Who Am I? Exhibition
Oil Painting #2 from the Memory Series, 1999
Bill Barrett (American, b. 1934)
Oil on canvas
Anonymous gift. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
One of the hard things in art is that I want to be elevated in a happy way, a positive way – rather than spend time looking at work that tends to be negative and depressing. I shy away from that work. At my age, I have evaluated all the tragedies in my life and have made a decision – I prefer to go in another direction, both in how I am influenced and how I influence others.
Bill Barrett artist statement, from Bill Barrett: Sculpture and Paintings to 2019, published by Debora Barrett, 2019.
The shapes, the vibrant colors, the suggestion of a human face in profile. This work of art caught my attention immediately. I was particularly interested in it when I saw that it was part of the Memory Series by Bill Barrett. My research examines the intersection of narrative and autobiographical memory, and how people construct and tell stories about our own life experiences.
What drew me to this image, in particular, was how memory was represented in the image. When I was young, I thought of memory as a faithful recording of events, a pristine documentation of exactly what happened on a given day, preserved perfectly and nestled safely in the recesses of my brain until the day when I would pluck this perfectly preserved recollection from its storage bin and bring it, fully formed, to the forefront of my thoughts.
But autobiographical memory doesn’t work like that. Instead, an autobiographical memory is constructed from pieces, often faint or half-formed images, sounds, glimpses of what happened, combined with our ideas of our routines (e.g., "I only go to that restaurant on Tuesday mornings."), and our own general world knowledge or personal history (e.g., “that event happened when we were living at the old house, so that means that I must have been younger than 10.”). Importantly, we construct these memories in a current moment, and so each memory is constructed differently depending on our current moods, perspectives, and goals. For example, the way we reflect on an event when we’re fifteen years old is different than when we reflect on the same event when we are thirty-five. When I look at this work of art by Bill Barrett, I see that construction process. I see gears shifting, disparate elements working together, churning out a memory. I see an effortful, and meaningful process.
Reflecting on our life events and telling stories to others about our own experiences is a hallmark of human communication. When we share our life experiences with others, we strengthen these relationships, showcase elements of own identities, and begin to craft our life story, identifying the events that shape us. When we repeat the same story multiple times, the story may become part of family lore or of our personal history, and with each re-telling the story becomes more rehearsed and easier to tell to others. Perhaps these stories represented the thicker lines in Oil Painting #2, the strong connections, the white arrow. It is these repeated stories we should take care with, as the stories that we frequently rehearse are the ones that have the power to really shape how we feel, what we think, how we present ourselves to others, how we see ourselves, and how we view our own place in the larger world.
Dr. Kristi Costabile
Associate Professor, Psychology