

Viet Kiu Executive Suite by Karen Davis

Executive Suite, Viet Kieu

Invited to the 8th floor suite of a Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) businessman, I was directed to a low couch that faced his desk.  It was then, to my delight, that I saw the antique water puppets. The night before, we attended the Thang Long Theater of Hanoi. There, puppeteers, half submerged in water, hidden behind a curtain, worked their water puppets to traditional Vietnamese music. The stories, passed down for centuries, told of rice growing peasants and their lives on the land.

Election Day Parade, Hue - by Karen Davis

Election Day Parade, Hue.

Postponed for weeks because of November’s deadly floods, local elections were held during our visit to Hue. Here, we came upon a grammar school parade celbrating the day. One Evening in Hue, Jonathan’s friend, a sociology instructor, and her ten year old daughter came to visit us in our hotel. She described a harrowing experience.

First the relentless rain, and then the flood. Before long, they were in roiling water up to the child’s shoulders. They left everything behind and joined their neighbors in a desperate climb to higher ground. There was no shelter, no food. They were outside in the torrential downpours for three days and nights until the rain stopped and the water receded. I later learned that the flooding had caused rivers to overflow in seven provinces. Hue wase the worst hit. The floods caused over 600 deaths.


Sunday Afternoon in Lam Dong Province

We stopped several times on our way to Dalat. This was a small roadside cafe where several men stood around a table chatting; one held a fighting cock. Children played nearby. When Jon began speaking in Vietnamese, the men were very pleased. Then the usual questions started. They wanted to know how old we were and if Jon was married.

Uncle Cau and Aunt Phuong, Hanoi by Karen Davis

Uncle Cau and Aunt Phuong, Hanoi

Uncle Cau and Aunt Phuong invited us to dinner. Here they are with their youngest grandson in the doorway of their two room apartment. That Sunday afternoon, we sat cross-legged on mats around dishes of chicken, eggs, pork, vegetables and rice that Phuong had prepared. Jonathan told me later that this meal represented a substantial portion of Cau’s weekly earnings.

Cau sells draft beer (bia hoi), tea, cigarettes, and tabacco on Nguyen Cong Tru Street, across from his home. His stand is next to Tinh’s barber chair. (Note: In 2004, the government, possibly in an effort to modernize, declared most street vending to be illegal. This has caused enormous economic distress to many of Jonathan’s friends.)

Cau is from Binh Dinh province in the South. In 1949 he went “tap ket” – to northern Vietnam. His village suffered massive casualties during the “American War.” He, like most Vietnamese who moved to urban areas, has strong ties to his village and returns for extended stays annually.

Wedding Photographers, Ho Chi Minh City by Karen Davis

Wedding Photographers, Ho Chi Minh City

The Museum of the Revolution is a popular place for brides and grooms to come for their wedding photographs. We visited in December, which was an auspicious month for marriage. Teams of photographers- all vying for the best position – directed several soon-to-be-wed couples up and down the majestic stair case.

Museum of the Revolution - Wedding Pictures by Karen Davis

Museum of the Revolution

A bride and groom to-be ascend the staircase as other photographers wait their turn. Young couples in Vietnam have little chance of privacy before marriage. Homes are small and shared by generations of family. A walk in any park will find politely ardorous couples on every bench.

Bau and Jonathan at Uncle Cau's tea and beer stand by Karen Davis

Bao and Jonathan at Uncle Cau’s tea and beer stand.

Bao, is a long distance trucker who makes the difficult 1000 mile trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi every two weeks. In Vietnam there is one national road, Route 1. Seldom more than two lanes, much of it is pitted and potholed. It winds up and down mountains and through countless little villages. (Jonathan and I travelled 20 percent of that road on our motorcycle ride to Dalat.)

Here Bao tells Jonathan that he misses his son, age 22, since he moved to the United States two years before. Bao’s son now works for his uncle in a dry cleaning store just across the Charles River from MIT. The store is less than two miles from my home in Cambridge. When I returned from Vietnam and printed this photograph, I brought a copy to his son.

Pet Dogs for Sale, Hanoi by Karen Davis

Pet dogs for sale, Hanoi

Here a veteran of the French and American Wars complains that his army pension is too small to live on so he supplements his income by selling dogs. He tells Jon that there is a new market for pet dogs in Hanoi. People buy them, in part, as a symbol of affluence.

The Road to Dalat, Rain Delay by Karen Davis

The Road to Dalat

Our motorcycle ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat took 12 hours. We stopped – for rain, for lunch, and even for a side trip to the waterfalls in Bao Loc. The day that started so warm, ended cold and damp. The last dark miles up winding mountain roads I clung to Jon both for safety and as a wind shield.

Tourist Hotel, Dalat by Karen Davis

Tourist Hotel, Dalat

Ten miles from Dalat, long lines of bare light bulbs appeared, breaking the darkness with ribbons of light. They were meant to keep strawberry fields warm. Finally, we arrived at our tourist hotel. The aches receded; in their place was supreme satisfaction with the adventure Jonathan and I had shared.

Nha Trang beachside amusement park by Karen Davis

Nha Trang beachside amusement park

From Dalat, we travelled northeast to Nha Trang. Not ready for the grueling bike ride down the mountains, I took one of the buses that shuttles western tourists between destinations in the country. Jonathan rode his bike. We met at a little hotel managed by a friend he had met in an economic development workshop for small businesses. We spent the next day exploring the town and its beachside attractions.


Posted in on May 29th, 2008 by karendavis – Comments Off on McCanns

Tom Reflected, photograph by Karen DavisWhen we were small, over half a century ago, my younger sister Cheryl played with a set of dolls she called the “McCann Family.” They were a thinly disguised version of our family. Cheryl decided she was “Tom McCann,” the spunky boy doll. I was, “MaryAnn,” the girl doll. At first Tom could stand alone. Later he always lost his balance. Cheryl diagnosed him with Polio. She fitted him with crutches and braces like hers. (Cheryl was born with spina bifida.)

Tom thought Mother and Father disliked having a disabled child. He felt bad about that. One day, Father’s leg fell off. Cheryl taped it back on as a prosthesis. After Father became an amputee, he was a lot more understanding about his son.

The McCann Family, book by Karen DavisWhen Cheryl died in 2006, I inherited the McCann Family. Now I place the four-inch tall dolls on stage and direct their actions. I present these emphatically colored photographs in a large format to bring both the McCanns and memories of childhood to life.

The McCann Family is also a book, 7 inches by 7 inches.  The figures are close to life size, 4 inches.  Click on book for preview.

In 2009, for the McCann Family Portfolio, I received the CPW Artist Fellowship Award juried by Hannah Frieser, Director of Light Work. Juror’s Statement

Dinners Were Tense from The McCann Family by Karen Davis
Dinners Were Tense

Mother Works on Tom from The McCann Family by Karen Davis
Mother Works on Tom

Close As Children from The McCann Family by Karen Davis
Close As Children

Mother is Vigilant from The McCann Family by Karen Davis
Mother Is Vigilant

The Ball-Shaped Pain from The McCann Family by Karen Davis
The Ball-Shaped Pain

Tom Reflected from The McCann Family by Karen Davis
Tom Reflected

Father Explains from The McCann Family by Karen Davis
Father Explains

Mother Can Be Tender from The McCann Family by Karen Davis
Mother Can Be Tender

Saturday Mornings from The McCann Family by Karen Davis
Saturday Mornings

Family Portrait from The McCann Family by Karen Davis
McCann Family Portrait

Mother Dreams from The McCann Family by Karen Davis
Mother Dreams

Tom Walks Alone from The McCann Family by Karen Davis
Tom Walks Alone




Posted in on May 29th, 2008 by karendavis – Comments Off on CloseToHome

family panorama by karen davis

Close to Home, is an on-going series of photographs of three middle class families related to me and to one another by birth or marriage. Working in collaboration with the families – a multi-dimensional stew of cultures – I photograph the quotidian of their lives. Over the years as adults age, babies are born, children grow, illness strikes, divorce looms, relocations occur – I am there, a seen but unobtrusive presence. Most often I work with one family at a time but when members of 2 or 3 families are together, I photograph their connections.

My interest in the family as a photographic subject began with portraits by Tina Barney of her upper class family. Ultimately, it was two British artists photographing their working class neighbors and families that influenced my approach: Nick Waplington The Living Room (1991) and Richard Billingham Ray’s a Laugh” (1996).

The Story of Slavery hits home, from Close to Home series by Karen Davis
As a portfolio or exhibition, the prints can only hint at the multiple threads of narrative. As an extended series, each family’s story is more fully portrayed. By adding their voices as text or audio, my goal for Close to Home will be most fully realized. For this reason, beyond the photographs, themselves, I have begun the process of expanding this project into multi-media and book/assemblage formats.

Three Points, Harlem by Karen Davis

Sisters, West RoxburyNan and Jonathan, ClaverackDust Off, Hong KongWord Games and Treatment, Nantasket BeachAfter a Workout from series Close to Home by Karen Davis

Andrea and Nyla with One Braid to Go from Close to Home series © Karen Davis

Nyla on a rainy day in Hudson from series Close to Home © Karen Davis

Parker and Drawing of Nyla by Maggie from Close to Home © Karen Davis

What's up, Junior?Papa John and Nyla - back to the pond from series Close to Home © Karen Davis

Noah and Nyla hanging on Papi, from Close to Home © Karen Davis

Jon and baby Jesse in Hong Kong from series Close to Home © Karen Davis

Nan and Jesse, Jon and the Celtics from series Close to Home © Karen Davis

Mark Skypes with Jon from series Close to Home © Karen Davis

Parker and Andrea in Hull from Close to Home Series © Karen Davis

Ed, Meredith and Maggie - Summer's Night from Close to Home series © Karen Davis

Maggie With Pink Jacket from Close to Home Series © Karen Davis

Jesse and Nyla at Jon's 40th from series Close to Home © Karen Davis

Asia and Nyla from series Close to Home © Karen Davis

Papi holding Jesse wanting Mama from series Close to Home © Karen Davis

from series Close to Home © Karen Davis

John and Captain John from series Close to Home © Karen Davis